The Legend of Zelda and the Tragedy of Continuity

Sure, A Link Between Worlds fits into the Zelda timeline... but is that really a good thing?

Preview by Jeremy Parish, .

When Bob Mackey previewed The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds recently, he mentioned that "its story fits neatly into the Zelda timeline," with the caveat that only "folks who personally annotated [their] copies of Hyrule Historia" will actually care.

I get where he's coming from with that remark; having only skimmed through my copy of the book, I have a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm for the continuity of Zelda. I mean, have you actually read up on the series' storyline? After a couple of decades of treating each game as a sort of Joseph Campbell-like "hero of a thousand faces" tale, Nintendo decided to take every Zelda game to date (except the CDi ones and, oddly enough, Link's Crossbow Training) and shove them into a timeline. Granted, Zelda plots have featured connections since the very first sequel. But many of them seemingly contradict one another, so instead of doing the sensible thing and simply hand-waving it all, Nintendo instead decided that the Zelda timeline splits into three separate time lines that diverge at Ocarina of Time. Time travel stories always leave things in a mess, but here we have a story caretaker actually embracing the paradoxes that go hand-in-hand with it rather than dancing around it delicately.

Since A Link Between Worlds serves as a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, it's set in the "Link sucks" branch of continuity. Nintendo decided that Ocarina's time paradox left three possible outcomes, one of which makes you wonder why you played Ocarina of Time at all. In this worst possible outcome, Link loses to Ganondorf, but the Seven Sages defeat him anyway by sealing him and the Triforce into the Golden Land. The Golden Land becomes the Dark World, though Hyrule Historia notes that another name for the Dark World is "the Underworld," which makes it sound like the Nintendo folks who helped put together the book were already thinking ahead to A Link Between Worlds and its secondary realm of "Lorule," the groan-worthily named world beneath Hyrule in that upcoming adventure.

The pun is the lo-est form of humor. Lo-hanging fruit, if you will.

Anyway, the failure plot line led to A Link to the Past, in which the Golden Land had become a hidden universe whose twisted atmosphere could transform would-be heroes into pink bunnies. And now that leads to A Link Between Worlds, which is set in the same Hyrule... though the bunny this time around is a weird masked merchant who takes up residence in Link's cottage. Somehow the hidden kingdom of Lorule plays a part as well, though we can safely assume that A Link Between Worlds takes place before the next games in the "Link's failure" timeline (Oracles of Ages and Oracle of Seasons) and that Lorule isn't the same as Oracle of Ages' subterranean kingdom of Holodrum. Probably.

But does it matter where exactly A Link Between Worlds falls in the Zelda continuity? Aside from its very obvious relationship to A Link to the Past, I have trouble imagining its free-form dungeon forays and new two-dimensional gameplay gimmick (which allows Link to transform into a drawing and sidle along walls) would be materially different regardless of what its relationship to Twilight Princess or The Wind Waker was. If anything, pinning down a fixed timeline only complicates things. Once upon a time, The Legend of Zelda was content to be a series of games in which a kid clad in green saved a princess named Zelda (usually), and aside from a handful of direct sequels none of them really bore any relationship to one another. You'd see nods from time to time, but as vague hints they were open to interpretation and left the story open for the games' creators to approach as they saw fit.

But now that everything's all pinned down, every new Zelda game has to fit into that framework, and its place in the series' lore will inevitably be picked apart and analyzed by critical fans. In Zelda, as in so many other franchises, the concept of continuity threatens to undermine the integrity of individual stories. We see it all the time in other games.

And even with all the fuss over continuity, Nintendo still cheated with its "origin story," setting it in a world already populated with ancient technology.

Consider, for example, the Metal Gear series, which wears its mythology like a boulder around its neck. By the time Hideo Kojima got to Metal Gear Solid 4 -- actually the sixth game in the series -- the plotline had grown so baroque that most of MGS4's "resolutions" to the ongoing narrative amounted to vague rationalizations and a testy explanation that "nanomachines did it." Since then, Metal Gear "sequels" have trekked backward in time to fill in gaps that don't really demand explanation, all the while building up details that make the earliest games in the series feel out of place. To Kojima's credit, he's basically said, "Hey, make of all this what you will," but even that feels like a bit of a cop-out in light of the franchise's extensive focus on (and expectation of fan investment in) its running storyline.

Honestly, continuity comes around to undermine practically any long-running game franchise. The Castlevania series more or less explored its timeline as far as it could, which is a major reason the Lords of Shadow series explores an alternate reality. The Mega Man series actually had a rather involved plotline, which proved to be remarkably silly if you actually took the time to read it. Crystal Dynamics has rebooted Tomb Raider twice in the past decade in order to clear out the clutter. At some point, a franchise gets to a point that its abandonment is a mercy, if only to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its accumulated narrative cruft. Only Mario (and to a lesser degree, Sonic) seem to have avoided this trap, which they've accomplished by reveling in the superficiality of their universes.

20 years of continuity is enough to drive a noble warrior of God to become the sworn enemy of all that lives.

Certainly games don't have a monopoly on this phenomenon; you can see it in any form of serialized fiction. Remember Lost? The writers had fun building up all those cool mysteries, but eventually they had to come up with explanations for the insanity... few of which lived up to viewer expectations. New Metal Gear leading man Kiefer Sutherland knows the problem well, having starred in the much-decried final seasons of 24. The Star Trek series succumbed in part to the need to maintain consistency within a universe where the stakes and technology constantly escalated, undermining the drama of all but the most outlandish crisis... and when the franchise went back in time to explore a more humble era with the Enterprise series, fans complained about every trivial inconsistency with established lore.

And then there are comic books, the king of this tragic kingdom. In comics, individual writers try to put their own fingerprints on long-running brands, only to have their successors go to great lengths to erase all their efforts. Consider Grant Morrison's run with The New X-Men, in which he took a well-liked original character named Xorn and revealed he had been the X-Men's arch-nemesis Magneto in disguise all along. Magneto ended up dead at the end of Morrison's run, so naturally a later writer came in and revealed Magneto was still alive. The explanation? Magneto wasn't actually posing as Xorn -- rather, Xorn was posing as Magneto posing as Xorn (according to Xorn's twin brother). And we all became a little stupider for having witnessed the whole spectacle. (If you want a good laugh sometime, ask someone to explain Jean Grey's life in 100 words or less.)

Xorn puzzles over comic book continuity, an impossible task even for a mutant with a star for a brain.

Some comic properties have been running for 70 years, with heroes never aging. Comic publishers now feel the need to hit "reset" on their extensive interlocked universes every decade or so, because their stories have begun to implode. If DC didn't do some sort of Crisis every now and then, we'd have a Batman who reads like Christian Bale's version yet who was meant to be the same campy Silver Age Batman who made the '60s TV series look like an exercise in serious-minded restraint by comparison. Characters like The Punisher and the cast of G.I. Joe originally had backstories as Vietnam vets, which made perfect sense in the 1980s. In 2013, however, that would put most of those characters in their 60s or 70s. Luckily for Frank Castle, America is pretty good at maintaining a perpetual state of warfare, so his writers have plenty of choices for retooling him to be a younger character -- but these sort of blasé retoolings can still undo a character's long-term development.

In short, stories have a natural shelf life and need both a beginning and an ending. They cease to be interesting or meaningful once they violate that basic rule of writing. By forcing Zelda's disconnected plots into a larger tapestry, Nintendo puts the series at risk of running itself aground. And if your response to that concern is, "So what? As long as the games are fun, I don't care about the story" -- well, that's the point.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Great article! Thanks for pointing out that Xorn thing, I had no idea. I have to say that as ridiculous as the Zelda timeline has become, there's still nothing quite at that level of absurdity. It's amazing what lengths American comics writers will do to protect the dreaded status quo.
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  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #2 UnskippableCutscene 4 years ago
    I almost feel like a nod to Doctor Who is almost necessary in an article like this, as that show has tried to span decades and keep some sort of continuity by using it's time-travel gimmick to basically shed any continuity plotholes: it's ALL in continuity, unless someone says something that breaks with old continuity, in which case the new is canon and the old disappeared due to time traveling mojo.

    I was not an Ocarina of Time fan, but I thought it was interesting that it tried to give you a childish Link who wouldn't look out of place compared to the avatar of the first game or Link To The Past, along with a teenaged link who looked more like the guy from Zelda II. Along the way, they also gave Ganon two forms because why not? But somehow, Ganondorf became a recurring thing and sort of the series' prime antagonist, with the giant beast-thing that I remember being kicked back to some Berzerk Form wizardry.

    Nintendo can't even be bothered to hire voice-actors to read the dialogue in these games, supposedly because us very old people who have been reading the dialogue for such a long time would be betrayed. I remember the mystique about the connections between games and what it could all mean, but trying to spill it all out has ruined the plot's simplicity. So if Nintendo wants me to take it seriously, they could go ahead and hire voice actors to do dramatic readings instead of hew to the old (S)NES tradition of silent protagonist and text boxes.Edited November 2013 by UnskippableCutscene
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  • Avatar for Makgameadv #3 Makgameadv 4 years ago
    The Zelda timeline was easy to follow when there were a few games. Even when A Link to the Past was previewed with a new Link and Zelda, I really didn't like that idea at the time. I wanted the story of the characters to continue since I followed the cartoons too, not start over again.

    I don't like the idea that Link fails, but it makes sense because in the backstory of A Link to the Past there wasn't a hero to wield the Master Sword. (Though OoT already made sense until they branched new games off of it)

    Reusing the town names from Zelda 2 for people during OoT was meant to give significance to them as if the story of the Imprisoning War was passed down through Hyrule's history according to the staff.

    Castlevania went through a similar clean up of the timeline several years ago, and Igarashi mentions on the Castlevania Chronicles disc that Symphony of the Night was where they started actually tying them together. I think there was confusion in the U.S. because of translation with the Game Boy games taking place before Castlevania 3 (Trevor was the first to fight Dracula in the Japanese version).

    In Zelda's case, I don't think a timeline should restrict new games at all. Zelda 2 seemed to have a strong backstory with the Triforce and a "Legend of Zelda" that has a princess Zelda that was put to sleep a long time ago, but all they had to do to get by those events was to make numerous prequels starting with A Link to the Past.

    I'm just glad Hyrule Historia finally laid the timeline out in print out of respect for the series.

    Also, A Link Between Worlds would take place after Oracle of Seasons/Ages and Link's Awakening (though it shouldn't have much to do with LA since its not in Hyrule to Aonuma).
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  • Avatar for Nghsk #4 Nghsk 4 years ago
    What about the various romance timelines that sprawl from the three-way love machine that was Saria, Malon, and Ruto? Link coping with being in a Lolita-esque situation, the mundane life of a farmer, or a life of lobster husbandry and a bickering wife? Missed opportunities.
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  • Avatar for docexe #5 docexe 4 years ago
    IIRC, the potential problems with continuity and needing every game to fit into it was the justification that Aonuma and Miyamoto gave for many years about why they didn’t want to reveal an official timeline. They also feared that the focus of the game designers would shift from introducing new gameplay mechanics in every new game to try to fit the holes of the timeline.

    But in any case, I don’t think the timeline reveal will cause that many troubles going forward, given Nintendo’s philosophy of prioritizing gameplay over story. It should probably be pointed out as well that Aonuma has stated the timeline to be flexible, meaning is not necessarily set in stone.

    In any case, a few years ago I would probably have gone ballistic over Zelda’s adherence (or lack of it) to continuity. But nowadays that I’m older and wiser, that I understand better the process behind the creation of games and other forms of fiction, and that I have experienced too many times the kind of headaches excess of continuity (or lack of respect for it) can bring, I prefer to take the issue in stride.
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  • Avatar for VegaTT #6 VegaTT 4 years ago
    This reminds me of a writing exercise in elementary school in which each student wrote a sentence in a story and passed it onto the next person. We mainly ended up intentionally contradicting each other.
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  • Avatar for Merus #7 Merus 4 years ago
    One counter-argument: the Discworld series has pretty elaborate continuity that hasn't hampered its ability to tell new stories. Terry Pratchett was fearful that nailing down some of the details of the world by allowing official maps to be created would lead to being hamstrung by it; instead, it's allowed for richer stories that can draw on those existing details to colour in the world.

    Part of it is that the setting is a city, so bringing in new characters and having the world work under different rules is a natural process. Part of it is that Pratchett's books are humourous and happen in more or less chronological order, so canon can be freely discarded if it's dumb and there's a strong emphasis on self contained stories. Part of it is that he is a good writer.Edited November 2013 by Merus
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  • Avatar for Thusian #8 Thusian 4 years ago
    I do fall into that so what so on as the gameplay remains fun camp. That being said, learning about the timeline and playing Skyward Sword did give me a few enjoyable moments.

    Spoilers if you care

    The idea that they are caught in a death and rebirth cycle was always there, but Gannondorf being the curse of a slain demon is pretty interesting when you consider that, as far as I can tell the only reason Link ended up as the Hero and not anyone else in Skyloft was because the Goddess now in human form as Zelda fell in love with him. That love has cursed him to be a part of the cycle over and over again. Also it paints Zelda in a very different light. While still a damsel in distress she is also the architect of everything. She created the sword, chose link and set everything in motion.

    How that plays out in the subsequent timeline, well like I said I don't worry about it so much, its just neat to be able to think about it. I mean that's what makes us geeks right? We get so attached to the things we love we dissect them think about them to add to our enjoyment even if for most its unnecessary.

    My point being if someone loves looking at the timeline and thinking about where the new piece fits and if Nintendo codifying part of it makes it possible for them to have some fixed points to attach to. I don't see much harm.

    Although if I remember correctly the Historia has a get out of jail disclaimer that the details could be changed later. So its less like the bible and more like a Facebook user agreement. So hey we could throw the whole thing out tomorrow and for someone that would be fun.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Merus I agree. But, the counter to your counter is that Discworld has been the work of a single man over several decades, not a corporate production franchised out to dozens or even hundreds of people.

    Anyway, really thoughtful responses, everyone! Thanks for taking the time to read and reply in such depth.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #10 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I don't think there is a problem per se with the series having an Official Continuity, as the concept by itself isn't inherently evil. Continuity is just another tool you can use when telling a story and when used well you can create some genuine good moments.

    For example, I really like Wind Waker's ties to Ocarina of Time. That moment when you first visit the frozen Hyrule Castle doesn't require you have have played another Zelda game to get the impact, but if you have it does enhance the experience.

    The problem is for the most part Nintendo is really bad at it. I like Twilight Princess, but a lot of its continuity nods seem a bit superfluous. Yeah it's cool to finally get to thaw out Zora's domain or have an actual Temple of Light dungeon, but it's not like they're the exact same places as Ocarina. It's a cool nod for fans, but it doesn't really mean anything for new people.

    So getting back to the idea of an Official Continuity, I can see it being useful tool for telling new Zelda stories. However, I agree with you that is could just as easily end up becoming this road map for the series with no room for deviation and no final destination. Continuity should serve a story, not strangle it.
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 4 years ago
    @DiscordInc "Continuity should serve a story, not strangle it."

    I agree with this. The cool thing about continuity is that it helps building certain plot lines and plot points to give them more meaning and impact as part of a larger tapestry.

    But continuity can just as easily become a double edged sword and has to be balanced properly. Delve too much into it and the story can become impenetrable or incomprehensible except for the most diehard fans. Disregard it completely and not only the hardcore fans will notice, the impact and character development you are attempting might be lost or hampered, and the story might end full of plot holes.

    The fact that most long running franchises are tended not by one but by multiple people, each with a different approach and perspective on continuity and the “canon”, also muddles things. This is the main reason why American comic books are in such state of disarray nowadays.

    But as I see it, as long as the Zelda team keeps the spirit of Miyamoto’s design in mind (paraphrasing “we first think about the gameplay mechanics, then build the world and story around them”), the series might not be in so much risk of being bogged down by continuity.
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  • Avatar for jxnholt #12 jxnholt 4 years ago
    I think the problem is character continuity, not story continuity. Legend of Zelda could greatly benefit from taking a page from Fire Emblem and having different characters who fill the same archetypes.

    The hero could have a different name (which the player could still change to whatever they wished), different look, different hair style and color, different clothes (and/or prominent clothing color!), and (GASP!) different gender!

    I actually think Aonuma laid the foundation for this with Skyward Sword since we learned that (SPOILERS)

    The true evil is Demise who in most games possesses/empowers Gannon. Demise can always be the bad guy, and that's fine, but now someone other than Gannon could be the antagonist/vessel of Demise in future games.

    So the main characters can still be linked (bloodline of the Goddess, re-incarnation of the hero, vessel of Demise), but be free to have their own look, personality, and quirks.

    Case in point, Tetra was the best Zelda so far.
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  • Avatar for Merus #13 Merus 4 years ago
    @lonecow I actually started noticing that the Zelda-heavy games tended to be much gentler on combat and more puzzle and structure focused, and the games where Link was a developed character had a lot of devices and combat scenarios, and figured they had room to say 'well, we've got a courage timeline and a wisdom timeline! and here's the power timeline!', and then found out they've already split the timeline three ways...

    So yeah basically I think this has occurred to a few people and almost certainly one of those people works at Nintendo.

    And Link to the Past is in the power timeline, and once again you can go to dungeons out of order...
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #14 benjaminlu86 4 years ago
    The underworld in Oracle of *Seasons* (which takes place in Holodrum) is called Subrosia. GOD, Jeremy Parish, get it right! /sarcasm
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