When it comes to video game royalty, few series command the kind of respect Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda manages. From its humble beginnings, the franchise has spawned quite the collection of varied offerings across its journey. Whether it be Zelda 2 or Breath of the Wild, there are few avenues the franchise isn’t willing to tackle to try something new.
But are the best outings for the series, and where does it all fall apart? Join us as we take a venture through Nintendo’s (and sadly others) Legend of Zelda series.
22. Zelda: Wand of Gamelon/Link: Faces of Evil (CDi, 1995) – While not made by Nintendo, both of these games are interesting pieces of gaming history – the only time Nintendo has allowed their lucrative Legend of Zelda franchise to appear on another console. Both of these games are awful 2D side-scrollers with all the charm of a baked potato. They play like ass, handle like a broken shopping trolley and are punctuated by some of the worst cutscenes ever devised by video game programmers. The gameplay itself is so stiff and unresponsive that you’ll wish you’d hadn’t bothered. The CDi folded almost instantly and Nintendo’s done its absolute best to bury these games over the years.
21. Link’s Crossbow Training (Wii, 2007) –Released right around the time the Nintendo Wii was busy devouring the casual gaming market, Link’s Crossbow Training comes as close as Nintendo ever have to deliver a cash-grab with their Legend of Zelda franchise. From using Twilight Princess assets to limiting gameplay – the game serves more like a tech demo for the Wii gun attachment than anything else. The gameplay boils down to aiming your bow and arrow at various targets across multiple stages. There’s very little in this game that warrants attention and, while it looks decent by Wii standards, you can experience everything this game showcases by playing Twilight Princess instead.
20. Freshly-picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland (DS) – Made during the Nintendo DS’s heyday, Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland was a poorly conceived attempt to cash in on the notoriety of the franchises most annoying character. The focus in rupee collection gets old fast as the games betray pretty much every Zelda gameplay mechanic in its quest to be different. I’d love to say this was an undiscovered gem but the fact you probably haven’t heard about it before probably explains all it needs to.
19. The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes (3DS, 2015) – The idea of a multiplayer Zelda experience is one that Nintendo has constantly come back to over the years – with varying degrees of success. Tri-Force Heroes is arguably the most ambitious of these efforts yet manages to be the least satisfying. The game manages to lumber itself with some shaky game mechanics and an online mode that barely works at the best of times. All this could be forgiven if the game underpinning it was fun, but it’s not. The dungeons feel like a poor mans attempt to invoke earlier Legend of Zelda games while the story progression doesn’t exist. Because the AI is so dumb Honestly, it was a nice idea but not given the justice it deserved.
18. Four Swords (GBA, 2002) –Maybe it was just because the idea hadn’t had time to grow yet or maybe it was because the reality of playing 4-player Zelda isn’t that impressive. The adventure feels generic, with randomly generated dungeons punctuating the world that feel incredibly dull to explore. Once the novelty of stabbing your friends in the back wears off, this quickly descends into a tedious slog. Sorry Four Swords, you just weren’t that good.
17. Four Swords Adventures (GC, 2004) – While the Game Boy Advance got its Four Swords adventure courtesy of a 2-for-1 bundle; gamers had to fork out full price for Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube. Beautiful to look at, this game ejects the randomly generated dungeons in favor of a more traditional outing. Sadly in order to get the most out of this game, you need 4 Game Boy Advances for 4 players – Nintendo opting to lump this game with its great-in-theory GBA/Gamecube connector. The result is a game that never really hits the mark.
16. Hyrule Warriors (Wii U/3DS/Switch) – Hyrule Warriors was a fun if slightly limited attempt to branch out from Zelda’s typical stomping grounds. Marrying the gameplay of Dynasty Warriors series to the lore of Legend of Zelda, gamers are treated to a multiverse hopping adventure that spans across several games and will delight fans who love their Legend of Zelda. I’m just not a huge fan of this kind of game and while not a terrible outing for the franchise, it all kind of becomes samey after a while. It’s one of those games you’ll either fall deeply in love with or pass out entirely on.
15. Spirit Tracks (DS, 2009) – The Legend of Zelda as a series has an obsession with throwing in new central mechanics. From boats to flying on birds backs, the series isn’t afraid to change it up. Perhaps it’s more bizarre choice came in the form of Spirit Tracks trains – a system that divided opinion heavily upon release. The game largely exists with more polished mechanics from Phantom Hourglass, with less focus on touch-screen puzzles. Yet that core premise reaches into pretty much every corner of the game, making it hard to overlook if it doesn’t appeal to you. It’s a fun little outing but its not one I’d recommend anywhere near the top of this list.
14. Skyward Sword (2011, Wii) – Let’s have a quick chat about Skyward Sword; the Wii’s very own motion-controlled Legend of Zelda title. This game splits opinion like an onion; some decrying its flaws while others embrace the games brilliant combat mechanics. For me, it’s very much a case of Skyward Sword not fulfilling its potential and managing to undermine itself at every turn. The story feels incredibly unfocused, dare I even say sloppy in places. The mid-game, in particular, feels like a slog; one that doesn’t really build to kind of satisfactory conclusion. Depending on how engaging you found the Wii Motion Plus controls, this game pushes the limit on the controllers potential and overindulges in pin-point puzzles. I’m not saying Skyward Sword is without merit and I know that the game has its fair share of fans. For my money, it’s not a great offering in the grander scheme and the linearity of it all fails to grab me.
13. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987) – The shift in mechanics from the original Legend of Zelda game was huge enough that some people rejected this game out of hand. Out went the top down dungeons and combat, in came a 2D side-scroller perspective and combat that made the game feel entirely different. The introduction of towns and NPCs made the world feel more full, but the overworld became a slightly frustrating place to explore as gamers were chased by enemies. The game’s difficulty is also a hot topic of debate; with many feeling the games spike in difficulty is too much to handle. It also doesn’t help that some of the required items aren’t clearly signposted – leading to a lot of frustrating wanders around Hyrule Field. I appreciate the effort and can understand why they wanted to try something new – Adventures of Link is probably the most frustrating Legend of Zelda game.
12. Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007) – The sequel to Wind Waker earns points for being incredibly ambitious – then loses most of them for making you replay the same dungeon over and over. It’s a design choice that breaks the game pacing and shatters the momentum of the game’s story. It’s a real shame because among this are some great improvements over the original Wind Waker. The ability to set waypoints in the overworld, as well as an inventory management system that felt like a delight to use. Add in the charming cel-shaded graphics that made it feel like a more premium experience on Nintendo’s handheld, and you have a game that shines in spots.
11. The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986) – The original trendsetter – Legend of Zelda on the NES was a compelling and action-packed adventure that laid down the template for the series that followed. While it lacks many of the home comforts that the series would adopt over the years, such as narrative cinematics and towns; at its core Legend of Zelda retains many of the gameplay nuances that would be expanded upon later. The biggest bugbear, however, is the fact that the game doesn’t really give you much direction; instead of leaving you to discover your way. This idea would come back in a big way much down the line. It’s implementation here may be enough to put off gamers who are more used to friendly hand holding. It’s still a great game though and the best of the two NES Zelda games by some distance.
10. Minish Cap (GBA, 2004) – The ambitious use of the Minish Cap as a central game mechanic grants this game a great sense of uniqueness. Being able to shrink and then grow allows you to look at puzzles from different perspectives; overcoming the feeling of being a novelty. The graphics are perfectly suited to the Game Boy Advance’s screen while the world is intricately designed. The biggest problem facing the game is its somewhat odd pacing; the end-game feeling overly drawn out. Look beyond this and you have a strong portable outing for the series which shines in its own right.
9. Oracle of Seasons and Ages (GB, 2001) – Developed by Capcom, these two games tried to ride the popularity of Pokemon’s success by devising two separate quests that ultimately came together. It’s not very well realized and as a gimmick, all to itself is pretty lame as it locks the true final boss behind a premium paywall. Ignore this and what you have here are two excellently realized handheld Zelda games that shine in their own right. Both adventures are hugely fun and contain some of the best 2D dungeons in the series, both offering their own twists. If you’re a fan of the 2D Legend of Zelda offerings, you really need to play these games.
8. Link’s Awakening (GB, 1993) – Some decry Link’s Awakening as nothing more than a side-quest to the main series, I say it’s a really fun little offering that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The game certainly isn’t afraid to offer up its own take on the Zelda universe – ejecting pretty much everything fans know and love about the lore and telling its own standalone tale. It’s a well-realized story that manages to keep things interesting and has enough content to make fans feel they’re getting their money’s worth. It’s not for everyone and is limited by the original Game Boys hardware – but its one of the best games on that system and certainly an experience I’d recommend.
7. Twilight Princess (GC, 2006) – In Twilight Princess there’s a sense that Nintendo wanted to prove it could take Ocarina of Time and do it better. There’s certainly no doubt that Twilight Princess understands what makes a Legend of Zelda game great; marrying the more fluid combat from Wind Waker into the more traditional Zelda mold. In the end its a stunningly grand game; that makes great use of cinematics to convey the story and manages to look amazing doing so. The extensive library of items is complimented by the ability to shift into wolf form; allowing you to tackle the abstract twilight Realm. If there’s critique to be had it’s that the mid-game suffers from some padding that feels counter-intuitive to the overall pacing. But don’t let that stop you from hunting down a copy of Twilight Princess – it’s a brilliant game.
6. A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013) – The surprising sequel to Link to the Past arrived on the 3DS in 2013 with a sense of surprise. Could it do justice to Link to the Past, or were gamers set to be disappointed by a premise that didn’t belong? Gamers need-ant of worried – Link Between Worlds is a beautifully crafted experience that takes the familiar locales of LTTP and throws entirely new spins on them. The ability to morph into a 2D drawing makes exploring the world feel like a joy while the overarching story takes a number of interesting twists to the series lore. On top of all this; Link Between Worlds ejects the typical Legend of Zelda “Collect an item, use item” trope; requiring you to rent items or buy them outright for use in your adventure. It was a bold idea but works wonderfully and makes LBW feel like a fresh approach to the series; allowing gamers to approach puzzles in their own way. A fine handheld title and one of the series best outings without question.
5. Wind Waker (GC, 2002) – Wind Waker was arguably the boldest of Legend of Zelda’s 3D re-imaginings. Chastised upon its reveal for being too childish – the game more than made clear that it was everything Ocarina of Time was and more. The graphics are timeless, beautiful to this day; the cel-shading complimenting proceedings. Emotions are conveyed from characters more expressively while the combat is more free-flowing and fun. But beyond all this; its story feels more personal as this version of Link is kicked from Outset Island and forced into an adventure he’s clearly not prepared for. Only minor niggles ruin the overall experience; the sailing mechanics were hit and miss while the infamous Triforce hunt underlined the fact that sometimes less is more. But overall Wind Waker is a highly impressive outing and one that should be experienced.
4. Breath of the Wild (Switch/WiiU, 2017) – An incredibly hard game to place. On the one hand, it’s a staggeringly huge game that takes everything the series established thus far and tips it right on its head. There’s so much to see and do in this game, with a constant sense of danger and threat that lurks over everything. Simple journeys can turn into dangerous treks thanks to the ingenious decision to make all the enemies an actual threat. Seriously, Breath of the Wild will kick your ass and leave you for dust. Plus the characters that dot this world are s interesting and have their own schedule – the world feels alive.
On the other hand, the decision to scale back on major dungeons leaves the game feeling slightly hollow. There are four major “dungeons” (even these are slightly disappointing by the series standard) and then it’s off to Hyrule Castle for a showdown with Calamity Ganon. The story is laughably slim while the much-touted voice acting ranges from hilarious to acceptable. Plus while I appreciate the challenge of degrading weapons – there’s a feeling that the developers went slightly too heavy in this. Even the best weapons don’t last all that long. In the end, I value what BotW added to the Zelda franchise – but there are too many niggles that undermine the experience for me to say its the best “overall” experience.
3. Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998) – Ocarina of Time was the game changer of late-1990’s gaming. While Mario 64 heralded in the age of true 3D gaming on consoles, it would be Ocarina of Time that showcased the true potential of using 3D graphics to tell epic tales. Not a single thing is wasted in this game – the dungeons are memorable and exciting to explore. The world is fun to traverse while the inhabitants make the world feel complete. Backed up by some beautifully iconic music; the game feels like an epic quest that’s unfolding before you. It’s story epic in scope and menacingly daunting at times while the combat is exciting – even if slowed down from the 2D outings. The use of the dual worlds to emphasize time shifting was well implemented while the core mechanics remain tight all these years later. Around the edges, the games age lets it down, but the reality is this was arguably the most important Legend of Zelda game and deserves its placing on top gaming lists.
2. Majora’s Mask (N64, 2000) – Majora’s Mask arrived not 18 months after Ocarina of Time, destined to bookend the end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. Rather than go grander and more adventurous in their offerings, Nintendo scaled back the curtain and instead focused on a more personal and intimate adventure. The result is a game that’s brimming with charm, uniqueness and feels like a different game entirely to Ocarina of Time. Watching proceedings unfold as the Moon looms above Termina – only to that knowledge back and use it to your advantage makes the game feel deep and grants a level of satisfaction that wasn’t possible in Ocarina of Time. To be clear, this game recycles graphics and character models like nothing else – but look beyond this and you get a game that not only compliments the best aspects of Ocarina of Time – it arguably betters them.
1. A Link to the Past – SNES, 1991) – Could it be anything else? Link to the Past is the Zelda game from which all that followed have drawn inspiration – even Ocarina of Time. From its amazing story through to the pacing of the combat – this is a tour-de-force that begs gamers to be engaged in proceedings – throwing back the limitations the NES placed on its predecessors and exploding with personality. It’s an epic slice of adventure that marries the best aspects of the first game with ambitious new ideas that would go on to become series staples. Perhaps though it’s the fact the game is just great fun to experience or the fact that it balances the world jumping mechanics so well – making you feel as though you’re in full control. It’s a wonderful benchmark for the series and arguably one of the finest games ever crafted.