My attempt at solving the Zelda Timeline Conundrum

The Legend of Zelda is a classic series of action-adventure titles created by Nintendo. The series is renowned for its innovative ideas and concepts and for generally being one of the most well-liked of Nintendo’s franchises. I became a fan after playing the 1998 release Ocarina of Time and I’ve played most of the major titles that have come out since then. Zelda has everything: varied cast of monsters and enemies to fight, a vast world to explore, puzzles to solve, excellent gameplay, epic storylines, memorable characters and a great soundtrack.

What the colourful and exciting fantasy-game series doesn’t have, however, is a clear-cut continuity. In fact, the series has become rather notorious for its complete lack of an easy-to-follow chronology. Although a majority of the games in the series involve the adventures of a green-clad, sword-wielding hero named Link (a child or an adult version depending on the title), a princess named Zelda and an evil wizard called Ganon (or Ganondorf), the storylines rarely have anything that would connect them to one-another. The reason is that almost every game in the series stars a different Link and Zelda, but the same Ganon – who continues to return time and again to cause havoc in the magical realm of Hyrule.

Many fans have attempted to piece together a timeline for the different games in the series, but what makes this task difficult is not just that so few games in the Zelda-series are directly linked but also that beyond information given by Nintendo (either in manuals or game-boxes) there are rarely easily discernible clues to the order of the games. So, I’m not claiming to be an expert – I’m just providing a look at how I see the series and how I believe the games are connected. At first I’ll present what is already widely known about the order of the main games in the series that have come out, and then I’ll present two different theories to people to judge for themselves.

The Provisional Timeline and known connections; Click to enlarge

The timeline of the Zelda games didn’t use to be as complicated as it is now. Back when there were less than six or so titles the order was pretty well-known. The Legend of Zelda (1986) and Zelda II: Adventure of Link (1987) were directly connected and starred the same protagonist. A Link to the Past (1991) was the first prequel title for the franchise and it was said to be set before either of the two games that had come before. Although Link’s Awakening (1993) doesn’t have an obvious place in the continuity, Nintendo did at one point state that it was a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, which would make sense and solve any issues about it. Ocarina of Time (1998) however started the 3D-Zelda series and started a whole slew of sequels that would effectively be placed between it and the earlier 2D-games, since OoT was designed to be the earliest point in the series’ chronology up to that point.

Majora’s Mask (2000) kept things simple as it was a direct sequel to OoT, starring the same Link. Wind Waker (2002/3) also made direct connections to Ocarina of Time and, therefore deductably, takes place after Majora’s Mask. Wind Waker has also spawned two sequels, Phantom Hourglass (2007) and Spirit Tracks (2009), which also makes placing those games in the chronology easy. And of course the up-coming Skyward Sword has been announced as taking place before OoT, so its place in the continuity is certain. The first title that gives anyone serious trouble in placing it in the continuity is probably Twilight Princess (2006). Since TP has no obvious connections to any other Zelda games, it could easily be placed anywhere in the Zelda-continuity. However, my firm belief is that the game has to take place sometime after OoT and before A Link to the Past, since Ganondorf is still human in the game. It’s not much, but if we need to draw a line somewhere, that would sound the most logical place. Plus, the fact that it again takes place in Hyrule would suggest it takes place after either all the Wind Waker titles or just before it, but taking Wind Waker’s prologue and setting into account, I think after makes more sense.

Have we left something out? Yes we have, the Oracle of Ages (2001) and Oracle of Seasons (2001); referred to hence forth simply as the Oracle games. There’s also Four Swords Adventure (2004) and Minish Cap (2004). Some may argue that Four Swords Adventure doesn’t belong in the timeline because its gameplay differs so much from the rest of the franchise, but by that logic Zelda II should be removed as well. The Oracle games weren’t even made by Nintendo, but instead Capcom, so these games all deserve to be in the timeline as officially recognised titles. The problem is that these games have even fewer clues to their placement in the timeline. Minish Cap in particular sticks out due to its dubious nature as another potential candidate for being the “first” game chronologically. However, if anything Minish Cap should come later due to its lack of Ganondorf in the storyline. Ganon appears in his pig-form in the Oracle games and FSA, so it seems to me that these games lean more towards the continuity of the 2D-Zeldas.

With these facts in mind, I’m ready to present my first theory. But before that let me remind everyone that there are also Zelda fans who believe that the games in the series are divided into two timelines. This is based on the theory that the ending of Ocarina of Time creates two different timelines, one of which leads to Majora’s Mask and the other one which leads to Wind Waker. I’m not a fan of this split-continuity theory, but because of that I’m also willing to present my version of the split timeline.

My linear timeline theory; Click to Enlarge

In addition, a big element I’m using to judge where in the timeline the games go is Ganondorf’s appearance. He is depicted both as a human and as a pig monster in numerous games, but a good handful (the classic 2D Zeldas and a few others), depict him exclusively as a pig. This in my view becomes an important factor, since at some point Ganon stops appearing in his human form permanently. This is, however as I have to point out, only my opinion, but it’s a big part of the rationale for the order in both timeline theories. Now, on with the linear timeline theory.

As mentioned before I believe the early 2D-Zeldas and the later 3D-Zeldas constitute their own continuities which become linked (no pun intended) at some point after Ocarina of Time and before A Link to the Past. So we see the whole series from Ocarina of Time (and Skyward Sword) up till Spirit Tracks starting the timeline and the 2D-Zeldas ending it. Minish Cap in my view fits best as taking place after the Wind Waker sequels, since Hyrule flooding has subsided (making the transition to Twilight Princess easier) and because Ganon has yet to have returned. So what are the missing links (again, no pun intended) between Twilight Princess and A Link to the Past. I believe it’s the Oracle Games and Four Swords Adventure. To me the most likely order would be FSA taking place before the Oracle games (due to the appearance of the Triforce in the Oracle games) but they also have Ganon’s pig-form. In my view, it makes sense that Ganon has transformed permanently at this point in the series.

My Split Timeline Theory; Click to Enlarge

So there we have the linear theory. But what about the split theory?

Well here we can assume that Skyward Sword is unaffected by the split as it takes before Ocarina of Time. Taking the stance that assumes the timeline is split really leaves me with only one option. That one timeline follows Ganon’s transformation into a Pig, the other follows the storyline from Wind Waker. The timeline in which Ganon eventually becomes a pig is the Child Link timeline which picks up on Majora’s Mask and then jumps straight to Twilight Princess. This effectively removes any problems caused by Hyrule’s flooding in the Wind Waker games. The rest of the Child Link timeline follows my linear version of the timeline and the reasons are much the same (Ganon becomes a pig after Twilight Princess). The other timeline is what I call Hyrule Underwater timeline and is largely consisted of Wind Waker and its sequels (for obvious reasons). You’ll note that Minish Cap is placed as the last game in this timeline and the reason is quite simple. Since it has no Ganon, it leads to the assumption that Ganon has been defeated for good at the end of Wind Waker when the Triforce was united and Link struck the Master Sword in his forehead. Alternatively in the linear timeline Ganon’s return is explainable by the Master Sword becoming unstuck and Ganon regaining his piece of the Triforce.

So there you have it. I hope you found this interesting. Maybe I’ll try to make sense of something else senseless in video-games, but this is enough for now.