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Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve heard of The Legend of Zelda. The series transcends the hobby into the spotlight of popular culture, along with other classics like Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Tomb Raider.
But even amongst those highly revered games, few series have remained so unwaveringly consistent as Zelda. In this guide, we’ll explore how the series came game to be. We’ll also be delving into the timeline and lore that make these games so epic (but often confusing!).
History of the Series
The Legend of Zelda is the brainchild of Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto. As the story goes, the designer was inspired by his own childhood adventures — explorative quests set within the natural beauty of the forests, lakes, and caves surrounding his home in Sonobe, Japan.
Miyamoto believed the game should exist as Mario’s opposite; where that title was linear, Zelda would employ a wide range of different paths and alternative gameplay methods. Aptly, the game was code named Adventure Title during development.
Like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda was first designed on graph paper. Each square on the sheet represented a separate room. Prolific Nintendo animator Osamu Tezuka was responsible for this process, and Koji Kondo was brought on to compose the game’s legendary soundtrack.
The seminal release of the third game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, refined the series with the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit, but the largest change came with Ocarina of Time. Launching on the Nintendo 64, this was the first ever 3D Zelda title. It paved the way for the entire industry with its innovative approach to action-adventure gaming. The game would also mark the debut of long-standing series director Eiji Aonuma — the talented designer who would go on to spearhead every mainline title since, including the most recent critically acclaimed entry, Breath of the Wild.
Bottom Line Up Front
This guide is spirit into three main sections: Nintendo’s history with the series, an explanation of the timeline, and contextual sections explaining key characters and items.
There’s no particular order in which you should read each section. Simply read at your leisure, and use the contextual sections to refer back to if you get lost reading the lore. Be sure to check out Nintendo’s official manuscript, The Hyrule Historia, for a more detailed run down of the lore I present.
Before we begin, it helps to familiarise yourself with the key releases in the franchise. Here they are in chronological order. To keep things simple we’ll only be listing mainline titles, but do note that many of the spinoff games also rely on the timeline we’ll go over later.
- The Legend of Zelda (NES; 1986): Miyamoto’s groundbreaking open-world vision for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
- Zelda ll: Adventures of Link (NES; 1987): The sequel to the first game was a big departure: this time, the series was focused on traditional side-scrolling and platforming elements. It remains one of the more controversial entries for that reason.
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES; 1991): The classic Zelda formula is updated for the 16-bit Super Nintendo. A strong contender for the best Zelda game of all time for many fans.
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64; 1998): Often touted as the best game ever made, Ocarina of Time was a truly groundbreaking title that set the precedence for all action adventure games to come. It was the series’ first foray into the third dimension.
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64; 2000); Majora’s Mask is a continuation of the events of Ocarina of Time. It’s known for its creepier atmosphere and cast of philosophical characters.
- The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (GameCube; 2002): This game took the series in a new direction that would be refined in later instalments. It’s known for its polarising cell-shaded graphics.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii/GameCube; 2006): Twilight Princess took the series in a much darker direction — both thematically and aesthetically. It was released as a launch title for the Wii and one of the last big games for the GameCube.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch; 2017): Launching simultaneously for both the Wii U and Switch, Breath of the Wild saw the biggest changes so far as scope we’ve ever seen in the series. Truly embracing the new paradigms of open-world gaming for the first time, it is widely considered one of the best games ever made.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 (Switch; 2022): Nintendo’s hotly anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild. It is scheduled to launch in the Spring of 2023.
With a series this expansive, there has been a huge array of different characters to feature. Regardless of the particular entry, though, there are some key mainstays.
- Link: Link (often mistaken as Zelda) is our main character and protagonist in every mainline game. As a perpetual mute, we never really know what he thinks about the mammoth task ahead of him in each game. Despite his lack of speech, he is unequivocally brave, courageous, and strong.
- Each game usually depicts Link as a reincarnated hero. He starts as a young boy or teenager who evolves into Hyrule’s only help against otherwise impenetrable evil.
- Princess Zelda: Princess Zelda is the second main character in the mainline games. She is the rightful ruler of Hyrule during the period each title takes place.
- She is depicted as elegant, beautiful, and wise, and she always plays a key role in defeating the evil that overshadows Hyrule.
- Impa: Impa is a prominent member of the Sheikah tribe — a group of people that has protected the royal family of Hyrule for millennia. She typically serves as a primary source of knowledge regarding Link’s quest, functioning as the initial guide and ally.
- Ganon: While it might not seem so initially, Ganon is a rather complex character. As the titular villain of the series, he takes on many frightening forms — from a towering, ogre-like figure on horseback to a swirling, serpentine demon.
- Ganon represents the embodiment of evil. It was he who set the perpetual curse of reincarnation upon Princess Zelda and Link.
- The Seven Sages: The Seven Sages are powerful allies of Link who serve to protect the Triforce. They are responsible for sealing and keeping Ganon within the Sacred Realm. Princess Zelda herself is the leader of the sages and represents one of them.
Here are some important artefacts to familiarise yourself with. There are a ton of different lore-related items in the Zelda franchise, but those listed below either crop up a lot or are crucial components of the official timeline.
- The Triforce: The Triforce is a Godly artefact left behind by the three deities that created the world. It comprises three segments which collectively represent the attributes of power, courage, and wisdom — the manifestations of the Goddesses that created it.
- The Master Sword: the Master Sword — also often referred to as the Blade of Evil’s Bane — is a divine weapon wielded by Link in each game. It was created by the Goddess Hylia and assumed the title of The Goddess Sword. Its name was later changed to The Master Sword when the spirit Fi and Skyward Sword’s Link bathed it in Sacred Flame. Only the worthy hero can pull the sword from the Pedestal of Time.
- The Hylian Shield: This particular shield is Link’s main defensive weapon throughout each game. Forged by steel and emboldened with both the Triforce and the Hylian crest, it was traditionally used by the knights of Hyrule.
- The Spirit Stones: The Spirit Stones are three key artefacts from Ocarina of Time. They are required to open the Doors of Time. Individually, they are Kokiri’s Emerald (protected by the Great Deku Tree), Goron’s Ruby (protected by the Goron Darunia), and Zora’s Saphire (protected by Zara Princess Ruto).
- The Ocarina of Time: Zelda games are known for providing the player with a ton of different unique items and tools to use, but none are as pivotal to the game’s lore as The Ocarina of Time. Having been passed down through generations within the Hyrule Royal family, the instrument’s magical music is critical in thwarting the powerful evil that consumes the world.
Is there a Consistent Timeline?
So, let’s get down to it. Possibly the main thing that confuses people about the continuity of the series is whether there’s a consistent timeline; even if you’ve played all the games, you’d be forgiven for not being any clearer! The series features the same core characters, but while there are nods to previous games here and there, the game’s don’t do a good job at expressing continuity.
In 2011, though, Nintendo pleased lore hunters with the Hyrule Historia. This manual was released alongside The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and it was the first time the company acknowledged an official timeline for the series.
The timeline is still quite unclear and with many holes, so think of the segments below as a rough guide to get you started. For brevities sake, I won’t be going into the individual stories of each main game apart from Ocarina of Time. This is the game most critical for understanding what’s going on.
The Creation of the World
Thousands of years before Ocarina of Time takes place, the world was created by three Goddesses; Din, Nayru, and Farore. Having completed their task, the Goddesses leave and entrust the Triforce — the ultimate power source of the world that represents power, wisdom, and courage — with the Goddess Hylia.
The Emergence of the Demon King Demise
The entire timeline (from the perspective of the games at least) begins with Skyward Sword. Prior to the events of that game, an evil entity known as Demon King Demise — Skyward Sword’s main antagonist and precursor to Ganon — wishes to steal the Triforce to gain ultimate power, and in response, a war ensues between Demise and his demon army and Hylia with her trusted human followers. Skyward sword takes place across a series of floating islands collectively named Skyloft, which is a land created by Hylia to protect her human followers during the war.
Hylia ultimately reigns victorious and seals Demise away, but the seal is weak. She intrusts Impa of the Shika tribe to guard the sealed grounds — a role which would be passed down through generations. Hylia is then reincarnated as a human known as Zelda.
Decades later, the events of Skyward Sword take place. Our protagonist Link is no hero at this point, but when Zelda gets captured by Urahim, a follower of Demise, Link is visited by a spirit named Fi. He is chosen as Hyrule’s hero and ultimately kills Demise and saves Zelda, but Demise curses him with a never-ending cycle — that his being would be reborn with a hatred for the blood of the Goddess.
The Era of Chaos
Following the events of Skyward Sword, Zelda and Link returned to the surface to establish life on the surface again. The Triforce was sealed and protected within its resting place: The Sacred Realm. It didn’t take long for inhabitants of Hyrule to learn about the Triforce, however, and many individuals lusting for its power. This is why this time period is referred to The Era of Chaos.
In response, Rauru — one of the ancient sages that exists to offer protection to The Sacred Realm — seals the Realm off from Hyrule and creates The Temple of Time as the new entrance. He encloses The Master Sword behind the doors and scatters the three spiritual stones (the ultimate keys to the temple). Zelda and her descendants create ‘The Kingdom of Hyrule’ and build their castle around the Temple of Time of time to protect it.
The Hero of Time
The next portion of the timeline occurs during the events of Ocarina of Time. For reasons that are currently unknown, Hyrule descended into years of civil war before the time of the game. Amidst the Chaos, a fatally injured woman entrusts her infant child to The Great Deku Tree (the guardian of an area known as The Forest Haven) — this child was Link. The War ends, and several years later, Link meets a reincarnated Zelda and the two discover that a traitor named Ganondorf seeks to steal the power of the Triforce. These three individuals are reincarnations of the original key figures of the war that ensued with Demise years ago, and so, naturally, Link is tasked with finding the three spirit stones before Ganondorf does. Ganondorf discovers this plan early, however, and takes over the castle.
Having procured the spirit stones, Link gains entry to The Temple of Time. Using an artefact known as the Ocarina of Time, he’s able to release The Master Sword from its pedestal (the same pedestal Skyward Sword’s Link placed it in years before). He then gains entry to the Secret Realm, but being only a child, he could not become the Hero of Time (the reincarnated warrior responsible for banishing Demise years ago).
Link enters a seven-year sleep, but in the meantime, Ganondorf gains access to the freshly opened Temple of Time. He tries to steal the Triforce but succeeds only in taking the Power segment. This is more than enough to enable him to thoroughly corrupt Hyrule.
As such, Link awakens as an adult to a world ensnared by Ganondorf’s evil and a corrupted Sacred Realm. Ganondorf also kidnaps Princess Zelda, and with the help of the now also awakened Seven Sages, Link fights Ganondorph in a final battle. Link ultimately wins the battle against two incarnations — the first being Ganondorph and the second a much more powerful form, Ganon. In an act reminiscent of the events precluding Skyward Sword, the Seven Sages seal away Ganon within the Sacred Realm. Using the Ocarina of Time, Zelda sends Link back to relive his youth.
Due to the time-bending occurrences of Ocarina of Time, the timeline from here on is split into three; The child era, the adult era, and the fallen hero era. Don’t get too caught up on the naming, though, because how each era is referred to can make things more complicated than is actually the case.
The Child Era
The child era explores a period that occurs when Link is sent back by Zelda to relive his childhood before Ganondorf took over Hyrule. Majora’s Mask follows on from the child era.
After being sent back, Link restores The Master Sword to its pedestal and warns a similarly young Zelda of the events to come in the future. Link leaves, the Seven Sages never awaken, and as a result, Ganondorf can never open the door of time in the first place. Majora’s Mask’s story begins shortly after Link leaves Hyrule.
Twilight Princess takes place 100 years after the events of Majora’s Mask. In this timeline, because Link brought back the triforce of courage with him when he was sent back, Ganondorf also has the triforce of power.
Ganondorf is set to be executed following Link’s warning, but the Triforce piece he possesses prevents the Seven Sages from taking action. After escaping from his shackles and killing one of the sages, he is swiftly banished to a parallel dimension named The Twilight Realm. He makes a new acquaintance here named Zant, and the two plot to merge The Twilight Realm and Hyrule into one Dark world. This game’s Link — a direct ancestor of the hero of time — foils the plan by walking between worlds, and kills Ganondorf once and for all.
The Adult Era
The Adult era is confusing due to its name. Rather than referring to a specific incarnation of Link, it instead references a period of time. In fact, there is no Link in the Adult era: the era begins following Ganon’s defeat when Link is sent back in time, and so, over the years, he becomes a mythical legend to the characters of this particular timeline.
After sending Link back, Zelda returns The Master Sword to its pedestal and seals the door of time forever. Once again, however, the seal is weak, and Ganon emerges to terrorise Hyrule. The people wait for The Hero of Time to save them but because Link was sent back in time, he never arrives. The King of Hyrule appeals to the gods as a last resort, and with the citizens of Hyrule taken to safety in the highest mountains, the land is flooded. Ganon and the king are lost to the deep ocean.
This history precludes Wind Waker and the incarnations of Link, Zelda, and Ganon in that game.
The Fallen Hero Era
This era assumes Link was slain by Ganondorf/Ganon at the end of Ocarina of time. The Seven Sages somehow manage to defeat Ganon’s full form having seized the full triforce, and seal him and the triforce away in the Sacred Realm. The Master Sword is not restored to its podium. The world is a dark place in this timeline. It covers the events of the earlier games in the series (pre
What About Breath of the Wild?
Fans are still postulating over Breath of the Wild’s place in the series and Nintendo has purposefully left it open to interpretation. The most common theory is that the events that ensue are a culmination of all three timelines.
The release of the Breath of the Wild sequel next year gives us a much better idea of how this chapter fits in. We still don’t know exactly how this new game will slot into the franchise as a whole, but we do know that it will star the same iterations of Link and Zelda — something quite rare for the series.
Question: I Want to get Into the Series but There are so Many Games. Where do I Start?!
Answer: It’s natural to feel somewhat overwhelmed when jumping into any series for the first time, let alone one as big as this! That said, there is no true order for experiencing these games. My personal recommendation would be to start with Breath of the Wild. As the latest title in the series, it’s the most like other open-world games you might have played. It rests on the shoulders of decades of innovation, and it is considered one of the best games ever made. The recent A Links Awakening is a great entry point — especially if you fancy something a little less daunting.
Question: I’ve Heard that the SNES and Nintendo 64 Emulation are Poor. Should I Play the Classic Games on the Original Consoles?
Answer: Emulation vs real hardware is always a raging debate, but I wouldn’t overthink it in this case. Some minor aspects are better throughout the original console releases, but it’s far more convenient for most people to play the old titles through the Nintendo Switch Online libraries. If you don’t have a Switch, buying the games on older consoles is also a great, authentic option — just make sure you do your research. Getting old systems to work with a modern TV can required a bit of work.
Question: Should I Buy the Hyrule Historia?
Answer: I covered the basics in the timeline section of this article, but if you want to delve deeper, the Hyrule Historia is definitely a good read! Rest assured, though: the information contained within it is not required to play any of the games. This article should be enough to give you a solid foundation. I also recommend The Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia as a good companion. Alternatively, all the information from both manuscripts can be sourced online through the various wikis. You could also post a question on the True Zelda Reddit board if you want to know something specific.