Every series has its gems. What I’m going to talk about now are the hollowed out klinkers in gaming’s sparkliest adventure trove. The Legend of Zelda has adventures to last a lifetime, which will be considerably shorter if you play any of these for too long. (Note: This is a list for the WORST Zelda games, if you are looking for the BEST Zelda games, then go HERE.)
I’m not including HD remakes, re-releases, Master Quests, or the surprisingly OK Link’s Crossbow Training or the Philips CD-I “games”. I’m also excluding the multiplayer entries: Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures, and Triforce Heroes. They were meant to be played with other people, a factor that fundamentally changes their adventure. I feel that including them would be like ranking Super Mario Bros. games and including Super Smash Bros.
This is the worst of the mainstream Zelda offerings. Perhaps the best testament to the Zelda series is that even the bottom of this list is probably better than the average schlock. Just not much.
Zelda II The Adventure of Link
Set in an overworld reminiscent of Final Fantasy and with side-scrolling gameplay like the original Ninja Gaiden, Zelda II was a boldfaced break from tradition. When taken at the word of its own design, it has a satisfying leveling system, some devious enemies and clever swordplay, and many staples that define the series (most of Link’s moves in Super Smash Bros., for instance, are the unlockable attacks in Zelda II).
But the problem is that Zelda II has headache-inducing holes in its design. It will tell you that you need something but will not introduce the mechanics that allow you to find it. It sends you back to the start point with each death, but isn’t designed around that point as the original game was. Tutorials and guide characters are an incident of lazy design, but such a lack of structure can barely be called design at all. It would be lower if its combat weren’t so unique.
Skyward Sword is a beautiful looking game that does so much fundamentally wrong I have to put it in its place. We joke about how over-tutorialized it is, how obsessively directive and annoyingly rhetorical. Hating Fi is justified, but what does it mean about The Legend of Zelda as a series?
It means that Skyward Sword is a game that doesn’t trust its players to have an adventure, which can’t let the player be free in the world for five minutes without reminding, illustrating, and directing them to the next objective. Vestigial mechanics (like a stamina bar) underlie the problem with Skyward Sword, which is that its ideal player is someone willing only to follow directions. Adventure has never been so visually overhyped and yet so mechanically witless, so told and not shown.
Can I include Hyrule Warriors, which is by all rights a spinoff? I decided I can, partly because it truly is a full game, but mostly because it’s the only original Zelda on the Wii U so far and was clearly advertised as a different way to experience the same Legend of Zelda.
Hyrule Warriors is a candy-popping feast of genre mashup and Easter eggs. It takes the repetitive but grandiose battles from Dynasty Warriors and slaps a Zelda skin on it in the hopes of selling a few more Wii U consoles before Nintendo jumps ship to the NX.
Hyrule Warriors is a button-masher, and a functional one. The characters play with amusing diversity, the battles are acceptably grand, and the Zelda locales and sounds all hit that warm fuzzy on a rainy day between playthroughs of better games. Just because you eat chicken soup when you’re sick doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with it. It just means there are better meals, heartier and made for calmer stomachs on better days. But it could get worse …
So this shouldn’t be a surprise. The DS Zelda games get a lot of hate, and I’m not against it. They’re not just ugly and derivative: they take the sense of exploration that permeates the best entries in the series and over-process it into a grainy mush of tutorials, wonky new controls, and imbecilic puzzles. Even knowing this, Nintendo made few meaningful changes for Spirit Tracks.
I placed it higher than Phantom Hourglass because you don’t have to repeat any dungeons. That’s it. If tapping bomb targets from a grainy toy train sounds fun to you, maybe Spirit Tracks had you in mind. It didn’t have the Zelda fan in mind, however. It’s full of control gags but little functionality, overstuffed with story, but emaciated from a lack of genuine adventure. These last two aren’t just bad Zelda games—they’re bad games.
The Phantom Hourglass
The first Zelda on the DS is the easiest of all Link’s adventures to hate. The cel-shading that worked well in The Wind Waker mistranslated onto the handheld into a pixelated mess. The fully touchscreen controls work as a marketing gimmick (drawing on the maps!) but not as a basic control interface, where the swipe that slashes and the one that rolls are only nominally different.
But if the controls were a misstep the dungeon design was a sin. Replaying the Temple of the Ocean King a dozen times throughout the game with a little more time to get a little further turns a tedious design into a tortuous one. Its lack of direction then comes home to roost on those bonkers controls, coagulating what could have been a mere misstep in the series into a horrible bruised scab on its memory. My brain gets itchy thinking about its boneheaded design, depth-less narrative, and sickening aesthetic. But like every game on this list, what bothers me most is the 90% it bought from Metacritic, just for showing up to the party wearing a Zelda skirt and dancing its dance.
What are in your opinion the worst Zelda games? Let us know in the comments below!