The Zelda series timeline is… complicated. Whether or not it was originally intended to be that way is a matter of opinion, but the fact remains: Zelda is complicated.
Hyrule Warriors is regarded as a non-canonical installment in the series as a whole. But to be honest, with the way it’s set up, it actually slots quite nicely into the convoluted timeline, albeit mostly unfolding in its own separate little corner, largely (but not completely) divorced from the main paths down which the series’ narratives progress.
Let’s take a look at how Hyrule Warriors fits in with Zelda lore as a whole… as well as how the series got to the state it’s in today.
Although the first Zelda game was released back in 1986, canonically it is actually one of the last games in one of the three main timelines the series splits into. The “first” Zelda game in narrative terms is actually one of the more recent installments to be released: 2011’s Skyward Sword on Wii.
Skyward Sword picks up the story after the goddess Hylia defeated the demon king Demise. So great was the battle, it forced the humans to flee to a realm of floating islands in the sky, which became known as Skyloft.
Hylia knew that she was unable to seal away Demise permanently since, as she was a goddess, she was unable to make use of the power of the Triforce, the Zelda series’ recurring symbol of power, courage and wisdom. Instead she renounced her divinity, to be reborn as a human when the time was right. Thus, the first Zelda was born many years later.
Although initially unaware of her status as Hylia’s reincarnation, she was honoured among her people to play the role of the goddess in the Wing Ceremony, the final exam for Skyloft’s Knight Academy. During the ceremony, a young man named Link attained the top honour: the privilege to perform the Goddess Ceremony alongside Zelda. Thus began a fateful connection between the two that would last for many thousands of years.
To cover all the happenings of Skyward Sword is a little beyond the scope of this piece, but one aspect of its narrative is important to highlight with Hyrule Warriors in mind: Ghirahim. A self-styled demon lord, Ghirahim was a servant of Demise, who by the time Zelda was born was already starting to hatch a plan to break out of his imprisonment. Ghirahim was sent into the world to track down the reincarnation of Hylia and destroy her so his master could once again be free… but naturally, things weren’t quite that simple.
Suffice to say, this Link ultimately defeated Demise… but not before the demon king let rip with a curse that would go on to cause the seemingly endless cycle of resurrection and conflict that forms the backbone for most of the Zelda series as a whole. This curse is what causes Ganondorf and his demonic form Ganon to continually cause trouble for the world — Ganon is, as Zelda says in Breath of the Wild, “a pure embodiment of the ancient evil that is reborn time and time again”.
There are several theories as to how and why Link and Zelda are seemingly continually reincarnated alongside Ganon. One popular one is that they are reincarnations of this first pair of heroes from Skyward Sword, brought into being as a side-effect of Demise’s curse at the end of that game. There are a few installments in the series that raise questions over this, however, and this is largely a result of the three-way split in the timeline created at the conclusion of Ocarina of Time: the timeline that proceeds if that particular Link is defeated by Ganon, and the two timelines that proceed if Ganon is defeated — one in Link’s original time (where he is a child) and one in the time he travels to upon pulling the Master Sword from its pedestal (where he is a young adult).
The timeline that follows Link’s defeat ultimately results in some of the best-known and loved Zelda games of all time: A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, the two Oracle games and the original two NES Legend of Zelda titles. The “child” timeline, meanwhile, proceeds onwards to Majora’s Mask and, many years later, Twilight Princess and Four Swords Adventures. And the “adult” timeline which Link leaves behind after he returns to his own era continues onwards to The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass and, eventually, Spirit Tracks.
It’s primarily The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess that cast doubt on the “reincarnation” theory, since in the former case, the Link in question disappeared from the “adult” timeline when he returned to his own era and thus could not be a direct reincarnation; in the latter case, meanwhile, Link is explicitly confirmed to be a descendent of the Hero’s Shade, who is himself a form of the Hero of Time — Link from Ocarina of Time.
It’s more likely that the various Links throughout the ages are blood-related either directly or indirectly. A Link to the Past explicitly states that the Master Sword can only be pulled from its pedestal by a descendant of the Knights of Hyrule — which effectively connects that Link with the one seen in Skyward Sword. A genetic lineage also means there does not necessarily need to be a direct connection between a Link of one era and those in subsequent ages — so long as the family tree can trace its way back to the era of Skyward Sword, there’s still some of that blood of the Knights flowing in those veins, however diluted it might be by that point.
So that’s roughly where we are in the Zelda series as a whole today; where does Hyrule Warriors fit in with all this? Well, as previously noted, it’s regarded as non-canonical primarily due to the fact that it sits outside the main timeline of the series, although it does take a few steps into the worlds of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker at various points.
Speaking with Game Informer in 2014, series producer Eiji Aonuma noted that the game could fit into the overall Zelda timeline “if you force it in somewhere, but that’s not something we want to do. The universe of Hyrule Warriors really is sort of a different universe and it is connected to the timeline of the Zelda series, but it is connected to several different games throughout the series.” Chronologically speaking, one could interpret it to most likely unfold in a parallel dimension or timeline to Ocarina of Time due to similarities in the layout of Hyrule as depicted in the in-game map as well as the appearance of several characters — most notably Impa and Sheik — but given the game’s nature, it doesn’t really matter all that much exactly where it unfolds, as the overall “threat” is to its own world and timeline for the most part.
Hyrule Warriors’ narrative concerns the rise of dark forces in this particular incarnation of Hyrule, and the attempts of Link, Zelda and their growing lineup of allies to understand what is happening and how to stop it. Zelda herself seemingly disappears early in the narrative, so much of the early game concerns the Hyrulean forces’ attempts to track her down and/or save her from whatever horrible fate she may have encountered.
Hearing rumours of a young woman leading a resistance faction against the dark forces, Link and his allies head for Faron Woods, where they find not Zelda, but a young woman named Lana — an original creation for this installment. Lana introduces herself as a sorceress, and explains that another sorceress named Cia is responsible for the monster uprising and the threat Hyrule presently faces. It seems that she is seeking to reunite four fragments of a great evil that has been sealed away — no prizes for guessing who or what that might be.
In the world of Hyrule Warriors, the four fragments have been scattered through both time and space; one is held in place by the Master Sword in its native dimension, while the others are hidden in the eras of Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. Thus begins a battle to close down the gates between the “Hyrule Prime” we’re mainly concerned with, and these various other eras.
A three-way split in the main narrative of the game sees different groups of characters handling each of the eras simultaneously. In each case, the effect is similar, however; Cia’s influence is leading things to unfold not quite as fate intended, with potentially disastrous consequences for the timeline as a whole. In Skyward Sword’s case, this has interesting implications: would messing up the events of that game actually break the entire timeline of the series as a whole?
In each of the three cases, we can interpret the events of Hyrule Warriors to be unfolding before the events of their source material, since Fi, the guardian spirit of the Goddess Sword (precursor to the Master Sword) has not yet been awoken in the Skyward Sword era (she recognises Hyrule Warriors’ Link as “a master”, but not her “true” master), there’s no evidence of Ocarina of Time Link’s influence in that particular timeline, and the Midna we encounter in the time of Twilight Princess hasn’t yet teamed up with that particular incarnation of Link. Indeed, in each case there is no sign of that particular era’s Link or Zelda whatsoever, suggesting that at the time Hyrule Warriors unfolds, they have not yet awoken to their true destinies.
Following the “cleaning up” of the three timelines, Lana drops a bombshell: she’s actually the “good” incarnation of Cia, cast out when the latter became corrupted by the dark influence within her. Around the same time, Cia expels three of the four fragments she holds within herself, revealing them to, of course, be a reincarnation of Ganondorf. Ganondorf, being generally an all-round bastard, promptly discards Cia as having outlived her usefulness, and begins his own rampage in an attempt to recover the Triforce fragments Cia discarded when it became apparent things weren’t going her way.
This, unfortunately, does not mean that Cia suddenly “turns good”. On the contrary, the fact that she is an incarnation of nothing but dark qualities coupled with the extremely negative influence Ganondorf’s complete spirit had on her drives her to madness, and leads her to once again seek the completed Triforce — along with the soul of the Hero, which it becomes very apparent she has become obsessed with for less than wholesome reasons. Indeed, during a climactic battle against Cia at the Temple of Souls, it becomes apparent that the sorceress has reshaped the environment through her state of mind; the grounds are filled with statues of various Links from throughout the ages, while her room is festooned with various portraits and candid pictures of the hero’s various incarnations over the years.
Cia knows even in her addled state that even a legendary hero isn’t flawless, however, and takes advantage of Link’s growing overconfidence that has stemmed from his string of victories to date. She uses this “dark” aspect of himself to draw out a Dark Link to face him, subsequently drawing out even more shadowy clones as the hero gets cocky and believes he can take on anything that people throw at him.
This particular sequence, interestingly, is one of the few times throughout the Zelda series as a whole in which Link is shown to be fallible for reasons other than the player’s own actions. It’s an acknowledgement that someone seemingly backed up by divine destiny — as evidenced by Link’s ability to wield the Master Sword as well as Zelda’s faith in him — is not necessarily perfect, and that a big part of becoming a true hero is acknowledging those flaws. Coming to understand the fact that he is not a one-man army — an interesting twist for the Warriors series as a whole, which tends to revel in making the player feel like they are a one-man army — he accepts the assistance of his allies and comes to recognise that he is part of a greater whole, and in doing so finds final victory over “himself”.
Dark Link’s appearance can be interpreted in another way too: it’s another aspect of Cia’s obsession with the hero. During her side story, she is seen summoning Dark Links as a symbol of her mistaken belief that “the Hero” will come to save her — though as you might expect, she soon discovers this to not be the case. At least not in quite the way she perhaps intended. Link does ultimately “save” Cia (and, by extension, Lana) but the connection both Cia and Lana clearly want between the two (three?) of them simply isn’t there; while a romantic connection between Link and Zelda isn’t made explicit in Hyrule Warriors, it is an aspect of the pair that has been hinted at in numerous other installments — and so it’s eminently plausible here, too. Indeed, a dying Cia asks Lana after the battle how she can go on knowing that Link doesn’t reciprocate their shared feelings, and Lana’s response is simply that she draws happiness from knowing that Link is destined to “be with” Zelda, however you might interpret that.
Cia’s defeat does not bring about the end of the war, however, because Ganondorf has been keeping thoroughly busy — and, interestingly, Hyrule Warriors features several stages in its story mode where you actually play as Ganondorf on his rampage rather than simply hearing about the effects after the fact. What ultimately transpires is a second collision of worlds: while Ganondorf summons Twilight Princess’ Zant and Skyward Sword’s Ghirahim to act as his lieutenants, Link, Zelda and Lana are able to request the help of their allies from their previous adventures through time. And the difference is that Ganondorf controls Zant and Ghirahim through threats and fear, while Link, Zelda and Lana’s allies all come willingly.
Thus begins a final battle against a particularly formidable foe — a Ganondorf wielding the full power of the completed Triforce rather than, as in many other Zelda games, just a portion of it. As such, this battle serves as something of a representation of what is really the core theme of Hyrule Warriors’ narrative: the fact that however strong you are, no-one is able to do everything alone. It’s only through cooperation and the sharing of power that Link, Zelda and Lana are able to bring about the restoration of what is by now a thoroughly corrupted Hyrule, and see victory in a war that has seemingly stacked the odds against them right from the outset.
Hyrule Warriors is a tale of never giving up even when things seem utterly hopeless. This is explored most obviously through the main narrative of its “Legends” mode that we’ve discussed today… but it’s also explored mechanically through the way all the other game modes work, too. It’s a mindset you need to get into if you’re going to engage with this game — and it’s thrilling, enjoyable and immensely rewarding to do so.
More about Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition
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