Nintendo franchises tend to revolve around a small cast of characters who return for countless adventures. Every Super Mario game stars the same Italian plumber twins, Mario and Luigi, and Metroid titles all feature the same intergalactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran. If The Legend of Zelda followed the same logic, every entry would detail the continuing adventures of the same exact protagonist. The truth is a little more complicated.
For those who aren’t well-versed in The Legend of Zelda, players take control of a hero named Link in every installment. Even though art styles shift between games, every Link is a young boy (or sometimes man) in a green Peter Pan-like tunic. While Link swings his sword in his left hand and holds his shield in his right, he occasionally swaps his dominant hand. Moreover, every entry sports a fairly stable roster of weapons. Sometimes items are added or removed to mix things up, but you can usually rely on Link to save Hyrule with bombs, arrows, boomerangs, and pockets big enough to hold them all. And, most games end with Link facing off with against a main villain named Ganon or Ganondorf — the names are somewhat interchangeable, but the villain always has the same end goal. Given these similarities, the uninitiated might assume Link is the same person throughout the series. A reasonable assumption, but ultimately wrong.
According to the official Zelda timeline (which has to be rewritten every time a new entry releases), the franchise takes place over countless eras. While the number of years between eras is never disclosed, enough time passes for the geography of Hyrule to shift dramatically from game to game. As such, each era has its own Link. Sometimes they are blood relatives to past Links, other times they are spiritual reincarnations. Some Links are the childhood friends/potential love interests of Princess Zelda, others are possibly her brother. Regardless, every Link forms a chain of heroes that protects Hyrule from evil.
Chronologically, the very first Link (as of the writing of this article) appeared in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where he defeated the demon Demise and was subsequently cursed by him. Demise’s death curse is essentially Ganondorf/Ganon and was apparently designed to explain why the King of Thieves always returns from the dead to torment the new Link of each era. While some fans aren’t happy with Demise or his curse, at least the character spells out that not every Link is the same character. But, that doesn’t mean each incarnation of the hero is relegated to one game, either.
Some Links are assigned honorific titles in memory of their escapades (and game gimmicks). For instance, the Link from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is remembered as the Hero of Time, while the Link from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is called the Hero of the Wind. These incarnations are of particular importance since they went on to have further adventures after they saved Hyrule. For instance, after the Hero of Time Link defeated Ganondorf, he was sent back in time to live the rest of his life, but instead of putting his feet up and relaxing, he searched for his fairy companion, Navi. While some might question the logic of such a quest given how often she pestered Link with cries of “Hey, listen!” this self-imposed mission eventually led Link to Termina, where the events of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask took place. Then again, both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask originally released on the Nintendo 64, so it’s a bit more obvious they feature the same Link.
As for the Hero of the Wind Link, he kept sailing with Princess Zelda/Tetra after they slew Ganondorf, and they eventually met characters like Linebeck and Ciela. This Link’s adventures with these new characters formed the backbone of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. But honestly, most gamers probably assume the Links in these games are the same because they share the same artstyle. Confusingly enough, while the next Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, uses the same graphics and control scheme as Phantom Hourglass, that game’s Links are completely different characters, even though they share the same football-shaped head.
Since the timeline of The Legend of Zelda series is constantly evolving, the list of Links and their connections to one another will continue to change and grow. Some Links will be standalone characters, while others will canonically be the same hero from other games. It’s pretty obvious that the Link in the upcoming Breath of the Wild 2 is the same one from the first Breath of the Wild, but who knows how Nintendo might make that connection more complicated…