I beat The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last weekend with my 7-year-old alternating between cheering me on and hiding behind the couch from Ganon. The entire game, start to finish, was an amazing experience. I still want to go back in and farm up materials to upgrade some of my armor and finish a few quests and, of course, do the expansions when they come out. With minimal cheating I found 113/120 shrines on my own before turning to a walk through for the last. Somehow I only managed to find 215 or so Korok seeds out of 900.
Here are a bunch of assorted thoughts about the experience, mostly unsorted but with more spoilers-filled bits at the end.
I have not been able to find a brown horse with a black mane that has a four for its speed. :(
I really like the experience of grabbing a horse and riding from one area of the kingdom to another. Unfortunately, as I moved further in the game, I found I was using my horse less and less because I often simply had to travel too far. I tried to use the fast travel sparingly but it winds up being impractical in the late game. Zora’s Domain and Mount Doom aren’t accessible to horses at all and there are large areas of the map in the east with no stables nearby.
I bought the physical game card for this one. The installation size is 13 GB and I figured I’d get this card and save the space on my SD card. I intend to download every other game and just leave the card in the console permanently.
The sooner you perfect parry timing, the better. Backwards leaps, too. If you get a perfect parry when a guardian shoots its beam at you it’ll reflect back at it. A perfect backwards leap vs. a Lynel (or anything) lets you get in a bunch of hits with a cool slow-mo effect.
Oh, you should watch Nintendo’s making-of shorts:
After you buy a few heart upgrades, work on getting an extra wheel of stamina. Being able to run and climb more places is super handy and I found I didn’t die a lot to regular mobs.
One of Apple’s greatest innovations was its insistence on a common user interaction model for all applications on the Mac. Every app has a menu bar. File was always first, then Edit. Cut, copy, paste are always ⌘X, ⌘C, ⌘V, and so on. The effect of this was that you could sit down with a brand new application and already knew the basics. You never had to relearn how to use a menu.
Video games never got this sort of thing. Every game has its own user interface. The analogy isn’t perfect of course — we’ve come to expect that the game’s menu system matches the game’s look and feel. I think that’s mostly fine, but the downside is that I think a lot of tested user experience lessons don’t pass from game-to-game. Certainly, for example, some games have found better and worse ways for players to manage their inventory. Whatever gets learned is wasted if the next game to come along just makes up something new.
Which is to say, the inventory system in Breath of the Wild could use some work. I’d like to be able to equip a full armor set instead of having to click on each item every time. There should be a button that lets you flip between item types (weapon, bow, shield, etc.), instead moving one page at a time. There should be a better way to search the Hyrule Compendium. There should be a recipe book that lets you easily remake meals you’ve already discovered. You should be able to add recipes you see in cookbooks and posters to that book.
All of these are nitpicks; they don’t diminish the greatness of the game overall. And yet they introduce tiny, frequent annoyances into the gameplay experience. It grates on me because, as I said, these are solved problems. Other games have figured this out.
I love the character of Zelda in the game. She’s like Gandalf fighting the Balrog but 17 years old and doing it for 100 years by herself, and she’s entirely self-trained! In flashbacks we see her traveling all over the kingdom, devoted equally to prayer, historical research, and scientific study. Also, she wears trousers! And steel-toed boots!
I never tired of the game’s beauty. You’ll just come across these amazing vistas or sunsets or rainbows and just have to stop and marvel sometimes.
Most games in the series open with a prologue that provides some backstory and then cut to a scene of Link sleeping. The art book Hyrule Historia asks, “Is this a way of conveying the notion of a normal person waking up to the unknown and embarking on a hero’s journey?” Here, the prologue isn’t shown for several hours until you run across a bard named Kass who sings it to you. It’s a neat touch. Link doesn’t have his memories so you don’t get the backstory he also can’t remember.
I realize the “main character has amnesia” thing is a tremendous trope at this point, but it really does work well here. You’re constantly coming across ruins and sites of battles and slowly finding out what happened there (or, often, not). There’s clearly so much that happened and there’s no one alive to remember. Even setting aside the events of Calamity Ganon’s rise 100 years ago, it’s a society that has lost amazing technology and was in decline long before Ganon’s return.
The plot of the game is given such a light touch in a very cool way. There’s almost nothing to it. Obviously there are some revelations here and there but, basically, you get what you see from the start. Ganon has taken over. Link prepares, fights him. Most of the game, instead of dwelling on complicated storyline stuff, is small moments. You help a guy build a town. You find a kid’s lost mother. You explore and explore and explore.
It’s not even explained why the Sheikah technology was lost. It’s just a fact that even before Ganon returned 100 years ago, the people in this world know that an ancient civilization could do all this stuff but that’s all lost.
In the early game it’s neat that you spend a lot of time running for your life away from enemies you can’t kill. I spent a long time sneaking around mounted Bokoblins, terrified. I love that coming across a Guardian doesn’t really stop being a huge threat until very late in the game. Then, when you’re outfitted in Guardian Armor with Ancient Arrows you feel like a total badass. Still, not long ago I got cocky and tried to ride through the castle field and my horse got killed by four guardians at the same time and my kids were watching and it traumatized all of us.
Most of the major games establish that the world was created by the goddesses Din, who created the land, Nayru, who created its rules of science and magic, and Farore, who created life. Respectively they are the Goddesses of Power, Wisdom, and Courage. The Triforce, whose three parts each represent one of the goddesses (and also Ganon, Zelda, and Link), were created at the point where they left the world and entered the sacred realm.
None of this is mentioned at all in Breath of the Wild (unless I missed it). Instead, we see three dragons, Dinraal, Nayrda, and Farosh, whose names have presumably shifted slightly over the millennia from those of the goddesses. They each display elemental properties of fire, ice, and lightning, which are commonly associated with each goddess. We’re never given any explanation for why the dragons exist or what their purpose is, aside from a few words at the Shrine of Wisdom when you free Naydra from Ganon’s Malice.
The result is that you just sort of… come across these… beings from time-to-time. The music shifts and you (the player) are able to experience, very briefly, some semblance of what the ancient Greeks would have felt when randomly running into Anthena in the woods or whatever. It’s just this quick, unexplained brush with the divine. Magical.
Eventually to upgrade some of your armor you do have to start tracking down the dragons purposely. I found a good method for farming them on reddit but can’t find the link.
First, get a good long range bow. There’s a Golden Bow that respawns every blood moon in a cave directly northwest of Gerudo Tower. Then:
- Sleep until night somewhere. When you wake up at 9:00, put on some cold resist gear and then teleport to Jitan Sa’mi Shrine on Mount Lanayru.
- Jump off the mountain and fly west to East Lanayru Gate. Land on the mountains north of the valley, above where you found a memory. There’s a Lynel in the field below but you won’t aggro it if you’re on the rocks. (Or, kill it because it drops good gear and sometimes Star Fragments, which you also need for high-level upgrades, though this will mess up our timetable so maybe do this during the day.)
- Naydra will spawn on the mountain and then fly down the valley directly at you.
- Now teleport to Shae Loya Shrine by the Tabantha Bridge.
- Run north along the eastern edge of the canyon until you see Dinraal. (Wear flame-resistant gear.)
- Teleport to Shai Utoh Shrine in Faron and run north and then east across the bridge.
- Farosh should be coming down the waterfall toward you. Wear rubber armor. Farosh flies pretty close to the water here and you can’t shoot an arrow while swimming so watch your altitude.
If you get all the timing right you can get a part from each dragon in one night, then sleep and repeat.
Incidentally, I like that while all of Hyrule is waiting for me to defeat Ganon and Zelda is fighting him alone in the castle for 100 years, I’m sleeping all day.
Speaking of gear, I highly recommend fully upgrading your Guardian Armor. With the set bonus you can just smash guardians.
Definitely upgrade the climbing set to level two but going higher isn’t worth much. You won’t be fighting in it but having the jump distance increase is great.
Put at least some effort into the Barbarian Set, too. With the set bonus you can sneak up on a sleeping Hinox, equip and charge up a spear attack (by holding Y), and kill it before it hits you once.
Of the elemental resistance gear, I’ve only fully upgraded the snow set. There aren’t that many difficult or lengthy encounters that require flame or shock resistance but there’s a lot to do in the snow, including two Lynel in the Hebra Snowfield.
When I want to look cool while hanging around towns or stables I wear the Switch logo shirt you get buying the DLC (it’s in a chest on a wall near Ja Bajj Shrine on the Great Plateau).
If you want to dress like the promo art and the archer amiibo, wear the Champion’s Tunic, Hylian Trousers, and Amber Earrings.
The jewelry, it turns out, is as good or better than any other headgear once upgraded. Amber Earrings have 28 armor, tied with the Soldier’s Helm and Cap of the Wild for the highest headgear in the game. The other jewelry items are also good but you don’t get a set bonus if you wear them. You can often get away with wearing just the ruby or sapphire one if you need just a bit of cold or heat resistance rather than putting on your full set of resistance gear.
The Champion’s Tunic, fully upgraded, has 32 armor, which is the single highest piece of armor in the game. After it, the cheapest way to max out your armor is to upgrade the basic Soldier Set you can buy in Hateno Village. It doesn’t confer a set bonus but that’s fine. The Armor of the Wild gives you the same armor class but requires Star Fragments and two of each dragons’ parts, and its set bonus just upgrades the Master Sword’s beam which is only useful when you’re at full health.
I have the Twilght armor that you get from the Link Smash Bros. amiibo. I started working on upgrading it but I think it maxes out at 20 armor/pc, which is low. I get that maybe you shouldn’t be able to use real money to buy armor that’s as good as the Wild set that you can’t get without finding every shrine, but in the case it should not require Star Fragments to upgrade. If it’s only as good as the basic Hylian Set, it should have a similarly mid-tier shopping list.
I don’t like that the unique weapons that you get after completing each Divine Beast are somewhat underpowered. I got the Lightscale Trident first and it was already somewhat weak compared to the other weapons I was using. It’s neat that they can be rebuilt but I wound up just hanging them in my house in Hateno because weapons are so easy to come by.
If you ever see Satori Mountain illuminated at night, go there. Like coming across a dragon, it’s a cool experience and an homage to the late Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president.
Gameplay-wise, the puzzles tended to be well thought-out and rewarding. There were only a few moments when I needed to cheat. A frustration I feel frequently with some games are when they’re something I know I’m supposed to do but the game isn’t effectively communicating what that is, like making an object I’m supposed to interact with look too much like background art. That didn’t happen much and most of the trickier puzzles were things I was eventually able to figure out.
I like the idea of cooking. For a while I really liked making different recipes and playing with the bonuses. Then I started getting resistance gear and most of them weren’t that helpful. Early-to-midgame the bonus heart food is really good. Later on, though, especially once you max out your hearts, you can just cook one Hearty Durian or Truffle or Radish and a Prime Meat to get a full-heal meal and all the creativity you could have put into making crêpes or stews just sort of fades away. Again, I’d love for the game to have a recipe book so I could sort by the bonus I want, filter by recipes I have the ingredients for, and make some cool stuff.
Eventide Island was one of the coolest events I came across. Lots of fun. Great test of what you’ve learned to do so far.
[Spoilers will start getting heavier below.]
The music in the game is intentionally sparse. You get little light touches of piano here and there but it’s all pruned way back to allow the feeling that you’re out in nature really come through, and it succeeds wonderfully. I tend to associate modern Zelda games with sweeping orchestral scores so the contrast with this game is a [heh] breath of fresh air.
Then you get to Hyrule Castle and it’s gorgeously, fully scored and you wonder if they were just playing a 100+-hour tease to add drama to that zone.
If you do all of Kass’s puzzles he plays you his full song and it’s a delightful reveal. I somehow hadn’t picked up on what melody Kass was working on and when I heard the full thing and it hit me it was a super neat moment.
I like the way that freeing a Divine Beast from Ganon is one of the first things you do in a new zone rather than its climax. You go in, help the Zora or Goron or whoever with their rampaging ancient mecha problem, and then start doing quests to help the little people.
I’d liked to have seen, however, a greater emphasis on the new champions of each zone. This is a fallen land, and Link has walked in and helped them all, but I’d like to see their new champions picking up the reigns. I guess if I had to I could argue there’s a little bit of white man’s burden going on, but since the game is Japanese I can’t quite force that level of western imperialism onto Hyrule being that I don’t know Japanese racial culture well enough.
What I’m trying to get to is that in the final battle with Ganon you see the spirits of the fallen champions piloting the Divine Beasts. It’s a cool moment to seee Mipha, Daruk, Revali, and Urbosa get their vengeance, to be sure, but it denies the current peoples of Hyrule of heroes they might need in the new era. After Ganon is defeated we see Zelda and Link setting off on new adventures, specifically to go repair a malfunctioning Divine Beast, but I’d sort of liked to see that Link’s progress during the game had enabled the Zora, Goron, etc. more.
The Triforce barely figures into the game, appearing only as Zelda uses her power in the last phase of the ending battle with Calamity Ganon. At no point do you travel around the map searching for it or reassembling it, or even interact with it as an object.
Zelda’s line that Ganon has given up on resurrection implies that this will be the last time we’ll see him. The ending scene seems to place the characters on a fresh start, allowing them to freely adventure and start to put their world back together. It leaves me wondering where the next installment of the series will come from. A prequel set in the Sheikah days? A direct sequel showing them rebuilding their kingdom? Or is the whole game an argument for closing off this chapter of the series and moving on to another direction? And how incredibly heavy will the burden to top this one feel!
Okay, let’s talk about the timeline.
Some of the Zelda games have direct sequels. Others seem to take place in the same general world, reusing place names, monsters, and so forth, but all tell their own story, which is always about a boy (named “Link” by default but the player is usually allowed to rename him) and often features a princess, Zelda, and a villain, Ganon. These fixtures aside, not a whole lot ties the early games together. This changed with the release of Ocarina of Time. Because Ocarina of Time has multiple endings, fans came up with a theory that later installments of the series occur in various “what-if” scenarios branching out from the consequences of that game. Since Nintendo has officially recognized the split timeline theory, it opens up the question of where Breath of the Wild fits. Let’s dive in.
In the beginning there was The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System and its direct sequel, The Adventure of Link, in 1987 and 1988 (using the US release dates). The story of the first game is very simple. From its poorly-translated prologue:
Many years ago Prince Darkness Gannon stole one of the Triforce with Power. Princess Zelda had one of the Triforce with Wisdom. She divided it into “8” units to hide it from Gannon before she was captured. Go find the “8” units “Link” to save her.
The game’s manual provides a little more backstory, but that’s more or less it. Link braves dungeons, fights monsters, reassembles the Triforce, fights Ganon, and saves Princess Zelda.
The Adventure of Link follows Link as he prevents Ganon from rising again. It also establishes that there have been previous princesses named Zelda and that it’s royal tradition to give princesses that name.
In 1992 we got A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Its packaging notes that it features “the predecessors of Link and Zelda,” though there aren’t any major plot connections aside from using similar locations and bestiary. Zelda here is not the same person as the slumbering Princess Zelda the First from The Adventure of Link. A Link to the Past’s prologue speaks of “an omnipotent and omniscient Golden Power that resided in a hidden land,” referring to the Triforce in the Sacred Realm, which is where the goddesses who made the world were from (or something like that). “One day evil power began to flow from the Golden Land… So the King commanded seven wise men to seal the gate to the Land of the Golden Power.” In the game Link finds that the Sacred Realm has been taken over by Ganon and turned in a Dark World. Link defeats Ganon and restores the Sacred Realm. Yay.
(Oh, most of the games have Gameboy or DS sequels. I haven’t played any despite them being very well-regarded. They all contribute to the larger story in their own ways but I’m going to remain focused on the home console releases. Also I’m just going to call the bad guy “Ganon” all the time instead of differentiating between “Ganon” and “Ganondorf.”)
1998 saw Nintendo 64’s Ocarina of Time. It’s a super important part of the Zelda series, creating the format for all 3D games of the series to follow until Breath of the Wild brought back the original’s open world. It’s also important because its ending created what you can either call a fascinating inflection point for the series or an annoying piece of minutia for fans to obsess over: the split timeline.
Time travel features heavily in the story of Ocarina of Time. At its conclusion, Link, as an adult (well, a teenager, but we’ll call him “Adult Link” for clarity) defeats Ganon and then travels back in time where, as a kid, he warns Zelda of Ganon’s rise, who then has Ganon arrested before he comes to power. Hold onto that for a second.
In ’00 Ocarina of Time’s sequel, Majora’s Mask was released and it’s super good but its plot is mostly self-contained and it doesn’t take place in Hyrule so we’ll move on. It’s an amazing game, though, it just doesn’t inform the overall plot a ton.
In ’03 Nintendo released The Wind Waker for the GameCube. The Wind Waker featured a cool cartoon look and was set in a Hyrule that had been flooded. Hylians now live on what had once been the tallest elevations in Old Hyrule. At one point we even travel underwater to see some familiar settings. The game’s prologue spelt out some of the backstory, which I’ll annotate:
Long ago, there existed a kingdom where a golden power lay hidden. It was a prosperous land blessed with green forests, tall mountains, and peace.
But one day, a man of great evil found the golden power and took it for himself. With its strength at his command, he spread darkness across the kingdom. But then, when all hope had died, and the hour of doom seemed at hand…
Most of the Zelda games thus far have featured a similar prologue describing Ganon’s rise. Here, though, we actually have a Zelda game specifically referencing a previous game. The Wind Waker prologue is describing the events of Ocarina of Time:
…a young boy clothed in green appeared as if from nowhere. Wielding the blade of evil’s bane, he sealed the dark one away and gave the land light.
This boy, who traveled through time to save the land, was known as the Hero of Time. The boy’s tale was passed down through generations until it became legend…
Importantly, what’s being described here are the exploits of Adult Link from Ocarina of Time, the one who killed Ganon and then traveled back in time to warn Zelda.
But then, a day came when a fell wind began to blow across the kingdom. The great evil that all thought had been forever sealed away by the hero once again crept forth from the depths of the earth, eager to resume its dark designs.
The people believed that the Hero of Time would again come to save them… But the hero did not appear. Faced by an onslaught of evil, the people could do nothing but appeal to the Gods.
“But the hero did not appear” is our key phrase. Why, fans wondered, was there not a Link to stop Ganon? Over time a theory would form that Ocarina of Time’s multiple endings would have big ramifications.
When Link went back in time to warn Zelda of Ganon’s coming, he left the timeline of his present and never returned. Why would he? He was in the past, young again, saving Terminus in Majora’s Mask, and he’d prevented Ganon from ever rising. Link went back in time and prevented the events of the game but in doing so his original timeline was left without him. When Ganon inevitably returned, there was no hero to stop him. In desperation the people prayed to the gods, who responded by flooding the entire land to stop Ganon, hence The Wind Waker’s watery setting.
So The Wind Waker progresses and a new Link fights Ganon in a magical bubble at the bottom of the sea where Old Hyrule was preserved, eventually driving the Master Sword into his head, killing him and sealing his power. The king then breaks the magic bubble and the seas flood and destroy Hyrule. The game has a few sequels that follow Link and Zelda finding new land and establishing New Hyrule.
In ’02 the Wii (and GameCube) got Twilight Princess, and here’s where things get weird. It’s set in regular old Hyrule, not the flooded world of the previous game. Partway through we see a flashback to what was supposed to be Ganon’s execution, but he escapes. This is explicitly supposed to be a scene set after his arrest due to Link warning Zelda based on his knowledge of the future in Ocarina of Time. Twilight Princess is a sequel to the Child Link ending of Ocarina of Time, taking place in a timeline parallel to that of The Wind Waker. Important to this story is that Link is not remembered as a hero in this timeline. He’s just a kid who warned Zelda about Ganon and then wandered off to star in a sequel that has nothing to do with her. During the course of Twilight Princess, the player is assisted by “The Hero’s Shade,” who, we learn, is the ghostly form of child Link who grew up and died regretting that he was never remembered as a hero.
Kinda cool, right? Ocarina of Time featured time travel, and two of the later games each take up one of its alternate endings.
In ’11 we got Skyward Sword for the Wii which told the oldest story yet, set long before any other game and showing, among other things, the beginnings of Hyrule and of a reincarnation cycle that is played out between Ganon, Link, and Zelda.
Around that time, fans got a little overexcited and tried to place the rest of the games into the timeline, and for some reason Nintendo decided to play along. Surely if Skyward Sword is the first story in the series, Ocarina of Time is in the middle somewhere, and Wind Waker and Twilight Princess branch off from it, there must be a way to connect the rest of the stories!
In ’11 Nintendo published Hyrule Historia, an art book featuring information about the whole series to date. That book included an official recognition by Nintendo of the multiple timelines theory, and went a little crazy. It placed Skyward Sword at the beginning of the story, followed by Ocarina of Time, then the split showing Child Link’s storyline continuing in Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princes and Adult Link’s storyline begetting The Wind Waker, but it introduced a third timeline: the Darkest Timeline (as I call it, hat tip to Community).
The Darkest Timeline posits a third possibility: either Link defeats Ganon as an adult, or he travels back in time and warns Zelda and they arrest him, or Link dies and accomplishes none of this. Literally, this is the timeline that springs from the player character dying in the game. Link dies, Ganon takes over but eventually is defeated and sealed away in the Sacred Realm, which he perverts into the Dark World, precipitating A Link to the Past. If you get Link killed while playing Ocarina of Time, you create a timeline where Ganon rises and then the events of A Link to the Past occur. And since that game was intended to be a prequel to the first two NES games, they belong in this timeline, too, so goes the thinking.
Except it’s all reaching. There’s no actual connection between Ganon’s victory at Link’s death in Ocarina of Time and the era described in A Link to the Past prologue. It would work if the “game over” screen in Ocarina of Time showed a montage of Ganon’s rise bearing similarities to A Link to the Past, but it doesn’t.
I’ll note that the fans’ original theory was that these games took place some time after Twilight Princess, which maybe makes a little bit more sense. It allows The Wind Waker to be its own little spinoff with the main timeline being that of Child Link. But for some reason Hyrule Historia invented the third, Darkest Timeline, so we have to choose between Twilight Princess and the earlier games.
So we come now, at last, to Breath of the Wild. If we’re forced to arrange all of the series into one timeline, Breath of the Wild must fit in, too, right?
I’m going to have to grudgingly say that it does. This game was very much intended to be a return to form, bringing back the open world concept from the original game, and I’d like to say that, storywise, it’s allowed to be free and just pick up whatever motifs it wants without being tied to continuity but as I’ve read more and more and explored the game more and more, I don’t think I can get off that easily. While the plot of the game is fairly self-contained, the setting contains too many painstakingly, lovingly crafted homages to previous games for me to let it just be its own thing.
So, if I really have to choose, I’ll place Breath of the Wild in the Darkest Timeline. Personally, though, I’m not totally sold on this being a different timeline that necessarily excludes Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess, and I can almost offer up an argument that this game doesn’t, either. Away we go.
Let’s look at the story of Breath of the Wild. The first thing to note is that Breath of the Wild takes place a long time after any previous game. In the same way the Skyward Sword is a distant prequel to every Zelda game, here we have a distant sequel. Events of the previous games definitely happened but it’s been ages.
Like other games, it features a prologue sequence that explains its backstory, this time in the form of a song:
The Kingdom of Hyrule is a vast and storied land, Oft grasped in the palm of a villainous hand. A dark force of destruction, many times undone, Rises once again — Ganon, the calamitous one. But hope survives in Hyrule, for all is not lost, Two brave souls protect it, no matter the cost. A Goddess-blood princess and a fearless knight, They appear in each age to fight the good fight. Their battle with Ganon I’ve committed to song, To keep it through time, no matter how long.
So, standard “Link and Zelda fight Ganon” in “each age” stuff.
Now begins the second verse, listen and you’ll know, Of their battle with Ganon 10,000 years ago. The kingdom of Hyrule was once a land of lasting peace, A culture of such strength and wit, that suffering did cease.
Incidentally, “10,000” in Japan, I’m told, is a magic number that just means “really big” in the same way Americans might say “a million dollars” when they’re trying to think of a big number of dollars. It’s likely we shouldn’t take the “10,000 years ago” figure literally but it doesn’t ultimately matter how long ago the past events were. Point is, a long time ago, Hyrule had an age of prosperity.
In addition to there being 10,000 years of space between Ganon’s last defeat and this one, there must have been a significant amount of time before that for the Sheikah to develop the advanced technology they used to help Zelda and Link.
But Ganon lurked beneath the surface, strengthening its jaws So the ancient people of Hyrule set out to help the cause. Their efforts bore fruit in an automated force, The help avert Calamity by sealing it at its source. Four giant behemoths for which power never ceased, Each of these titans was called a “Divine Beast.” And free-willed machines that hunted down their prey These Guardians were built to last so they could join the fray. […]
The song goes on to describe the last fight with Ganon, 10,000 years before the game’s recent calamity. The Sheikah use their Divine Beasts to help that era’s Zelda and Link defeat Ganon. Over time the clan fades away, the last of whom now live in Kakariko Village, but they pass along a prophesy that Ganon will return.
As opposed to the prologue of The Wind Waker, which directly references Ocarina of Time’s incarnation of Ganon, none of this refers to any particular Link, Zelda, or Ganon we’ve seen, but the King’s Journal found in Hyrule Castle does mention tradition of naming princesses “Zelda” as per The Adventure of Link persists, so the game has to be set after the events described in that game. Breath of the Wild’s Zelda knows that Ganon is going to return, just as the Sheikah did, prompting them to build the Guardians and the Divine Beasts, but we don’t know whether the three Ganons-ago Ganon is one from any particular game. We just know there’s the current Calamity Ganon in Hyrule Castle, the one the defeated 10,000 years ago, and another one from before that.
(Two affordances. One: we’re meant to accept the idea that a civilization could exist for dozens of millennia and somehow still use the same royal crest, have a language that doesn’t change so much that words like “Zelda” aren’t altered at all, and so on. Two: every game has its own geography. We can’t dwell on the fact that, say, Spectacle Rock is in the north in A Link to the Past and in the southwest in Breath of the Wild. We have to accept that these locations are supposed to be the same places even though the game design required them to be in difference locations, in the same way that we accept that Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando are both Vito Corleone. These are affordances of the media we have to grant.)
The Hyrule that Link wakes up to is the Hyrule of previous games. Very early on you come across the Temple of Time and it’s intentionally modeled to look like a ruined version of Ocarina of Time’s structure. You can find ruins of Castle Town in the exact same place it sat. Nearby I found a pond that looked like the one in Link’s village and an appropriately placed stump where the Deku Tree would have sat. (And if not there, you can also find “Sage’s Temple” near the “Ancient Tree” stump on Western Hyrule Field.) North of Riverside Stable sit the ruins of Lon Lon Ranch. The Arbiter’s Grounds from Twilight Princess reside, mostly buried in sand, in Gerudo Desert. These aren’t just homages. The designers took great care to make these look like ruined versions of the exact locations from the previous games. Here’s a video walking through the similarities of Ocarina of Time’s Castle Town and Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau.
If you find all 120 shrines in the game you hear a voice bidding you to come to the Forgotten Temple, where the monks give you a gift in the form of three treasure chests containing the Armor of the Wild. Why there? Because the Forgotten Temple is the original temple from Skyward Sword, one of the few times the game’s homages is a part of the story and not just setting. While the characters in the game know it only as ruins, the gods remember.
Culturally, the Divine Beasts are all named after famous characters from previous games. Vah Ruta, Vah Nabooris, and Vah Rudania for Ocarina of Time’s Ruto, Nabooru, and Darunia. (Vah Medoh is problematic, however, as we’ll discuss below.)
It’s clear, then, that this game takes place in the far future of the Hyrule we’ve come to love. The question is which future.
I’ll go ahead and rule out the Adult Timeline right away. At the end of Wind Waker the magic barrier protecting Hyrule is lowered and the kingdom is flooded and destroyed. Its sequels then follow Link and Zelda as they establish a new kingdom in a new land. Even if you imagine that the waters eventually receded and the buildings were still standing enough to remain recognizable ruins, and the Temple of Time were rebuilt (as the King in Breath of the Wild mentions it had been in use until recently), setting the game in Old Hyrule undermines the events of Wind Waker which lead to the King’s wish to destroy it, as well as those of the game’s sequels.
Some have proposed that Divine Beast Vah Medoh is named after Medli, a Rito from Wind Waker. Every other Divine Beast is named after a famous sage whose race matches its home city. Medli becomes a sage in the course of that game, so she certainly qualifies. There’s no good way for me to argue away from this one, since there aren’t any Rito characters in any other game, much less any Rito sages.
The item description for Rock Salt mentions an ancient sea, which some have taken to refer to Wind Waker’s sea. While this is possible I again don’t like the explanation because I think it lessens Wind Waker’s ending and its sequels which are clearly meant to be showing that the story has moved on from Old Hyrule.
What about the Child Timeline? There are some good arguments for placing the game in this timeline. Foremost among them is the text of the speech Zelda gives when she anoints Link as a knight:
Hero of Hyrule, chosen by the sword that seals the darkness… You have shown unflinching bravery and skill in the face of adversity. And have proven yourself worthy of the blessings of the Goddess Hylia. Whether skyward bound, adrift in time, or steeped in the glowing embers of twilight… The sacred blade is forever bound to the soul of the Hero. We pray for your protection… and we hope that — that the two of you will grow stronger together, as one.
The text specifically mentions “twilight,” so that means the game has to be set after Twilight Princess in the Child Timeline, right? Well. Not so fast. Zelda is talking about the Master Sword, which was never wielded by Link in the Child Timeline. That’s the timeline where Link’s role was just to warn Zelda about Ganon; he doesn’t fight and doesn’t have the Master Sword. He isn’t even remembered, as the Hero’s Shade laments.
During this scene the camera moves away from Zelda to listen to Revali and Daruk, but at one point we hear Zelda mention that Link has crossed the sea. The obvious connection here is to Wind Waker, but Link also crosses a sea in The Adventure of Link.
One more wrinkle: the Japanese game doesn’t use the word “twilight” for the Twilight Realm in Twilight Princess. It does use that word to refer to the Dark World in A Link to the Past, so you could argue that Zelda was referring to events from the Darkest Timeline both here and with the line about the sea.
A better argument, I think, is that the game is just referring to other games without caring about this timeline nonsense. But we’ll move on because we’re forcing ourselves to commit to a timeline, dammit!
Arbiter’s Grounds exist in Breath of the Wild. They’re only seen in Twilight Princess, so they’re a direct link to the Child Timeline. You can imagine that they’d have been built long before Ganondorf’s execution, though, so I won’t call that strong evidence.
The Divine Beast Vah Ruta as named after Ruto, a Zora who is the Sage of Water in Ocarina of Time and who, according to a stone tablet in Breath of the Wild, helped defeat Ganon ages ago. In Twilight Princess, however, we see Ganon kill a Sage of Water who doesn’t resemble Ruto. If Ruto isn’t a sage in the Child Timeline, then Breath of the Wild can’t be a part of it.
Twilight Princess’s Temple of Time is in worse shape than Breath of the Wild’s. Granted it could have been rebuilt (and probably has) over the years.
Moving on to the Darkest Timeline, I’ll borrow a few points from Reddit user ArtVandelayImporters who lays out the case well, I think, for this being the setting for Breath of the Wild, as do Geek’s Will Greenwald and John Eire at Now Loading.
First, the game just feels like the original Legend of Zelda. It very intentionally recreates its open world concept, allowing the player to tackle most any part of the game in whatever order is desired. It was released around the game’s 30th anniversary so setting it in the same world seems fitting, and it’s in general designed to be a celebration of the series’ roots. Look at page six of the original game’s manual and tell me that illustration of Link staring off into the distance couldn’t be concept art for Breath of the Wild!
Breath of the Wild features a maze just like The Adventure of Link and Rauru Settlement Ruins to that game’s Town of Rauru, in the same places on the map, speaking to the possibility that this is set after that game which, we’d seen, had been the last game in that timeline chronologically.
The Darkest Timeline branches off from the Adult Timeline, with most of the events of Ocarina of Time occurring before Link dies, so there’s plenty of time for Ruto and the others to become sages and take their place in history to be commemorated by the Divine Beasts’ names.
The games set in the Darkest Timeline all feature Ganon as their main villain, and he’s the only antagonist here.
The Master Sword is found in the Lost Woods, like in A Link to the Past, instead of in the Temple of Time like in Twilight Princess. (Granted it could have been moved.) The path to navigating the Lost Woods resembles the original game’s puzzle.
The inciting incident of the entire game is that this is a world where Link and Zelda were not successful in defeating Ganon 100 years ago. This entire timeline started when Link died fighting Ganon during Ocarina of Time.
So, that’s my argument for the game being set in the Darkest Timeline. Mostly it just feels like it’s supposed to fit there.
Another theory that’s been tossed around is that the various timelines have converged somehow. Ultimately the game is set so far in the future that it could be the future of any of the timelines. A better reckoning is that Nintendo decided it didn’t care all that much about the timeline and just stuck in references and easter eggs where it felt like it. Continuity is an albatross to a writer.