People like Zelda games for some reason. I know I do. The Legend of Zelda on the NES is one of my earliest gaming memories, as was having my mind blown when I found out you could bomb certain rocks and walls to find secrets. The series has had its ups and downs (and super, super downs), but whether you’re looking for an exploration game, a puzzle game, or an action game, the series has got something for you somewhere.
So let’s rustle some fanboy jimmies and rank ’em. I’d say this list is “subjective” or whatever, but everybody knows that my opinion is the best opinion, so I’m renaming this from “The Top Fifteen (15) Zelda Games” to..
“The Legend of Zelda Games in Order, the Totally Definitive Like For Reals, Guys, Version.”
And there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.
Final note: No CD-I games. While I actually think Wand of Gamalon and Faces of Evil aren’t nearly as bad as people think (Zelda’s Adventure is, though), they’re getting omitted for now. Just give them honorable mention or something, because I’m mentioning them honorably at the start here (except Zelda’s Adventure. That game can die).
1. A Link to the Past
Considering this might be the literal, actual, totally true Best Game Ever Made, I imagine it’ll rise to the top of this list.
It’s a perfect fusion of what made the old Zelda games great while still having enough modern gaming conventions to not be a hindrance. The combat is slick and fun, dungeons are fast and the puzzles clever, the controls are precise and the worlds (both of them) are exciting to explore. I honestly can’t think of anything about this game I don’t like, except maybe it holds your hand a little when telling you where to go next. But if you don’t like that, don’t ever open your map. Problem solved.
This game is what I think of when I think of Zelda: heavy exploration, a world to explore, combat accenting (but not dominating) the adventure, and lots of puzzles and dungeons. Plus, an actual good use of the super-tired light/dark world (next Zelda will have a morality system or something, ick), and you turn into a rabbit. Best game ever.
2. The Legend of Zelda
I’m not just putting this on here because “It started the franchise!” or some bullcrap reason. I legitimately think this game is that good. If anything, it’s the perfection of old-style game design. It doesn’t need to give directions, because it values your intelligence and ability to explore and find things on your own. I have yet, even today, played a game that felt like I was genuinely exploring a massive world on a grand quest and done it as well as this first Zelda game.
The only real negatives are that some of the secrets (burning a random bush in a line of bushes, etc.) are a little too obtuse for it’s own good. But it’ll live. If only more games trusted their players to give them this much freedom.
If you’ve never played it, get it on the Virtual Console (if you own a WiiU, you’ll have a WiiU emulating a Wii emulating the Virtual Console emulating an NES! EMUCEPTION) and give it a go. Don’t look up guides (unless you own the original Nintendo Power mags, I guess then it is ok), just carve out a few hours of your evening and go exploring. I guarantee you it’ll be just as immersive as Skyrim or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt or whatever games you kids are playing these days.
3. A Link Between Worlds
This game’s rank is probably influenced by the state of the Zelda franchise upon which it was released. It showed up after a double-whammy of by-the-numbers Zelda games (Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword respectively), so everybody expected Nintendo to screw this one up. Instead, they managed to not only imitate the first Link to the Past game, but also added enough elements to make not just the repeated portions feel fresh, but the series as a whole.
Adding the ability to flatten and interact with an otherwise 2D world on a 3D plane was absurdly clever. Not to mention the whole “rental” of items, which removed the usual “find item in dungeon, use item on boss” nonsense allowed for some innovative ways to tackle dungeons. If I’m being completely honest, they could have tightened up dungeons so that they’s all be beatable with maybe just one or two core items (the others being there just to make it a little easier), but that’s mostly just me nitpicking. This is a stunning return to form for Nintendo, and here’s hoping they learn from these changes and move forward. The non-linear aspect of the dungeons is also greatly appreciated.
4. Link’s Awakening DX
First off, a NEW SECRET DUNGEON?! How could I say no!?
I dunno how Nintendo managed to make one of their best Zelda games on a tiny handheld screen that didn’t even have colors, but they did. Link’s Awakening is a “bite sized” Zelda adventure, but still manages to cram it full of a ton of charm, great dungeons and puzzles, and some downright awesome music. While it does see the technical limitations of the Game Boy at the time (having only two buttons to work with can be a pain), this game is still absurdly good. It also has a ton of clever dialogue, something not really common for a Zelda game. Again, how they managed to stuff a fully-fledged Zelda adventure into a Game Boy game will continue to amaze me. I often still bust this game out for a run on either the Super Game Boy or a GBA SP, and you can get it from the eShop on your 3DS if you’re a cool cat (like me).
You don’t want to not be a cool cat, do you?
5. Wind Waker
Of the 3D Zelda games, this one is the best. While Majora’s Mask excels in many areas, it also feels a bit dated when replaying it these days. Save points, anybody?
But we aren’t talking about that. Wind Waker excels at doing what Zelda 1 did: making you feel like you are on a grand adventure. Is sailing for long periods of time boring? Maybe, if you are an impatient jerk. The sense of distance made the world feel more real, and made finding secrets or arriving at islands more exciting. Yeah, I wish they’d put more stuff on that massive ocean, and the last third of the game with stupid Tingle is kind of a wreck, but aside from that the game is solid. Introducing counters, enemy weapons, and wrapped in some gorgeous art, Wind Waker is just a good time.
I should probably mention other negatives just to be sure you know I remembered: the first “jail island” dungeon is still awful, the game is a bit easy once you figure out counters, some of the exploration gets tired, and to repeat: the final third is bad. Still, I’m ok with it. Because DRAGON ROOST ISLAND SONG.
6. Majora’s Mask
This game is super polarizing. I’ll admit I wasn’t too fond of it until finally forcing myself to replay it recently. It’s showing it’s age, too. The N64 wasn’t exactly a powerhouse for graphics and framerate, and Save Points in any game are a bad idea, but especially a Zelda game. This game’s introductory sequence is also absurdly long, meaning you have to spend a lot of time before you’re finally even let out of town.
That being said, this is a fantastic game, if only for it’s incredible atmosphere. The three day limit and the angry moon add a sense of dread and urgency not found in other Zelda games, or even most games for that matter. The game doesn’t boss you around, either (at least not after the opening). Once you are out in the world, it’s up to you to figure out how to save it in three days or bust. Well, three days repeated over and over at least.
It’s flawed, certainly, though the 3DS makeover helps fix a lot of the problems (but unfortunately didn’t polish up the targeting and controls, something that also wasn’t done for the 3DS remake of Ocarina). As it stands, Majora’s Mask is an exceptional Zelda game.
7. Minish Cap
Nobody played this game.
That’s a freaking shame.
Minish Cap has probably the best looking pixel art in the whole Zelda franchise. Its characters are charming, the dungeons are fun, and the big/small gimmick works really well. It isn’t an exceptional Zelda game, but it does everything correctly. The pacing, the dungeons, the characters, the graphics, the sub items, the combat; all of it. I can’t really think of something that blew me away, but the consistency of quality from start to finish really stands out and makes the game memorable. It’s Zelda in its purest form, with plenty of charm and some great gimmicks to boot.
Go play it.
8. The Adventure of Link
This almost was lower on the list because of it’s absurd difficulty. If Majora’s Mask was polarizing, this game even more so. Nintendo experimented with expanding its franchise (much like Konami did with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest) by adding more RPG elements into Zelda. They also tried to infuse it with more human personality, with an actual visible quest (save the sleeping Zelda), people to talk to in a variety of towns, and a wider variety of monsters. They also added a weird take on random battles, which was actually pretty cool.
It’s full of problems, of course. The game is relentlessly difficult. Adding “lives” was a stupid idea from the start (just let the player start from the room they died in), and making them so hard to get was only more offensive. Where you have to go is extremely obtuse, hidden behind some badly translated villager hints. There’s no puzzles at all in this game, mostly just knowing when to use jump magic and when to use fairy magic. And, probably the biggest offense, is this game is super linear. The world very obviously gates you into certain locations, removing the exploration element from the first game entirely.
So why is it so high up? Because I feel first that RPG elements actually work really well in a Zelda game. Having damage, life, and magic scale with Link’s quest is a good way to balance the game (even if they didn’t balance it), and makes killing difficult enemies feel rewarding. I also really like their take on 2D combat, with basically a simple “hit high, block high; hit low, block low” system. It makes the red knights still be a massive pain, but it’s clever and could have been expanded on in sequels to make the game even better.
The point is Nintendo tried something risky, something they didn’t do again until Link Between Worlds, and even that wasn’t THAT risky. What they made wasn’t perfect but it was still a good effort, and some of the ideas I still think would work in a modern Zelda game just fine. I wish more games had used Zelda 2‘s difficult yet intuitive 2D combat system.
9. Ocarina of Time
I wonder how many people just scrolled down the list to see where I put this game, and are now preparing angry comments because it’s #9. Honestly, I was considering putting it even lower, but I’m not that cruel.
I go over what bothers me about Ocarina in my review of the game on my review blog (and said review will probably show up on the Berg eventually), but the point in brief is thus: this game hasn’t aged well. At all. It’s clunky, controls poorly, and the graphics look bad. Even in the 3DS remake, they didn’t bother updating the camera, so it’s a pain in the butt for most of the time.
That isn’t to say this game is all bad. It’s easy to nitpick it now, considering how much has changed in the world of 3D Action/Adventure games. But what really irks me about Ocarina is how much of a step down it feels from the series’ legacy. The puzzles in the dungeon are often too easy or focus heavily on “find the object to shoot in this ugly 3D world.” The game is riddled with an absurd amount of dialogue that moves at a snail’s pace. It holds your hand almost the entire way through the game, when I just want it to shut up and let me explore on my own. The game is actually very linear, with only a few side quests to find along the way. Yeah, it made a formula that Nintendo copied for years, but it really just felt like they were playing it safe.
It’s not a bad game. Its still playable and I have an insane amount of nostalgia for it, plus there is tons of dungeons and a quest that genuinely feels “epic.” It’s just that, in 2015, this game is really showing its age. It’s secretly like third from the bottom in my heart, but my rose-colored glasses are sticking it up here because why not.
10. Oracle of Seasons
I like Seasons more than Oracle because Seasons changing stuff happened faster, and had a wider range of things (four seasons, vs just two time periods), though honestly the games are so close you might as well just list them the same rank.
Not much to say about these ones. They mine a lot from Zelda DX in terms of items and general format of gameplay, but mix it up with cute tricks along the way. They’re extremely solid 2D Zelda games on the game boy, have great music, play great, and have a good deal of content. As it stands, it’s a solid game, even if the ending portions tend to drag, and it doesn’t do much to break the mold (the developers of these later went on to make Minnish Cap, which is superior).
11. Oracle of Ages
See above. Ages has a cool time travel plot to it, and it’s cool we got two Zelda games back to back, but it still isn’t totally earthshattering.
The cover looks better, though. Link has a sweet harp vs some giant…horn? Thing?
12. Spirit Tracks
Link is on a train? Everybody on the internet lost their minds about this, because having him turn into a rabbit in LTTP or a Deku Shrub in MM was ok. But having him ride a train was TOO WEIRD.
Anyway, this game is surprisingly solid. It fixes all the obnoxious mistakes made in Phantom Hourglass (read: have to do the same dungeon over and over) and replaces them with NEW awkward mistakes (having to guide Ghost Zelda with the touch screen, having to figure out train track paths to go anywhere ever).
It’s still solid throughout, so I’m not hatin’ it too much. I actually think making it use touchscreen controls was a clever idea, since the alternative would have been to just make another Oracle of Season/Ages/DX style game but with modern graphics. Overall, a fun Zelda diversion, but not particularly excellent.
13. Phantom Hourglass
See my Spirit Tracks blurb for some problems with this game, but overall it’s still a reasonably solid DS Zelda title. It has a bunch of weird stupid hiccups (again, the repeating dungeon), but the sailing has improved and overall it’s just all around decent.
The repetitive dungeon hurts. The touch controls are a bit janky (though not nearly as bad as waggle controls on the Wii…as we’ll soon see). But despite this, I’m cool with it. Nothing exceptional here, but not offensive. Which is more than I can say for what remains on this list.
14. Twilight Princess
It makes sense that this game would share it’s name with the worst book/movie franchise of all time. I will also mention that I’ve only beaten the Gamecube version of this game; I couldn’t stand all the waggling in the Wii version so I gave up on it. If I were to recommend this game, I’d say find the Gamecube version, because traditional controls make the game much better.
I remember totally losing my mind the E3 conference when they announced it. A new Zelda game! Done in the style of Ocarina! With crazy graphics and a…wolf? What could paaaaawsubly go wrong?
This game is basically everything that I feel was a misstep in the Zelda franchise. The abundance of useless, pointless sub items that have one use and then are unnecessary for the rest of the game. The plodding, stupid puzzles that don’t feel like they’re challenging your brain and instead are just monotonous. The fact that Link still can’t freaking jump but the game insists on having him do tricky platforming from time to time (to be fair, this is a sin that all the 3D Zelda games have, it just seems exacerbated by this game in particular). The “dark” aesthetic strips away the charm of a Zelda game and just makes it dark and somewhat boring. The absolutely absurdly long intro sequence that takes forever to get you into the world only to continue to shove you down the right path for hours upon hours of tutorial dungeons and worthless plot.
Ok, maybe I’m being a little harsh. This game, on its own, isn’t really the worst thing ever. But it feels so much like a step in the wrong direction it’s painful. Rather than using the Wii/Gamecube tech to empower players, it feels more like they’re using gameplay conventions to limit them. Combat is strong (mostly because it’s aped from Wind Waker) but picking up enemy weapons is gone, which sucks. The wolf sections at first seem like they’ll add a neat new way to play, but in truth they feel more tedious than fun most of the time. The game’s color pallet is muddy and dull, like most of the brown/gray next gen shooters we talk about (though it does have a few highlights, like the jousting duel set to the great looking sunset).
But really, it just felt like they took Ocarina and shoved a bunch more useless stuff into it. It isn’t streamlined or clean, it’s bloated and cumbersome. It just feels like Nintendo played it by the book way too much with this game, either because they were scared of their fans after the Wind Waker backlash, or because they genuinely forgot what made Zelda games so appealing.
It’s still ok. It also feels modern (in terms of control, etc) and is fully playable. Which is more in some respects than I could say about Ocarina, but can you imagine what people would do to me if I put Ocarina down here?
15. Skyward Sword
While Twilight Princess was more disappointing than offensive, Skyward Sword is straight up a trainwreck. Not in the visuals aspect; the game actually has one of my favorite Zelda looks, and I wish they’d done Twilight Princess in this style instead of the drab boring thing they used. No, Skyward Sword is a wreck because of so many reasons it’s hard to even list them here. But why not, here’s a rundown:
– The Wii Motion Plus controls are finnicky at best, meaning you’ve taken a game that has always excelled with it’s tight controls and broken it.
– On that same note, combat becomes a by-the-numbers affair in horizontal and vertical slices, assuming you can get the remote to work.
– The “get stuff to upgrade stuff” system is some really poor attempt at adding RPG elements, only it’s put in so poorly it feels tacked on an tedious.
– The story elements are obtrusive to the gameplay and exceptionally dull. The text crawls and can’t be skipped. The story is also just poor overall, so suffering through it hurts even more.
– Backtracking. Lots of it. It sucks.
– There is no open world here. You fly to the dungeons. You do the dungeons. You fly back to the hub. Seriously, did they even play a Zelda game before this one?
– Has all the “woo tons of crap” problem that Twilight Princess had, only the dungeons are worse and the puzzles less interesting.
– Zelda and Link’s weird flirty relationship is actually a really good idea…for the first fifteen minutes. It never goes anywhere and nosedives with the plot.
There’s so much more but I’m not a huge fan of bagging on games, even if they deserve it. I also know this game is super polarizing (crapping on Skyward Sword seems to be the hip thing to do these days, and the last thing I want to be is a conformist). So let’s just say IGN’s 10/10 for Skyward Sword was perhaps ever so slightly fueled by fanboy goggles. That or Doritos and Mountain Dew.