The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises. It’s been around for over 30 years – almost as long as Mario – and in that time, it’s racked up nearly 20 different games. Most of these have received universal acclaim by critics, with some being hailed as the best in all of video game history. With so many different iterations of Link out there, though, which one ranks as the best? We’re here to look back over The Legend of Zelda’s various different timelines and share with you what we believe to be the best of the bunch.
Tri Force Heroes
Games in the Zelda franchise are primarily single-player action adventure titles that see Link explore various themed regions with the intention of defeating Ganon. However, some releases like to change up the formula slightly to keep things in the series exciting. “Tri Force Heroes” is one of the releases that deviates most from the norm, mainly because of its use of multiplayer gameplay.
In this game, you team up with two other players – either people you know or strangers from around the world – to complete various levels. The multiplayer aspect is vital in advancing through the game because certain puzzles require you to all work together to complete them. Of course, this can end up being more of a hindrance than a help. It all depends on who you end up getting paired with and how familiar they are with the logistics of Zelda games.
The random factor is part of what makes this game so fun, though. If the team you’re with isn’t working out, you can leave the group and find new people to play with until you discover the best combination. It’s a new take on the standard Zelda gameplay, although the lack of a world to explore does have its downsides. We wouldn’t be racing to play this again so soon after completing it, but its different enough that it deserves a spot on this list.
It might not have been the first Zelda title to be released – it’s actually the 16th – but in terms of the franchise’s timeline, “Skyward Sword” is the game that started it all. Initially based in the kingdom of Skyloft set above the clouds, the release explores the origins of some of the series most prominent elements, including the Master Sword.
Developed for the Nintendo Wii, “Skyward Sword” makes use of the console’s improved graphics and motion controls to reasonable success. The ability to influence some of Link’s movements definitely has its appeal, although it’s not always the most reliable method for combat. A controller that doesn’t quite work properly can prove fatal in the midst of the game’s numerous boss battles. However, this addition, along with the various new tools available throughout the game, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, “Skyward Sword” is ultimately let down by its inability to trust the player. No other Zelda title holds the gamer’s hand quite like this one. Anyone who loves exploring and working things out for themselves will probably be disappointed by how restrictive this release is. What’s more, most of this information is conveyed through Fi, a helper character who can barely leave you alone for more than a few minutes. Navi might have been a bit persistent in “Ocarina of Time,” but Fi takes things to a whole new level.
A Link Between Worlds
By the time “A Link Between Worlds” was released, the Zelda franchise had already surpassed its 25th anniversary. With over a dozen games in its back catalog, Nintendo needed to find new ways to keep the series fresh while retaining what made the games so special. Luckily, they managed to do that with this 3DS title which launched in 2013.
Following yet another iteration of Link as he endeavors to save Zelda, “A Link Between Worlds” introduces a surprising new mechanic – the ability to become 2D! After being transformed into a painting, Link can move along 2D surfaces wherever there’s a crack, allowing the player to reach previously inaccessible areas. It’s a gameplay element that hasn’t been repeated in any of the newer releases, but that makes its inclusion in “A Link Between Worlds” all the more special. It adds a layer of depth to the dungeons and quests which had started to become stale.
Many of the puzzles used in this game have been praised as some of the best that Nintendo has ever made, and the critics aren’t wrong. “A Link Between Worlds,” is constantly inventive, and at the time of release, it provided reassurance that the company still had a lot up their sleeves when it came to this franchise. The game also marked a welcome change in the linear style that was standard of Zelda titles, paving the way for “Breath of the Wild’s” open world adventure a few years later.
Released several years after the cartoonish “Wind Waker,” “Twilight Princess” was developed to be as different from its predecessor as possible. The game sees the land of Hyrule engulfed in Twilight, with the protagonist transformed into a wolf under the spell of dark magic. The only way that Link can return to his Hylian form and save Princess Zelda is to team up with Midna, a creature from the Twilight realm with questionable intentions. Her attitude towards the hero of time is a little frosty at first, although the bond that forms between them ends up being one of the strongest in Zelda history.
Although the franchise has delved into darker territory plenty of times over the years, “Twilight Princess” has a new take on the theme compared to games like “Majora’s Mask.” Whereas the latter approaches it with elements more rooted in horror, the former is more focused on creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom. The visuals are darker, the enemies more aggressive, and the action a lot more sinister. These changes don’t always have the desired effect – the use of blurry textures ruins some of the visuals – but they give a welcome new twist to the series.
In many instances, “Twilight Princess” follows the standard Zelda formula. As with previous games, the narrative is broken up into multiple acts that require progression through dungeons to move forward. However, the ability to play as a wolf version of Link is a massive change which definitely makes “Twilight Princess” worth picking up. Who doesn’t want to run around growling at enemies and taking them down with their teeth?
The Wind Waker
When “Wind Waker” was announced, it didn’t get the best reception from fans. Following in the footsteps of games like “Ocarina of Time” and “Majora’s Mask,” the release showed a change in direction for the franchise’s increasingly darker nature. Its cartoon art style and more humorous approach to gameplay were deemed inappropriate by some gamers, although opinions towards “Wind Waker” have shifted massively over the last 16 years.
Looking back, the more comical nature of this release is actually a welcome addition to the Zelda timeline. For anyone who is put off by unsettling games like “Majora’s Mask,” “Wind Waker” makes a great introduction to the franchise. The narrative structure is reminiscent of most other Zelda titles, while the characters – especially Link – have a lot more charm than they usually do. What’s more, the world design is one of the most attractive in the series history, especially in the HD version of the game that was developed for the Wii U.
“Wind Waker” was also responsible for introducing a world map structure that was utilized in future entries like “Skyward Sword.” Rather than having an entire world that you can freely traverse like in “Breath of the Wild,” the game is formed of many different islands that you sail between at your leisure. There might not be much to see on many of these islands, but it makes the map feel more involved than it actually is. For a game first released in 2002/03, that’s a pretty big deal.
Ocarina of Time
It might be a controversial choice putting “Ocarina of Time” down in third place, but we’ve done it anyway. With a score of 99 on Metacritic, it’s the highest rated Zelda game of all time, but a lot has changed in the 20 years since the title was first released. Granted, a lot of those changes were actually down to “Ocarina of Time” which is widely regarded as having revolutionized the 3D gaming experience alongside “Super Mario 64.”
Many staples of future Zelda releases originated from this Nintendo 64 release, which is perhaps why the formula feels a little outdated now. The themed dungeons you explore and the varied act structure both became prominent in “Ocarina of Time,” and they’ve become regular fixtures in the series. However, just because this format has now been stretched thin, that doesn’t mean that the game that started it all should be discredited. If anything, it deserves to be commended for introducing a formula that stood the test of time for so long.
It wasn’t just the way that “Ocarina of Time” changed the gaming landscape that made it such an effective addition to the Zelda franchise. At the time, its graphics were exemplary, and the way it played around with music, cinematics and level design was more than impressive. Although you might get frustrated with some of the mechanics if you were to play the game now, there’s no denying that what Nintendo achieved in 1998 was spectacular.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the few Nintendo franchises that isn’t afraid to get a little dark and disturbing. That’s never been more apparent than in “Majora’s Mask” where the main threat is a falling moon with one of the creepiest faces in video game history. The eeriness of this looming threat, along with some unsettling enemies, environments and musical scores might make this game a little unsettling for younger players. However, it’s these touches of horror mixed with Nintendo’s usual charm that made us fall in love with it in the first place.
“Majora’s Mask” shares a lot of similarities with “Ocarina with Time,” mainly because the former was based off the latter. Nintendo wanted to capitalize on the success of “Ocarina of Time” and avoid the lengthy wait that preceded this game, so they only took a year to produce its sequel. The result featured many of the same assets and characters as the game’s predecessor, but with a captivating twist.
In “Majora’s Mask,” you only have three days to defeat the primary antagonist (which for once isn’t Ganon) before the moon obliterates the whole of Termina. No pressure, eh? When you run out of time, you can use your ocarina to restart the three-day cycle, but doing so removes most of the progress you made. If you want to advance in the game, you have to act fast. This certainly makes things challenging, but “Majora’s Mask” is reasonably forgiving. Besides, it’s this unique take on the gameplay that gives the title that edge over so many others in the series.
Breath of the Wild
Sitting at the top spot is the franchise’s newest release, “Breath of the Wild.” We could probably write an entire thesis on why this game deserves the accolade of “best Zelda game ever made,” but we don’t want to be here all day. Well, you don’t anyway.
The first proper open-world adventure in the series, “Breath of the Wild” brings together most of the franchise’s best features into a near-perfect combination. You still get to explore dungeons, although they’re slightly smaller and aren’t as diverse as they have been in previous games. However, this newer release compensates for that by providing 120 shrines with smaller challenges for you to try your hand at. These are a welcome addition to the series, especially as the dungeons of the past have a habit of being too big and convoluted.
“Breath of the Wild’s” biggest charm comes in its ability to take the game at your own pace, exploring where and when you see fit. If you fancy taking on the big boss after the tutorial, nothing is stopping you. With only three hearts, you might struggle, but plenty of people have done it and succeeded. Of course, you can instead choose to follow the story, gradually working your way around the map as you tackle the divine beasts and build up your strength. Or, if that doesn’t sound appealing, then just go exploring and see what you encounter. Climb mountains, swim through rivers, trek through the desert… there are hundreds of hours of action right there at your fingertips. Plus, with 900 koroks to find throughout the world, you’re not going to run out of things to do very quickly.
There you have it, a rundown of the best Zelda games that Nintendo has released so far. With so many Links embarking on a variety of adventures over the years, it’s hard to whittle down the games to the very best, especially when so many of them have been critically acclaimed. We’re confident with the choices we’ve made though, and we’ve got the Triforce of courage by our side if anyone dares to take us on.