The Legend of Zelda is one of the longest-running video game franchises ever created. Although each game has the same basic story (boy in green rescues princess from evil-doer that wants the Triforce) they all play differently and offer their own take on the popular franchise.
10. Skyward Sword (Wii) 2011
Skyward Sword has gotten a bad rap over the years, even with the HD release in 2021. Most of the frustrations from players come from the infuriating motion controls that were new to the Zelda series. Those controls were made even more complicated on the Switch version if a player opted to use a controller instead of the Joy-Cons.
The game still deserves a spot in the Top 10 though for other various reasons.
The story of Skyward Sword is where it all begins. In the official timeline from Nintendo, this is the first game chronologically. It’s the first time Link is forced to be a hero by rescuing Zelda (who is not a princess in the series yet). The land of Hyrule hadn’t been discovered by the people of Skyloft and they had no idea what was beneath the clouds.
The music is enthralling and really draws a player in. The music in Skyloft and while flying around on a Loftwing sounds surprisingly open and free. Each environment on the surface has its own music in the traditional Legend of Zelda style.
Lastly, the art design. Nintendo found a way to offer a great mix of the realism style of Twilight Princess with some cell-shading from The Wind Waker. This makes Skyward Sword a one-of-a-kind.
9. The Legend of Zelda (NES) 1986
No other Zelda games would exist without the original Legend of Zelda. That being said, just because it’s the first doesn’t mean it’s the best. This is where the basic storyline for all Zelda games started.
Link must collect eight Triforce fragments to complete the Triforce of Wisdom. Each piece is in a separate dungeon guarded by a boss. When the Triforce of Wisdom is complete Link finds Ganon and destroys him taking back the Triforce of Power.
This is a pretty basic setup for an 8-bit dungeon crawler, but the success of The Legend of Zelda paved the way for all future Zelda games.
8. Link’s Awakening (Game Boy) 1993
Following the great success of A Link to the Past, Nintendo decided it needed a handheld version of Zelda, and that’s where we get Link’s Awakening. This game was so popular that Nintendo remade it… twice. It was released a few years later in 1998 on the Game Boy Color renamed as Link’s Awakening DX and then again on the Switch in 2019.
The game takes place on Koholint Island where Link washes ashore after a shipwreck. Instead of earning Triforce shards for completing dungeons, he receives instruments. After collecting all eight instruments Link plays them to awaken the Wind Fish.
The greatest part about Link’s Awakening was the story. It was so intriguing that it kept players guessing, “Is this real, or just a dream?” This was also the first time the franchise moved away from Hyrule, any mention of Princess Zelda or the Triforce story arc.
7. A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo) 1991
This was Nintendo’s first and only Zelda game on the Super Nintendo and it was ported to the Game Boy Advance in 2002. There are some players that claim it is the greatest Zelda game of all time.
Taking place far in the past we return to Hyrule where Link must save the descendants of the Seven Sages that have been sent to the Dark World by the wizard Agahnim. Aganhim plans to release Ganon from the Dark World that he was locked in by the Seven Sages. Link travels between the Light and Dark Worlds to rescue the Sages, Zelda, and Hyrule.
A Link to the Past introduces many items that Link will collect and which will remain as staples for the Legend of Zelda series, most notably is the Master Sword.
Pieces of heart were also used for the first time and players need to collect four to complete one new heart container.
A Link to the Past also served as another major stepping stone for Nintendo, borrowing many ideas that would soon be used in a 3D environment.
6. Ocarina of Time (N64) 1998
Nintendo entered the 3D world with a bang. Not only was Ocarina of Time a smash hit, but it was also revolutionary for the franchise.
It is the only game in The Legend of Zelda history that has an almost perfect score (99) on Metacritic. So why isn’t Ocarina of Time in the top five? Although it was near-perfect for its time, no game is without its flaws. Flaws Nintendo recognized and corrected down the line.
Ocarina of Time has arguably the most vital story in the Legend of Zelda timeline. The game starts with Link as a boy in Kokiri Forest. The Great Deku Tree in the forest teaches Link about his past and what could come in the future if he fails to rescue the princess. He gives Link the Spiritual Stone of the Forest and sends Link on his way to rescue Zelda. Upon finding Zelda she informs Link about the Gerudo King and evil wizard Ganondorf’s rise to power. She tells Link he must find the other two Spiritual Stones to open the Door of Time where the Master Sword lies. After Zelda flees the castle Link removes the Master Sword from its pedestal and falls into a deep slumber for seven years. Upon waking, Link finds that Hyrule is in peril and Ganondorf has taken over. He is informed by the Sage Rauru that he must find the other six sages and defeat Ganondorf to return peace to Hyrule.
There are three possible outcomes at the end of Ocarina of Time. Each outcome leads to a different storyline of games which we’ll leave for you to discover.
While Ocarina of Time has an incredible story and was pivotal to the franchise it had its problems too.
- First and foremost Navi. She just doesn’t stop talking. We know she’s just trying to help, but an option to mute her would’ve been nice.
- Unskippable cutscenes are a sore point for a lot of players, especially on a second or third play-through.
- Link’s movement speed was too slow. Now Hyrule wasn’t that big at this point and could be crossed in a couple of minutes, but that doesn’t mean Link shouldn’t have a run option.
- Lastly, treasure chests take about 10 seconds to open. Every. Time. It really pulls the player out of the game when this unnecessary sequence has to play out.
5. A Link Between Worlds (3DS) 2013
Essentially, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past. It was the sequel that players never knew they wanted. It was similar enough to its predecessor to bring back fond memories but different enough to feel like the new game that it was.
Nintendo took everything that was great about A Link to the Past and expanded on it in A Link Between Worlds.
The story takes place many years after A Link to the Past. Link, as usual, must rescue Princess Zelda who has been captured by Yuga, an evil sorcerer from the parallel world of Lorule. During his quest, he must also rescue the seven sages that have been turned into paintings by Yuga. When Yuga has all of the sages and Zelda he can resurrect Ganon.
A Link to the Past introduced some new mechanics to the Legend of Zelda franchise.
It was a quasi-open world as players could complete the majority of the dungeons in whichever order they wanted. This was achievable by another new mechanic; the item rental system. All items that Link would need were available for rent from Ravio from the very beginning. In other Zelda games, you would get the new item that you needed in that dungeon to primarily use in the said dungeon.
Unfortunately, most of these new mechanics were never used again, aside from the open world. But we’ll get to that later.
4. Majora’s Mask (N64) 2000
Majora’s Mask was a sequel to Ocarina of Time that wasn’t really a sequel at all. It’s considered as such because it does feature the young version of Link that players last saw in Ocarina of Time. There’s only one mention of Zelda and it’s a flashback from Ocarina of Time. Overall, the feeling around Majora’s Mask was much darker than any other Zelda game in history as the central theme was death,
Death plays a major role in Majora’s Mask as each transformation mask that Link wears is embodying the spirit of a deceased character. The Deku mask that he is forced to wear at the beginning is actually based on the spirit son of the Deku Butler. He later obtains a Goron mask from a fallen Goron hero. The last transformation mask is from the Zora guitarist Mikau who died in battle.
Each of these masks gives Link different abilities to complete the dungeons in each of the locations around Clock Town.
Majora’s Mask did something different that no game in the franchise had done before. It had a timer… sort of.
Link is told that he has three days to stop the moon from falling, but if he plays the Song of Time he will go back to the first day. Doing this however will reset any dungeon progress (unless it’s completed), and reset any quantities of items he has (arrows, bombs, rupees, etc).
Adding the time element really set Majora’s Mask apart from all other Zelda games. It made budgeting your time essential and then there’s always that sense of impending doom.
3. Twilight Princess (Gamecube/Wii) 2006
This was the first time in franchise history that Nintendo offered a dual release on a Zelda game. The game was released simultaneously on Gamecube and Wii. The two versions’ only difference is the world is mirrored on the Wii version.
Link is typically left-handed and they kept that characteristic on the Gamecube version. Most players however are right-handed so Nintendo mirrored the world for the Wii as most players would be using their sword-wielding hand on the right side.
This was the game they were hoping for after Majora’s Mask. Instead, The Wind Waker was released, and some players were disappointed with the cel-shaded graphics, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
Similar to Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess has dark undertones that make the game feel more dramatic. The story is very dense and has much more character involvement than in previous Zelda games.
The story kicks into high gear when two of the children are kidnapped. Link chases after them but gets stopped in the forest by a giant black wall blocking the path. A Shadow Beast reaches through the wall and pulls him into the darkness. Once he’s pulled through the Shadow Beast begins to strangle Link but let’s go when the Triforce of Courage symbol illuminates on his hand. The Shadow Beast retreats and Link falls to the ground. Link transforms into a wolf and passes out.
Link is awakened in a jail cell by an imp with mysterious powers named Midna. She explains who she is and helps him break out of the cell. They find Zelda in Hyrule castle and she tells Link what’s happened and why twilight has covered all of Hyrule. Midna later explains that the evil usurper king Zant took over the Twilight Realm, changed Midna into an imp, and cast her out. Midna and Link must work together to remove Twilight from Hyrule and Zant from the throne.
Twilight Princess has one of the greatest stories in The Legend of Zelda history. Mix that with the beautiful graphics and superb gameplay and you’ve got one of the best Zelda games ever made.
2. The Wind Waker (Gamecube) 2003
When The Wind Waker was released there were mixed feelings across the board. Some people loved the cel-shading while others refused to play the game at all. It was deemed “kiddy looking” and not made for the hardcore Zelda fanbase. Zelda fans were expecting something more realistic following in the footsteps of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
The lesson to be learned here is simple, never judge a book – er, game, by its cover/graphics.
We can’t discuss Wind Waker without a pretty decent synopsis of its intricate storyline:
The Wind Waker takes place about 100 years after the events of Ocarina of Time. Ganondorf escaped the Sacred Realm prison he was locked in by the seven sages and wreaked havoc across Hyrule. By this point, the child Hero of Time had left Hyrule never to be seen again.
When boys on Outset Island became a predetermined age their parents dress them in green garb on their birthdays in hopes it would bring them the courage to follow in the footsteps of the Hero of Time. This is where the story begins with Link. On his birthday his grandma gives him the Hero’s Clothes and his sister Aryll gives him a telescope. While using the telescope he sees a large bird carrying a girl in its talons. A pirate ship down below is shooting cannonballs at the bird. When one of the cannonballs hits the bird it drops the girl into the forest of Outset Island. Link being the hero he is runs to the forest to look for the girl. After finding and rescuing her the giant bird returns and mistakenly snatches Aryll and flys away with her in its clutches.
The girl that was dropped in the forest is Captain Tetra of the ship that was shooting at the bird. Feeling somewhat responsible for Link’s sister being captured, they allow him to join them on their search for the bird. This begins Link’s journey across the Great Ocean. After finding the bird atop a tower at the Forsaken Fortress Link is defeated and thrown across the ocean landing and Windfall Island.
At Windfall Island Link is found by the King of Red Lions, a talking boat that will be aiding Link on his journey. He tells Link about a magical baton called The Wind Waker that can control the wind. After Link finds a sail for his new boat they set off across the Great Ocean in search of The Wind Waker.
The Wind Waker didn’t just have a great story…
The cel-shaded visuals were incredible, the music was amazing and the gameplay was top-notch. Nintendo added some minor things that really show the charm of the game. Link’s eyes would always be looking at a specific point of interest. If a player was not sure where to go next, they could turn the camera to look at Link’s face and his eyes would be looking at something important. This feature has been incorporated in every Zelda game since.
Every major island had its own charismatic music. Each song fits so perfectly with the feeling of each individual island. And while players complained about the amount of sailing in the game since the ocean is where the majority of the game takes place, the music that plays on the Great Ocean is one of the greatest and most memorable music tracks in the Zelda franchise.
Nintendo focuses on solid gameplay and a fun experience which is what this game delivered. The cel-shaded look may be frowned upon by some, but I can’t imagine playing this astonishing game any other way.
1. Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch) 2017
Of course, Breath of the Wild is #1!
120 Shrines, 4 Divine Beasts, 900 Korok Seeds, hundreds of hours of gameplay, and players are still finding new things to do! Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece. This is the game most die-hard Zelda fans wanted and so much more. Breath of the Wild is also only the second time in franchise history that Nintendo offered a dual system release. On the Wii U and also a launch title for the Switch.
Breath of the Wild’s story takes place far in the future of the Zelda universe. Link has been asleep for 100 years after a fierce battle with Calamity Ganon’s forces. He was near death while protecting Zelda and was put in the Shrine of Resurrection to save his life. He awakens to Zelda’s voice telling him it’s time to wake up save Hyrule once again.
When Link steps out into Hyrule a lot has changed in those 100 years. The landscape has been decimated, there are fewer people, and monsters are everywhere. As he starts his journey to the castle he encounters an old man. After sending Link on some trials the old man reveals himself as the spirit of the late King Rhoam, the last King of Hyrule. Knowing that Link has lost his memory after being asleep for 100 years, he tells him all that’s happened and that Princess Zelda is keeping Calamity Ganon at bay inside Hyrule Castle. He sends Link on his way to see Impa in Kakariko village who can assist with restoring his memories.
As Link moves on with his journey there are so many little references and connections to many other Zelda games in Breath of the Wild. It truly is a masterpiece that celebrates its history along with gamers who have supported the series for decades.
Breath of the Wild isn’t just great on its own, it’s the best Zelda game so far because of all the other Zelda games that helped make it special.
The open-world and vast landscape are what players have wanted from a Zelda game for years. The ability to explore anything at any point in Link’s journey is what Breath of the Wild does for The Legend of Zelda.