While the Nintendo DS has been out for at least two years, we've just now received the first Zelda game, and of course Jen and I had to get it. The Legend of Zelda is probably the biggest Nintendo franchise after Mario, and I happen to prefer the Zelda games as they don't move quite as fast and focus more on exploration, require a little more intelligence than Mario games.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the direct sequel to the Nintendo Gamecube game TLoZ: Wind Waker. I can't say anything about that game since I have never even owned a Gamecube, let alone played Wind Waker. So here I am starting out with PH, and apparently one does not have to know anything about WW to play PH. Lovely.
Getting started, the game is almost entirely controlled independent of the buttons on the DS. Movement, attacking, even weapon selection is all handled using the touch screen. You can even draw on the map by touching an icon to swap the map with the action screen, and writing on the touch screen. Movement is simple. You pretty much touch where you want to go. If there's an enemy in front of you, drawing a line from Link (or whatever you name him) to the enemy makes Link perform a jab thrust, stabbing the enemy. Drawing a line between Link and the enemy causes Link to swipe his sword left to right or right to left. Lastly, you can draw a circle around Link to make him do his famous spin attack. It gets more interesting once you get the Boomerang. You get an active item icon in the upper right corner. You touch the icon to select the boomerang, and then you draw its trajectory. It attempts to follow the path you've given it, and when it's done (or fails, if you just scribbled), it returns to you.
The plot thus far (and I'm not far at all) is that Link washes up on the shore of a strange island, having failed to rescue Zelda, who goes by the name of Tetra and runs with pirates. A fabled Ghost Ship appears, she jumps on board, Link goes after her but misses, lands in the water, the Ghost Ship vanishes and his own ship abandons him or loses him. So again Link's trying to rescue Zelda, although for once it seems as though Ganon isn't involved.
So I go online, and it appears they're still debating a timeline. It happens with each Zelda game, fans want to know the order in which the games take place. The fact that Wikipedia supports the theory and says one game takes place 100 years after another pretty much sinks the argument, I mean how old is Link anyway? Here's how it was before the N64 versions. It may have changed officially or in fanfiction, but here's what it used to be.
Consider the name... Legend of Zelda. What is a "Legend"? It's a story that is passed down from generation to generation, and at every step something changes. Two thousand years later, every society on the planet has the same story told, just differently. Different exxagerations, different cultural influences, make for different stories.
Therefore there is no timeline. It's the same story told differently. Direct sequels (like Phantom Hourglass being of Wind Waker) aside, each game is just a retelling of the original legend, the "Legend of Zelda".
Ganon isn't Jason Vorhees. He doesn't just keep coming back to life after being definitively killed each time. Ganon isn't even the main villain in some games - chalk that up to cultural influence.
And Link doesn't have amnesia. He doesn't forget everything that happens after each adventure, pawn all his stuff.
So some games reference others, do they? Well, I don't know anything about that, but I'd bet, on the part of the developers at least, it's just common themes from game to game. Most of them have fairies. Most of them feature the Triforce. Most of them feature a young hero named Link (who could later be renamed). As the years went by (in our world), different introduced new things, and different developers who thought those things were special reused them. That's just a story element that remained the same in two or more stories because it was important.
Lastly, I'm not even going to touch which games correspond to which countries or cultures. There's no real evidence AFAIK that Hyrule is anywhere on our Earth to start with. It's just some kingdom that existed some thousands of years ago, and these are the stories. The story is basically the same each time, but each retelling adds to the legend. And as long as the games keep selling - as long as people follow the legend - then the legend is successful.
And that's all there is to it, folks. Phantom Hourglass is a great game so far, but it's not an original story that takes place before or after the other Zelda games (but it does take place after Wind Waker, apparently). It's just another story based on the legend.