Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda is essentially gaming royalty, ranking as one of the most innovative, high quality series for almost 30 years. Along with the Super Mario series, Zelda has remained a constant fixture of Nintendo’s software strategy. As one of the only series to truly make a smooth transition from 2D to 3D, its impact on the videogame medium is hard to dispute. There are a staggering number of titles in the Zelda series and the question of which ones reign supreme is hotly contested by diehard fans. While the ranking order of the following 10 Zelda games can be argued and disputed until the gorons come home, they definitely represent the best games in the series.
10. The Legend of Zelda (1986)
It may be almost 30 years old at this point, but the original Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) still holds up as a remarkable piece of game design, and one of the most important games ever made. Created by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, The Legend of Zelda was inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood growing up in the Kyoto countryside. Miyamoto wanted to translate the same wonder he felt as a boy exploring caves and forests into a videogame. The Zelda games have always put an emphasis on adventure and exploration, and those components shine through, even if the game is pretty rough around the edges by today’s standards. That being said, this is where the Zelda template began and that deserves some recognition.
9. The Minish Cap (2004)
The larger scale home console Zelda releases tend to get most of the attention in the series, but there are a number of smaller titles developed for handheld devices that give those bigger games a run for their money. One such title is 2004’s The Minish Cap, which was the last game in a productive partnership between Nintendo and Capcom, who developed several Zelda titles for Nintendo handhelds. The Minish Cap was released on the Game Boy Advance and was praised for retaining the memorable graphical style of the previous year’s Gamecube title The Wind Waker, and translating the high quality players had come to expect from the Zelda series to a handheld device. When the main criticism lobbed at your game is that it’s too short, you know you’re doing something right.
8. Majora’s Mask (2000)
The dark horse of the Zelda series, the N64’s Majora’s Mask took some serious gambles with the Zelda formula. Chief among them was making it a darker game with a unique time management cycle that required players to prevent a cataclysmic event from happening after 3 days (in-game time). The game is a cult favorite among many Zelda fans, but the truth is that Majora’s Mask is one of the least-accessible games in the franchise and an acquired taste overall. Some players find the time management mechanic too restrictive and stressful, while others really enjoy the added stakes that this feature brings. Whether you love it or hate it, Majora’s Mask remains an important, popular entry in the Zelda series, and was recently given the remake treatment on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld earlier this year.
7. Skyward Sword (2011)
Skyward Sword is an interesting entry in the Zelda series because it takes almost 10 hours (!) before it starts to become enjoyable. 10 hours of tedium is a lot to ask of anyone, but there is so much greatness after that point in the game, putting Skyward Sword among the best titles in the series is entirely justified. Once the game gets rolling, it never lets up, frequently astounding with its polished game design that is truly representative of why the Zelda series is consistently regarded as one of gaming’s best. If the game hadn’t had Wiimote motion controls shoehorned in, it probably could have had a shot at being near the top.
6. A Link Between Worlds (2013)
There aren’t many direct sequels in the Zelda franchise, so it was notable when Nintendo announced that the beloved Super Nintendo classic A Link To The Past would be getting a sequel in the form of the 3DS exclusive A Link Between Worlds. While the game is partially fan service for Zelda diehards, it’s a fantastic game in its own right that can stand alongside the original. At times, it feels a little too similar to its predecessor, but it includes enough welcome tweaks to make it much more than a cash-grab. The game’s dungeons can be tackled in any order, eliminating the stifling linearity that generally accompanies Zelda’s game design, while the ability to turn into a painting and traverse walls resulted in a whole new way of solving puzzles. Despite only appearing on a handheld console, A Link Between Worlds is arguably the best Zelda title since 2006’s Twilight Princess.
5. Link’s Awakening (1993)
The tropes of Zelda are well known by now: the main character is Link, the setting is called Hyrule, and there’s usually a bad guy named Ganon kicking around for good measure. Link’s Awakening, originally released on the Game Boy in 1993, is the first title in the series to really break from convention, as it was not set in Hyrule and didn’t even feature Princess Zelda. It’s essentially framed like a sidestory in the Zelda canon, but Link’s Awakening is so much more than a simple tangent. Link’s Awakening took everything that players loved about Zelda and translated it to a tiny screen. The game was such a hit that a superior DX version was released in 1998 for the more powerful Game Boy Color and is also now available for download on the 3DS.
4. Twilight Princess (2006)
Prior to its release in late 2006, the Nintendo Wii/Gamecube title Twilight Princess was hotly anticipated for its return to the darker, more realistic-looking aesthetic of the enormously popular Ocarina of Time. Something of a spiritual successor to that title, Twilight Princess didn’t quite reach the heights of the former, but it still offered a memorable, excellent stay in Hyrule. Focusing on an adult Link who must save the world from the mysterious Twilight Realm, Twilight Princess looked and played like an epic adventure, with thrilling horseback sequences and a number of standout dungeon designs (the desert sequence is an all-time classic). The game also introduced the charming imp companion Midna, who quickly became a favorite in Zelda fandom.
3. A Link To The Past (1991)
To be honest, the ranking order of the top 3 Zelda games could be arranged in any way because they are all near-perfect games in their own right. A Link To The Past has the distinction of being the greatest 2D game in the franchise, the best game on the Super Nintendo, and one of the greatest games ever made. That’s quite the pedigree to live up to, but A Link to the Past is deserving of its accolades in every way. While the original Legend of Zelda introduced what would become the classic Zelda formula (overworld map, dungeons, attaining various weapons and items), it was really ALTTP that cohesively set the template for what a Zelda game should be. It’s over 20 years old now and is still every bit as playable as the day it came out. Not many games can make the same claim.
2. Ocarina of Time (1998)
Along with Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time helped usher in the era of 3D game design. Considered by some to be the best game ever made, Ocarina of Time is one of the only games of its era that still holds up, in spite of its admittedly dated graphics and controls. It’s simply a remarkable creation, telling a memorable story that built off of tropes established in previous Zelda titles while translating the Zelda design into 3 dimensions. The game’s legacy is practically untouchable, as it’s frequently cited as being a primary influence on a number of games in various genres. Some fans will not accept any other title being called the “Best Zelda Game”. However, there is one game in the franchise that has it beat…
1. The Wind Waker (2003)
A decade ago, it would have been considered blasphemy to call The Wind Waker the best Zelda game ever made (and still is in some circles), but what a difference time and distance makes. It seems that each passing year only reinforces how truly special this game is. Thanks to its cartoonish graphics and exuberant style and tone, many wrote the game off in the beginning. However, these features have started to become the game’s most beloved elements. The best thing about the Wind Waker is that it dared to look and feel different from other 3D Zelda games, while still retaining and improving upon the Zelda formula. An HD remake was released on the Wii U in 2013, ensuring that newer generations will get to enjoy one of the best games ever, Zelda or otherwise.