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Prequel Problems: The Legend of Zelda

By Thomas Anderson

This article is, I suspect, going to be controversial.

I grew up with Sega consoles and was barely aware of Nintendo’s video game offerings until the N64 era in the second half of the 1990s, and the first time I ever heard of ‘The Legend of Zelda’ was when I saw the game Ocarina of Time on sale in 1999. At the time I distinctly recall having two misconceptions: (a) Mixing it up with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and (b) Thinking that, despite the colon and subtitle, it was the first game in the series. In the latter case, maybe I wasn’t necessarily wrong (at the time) depending on how one defines ‘first’, because a striking characteristic of the Zelda series is their lack of chronological order.

I first became aware of this back in 2008, when James ‘the Angry Video Game Nerd’ Rolfe released a video (made in 2006 but delayed) about him being ‘chronologically confused’ about the Zelda timeline. Unlike his AVGN persona’s usual entertainingly sweary and scatological rants about poor-quality licensed games, this was a serious analysis of trying to figure out the chronological order of the then-extant Zelda titles, which at the time had just had Twilight Princess added as their most recent release. Rolfe repeatedly expressed his frustration in Nintendo’s inability to make sequential continuations of the series, instead always going back or even sideways. He summarised his findings as: “We have a sequel (Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, 1987) to the original (The Legend of Zelda, 1986). A prequel to the original (A Link to the Past, 1991). A sequel to the prequel (Link’s Awakening, 1993). A prequel to the prequel (Ocarina of Time, 1998), and a sequel to the young Link of the prequel’s prequel!" (Majora’s Mask, 2000 – all of these are Japanese release dates).

Rolfe went on to explain that since then, later games had confused matters further, notably The Wind Waker (2002) which is set in a post-apocalyptic flooded land of Hyrule; Rolfe described the disagreement of fans between ‘splittists’ and ‘linearists’ over whether there was now one or multiple divergent timelines. He then became exasperated that The Minish Cap (2004) was yet again being pitched as a ‘how it all began’ story, showing how Link got his iconic hat, and complained that Nintendo were eventually going to make a game where Link and Zelda are the Adam and Eve of Hyrule. (Be careful what you wish for – Skyward Sword (2011) released after the video was made, was essentially just that!)

Since Rolfe made the video 15 years ago, even more Zelda games were released, and the ‘splittists’ now seem dominant in fans, with a complicated explanation of how the Zelda games diverged into three timelines based on different outcomes to Ocarina of Tme. In 2011 Nintendo released an official book, Hyrule Historia, with an official timeline to fans’ delight. There are now dozens more videos made by others explaining the timeline. Having heard about all of this at third hand, and being someone interested in how media links together entries in anachronic order, I since sought out the games to see all these chronological inks the fans had used in their detective work to try to piece together a timeline. Unfortunately, I should have paid more attention to Rolfe’s video: near the start, he says “It’s no easy feat to string together [then] more than 14 games that generally have very few story connections and continuations”. He wasn’t kidding.

I should explain a bit about how the Zelda games work for those who, like me in 1999, have no idea. The first game, titled simply The Legend of Zelda, came out in 1986 (in Japan) and was created by Shigeru Miyamoto, who had already seen success with the Mario series. It is a top-down 8-bit adventure game in which the player controls the young elf-like hero Link in his quest to save the land of Hyrule and its princess, Zelda, from the evil sorcerer pig-man demon king thing Ganon. To do this he must find and fight his way through hidden dungeons and reassemble the broken pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom. The game is often portrayed as cryptic, usually by those who have not realised it is meant to be played alongside its manual as a guide (including maps the player can fill out as they go). The manual also adds considerably to the game’s basic story, and illustrates just how much of the setting was already there from the beginning. If one plays a Zelda game today, one will still encounter characters like Zelda’s nursemaid Impa, locations like Death Mountain and Great Fairy Fountains, enemies like Moblins and Lynels, and even the ‘Zola’ enemy was reinterpreted as the ‘Zora’ friendly race after a different transliteration.

Missing however is the games’ mythological backstory; interestingly given the name ‘Triforce’ there are only 2 of the triangle-shaped artefacts, Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom and Ganon’s Triforce of Power. The third, the Triforce of Courage, was not introduced until the sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; this means the arrangement of the three triangles into a distinctive symbol, which has come to be iconic of the whole franchise, was not present from the start but only from that second game. The first and second games have Link with a shield with a Christian cross on it (an unusual and likely unintentional deviation from Nintendo’s usual avoidance of real-world religious imagery to dodge controversy) and it would not be until A Link to the Past that Hyrule got its own backstory. It is semi-consistently portrayed that Hyrule was created by three goddesses who imbued the Triforce with its power, and that evil forces are always trying to obtain it. Later games variably use the trope of seven wise men or four sages who try to work against this. A Link to the Past further posits that Ganon was a mortal thief named Ganondorf Dragmire who stole the Triforce of Power and became Ganon, afterward ruling the ‘Golden Land’ and turning it into a Dark World; this seemingly happens at the end of the prequel Ocarina of Time. Maybe.

So much for the Legend of Zelda series, whose name has persistently led many to assume Zelda, not Link, is the name of the protagonist (though in later games Zelda more proactively helps him defeat Ganon rather than being a damsel in distress). The name ‘Link’ was intended to imply a link to the player, and the first game’s manual states that ‘Link, the hero of The Legend of Zelda, does not yet exist. You create Link by first registering your player name’. This is also why Link is usually portrayed as a silent and largely characterless protagonist, allowing the player to imprint their own personality on him. This description betrays the fact that the first Legend of Zelda game was fundamentally inspired by the RPGs (role-playing games) becoming popular in Japan at the time from both Western and domestic franchises, with Miyamoto specifically mentioning the Ultima series as an inspiration.

Artwork of the various incarnations of Link, as well as his other forms, distributed to celebrate The Legend of Zelda 25th anniversary.

It is important to understand that Miyamoto and Nintendo have always been known for focusing on gameplay first and worrying about details like story and setting later. Hence the first Zelda game became an action adventure game rather than one focusing too much on inventory management puzzles, turn-based combat or featuring a party of characters like a normal RPG. Early in development the first game had a hi-tech science fiction setting involving time travel, before setting on a mediaeval fantasy one instead (the parts of the Triforce were originally parts of a circuitboard the player had to reassemble!) The first Zelda game’s manual-based story nonetheless manages to feel solider than an afterthought because it was produced by the experienced anime writer Keiji Terui.

In order to better understand the point I am trying to make by this article, we need to look at more traditional Japanese RPG (JRPG) series. In game journalism and analysis it is common to draw a distinction between Western RPGs and JRPGs, but it can be hard to define exactly what that distinction is – it is very much ‘you know it when you see it’. One point of difference which I feel is under-looked-at is the issue of consistency of setting and continuity of story. Older western RPGs like the Ultima series, or adventure games like King’s Quest, typically follow the same protagonist through a chronologically successive set of stories. Later games moved away from this formula and would make stories involving different characters and settings, but still attempt to portray a consistent world in which all the games’ settings are grouped, knowing fans will call them out if they make mistakes without explicit retcons. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls series fall into this category.

By contrast, Japanese RPGs are quite consistently inconsistent in terms of setting. Typically, different games in the same series will use the same sort of game mechanics and ‘rules’, and may feature a recurring ‘mascot’ character name or enemy without explanation of how it got there, but otherwise use completely different characters in a completely unconnected setting with each game. Examples of this include Final Fantasy (involves unrelated characters named Cid and usually Biggs and Wedge, mascot creatures called Moogles and Chocobos, but whose settings vary wildly across fantasy, steampunk and technological); Dragon Quest (involves the mascot creature Slime and internal sub-series following different Hero characters in different settings); Tales of… (involves unrelated high-fantasy settings linked by a consistent theme of the struggle to coexist between different races); and Xeno (involves unrelated characters named Vandam and mascot creatures named Nopon, as well as weird Gnostic themes, but in different and unconnected world settings). Nintendo’s own Fire Emblem series of tactics games, more story-heavy than most of their franchises, similarly sets almost every instalment on a different and unrelated world with different characters.

Now, let me pose a question. If the Legend of Zelda series was inspired by 1980s RPGs, and if more conventional Japanese RPG series which started around that time use the trope of ‘these games’ settings look vaguely related, but aren’t meant to actually be connected and we’re not trying to pretend they are’ – does this mean Zelda fans have been on a wild-goose chase for the past 35 years?

Hear me out. As early as the second game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the one which is held up as the only straight sequel to the first, cracks begin to show in the idea that this is meant to be a consistent setting. The manual at first seems to indicate this is a sequel, with Link portrayed as helping to defeat the remnants of Ganon’s forces from the first game, who seek to sprinkle Link’s blood on the ashes of Ganon to resurrect him (an interesting contrast to the cartoony imagery of the manual!) Yet when the Triforce symbol appears on Link’s hand, Impa tells him of the titular ‘legend of Zelda’ – that a princess named Zelda was struck down by an evil magician for refusing to tell him of the location of the Triforce, and she has slept for generations ever since. Only Link can reawaken her by going on an adventure and – hang on, wait a minute, wasn’t there already a princess called Zelda in the first game who wasn’t asleep for generations? OK, the manual tries to explain this by saying that the first Zelda’s grief-stricken prince brother decreed that all female children in the family ever since would be named Zelda in her honour. But to me it seems very obvious that this is the manual writer desperately trying to cover for the fact that the people who made the game didn’t really care about that inconsistency. Notably, the Zelda from the first game never appears or is mentioned once in the second game or its manual – even though Impa, her nursemaid, does!

Again, in any other Nintendo franchise this would not stick out so much. It may disappoint hardcore fans, but it’s not surprising, when a series like Mario changes concepts and settings willy-nilly with every game, and Princess Peach is usually treated almost as an item to be rescued as a completion goal than a character. Series like that do not have an undertone of ‘seriousness’. Yet this impression has grown up with Zelda, to the point that the 1980s animated cartoon or the infamous Philips CDi animated games are regarded as somehow offensive by fans for their flippant tone. I would argue that this is largely in the eye of the beholder and facilitated by misleading translations, however. While an individual Zelda game may have a tense and high-stakes plot in which character death is meaningful, I do not perceive any attempt to tie together the series in the cohesive whole that many fans would like to imagine it is. Ultimately, it’s a game, driven by Nintendo’s philosophy of game design concept first and worry about story later. Hyrule is flooded in The Wind Waker because the game creators wanted to make a game with a pelagic setting, not because of any grand plot reasons. A Link to the Past has a Dark World so the game designers can create puzzles where a barrier can be crossed in one plane of existence but not the other, not because they had that plot idea first.

However, this line has been blurred by the fact that Nintendo has responded to its fans’ demands for chronology by publishing Hyrule Historia and releasing Skyward Sword, a game which vaguely tries to portray a link between all the games by suggesting the first Link and Zelda were cursed by a demon named Demise to be forever reincarnated and fought by the memory of his anger and hatred (i.e. Ganon). Fine, that explains why we keep having different Links and Zeldas in each generation – but, er, why do characters like Impa, the merchant Beedle, or the annoying prancing fool Tingle keep reappearing in different eras in unrelated games? I’d say the same reason why every Final Fantasy game has an unrelated Cid – it’s a reference, nothing more. No connection is implied. Yet fans confidently make the Watsonian claim that the towns in The Adventure of Link are named after the Sages from Ocarina of Time to imply a chronology from the prequel, whereas the more likely Doylist explanation is that the makers of Ocarina of Time named the Sages after the towns as a cute internal reference.

Link’s Awakening is set on an island which turns out to be just a dream (I’m sure this is a spoiler for people who didn’t pause to, er, read the title of the game) and cleverly implies a dream-like setting by featuring incongruous elements borrowed from the Mario series, including a character named Tarin who resembles Mario himself, and his daughter Marin. Fine, except (via a different transliteration as Talon and Malon) they then appear again in Ocarina of Time in which they run Lon Lon Ranch. How, if they were just a dream? Answer: because no-one making the games is trying for consistency here, each game is meant to stand alone and just have cute but not necessarily logical references to the others. Yet the recent (and rightly critically acclaimed) Zelda game Breath of the Wild features the ruins of Lon Lon Ranch, leading fans to confidently make red-string-on-a-pinboard deductions about its place in the timeline, rather than just viewing it as an ‘oh, I remember that!’ reference like Super Mario Odyssey featuring the Mario 64 castle at the end. In Majora’s Mask the Happy Mask salesman has a mask of Mario on his backpack as a reference – do the same fans treat this as evidence that Mario exists in the world of Zelda?

This is my point: there is no ‘world of Zelda’. There’s dozens of different reimaginings of the same story with some variations (and occasionally spinoffs with different ideas like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask) but they are not meant to consistently or cohesively link up. It’s been suggested that the name ‘Legend of Zelda’ is apt, that these are all how different people imagine the same story differently, like how the Robin Hood legend evolved over time. In particular Breath of the Wild makes a number of thematic homages to the very first Zelda game, such as Link encountering an old man who helps him as soon as he appears on the scene. A little later he sees what looks like the Temple of Time from Ocarina of Time. Actually implied to be the same building? Why would you assume that? Is the old man the same as the old man from the first game? No, it’s just a reference. Some fans made excited claims about Breath of the Wild’s position in THE TIMELINE based on which ‘past heroes’ are mentioned in a cutscene…until it turned out that the Japanese original made references to different Zelda games, including The Wind Waker which involved Hyrule being flooded. The same fans then decided that Breath now appears at the end of every timeline, because yeah, that totally makes sense, lads. Now explain why the Gorons have carved statues of characters who explicitly only existed in alternate timeline games. Could it be that they’re all just references so fans can go ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ ?

You may wonder why I have devoted 3000+ words to ranting about this. The answer is simple: as you can tell from previous articles in this series, I am fascinated by the problems of writing anachronic fiction, of how one tackles the issues inherent in writing prequels. When I heard from Rolfe’s video that the Zelda series has a habit of going backward with every generation rather than forward, I sought out the series to see how they did this. For example: How did they explain the fact that the Goron and Gerudo races are only introduced in Ocarina of Time and become iconically referenced in pretty much every game made after that, but were not mentioned in the games made earlier but set later? The answer: they don’t bother to explain it, because they’re not trying to make a coherent timeline. That was always nothing more than a phantom in the minds of fans who built supposition on supposition, often excitedly constructing elaborate theories on the basis of vague bits of dialogue that often turned out to be translators’ inventions and nothing to do with what the games’ creators had in mind. At present, fans are confidently predicting future games will heavily involve the Zonai, a mysterious vanished race of magicians that the creators of Breath of the Wild have pretty much explicitly said they just put in for a bit of background flavour in one place on the map that is mentioned once.

Now I’m not unfamiliar with this attitude. I’m a longtime Star Trek fan, and we can create all sorts of ridiculous fanon based on supposition and then get outraged when the next TV series contradicts our purely imaginary ideas (see Romulans and sublight drive in my previous article ‘The Romulan Straitjacket’). Maybe it just seems more inherently ridiculous to me with Zelda fans because I was not aware of this series for years and came into it from outside. But it does feel like Zelda represents probably the biggest single disconnect in attitude between creators and fans of any fictional franchise.

Possibly the most ridiculous example of this is in Twilight Princess, a game which was made in part as a reaction against critical hostility to the cartoony style of The Wind Waker and which instead drew a lot of conservative inspiration from the earlier Ocarina of Time, both metaphorically and literally darker. The Link of Twilight Princess has a game mechanic that lets him transform into a wolf (which, again, Nintendo came up with first and then came up with a plot involving a curse to explain it). In the course of the game, he encounters a mysterious white wolf who transforms into the shade of a fallen 'legendary hero' warrior of the past, who teaches him new sword moves - referred to as the Hero's Spirit. Before actually seeing Twilight Princess gameplay, I had heard that this is meant to be the spirit of the Link from Ocarina of Time - not stated as a fan theory but as a self-evident fact. I thought this was a very interesting idea, and clearly fitting with the thematic link in how the game was designed to echo the earlier game in style. Then I saw the actual scenes in question, in which there is clearly absolutely no attempt to portray a link (geddit) between this shade and that earlier Link. There's no design cues, no hints in dialogue, nothing. He's just a generic fallen past hero. There's concept art of the developers trying out designs for the character that show him as a samurai or as a woman - clearly nobody ever intended to imply a connection with an earlier Link, yet the fans have created their own false reality that is confidently repeated on fan sites and eventually in Hyrule Historia.

Much the same is visible on a greater scale in Breath of the Wild, which is explicitly about how an earlier incarnation of Link and Zelda defeated Ganon 10,000 years ago - yet, as the game goes on, it's clear it's not talking about the events of any previous game, but just a generic past that could have appeared just as easily in a new game series with an original story. And, tellingly, it doesn't allude to cycles of reborn heroes defeating Ganon repeatedly since that time 10,000 years ago, and doesn't make sense with any idea of a broader timeline, because those events 10,000 years ago involve advanced Sheikah technology that have never appeared in any of the previous games. What the fans think this series is has nothing to do with what its developers actually have in mind.

In Rolfe’s original article he mentions that when Ocarina of Time came out, Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview was put on the spot with a question about THE TIMELINE, and gave an order which made no sense even when there were only 4 or 5 games released – putting A Link to the Past (note that subtitle) at the end of it. That should have been my warning that it was not worth investing my time trying to look for links and foreshadowing between games that fans confidently talk about on the internet and simply do not exist. Miyamoto gave an illogical answer because he was put on the spot and had probably barely thought about it. A little later, he would have a tech demo made in which 100 characters could appear, and, only after that, did he worry about coming up with a plot involving a shipwrecked alien named Olimar who commands an army of native Pikmin in a real-time strategy game.

I suppose the lesson here is that the best way to do prequels well is to do whatever the hell you want and leave your fanbase to come up with elaborate theories trying to fit it all into some imaginary whole, and then afterwards tell them yes, that’s it and release a book all about it. At least until Nintendo decides to release a game that contradicts that again, and then they’ll be back to the drawing board.

More Prequel Problems articles on the way!



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