Nintendo finally explains Link and Zelda's history, and as you probably imagine, it's a bit complicated.
Piecing together the winding narrative of Zelda has always been difficult for gamers, and for at least a little while, for Nintendo as well. First, in 2009, there was an official statement that there was no timeline possible that could tie the games together. Then, in November of 2011, we were told that there was a timeline, but that it's a secret. Now, it seems like Nintendo has finally made up its mind and committed, in ink, to a solution that makes the series seamless.
The answers were found in a recently released Legend of Zelda encyclopedia/art book, currently not available in the United States or Europe. The timelines below are the product of an early report from Japan, so bear in mind there may be something lost in the translation here.
Without further ado, here are the most official answers to date. Our timeline begins with four titles in the following order:
The primary timeline:
1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2. The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap
3. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords
4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Due to the existence of a time jump in Ocarina, the game's progression apparently only represents one possibly outcome. From there, the timeline splinters, creating three separate alternate realities.
Here's the first sequence, in which Link actually failed to stop Ganon in Ocarina.
The failure timeline:
5. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
6. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Oracle of Ages
7. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
8. The Legend of Zelda
9. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Now, forget everything you just read and back up to Ocarina again. This time, things happened as you actually saw in the game (Link kicking butt, then going back in time to enjoy his childhood). As this was the ending actually featured, I suppose that makes this timeline somewhat more "real" than the other. But to make this even more complicated, Link now splits into two parallel universes: one which follows his adventures as a child after time-traveling backward, and one which follows Link as he progresses from his victory over Ganon.
The victory/progression timeline:
5. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
6. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
7. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures
The victory/childhood timeline:
5. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
6. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
7. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
All and all, considering that Nintendo likely just made this up instead of having some secret master plan from the beginning, it's a decently logical list. One thing troubles me though: Why isn't Link in on any of these parallel and alternate reality shenanigans? Is Link some sort of spirit, continually resurrected without knowledge of his past lives to defeat the mighty evils of the somewhat complicated universe he lives in? Are all of these "Links" actually just different, mostly mute, elf-people in one of the most unlikely coincidences of all time? And where the hell does his talkative stint at Hyrule castle fit into it? Or that break-dance battle from the 80s? What do you say, Escapist? Do these timelines answer all of your questions or simply raise more?