Today I would like to offer a service to the befuddled casual Zelda fans out there, the ones who are excited to play Breath of the Wild but wonder if they’ll need to be caught up on the story that threads throughout the whole of the series to truly appreciate this new installment in one of gaming’s longest-running franchises. Here’s the short answer to that question: no, of course you won’t, don’t be ridiculous. Breath of the Wild is a Nintendo game, where story always takes a backseat to gameplay. Besides, the long-form “story” that’s told throughout the Zelda franchise is a befuddling mess, and the full series timeline is an afterthought of retconning that Nintendo performed as fan service when they released Skyward Sword for the Wii.
So I’ve no interest in trying to dissect how the Zelda timeline fits together. What I DO have interest in, is the series mythology. Remember: it’s the LEGEND of Zelda. Legends change, passed down from generation to generation, always retaining a few key elements that define them. You want to prepare yourself for the story of Breath of the Wild? Ignore the timeline. Embrace the legend. Learn the mythology.
In order to do that, you need to understand: in the Legend of Zelda franchise, there two types of games. The first type are the ones that deal with the series’ chief mythos, the generations-spanning tale of a struggle for balance and dominance between the Hylian Princess Zelda, the thief Ganondorf, and the hero Link, who are, respectively, the personifications of Wisdom, Power, and Courage. These are the three virtues most favored by the goddesses who created Zelda‘s magical kingdom of Hyrule, and they are the three virtues symbolized in the Triforce, the golden relic (and series MacGuffin) that serves as both trophy and wish-granting genie to whosoever should claim it as a prize. Many of the titles in the franchise focus narratively on the elements of this established mythology.
The other titles in the franchise are about magical dream islands, wind sorcerers, choo-choo trains, a sword that creates three clones of whoever wields it, the worst lunar eclipse ever, etc., etc.
Those games are all well and good… and in many cases, very good. For today’s purposes, though, we shall pretend they do not exist. Presented instead, for your consideration, is a list of the Zelda games one should look to in order to get a firm grasp on the franchise’s mythology as we head into Breath of the Wild.
Skyward Sword – This is the game were Nintendo seemed to throw their hands up in the air and say, “All right, we give up, there’s a Zelda timeline. Are you guys happy now?” Well, no, of course not; when are gamers ever happy? Still, in Skyward Sword Nintendo created a game that was the definitive, no-bones-about it origin story of the entire Zelda legend. It starred the first ever Link and Zelda instead of one of the many reincarnated versions of the pair that populate the other games in the franchise, it presented the origin of the Master Sword, it introduced players to the dark energy that will someday empower Ganondorf, it depicted the first steps of the future Hylians out of the clouds and onto the surface of what would soon become their magical kingdom, and… most importantly… it served as the first in-franchise appearance of the Triforce. Remember, we are attempting to catalog the “mythology” games in the Zelda franchise, and in order to determine whether or not a particular game is a mythology game we need only ask one simple question: does the Triforce play a key role? If the answer is yes: mythology. If the answer is no: not mythology. Skyward Sword acts as an origin story for all of the most important elements of the Zelda franchise, including the Triforce. Therefore: mythology.
Ocarina of Time – Ocarina of Time is easily the second most important game in the Zelda mythology. As the first released of the 3D Zelda games, it really takes its time unpacking the story of the three goddesses who created Hyrule and the Triforce, and it introduces the franchise’s primary antagonist, the Gerudo thief Ganondorf (who at some point further on down the road will turn into a pig demon named Ganon, naturally.) When Ocarina was initially released, it was also the first time players were really introduced to the trifecta of conflict that defines the Legend of Zelda franchise; namely, Princess Zelda and Link vs. Ganondorf. Yes, yes, our post-truth world likes to dump on Zelda games because of the sexist “save the princess!” motif. I’d like to present two counterpoints to that: first, fairy tales and folklore narrative structure are centuries old. They have always resonated with audiences and there will always be a place for them. There is a way to pay homage to these traditions of the past while still providing a viewpoint for the modern world, though… which, starting with Ocarina of Time, the Zelda franchise does. Link is the player-controlled protagonist of every game, it’s true. But from Ocarina forward, Zelda is presented as his equal in every way, if not his better. In most of her incarnations she is the more powerful of the pair, not to mention (as bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom) the smarter. Zelda and Link teaming up to take on Ganondorf, rather than a knight saving a damsel in distress, is an important part of The Legend of Zelda‘s mythology, and while chronologically on the franchise timeline that dichotomy first occurs in Skyward Sword, as an aspect of series development it began in Ocarina of Time.
A Link to the Past – Ocarina of Time may have fleshed out the Zelda mythology, but A Link to the Past first suggested it. Yes, The Legend of Zelda and Zelda 2 both technically dealt with the Triforce, but they both had little to no actual story aside from, “Get the Triforce and save the princess. Aaaaand… GO!” A Link to the Past opens with an ancient history lesson about Hyrule and the Triforce. This revealed history more or less fits as a rough outline for the events in Ocarina of Time, which would be released on the Nintendo 64 seven years later. Although the specifics of the official Zelda timeline (which, true story, branches into three alternate realities after the events of Ocarina of Time) are muddy and confusing, and despite the fact that it is the earlier of the two games, A Link to the Past can be played as almost a direct sequel to Ocarina, as the ending of Ocarina of Time leads very neatly into the opening of A Link to the Past.
A Link Between Worlds – And then you can play the game that really WAS designed as a direct sequel. Truthfully, A Link Between Worlds began life as a remake of A Link to the Past, not as the sequel it eventually became, but at some point in development Nintendo said, “Eff it; let’s just make it a new game.” A Link Between World feels like a natural conclusion to a trilogy that also includes Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, and repeats many of the themes of its two predecessors, such as Link’s travels back and forth between Hyrule and a corrupt alternate Hyrule, and the attempts of many of the game’s characters to break the Triforce out of the so-called Sacred Realm or Golden Land (a pocket dimension just to the left of Hyrule, sealed shut by the Master Sword, in which the Triforce is held.) It also fleshes out the lore of the Dark World first introduced in A Link to the Past, giving it a name (Lorule) and it’s own version of the Triforce legend… and if left alone, A Link Between World‘s ending could arguably bring an end to the entire franchise’s timeline. But it won’t be left alone, because people like these games, and so the timeline lurches on, unwieldy beast that it is. Huzzah!
The Legend of Zelda & Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link – I mentioned these earlier. The first two Zelda games laid the groundwork upon which the entirety of the franchise mythology has been built. Link, Zelda, Ganon, Hyrule, and the Triforces of Wisdom and Power, and then in Zelda 2, Courage: all are present, but only on a very basic level. Link exists only as a player avatar, Princess Zelda and the Triforce exist only as goals to attain, Hyrule only exists as an arena within which the game is played, and Ganon only exists so there is an enemy to defeat. So while Zelda 1 and Zelda 2 act as the birthplace for many of the most important elements of the franchise mythology, neither game does very much to grow the mythology beyond, “Here’s what this series is going to be about.” Which is, admittedly, a pretty important thing.
Twilight Princess – Twilight Princess is an odd bird. It tells a fairly self-contained story, and is a fairly traditional Zelda-mythology tale, but it introduces a few new, one-time players into the mix in the impish Midna and the Twilight King, Zant, both residents of the other-dimensional Twilight. Truthfully, when you take a step back you realize that the rough story of Twilight Princess unfolds in a fashion very similar to the story in A Link to the Past (done up in the graphical style of a Resident Evil game, of all things.) This is how legends work, truth told: similar stories told over and over, with new flavors added for a new audience’s enjoyment. I’m going to share a secret with you, gentle reader: human beings claim to want brand new stories told to them, but that’s a lie. What we as a species prefer are the same stories told to us in new ways. Twilight Princess is, at its core, a classic Zelda tale of light against dark and the trifecta of the Triforce, but it has been given a coat of fright make-up and the three-dimensional treatment. Also, you get to play as a wolf, so that’s fun.
The Wind Waker – The Wind Waker might be the most unique of the Zelda mythology tales, and it’s not because of the cel-shaded graphics… or at least, not entirely. The sailing element is the big difference, of course, and traversing across an ocean-bound island kingdom is certainly going to lend itself to a different sort of story than padding across a traditional land-locked Hyrule. In Wind Waker, though, the “other” world is Hyrule itself, now a preserved ghost kingdom hidden at the bottom of the ocean. The stained glass windows and statues littered throughout the abandoned Hyrule castle tell the story of Ocarina of Time, so if Ocarina, Link to the Past, and Link Between Worlds function as a trilogy, The Wind Waker serves as a reboot of the Zelda mythology… or perhaps it’s the cherry on top. By the very end of The Wind Waker, the book has been closed on the land of Hyrule, and Wind Waker leads into two direct sequels of its own, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, two games that continue the story of The Wind Waker while establishing the mythology of NEW Hyrule, with nary a Ganondorf or Triforce to be found.
In closing… The mythology of The Legend of Zelda is bookended nicely by Skyward Sword, where Hyrule begins, and The Wind Waker, where Hyrule ends. True, this line of thinking runs contrary to the three-pronged Zelda timeline Nintendo has established, but that hardly matters. Legends exist to be retold, bent, and twisted, the narrative loose so long as the mythos remains, relatively speaking. The tapestry of Hylian mythology is weaved through this small handful of game, which in a series of eighteen titles numbers only eight. Breath of the Wild will likely be the ninth, so if you want to get yourself ready for mighty number nine, focus on Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds, and The Wind Waker (Zelda 1 and Zelda 2 are optional.) That’s it and that’s all… or, if you like, you can play the game where Link has to collect magical musical instruments to learn how to play “The Ballad of the Windfish” so he can crack the giant egg that sits atop Koholint Island.
You know what? For the time being, stick to the mythology.