The Official Legend of Zelda Timeline: Reading and Understanding It
WARNING: There are massive series spoilers in this article!
For decades the official chronology for The Legend of Zelda adventure video game series was a mystery, said to be sealed in a top secret document somewhere in the depths of Nintendo Land. During such decades, hardcore (and even some casual) fans alike were left to speculate, theorize, debate, and even flat-out argue about what the most logical course of events were. With nothing more than a few scraps of official word, hints and easter eggs in the games themselves, fans came up with their own personal timelines, sure that the official one (if it even truly existed) wouldn't be known for a long, long time.
Then in December, 2011, a book called Hyrule Historia was released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the franchise. In it was the official timeline, and to say that it rendered a majority of fans' theories void would be a vast understatement. The official timeline is even more convoluted and complicated than fans anticipated, leading to much confusion and even more arguing about how solid it actually is.
This article's aim is to not only provide an in-depth look at the official timeline as provided by Nintendo, but to also explain and dissect it in the hopes of aiding confused fans who wish to better understand it. It's assumed that the reader has a basic understanding of most Zelda games, or at least the console ones. As the author I am going by scans provided of the original Japanese and my own language skills, cross-referenced with another translation by Glitterberri.
Creation of Hyrule
The Easy Part: Creation to Split
GAMES: Skyward Sword, The Minish Cap, Four Swords, Ocarina of Time
The first part of the official timeline is also the simplest to understand - it provides the background information and history that sets up each other individual timeline. Thus, in order to understand all of those, we must look into the foundations as well.
Everything begins with creation: the three Golden Goddesses (Din, Nayru, and Farore) created the heavens and earth and all of their inhabitants. One of their greatest creations occurred when they departed the mortal world and left behind the remnants of their power, the Triforce within the Sacred Realm. Legend said that whoever held the Triforce would have their deepest desire granted. In order to protect the Triforce from evil, the goddesses charged the single goddess Hylia with guarding it.
A demon named Demise challenged the inhabitants for the Triforce. Hylia sealed it away in a land above the clouds along with the people of the earth, while she and the remaining races sealed away Demise. Life continued above the clouds until memories of the "surface" were merely legends. Eventually the first Zelda was kidnapped by a demon lord named Ghirahim, and her best friend, the first Link, took up Hylia's call to save her. By journey's end the Master Sword was created, Zelda was revealed to be the mortal incarnation of Hylia, and Demise was defeated. However, Demise warned that his hatred was so intense that he would be reborn (as Ganon), and that Zelda's descendants and those who follow in Link's spiritual footsteps will be fated to always battle him. At the end of the game the sky people returned to the earth and at some point later established the Kingdom of Hyrule. Those who were descended from the goddess became known as Hylians.
Chaos and Prosperity Eras
For a time there was peace, until there wasn't any longer. Enough individuals vied for the power of the Triforce that it was necessary to seal it within the Sacred Realm, with the Temple of Time as its entrance. The Master Sword became the key to opening the Sacred Realm, and only the Chosen Hero could withdraw it. Following this, Hyrule was allowed to prosper for many years.
(One of the groups seeking out the Triforce were known as the Dark Interlopers, who were later sealed into the Twilight Realm by the Golden Goddesses. They would later become the Twili.)
THE MINISH CAP
Peace shattered when monsters overtook the land. A tiny race of creatures called the Picori forged a blade to give the fabled Hero of Men (whose real identity remains unknown), and using this along with a power known as the Light Force, he was able to seal the monsters away. The Light Force was then sealed into the Hylian Princess. A festival began to celebrate these Picori, and one year a man named Vaati became champion. He used his access to the Picori Blade to shatter it and release the bound monsters. After he also kidnapped Zelda with the intent of stealing her Light Force, Link used the aid of the Picori to reconstruct the Picori Blade into the Four Sword, which had the power to split the wielder into four beings. Link defeated Vaati and Zelda used a magical Picori hat to wish away all the evil Vaati had brought to Hyrule.
Vaati eventually departed for a sky palace and made himself into a wind mage. He would terrorize the land below, kidnapping young maidens, until one day a boy with the Four Sword managed to seal him and return the maidens to their homes. Years later the seal broke and Vaati resumed his reign of terror, beginning with the kidnapping of Zelda. Link took the Four Sword and managed to reseal Vaati and restore peace once more.
OCARINA OF TIME
After more ages of peace, a fight broke out between non-Hylian races that eventually escalated into a great war. When the (what would later be called the Unification) War was over, the races of the Gorons and the Zoras and their domains were assimilated into Hyrule. Later still, a man from the Gerudo Desert named Ganondorf came to Hyrule with the intent of conquering it and taking the Triforce. A young boy named Link was sent from his isolated home in the forest to meet with Princess Zelda. They decided to take the Triforce for themselves before Ganondorf could, and together they opened the seal to the Temple of Time. When Link pulled out the Master Sword he was sent to the Sacred Realm, Ganondorf following him. As Link slept for seven years in order to age into the proper Chosen Hero, Ganondorf seized the Triforce, but it rejected him, splitting into three pieces and hiding in three people: Din's Power into Ganondorf, Nayru's Wisdom into Zelda, and Farore's Courage into Link. Ganondorf used his piece to take over Hyrule, and by the time Link awoke, Zelda had gone into hiding and he alone faced the daunting task of awakening the seven sages of Hyrule. Once he had gained access to Gandorf's castle, Link went off to face Ganondorf...
...and this is where the timeline gets, to use the technical term, "screwy".
The Hard Part, 1: Child Timeline
GAMES: Majora's Mask, Twilight Princess, Four Swords Adventure
The Child Timeline occurs if the game is followed all the way through to its intended ending. In this ending, Link defeats Ganondorf (who has been turned into Ganon by the Triforce of Power) and the rescued sages seal him into the Sacred Realm. Zelda uses the Ocarina of Time to send Link back to his "proper time" as a child seven years before so he may grow naturally. Link arrives and warns child Zelda about what Ganondorf intends to do. These accusations lead to the arrest of Ganondorf before he ever has the chance to enter the Sacred Realm and conquer Hyrule.
(NOTE: keep in mind that, because Link was sent back to the past, there is no Link remaining in the saved future with adult Zelda and the aftermath of Ganondorf's rampage. This is where the primary split occurs, as will be further covered later.)
Shortly after altering Hyrule's original destiny of falling to Ganondorf for seven years, Link departed on a journey, alone, to find his fairy companion, Navi, who had left him after the events in Ocarina of Time. Along the way he runs into a Skull Kid who transports him to the parallel word of Termina. In this world Link had to enter a repetitive three-day cycle in order to save everyone and everything from a demonically possessed moon. After the events of Termina, Link returned to Hyrule and lived out the rest of his natural life. It's heavily implied by later games and Nintendo themselves that this Link dies full of regret for having abandoned the future Hyrule that he had saved.
"Many years" after being arrested for treason, Ganondorf is sentenced to be executed by the ancient sages in an area that the Mirror of Twilight just happened to be located in. But as he is executed, the Triforce of Power activated inside him and saved his life. Terrified, the ancient sages activated the Mirror of Twilight and sealed Ganondorf away in the Twilight Realm. There he met the Twili named Zant, whom he offered power to in return for a way to escape the Twilight Realm. Zant used his power to usurp his own monarchy, including Princess Midna. Zant then extended the Twilight Realm to the "World Of Light" (Hyrule). It was here that a new Link was encountered. With the aid of a cursed Midna, Link reforged the Mirror of Twilight and defeated Zant and Ganondorf. It was at this point that the Triforce of Power disappears. Afterwards Midna returns to the Twilight Realm and shatters the Mirror of Twilight so travel can no longer occur between the two worlds.
(NOTE: According to Hyrule Historia, the reason why Ganondorf had the Triforce of Power even though in this timeline he never entered the Sacred Realm, was because Link traveled back in time with the Triforce of Courage still in his possession. Thus, the Triforce corrected itself to belong to its chosen ones.)
FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES
Years later it came to (yet another different) Zelda's attention that the Four Sword may be weakening its seal yet again. She, Link, and the six maidens who protected the entrance to its sanctuary met up and were attacked by a Shadow Link who came from the Dark World. This Shadow Link captured the maidens, including Zelda, and tricked Link into taking the Four Sword and breaking Vaati's seal. Link then spent the remainder of the time searching for the imprisoned maidens in an effort to seal Vaati again. Eventually it's revealed that Vaati was being controlled by a new reincarnation (thanks to Demise's curse) of Ganondorf. Vaati was vanquished, Ganon(dorf) was sealed into the Four Sword, and the Four Sword was encased in a protective pyramid. Hyrule is at peace yet again.
The Hard Part, 2: The Adult Timeline
GAMES: The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks
As mentioned earlier, when Link returned to his own time at the end of Ocarina of Time, the world he left behind continued to exist...without him. This is the Hyrule in which Ganondorf is sealed into the Sacred Realm with the Triforce of Power.
The Heroless Era
Years after the departure of Link the hero, the seal on the Sacred Realm weakened and Ganondorf escaped his prison. He amassed his armies again and threatened to conquer Hyrule. The people of Hyrule called for the return of Link to vanquish Ganondorf once more, but since he and his line had left that world no hero could come. The people prayed to the goddesses themselves, and their prayers were answered in the form of a flood that washed away the land Ganondorf so coveted. Survivors were amassed on the mountaintops that later became the islands of the Great Sea. Meanwhile, the original land of Hyrule as well as Ganondorf and his minions were preserved in a piece of frozen time beneath the sea.
THE WIND WAKER
Eventually Ganondorf broke free from this seal as well and set out to locate the other pieces of the Triforce so he may rule the submerged Hyrule anew. A new Link was brought into the fray as Ganondorf kidnaped his Hylian sister. Along the way he met Tetra the pirate, who's later revealed to be the true Princess Zelda and the keeper of the Triforce of Wisdom. Link proved himself worthy of drawing the Master Sword to the Golden Goddesses, and after powering it up with the help of new sages, set out to find the broken pieces of the Triforce of Courage. Once it was assembled it residesd inside him, proving to everyone that he was the new Chosen Hero. The reassembled Triforce is used by the past King of Hyrule to completely submerge and destroy Old Hyrule in favor of the children searching out for a New Hyrule. Together with the help of Tetra/Zelda, Link vanquished Ganondorf (thus far for good in this timeline) in Old Hyrule's final hours. With Old Hyrule completely destroyed, Link and Tetra set off on her pirate ship to search for a new land to call Hyrule.
A short while after the events of The Wind Waker, Link and Tetra encountered a ghost ship that caused havoc in their lives. Tetra was kidnapped and Link was forced to save her by locating the Ocean King. It's revealed that all the trouble is caused by an Evil Phantom known as Bellum. After vanquishing Bellum, Tetra and Link returned to their ship and continued on their journey to establish a new Hyrule.
Link and Tetra finally found a land worthy of becoming New Hyrule: a land that held a monster (Malladus) captive beneath its surface with the Spirit Tracks acting as its bonds. A century later a new Link became an engineer that rode a train around on the tracks. He became roped in with a new Princess Zelda's conspiracies that her chancellor was malevolent.Said chancellor was attempting to revive Malladus. Together Link and Zelda restored the Spirit Tracks and sealed Malladus away forever. The Lokomos, a race of guardians who originally sealed Malladus and had since watched over New Hyrule, departed to the heavens since they were no longer needed by mankind.
The Hard Part, 3: Defeated Hero Timeline
GAMES: A Link to the Past, Oracle of Seasons/Ages, Link's Awakening, The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: Adventure of Link
This is probably the biggest surprise of the official timeline - before, at least, the Adult and Child Timelines were confirmed by Nintendo. But when Hyrule Historia was released, fans tilted their heads at this particular branch of the split. In it, we are allowed to imagine a Hyrule in which the Link from Ocarina of Time is defeated in his final battle against Ganondorf.
The Imprisoning/Sealing Era
When Link was "defeated", Ganondorf was able to take not only the hero's Triforce of Courage, but also Zelda's Triforce of Wisdom. With the whole Triforce and ultimate power in his hands, Ganondorf became the Demon King Ganon and attempted to conquer Hyrule. However, Zelda and the sages managed to seal Ganondorf and the Triforce away into the Sacred Realm, which then became the Dark World because of the tainted power residing in it. Years later, the King of Hyrule had the ancient sages put a strong seal on the Sacred Realm/Dark World in order to contain Ganondorf and his minions.
Many yearning for the power of the Triforce attempted to enter this world but were trapped there because of the dark power. Eventually Hyrule diminishes and Hylia's bloodline fades to a thin line.
A LINK TO THE PAST
A sorcerer named Agahnim helped Hyrule rid themselves of the final monsters in the land and was treated as a hero by the Royal Family. He brainwashed the king and his knights into letting him kidnap the seven maidens descended from the seven sages in order to sacrifice them to the Dark World and break the seal holding Ganon. Princess Zelda was caught as well and prayed for a hero to save Hyrule. Link took the call and, after unsheathing the Master Sword and rescuing the maidens, was transported to the Dark World where he confronted Ganon in his pyramid. After defeating Ganon, Link touched the Triforce and wished for Hyrule to return to normal. This reset the Dark World back into the Sacred Realm and both were protected for generations to come.
ORACLE OF SEASONS/AGES
Later, the Triforce, residing in Hyrule Castle, summoned Link (the same from A Link to the Past) to complete a set of two trials. First he was sent to the distant land of Holodrum to rescue Din, the Oracle of Seasons. Then he was sent to the other distant land of Labrynna to rescue Nayru, the Oracle of Ages. After saving both he discovered that Ganondorf's old foster mothers, Twinrova, were seeking to revive the Demon King by lighting the Flames of Destruction, Sorrow and Despair. They had also kidnapped Zelda and planned to use her as the final sacrifice needed for reviving Ganon. Link, however, managed to stop them, and Twinrova was forced to sacrifice themselves instead. The Ganon that was revived was a mindless one and simply rampaged around. Link vanquished him and restored peace to Holodrum and Labrynna.
Link set off on a boat to continue his training. He was caught in a strong storm and washed up on the island of Koholint. There he discovered that the only way to leave was by gathering magical instruments and awaking the giant Wind Fish asleep at the top of the island. But then Link learned that the entirety of Koholint only existed in the dreams of the Wind Fish, who was plagued by the demon Nightmare. Link decided to awaken the Wind Fish and leave the dream world. He sailed away to live out his life.
The Golden and Declining Eras
With the completed Triforce back in their possession, Hyrule's Royal Family took the kingdom into a golden era of peace and prosperity. They ruled using the majestic power of the Triforce. One King of Hyrule mastered the Triforce and his reign in particular was golden. However, he could never find someone worthy enough of succeeding his power, including his own son, the Prince of Hyrule. The King gave the Triforce of Courage to his daughter, Zelda, to watch over before he died. After the King's death, the Prince received an unfinished Triforce. A wizard told him that Zelda knew the location of the remaining piece, and after a lengthy interrogation, the wizard put Zelda into a deep, eternal sleep before perishing himself. Remorseful, the Prince had Zelda sealed safely away, and Hyrule entered an era of decline without the completed Triforce.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA
Many years later, a group of thieves led by a revived Ganon (who has forgotten everything from before, including his time as the Gerudo Ganondorf), attacked the Royal Family of Hyrule and stole the Triforce of Power. The new Princess Zelda split the remaining Triforce of Wisdom up and scattered it across the land. Enraged, Ganon kidnapped Zelda and held her hostage, but not before she could deploy her maid Impa to search out a hero to save the kingdom. Hyrule fell into complete disarray as inhabitants were forced to live underground. Impa finally met a traveler named Link who agreed to save Hyrule. He gathered the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and used it to combat and defeat Ganon. Afterwards he attempted to stay and help rebuild Hyrule, but Ganon's remaining monsters made it next to impossible.
ZELDA II: ADVENTURE OF LINK
The monsters had heard that Ganon could be revived through the blood sacrifice of the one who slayed him - Link. Faced with this, the crest of the Triforce of Courage appeared on Link's hand and alerted Impa to his true destiny. She told him about the sleeping princess Zelda and entrusted him with finding the fragments of the Triforce of Courage. Once Link found them all he was able to halt Ganon's revival while also awakening the sleeping princess. Peace returned to Hyrule and the citizens were allowed to rebuild once more.
As can be seen, the official timeline as supplied by Nintendo has moments of absolute clarity and moments of "did they really try to get away with that?" The Defeated Hero timeline has an air of Nintendo trying to cram in the earlier games that were obviously not developed with an overarching story in mind, and one can seriously question the seemingly tangential Four Sword arc.
Still, it's great to finally have it all laid out for us fans. Hopefully this hub was able to piece events together in an understandable way that Nintendo had in mind. Of course, if there's any questions or clarification needed, I'll do my best to respond with a better answer.