In this article I will attempt the maddening feat of ranking every main iteration of my favorite video game series: The Legend of Zelda.
That is right folks, I’m going to attempt something nigh impossible by rating my favorite games in the series from least favorite to favorite, in a franchise that is littered with masterpieces. Truly, aside from the Philips CDI games—which I have not played—there really isn’t a bad game in the bunch.
There are two very important things to note before we get started.
- This is my list, and thus there will be entries you do not agree with. I’m happy to further discuss any game on this list with you, but in the end these are simply my opinions. You can still love your favorite Zelda, even if it is at the bottom of my list, it does not invalidate your opinion. Let’s debate and discuss, but let us do it in a civil manner. After all, no matter which Zelda we love, we are all Zelda fans.
- I like all of these games, and absolutely love a good portion of them. No matter how far they fall on my list, they are still games I hold in high regards. Many of them I went back and forth on numerous times, with a good majority of them separated by the barest of measurement.
With that out of the way, let us take this wild ride, together.
18. Zelda II – The Adventure of Link
One thing that can be said about Nintendo is that they are never truly afraid to experiment with their franchises. Nowhere is that statement more true than when taking a look at the second Legend of Zelda game. Gone was the top down exploration and puzzle based gameplay, and in its place was a side scrolling action game that could be brutally hard at times.
I don’t think that Zelda II is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but there are so many segments that seem purposefully obtuse and difficult to suss out what to do next. It is almost like they wanted to sell Nintendo Power, help line info, or strategy guides.
Combine this with weird innuendos, an odd experience system, and a shadow Link that is nearly impossible to beat without cheesing it, and you have my least favorite Zelda game of the bunch.
17. Four Swords (GBA)
I actually really enjoyed this new multiplayer mode that was included in the GBA port of Link to the Past. Seeing four Link characters making their way through the classic puzzles and gameplay while duking it out for rupees was a good time.
However, it gets this lower place on the list because if you wanted to go back and play it today it is EXTREMELY hard to do. There is no single player mode, which means in order to experience it you would have to have 4 people who wanted to go back and play it, 4 GBA systems, 4 copies of the game, and the link cables to make it all happen.
It was a thrilling thing to experience back in the day, but even then it was very challenging to make happen. Nintendo is known for having some convoluted multiplayer in their day, but this one almost makes Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles look accessible.
16. Triforce Heroes (3DS)
Along with most of the internet I scrunched up my nose hard during this game’s E3 presentation. The last thing I wanted after the amazing Link Between Worlds was a new multiplayer Zelda game, no matter how charming it looked.
Still, it had the name Zelda on it, so I was bound to pick it up. The way it is set up is essentially there are different suits Link can wear, and you have to go through levels to get materials to grind out those suits. The levels themselves are well designed, drawing from some of Link Between World’s coolest items, but they can be extremely tedious as a single player.
The 3DS isn’t really a bastion of online play, so there is no voice chat possible with the online component, just emotes you can tap to try to communicate. Considering the nature of the puzzle aspects of some levels this was a non-starter, and an odd choice by Nintendo. Further vexing was the fact that you had to have 3 people to play, so I couldn’t roll with just me and my son for instance.
On top of that online was spotty at times, so while the game had a real charm to it and was a fun spin-off, its online issues held back the entire package. When you could get three people together though, it was an absolute blast.
15. Majora’s Mask (N64)
I didn’t play this game back on the N64, because the time based gameplay just held no appeal for me. So it was a giant gaping hole in my Zelda knowledge, and I didn’t play it until the 3DS remake of the game. It added a number of quality of life upgrades, as well as enhancements to the graphics.
There are some really emotionally impacting moments in this game, with some really cool characters, but the amount of hoops you need to jump to get there nearly necessitates a guide to make sure you see everything. The constant time restraint is a real problem for me, and though it does add a tense feeling to the preceding, it just stresses me out.
I loved the masks, having the story rotate around one town, the dark atmosphere, trying to avoid the destruction of the world, and Skull Kid himself. However, I play Zelda for the joy of exploration, and always feeling like there is a time limit to everything you do simply isn’t appealing to me.
14. Legend of Zelda (NES)
Ah, the game that started it all. I still recall the first time I got this golden cart and put it into my system. I was absolutely amazed at the epic feel of Link’s adventure, and the way you could explore everything that simply wasn’t done in console games before this.
The game still holds up on playthroughs today, and I adore it for the fact that it brought us the franchise. However, when compared against many of its predecessors it is far more simplistic and limited. While I can recognize the impact it had on gaming, I still can admit it isn’t my favorite Zelda game.
13. Phantom Hourglass (DS)
I went back and forth on the next two on the list, because they are oddities within the franchise that I’ve seen arguments on constantly. They start by having touch enabled gaming, that many people were unhappy with at the time, myself included. I still would have vastly preferred button gaming, but the controls worked for what they were. More importantly they both continue the journey of Wind Waker Link and Tetra, and follow those characters on more adventures, something not frequently done in the franchise.
While I felt that Phantom Hourglass has some of the better items and exploration, it also has a repeatable dungeon that tends to wear on you after repeated visits. For this reason it barely gets edged out by Spirit Tracks as my go to DS Zelda game.
12. Spirit Tracks (DS)
This game has Link conducting a train, so I mean, it should probably be number one on the list. It also has Link teaming up with Zelda for the first time ever, albeit through a suit of armor her ghost controls. The story and villains were a high point in the series for me, and I really enjoyed the way they incorporated the train. Though travel was very limited, it is literally on rails, I enjoyed traversing the world.
There was also a neat mechanic, if somewhat throwaway, that would allow you to transport good and people from one town to the other, unlocking new side quests and upgrades to your train. Speaking of, there are a lot of variations you can unlock for your train, and it ends up having a character all its own that I feel adds a lot of charm to the game.
Both of these games are only this far down on the list because I disliked the gimmicky blowing in the mic and touch controls. Either way they are both fantastic entries into the series, and if you own a DS you should really pick them up.
11. Four Swords Adventures (Gamecube)
Four Swords Adventures took everything from the GBA side quest for Link to the Past, and blew it up to a full sized Zelda game. The story was more in depth, the world was more fully realized, and you could play this single player. This game is frequently overlooked when talking about great 2D Zelda games, which I think is likely due to the misunderstanding that you had to have other people to play.
Again, Nintendo made it really difficult to team up with people as they tried to push the connectivity of the GBA and Gamecube. You could play with anywhere from 2-3 other people, which was a nice improvement from the original, but everyone had to have a GBA. Granted, this did allow for cool moments of going underground on the screen, and ending up seeing Link on your GBA screen.
However, if you want to experience this today it is very hard to pull off in general, but unlike Four Swords you can play the whole thing by yourself if you can’t rally your friends. It is far more accessible than Four Swords and I would love to see something like this leveraged with full online in the future of the Switch.
10. Ocarina of Time (N64)
This is where I start getting the hate comments, and I can understand why. After all, much like many when I originally played this on the N64 I felt it was an absolute revelation, a masterpiece that could never be replaced.
Unfortunately a steady march of time has taken away a lot of what felt so special about Ocarina of Time, and even though it is still an amazing game, it simply isn’t what I remembered. Typically I find this to be the case with a lot of early 3D games on the N64 and PS1, they just don’t hold up as well going back, and not just graphically.
After playing Wind Waker HD, and Twilight Princess HD, I went back to experience OoT as the remaster on my 3DS. While the 3DS version goes a long way to smoothing out the terrible graphics of the N64 version, a lot of the clunkiness to the controls is still there. I also had forgotten finer points of the game, and found myself baffled later on at the windmill portion of the game. The leaps it takes to get to the solution seem forced, and a lot of the game makes leaps of logic in those regards.
In addition something like the majesty of Hyrule Field just doesn’t feel as epic anymore, and it isn’t the game’s fault, but when I can ride across an entire world in Breath of the Wild it just doesn’t feel as magical as it once did.
That being said the dungeons are still some of the best in the series (aside from the original Water Temple), and turning into adult Link will never get old. Besides, being in the top ten of Zelda games is nothing to sneeze at anyways.
9. Oracle of Ages / Seasons (GBC)
I debated separating these two games, but even though they have their own stories and characters, they really are two sides of the same coin; you even can have a password at the end of one that lets the other game recognize which you played first, and changes your experience accordingly.
Oddly enough these were actually developed by Capcom, and as such I had shied away from them at first, worried that the Nintendo magic wouldn’t be present. Instead the company handled Zelda beautifully, and added a lot of cool new items and abilities to the franchise for the first time.
I also absolutely adore the art of this game, especially the concept art. It is so vibrant and colorful I can’t help but be drawn in by it. I remember going over the manuals again and again, taking physical photographs of some of the art to hang on my wall as a kid.
8. The Minish Cap (GBA)
I don’t know how, but I completely missed this on the GBA. I’m not sure if I was obsessed with another system at the time, because I did go through a period I felt I was too mature to play Nintendo games (which I’ve since discovered is not true: feeling like you can’t play something because you are too old is the opposite of mature).
Either way, I finally got to experience it on the Wii U Virtual Console, and I was amazed out how fantastic it was. First of all, this is probably one of my favorite art styles from any of the 2D Zelda games. I really enjoyed the kinstones, the story, and the main hook of shrinking down and seeing the world from a smaller perspective is something that will never cease to be fascinating in fiction.
7. Link’s Awakening (GB)
I’ve played Link’s Awakening as much or more than Link to the Past. I played the original on Game Boy, the fantastic DX version on the Game Boy Color, and on various Virtual Consoles. I absolutely adore the game for some of its wacky ideas, its cool story, the fantastic dungeons, neat characters, and the oddities of Mario characters showing up.
Among the 2D Zelda games this one holds a very special place in my heart, and easily belongs in the top ten of this list.
6. Twilight Princess (Gamecube)
The next couple of games will not be popular choices, but Twilight Princess is among my favorite 3D Zelda games.
Yes, the opening of the game is quite slow, but I think it did an amazing job of bringing a lot of story and background to the character. I love the darker story of the game, it felt like the whole thing had more stakes than any Zelda had before.
The Wii U remaster is absolutely fantastic as well, adding quality of life improvements and removing some of the slowdown in switching to wolf form, which makes it an even more enjoyable game.
5. Skyward Sword (Wii)
I told you this one would be controversial, but I absolutely adore Skyward Sword. Aesthetically I really liked the watercolor style they used, and the fact it was somewhere between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess: a perfect balancing in my opinion.
Secondly, this is the only time we’ve ever really seen the relationship between Link and Zelda fleshed out in any real way. It made Zelda more of a real character, and made the quest feel more personal. This being the origin of the franchise story wise there are so many fantastic ways it weaves the legacy into the narrative, and it was my favorite Zelda story to date.
In addition I think it was the closest we ever came to what I imagined when I thought of motion controls after the Wii was announced. Nintendo nailed the 1 to 1 movements, and though it wasn’t always perfect, I feel it made the experience more immersive. When I physically made the motion to pull the sword from the pedestal, I knew it was a little cheesy, but I was smiling the whole time.
4. A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
I really thought about swapping Link to the Past and Link Between Worlds on the list; I think that highly of this 2D adventure. There were a lot of people who didn’t like the way the items were done in this game, because you could rent the majority from the outset instead of finding them. I feel it was one of the first steps towards the brilliant reinvention of the franchise with Breath of the Wild, as it added a exploration that wasn’t there before.
In previous games you would find an item in a dungeon, knew that was the only item you would need, and you were set. The item wasn’t so much a puzzle, as simply a key, and once you knew the shape the key fit you solved everything. So I felt that this change was a great breath of fresh air, and I really enjoyed it.
Other than that the callback to Link to the Past brought with its serious nostalgia power, and the way they utilized 3D in the game was utterly genius. Many of the items work in fantastic ways, and the fact you can merge with the wall leads to some of the best puzzles in the series.
3. Wind Waker (Gamecube)
This is the finest 3D Zelda that relies on the traditional method, and it used to constantly flip flop on the top of my list with Link to the Past. The art style that I originally was skeptical of, I grew to adore. The sense of exploration is one of the best in the series, and though there were some pacing issues towards the end, the Wii U version cleans all of that up, and makes the sailing less painful as well.
I also love the way it ties itself to previous games in the series, something we really hadn’t experienced previously in the franchise. There are some story moments in the middle of the game that are just sheer brilliance, and some of my most fondly remembered moments in all of gaming.
2. Link to the Past (SNES)
Link to the Past is one of those wonderful gems that was made during the SNES era, that will never get old. No matter how many generations of gaming from now this game will remain a must play for serious gamers, and it is really easy to see why. The pixel art is sublime, the pacing is amazing, and every mechanic in the game just sings together.
Nostalgia certainly helps this game, and I’ll never forget the opening scenes where I was amazed that it was storming outside. I play this game at least once a year, and I’ve never grown tired of it. It holds up to this day, and remains one of Nintendo’s absolute best.
1. Breath of the Wild (Switch)
Was there ever any doubt this would get the top spot?
Breath of the Wild is not only the best Zelda ever made, it is my favorite game I’ve ever played. My anticipation leading up to it was so intense that there was no way this game could live up to my expectations; yet somehow, it did.
In Nintendo’s very first stab at an open world game they absolutely nailed it, and in my opinion introduced some features that should be standard in every open world game to come. There was such genius in the way this game was developed, the way the developers naturally used your curiosity to lead you always over the horizon. Every square inch of the enormous map was packed with things of interest, and exploration was always rewarded with some small discovery or reward.
The art of this game is second to none, and despite the limitations of the hardware, it is one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. I have around 1500 pictures on my Switch right now, and probably a third of those are Breath of the Wild.
I could go on about this game for a long time, and I have in my review, but it without a doubt deserves the top spot on this list.
UPDATE: I managed to receive a Nice Job Badge, proudly displayed to the left over there, from Matthew over at Normal Happenings. I was unfamiliar with his work previously, but upon this award I perused a good portion of it and it is good stuff focusing on life in general. It is introspective and thought provoking in a lot of pieces, and I suggest you give it a read.
It is also really cool that he takes his time to recognize outstanding posts for every week, and I really appreciate him recognizing my article. Thanks Matthew!
Well there we have it, my opinion on my least favorite Zelda to my favorite. Certainly there will be many who disagree with the order of the list, and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below. Remember though, keep it civil.
After all, no matter which Zelda game you love, we all love Zelda.