Nintendo never wanted to canonize The Legend of Zelda’s chronology. When Shigeru Miyamoto set out to create a game based on his boyhood adventures exploring the wilderness outside his hometown of Sonobe in Kyoto, he wasn’t thinking of weaving a rich tapestry where every thread would connect to every other thread to form a cohesive picture. He was thinking of what would be fun.
Every game since that first has been a reinvention of the original. Beyond that, Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma, the long-time producer of the Zelda franchise who got his start designing dungeons in Ocarina of Time, never gave the bigger picture much thought. Until fans wouldn’t stop bugging them about it.
In 2011’s Hyrule Historia, Nintendo unveiled an official timeline in response to years of fans clamoring for one. It started with 2011’s Skyward Sword, ran down to 1998’s Ocarina of Time, and then split three ways. Three. Like the Triforce. Get it? Anyway, the timeline’s debut came with a caveat from Aonuma. “One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the question the developers of the Legend of Zelda series asked themselves before starting on a game was ‘What kind of game play should we focus on?’ rather than ‘What kind of story should we write?’”
Aonuma explained that Ocarina of Time was developed in response to Nintendo’s developers wanting to create engaging gameplay in a 3D space. The Phantom Hourglass, a DS-exclusive sequel to The Wind Waker, was the result of a search for a comfortable way to play a Zelda game using a stylus. Gameplay, not story, was at the heart of every title. “Because the games were developed in such a manner, it could be said that Zelda’s story lines were afterthoughts,” Aonuma said. He went on to advise fans that, should they stumble across inconsistencies in the timeline, they should take them in stride.
Rather than bringing fans together, the official timeline incited even more passionate debates among fans. For example, you can find Majora’s Mask in 2013’s A Link Between Worlds for 3DS. But Majora’s Mask is set on a different timeline! How can this be?! Well, the branches could connect in some way we don't understand, or the mask could just be an Easter egg, a wink and nod from Nintendo.
Yet another debate arose when fans pored over 2017’s Breath of the Wild and uncovered what they believed to be incontrovertible proof that the game fell on one branch of the timeline or another. Aonuma didn’t help things when, in 2018, he mentioned that Nintendo intentionally omitted Breath of the Wild’s official placement in the chronology. “With this game, we saw just how many players were playing in their own way,” he said in an interview for Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champion, an encyclopedia-style book devoted to 2017’s Game of the Year. “We realized that people were enjoying imagining the story that emerged from the fragmentary imagery we were providing. If we defined a restricted timeline, then there would be a definitive story, and it would eliminate the room for imagination, which wouldn't be as fun.”
Eventually, Nintendo revealed that Breath of the Wild falls at the end of the timeline. Not at the end of one of the three branches, but at the end of all of them. Just as the timeline fragmented after Ocarina of Time into three paths, they all come together again in Breath of the Wild. Given that 2023’s Tears of the Kingdom is a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, that puts it at the very end of the timeline.
The terminus. The end of Zelda. The end of debates. The end of everything.
Or is it?
Some fans view Tears of the Kingdom as a beginning, and as a manifestation of the development cycle with which Nintendo has crafted every Zelda game since the first.
Spin Me Right Round
I love The Legend of Zelda. It’s my favorite series, but the narrative of each game has always been incidental to me. Where did Breath of the Wild fall in the chronology? Why is Majora’s Mask in A Link Between Worlds when both games are set on different branches of the timelines?
I’ve never cared about any of that. The core elements (an evil force, a princess determined to protect her people, a knight to aid her) are nearly always the same. So, really, the narrative is always the same. What interests me is the gameplay possibilities—the non-authorial storytelling possibilities—within that constant framework.
There’s nothing wrong with investing in the traditional narrative of any Zelda game. I was curious when Nintendo revealed the official timeline, and I enjoy discussing where each new entry may fit within it. But it’s not what brings me back to Hyrule with every new adventure. It’s part of the fun, but it’s not the fun.
I’ve embraced every Zelda game in the spirit in which Nintendo crafted it: A gameplay-driven experiment to try things and see how they work out. Zelda operates on cycles. Every entry is a reset: One cycle (the previous game) ends, and a new cycle (the next game) begins. Sometimes those cycles coincide with Nintendo’s hardware. When Twilight Princess launched in late 2006, it was a swan song for the GameCube, the platform where its development began, and the start of a new era on the Wii. The same can be said for Breath of the Wild: It started on the Wii U and brought that hardware cycle to a close as the age of Switch began.
Earlier this week, I was directed to a video made by YouTuber and Zelda fan Point Crow in which he theorizes that the cyclical nature of every Zelda game’s development may be applicable on a broader scale beyond hardware. “What if I told you that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom isn’t just a sequel to Breath of the Wild, but also the prequel to Skyward Sword?” he says at the beginning of his video.
The loop or cycle theory of The Legend of Zelda isn’t a new theory in the fandom, but it’s new to me. And it makes sense. Point Crow theorizes that Tears of the Kingdom isn’t the end of a linear timeline. It will close a loop that connects the end to the beginning—that being 2011’s Skyward Sword, acknowledged by Nintendo as the first adventure in the chronology. Point Crow observes that the sky islands in Tears of the Kingdom were created following a great calamity; Breath of the Wild’s incarnation of Ganon is known as Calamity Ganon. In other words, the sky islands in Skyward Sword (the beginning) are leftovers from an event that marks the end of a cycle.
Nintendo of America’s Bill Trinen (Tri! As in Triforce!) said the company waited to announce the game’s subtitle because doing so would be a spoiler. However, Point Crow observes that the logo, not the subtitle, is the spoiler. Take a look at that green, scaly circle around the name. It’s an ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a dragon eating its own tail. An ouroboros represents a never-ending loop: the beginning is the end, the end is the beginning.
Remember, Nintendo’s developers don’t brainstorm a new Zelda game by thinking of chronologies or timelines. They think of what would be fun, and begin the cycle anew with each game. Their methodology has been mentioned in the games themselves. At the end of Ocarina of Time (once the first chronological entry before Nintendo decided a few other stories should precede it), Ganondorf threatens Link and Zelda that he will return and torment their descendants. At the end of Skyward Sword, Demise, a demonic entity who not coincidentally shares physical traits with Ganondorf, says that his hate “never perishes. It is born anew in a cycle with no end.”
Demise has not been seen since Skyward Sword, the first canonical story. He’s primed for a return in Tears of the Kingdom, the last entry, and a bridge looping back to the first. Tears is also the last Zelda title that will launch on the Switch, or this iteration of the hardware, anyway. Switch has been going strong for six years, but it’s almost time for a successor. Like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword before it, Tears will serve as a bridge across which we will travel from one platform to the next.
I’m sure the ouroboros theory will reveal exciting new story possibilities and break some established lore. That’s fine. An ouroboros-style loop that strings all the games together like pearls on a necklace is more exciting narratively, and in terms of gameplay.
Every Zelda game operates by devising game systems and then wrapping a story around them. In Ocarina of Time, the Master Sword is as much a key for traveling through time as it is a weapon. In Majora’s Mask, your masks grant Link abilities. A Link to the Past is a refinement of the original game’s top-down mechanics.
So far, we know Tears of the Kingdom will let us fashion our own weapons, vehicles, and Miyamoto only knows what else. Perhaps sky islands will hold shrines, giving us more reasons to leave the surface and soar among the clouds. And there are other surprises waiting that Nintendo has either teased or about which it’s remained silent, content to let us stumble across them on our own. What mechanics, for instance, will act as functions of the looping nature of the timeline (assuming the theory pans out)?
Some of gameplay surprises may break the timeline, loop or otherwise. And that’s fine. The ouroboros presents more exciting narrative and gameplay possibilities, and Nintendo has reserved the right to twist, bend, or break a chronology it never wanted in the first place.
Regardless of any larger implications, Tears of the Kingdom is a new game and an exciting new cycle. It’s also representative of how Nintendo has always fashioned Zelda games, a manifestation of its development process that will be writ large when it releases on May 12.
David Craddock posted a new article, How Tears of the Kingdom could tie together Zelda's timeline
Very cool read. Enjoyed it from start to finish.
Didn’t give a shit about this game until that last trailer and now I can’t stop thinking about it.