The Legend of Zelda series has been with us for nearly 40 years, and it hasn’t spent all this time idle, indeed, there are nearly twenty mainline Zelda games, and many spin-offs launched between canonical entries.

With so many games, it’s only natural to wonder if you need to play them in order, and if so, what would the order be? You’d think it would make the most sense to play them in release order, but it won’t be a satisfying experience for the lore-lovers among you, because the official world timeline is… weird.

If you want to play through the series in the stories’ chronological order, you’re going to have a weird time, because there are effectively five timelines to consider: the origin era; the three split timelines; the restored continuity.

Each contains several games that are best played in order, but the split timelines in the middle are parallel branches, so you can choose which branch to experience first. Thankfully, each game is perfectly able to stand on its own, so it you decide it’s way too many games, you could just settle for the few that sound exciting. Especially the latest games in the series, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are very easy to get into.

Anyway. below you’ll find a handy summary of each game in this complicated chronology, so let’s dive in!

The original timeline

Skyward Sword

Release date:2011-11-18
Developer:Nintendo EAD

Skyward Sword, released in 2011 for Nintendo Wii, is accepted as the earliest story in the chronology of Hyrule.

As you dive into the story about the original Link fighting the Demon King Demise, you’ll learn about the origins of the Triforce and the Master Sword, but, more importantly, you’ll know why Link and Zelda keep having to fight Ganon across time, space, and the series.

Skyward Sword was a fairly classic LoZ game, with overworld exploration in-between the meat-and-potatoes of the series: the dungeons filled with environmental puzzles. Its big gimmick were the motion controls, requiring not just the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk, but also the MotionPlus extension. Thankfully, Nintendo Switch’s built-in controls are quite sufficient for the HD version.

The Minish Cap

Release date:2004-11-04
Developer:Capcom Production Studio 1

After Skyward Sword followed The Minish Cap, released in 2004 for Game Boy Advance. The plot begins with this age’s Link escorting Princess Zelda to an important festival.

Unfortunately, it goes very wrong, as a fellow named Vaati destroys a ceremonial sword and unleashes monster upon the land. As only children can see spirits capable of restoring the sword, Link’s job is clear.

The Minish Cap’s gameplay was very much in line with prior Zelda games, with an explorable overworld and plenty of dungeons to delve. An interesting new element is Link’s ability to become tiny thanks to the eponymous Minish cap.

It changed how you can interact with the environment, with new locations becoming available, while others become impassable and inaccessible.

Four Swords

Release date:2002-12-02
Developer:Capcom Production Studio 1

A 2002 Game Boy Advance release, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords and was released with A Link to the Past, although the two titles’ events happen on very different places in the Zelda timeline.

Fours Swords was the first multiplayer LoZ game, and it required at least two people to link their GBAs. Once linked, up to four players could cooperate to clear randomized dungeons.

Link’s (or Links’, actually) mission it to save Zelda, kidnapped by Vaati for marital purpose. The game features multiple Links due to the mysterious power of the titular Four Sword which makes several copies of the green-clad hero, color-coded based on the number of linked players.

The plot is mostly a pretext for the multiplayer adventure, however, so you don’t need to worry about it.

Ocarina of Time - Child timeline

Release date:1998-11-21
Developer:Nintendo EAD

The final game before the Zelda timeline is splintered is appropriately titles The Ocarina of Time. It’s held as one of the finest installments of the series alongside Majora’s mask and the two Switch-specific entries.

Its big gimmick is an in-game ocarina you could play (as a minigame) to cause a range of magical effects useful especially for solving the game’s many environmental puzzles.

The plot revolves around Ganondorf’s search for the powerful Triforce and Link’s quest to prevent the artifact from falling into his hands. Over the course of the game, you’ll need to become worthy of using the Master Sword, awaken sages capable of aiding you against Ganondorf, and save Hyrule.

Probably. Ocarina of Time is where the timeline fractures into three different branches.

Majora’s Mask

Release date:2000-04-27
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

When at the end of Ocarina of Time Link returns to the pastand his child self, this begins the Child Link timeline, with Majora’s Mask as the first story on this branch. Its events begin just a few months after Ocarina.

The story finds Link in Termina, Hyrule’s dark reflection, currently threatened by a moon slowly falling from the sky and a malevolent mask behind the impending calamity.

The usual LoZ gameplay was enriched by Masks Link can wear to become different creatures and access their abilities, very useful for solving the dungeons and other puzzles. The plot is on a timer, with a time-loop lasting around an hour of real-time.

While your gear remains with you, you must use your growing familiarity with the event schedule and world structure to eventually save Termina.

Twilight Princess

Release date:2006-11-19
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

Twilight Princess follow a new Link, now a teenager, long after the events of Majora’s Mask. This Link is pulled into a mysterious twilit forest while he was searching for kidnapped children.

After a few more unpleasantries, it’s revealed that the Hyrule Castle was invaded by an evil wizard who became the source of the omnipresent twilight. Sounds like a job for a hero, doesn’t it?

The big thing that makes Twilight Princess gameplay different from other entries is Link’s developing ability to turn into a wolf. In wolf form his attacks change, his speed increases, and can even track by scent.

It’s an interesting gimmick which, while not as flexible as Majora’s Mask’s many transformations works very well within the themes and style of Twilight Princess.

Four Sword Adventure - Adult timeline

Release date:2004-03-18
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

Four Swords Adventures is quite similar to Four Swords, except this time the Hyrulean adventure is perfectly playable solo, without linking other GBAs.

There also two other modes, specifically the PvP Shadow Battle, something of a precursor to what we now know as battle royale, and the Navi Trackers mode, which was exclusive to the Japanese version of the game.

As for the plot, it involves Vaati once again, freed from his imprisonment after Link pulls the Four Sword to fight against Shadow Link attacking Zelda and shrine attendants.

It’s a big mess, and you have to fix it by exploring the overworld and discover a grander conspiracy levelled against Hyrule. This time the maps aren’t randomly generated, and span eight distinct worlds.

The Wind Waker

Release date:2002-12-13
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

The Wind Waker is the first story in the Adult timeline, following after Zelda sends Link back in Ocarina of Time. The absence of Link led to the world being flooded to prevent Ganondorf’s eventual return.

In the present day, centuries later, a young Link’s coming of age celebration is interrupted by a giant bird dropping a pirate into a monster-filled forest and kidnapping Link’s sister instead.

Wind Waker features a rather large open world for a 2003 game. Its overworld is mostly nautical, introducing sailing as a major form of transportation between the game’s many islands.

The game also includes a magical baton called the Wind Waker, similar to the Ocarina. There is a number of tunes Link can conduct, including one that allows his to control the wind.

Phantom Hourglass

Release date:2007-01-23
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to Wind Waker, a rarity in the Zelda series. With the threat from Wind Waker safely contained for now, Link can commit to a rather swashbuckling adventure centered on a life-stealing Ghost Ship and a monster which created it in the first place.

You’ll be looking for lost artifacts, communing with sea spirits, and solving mysteries.

While the gameplay was quite similar to Wind Waker, although with a top-down perspective, rather than a TPP. Nintendo DS’s double screen was used for a variety of functions, including an ingenious upgrade to naval navigation and the ability to make easily accessible notes.

Phantom Hourglass also included a multiplayer mode, an asymmetrical 1v1 battle scenario.

Spirit Tracks - The darkest timeline

Release date:2009-12-07
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

Spirit Tracks is the last story taking place in the Adult Link timeline. It takes place about a hundred year after the events of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, in a different land. It also features new incarnations of Link and Zelda.

The story involves Spirit Tracks, the land’s train transit network doing double duty as a seal on the Demon King Malldus. However, the tracks are disappearing…

Spirit Tracks also released on Nintendo DS like PH, and it’s very similar in terms of gameplay, but instead of sailing on the seas you get to ride a train across the overworld.

It lacks the flexibility of sailing, but you do get to use the train whistle to toot-toot away some animals lingering on the tracks. There’s also a pan flute minigame, this game’s ocarina/baton, using DS’s microphone.

A Link to the Past

Release date:1991-11-21
Developer:Nintendo EAD

What if Link couldn’t defeat Ganon in Ocarina of Time? Well, another timeline would be created, suffering from Link’s failure. The first story on this sad branch is A Link to the Past.

Ganon’s ambitions empowered by the completed Triforce turned his prison in the Spirit World into the Dark World, a twisted reflection of Hyrule, and the old foe has an ally who seeks to free him.

A Link to the Past released for Super NES and brought back the top-down perspective after the prior-release (which we will get to) experimented with a side-scrolling Legend of Zelda.

ALttP brought multi-level dungeons to the series, which made them even trickier to complete. It also featured two different maps: the Light World and the Dark World, with different aesthetics, encounters, etc.

Link’s Awakening

Release date:1993-06-06
Developer:Nintendo EAD

Link’s Awakening was the first Legend of Zelda game released for a handheld device, and the only one to land on the original Game Boy.

The game is confined to a single island, traditionally filled with overworld exploration and dungeons to solve. It took hints from The Adventure of Link and gave the green-clad hero the ability to jump, which played into location design in an interesting way.

It’s a sequel to A Link to the Past, although it doesn’t feature Hyrule or Zelda at all. Instead, it has Link stranded on an island and spend much of the game trying to find a way back home.

This requires acquisition of several artifacts and waking up the island’s guardian. It’s a relatively low-stakes story, but it has a secret ending if you complete it without losing any lives.

Oracle of Seasons & Oracle of Ages

Release date:2001-02-27
Developer:Capcom Production Studio 1

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are interesting case, because they were launched at the same time, and could be treated both as independent releases and as two parts of the same story.

The latter part was accomplished via passwords allowing both games to interact. There are many such passwords, some unlocked by completing either game, others by talking to NPCs.

Each game has a different villain, and a different kidnapped oracle Link needs to save. If you link the games with a password, you’ll be able to get a special third ending, allowing you to face off against a mysterious villain you saw spying on your previous fights.

It’s an interesting gimmick, and it made playing both games really worth the effort.

A Link Between Worlds

Release date:2013-11-22
Developer:Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No.3

We’re in the Nintendo 3DS era after SNES and GB(A) detour. A Link Between Worlds is a spiritual successor of A Link to the Past, with a similar focus on parallel worlds players have to navigate to solve puzzles and other challenges.

The game’s big gimmick is Link’s ability to become a mural, which shifts the game’s top-down perspective into a side-scrolling one and is the key to many obstacles.

You’ve heard of Hyrule, but have you heard of its gloomy counterpart, Lorule? It had the Triforce, once, but it was lost and the kingdom fell upon hard times.

The story involves kidnappings, betrayals, and dramatic reveals, and more people being turned into painting than you would probably expect. Ganon is involved in the story, but more as a lingering threat than a core plot point.

Tri Force Heroes

Release date:2015-10-22
Genre:Hack and slash/Beat 'em up

Tri Force heroes was designed as a cooperative multiplayer game for up to three players. Thankfully, unlike Four Swords and like Four Sword Adventures, it does allow solo players to play thanks to “Doppels” substituting for live players.

The player avatar can also wear costumes providing new abilities and improve certain stats.

The story takes place a few years after A Link Between Worlds, and even features the same Link, not another reincarnation, although Twi Force heroes’ different art style might obscure that aspect.

The crisis this time might be the lowest-takes situation in any Zelda game on the timeline and involves a fashion craze and a princess being cursed to wear a boring brown jumpsuit.

The Legend of Zelda

Release date:1986-02-21
Developer:Nintendo R&D4

The original Legend of Zelda, the very first game in the series, and it’s placed as the last-but-one game in the darkest timeline.

It might be the most multiplatform Zelda, as it launched first on FAMICOM, then on NES, and finally in GBA. It codified many of the series recurring elements, including heart containers, world structure, the importance of puzzle dungeons, etc.

It also was the first appearance of Ganon, and his unending quest for the complete Triforce. Princess Zelda, hoping to delay his conquest, splits the remaining Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces and hides them in dungeons around Hyrule.

A perfect problem for a young boy named Link, recruited into by Zelda’s nursemaid Impa hoping to find somebody to rescue her kidnapped ward.

The Adventure of Link - The converged timeline

Release date:1987-01-14
Developer:Nintendo R&D4

The Adventure of Link is the last game on the darkest timeline and is a direct sequel to the original TLoZ.

It begins when Link find a mysterious mark on his hand, leading him to discover a Zelda from another time caught in a magical sleep. To wake her up, he needs to find the Triforce of Courage. Unfortunately, Ganon’s forces are on the rise again, and will make this quest perilous.

The Adventure of Link was a sign of things to come, in that it already decided to experiment with new systems and ideas the way future games would.

In this case, it meant splitting the presentation into top-down overworld exploration and side-scrolling in discrete locations. This installment also introduced XP Link can spend on upgrading his offensive, defensive and magical potential.

Breath of the Wild

Release date:2017-03-03
Developer:Nintendo EPD Production Group No. 3

Breath of the Wild introduced a new playstyle to the series. It was a fantastic system-seller to Nintendo Switch, and much of this power came from the game’s large, immersive open world and the flexible physics engine.

Unlike previous installments, Breath of the Wild didn’t force players into a specific solution of a puzzle or shrine, and instead allowed them to think out-of-the-box.

Breath of the Wild

The story is the start of a new timeline, or the convergence of the three prior ones, at least, and begins a hundred years after a disastrous war against Ganon, which left Link gravely wounded and left in a healing sleep for a century, while Zelda tried to keep Calamity Ganon contained.

But now it’s time to wake up and take on the burden like the hero of Hyrule you are supposed to be.

Tears of the Kingdom

Release date:2023-05-12
Developer:Nintendo EPD Production Group No. 3

Tears of the Kingdom is a direct sequel to BotW, taking place a few years after Ganon’s defeat. Hyrule has changed in that time, its sky is now full of hovering islands, and there’s a vast underground world ripe for exploration.

Link also has new tools and abilities, the mightiest and most fascinating of them is the Ultrahand which allows you to freely combine objects into working machines.

Tears of the Kingdom

The plot begins with Link and Zelda exploring a cave under the Hyrule Castle. They discover murals chronicling an ancient war, but further exploration is interrupted by a powerful mummy, which leads to Zelda’s disappearance, the destruction of Master Sword, and Link being wounded again.

Thankfully, this time it doesn’t take him a hundred years to get back into action.

Time restored

Welcome to the end. That’s to ominous… welcome to the current state of the Zelda world! Hopefully, this lengthy journey was interesting, and your plans for experiencing the entire series have crystallized into something you’re excited about. And remember: you don’t need to play all of them, each title is great on its own and direct connections between them are usually quite vague at most.