Understanding ‘The Legend of Zelda’

Katie Elsaesser
Games Zelda
Games Zelda Nintendo

The 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda is coming up, much to the delight and awe of fans. Whether fans are new to the series or have known it since the early NES days, almost everyone can agree: this story gets confusing! And who can blame it? After 35 years and almost 20 games, there’s plenty of room for confusion.

The timeline of The Legend of Zelda wasn’t always so meticulously picked over; but rather, enjoyed as “yet another Zelda game.” However, when Ocarina of Time introduced time travel to the series in 1998, many started to wonder if all of the games were connected. Whether or not this was originally intended by game creator Shigeru Miyamoto has been a question that’s fallen by the wayside; instead, the connected timelines have been fully embraced by both fans and Miyamoto.

The story of The Legend of Zelda was developed in the humble beginnings of Nintendo’s Famicom days but has since evolved across several platforms and generations. So let’s explore the basics of The Legend of Zelda, what mechanics made it so popular, and how this story can successfully reinvent itself every few years. Whether this is a nice refresher course, or just an introductory guide, here is all that you need to know to help understand The Legend of Zelda series.

The Basic Tenets of The Legend of Zelda

First and foremost, Zelda is the princess. If you learn nothing else, please learn this: Zelda is the princess and Link is the hero. As corny as that seems, it can not be overstated that Link is the main character in these games, despite the title.

All Zelda games start with the same premise: the world was created, evil existed, and a hero was born to save the world guided by a wise figure. (This core story doesn’t vary throughout the games, but the extenuating details do.)

As with many creation stories, there was nothing but chaos in the beginning until someone intervened—in this case, three someones. The three goddesses Din, Nayru, and Farore descended from the heavens together and created order out of the chaos, resulting in the land of Hyrule.

Din, the Goddess of Power, creates the “land and the red earth.” Din represents fire and is associated with the Goron race, who live and work in volcanic areas. Din’s emblem represents Power and is also associated with the series’ main bad guy, Ganon.

Nayru, the Goddess of Wisdom, creates law and reason throughout the land of Hyrule. According to the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time, Nayru “poured her wisdom onto the earth and gave the spirit of law to the world.” Nayru is most often associated with law and order of the castle Hyrule, and the Hyrulian people. Nayru’s emblem represents wisdom and is often associated with Princess Zelda.

Farore, the Goddess of Courage, creates life throughout Hyrule. Farore creates virtually every living thing, as well as the grassy landscapes and fruitful trees. Farore is most often associated with Link.

Din, Nayru, and Farore from Ocarina of Time

Once the three goddesses complete their respective tasks, they ascend back into the heavens, leaving the golden Triforce in their place. The Triforce, composed of three golden triangles, is a symbolic emblem for the land of Hyrule. The three golden pieces were left in the care of another goddess, Hylia. It is said that anyone who possesses the Triforce will have their deepest desires come true. Hylia could not wield the power of the Triforce, because goddesses are not allowed to wield all three powers together.

According to The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia, a person who wishes to use the Triforce for their will must have full mastery of all three attributes (courage, wisdom, and power). If the person who touches the Triforce does not have full mastery over these three virtues, then the Triforce will split into three pieces. Whoever touches the Triforce will then be left with only one piece that personifies what the person values most. This is how we get Link with the Triforce of Courage, Zelda with the Triforce of Wisdom, and Ganon with the Triforce of Power.

Once the land of Hyrule is created, the Era of Hylia comes and, with it, a fruitful and prosperous land. However, many demons also rose up from the new land, including Demise, the Demon King. Though named “Demise” in Skyward Sword, this character is basically the genesis of Ganon, or, simply put, “the bad guy.” Demise and his army of demon cronies try to overthrow Hylia, and a long hard battle is fought between the humans and the demon forces. The goddess Hylia and the humans win the battle and seal Demise away so that he cannot take over Hyrule again.


However, the seal wasn’t meant to last forever. Hylia tried to use the Triforce to end Demise once and for all, but as long as she remained a goddess, she could not use the full power of the Triforce. So Hylia renounces her status as a goddess and plans to be reborn as a human. In the meantime, a mysterious figure from the Sheikah tribe, Impa, is entrusted with protecting the sealed prisoner until the goddess is reborn.

After thousands of years, the goddess Hylia is reincarnated into (you guessed it) Princess Zelda. Another is born with the Spirit of the Hero—Link. Fun side note: Link was so named because he is literally the “link” between all of the characters. Princess Zelda was named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, because Miyamoto thought it was a cool name. Also, Impa comes from the word “Impart” because she always “imparts knowledge onto the Hero.” Impa was supposed to be the third guardian of the Triforce until Ganon interrupted and became the third figurehead.

In the meantime, the seal guarding the world against Demise begins to weaken, and the demons are eventually freed from their imprisonment. Quite a bit happens here—there’s even time travel in this part—but in order to simplify let’s say this: Demise is reborn while Link and Princess Zelda battle Demise. They defeat the Demon King, and Demise is once again sealed away, but this time within the Master Sword itself. According to Hyrule Historia, “…the destruction of Demise was not the end of the battle. It was the beginning of a curse: a never-ending cycle of reincarnation of the Demon King, whose hatred for those with the blood of the Goddess and the spirit of the Hero is everlasting.”

From here the story tends to repeat itself to a certain degree. Each game follows the same basic premise: a peaceful land is interrupted by evil, and a hero must fight to defend it while the reincarnated spirit of Hylia provides guidance. Each game has its own take on the legend and though the details vary vastly, the main points of the story remain the same. This is how most of the games follow the same familiar setup but are also able to vary in their style.

With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and the companion book Hyrule Historia, Miyamoto and the team brought the story back to its original roots and hoped to clarify why the games are so different but the plot is essentially the same. According to Miyamoto, “Even though Ganon is defeated time and time again, he is evil incarnate and will come back time and time again, with a vengeance. Each time when the world is blanketed in evil, a young boy and girl will be born. Link’s adventures will go on for as long as you continue to love his world. With new hardware will come new games in this series, and I emphatically ask you to please give them a shot.”

Though the stories are familiar, the gameplay and content always change as consoles become more advanced. Even though there are multiple timelines and varying Links and Zeldas, there may be a reason for the familiarity in the stories: the Rule of Threes.

The Rule of Threes

When getting into The Legend of Zelda, gamers will not be able to escape the most pervasive theme: the Rule of Threes. Whether it be through characters or gameplay, The Legend of Zelda definitely has an obsession with the number three. In the lore, there are three goddesses who created the land of Hyrule. Din, Nayru, and Farore work together and bring the land, law, and life to the world.

Those three goddesses leave behind a Triforce or three golden triangles. Each represents a virtue of the goddesses; power, courage, and wisdom. Those three triangles become embedded in our three main characters – Ganon, Link, and Zelda, who also take up the symbolism of each virtue. Only when those three virtues are together are they the most powerful.

Even the characters themselves follow the Rule of Threes. Consider Link, for instance. There are several examples of this in each game, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the Ocarina of Time. In his first phase, Link is an unaware child in Kokiri Forest. In his second phase, Link discovers he is actually a Hylian. In his third phase, he is transformed into an adult, finally becoming the Hero of Time. Ganondorf also follows suit in the rule of threes; he starts as Ganondorf the thief, then Ganondorf the usurping king, and, finally, as Ganon the hideous pig-beast-monster.

Three-Tier Battle Pattern

Each of the game’s boss battles also has three phases. This set The Legend of Zelda apart from its contemporaries. Miyamoto’s theory was that the player should advance as the game did. He championed the three-tier battle pattern, designed to help players acclimate to the increasing difficulty and learn the game more naturally. The pattern boils down to Learn, Explore, and Advance.

Step 1 (Learn): Introduce an enemy or ability in a limited environment.

Step 2 (Explore): Expand the environment. This allows for the player to really explore and showcase their ability in new ways.

Step 3 (Advance): Require the gamer to use the new ability or what they’ve learned in the boss battles to progress to the next challenge.

Timelines and Eras

Before the release of the Hyrule Historia, fans developed intricate theories about the Zelda timeline, and honestly, things got pretty confusing. When Hyrule Historia was released, fans finally had a confirmed timeline.

Skyward Sword was established as the definitive first game of the series, even though it was released in 2011. (It’s worth noting at this point that the game release order and the timeline do not coincide. For instance, even though 1986’s The Legend of Zelda was the first game released, it is technically one of the last stories in one branch of the timeline. Stay with me, you’ve come this far.)

After the events of Skyward Sword, we enter the Era of the Goddess Hylia and the Sky Era. For the most part, the story remains constant and on a singular timeline until Ocarina of Time introduces time travel into the series.

Not only was Ocarina of Time groundbreaking as a game (it was among the first “open-ish” worlds and had 3D gameplay), but it also broke the mold for the Zelda timeline. This is when the timeline enters the Era of the Hero of Time, as Link can travel freely between his adult and childhood self. From here the story splits depending on whether or not Link defeats Ganon.

If Link is defeated in Ocarina, then we enter The Decline of Hyrule and the Last Hero. This brings us to games like A Link to the Past, the two Oracle games, Link’s Awakening, The Legend of Zelda, and The Adventure of Link.

If Link is triumphant in Ocarina, then the timeline splits into two sections again. One branch follows the Child Era (if Link resumes his story as a young Link) or the Adult Era (if Link disappears into the future and remains an adult).

In the Child Era, Link travels back to his original younger self to tell Princess Zelda about Ganondorf and the Sacred Realm remains protected from Ganondorf’s influence. From here we get the games Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, and Four Swords Adventures.

In the Adult Era, Link travels into the future and remains as his adult self. Ganon is successfully sealed away, much like Demise, but will inevitably be reborn again, either as Ganondorf or as another evil being (aka King Malladus). This is when we get the games Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks.

Many have asked where the latest installments to the series fit into the timeline. Although it hasn’t been officially announced, Nintendo has said that Breath of the Wild is at the end of the timeline. Which timeline, you may ask? Well, unfortunately, that remains unclear. It has also been said that the game isn’t connected to any of the previous timelines at all, and, instead, creates its own. However, in the DLC, Link can acquire Midna’s helmet, leaving fans wondering whether it was connected to the Twilight Princess timeline, wrapping up the Child Era.

Ultimately, the timeline is for fun. It has never been officially stated, but The Legend of Zelda’s timeline wasn’t planned from the start. Miyamoto didn’t have a grand story designed before the original game was released in 1986. Rather, it was something fun for fans that was revised and reworked after many games had already been released. There are several games not included in the official timeline (e.g. Link’s Crossbow Training) as they have nothing to do with the main plot. The same could arguably be said for the DLC.

The timeline may connect some of the classic games in theory; really, it’s the gameplay and the battle systems that have kept the series alive and thriving. The stories are beautifully told, and the timeline shouldn’t take away from that fact. Yes, the story is, by definition, recycled, anyone familiar with the concept of “the hero’s journey” knows that Link’s adventure isn’t a unique one. Link may be reincarnated every thousand years or so, but the plot remains the same for Link as it does for Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. It will be exciting to see what Miyamoto and Nintendo have planned for the next generation of Zelda games, and how the upcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild will factor into the overall story.

Katie Elsaesser
Katie is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Will do almost anything for pizza. Almost.