Top 10 Legend of Zelda Games
When it comes to video games, I don't tend to play very many franchises - but the ones I do play I have been playing for over half my life and like to think I know a thing or five about them. One of the franchises I've been following since I was old enough to pick up a controller is "The Legend of Zelda", the iconic fantasy action-adventure series from Nintendo. I've played every game in the series, most of them to completion although a couple remain unfinished for one reason or another. (Looking at you, Adventure of Link.) There are a couple I've replayed, and there is one I've replayed again and again. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. You're here to see what this one fan's top 10 list is, and, most undoubtedly, to argue with me about it - because nothing gets Zelda fans riled up more than to find out that somebody else doesn't share the same favorite game as them. (And timeline theories. Man, I have seen some fights in my day.)
When creating this list I took multiple things into account: personal feelings, obviously; legacy; modern relevance to the franchise; innovations that changed the entire franchise or even gaming in general; games that most fans seem to enjoy; stories; characterizations; game mechanics, and in general, a list that I would give to somebody looking to start playing the series for the first time.
#1 - Ocarina of Time
Often imitated, never duplicated, Ocarina of Time is, to many, the definitive Zelda game. After its debut in 1998 on the Nintendo 64 console, OoT (for short) quickly became a smash hit and rewrote history for the franchise. You can "blame" OoT for everything: the story formulas, character cut-outs, the introduction of an (often super annoying) assistant and the trusty steed Epona. Naysayers point to all of this and the usual "overrated by nostalgia" line as enough reasons why OoT is not their #1.
But it is much more than all of those things. Yes, many of us who love this game the most can easily cite nostalgia as a big reason - for many younger gamers out there today, OoT came out during that fantastic time in our youths when we were old enough to have the motor skills and cognizance to fully appreciate console games but were still young enough to have all the time in the world to play them. Changes were happening in gaming in those days that we take for granted now: OoT was the first 3D Zelda game, and the first to utilize cutscenes. It also offered a slightly darker and grittier tale (and, indeed, a full-fleshed story that unraveled over the course of the game that perhaps only Link's Awakening could've rivaled at the time) and introduced character races that have since become necessary staples to every subsequent console game. Until recently with the release of Skyward Sword, OoT was seen as the purest origin story in the Zelda timeline and directly influenced the stories and settings for games to come. (See: Split Timeline)
OoT is *the* Zelda game that many fans (and indeed, casual gamers) think of when the franchise name is mentioned, and is the game I always recommend new players start off with. There would be no Legend of Zelda as we know it today without Ocarina of Time
#2 - Skyward Sword
As the Wii's first official Zelda title (Twilight Princess was technically a remake from the original Gamecube version), Skyward Sword had a lot to live up to, story wise and mechanically. Well, if general reviews are any indication, then Skyward Sword may just unseat Ocarina of Time as the ultimate Zelda game one day. But from a personal point of view, I don't know if I would go quite that far...but Skyward Sword is definitely a great game in the series, and one that had me on the edge of my seat (literally) throughout playing it, a first since, well, Ocarina of Time. A lot of it had to do with it being a predecessor to OoT, so there were many familiar elements without it necessarily being just another rehash of the same old Zelda tropes. And, to Nintendo's credit, they really did try to wow players with the story set-up, even if the overworld feels claustrophobically small. The graphics are also quite beautiful, but I'm partial to bright pastel colors anyway. I also really appreciated the characterization of the main characters, proving that even Silent Protagonist Link can and does have a personality without violating the, well, Silent Protagonist law.
My only main gripe about this game, and my warning to new players, is that the Wii controls can be quite sensitive and touchy, assuming you can get them to work at all. I will probably yell at the harp playing and bomb rolling mechanics until the day I stop playing this game forever.
#3 - A Link to the Past
This was technically the first Zelda game I ever played, way back when before I even comprehended how to, you know, play the darn game. ALttP (for short) was once considered the pivotal Zelda game before the release of Ocarina of Time a few years later, although certainly there are many fans who still feel it is the greatest game. It's often argued that OoT is actually a spiritual successor to ALttP, and that this game actually started the pattern of three that plagues the series. ALttP also introduced many story elements that are classic staples today, such as the Sacred Realm, the Master Sword, themed dungeons, alternate dimensions, and everyone's favorite man-killing chickens.
There's certainly a sense of majesty to this game that cannot simply be described away with nostalgia. If you're looking for a 2D Zelda game to play, then ALttP is the one to start with. Before 3D even existed this game was rewriting all the rules and setting up games like Ocarina of Time before anyone even knew it existed.
#4 - Twilight Princess
Perhaps no console game is as controversial amongst fans as Twilight Princess. Critics point out its overhype, blatant copying of Ocarina of Time, and shoddy storytelling as reasons why it is far from the best. However, Twilight Princess has a slew of merits to back it up. I for one love the atmosphere of the game: it was touted as the "darkest" Zelda game yet, and it lived up to that hype if nothing else. I also had quite a bit of fun playing as Wolf Link, the animal form that Link takes throughout the game. I must admit that I am also not that bothered by the storyline - without spoiling anything, I'll say that there's a "twist" at the very end that had many people banging their heads against the wall but left me going "Well, obviously, this *is* a Zelda game, guys."
Points I did not enjoy as much, and that drag down this game on the list for me, is that yeah, it is kind of an Ocarina of Time ripoff - well, maybe not so much as a ripoff as just a blatant homage to the lauded predecessor. Fans clamored for years to have a worthy sequel and they finally got what they asked for, although it turned out to be what many fans didn't want after all. The controls can also be a bit awkward. I only played the Wii version, and this game was originally meant for the Gamecube, but still I found a lot of bugs that made properly using the Wiimote with this game a literal hit or miss. Characterization outside of the villains feels seriously lacking in this game for me, and while I love the Zelda of this game probably more than any other, I really don't have much love for the blandest Link yet. Skyward Sword proved that Link could still be his classic silent self and have lots of personality, but the only time the Link of Twilight Princess even so much as expressed anything was when he was a wolf beast....or possessed in certain cutscenes.
#5 - Majora's Mask
This (official, as in containing the same incarnation of Link) sequel to Ocarina of Time is, without a doubt, one of the biggest fan favorites in the series. And I can definitely see where a lot of the love comes from. MM (for short) expands a lot on lacking elements of OoT, such as better NPC characterization and a true sense of purpose throughout the game. The story is rock solid. In it you have one mission: save the parallel world of Temina from a curse that is bringing the moon down in three days' time.
My favorite thing about this game is the mask collecting; indeed, with a total like "Majora's Mask", masks are kind of a big deal in the game. Throughout the story you pick up multiple masks, some that transform your entire body and some that just add different game play elements, such as speed. If you manage to collect all the masks in the game then you unlock a pretty special ending by acquiring the super cool "Fierce Deity's Mask". Sidequests also play a huge role in this game, and if there's anything I love about a Zelda game, it's the quality of the sidequests.
However, my main gripe is mostly mechanical. First of all, I do not like the three day system. Yes, it's great for the story, but for me, personally, it really inhibits my ability to play this game with the same abandon that I play other Zelda console games. See, it takes me a long time to complete things like dungeons, even with a walkthrough. I'm just not very fast or very good at them - compounded with the anxiety I get with a "time limiit" like the three day system, and I tend to flip my stuff and stop playing for a long time. But, that's not to say that Majora's Mask is a bad game by any stretch. I fully recommend it to players who have played other Zelda games and are looking for more, or even for people who just want to continue Ocarina of Time's ride. It's a very thought provoking game.
#6 - The Wind Waker
Another fan-favorite, The Wind Waker completely changed the Zelda scene when it was first released on the Gamecube back in 2003. The biggest change was obvious from the very first blips of promotional material: the graphics were cel-shaded, showcasing a brighter, more cartoonish version of the world fans had come to know and love. Since this was the first console game after the OoT-MM legacy, it came as quite a shock. The other big change was an innovation that would continue to be explored in more Zelda games to come: a new mode of transport in the overworld, in this case, a boat, since all of Hyrule has been sunk.
I can't fail this game for what it is, and that's a fun adventure using new twists to an already well established series. Playing as child link for the first time (and this time he stayed a child) offered a new insight to Zelda world. The graphics take a bit to get used to, but soon you're all for them and how they have shaped this particular branch of the Zelda timeline. There's also a certain melancholy hidden beneath the tale of this game, one that is almost forgotten since you see everything through a child's eyes.
But it's not my favorite game, as can be guessed since it's so far down the list. It's a good game, a great game compared to most others, but when compared to other Zelda games it just doesn't do it for me quite as much as some of the others. I also get quite tired of traversing everywhere in a boat with not much else to look at aside from blue stuff. This game also introduced the boredom-inducing "collect treasure maps/goddess cubes/blah blah blah and then go find the stuff" mechanic that sometimes you don't have a choice but to do if you want to progress. The Wind Waker is a solid console game, but there's better ones to play first.
#7 - Spirit Tracks
The first handheld Zelda game on this list also happens to be the latest (at the time of writing this). Although many other handheld games come before this one, this is the first one that actually managed to entertain me the whole way through, Normally when I started a handheld Zelda game I go in with the usual vigor, slosh through the first couple of temples, and then gradually (or sometimes just crash into it) get so bored that I have to struggle to finish. Not with this game: Spirit Tracks takes everything left behind by its predecessors and makes it better and more enjoyable, all the while learning from mistakes. It also proves that technology can be brought into the series without ruining the atmosphere.
I only have two main gripes with this game: the first has to do with the train transportation system that I originally lauded - of course, the biggest drawback to this is that you're really limited in where exactly you can travel. You can't explore every literal nook and cranny like you can with running/horseback riding and even sailing. The second relates to the flute mechanics...maybe my DS is just really old now, but I had SUCH a hard time getting the songs to play properly. Sometimes it took me up to an hour to get a song to come out the way it was supposed to. This was the only function of the game that made me want to put it down and walk away.
#8 - Link's Awakening
Zelda's first handheld game is also one of its best, mostly in its storytelling and characterizations. As an official sequel to A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening follows Link as he is caught in a sea storm and washed ashore on a foreign land - this is the first time that a setting other than Hyrule is featured in a Zelda game.
There isn't much to say to promote this game other than it's classic Zelda fun, full of exploration, dungeons, Mario references, and even a shopkeeper who will destroy you with a beam of death if you even think about stealing from him. From a storytelling perspective, my main issue with this game is the ending, which is cliche and done to death. Otherwise, it's a good solid Zelda game for anyone looking to further their adventures.
#9 - The Minish Cap
Before Spirit Tracks came around, The Minish Cap was my favorite handheld Zelda game. It reflects the childlike humor of The Wind Waker saga without even being a part of it. In fact, this story is the first of the Four Swords Trilogy (the rest of the games do not make it onto this list), explaining the origins of the villain Vaati. The gimmick of this game is going between "normal" size and a miniature size that reflects the newly revealed species, the Picori. In order to complete the game you have to switch sizes multiple times in order to explore new places and find new items.
But that's about it. Beyond the gimmick and some fun storytelling, there isn't much else to this game. Still, it's a pretty good time and is recommend to any Zelda fan.
#10 - The Legend of Zelda
How could I possibly make this list without including the progenitor of all other Zelda games? The original? The "One"? Even if you do not care for the game itself, one cannot deny all that this game has done not only for the franchise, but for video gaming entirely. The Legend of Zelda paved a new road for adventure gaming, including being the first to use a save feature so long, epic adventures could be had to begin with. This game probably also has more memes than any other Zelda game as well (but shh, it's a secret to everybody!) But let's not forget what the real legacy of this game is: because of its monstrous success, Nintendo went on to create even more fantastic Zelda games, and a true legend was born.
Of course, this game cannot ride on nostalgia and legacy alone. There are quite a few problems with this game, especially for modern gamers. It's very "empty", void of almost all story (but I guess you get to make it up as you go along?) and very slay the dragon. But you have to take the original Legend of Zelda game for what it is, and that's a game that was way ahead of its time.
Favorite Zelda Game?
Make no mistake, this was not an easy list to compile - nor does it match anybody else's, I'm sure. That's the great thing about this franchise: it's so diverse while maintaining its core charms within each installment, that fans and casual players alike can enjoy a range of games that differ from one another, while all agreeing "this series rocks". So while the title of this article sounds like an absolute, people are free to argue and debate. Feel free to leave me a comment mentioning your own favorite Zelda games, or which ones you would recommend to a new player if they're not the same.
Oracle of Ages/Seasons - For introducing a series of games that connect to one another in a multitude of ways (and for featuring more A Link To the Past Link!)
Four Swords (Adventures) - For being the first multiplayer Zelda game(s).
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - For inciting bitter wrath due to its difficulty. Salute you, indeed.
Gonna Pretend It Doesn't Even Exist
Phantom Hourglass - No.