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Zelda Through the Ages: The Complete History of The Legend of Zelda Video Game Franchise

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most iconic, groundbreaking, and longest-running video game franchises in history. First debuting on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1986, these action-adventure games have captured the hearts of gamers for over three decades with their immersive fantasy worlds, colorful characters, ingenious puzzles, and epic quests.

In this article, we‘ll explore the rich lore and dramatic storylines of the land of Hyrule while charting the real-world history of how this legendary series came to be.

Overview and Impact of The Legend of Zelda

At its core, Zelda games involve guiding the elfin protagonist Link through monster-filled overworlds and intricate multi-level dungeons in search of the titular Princess Zelda. With help from wise sages, magical items, and powerful weapons, he battles the forces of evil like pig-demon Ganon to prevent them from acquiring the omnipotent Triforce relic. Players advance through excellently designed levels and solve puzzles to acquire keys, open doors, mapped terrain, fight bosses, and eventually rescue the princess.

The franchise pioneered non-linear open world exploration and battery backup saving on NES cartridges, letting players freely wander the realm. It also featured some of the earliest examples of intricate orchestral video game music. The Zelda series has significantly impacted the designs of action-adventure, RPG, and open world games since thanks to its emphasis on discovery, puzzles, atmosphere, and lore.

Fun Fact: The Guinness Book of World Records has called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the highest rated video game of all time.

History and Origins

The Legend of Zelda was the brainchild of two of Nintendo‘s most impactful early designers: director Shigeru Miyamoto and producer Takashi Tezuka.

In crafting the first 1986 Zelda for Famicom Disk System and NES, Miyamoto wanted to recreate fond childhood memories of exploring forests and caves around his small hometown of Sonobe, Japan. Tezuka cited the inspirations of traditional fairy tales and exotic Arabian Nights adventures.

Their ideas merged into a magical medieval land with an elf hero named Link battling against the evil thief Ganon to save Princess Zelda and acquire the fragmenting mystical Triforce. Miyamoto later stated this triune relic was inspired by the Shinto concept of three sacred spirit treasures.

Hyrule itself is heavily influenced by Western fantasy works, with locations named after characters from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novels. Link and villages of pixelated NPCs brought it to life for eager gamers ready for grand adventure.

Main Characters and Lore

Part of Zelda‘s timeless appeal comes from the engaging characters populating the storybook land of Hyrule across epochs:

Link – The ever-reincarnating elfish hero garbed in green tasked with saving the kingdom from harm. Players guide his quests as he accrues new weapons, tools, magic skills, and vehicles.

Princess Zelda – The titular princess that must be rescued from danger in most early games. She sometimes takes on magical alter egos to assist Link, sending him on quests telepathically or even joining his adventures.

Ganon – The primary villain of the series. He is based on a powerful pig demon from ancient Hyrule folklore. Ganon desires the Triforce to conquer worlds but is constantly thwarted by Link and Zelda.

The Triforce itself originated with three creator Golden Goddesses forming Hyrule: Din cultivated the earth, Nayru brought order and justice, Farore introduced life forms and souls. It broke into three fragments reflecting each deity to gift their essence unto worthy wielders – Power, Wisdom and Courage being the most balanced.

Of course Link embodies Courage, Zelda bears Wisdom, while Ganon has stolen Power. Their epic battles stretch across Hyrule‘s history.

Main Series Timeline Overview

The Zelda games take place in a magical nonlinear chronology that has split into three separate branches thanks to Link‘s battles with Ganon. We have:

  • The Hero Defeated Timeline
    Where Ganon emerges victorious to plague Hyrule in the Imprisoning War and A Link to the Past games
  • The Child Era Timeline
    Covering Majora‘s Mask onwards following young hero Link after Ganon‘s defeat
  • The Adult Era Timeline
    In Wind Waker and its sequels, Hyrule is flooded leading to seafaring adventures

Confused? Don‘t worry! We will break down the intricate official timeline further as we traverse hero Link‘s mythic saga.

The Hero Era: Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time

Our journey begins in the heavenward realm with the precursor tale Skyward Sword released for Nintendo‘s motion-controlled Wii console in 2011. Ten thousand years before Ocarina, villainous Demon King Demise seeks the Triforce from the goddess Hylia. She protects the surviving Hylians by raising chunks of earth into a floating island called Skyloft before sealing Demise away. After his eventual escape and defeat, it is revealed Demise‘s hatred will be continually reborn as Ganon against Link and Zelda‘s descendants.

Jumping ahead chronologically, our next epic follows Ocarina of Time from 1998, one of the most critically acclaimed entries on the Nintendo 64. This was the first 3D title featuring young hero Link summoned by the mysterious Great Deku Tree in Kokiri Forest at the behest of fairy Navi to stop treacherous desert thief Ganondorf from conquering Hyrule. He helps awaken the Seven Sages from temples across the richly detailed land to aid Princess Zelda in sealing Ganon with the Master Sword. This sets in motion the timeline split.

Fun Fact: Ocarina of Time has sold over 7.6 million copies worldwide and introduced iconic musical ocarina songs to alter environments or teleport across the kingdom.

The Hero Defeated Timeline

If Link falls to Ganon‘s power, this leads to the grim Imprisoning War timeline seen in SNES classic A Link to the Past (1991). Here the sacred realm itself transforms into the demonic Dark World due to Ganon getting his mitts on the complete Triforce. Villagers call the hero Link to gather powers from Seven Maidens and defeat his porcine Evil King swine form to rescue another Zelda. More than 3 million players experienced this excellent adventure.

The handheld Game Boy titles like Link‘s Awakening and Oracle of Ages / Seasons duology take place afterwards as our elven warrior stumbles upon mysterious new lands and dimensions. Their retro 2D puzzling prepared Nintendo for its first 3D Zelda foray.

The Adult Link Timeline Continues

When Link defeats Ganon as adult hero in Ocarina, he gets sent back to his childhood era by Zelda. But timeline-wise, his adult victory meant the tyrant still conquered Hyrule leading to primary queen Zelda hiding away survivors before flooding calamity struck in cartoony Wind Waker (2002). Luckily our cel-shaded kid Link has a talking sailboat to search new islands for gold and glory!

More nautical Zelda adventures followed on DS with Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks letting players control steam trains and conduct mystical songs.

The Child Link Timeline

Thanks to warning young Zelda about Ganon‘s coup, Link gets to relive his youth for Majora‘s Mask on N64. Skull Kid steals Epona horse and the Ocarina of Time to wreak havoc using the evil Majora Mask. Link repetitively saves Clock Town from being crushed by the ominous Moon looming closer thanks to a handy time loop mechanic. Few fans expected this offbeat and surprisingly emotional storyline.

Soon enough Queen Zelda gets kidnapped by Dark Interlopers who brought shadow magic to the Twili Realm, leading to the acclaimed GameCube quest Twilight Princess (2006). Link can transform into ferocious wolf form to rescue the land of Hyrule from this bleak crisis. Gameplay innovations like mounted battles, swimming, and iconic boss designs made this the swan song for traditional top-down Zelda experiences.

Motion controlled Skyward Sword prequel happens next; then ALTTP sequel A Link Between Worlds sees his gramps tackle a returning Ganon and the origins of his previous Triforce quest. This brings us up to current era.

Breath of the Wild Reboots the Series

After years without a major Zelda release following 2011‘s Skyward Sword, Nintendo surprised fans with trailblazing open world reboot Breath of the Wild for their new Switch console in 2017. More survivalist gameplay has hero Link using a glider to soar from a techno-slumber into a ruined Hyrule without his memories 100 years post-Ganon victory. Our amnesiac champion prepares to attack Calamity Ganon‘s castle stronghold with the aid of Four Divine Beasts and whoever he meets in the wilds once the Great Plateau introduction concludes.

He can climb virtually any surface and subsist through hunting animals, scavenging items, cooking dishes or acquiring powers from 120 hidden mini-dungeons called shrines. Players adored exploring BOTW‘s mammoth map while manipulating physics and chemistry for genius outcomes during battles, shrine puzzles or overworld navigation. It felt like a fresh evolution of the entire franchise.

Comparing Zelda to Other Nintendo Series

The evergreen Legend of Zelda series remains incredibly inventive despite its age compared to other famous Nintendo IP like Super Mario and Metroid. Sure you could call them all pioneer franchises responsible for the company‘s prosperity. However Mario leans more to linear obstacle course platforming challenges and collecting symbolic stars, while somber heroine Samus Aran focuses solely on upgrade discoveries enabling deeper planetary exploration and weapon blasting rather than Zelda‘s equipment spell variety.

Princess Peach kidnappings bookend most side-scrolling Super Mario adventures similar to old-school 1980s Zeldas, but environments grow far wackier. Later big 3D Mario sandbox entries like Mario 64 feel like jolly playgrounds compared to Hyrule‘s treacherous terrain and dark dungeons haunting green-garbed Link‘s quests to prevent cataclysmic calamity. Samus‘ space horror Shooter faceoffs against ghoulish lifeforms and robots contrasts swordsman Link frequently encountering magical medieval monsters from tektites to poes. Ultimately our Hylian Hobbit underwent far more high fantasy tribulations!

Closing Thoughts on the Series

Few interactive franchises demonstrate as much daring creativity woven throughline mythos spanning three dozen years as The Legend of Zelda. Its delightful characters, venerable storytelling chronology split into branching timelines across generations and console epochs, plus pioneering game design mean Hyrule merits attention as both digital pop culture touchstone and revered game development masterpiece.

We eagerly await whatever dimensional detours, weapon upgrades or open world surprises Nintendo has brewing next for legendary hero Link‘s eternal fight against princess-kidnapping pig calamities Ganon in this unparalleled treasure chest of imaginative interactive entertainment! Just hope we don‘t need to stockpile too many more Spirit Orbs or Heart Containers to survive these upcoming trials and tribulations…

So grab your Master Sword because there are always more dungeons to explore and zany Zelda journeys being prepped!