The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most iconic video game franchises of all time. Ever since its debut on NES in 1986, Nintendo has consistently delivered awe-inspiring experiences that often define entire console generations. More than a handful of Link’s adventures are among the greatest games ever created.
With that being said, ranking The Legend of Zelda series is a challenging endeavor. We did just that, though — from the 8-bit era all the way to the high-definition open-world game of Breath of the Wild. Our journey through the history of The Legend of Zelda starts now.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took a ton of risks. Gone were the traditional dungeons, replaced with 120 small-scale puzzle shrines and a handful of slightly larger-scale Divine Beasts. With that came the switch to weapons that degraded with use, changing a big part of the core identity of Zelda in the process. Breath of the Wild ushered Zelda into the modern era, turning Hyrule into a truly open world, a sprawling, lavish piece of land that held a treasure trove of secrets.
These twists in the formula ultimately paid off. Breath of the Wild maintained the series’s almost indescribable sense of wonder while pushing the franchise in a startling, wondrous new direction emphasizing the freedom of exploration. It’s not only the best Zelda game (and Switch game), it’s arguably the greatest game ever made. Nintendo is also working on a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild that we can’t wait for.
Link’s Awakening, the first handheld entry in the franchise, morphed from a port of A Link to the Past into the weirdest entry in the iconic series. Featuring cameos from Kirby, a SimCity character, and 2D sidescrolling sections where Link hops on Goombas, Link’s Awakening had an experimental vibe to it that simply oozed charm. Swapping Hyrule for Koholint Island, Link’s Awakening cemented itself as a unique and valiant foray into portable adventuring. Since its 1993 launch on Game Boy, Link’s Awakening has received two remakes. In 1998, Koholint Island was doused with color in Link’s Awakening DX.
But it’s the Switch remake that convinced us to catapult Link’s Awakening from the fifth spot on our list to number two. Updated with a bright visual style that makes all the denizens of Koholint Island resemble adorable toy dolls, Link’s Awakening on Switch is stunningly cute.
Nintendo updated far more than just the graphics. A cleaner inventory system allows Link to have more than two active items at once. There are far more Heart Pieces and Secret Seashells to find. The more robust scavenger hunt is complimented well by a map pin system borrowed from Breath of the Wild. Link’s Awakening was always incredible, but the Switch remake solidifies it as the best top-down Zelda game ever made.
The second best top-down entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past returned to the basic formula that made the original NES game such a standout experience. Marked by beautiful 16-bit visuals that still pop today, A Link to the Past introduced the concept of parallel worlds into the franchise. There was the Light World, the idyllic lands of Hyrule; and the Dark World, a mirrored version with grim features and altered beings caused by Ganon’s retrieval of the Triforce.
Expertly designed dungeons and smart puzzles that played with the concept of switching between the worlds made A Link to the Past feel ahead of its time. A Link to the Past is the best Super Nintendo game and one of the absolute greatest games of the ’90s.
Link’s first foray as one of the best GameCube games was met with some trepidation from fans due to its cartoon cel-shaded art style. We’re unsure why, though, as The Wind Waker is arguably the most visually stimulating entry in the entire series, especially the HD remake for Wii U. Regardless, the aesthetic wasn’t the only aspect that made The Wind Waker shine. Only upstaged by Breath of the Wild in terms of exploration, The Wind Waker sent players across the Great Sea on the King of Red Lions boat. Sailing the high sea was a magical experience, and stumbling across new islands always brought fresh delights.
The Wind Waker‘s story is also one of the best in the franchise, as it features Link going on a journey to rescue his sister. Princess Zelda still makes an appearance, though not in her usual form. The lore in Wind Waker, especially the ending, makes it one of the most peculiar and insightful Zeldas. We also reckon that The Wind Waker is the best entry point in the series for new Zelda players. We’re still holding out for a port to Switch since the HD version is trapped on the Wii U.
What more can be said about one of the best N64 games of all time? The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is widely regarded as one of the best games of all time. Most polls would probably deem it the best in the series. And while we think it’s just outside of the top three, that’s more of a testament to the franchise’s prowess than a sleight on OoT.
Ocarina of Time brought Zelda into the 3D era, making it the most important evolution in the franchise. From the first steps into the open terrain of Hyrule to the moment when Link retrieves the Master Sword from the Temple of Time to the final showdown with Ganon, Ocarina of Time was a true marvel at every turn. It has also aged far more gracefully than most early polygonal games and is every bit as engaging today as it was in 1998.
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” the old man said. And with that, Link started his journey as a hero. Link’s first adventure, The Legend of Zelda introduced as an NES game, offering a gameplay loop that would change the way we thought about video games. Unlike most subsequent entries in the franchise, the original offered very little direction and allowed players to discover the dungeons in basically any order they pleased. The Legend of Zelda remains a masterpiece.
Majora’s Mask is the grittiest Zelda game, and its overall sense of unease is apparent from the opening cutscene. Set in Termina, Majora’s Mask felt like an alternate reality Ocarina of Time, one in which Link had to save the world from a different threat, the Skull Kid (and ultimately, the moon). Majora’s Mask played with time in an interesting way, as the game has a perpetually moving clock. At the end of three in-game days, the moon crashes into Termina — unless you can stop it.
The cycle could be reset with the Ocarina, but the perceived time limit gave Majora’s Mask a different sense of urgency. Couple the time mechanic with the bevy of masks that Link could wear, including a few that let him shape-shift, and Majora’s Mask offered a new spin on The Legend of Zelda. Majora’s Mask remains something of a cult classic amongst Zelda fans, and it proved that Nintendo could sufficiently rework the tried and true series formula in the 3D space, just as it did in 2D.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap swapped Link’s iconic green cap for Ezlo, a magical anthropomorphic hat that was also green. With Ezlo’s powers, Link could shrink down to the size of the Minish, and explore areas from a very small perspective. The mechanic made dungeons, the overworld, and even towns a joy to explore and uncover secrets in this great GBA game.
Add in Kinstones, which altered a specific part of the world when matched, and The Minish Cap introduced just enough new features to make it feel like an entirely fresh Zelda adventure, complete with wonderful characters, an interesting story, and a reworked version of Hyrule. It’s a game not internally developed at Nintendo, but instead, created by Capcom.
Using a Pokémon-esque release model, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons launched simultaneously on Game Boy Color. They appear as one entry on this list because together they formed one, overarching story. Impressively, however, they were two completely different games.
Seasons gave Link the ability to change the seasons (of course) with the power of a magical rod, and the Harp of Ages sent Link to a world called Labrynna. The two experiences complemented each other quite well, with Ages focusing the brunt of its time on puzzles and Seasons featuring more action. To see the final ending, you had to work through each of the game’s dungeons. The Oracle games are tremendous and often overlooked in the grand scheme of Zelda history.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the best Nintendo 3DS game, which is saying a lot considering the strength of the library. Top-down, but in beautiful 3D, this sequel to A Link to the Past traded one (huge) ingrained mechanic. Rather than finding new items in dungeons, Link rented and eventually bought them from a shopkeeper.
The change didn’t delight everyone, but it let you approach each area differently, deciding which items would suit you best in the moment. Link could also merge into walls to move about in 2D, a mechanic that bore some resemblance to The Minish Cap. It felt more like an extension of A Link to the Past than a completely new experience, but that’s not really a complaint.
Both a launch game on Nintendo Wii and a swan song for the GameCube, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess brought the franchise back to the “serious” look of Ocarina of Time. Like others in the series, Twilight contained a parallel dimension, in which Link could turn into a wolf. The Twilight Realm is probably the darkest set piece in Zelda history.
Though Twilight Princess was an excellent game, it finds itself in the back half of this list mainly because it didn’t feel nearly as innovative as some other Zelda games. Yes, it still had the series’ magic, and its dungeons were excellent, but it felt safe. However, it is one of the two Zelda games to feature proper motion controls as a primary means for controlling Link.
Developed by independent studio Brace Yourself Games, Cadence of Hyrule mashes the rhythm mechanics of Crypt of the NecroDancer with Zelda’s iconic setting. Easily the most unique game on this list from a gameplay perspective, Cadence of Hyrule is top-down Zelda like you’ve never played it before. It manages to remain magical nonetheless.
You play as either Link or Zelda on a new quest to save Hyrule. Rather than walking, your chosen hero hops across the map to the beat of remixed Zelda songs. Keeping on rhythm is key to slaying the enemies you encounter, each of whom has their own movement patterns to learn. As a rogue-lite, death takes all of your rupees and temporary items, but you get to keep key items and your map progress. Come for the excellent rhythm gameplay; stay for the classic Zelda exploration that fits remarkably well in this reimagined Hyrule.
The second of the two Nintendo DS Zelda games, Spirit Tracks retained the cel-shaded cartoon visuals and isometric, 3D perspective. Spirit Tracks subbed in a steam train for travel across the overworld, a mechanic that we enjoyed quite a bit.
The dungeons were interesting, and the touchscreen controls remained as solid as they were in Phantom Hourglass. It’s a great game, but the DS easily holds the crown for the Nintendo system with the worst Zelda games. “Worst” being relative, of course.
MotionPlus sucked, and sadly The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was the marquee game that was supposed to get the Wii remote adapter off the ground. Marketed as a more fine-tuned way to use motion controls, Skyward Sword proved that laborious motion controls simply aren’t fun, especially in a game like Zelda.
Skyward Sword is the first game in the Zelda timeline, so it’s a worthwhile play for all Zelda fans. But the controls really, really dampened the experience as a Wii Game. It’s quite a shame, as Skyward Sword could be much higher on this list with a proper control scheme (Nintendo Switch port, please).
It’s almost unfair to compare the GameCube’s Four Swords Adventures to traditional Zelda games. It falls in the Zelda timeline, though, so it’s here. The cooperative experience lets you and three friends control Link (each wearing a different colored tunic) in action-oriented episodes in the pursuit of taking down Shadow Link.
The exploration and discovery typically seen in the franchise weren’t on display, but it was still a fun game to play with friends. Plus, it let you battle your friends to see who was the best Link. That was pretty darn cool.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is an oddity, and not just because its title didn’t start with “The Legend of Zelda.” After the success of the original, Nintendo decided to alter the formula for the direct sequel significantly. It subbed the top-down perspective for sidescrolling and had an integral emphasis on RPG tropes. As a result, The Adventure of Link is probably the most trying game in the series as well as the most divisive. It’s passable (even good), but some of the Zelda magic slipped in this transition. Still, Zelda II has its share of die-hard fans. But if you want classic gameplay that invites nostalgia, you might opt to pass on this title.
Phantom Hourglass, the predecessor to Spirit Tracks, shared its artistic style and use of a Steamboat (rather than a train) for travel. A cursory glance gives the impression that the two games are more similar than not, but Phantom Hourglass’s dungeons weren’t as exciting, and it wasn’t as impressive as other traditional Zelda titles. Because of this, we had to put it at the bottom of our list.
18. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
Tri Force Heroes is easily the worst game on the list, though we’re comparing it to some of the greatest games of all time. This installment is similar to Four Swords Adventures, emphasizing co-op so that players can complete levels with up to two other people on Nintendo 3DS. You can also play solo, switching off between characters as they solve each challenge. The downside is that either way you play, TriForce Heroes isn’t particularly memorable. The original Zelda’s magic isn’t quite there, and it doesn’t have much new to offer in terms of challenges or storylines. We could take it or leave it and didn’t mind leaving the game unfinished.
With a catalog as extensive as The Legend of Zelda, any franchise would have a few misses. Since our list includes everything in the series, choose from the best and leave the others.
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