- How has the game aged?: Great games, like “Tetris," stand the test of time despite technological advances. Considering how well some of the older titles still hold up, I’d say this is a fair question.
- What was the game’s impact?: Influence holds weight too. Sometimes innovation is that game’s legacy. Even if those innovations are outdated, Zelda DNA lives on throughout the industry.
- Overall design and structure: Pacing, map design and Link’s tools are the meat of each game. These are ancillary aspects that all support the three pillars of puzzles, exploration and combat. How well are the tools used in the maps and dungeons? Is the world fun to explore? Are there roadblocks to enjoyment or progress?
Many fans will probably disagree with this list, or the reasoning, and that’s okay. At the very baseline, all these games are at least very good. Let us know in the comments below what you think, and let’s chat about the merits of each title. I’ll be reading every comment and discussing with the rest of you.
17. Tri Force Heroes (2015)
Zelda games by their nature are solitary adventures. “Tri Force Heroes” was a game that catered to the niche market of people who have two friends that were down to play Zelda and owned a Nintendo 3DS. If you only had one other such friend, you’re out of luck. It was good for a laugh, but besides the branding, it’s barely considered a Zelda game if not for Nintendo’s insistence that it remains in the canon. One redeeming factor: Link’s new costumes were great.
16. Skyward Sword (2011)
This is the only Zelda game I never finished. It’s not because I wasn’t good enough. In fact, I made it all the way to the final phase of the last enemy.
No, it wasn’t the motion controls, which worked fine at the time. But the game’s legacy is soiled by the fact it’s impossible to play without a Wii remote, a method of play as outdated as watching “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” on your iPod. To release the game again today is to remake it entirely from the ground up.
What was the breaking point? There were several:
There were the constant gameplay interruptions from companion Fi (a comprehensive fan audit states the player is interrupted by hand-holding 162 times throughout the game, vs. only 87 in “Ocarina of Time”). Then there was the constant reusing of the same areas. There was the imprecise “dousing” mechanic ... the repeated collecting of “tears” in a ghost realm that made me feel like I was playing Depressed Pac-Man ... or maybe it was the enemy design, which relied on trial and error trickery rather than actual mastery of the motion controls.
The risks of “Skyward” were admirable, but didn’t pay off, and ended in the worst Zelda console game ever made — a narrow distinction that keeps it out of the 17 spot.
Just before defeating the final enemy, I turned off my Wii and immediately went to YouTube to watch the ending. For me, the Link of “Skyward Sword” met his demise, and never won.
15. Four Swords Adventures (2005)
It’s another multiplayer spinoff that’s counted as a main game. This time, though, there’s a story that’s actually relevant to the series lore (if you’re into that sort of thing), and the extra hardware isn’t necessary. You can play this by yourself, and with any number of friends up to four players. If you caught this during the GameCube heyday, it’s likely a jolly good memory.
14. The Adventure of Link (1988)
Ambitious and messy, the only numbered Zelda sequel was our first clue Nintendo had no fear deviating from past success. It changed perspectives, it changed the core gameplay and of all the games on this list, it’s probably the closest the series ever became to becoming a traditional “role-playing game” with experience points to boost Link’s powers. Those things were implemented fairly well into the character, but let’s face it, those levels and enemies relied on cheap hits, and were poorly designed. Miyamoto himself said it’s probably the closest thing he’s ever made to a “bad” game.
13. Phantom Hourglass (2007)
You’re going to see a lot of the handheld games near the bottom of the list, mostly because they were eventually relegated to the same “wild experiments” philosophy “The Adventure of Link” had. They were cheaper, lower risk, but they could play with formula. “Phantom Hourglass” was a direct “Wind Waker” sequel, and retains much of its charm. But you play the game via the Nintendo DS stylus. As we learned with “Skyward Sword,” if there’s a new way to control Link, hundreds of overbearing tutorials aren’t far behind. And as a result, the dungeons were elementary at best, and some of the worst in the series.
12. Spirit Tracks (2009)
The handheld sequel to “Phantom,” this brought back challenging and complex dungeons, while retaining the “Wind Waker” aesthetic and lore. Too many roadblocks and too much side-quest friction between dungeons keep this from being truly great, but it was a better second effort for the Nintendo DS.
11. Twilight Princess (2006)
Reviewing this game was my first instance where I felt the heat of an “online mob." I gave “Twilight Princess” the lowest score on Metacritic, underneath a tower of perfect scores (one site later gave it a lower score, and the game is still the third-most-acclaimed game on the Wii). I gave the game an 8 out of 10, so of course I was met with racist, anti-Semitic (I’m Korean) vitriol. Read it here, as I still stand by much of what I said. It falls shy of greatness because it’s the only Zelda with no new ideas for the series.
And yet, when I revisited the game in its HD remaster on the Wii U, I liked it better. I would still give it an 8 out of 10, and all my criticisms about the shallow wolf mechanic and routine dungeon formula still hold. But as rote as the dungeons are, they’re some of the most creative the series ever made (the unforgettable yeti love story of Snowpeak Mansion is the standout). Midna is also arguably the best written and most entertaining of Link’s sidekicks. Of all the 3-D Zelda games, “Twilight” is the tightest. Yes it feels old, but all the pieces still fit and work like they should.
10. The Legend of Zelda (1986)
Many other games, let alone this series, wouldn’t exist without the first “Zelda," released in 1986. Zelda was the first game to be so epic, they invented battery saving for it. It is the nucleus of all modern role-playing games, as well as several other games including the “Grand Theft Auto” series. Its go-anywhere, do-anything design principles still hold strong to this day (as we’ll see later in this list), but it generally isn’t an essential play. This game belongs in the Smithsonian, but not atop any Zelda rankings.
9. The Minish Cap (2004)
Often ignored in “best of” discussions, “Minish” was the last of the Capcom Zelda tryouts. Rather than try to emulate the “Toon Link” style the later DS titles utilized, “Minish” went for one that adapted the pixel art of the classic games, and it was better for it. Beyond that, the game had some of the series’ best items, most notably a gliding cape. Link can also shrink. Capcom understood one fact about life: the smaller you are, the bigger the world seems.
8. Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons (2000)
These two games are essentially one. You can’t complete one story without the other. And although Capcom created this game during the height of the Pokémon trend of releasing two different versions of the same game, they went above and beyond by creating separate stories and worlds. A decision in one game would affect the other. And the games were allowed to focus on one of the two pillars of Zelda: Seasons focused on combat with interesting enemy designs and some of the most memorable boss encounters in the series, while Ages gave us some of the most compelling puzzle dungeons in the 2D format.
7. Ocarina of Time (1998)
When released, “Ocarina” was heralded as the “Citizen Kane” of gaming. This wasn’t hyperbole from a fledgling industry who longed for artistic affirmation, it was immediate acknowledgment of the game’s many innovations. To this day, any game that allows movement in a 3-D space owes a debt to the Nintendo 64′s greatest games (alongside “Super Mario 64”).
Age has obscured even the most famous innovations, masking their genius from later generations. Combat is mostly just a waiting game (as infamously explained in YouTuber Arin Hanson’s takedown). And time (and games like “Twilight Princess”) exposed some creakiness in the game’s insistence to funnel you through the experience, rather than enhancing the “exploration” pillar of Zelda adventures. Just as “Citizen Kane” now looks antiquated alongside modern films, so does this game. But time has proved to be no master to either’s enduring legacies.
6. A Link Between Worlds (2013)
It could’ve been the perfect Zelda overhead adventure, if not for Nintendo’s brash courage: It retooled the winning formula of a large chunk of the series to let the player become as capable as they wanted right at the beginning of the game. Every item, every power could be available from the start. You could tackle any dungeon, which blew the doors wide open for exploration and player experimentation.
The only problem? Every dungeon is equal in difficulty, a necessary design choice given how the players can explore the entire world at their own pace. The game is better for it. A rewarding sense of progress is somewhat diminished, but only when compared to the rest of the games on this list.
5. Wind Waker (2003)
This was a new commitment to re-examine why the first Zelda is so beloved and influential. Islands loom in the distance, all invitations for adventure and treasure. It was a new 3-D world to explore, and at the time, sailing in video games was a rarity. Yet, here was Nintendo making it as simple as it was exciting. The story is a series best, casting the villainous Ganondorf as a tragic victim of circumstance.
The game is held back by faults Nintendo has openly acknowledged: dungeons at the end that feel unfinished, and an exhausting, ill-advised fetch quest that was included to pad the game out. The latter was the greater sin, and it was wisely scaled back for the Wii U remaster. That’s about an hour or two of grief at the tail end of an entirely joyful experience that’s easy to revisit today.
4. A Link to the Past (1992)
Just about every Zelda game stands in this game’s shadow, even the two before it. As a 10-year-old boy, when I saw the rain and thunder claps backed by music filled with timpani drums and MIDI violins, it was how I imagine what boomers felt when they first heard “Pet Sounds." I didn’t know this could be done in games. They could dare to be this beautiful?
Beyond sight and sound, “Link to the Past” established the most tried-and-true of Zelda formulas: Two or more connected worlds, with at least eight dungeons, each holding a special tool to use, all accessed by a big key. “Ocarina of Time” is basically this game in 3-D. And even if this formula would eventually constrain the creativity of the series, it only speaks to the timelessness of the structure. This isn’t just a single title in an influential series. It’s a textbook template for other games to build upon. And as we’ll see in the next entry, even Nintendo saw opportunity in their own work.
3. Link’s Awakening (1993)
This was always going to be third on the list, regardless of the Nintendo Switch release this week. Inspired by “Twin Peaks,” it was also the first game to divert from the “save Princess Zelda” formula to offer a trippy patchwork of Nintendo tropes like side-scrolling levels with Mario’s Piranha Plants and a lonely SimCity mayor getting catfished by a goat.
Items like the feather that made Link jump could be used in the “overworld” map, not just the dungeons in which they were found. The overworld didn’t just exist to connect the eight dungeons, it was its own massive world to explore, with its own strange puzzle rooms and keys. The original Game Boy release was hampered only by its two-button limits. Switching out Link’s many items became a chore. With the Switch release, the only big flaw of “Link’s Awakening” is gone, and now it’s more beautiful than ever. Even though “Link to the Past” built the template, “Link’s Awakening” filled it with its own unforgettable identity. It is the perfect 2D Zelda game.
2. Majora’s Mask (2000)
Existential and tragic. “Majora’s Mask” is the boldest game on this list. It’s entire story hinges on a doomsday clock of 72 hours until the moon destroys the world. It’s thanks to the Skull Kid, a lonely boy who was lost in the woods for too long and happened upon a cursed mask that fed on his loneliness.
Beyond the story, the game takes the groundhog day concept and turns it into a puzzle to be solved over and over again. The game only has four dungeons, but each need several leaps back and forth within those three days to solve. Each of the puzzles reset every time you start the time loop over, which means more pressure than Link’s ever seen in his adventures. Space and time crash into each other in the final Stone Tower dungeon, which must be beaten normally and then upside down.
By wearing masks that let him swim through water like a missile or become a literal god, Link is more capable and powerful than he’s ever been. And Clock Town feels more alive than most cities in games today. Every denizen has a daily routine they follow. They rise, go to work and see secret lovers.
The game is heavy on story, but leaves so much to the player’s interpretation of it. And there’s its tragic final note when the credits roll, showing the one character Link couldn’t save. Even when Link has all the time in the world, it’s never enough.
1. Breath of the Wild (2017)
If “Link to the Past” set the blueprint for a huge chunk of the series, this is the only game to sidestep it completely. It draws inspiration from another: the original game. Like in the original, Link is given only a few moments to gather himself before he’s able to travel in any direction the player pleases, even toward the dark castle and the game’s final battle.
The game was created with a singular vision: To recapture Miyamoto’s original intent of exploration purely led by the player’s own curiosity and imagination. Every aspect in this game’s design is in service of player freedom. It’s rare to see any pop culture franchise be so committed to rediscovering itself that it’s willing to upend every single aspect of its winning formula, but Nintendo did that here to wild success.
It’s the game that further cemented Nintendo’s legacy as the best creators of the craft, and the series as an industry flagship.
Disagree with the list? Give your take in the comments.