Whilst not as popular as Mario, the Legend of Zelda series has been a mainstay in the Nintendo software library since the original Legend of Zelda title on the NES launched back in 1986. I’ll admit right of the bat it’s probably my favourite Nintendo franchise, due to its epic adventures, gorgeous music and memorable moments that have resonated with me more than the outings of everyone’s favourite moustachioed plumber. But since the launch of Breath of the Wild has undoubtedly introduced some newcomers to the franchise, I thought I’d share my own thoughts on the best games the series has to offer.
And yes, choosing and ranking, as always was tough. And yes, some of you may disagree with the selection and ranking, and if so, feel free to let me know on Twitter what your personal top 5 is. Everyone always has their own personal favourites, and so here are mine. Enjoy!
#5 Majora’s Mask
This one was the hardest for me to call. Mainly because there were 7 or 8 games vying for a top 5 spot, so Majora’s Mask had to fight off stiff competition from other classics to make it this far. But the reason this oft-overlooked game makes the cut is for a few very good reasons. The first is a word I always use to describe this game; atmospheric. Majora’s Mask was a very dark game by Zelda standards, with an all-powerful mask coercing a lonely outcast to cause Armageddon by causing the moon to plummet into the world, killing everyone in it. It leaves Link just 72 hours to save the world and all the people who bring it to life. Phew.
And perhaps more so than in any Zelda game before or since do you genuinely care about the inhabitants of Termina – a parallel land to the land of Hyrule you normally save. Each and every one of them has a set pattern that they play out over the 72 hours until the end of the world, and you can help all of them find their own personal happiness. The help can range from simply needing to finish their business on the toilet (yes really) to bringing two star-crossed lovers together. It means that whilst your ultimate goal is to progress the story to stop the ultimate threat, you will also make time to help the denizens, because of how unique their personalities and how different they behave compared to each other. And there’s something slightly more rewarding in making someone smile in this Zelda game, when you consider this could well be their last days alive, and you have made their last moments better. It gets deep, and yes atmospheric – that word again – at times that few Zelda moments have properly captured in other titles.
And if the cosmopolitan residents weren’t enough to remind you of what is at stake, a cursory glance upwards at any point shows you the angry-faced moon getting ever closer on its collision-course with Termina, a foreboding sense of inevitability literally hanging over you throughout your entire journey. Take that for drama Calamity Ganon. And perhaps lastly it is worth noting that this game was a pseudo-sequel to Ocarina of Time (maybe more on that one later???), widely considered to be a critical benchmark for games in general, let alone Zelda games. So to have to follow that is an unenviable task, but I can safely say it rises to the challenge. It manages to hold its head high by acknowledging its similarities to Ocarina and then embracing everything that makes it unique for a package that feels familiar but so eerily different and refreshing at the same time. A true lesson in how to do a “sequel”.
#4 Wind Waker HD
From lessons in sequels to lessons in remakes. The choice to put the HD version of Wind Waker on this list is a very deliberate one. But before we come to that I want to clarify why Wind Waker made this list in the first place. The cel-shaded approach to its visuals back in 2003 on the GameCube garnered a very mixed response from fans of the franchise. These were the same fans who back in 2000 had seen the Space World game trade show demo of what Zelda “could” look like with the grunt of the Gamecube behind it, leaving fans salivating having just witnessed the (in fairness) blocky graphics of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
But fanboy hysteria aside, Wind Waker provided an art style that not only aged well (paving the way for a HD remake which could focus on improvements), but allowed Link and the characters around him to display real emotion through facial expression. I would argue that no Zelda game since has managed this to the same extent, not even Breath of the Wild, because without a voice, it can be very hard to convey the non-verbal cues onto our faithful protagonist. And you know what, that makes Wind Waker Link one of the most engaging and endearing heroes we’ve had the pleasure of controlling throughout the series. Replacing the placid, almost blank expressions of most other games, his looks of happiness, surprise, concern and concentration, making even the usual incoherent grunts Link makes more emotive and fitting than in other titles. It makes you want to help Link, his sister, and his friends through their adventure even more, and a grand adventure it is too.
The use of wind to traverse the Great Sea creates a sense of scale and adventure into proceedings, that whilst the game world is split up into smaller island parts, it never loses its sense of magnitude. Coupled with a soundtrack that is truly up there with the best of the series in terms of memorable tunes and delightful melodies, Wind Waker really is an all time classic that you’ll want to come back to again and again.
And come back we did, thanks to that HD reboot for the Wii U. What I liked most about this remake is it wasn’t just a lick of paint exercise. With a cel-shaded approach, there’s only so much you can do to the look of the game, so that meant Nintendo went about addressing niggles with the game to make what was already a great game even better. Adding a quick sail item allowed for quicker travelling for those that wanted it. Adding a Hero Mode meant those looking for an additional challenge (a fair criticism of the original game was that it was too easy at times) have something to sink their teeth into. And streamlining the often tedious end game collection part of the game was a very welcome addition. It was a sign of Nintendo listening and reacting to fair criticism of the game, and for me demonstrates how remakes should be approached. They should be taken as opportunities to refine experiences and not just tart them up, and to me this is an excellent example of how to do a remake.
#3 Breath of the Wild
Quieten down with the jeers. I know for many, Link’s latest outing into Hyrule to stop Calamity Ganon is the pinnacle of Zelda experiences, and so to see it only just scrape onto the podium might surprise a few. Whilst I do think there are two games in the series that just edge out this one, that takes nothing away from what a truly exceptional adventure Breath of the Wild is in its own right. From the moment you step outside from your long slumber, into the bright sprawling world, and take a moment to stop and let your eyes take it all in. The detail, the different landmarks, the warm sunlight covering it all, and more importantly the opportunity that awaits you to get into the thick of it and experience it all first hand.
The size is the first thing you notice about this game, its scale is truly colossal, and it dwarfs the previous games in the franchise by a clear margin. Be that the sprawling world to lose hours in exploring or indeed the content within it. With more than 100 shrines offering small puzzles and challenges to keep you on your toes, an eye-watering 900 Korok Seeds to find and collect from some of the deepest nooks and crannies of the landscape as well as handfuls of varied villages and settlements scattered around and populated with a diverse array of races and characters to interact with. And that’s before we mention the towers to ascend, the large array of different weapons and items to collect, all the recipes to cook and learn, and horses to find and tame in the wild to become faithful companions on your journey. What is packed away in this game can really take you breath (of the wild) away. Sorry.
However for such an expansive game, it’s the restraint of its execution at times where it truly excels. Some of the most glorious moments in the game are those discovered by the players either by accident or by trying things out. Some of them are more obvious like when Link shivers in the cold if he’s not wearing enough warm clothes, or if he’s holding a metal weapon or wearing metal armour in a thunderstorm you can get struck by lightning. But others are more surprising and sneaky, like the fact you can lure bokoblins with fruit, use the heat of Death Mountain to cook meat instantly on the ground, or if you’re feeling particularly evil, pick up a cuccoo and get an enemy to strike it to send the cuccoo revenge squad on your enemies for a change! There are so many of these secrets, it would take a while to list all that I’ve found, and even now I see new, cool ideas in the game that Nintendo included but told no one about. This is a very bold step change from a company that often errs on the side of caution and mollycoddling its audience for fear of them being confused for even the briefest of seconds.
Showing similar restraint is the musical score, often residing in the background of your consciousness, not overbearing or consigning itself to familiar, powerful renditions of classic Zelda melodies from previous titles. No, Breath of the Wild opts for a softer approach, a soft piano key here or there to emphasise the current location, time of day, or current threat. It does have light and shade depending on the situation, but more often than not it forgoes its traditional approach to music, which serves to only reinforce the emotion of the current position. And what’s perhaps most appealing is its bold design choice to have the final boss open to you at the start. What that means is, because the end is always attainable, by definition this game never outstays its welcome to players of all types. For those wanting to do the minimum, they can go straight ahead, or alternatively those that wish to explore everything the game has to offer can do so as well. It’s a masterstroke that makes this game so accessible, it is no wonder it’s the best-selling Zelda game.
#2 A Link to the Past
The sole SNES entry into the Zelda franchise will always have a place in my heart. It was the first game in the series I ever played, and the title that got me hooked on Zelda games way back in 1993. And I know some might bemoan my high placing of it and claim that it’s down to dewy-eyed nostalgia, but I’ve thought long and hard about where to place A Link to the Past, and I firmly believe it deserves the number two spot. Prior to when Breath of the Wild shifted the paradigm of what a Zelda game was all about, A Link to the Past had everything you would normally associate with a title in the series. Princess in danger? Check. Structured narrative? Check. Clear path of progression? Check. Numerous dungeons, with unique items, culminating in a big key leading to a boss fight? Check, check, check and check.
And whilst that may seem a little paint by numbers for the Zelda formula, there are good reasons why this became the oft-copied blueprint for future titles. And the most primary among them are because it works and because it’s fun. Progression through a game through tackling ever-harder dungeons and enemies, whilst growing your arsenal of weapons and items is a rewarding experience. And I do want to spend a moment on the items, because they really do make this game. The variety of items from a shovel to dig up secrets, to the introduction of the now-mainstay hookshot, to the powerful magical medallions that obliterate entire screens of enemies (which by the way I don’t think have been bettered in terms of magic options for Link since, please take that challenge at some point Nintendo). It means that Link really does have lots of options at his disposal, giving you multiple methods to overcome the challenges you might face.
All of this is coupled with Nintendo’s knowledge of creating varied environments and experiences, as well as few surprises, it creates a very nice little package. The worlds of A Link to the Past are ones I want to get lost in, want to explore every area, and uncover its secrets, and it feels like it strikes the right balance between effort and reward with them as well. Too often would I scale a mountain looking for secrets in Breath of the Wild only to find nothing of interest or maybe if I’m lucky one of hundreds of Korok seeds. Whereas in a Link to the Past, chances are I’ll find a Heart Piece, or worst case, a shed-load of rupees.
In fact in many ways this game is a complete contrast to Breath of the Wild and that on reflection is what I admire so much about this game. How complete and structured a game it is from beginning to end means that as a package from the story it tells to the amount of content it holds within its world feels tight. It feels balanced. It feels like a lot of thought went into deciding what to put into this world, and importantly what to leave out. There is no padding in this game, none of those empty mountain tops. No end-game faffing like in Wind Waker, no barren expanses like in Twilight Princess. It feels refined, in a way no other Zelda has really felt since, and as such it can tell its story and showcase its content with confidence. What it means for me is I’ve spent so many hours playing and replaying this game to death. I’m not ashamed to admit I know where everything is in this game, every item, chest, heart piece, you name it, I know it. That’s not nostalgia, that’s an appreciation for a crafted experience that has aged well, and stands up in today’s gaming environment.
#1 Ocarina of Time
Cue the eye-rolls for Mr Predictable over here. Choosing the obvious game as the best Zelda title isn’t exactly controversial, but again I haven’t done this lightly. I’ve listed and waxed lyrical about four truly excellent games, and all of their endearing charm, exceptional game design and goosebump-inducing soundtracks. So to top all of those needs to be something special, and for me Ocarina of Time is fully deserving of that description.
Not only coming off the back of the incredible A Link to the Past, as it’s console predecessor, but the game was also faced with the unenviable challenge of taking a series that had only existed in 2D and transferring it into a 3D space, without losing the grand sense of adventure and derring-do. And the success and aplomb with which Mario 64 achieved this only heaped further pressure on Nintendo to deliver again. But what was created was not only a successful accomplishment of this task, but rather a masterclass in game design and execution. In fact Ocarina of Time introduced many features and gameplay mechanics that have since been adopted as industry standards. Context-sensitive actions assign to the A button were introduced here, as was the 3D targetting system known as “Z-targeting” (as it used the Z button on the N64 controller to activate) and it allowed Link to focus on an enemy or object and move and strafe around it at will, which was particularly useful for tough foes or boss encounters.
Other examples of “firsts” were the introduction of the titular ocarina, the use of which added a creative musical element to the gameplay, and one that has been re-used in various guises in every console Zelda game since, with the exception of Breath of the Wild. And the optional collection side-quest for Gold Skulltulas added a different kind of challenge for completionists, since repeated in Korok Seed hunts or even insect hunts in more recent games. And I couldn’t discuss Ocarina of Time without mentioning the fishing, oh the fishing. The game managed to take one of the most laid-back and passive of pastimes and make it addictive and fun. I spent hours fishing for bigger and bigger fish culminating in my quest to nab the elusive Hylian Loach.
But aside from all the new things Ocarina of Time brought to the table, what it fundamentally succeeded in was recreating that feeling of adventure on an epic scale. And the transformation to 3D and a third-person perspective (changing to 1st-person when aiming with say a bow and arrow) meant we felt more immersed than ever in a Zelda game. We were Link more than we had been before, and it meant we got lost in the whole experience spread out before us. I also feel like Ocarina of Time’s storytelling sets out the villain, Ganondorf, better than any other game. Rather than being a faceless villain who you might only meet at the end of the final dungeon, Ganondorf is ever-present, and his action heavily impact the story. It makes you really want to beat him, to stop him, and if I’m being brutally honest most Zelda games miss this mark. Perhaps the other closest good example of fleshing out an antagonist comes from Skyward Sword, and despite not making this list, boy do you really end up wanting to beat Ghirahim, and wipe that smug smile off of his face. Sadly very few games make that connection, not Breath of the Wild, not A Link to the Past, and it sets Ocarina of Time apart, because it builds on top of its glorious world, new gameplay additions, and immersive 3D perspective to connect with you as a player and drive you forward to the games incredibly climactic final fight.
It means from the very beginning to the very end, Ocarina of Time draws you in, and commands your respect and admiration. Its swathe of new ideas builds on a strong foundation culminating in one of the finest video game experience of any franchise. A true classic.