Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series is their second biggest flagship franchise after the famous red plumber himself. Throughout the series’ history, we’ve gotten a diverse variety of games, each with their own unique flavor and spin on the tried and true action-adventure gameplay style. Remarkably, the series has always had a very consistently high bar of quality, and each new entry continues to be a monumental occasion, like a mile marker in the history of video games.
2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of the original Legend of Zelda in the United States (It came out a year earlier in Japan). With the next mainline game in the series slated for this year, let’s take a look back and rank the games in the series from least to greatest game. I will be replaying as many of them as possible as well in preparation for Breath of the Wild, but more on that later.
For the purposes of this list, I will not be including spinoff titles such as Link’s Crossbow Training or Hyrule Warriors. Remember that this is all simply my opinion as a lifelong Zelda fan! With that aside, let’s begin.
16. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
System: Nintendo 3DS – Released: 2015
This is perhaps the easiest pick in the entire list. Tri Force Heroes is the spiritual sequel to the Four Swords games, the original attempt at creating a multiplayer Zelda experience. However, while those games excelled, Tri Force Heroes missed the mark pretty badly. While Four Swords Adventures and the DSi remaster of Four Swords both had elegant single-player solutions for people who wanted to play on their own, the single player mode of Tri Force Heroes is awful, essentially making you do the work of 3 players on your own. This would be mostly fine, if playing with other people was great, but it’s often isn’t due to the rigid online mode.
While the level design does have its moments of brilliance, and the costume mechanic is interesting, Tri Force Heroes has few other redeeming factors. To top it off, the game forces you to have three players for multiplayer, further decreasing the window of enjoyment you can gleam from this. And let’s not even get started on the horrible “story” that doesn’t even pretend to be anything more than a joke. Tri Force Heroes deserves its place at the bottom of this list.
15. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
System: Nintendo DS – Released: 2007
Phantom Hourglass was created during an experimental period for Nintendo, where they were making versions of their titles centered around the Nintendo DS’s touch screen. Phantom Hourglass had a very simple idea: creating a Zelda game that could be controlled entirely with the touch sceen. Amazingly, it actually worked very well! This game’s controls were a wonder, allowing you to do everything you could in a normal Zelda game through gestures and taps. On top of this, it simplified tasks that could never be done without the touch screen, such as jotting down notes on your map or plotting the route of your ship. Being a direct sequel to The Wind Waker, the game borrows the same wonderful art style, and has a nice story that feels like an addendum without treading on the feet of its predecessor.
Where the game falls short is in its focus on the Temple of the Ocean King, a central dungeon that must be revisited repeatedly throughout the game in order to unlock new areas. This introduces a level of backtracking that just isn’t fun. On top of that, the game is just too darn easy, and after a while it just felt like going through the motions. However, it’s clear that through these issues, a good game still shines through.
14. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
System: Nintendo Entertainment System – Released: 1987/1988 (JP/NA)
After the huge success of the original Legend of Zelda, you have to give it up to Nintendo for being ballsy enough to scrap familiarity in favor of experimentation, even back in the 80s. No other Zelda is remembered as heavily for its disregard of what came before it than The Adventure of Link, mainly because it was totally different. It scrapped the top-down view of the original in favor of a side-scrolling view, and added a ton of new RPG elements to the mix. While a lot of it was very fun, a lot of it didn’t land as gracefully.
The game was stupidly difficult at times and the combat and dungeons suffered a little bit in their transition to a side view. However, the game also introduced many awesome aspects that would later become staples of the series. The game’s reliance on towns, NPCs and exploration is something that has stuck with every game in the series since. For the first time, the world of Hyrule felt less like a monster-infested wasteland and more like a lived-in fantasy world.
13. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords & Four Swords Adventures
System: Game Boy Advance (FS), Nintendo GameCube (FSA) – Released: 2002/2003 (NA/JP, FS), 2004 (FSA)
Four Swords and its sequel, Four Swords Adventures was based on a simple idea: taking Zelda, and making it multiplayer. The original Four Swords was a short multiplayer bonus mode included in the GBA port of A Link to the Past. Surprisingly, it was really fun, and eventually, it inspired a full-length title on the GameCube: Four Swords Adventures. Unlike normal Zelda games, there is no world to explore, and instead, the action takes place in a succession of levels of varying themes and difficulty.
This game works extremely well in how it adapts to your current play style. Do you only have one friend to play with you at the moment? No problem! Split things off and each person controls 2 Links! No friends? Controlling all four Links is extremely easy with the inventive formations solution! The game is just as fun any way you play it. The only bummer is that the level-based structure left you clamoring for a full-fledged Zelda world that could be explored with friends. To this day, this is sadly still not a thing. Four Swords Adventures still remains as Nintendo’s best attempt at a multiplayer Zelda.
12. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
System: Nintendo DS – Released: 2009
Spirit Tracks was the second DS Zelda title, and in many ways, it feels like a second attempt at fulfilling what Phantom Hourglass was trying to accomplish. It’s bigger, badder and better, fixing many of the flaws that plagued Phantom Hourglass. This time around we have a brand new story taking place in the distant future, although there are some returning faces. Instead of sailing on a boat, you traverse Hyrule on a train, which ends up being way more compelling because of how it makes the world feel so much larger. Couple this with a larger selection of places to discover, and you have what is one of the best overworlds in Zelda history.
Although the game brings back the worst thing about Phantom Hourglass-the central dungeon that has to be revisited-it alleviates this a little bit by introducing a way to easily skip past previously completed portions. Finally, Spirit Tracks retains and improves upon the touch controls of the previous game, and has wonderful music, to boot. This game is perhaps one of the most underappreciated entries in the series.
11. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
System: Nintendo Wii – Released: 2011
Motion controls are one of the most contentious innovations introduced by Nintendo, and Skyward Sword is totally centered around it. Using the Wii’s MotionPlus add on, the 1:1 sword movement gives the combat an astounding amount of depth, taking the direction of your Wiimote swings into account. Thankfully, this game was mostly tasteful in its inclusion of motion controls, even if it does over-use them. Thankfully, it makes up for this by proving some of the best item mechanics and dungeons in the series.
Skyward Sword forgoes the open, exploratory structure of previous Zelda games in favor of a more linear, guided experience. While this is quite a risky move, this game proves that you can make a great linear experience if you have enough unique ideas to carry it. The Timeshift mechanics late in the game are a wonderful example of all the things you can do with a simple gameplay idea. However, while great, it ultimately leaves fans of the exploration-based Zelda titles empty-handed. Skyward Sword will be remembered simply as a great experiment in how motion controls can enhance a gaming experience.
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
System: Game Boy Advance – Released: 2004/2005 (JP/US)
As the only proper new Zelda game on the Game Boy Advance, The Minish Cap takes the structure of previous 2D Zelda games and expands on it a lot. Its story is connected to the Four Swords series, and as such, the Four Sword returns as a game mechanic that works very well. However, the main gimmick of this game is Ezlo, the titular cap with the power to shrink you down to ant-size. This adds a totally new dimension to exploring both the overworld and dungeons.
The Kinstone system is one of the most memorable mechanics in the series, and matching kinstones is a very addictive affair. It made it feel like you had a way to change the world around you, although ultimately, the previous Game Boy games were better in this regard. The Minish Cap refined the aspects of the previous Game Boy titles, while simultaneously feeling like no other Zelda before or after.
9. The Legend of Zelda
System: Nintendo Entertainment System – Released: 1986/1987 (JP/US)
Calling the original Legend of Zelda a masterpiece would be an understatement. This game remains as one of the greatest creations in the industry, even 30 years after its release. With a scope that is stunning, even by today’s standards, you can easily see this game as the predecessor to the sandbox craze we are in today. The premise was simple: you are dropped into the game world, given your sword, and you are set off to go wherever you want. Your goal was also simple: find the 8 dungeons and the triforce pieces within them to save the titular princess.
While the other Zelda games that follow in this list would go on to improve and perfect these mechanics, the original Zelda is still one of those classic games that still holds up today, presenting a level of player freedom that would remain unmatched for many years.
8. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons
System: Game Boy Color – Released: 2001
Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were released simultaneously, and were both massive portable Zelda games in the style of Link’s Awakening. What separated them was their differing central mechanics: Ages introduced time traveling into the equation, while Seasons put the power of the seasons into your hands. Both allowed you to alter the world as a way to advance in the game, and they were equally brilliant.
Ages focused on puzzle solving, while Seasons focused on tough enemy encounters and combat. This meant that while both games run off the same engine, they are inherently unique and explore different mechanics. To top it off, you could link the two games via a password system to unlock a “true” ending and final dungeon, adding to the replayability. Both of these games will be remembered for doubling down on the motto of Link’s Awakening-that it is possible to have a compelling, console-sized adventure on a handheld.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
System: Nintendo GameCube/Nintendo Wii – Released: 2006
Some Zeldas are remembered for their game mechanics, some for their art styles, but Twilight Princess will be remembered for its excelent storytelling, music and characterization. This game introduced Midna, who is still the best companion character to Link in the history of the series. It also greatly expanded the size of Hyrule, giving us the biggest, most open land-based Zelda to date (until Breath of the Wild comes out, that is). Twilight Princess is that rare time that Nintendo wanted to give their fans what they were asking for. It’s a meaty, dark game with an unparalleled sense of adventure.
Sure, all of this did come at the cost of experimentation, but Nintendo didn’t need to experiment. Instead, Twilight Princess feels like a greatest hits version of the 3D Zeldas released up to that point. I mean that in a good way. At the same time, it digs up its own identity through its story and tone, making it a great entry point into the series.
6. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
System: Nintendo 3DS – Released: 2013
A Link Between Worlds is many things. It’s a love letter to fans of not only the Game Boy Zeldas, but of its namesake, A Link to the Past. It’s also a love letter to fans of the original Legend of Zelda, with its open, non-linear structure. With its weighty role as a sequel based on A Link to the Past, this game had a harder time than most in escaping the shadow of that game and making its own splash. However, this game did it without even trying.
By introducing new characters and a new dimension to an old world, they were able to make it feel entirely new. The new mechanic that allows Link to turn into a painting and move along walls is brilliant and creative, utilizing the 3D game world while still allowing for the top-down perspective inspired by classic Zeldas. A Link Between Worlds makes juggling nostalgia with tradition-breaking changes into an art form. It truly made a splash as one of the greatest games in the series.
5. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
System: Nintendo GameCube – Released: 2002/2003 (JP/NA)
Ah, Wind Waker. Sailing the Great Sea with the wind at your back, gulls flying around, hopping from one uncharted island to another. It’s hard to think that there was a time where people were outraged that Nintendo was making this game. The cartoony art style, which is now remembered fondly, was a point of contention, and was hailed as proof that Nintendo didn’t “get it.” But Nintendo did “get it”-Zelda is a game about adventure, and Wind Waker is an incredible one.
Wind Waker was pretty much an open world sailing game. The overworld was truly massive, and discovering new islands and finding their secrets was extremely rewarding. Couple that with some of the best music, dungeons and items in the series, and you have one of the best adventure video games ever created.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
System: Game Boy – Released: 1993
Link’s Awakening could very well be the best portable video game of all time, in my opinion. This was the game that proved you can have a compelling, massive, game experience on a portable system. At the same time, it didn’t sacrifice any of the creators’ ambitions. In fact, it takes it much further than even A Link to the Past before it. There’s no Hyrule, and no Zelda. Instead, Link has shipwrecked on a strange island, and must collect the eight instruments in order to wake a mythical being known as the Wind Fish and escape.
Link’s Awakening took its beats from the original Legend of Zelda-you have to search for dungeons, find secrets hidden in the game world and fight baddies. It was a deeper game experience with a size and scope that is still not often matched by portable games today. It’s also a masterwork in game design, containing one of the coolest worlds in the series.
3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
System: Super Nintendo Entertainment System – Released: 1991/1992 (JP/US)
I think most people who were alive in the 90s remember when they were when they first played A Link to the Past. Much like Ocarina of Time ushered in the world of 3D console gaming in the series, A Link to the Past was the game that ushered in the era of gorgeous 16-bit graphics and charming music. Looking back, A Link to the Past was the game that really established what would become the “formula” of the Zelda games that followed. It’s easy to take this for granted now with our HD games, but the leap from the NES to the SNES was huge, and Zelda was the best showcase of what was possible.
Unsurprisingly, it is also the ultimate 2D Zelda experience. A Link to the Past introduced brilliant game mechanics such as the Hookshot and the Pegasus Boots. The two linked overworlds-the light world and the dark world-completely revolutionized the exploration of Zelda, and it was so good that this idea has been revisited by several other Zelda games since. A Link to the Past is so good that it’s basically required material for anyone who is even remotely into video games.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
System: Nintendo 64 – Released: 1998
3D existed in video games long before the release of the Nintendo 64 console. Computer games in the 1980s were already experimenting with the possibilities of navigating a virtual three-dimensional environment, and by the 90s, it was an already established thing with games like Doom and Wolfenstein. But the direction that this new dimension would take the Zelda series was nebulous at best. Nintendo had already made one stunning transition with Super Mario 64, but it was Ocarina of Time that would really leave a massive impact on the world of games.
This game introduced many inventive game mechanics that would stick not only with the Zelda series, but with the action adventure and RPG genres as a whole. From enemy targeting, to the way Link moved, Ocarina of Time did not play like an experimental title-its mechanics were smooth and perfected, and everything had a purpose. On paper, the game had many of the same beats as A Link to the Past, continuing a lot of the same mechanics, particularly the structure of the mirror light/dark worlds and the heavily thematic dungeons. The way this game defined how a third-person adventure game should work makes it one of the most important titles in the history of gaming.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
System: Nintendo 64 – Released: 2000
Majora’s Mask is more than a video game. It is a poignant, beautiful, work of art that takes the mechanics of Ocarina of Time and uses them to create a title that explores the dark recesses of the human psyche. What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in a matter of days? This is what Majora’s Mask explores in its gameplay, story, music and characters. If you’re not familiar, Majora’s Mask‘s main gimmick is that the moon is crashing into the earth in 3 in-game days from when you start. When that time is up, everyone dies and it’s game over. However, our hero still has the magical item known as the Ocarina of Time, which allows him to return to the start of this 3 day span and relive the events of the game in a Groundhog Day-esque fashion.
There is a lessened focus on dungeon crawling, and a heightened one on completing sidequests and collecting the game’s 24 collectible masks, each of which gives you a unique magical effect, from transforming you into another person to giving you the ability to run quickly, use a heightened sense of smell, or even explode like a human bomb. Majora’s Mask did more than just be a run of the mill Zelda game-it was a unique experience even within this franchise.
It’s my #1 Zelda game because it simply has one of the best fantasy worlds I’ve ever been in. The story and characters are deeply moving. The gameplay is familiar, unique and experimental all at once. This is Zelda finally reaching its potential as more than just a great adventure game. Agree with my picks? Disagree? Feel free to let me know!