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Colorful art of a lot of Links and enemies from across Zelda’s history. There’s a cheeky Tingle in the background. Image: Fagiani

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The Legend of Zelda timeline, explained

Where does Tears of the Kingdom fit in the convoluted plot?

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Jeffrey Parkin (he/him) has been writing video game guides for Polygon for almost seven years. He has learned to love just about every genre of game that exists.

Placing the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom on a timeline is pretty simple: It’s set shortly after the events of Breath of the Wild. But the chronological sequence for the Legend of Zelda series as a whole is… complicated. To say the least.

In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

There’s nearly 40 years of Zelda history establishing that it’s not safe to assume anything about any given game’s timing — or the flow of time in general. Ignoring some spinoffs, there are officially 19 ​​— soon to be 20 — games across 37 years that make up the Zelda series, from 1986’s The Legend of Zelda to 2023’s The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. A handful of them fit neatly together — there are a few direct prequels and sequels — but any chronology across the whole series quickly gets muddied by time travel, multiple timelines, and a 10,000-year time skip.

A closeup of Link from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Just nothing going on behind those eyes.
Image: Nintendo

Thankfully, in 2011, we got the first officially published timeline in The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. (The creative team behind the Zelda series had an eyes-only, confidential version of the timeline sometime before 2003.) That official version rearranges the games into a cohesive-ish timeline that branches into three possible outcomes.

But things get complicated when we get to Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. This is made explicit in the book The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champion: “Hyrule’s recurring periods of prosperity and decline have made it impossible to tell which legends are historical fact and which are mere fairy tale.” That doesn’t negate the previous timeline as established in Hyrule Historia, but it gives room to explain any inconsistencies with the wave of a hand. Myths and fairy tales don’t have to be perfectly consistent, after all. They’re just stories.


The Legend of Zelda series in chronological order

So, yeah, the Legend of Zelda timeline: Pretty complicated, and certainly up for some debate. But there’s still a generally accepted chronology. Here, according to most primary sources — including the definitive tome that is Hyrule Historia — is the timeline for the Legend of Zelda:

The official The Legend of Zelda timeline with the three branching outcomes of Ocarina of Time and including Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom Graphic: Jeffrey Parkin/Polygon

Still, even working off of this official timeline, there’s a lot of wiggle room and confusion as to where exactly Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom belong. And then there’s the matter of the three branching paths. Let’s break it all down.


From Skyward Sword to Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D screenshot of Link pulling the Master Sword from a stone. Navi is helpfully circling around. Image: Nintendo
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (2004)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords (2002)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Chronologically speaking, the earliest game in the Zelda series is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where we learn that Zelda is a reincarnated goddess — the goddess Hylia, original protector of the Triforce. Demise was the big bad defeated by Link, but at the end, Demise kind of morphs into a proto-Ganon.

An indeterminate amount of time later, we get The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. In it, an evil sorcerer named Vaati wants to use the Light Force inside Zelda (presumably her reincarnated divine blood) for evil reasons. Link is triumphant and locks Vaati away for a while.

Many generations later, during Four Swords, Vaati escapes and kidnaps the current reincarnation of Princess Zelda, this time in an attempt to force her into marriage. A new reincarnation of Link — four of him, technically — beats Vaati again, leaving Hyrule safe for a while.

Well, safe until a “countless eras”-long civil war broke out in Hyrule (according to Hyrule Historia). And then we come to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which we meet Ganondorf. Then there’s some time travel that, as it often does, causes some timeline confusion.

At the end of Ocarina of Time, Link defeats Ganon(dorf).

Maybe.


The three Legend of Zelda timelines

Per the official timeline in Hyrule Historia, the outcome of Ocarina of Time plays out in one of three possible ways: Link is defeated and Ganon wins; Link wins and goes back in time to his childhood to warn Zelda about Ganon(dorf); or Link wins and goes back in time to his childhood, only to vanish from history. These are officially called the Fallen Hero, Child, and Adult Timelines.

Fallen Hero Timeline

Link from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening catching a fish Image: Nintendo
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages (2001)
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (2015)
  • The Legend of Zelda (1986)
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link (1987)

In this darkest timeline, Link lost to Ganon during Ocarina of Time, and Ganon claimed all three parts of the Triforce to become the Demon King.

Basically, after his victory during Ocarina of Time, both Ganondorf and the complete Triforce got sealed in the Sacred Realm to prevent him from taking over the world. During this time period, Hyrule was at peace, but people heard tell of the Triforce in the Sacred Realm and greedily sought it out — at which point those people discovered that the Sacred Realm had become a Dark World due to Ganondorf’s influence. They were transformed into monsters and recruited into Ganondorf’s army. In an event known as the Imprisoning War, Ganondorf and his new army of monsters attempted to invade Hyrule once more; they failed and were ultimately resealed in the Sacred Realm.

Many centuries later, someone tried to open that realm back up again during The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. A new incarnation of Link showed up, defeated Ganon (again), and returned the Triforce to Hyrule.

Link — the same Link, probably — went on a little cruise, got shipwrecked, and eventually washed up on Koholint Island during The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. That game was kind of all a dream, though, and that version of Link isn’t heard from again.

Back in Hyrule, Ganon’s adoptive mothers tried to resurrect the Demon King. A new Link was sent to the lands of Holodrum and Labrynna (in either order) during The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Link was triumphant again.

Several centuries later, in a mirror version of Hyrule called Lorule (get it?), a sorcerer named Yuga tried to resurrect Ganon. After some painting-based adventuring, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Link saved the day, and Link and Zelda together saved Lorule with the Triforce.

A few years after that, the same Link in different clothes headed to the nearby kingdom of Hytopia for some fashion-themed shenanigans in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes.

Some centuries later, the king of Hyrule started to get worried about the power of the Triforce. He broke it apart, keeping the Triforce of Power for himself, entrusting the Triforce of Wisdom to the (well, a) Princess Zelda, and sending the Triforce of Courage off to find a worthy hero (a version of Link).

Once again, Ganon and his forces invaded Hyrule, and once again (an incarnation of) Link defeated him during The Legend of Zelda. Six years later, it basically happens again in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Child Timeline

Link and Midna from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess standing in front of a portal. Image: Nintendo
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (2004)

Back in Ocarina of Time, Link has to take his seven-year nap to grow into the Hero of Time. In this version of the timeline, after Link defeats Ganondorf, Princess Zelda sends him back to his childhood seven years earlier, armed with the knowledge of Ganondorf’s eventual betrayal. In the past, Link warns the Hyrulean rulers, thereby avoiding Ganondorf’s rise to power.

After delivering the warning, Link goes off on his own adventure. He ends up in Termina — a land parallel to Hyrule — in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. After saving the day(s), that version of Link is done.

Some time later, back in Hyrule, Ganon is set to be executed for his future crimes. But that doesn’t go according to plan, and a new version of Link has to defeat him during The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Several centuries later, Ganondorf is reborn in Hyrule, where he seeks to resurrect the mage Vaati (from Minish Cap and Four Swords) during The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. The Link(s) of that era manage to defeat him again.

Adult Timeline

Link from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker holding a sword and looking very tough Image: Nintendo
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009)

For the Adult Timeline, we have to head back to Ocarina of Time once again. In this version, after Link is sent back to his childhood, he just kind of vanishes.

Many years later, when Ganon tried to take over Hyrule again, there was no Link that came to face him. Out of desperation, the gods chose to drown Ganon and Hyrule beneath the ocean. At some point, an incarnation of Link does appear and has an adventure with some pirates in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Link and Zelda defeat a new Ganon(dorf), but Hyrule is destroyed in the process. The pair set off to look for a new land.

A few months into their search, that same Zelda and Link have some ghost adventures in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and then set up on a new continent where they found New Hyrule.

Five generations later, during The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, a new Zelda and a new Link fight (and defeat) a different Demon King named Malladus.


Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom

A The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom screenshot of Link riding a horse across a grassy field in Hyrule
Link riding across Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule.
Image: Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champion from 2018 has its own timeline. The thing is, it lumps everything together under one big question mark called “the distant past” — a period set more than 10,000 years prior.

This tells us one thing already: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are probably not part of the Adult Timeline, since we see Hyrule in both games, not New Hyrule. It’s even vaguely similar in geography to versions of the world from earlier games. (This does assume that there weren’t any Triforce wishes to restore the sunken Hyrule, though.)

An overview of Skyloft from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The Goddess statue in Skyloft.
Image: Nintendo

There are plenty of references to Hylia, tying Breath of the Wild back to, at least, Skyward Sword. The 13 goddess statues all over Hyrule, for example, resemble the statue of Hylia that was on Skyloft. Even the monks in Breath of the Wild’s many shrines are followers of Hylia.

But we can’t tell if Breath of the Wild is in the Fallen Hero or Child timelines. A nice clue would’ve been the state of the Triforce and who possessed it during the events of the game, but, interestingly, the ancient artifact doesn’t come up — so we’re also not sure of its status at the outset of Tears of the Kingdom, either.

The wording of the events in Creating a Champion’s “distant past” provides some vague hints, though. Specifically how, “in a seemingly endless cycle of darkness and light, Ganon continues to be revived and then sealed away.” Nothing about that sounds particularly certain or concrete, but it reads a little closer to the Fallen Hero Timeline than the Child Timeline. Also, since Breath of the Wild describes how Link had failed to defeat Calamity Ganon 100 years prior, and Creating A Champion’s reference to “sealing” harkens back to notable Fallen Hero events like the sealing of Ganon in the Sacred Realm and his resealing after the Imprisoning War, it does seem that Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom bear a lot of thematic and structural similarity to the Fallen Hero timeline.

A screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom showing Link riding on a bird-like flying vehicle.
Tears of the Kingdom will have vehicles.
Image: Nintendo

All that we can say for sure is, since Tears of the Kingdom is a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, it shares whatever version of the timeline that Breath of the Wild is in. And that’s 10,000 years after whatever game comes before it.

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