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The Entire Zelda Timeline Explained

The Legend of Zelda games are exquisitely crafted blends of action, puzzle-solving, and exploration developed by master game designers. The Legend of Zelda canon, meanwhile, is a straight-up mess. It features three separate timelines, multiple characters with the same names, a couple of different civil wars, and a whole slew of alternate dimensions. You almost need the Triforce of Wisdom to keep it all straight.

We're here to help. Armed with the official timeline that appeared in The Hyrule Historia, as well as the revisions found in The Zelda Encyclopedia, Art & Artifacts, and Nintendo's websites and social media feeds, we've wrangled The Legend of Zelda's sprawling timeline into something manageable. 

From Skyward Sword to Breath of the Wild, this is Hyrule's history — at least until the next Zelda game comes out, and Nintendo has to make something else up. You think Nintendo had this all planned from the beginning? Think again.

Many heroes, one name

Here's the key to understanding The Legend of Zelda's continuity: the hero of every game is named Link and the princess is always named Zelda, but they're not always the same Link and Zelda. Yes, they look the same, they dress the same, and they have the same personalities, but they're not actually the same people. Hyrule's history spans thousands of years, but Link and Zelda are mortal. Every time there's a big time jump, it's a new Link and Zelda on the scene.

Hyrule Historia explains this by saying that Zelda is a traditional name in the Hylian royal family, while Link is a common name among Hyrule's citizens. Skyward Sword goes a little deeper. In that game, a villain named Demise curses Hyrule, vowing "his hatred" will always plague those with "the blood of the goddess" and "the spirit of the hero" (that's symbolic — there's no actual reincarnation happening here).

In other words, Hyrule is caught in a prophecy cycle. Whenever evil appears, a princess and a hero rise to stop it. Why are they always named Link and Zelda? Nobody knows. Prophecies are weird, man.

Before the beginning

Hyrule's story begins with three goddesses: Din, the goddess of power; Nayru, the goddess of wisdom; and Farore, the goddess of courage. Din creates Hyrule's land. Nayru gives it order. Farore gives it people. Together, the trio of deities also make the Triforce, an artifact that contains three parts — one for each goddess.

Din, Nayru, and Farore don't stick around. Once they're done, they give the Triforce to the goddess Hylia and leave. That's when the trouble starts. See, in addition to containing great power, the Triforce grants wishes to anyone who holds it. When the Demon King Demise tries to secure the Triforce for himself, a war begins.

Hylia sends the humans and the Triforce to a land in the sky. Then Hylia and the surface tribes defeat Demise and seal him away. It's a temporary solution. Hylia knows that she'll need to wield the Triforce to stop Demise for good, but goddesses can't harness the Triforce's power. Hylia gives up her immortality and dies, hoping to be reborn as a mortal when Demise returns.

The first Zelda and the first Link (Skyward Sword)

Humans develop Skyloft, a city among the clouds. Over time, Hylia's fears come true: the seal keeping Demise at bay weakens, and the former goddess is reborn as a young girl named Zelda. An attack by Demise's forces sends Zelda to the surface, where she learns her true nature. Next, Zelda's childhood friend, a knight-in-training named Link, hunts for the Triforce while Zelda keeps Demise at bay.

Following instructions left by Hylia before she died, Link finds the Triforce and transforms Hylia's sword, the Goddess Sword, into the ultra-powerful Master Sword. Together, Link and Zelda stop Demise, but not before the Demon King curses Link, Zelda, and everyone else to a never-ending cycle of conflict.

But that's a problem for another time. Zelda decides to live on the surface, and Link joins her. Together, they found Hyrule. The Master Sword is returned to the Temple of the Goddess, and peace reigns — for a little while.

Hyrule rises

Generations pass. Zelda's descendents become the Hyrulian royal family. However, the kingdom still has a Triforce problem. When sorcerers known as the Interlopers try to invade the Sacred Realm, where the Triforce resides, the goddesses are forced to intervene. Using the Mirror of Twilight, the goddesses' followers banish the Interlopers to a parallel dimension called the Twilight Realm.

Afterwards, a sage named Rauru builds the Temple of Time, which contains the only entrance to the Sacred Realm. Rauru uses his power (and the Master Sword) to seal the gateway, cutting the Realm and the Triforce off from the rest of Hyrule. As per Rauru's design, the seal will only open when the fabled Hero of Time retrieves the Master Sword. He waits for quite a while.

Life goes on. The Hyrulian royal family befriends the Picori, a pint-sized race of people who give the Hyrulians a special blade, the Picori Sword, to help defeat an encroaching evil. Afterwards, a grateful Hyrule throws a party to honor the Picori and the sword. The Picori festival quickly becomes an annual tradition.

The saga of Vaati and the birth of the Four Sword (Minish Cap, Four Swords)

At the 100th Picori Festival, an evil Picori named Vaati crashes the party. With the help of a magical cap that allows the Picori to become full-sized, Vaati breaks the Picori Sword, and turns the current Princess Zelda into stone. The local blacksmith's apprentice, Link, teams up with the Picori, reforges the Picori Sword, saves Zelda, and stops Vaati.

After an unspecified period of time, the seal holding Vaati fails. Vaati returns to Hyrule and goes on a kidnapping spree, then conquers the Wind Shrine and declares himself the Wind Sage. A hero, rumored to be the blacksmith's apprentice's descendant, transforms the Picori Sword into the Four Sword, splits into four different people, and sends Vaati packing.

The Hyrulian royals add the Four Sword to the ever-growing list of artifacts in their care, which puts the next Princess Zelda in harm's way when Vaati escapes. Thankfully, there's another Link around, too, who puts Vaati away in the game aptly named Four Swords.

The Hero of Time arrives (Ocarina of Time)

Centuries later, civil war breaks out. During the war, a young woman hides her son Link in Kokiri Forest. After it ends, Ganondorf, leader of the desert-dwelling Gerudo, swears allegiance to Hyrule. It's a ruse, however: secretly, Ganondorf resents the easy life that the Hyrulean people enjoy and plans to conquer the kingdom for himself.

Ganondorf attacks Hyrule Castle. Princess Zelda — yeah, another one — is ready for him. Zelda gives (another) Link the Ocarina of Time and helps him retrieve the Master Sword, unsealing the Sacred Realm before Ganondorf reaches it. But there's a problem: Link might be the Hero of Time, but he's still a child. Link is put to sleep until he's older, letting Ganondorf invade the Sacred Realm and claims the Triforce of Power.

Zelda disguises herself as a Sheikah boy named Sheik, and when Link wakes up seven years later, helps him rescue Hyrule's mystical sages. Then, they take the fight to Ganondorf. Consumed by power, Ganondorf becomes a demon called Ganon, and Link and Zelda — who embody the Triforces of Courage and Wisdom, respectively — face him for one final showdown.

The timeline splits

Here's where things get complicated. In the Legend of Zelda lore, Ocarina of Time spawns separate timelines depending on how Ocarina ends. In one timeline, Ganon kills Link and gets all three Triforce pieces. Zelda and the Sages trap Ganon in the Sacred Realm and lock the door, but the damage is done. Hyrule begins a long, slow decline.

Conversely, if Link defeats Ganon — i.e., you beat Ocarina of Time — two more timelines emerge. At the end of Ocarina of Time, Zelda sends Link back into the past so that he can enjoy the childhood that he never had. Link remembers his experiences, though, and uses what he's learned to stop the events of Ocarina of Time from happening. 

Time travel in The Legend of Zelda runs on Avengers: Endgame rules. Changing the past doesn't create a paradox; it creates another timeline. In child Link's timeline, he alters the future, leading to new adventures. In the third and final timeline —  Ocarina of Time's "adult" timeline — life goes on, but because Link was returned to the past, he's not around to protect Hyrule from future threats.

Decline 1: The Sacred Realm goes dark (A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening)

In the "decline" timeline, Link fails, and Hyrule's sages trap Ganon in the Sacred Realm. He lives there for centuries. Over time, Ganon's presence perverts the Sacred Realm, transforming it into the Dark World. Unfortunately, that affects Hyrule, too. The Hylian bloodline loses power, and Hyrule's fall begins.

An evil priest named Agahnim decides to exploit Hyrule's newfound weakness, and another one of Hyrule's heroic cycles breaks out. Agahnim kidnaps the sages' female descendants and sends them to the Dark World, ripping the seal between the worlds wide open. A new hero — let's call him Link — rises to stop him.

Link travels to the Dark World, rescues the maidens, defeats Ganon, and reclaims the Triforce. Link uses the Triforce to seal the Dark World and usher in a time of peace, then sets sail in search of new adventures. That's how he ends up on Koholint Island, where Link's Awakening unfolds.

Decline 2: Ganon resurrected (Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages)

According to The Hyrule Historia, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages take place immediately following A Link to the Past, and star the same Link as both that game and Link's Awakening. That's changed. Now, Link's Awakening happens first, and the Oracle games may or may not feature a different Link.

At any rate, the real stars of the Oracle games are Ganondorf's adopted parents, Koume and Kotake. Known together as Twinrova, the two Gerudo witches aren't pleased that their son has been killed and do everything that they can to magically revive him. After manipulating events from behind the scenes, Twinrova tries to sacrifice Zelda to complete the ritual. Link saves her. In a last-ditch effort, Twinrova sacrifices themselves and brings Ganon back to life.

It's not entirely successful. While Ganon returns, the botched ritual brings him back as a mindless beast, and it doesn't take long for Link to put him out of his misery.

Decline 3: The fall continues (A Link Between Worlds, Tri Force Heroes)

A new hero rises and saves an alternate version of Hyrule known as Lorule and the fashion-obsessed kingdom Hytopia. Hyrule continues its fall. Even the Triforce can't stop the land's slow and steady decline. In fact, one Hylian king worries that the Triforce might make things worse, especially if it falls in the wrong hands. The king hides the Triforce of Courage, and only reveals its location to his daughter, Princess Zelda.

Eventually, the king dies, and his power-hungry son wants the Triforce. Zelda refuses to tell him where it is. The new king enlists a wizard who interrogates Zelda, but the girl refuses to talk. In a fit of rage, the wizard casts a spell that condemns Zelda to eternal sleep. The princess falls to the ground in a heap. Overcome with guilt, the young king puts his sister's slumbering body in a chamber in Hyrule Castle, and decrees that every girl born into the royal family will be named Zelda, while his sleeping sister will be known as Zelda I (yes, other Zeldas came before her. Just roll with it).

Decline 4: One Link, two Zeldas, and a duo of classic games (The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link)

Years pass. Hyrule shrinks until it's known as Lesser Hyrule, and is a shadow of its former self. This is where the original The Legend of Zelda figures in. Ganon returns to life, one of Zelda I's descendants breaks the Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces and scatters them across Hyrule, and a ten-year-old boy named Link reassembles the Triforce and beats Ganon back.

It doesn't solve anything. Six years later, as Ganon's minions continue to decimate Hyrule, the Triforce of Courage appears on the back of Link's hand. Link visits Hyrule Castle for advice and learns the tale of Zelda I. After hearing Zelda I's story, Link vows to save her. Link undergoes a series of trials, recovers the Triforce of Courage, and rescues the princess. In the process, he becomes the only Link (that we know of) to meet two separate Zeldas. Unfortunately, Link's efforts don't amount to much. Hyrule settles into ruin.

Child 1: The Twili strike back (Majora's Mask, Twilight Princess)

The second Zelda timeline begins when Ocarina of Time's Link, now back in time and a child again, works with young Zelda to prevent Ocarina of Time from taking place. In order to keep Ganondorf from entering the Sacred Realm, Link travels far from Hyrule. Eventually, he reaches Termina, where Majora's Mask takes place.

Meanwhile, Zelda sentences Ganondorf to death, planning to execute him before he can cause trouble. The plan backfires. During his execution, Ganondorf kills one of Hyrule's seven sages. Panicking, the remaining sages use the Mirror of Twilight to banish Ganondorf to the Twilight Realm, as their ancestors did to the Interlopers centuries before. Ganondorf discovers that the Interlopers, now known as the Twili, have built their own civilization in the Twilight Realm. Ganondorf slowly takes over.

Ganondorf transforms the Twili into monsters, then orders his acolyte, Zant, to unite the Light and Twilight worlds. By now, you know how this goes: a new hero named Link rises to counter Ganondorf's threat, and with help from the Twilight Realm's rightful ruler, Midna, and Princess Zelda, puts the King of Darkness back in his place.

Child 2: An old foe returns (Four Swords Adventures)

Several hundred years later, tensions flare up between the Gerudo and the Hyrulians when a young Gerudo named Ganondorf (no relation to the former villain) goes rogue and steals the Dark Mirror (no relation to the Mirror of Twilight, the Dark World, or any other dark or mirror-y things).

Using the mirror, Ganondorf covers Hyrule in darkness. He creates twisted doppelgangers of the legendary hero, known as "Shadow Links." He turns the Knights of Hyrule into demons and uses Hyrule's Royal Jewels to raise a supernatural army. Worst of all, Ganondorf uses his newfound power to resurrect Vaati, a Picori wizard and former Wind Sage.

Along the way, Ganondorf loses his humanity and becomes the new Ganon, but it doesn't matter. Vaati still has his old weaknesses, and all it takes is a new Link and the legendary Four Sword to take both Vaati and Ganondorf out, presumably for good.

Adult 1: Hyrule sinks (Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks)

In the third scenario, the adult timeline in Ocarina of Time continues without its Hero of Time, since he's been sent back to his childhood again. As a result, when Ganondorf returns, there's no one around to stop him. Hyrule's desperate king asks the gods for help, and they respond by flooding Hyrule and trapping Ganondorf at the bottom of the ocean.

Hundreds of years pass, but Ganondorf eventually resurfaces. In order to find the new Princess Zelda — and, more important, her Triforce — Ganondorf begins kidnapping girls around the right age. One of his victims has a brother named Link, however. You can see where this is going. Link teams up with a pirate named Tetra, a descendant of the Hylian royal family, to find the Triforce. 

As Link confronts Ganondorf, the spirit of Hyrule's old king makes a wish on the Triforce: "Wash away this ancient land of Hyrule!" That gets rid of Ganondorf, but it also destroys what's left of Hyrule, leaving Tetra and Link without a home. They take to the seas and found New Hyrule, where a train engineer named Link has his own adventure about one hundred years later.

All roads lead to Breath of the Wild

In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it's pretty obvious that Hyrule has seen better days — but which Hyrule is it? Does Breath of the Wild take place amid the ruins of Lesser Hyrule, last seen in The Adventure of Link? Is it the world that was ravaged by an invasion from the Twilight Realm, and further desecrated by the second Ganondorf? Is it New Hyrule, or perhaps even Old Hyrule freed from its watery grave?

According to the official Zelda website, it's all of them. At this point, all three timelines merge back together, and that's where Breath of the Wild sits. It doesn't really matter how we got to this point. Breath of the Wild is the final destination.

That's the end of the saga, right? Not quite. At E3 2019, Nintendo announced that a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild was in active development, and in September 2022, the game's title was released: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. It's set for release on May 12, 2023.