First, let's look at the elephant in the room: the timeline included in Hyrule Historia. For years before this databook was released, fans had been speculating as to what Zelda game took place where. In an old interview with former series director Shigeru Miyamoto, and present series director Eiji Aonuma, it was clarified that Wind Waker took place in the "adult timeline."
|Seeing as how he no longer existed in this timeline, he could not.|
From the Summer 2002 Gamepro interview:
Q: Where does The Wind Waker fit into the overall Zelda series timeline?
Aonuma: You can think of this game as taking place over a hundred years after Ocarina of Time. You can tell this from the opening story, and there are references to things from Ocarina located throughout the game as well.
Miyamoto: Well, wait, which point does the hundred years start from?
Aonuma: From the end.
Miyamoto: No, I mean, as a child or as a...
Aonuma: Oh, right, let me elaborate on that. Ocarina of Time basically has two endings of sorts; one has Link as a child and the other has him as an adult. This game, The Wind Waker, takes place a hundred years after the adult Link defeats Ganon at the end of Ocarina.
Miyamoto: This is pretty confusing for us, too. (laughs) So be careful.
This was the first time the series had been explicitly stated to have at least two timelines, both of which were created at the end of Ocarina of Time. It's not a stretch to accept that the ending of OoT created two timelines, as the adult Link was sent back to his own age and left Hyrule without The Hero of Time or his descendants to save it. This would make one timeline where the events of OoT had taken place and Link had defeated Ganon, and another where Ganon was stopped by Link and Zelda as children. This had been speculated since the earliest days of Zelda story discussion.
Later, in 2007, an interview with Aonuma that was published on nindori.com concerning Twilight Princess' placement on the timeline added fuel to the fire:
–When does Twilight Princess take place?
Aonuma: In the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years later.
–And the Wind Waker?
Aonuma: The Wind Waker is parallel. In Ocarina of Time, Link flew seven years in time, he beat Ganon and went back to being a kid, remember? Twilight Princess takes place in the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years after the peace returned to kid Link’s time. In the last scene of Ocarina of Time, kids Link and Zelda have a little talk, and as a consequence of that talk, their relationship with Ganon takes a whole new direction. In the middle of this game [Twilight Princess], there's a scene showing Ganon's execution. It was decided that Ganon be executed because he'd do something outrageous if they left him be. That scene takes place several years after Ocarina of Time. Ganon was sent to another world and now he wants to obtain the power...
|After Adult Link is sent back to his child body, Ganondorf is stopped before he can carry out his plans.|
It was not until the 2011 release of the Hyrule Historia databook that each game in the series was given a specific place on the timeline. However, there was one major, controversial caveat added that nobody saw coming: a third timeline split from the end of Ocarina of Time, where Link fails to defeat Ganondorf. Ganondorf then takes over the Sacred Realm, and leads to the events of The Imprisoning War mentioned in A Link to the Past. This bold move on Nintendo's part was an attempt to reconcile the earlier Zelda games with the post-Ocarina games of the more modern era. As the "Link fails" event was never seen or hinted at before outside of a typical game over screen, the hypothetical nature of this timeline split upset quite a few people.
|The timeline from Hyrule Historia.|
However, I believe that the timeline has a solid place in the series and its lore, and is not quite as contrived as people often make it out to be.
Continuity and story has never been the number one priority in a Zelda game. This is something we can all agree on. Zelda is, first and foremost, an adventure/exploration game, one that garners most of its appeal through solving creative puzzles and fighting monsters in dungeons. But this isn't the entire picture: Hyrule and its offshoots are fascinating settings even if the story isn't the main appeal. Majora's Mask had the least amount of story in a 3D Zelda game, and still managed to be appealing based on its atmosphere alone. Zelda Universe has an enlightening article on why the game's location of Termina is a great setting that thrives on organic storytelling, along with a quote from Miyamoto himself on what he wanted the player to experience while playing the game:
Shigeru Miyamoto once stated in a Nintendo Power interview that the Zelda team’s primary goal for Majora’s Mask was to “present something which is very mysterious”. The game invites the player to act as a detective, to investigate the secrets and troubles of the people of Termina, and of Termina itself, and to heal them in the end. Though the central story of a troubled imp using a cursed mask to try to cause the moon to crash into Termina may seem fairly straightforward, many subtle details in the game add layers of darkness and complexity to this tale.
Lore goes beyond simple storytelling, and Zelda games do a pretty good job at creating a universe with a fairly entertaining history. Many times the appeal of this universe isn't from the sparsely told story segments scattered throughout the games, but rather in the natural immersion felt by exploring its world and the various towns and ruins within it.
It's true that it seems like, at one point, most games were relatively self contained, but one must remember that the design ethos has been constantly changing since the series first came into being. Zelda II is a straight sequel to Zelda I, and Link to the Past is a straight prequel to Zelda I. Link's Awakening is the same Link as the Link to the Past Link. The games share explicit connections with each other, such as Kakariko Village in Link to the Past being located in the same spot as the mass graveyard in the original Legend of Zelda, and the lush version of The Lost Woods in A Link to the Past sharing a general location with the burnt up old trees in The Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time was originally intended as the origin story of The Imprisoning War mentioned in Link to the Past.
It's the little details like this that add an enjoyable flavor to the experience, and prove that the series has held continuity as something to be worth implementing from the series' earliest days, even if some compromises have had to be made to keep this continuity.
It wasn't until after Ocarina that its sequels seemed to abandon their sense of a concrete continuity and go for a more self contained approach, even if they did use Ocarina's history as a backdrop. Eventually, the fans spoke out, Nintendo released a timeline, and Skyward Sword seems to again have a definitive place in series lore, often going out of its way to set up future events.
I would say the only truly self contained entries are the Oracle games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, and The Minish Cap. Even then, Minish Cap uses its premise to tell an origin story for Four Swords, of all things.
Gaffer Spyder_Monkey makes the claim that:
Sure, some Zelda games might have fascinating settings and plots, but it's all a wrapper for the exploration and dungeons which have been the core of the series since game one. Stories are basically an excuse to introduce the concepts of the series.
Spyder_Monkey isn't wrong. However, I don't believe he's viewing the entire picture. This truth doesn't devalue the story at all. It's not priority number one, but it's still important to an extent.
I think of it like this: the story of a Zelda game is like the color of a drawing or a painting. You can still tell what this is:
And, ultimately, it's the design itself that matters the most. What does Link look like? What shape are his eyes? What kind of clothes is he wearing?
Then the story is like adding the color to the design.
It's "just a wrapping" around the basic outline to make it prettier, but it still matters. It's not even technically needed, but it sure is nice to have, and adds a sense of completeness to the experience.
|In the original backstory for LttP, Ganon is imprisoned in the Sacred Realm in his pig form after a long battle with the Knights of Hyrule.|
It's an unconventional way of allowing the earlier games to find a place in series canon, but it manages to patch up a few holes in the overarching lore, while also reconciling the series' early ideas for its story with the different direction it's taken since.
In short: The Zelda Timeline is a nice piece of work that helps to officially clarify things for fans of series lore.