10 Best Legend of Zelda Games of All Time
The Legend of Zelda is probably the most critically-acclaimed adventure game series of all time. No one doubts its prowess in the scheme of video game history. Like you, I love The Legend of Zelda.
Here are the 10 best Legend of Zelda games for us to fight over, rank and re-rank, comment about, and inevitably replay and begin the cycle all over again. And that’s a good thing. Let’s go!
The Minish Cap
The Minish Cap does nothing wrong. It’s a colorful romp on the GBA with all the classic Zelda tropes in play, and a few new ones to chew on too. But there’s very little that’s exciting about it. The story is too long and too text-heavy. The dungeon designs are pretty but rote compared to the series’ past. It’s the popcorn chicken of the franchise: tasty, harmless, and forgettable.
The introduction of the cap that makes you shrink is a great marketing ploy, but in the game it’s a mechanic pretty fixed by the narrative, not as versatile as the wall-walking in A Link Between Worlds or as all-encompassing as the mirror in A Link to the Past. It pretends to be cleverer than it is by saying a lot about itself. I won’t.
This is the 3D equivalent of The Minish Cap. After Ocarina of Time blew off everyone’s polygonal socks and The Wind Waker let series acolytes down, Twilight Princess hoped to smooth things over with as predictable a game as any 3D Zelda game has ever been.
It’s so similar to Ocarina of Time that whole segments play out more as remake than sequel. This game maturated the art style but made no strides in how we went on these adventures. Some of it is beautiful (the Bridge of Eldin) and some of it tedious (the obligatory wolf segments). There’s something to be said for a great, functional game against a creative but clunky one. But no amount of lush textures or imposing bosses can help give you that feeling that this was an adventure worth going on, especially when you have to rank it against its series betters.
Oracle of Ages / Seasons
Pokémon proved long ago that you can sell two copies of the same game with a gimmick. The Oracle of Ages / Seasons pair does a good job legitimizing their gimmick and fans of one probably beat both.
Being developed by Capcom makes them feel a bit more like a Zelda tribute than a series regular. But what makes them truly unique is their action-oriented gameplay. Link flips, jumps, and slashes his way through more enemies and more clever combat scenarios than most entries in the series. It’s one of the lesser titles in terms of exploration and I don’t necessarily approve of splitting content over two cartridges. But while an isometric hack and slash isn’t the adventure-puzzler we’re used to, it was still diverting, divisive in a mostly good way, and cutely colorful like only the GBC could manage.
Ocarina of Time
Sigh. This list was never going to be easy. But this is the big one. Ocarina of Time is a good game, in its time and in its own right. It did a great job making as many people as possible feel like adventurers (that’s the acceptable hamburger I mentioned).But in this series, good is not the best.
Ocarina of Time is the game that introduced walking and talking as a substitute for exploration, that separated puzzles from action, and that literalized the genuine mystery of the quest to find Zelda. For all its mechanical innovations and undeniable influence, a lot of that influence was detrimental to the series’ formula.
Think of it in terms of its exploration, how the best it could do was a hole with a rupee in it. Think about how it introduced Navi as a mouthpiece for the developer to make sure you got through their game in a timely manner, and how in subsequent games you hate that. Think about the pointless dialogue scenarios and the enemies that do nothing but block, or how predictable it is to be given a weapon and directed on a leash through the only dungeon that requires it. It made the transition to 3D, but it cut out the series’ essential explorative spirit to do it. And in this list, that can’t be forgiven.
A Link Between Worlds
The recent A Link Between Worlds is a return to form for a series marred by the explicitness of its 3D incarnations. A Link Between Worlds’ first revelation is in gameplay. With the wall-walking, Link becomes a painting, re-oriented to platforms in new ways to solve clever puzzles and slipthrough hidden cracks. Hyrule’s space expands within its dimension with this mechanic, which allows the player to use their wit in explorative and ingenious scenarios.
Its other revelation is in structure, where the items are “rented” in the game’s hub. Dungeons are solved not with the directed single mindedness of the series’ formula, but with broader applications and subtler uses of your arsenal. This open-minded approach to the formula that makes obligatory aspects like the money system relevant again is the best evidence I can give to the series’ bright future.
Link’s Awakening is dark and dreamlike, a series outlier like Majora’s Mask. The first handheld Zelda game keeps the gameplay of the original intact but distances it from its damsel in distress narrative. The psychedelic Wind Fish provides the series with one of its most memorable characters as Link explores an island and tries to piece together the mystery of this weird, totemic world he’s found himself in.
A genuinely memorable departure from the series’ rinse and repeat quest endears Link’s Awakening to me, even after so many advances in color and control. Link’s Awakening’s rational gameplay perfectly enables an RPG narrative rife with mystique. I wish more games in the series had been so bold with the context of their adventures, instead of returning to the formula established by Ocarina of Time. The most somber ending in the series also marks this adventure as one worth taking, in grey scale or not.
A Link to the Past
After Zelda II this was the game that made the original the forerunner of a proper series. It took everything that made the original grand and exploded it in glorious 32-bit. A Link to the Past introduced dimension-hopping and hook-shotting. It gave us a truly memorable adventure, but one that strayed a bit too far from the exploration that the series embodies in its finest moments.
Like its 3D sequels, A Link to the Past often asks the player to go to places on the map in an exact order or scroll through text prompts of translated pseudo-narrative. It’s best when left to the devices of its engine and its palette, when you discover a trove of weapons or a secret boss. A Link to the Past is number four because it starts to have a lot of these moments. But it isn’t higher because they felt like you were breaking the game, not fulfilling its design, which was by nature more directed and over-processed.
The Wind Waker
In terms of the Zelda series, The Wind Waker fits most cleverly into the canon. Link isn’t a predestined hero but a nervous child thrust into adventure by the expectations of his island clan, for whom the events of Ocarina of Time are as legendary as they were to our own childhoods.
But in terms of adventure gaming as a genre, the expansive sea and sundry islands of The Wind Waker captivate like only the greatest over worlds ever have. A colorful cast and endearing musical score only accentuate the sense that you are an explorer in a grand expanse. New sword mechanics turned every encounter into a ballet of strafing and slashing. This is the freshest turn the series ever took while still holding itself to the rules of its predecessors. Speaking of which …
Majora’s Mask follows no rules. There’s no Ganon, no Zelda, and no explicit narrative. As a video game protagonist, you’re supposed to be empowered and special, with a whole cast of people telling you how you’re destined to defeat everything and save everyone. But not in Majora’s Mask.
The fairy queen gives you the ability to re-live the last three days before the world exploded in the hopes that somehow your actions can give the world a future. This means that no one remembers you. No one thanks you for saving the world, because no one but you knows what happened. It’s a brilliant exercise in meta-gaming, genuinely eerie, a feast of dark artistry and discord. It’s the best 3D Zelda game because it’s unafraid to find within the competent control scheme of Ocarina of Time a fascinating and complex adventure that has as many scares and joys as any adventure game. Save for one.
The Legend of Zelda
Anyone who’s played Dark Souls knows the feeling of being demanded of your wits, being asked to take the game as an organism and not a litmus test. In its age, in the simplest form ever devised for a game, The Legend of Zelda is that feeling.
Its map is sprawling, but unlike the modern sandboxes it has a shrewd structure that unfolds as you explore. It’s become famous for its standoffish NPC’s and opaque narrative. What it should be remembered for is how every instance of danger is a masterclass of pacing and intuitive tutorial. The game funnels you into understanding its design by introducing concepts organically in harrowing tests of focused wit and timing. It teaches you. It never tells you.
This is the only Zelda game to fully support the player as an adventurer, whose sense of exploration is not a missile to be guided (A Link to the Past) and especially not an obstacle to overcome (Skyward Sword). That sense is the energy by which The Legend of Zelda expounds its story and unfolds its tapestry of action and excitement. The degree to which any Zelda game has felt like an adventure worth having is exactly the degree to which it emulates this original game. None has the mystery, the intuition, or the magic in its hidden lore. None is so thoughtful or structured so well. And for my time, none is better.