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So yes, the basic question:

Considering the tweaks in Legend of Zelda canon throughout the years, is it meant to be presumed that Link was [even retroactively] using the Master Sword as his strongest sword forms in the first two NES games?

This question is somewhat complex due to the nature of the retconning which took place over Zelda's 30+ year history. As these games were so early in the franchise, nothing could be explicitly said. Further complicating matters is that there is a lot which could be left up to interpretation in the series. To make searching for answers easier, I've assembled what facts here that I could from official game books, but any canon answer found outside of the manuals or comics would also be appreciated. That being said, here is what we know...

It is popularly held that the Legend of Zelda franchise has multiple timelines with re-incarnating Protagonists (Link, Zelda) and Antagonist (Gannondorf/ Ganon). The earliest games were simple and straightforward, without too much extensive back lore [The Triforce of Courage wasn't established, yet, neither how the Triforce of Wisdom and Power came to be, etc]. There was the basic story, with several details, as seen in the game manual here...

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Even Link wasn't noted as the "Legendary Hero", yet; was just a random adventuring kid who had happened upon Zelda's servant, Impa...

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The only mention to a powerful sword made in this game is the "magical sword", shown here. This, it would seem, would conclusively show that the Master Sword "wasn't a thing" in the first games...however, due to the ret-conning of the canon, that can't be held as fact. The "Magic sword" may have just been a simplified title to the "master sword", as they seem to have similar basic effects....

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These basic effects are:

  1. Increasing Link's striking power

  2. Providing a magical based blade attack

  3. Strongest possible offensive weapon for general use

The Lore got a little deeper in the next game, The Adventure of Link, where it was more or less established that Link was the bearer of a heretofore unseen Triforce, the Triforce of Courage.....

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Again, however, even with the lore upgrade, it's never stated that this magical sword is precisely the Master Sword which becomes a lynch pin the in games history....

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Canonically, the first specific appearance or even mention of the "Master Sword" comes in the SNES game Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past ....

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From here on out, the weapon becomes a MAJOR element in most of the games.

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IT should also be noted that while the NES games call Link's sword "Magical", it bears no real physical resemblance to the Master Sword.

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Now granted, I know on a practical level that during the NES years, the game's lore was still forming, so all elements may not have been set into place yet, much as how the third Triforce didn't "officially" become a thing until game 2. This would explain why the Triforce of courage is never mentioned in the American animated TV series...

Though this too is kind of odd, since the series came out in 88/89, and other elements from The Adventure of Link were used in there, but... whatever. That series was more of a "side tie in" rather than soemthing that arose directly from the video game lore, and it was prior to the first "official" mention of the Master Sword anyway....

This leaves us with 2 possibilities:

1. Those first LOZ adventures happened without the Master Sword, or

2. The Master Sword was there, but just mislabeled.

The first [and honestly, more likely] reason would be due to real-world issues; the story lore simply hadn't progressed to that level yet. This poses an in-story problem, though, in that the MS has been seen as a "key" element,almost to the same degree as the Triforce, so trying to "explain away" its absence would be difficult.

The second option is viable [and it wouldn't take much for any player to simply "accept" that the Magic sword, upgraded to its highest form, is simply the unnamed MS]... but then it sort of falls out of sync with the rest of the canon, as the MS usually has to be sought by the hero, in game; in most of the titles, it forms a sort of plot point, and its exclusion due to the MS basically "already being the hero's possession" kind of undermine's its import.

There is a third possibility, though....

Much like the Minish Cap is a crucial element in that particular game, but no other [The Master sword isn't even present, either, replaced instead by the "Picori Blade"] and the Wind Waker [arguably one of the most powerful magical tools in the LOZ world ] is hardly seen outside that specific game [not counting Twilight Princess and Hyrule warriors], the MS could just be of limited import in this timeline [since its established that the NES games are directly connected]. Certain items are given greater priority in given games/adventures/incarnation/timelines, after all.

And besides, these are different incarnations of Link, so this could just be a destined "absence". This feels less likely, however, as the import of the MS in destroying Ganon is pretty much stated throughout most of the canon, so it makes little sense that it wouldn't be so in the very first adventures.

Can anyone verify if this "magic sword" and the MS are one and the same?

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    In Soul Calibur 2, Link can choose to wield the Master Sword or the Magic Sword. So in some versions of Link, these are not this same sword.
    – jejorda2
    Nov 8, 2019 at 18:33
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    @jejorda2 Well that would be a form of confirmation in truth. Just for "some" versions, though. Still... it is an answer! Thank you, friend. Now, all we have to do is line that up with the rest of the canon....
    – Russhiro
    Nov 8, 2019 at 21:23
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    Your second point about the similarities between the Master Sword and Magical Sword - "Providing a magical based blade attack" isn't actually true. In the first game Link has the magic sword lasers at full health with any sword, even the initial wooden sword. Jun 6, 2022 at 9:01
  • The sword was called Excalibur in the French version of A link to the past.
    – Taladris
    Aug 24, 2022 at 4:27
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    @Stef Skyward Sword explicitly shows the second Link forge the Master Sword using the Goddess Hylia's personal sword as a base. Aug 25, 2022 at 10:22

4 Answers 4

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It may be worth pointing out that the series contains other weapons that are distinct from, but in some ways similar to, the Master Sword. The Four Sword (aka Picori Sword), for example, is a distinct sword, but it can repel and banish evil, and has even been used to seal Ganon. It's even appeared in the GBA remake of Link to the Past, being clearly distinct from the Master Sword, as you must reconstruct it after completing the main storyline.

As such, as a bit of a frame challenge, there is no need in principle for the "Magical Sword" to be the same as "The Master Sword", as there is no requirement for there to be a unique sword capable of dealing with evil/Ganon.

Also recall that in the original LoZ the sword was irrelevant to the adventure*, as the only essential piece of gear to the final boss fight was the Silver Arrows; you could be using the wooden sword and still defeat him as long as you had the arrows. All the white or magic swords did was increase your damage. So, indeed, we can frame challenge even further, as the Magic(al) Sword does not even require any abilities regarding evil that we see in the Master Sword or Four Sword.

*Indeed, this can also be said of Breath of the Wild, as again the only weapon strictly required for Ganon's defeat is the Bow of Light, which is provided by the plot. The Master Sword is strictly optional, even outside of speed runs.

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Those games do not feature the Master Sword

A sword is the Master Sword if and only if the game creators say it is. This is because Hyrule is a fictional place rather than a real one, and so there are no facts about The Legend of Zelda's Hyrule other than those embedded in the game itself (and other materials provided by the game creators).

The primary way that game creators lay out the facts of their game world is to make those facts part of the gameplay experience. As you make clear, the two games in question do not ever use the phrase "Master Sword," not even one time. This doesn't settle the matter conclusively, but it is a very strong piece of evidence.

As the legal owners of the IP, the game creators are empowered to ret-con those earlier games if they wish. You appear to have done the research and haven't found any evidence of such a ret-con. Until and unless they do, we have only the content of those games to rely on, and those games do not mention the Master Sword.

The second solution to your proposed dilemma, that the Master Sword is simply "mislabeled" in those earlier games, grossly mischaracterizes the roles played by creators and consumers of fiction. All the swords in these games are labeled exactly correctly because the labels they have are the labels the creators chose to provide.

If you want to engage in some headcanon and pretend that the Master Sword appears in those games, nobody can stop you. But if you want it to be official canon that the Master Sword exists in those games, the only people who can make it so are the game creators.

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Non-canon sources

As stated on the Zelda wiki, the Magical Sword appears in three non-canon source. The appearance in the animated series Captain N and the Game Masters doesn't particularly help, as it pre-dates A Link to the Past.

However, in both Soul Calibur II and Hyrule Warriors the Magical Sword and the Master Sword appear as separate weapons. However, in addition to not being considered canon, the Magical Sword in SCII does not look like the Magical Sword in Hyrule Warriors. And neither look the picture of the Magical Sword from the Link's Adventure manual. Which also does not look like the Master Sword.

So, while not proof, these are an indication that the Magical Sword in the two NES Zelda games is a separate weapon from the Master Sword.

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I think this is one of those things where if Zelda 1 ever got a remake, we might see the Magic Sword get retconned into being the Master Sword. One thing that makes me think the swords COULD be the same, just different names (on account of later canon being established) is the way you acquire the Master Sword in Breath of the Wild. Other Zelda games generally had Link acquire 3 pendants, etc, to get it. In BotW, Link just needed to have 13 heart containers, similar to how you needed 12 heart containers to get the Magic Sword in Zelda 1. Seems like a deliberate callback.

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    This doesn't answer the question of whether or not he had the Master Sword, it's just speculation that it might be answered at some point in the future
    – Valorum
    Jun 6, 2022 at 6:59
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    It was definitely a very deliberate callback. It's remarkable to think back and view LoZ as an open world game, but in many ways it was: you could do some dungeons partially or completely out of order, and go almost everywhere on the overworld map from the beginning, both combined allowing you to get the Magic Sword very early, etc. In many ways my first playthrough of BotW made me feel like it was exactly a modern remake of LoZ. Still, I don't think that means they have to be the same weapon. It's just triggering that nostalgia button. Aug 25, 2022 at 1:38

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