What is the Imprisoning War?

Normally I’d take for granted that anyone bothering to read through a Zelda article would have a good working knowledge of most of the series, but given that the last time the Imprisoning War was mentioned by that name through any official channels was about 12 years ago, I figure it might be worth it to go through a little refresher.

The Imprisoning War was the name ascribed to the battle that took place hundreds of years before A Link to the Past that resulted in the Dark World being sealed by the seven sages. Oddly enough, the name itself never appeared in the in-game script, and instead was only found in the lengthy storyline synopsis from the original Super NES manual. Not surprisingly, the name also doesn’t show up in the GameBoy Advance remake, which made only a few minor translation updates to the script and significantly shortened the game manual to more closely mirror the in-game info.

As it was told in the classic instruction booklet, the story goes something like this: long ago, the ancient gods created the world we know and left behind the mystical Triforce, which has the power to grant wishes. After greedy and vicious people fought for some time in their vain efforts to find the Sacred Realm, the place where the Triforce was left by the gods, an evil tribe of thieves led by a man named Ganondorf managed to discover the hidden entrance to the realm. Once Ganondorf laid his hands on the Triforce, he became the Evil King Ganon and went on to spread darkness throughout the Sacred Realm and into Hyrule.

Fearing the threat of the Dark World, the king of Hyrule summoned the sages and commanded them to seal away the evil power in the realm. The evil power that had already leaked from the realm closed in on the castle, and the brave knights who protect the kingdom had to rise up to fight against it. Though the knights were almost totally wiped out in the struggle, the sages managed to complete their seal and saved the kingdom from Ganon.


It’s a simple enough story, and does an excellent job of lining out the origins of Hyrule, the Triforce, and Ganon for the very first time. Obviously it’s also intended to set up for the events of A Link to the Past, where Ganon sends his alter-ego, Agahnim, to Hyrule Castle to begin breaking down the sages’ seal so he can escape to fulfill his wish on the Triforce. We see in this story, and in A Link to the Past, a clear attempt to create an origin story for the series at large. But when future games played off of the plot of A Link to the Past, things began to get very messy…

Ocarina of Time – The Story Retold

Ocarina of Time‘s story borrowed heavily from the plot direction of A Link to the Past – it began with the same mythos about Hyrule’s creation, the same history of bitter struggles across the land, and even depicted Ganondorf’s infiltration of the Sacred Realm and capture of the Triforce directly. From there, the story continued down this familiar course, featuring Ganon’s transformation into the Evil King, the spread of darkness from the Sacred Realm into Hyrule, and the subsequent battle that led to Ganon’s imprisonment by the seven sages.

After the game released in 1998, a couple of staff members who worked on the game’s script and character designs sat down for an interview, where they stated that Ocarina of Time was, in fact, an intentional retelling of the Imprisoning War story from A Link to the Past. The former quote by Takizawa states this directly, while the latter quote by Osawa implies it by association:

This time, the story really wasn’t an original. We were dealing with the “the Imprisoning War of the Seven Sages” from the SNES edition Zelda. To give that game a little “secret” recognition, I thought that keeping the “pigness” in Ganon would be the correct course. So we made him a beast “with the feeling of a pig.”

Satoru Takizawa, A Link to the Past character designer

Though in this game Zelda is now included in the Seven Sages, the other six have the names of the town names from the NES edition “The Adventure of Link.” In the SNES edition game, the story “Long ago, there was a war called the Imprisoning War” was passed along. A name in the Imprisoning War era is the name of a town later. They were like “pseudo-secrets.” We wanted to throw these out through the entirety of the game. That thing from then is now this.

– Toru Osawa, A Link to the Past script director


As if that wasn’t enough, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto came out to confirm with Japanese Nintendo magazine 64Dream that, yes, Ocarina of Time is indeed set before A Link to the Past. This “Miyamoto timeline” is not to be confused with another alleged statement by Miyamoto that supposedly appeared in Nintendo Power that indicated that the original Legend of Zelda would fall in between the two, as that statement by all accounts appears to have been mistranslated (and as a result was never actually published in Nintendo Power and was subsequently removed from the official Zelda homepage).

Despite all these mounds of creator statements, this relationship was met with much skepticism from parts of the Zelda community, who cited holes in the connection. A number of these holes are ambiguous at best – a notable example being the SNES manual’s statement that a hero was never found, even though the context of the statement is that a hero was not found before Ganon’s forces attacked the castle which is of course exactly true in Ocarina of Time. Others are simply false discrepancies, such as the allegation that the SNES manual’s description of Ganon’s discovery of the Sacred Realm as happening “completely by accident” contradicts the portrayal in Ocarina, even though the very same phrase is used to describe Ganon’s invasion of the Sacred Realm in the Japanese version (literally “entirely fortuitous,” but translated as “an unfortunate coincidence” in the West).

One plothole, however, is definitely glaringly apparent, and that’s the fact that, in A Link to the Past, Ganon has claimed the full Triforce and made his wish on its power, but in Ocarina of Time the Triforce splits, preventing him from acquiring its full might. This discontinuity alone led many – myself included for a time – to believe that Nintendo would someday release an interquel game to fill in the gaps and explain how Ganon gained the whole Triforce. Of course, Nintendo did inevitably release a pair of hotly-debated Ocarina of Time sequels…

Wind Waker and Twilight Princess – The Cornerstones of the Split Timeline

The Wind Waker first appeared in Japan in 2002, depicting a world where Ganon had escaped the Sacred Realm and made another bid for the Triforce. At first glance, this sounds like it could very well be the in-between story to seal the story relationship between Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, but as it turns out, Wind Waker was set to take the mythos in a very different direction. Far from giving Ganondorf his chance to gain the last two Triforces, the game instead resulted in a massive flood that destroyed Hyrule altogether. In the end Ganondorf didn’t even succeed in his goal of getting the Triforce – the king of Hyrule managed to touch it first, and Ganondorf was utterly defeated in the game’s ending.


Ultimately, the result was that, far from helping to advance the timeline, Wind Waker actually raised more questions than it answered. If Ganondorf escaped the seal and Hyrule were destroyed in the end, and the Triforce finally rescued, then how could A Link to the Past follow after Ocarina of Time? The connection between the games hinged heavily on Ganondorf being trapped in the Sacred Realm with the stolen Triforce, after all. Understandably, most people opted to say that Ocarina of Time was no longer intended as the story that preceded A Link to the Past.

One of Wind Waker‘s other novelties was the idea that when Link traveled back in time at the end of Ocarina of Time, he actually left Hyrule altogether – leading many people to believe that Link traveled to a completely different historical timeline. The developers would later confirm these suspicions in an interview conducted in 2003:

In terms of the storyline, we’ve decided that this takes place 100 years after the events The Ocarina of Time. We think that as you play through the game, you’ll notice that in the beginning the storyline explains some of the events in Ocarina of Time. You’ll also find hints of things from Ocarina of Time that exist in The Wind Waker.

There’s also a more complicated explanation. If you think back to the end of Ocarina of Time, there were two endings to that game in different time periods. First Link defeated Ganon as an adult, and then he actually went back to being a child. You could say that The Wind Waker takes place 100 years after the ending in which Link was an adult.

– Eiji Aonuma, Zelda series producer

With the world of Ocarina of Time fractured into two alternate timelines, many were content to say that even though the timeline where Link defeated Ganon failed to lead into A Link to the Past, perhaps the classic story would follow the opposite timeline. This was a somewhat difficult position to defend, given that the common sentiment of the time was that Link managed to restore peace in his childhood timeline without having to endure the rise of Ganon. A few years later a game following this alternate timeline appeared on the scene: Twilight Princess.

Like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess followed a different story track than A Link to the Past. Instead of Ganondorf being sealed in the Sacred Realm, he was instead apprehended and executed by the sages. When the Triforce of Power saved him from the brink of death, they dumped him in the Twilight Realm, a shadowy world where a dark tribe was sealed long ago.


Ganondorf managed to escape the Twilight Realm and, in another spectacular battle, Link and Zelda managed to defeat him, just as in Wind Waker. There were scattered connections to A Link to the Past here and there, but most of them tied right back to the world of Ocarina of Time – by and large the game’s plot was yet another major departure from the original Imprisoning War story arc.

Theorists who hoped to find the answer to the problem of the Imprisoning War in the split timeline had to turn to other sources for possible solutions…

Four Swords Adventures – The Second Story of Ganon

Around the release of The Wind Waker, Nintendo launched a subseries of The Legend of Zelda called the Four Swords series. The series was designed to be a multi-player experience, and so an elaborate mythos surrounding a mystical soul-splitting sword called the Four Sword was developed, as well as a unique villain known as Vaati. When Four Swords got its first sequel, Four Swords Adventures, Vaati returned once again – but this time he had help in the form of Ganon.

But Ganon’s relationship to Four Swords Adventures was to be different from his usual recurring appearances in most of the other games, since the story laid down the story of a man named Ganondorf, born to the Gerudo tribe, who rose to prominence as a thief and stole ancient artifacts that granted him demonic power. Most theorists at the time thought this was a new Ganon origin story rather than a close sequel to a previous one – and they still do to this day. Could Four Swords Adventures be an effort to resolve the strange chronological diversions from A Link to the Past‘s plotline?

The game world was also derived greatly from A Link to the Past, featuring an art style, cast of characters, and list of settings that were all largely ripped straight from the SNES hit. Even the story heavily resembled the Link to the Past plot, with the kidnapping of maidens by a cohort of Ganon’s and the spread of the Dark World across Hyrule. Many people believed that Four Swords Adventures may have been designed to serve as a new Imprisoning War.


There’s quite a bit to corroborate this: the game ends with Ganon sealed by the seven maidens, features the elimination of royal knights by Ganon’s evil, and the numerous cues to A Link to the Past definitely reinforce a connection on at least an atmospheric level. Ultimately, though, Four Swords Adventures is missing a few of the key cues involved in the Imprisoning War – the transformation of the Sacred Realm into the Dark World, the theft of the Triforce that leads to Ganondorf’s transformation into the evil king Ganon (he instead steals a magic trident to accomplish this same end), and the involvement of seven sages (not maidens) in sealing away evil. Oddly enough, there are a couple references to “sages” in the text dump of the game, but they seem to be remnants of an earlier plotline and not actually elements of the final story.

While many are still content to say that Four Swords Adventures is some kind of modified prologue to A Link to the Past, in much the same way that Ocarina of Time was over a decade ago, I’m personally not too convinced. Still, I acknowledge that there are many story cues that seem very much to have A Link to the Past in mind – I just can’t make the step to say that the resemblance is more than a passing one without any direct knowledge of its storyline intent.

Resolving the Imprisoning War Conflicts

So with the matter of the Imprisoning War so riddled with doubt and contradiction, how should we as theorists approach it? Should we consider Ocarina of Time and the Imprisoning War as two separate, independent events? This seems like a tempting option, but if that were truly the case, one runs into a bit of trouble explaining why the official Japanese website for Ocarina of Time‘s Virtual Console re-release still cites the connection. Sure, you could just write it off as a “classic” remnant that was true back then but isn’t anymore, but the fact remains that these websites are for informative purposes, and even people who didn’t play Ocarina of Time back in ‘98 can read them. For all intents and purposes, by publishing this information again Nintendo is treating it as “current” information.

An option that I preferred for the longest time was the idea that the legend in A Link to the Past really do refer to Ocarina of Time, but another sealing event – perhaps Four Swords Adventures – occurred long afterward that got confused with the ancient legends. The idea came from the intro of A Link to the Past, which mentioned that information passed down from the Imprisoning War was “obscured by the mists of time, and became legend.” Even this idea ran into a hitch – if Four Swords Adventures truly is the “second Imprisoning War” and the true story of how Ganon was sealed in A Link to the Past, why does Ganon wind up with the Triforce? In the end, there wasn’t really a solution that resolved all the plotholes, so all of them wound up hitting the same dead-end.

A lot of other theorists began to get fed up with these problems as well. Many turned to one of the classic solutions: instead of following a “timeline” where the games are all connected to each other, why not see the games as multiple retellings of the same “legend” instead, with no real chronological relationship? But even that didn’t satisfy – the creators mention an overarching continuity many times, so simply denying that one exists seems to defeat its own purpose.

Fortunately, looking back over old interviews revealed this little gem of a statement from Eiji Aonuma on the creation of new series sequels:

Game Informer: Last year in an interview, I asked you if this game would be the true sequel to Ocarina of Time. Can you answer that question now?

Eiji Aonuma: You know, I don’t think it would be fair to say this is the complete true sequel to Ocarina of Time because anytime you say you want to make a game like that, that it’s a true sequel, you then really have to implement in that game a number of elements that would have existed in the prequel to really tie those two games together in a complete and true way. Anytime you do that it makes it more difficult for those people who hadn’t played through the first game to really access and enjoy as much. That being said, this game on a number of different levels is going to have some ties to Ocarina of Time, so people that didn’t play that game when they do play this game will be able to realize and understand what’s going on.

Here Aonuma pretty much says outright that Zelda games, and specifically Twilight Princess, aren’t necessarily designed with the philosophy that they have to connect to past titles in a “complete and true way.” Now, of course, this quote is primarily about story accessibility, but what if we applied it to the structure of the timeline? What if the timeline isn’t based on strong literal connections but rather on lighter, more indirect ones?


It’s this framework for the series that led me to develop my own spin on the “legends theory.” Instead of the series consisting of a number of retellings of the classic Ganon story, the series does have an actual chronology, but it’s not structured as a “complete and true” history. Instead, it works as a compendium of stories that often share ties. A Link to the Past fleshes out the Triforce mythos, while Ocarina of Time is a bigger, bolder telling of the Imprisoning War. A Link to the Past is still designed to be before Legend of Zelda, and Ocarina still designed to fit before A Link to the Past, but the connections are far from perfect.

After examining the relationship between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time in this light, it seems clear that series connections have existed in states of less-than-perfection for as long as people have been speculating about the timeline. Ocarina of Time never resolved the contradiction involving the Triforce split, nor did A Link to the Past revise its own story to take the split into account, but the stories are still nonetheless connected by the common thread that is the Imprisoning War. To some extent, we can say the same for Four Swords Adventures – it doesn’t feature the Triforce or the Sacred Realm directly, but it still tells a story that’s heavily embedded in the world of A Link to the Past.

Seeing the stories as mere legends and not a seamless, perfect historical account has another advantage: these two games can both simultaneously be intended as A Link to the Past prequels without running into contradiction. Just as real-world mythology often features alternate stories of the origins of gods, goddesses, and heroes, so too can the Zelda series have a number of alternate tales that each take their own spin on the lore of a particular game. In a way, we’ve seen alternate tales at work as early as Wind Waker, which clearly occupied the story space that A Link to the Past had already reserved. But each of these stories is “but one of the legends of which the people speak,” its own story, its own legend, and while all the stories of the Zelda universe link together to the same mythos, so far we’ve never seen any indication that these stories are designed to interfere with one another.

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