What defines a Zelda? Simply put, I’d describe it as an action-adventure game with puzzle elements implemented in a variety of dungeons. These dungeons are masterfully balanced, and no one does them better than Nintendo. Huh. That was actually pretty easy now that I think about it, but there is a trickier question. What defines a Zelda clone? Is every action-adventure game one? Would you call Skyrim a Zelda clone? I wouldn’t — so there is a line, but one that was hard to pinpoint. That said, I did my best in researching this complex topic and found fifteen great examples both good and bad.
Now, the worst games are exactly as the title implies: shameful rip-offs. They’re games I can clearly see being green lit at a pitch meeting by a boss who has no idea what a video game is, but wants to make a hit. Basically, they feel like soulless desperate attempts at cash grabs. Maybe that’s too harsh. Not sure what was going on with the developers at the time, but I’m sticking to that story. On the other hand, the good games have an aura about them. You can see the hearts floating above these titles. These developers wanted to pay homage to a series that quite possibly defined their gaming livelihood as a child. In this way they were inspired to make a game like it, but with a twist. That’s how the best art is made. Abstract thoughts aside let’s get to actually talking about these games.
15 3D Dot Game Heroes
I'm not a giant fan of 3D Dot Game Heroes, but I think it’s cute. Essentially it’s kind of like a remake of The Legend of Zelda with a little bit of Dragon Quest thrown in for good measure. In terms of gameplay, it doesn’t expand much on the original except that at full health your sword is gigantic. I prefer a giant screen-encompassing sword to a lightning beam projectile any day. The graphics are very simple, almost Minecraft like, but in a charming way. It actually lets you custom create your own avatar, or you can pick from an astounding list of pre-made ones. Again, it doesn’t really add much to the sub-genre of Zelda as it were, but playing as a shark boy is just kind of cool.
Since I went the Sony route post-Super Nintendo I always kind of lamented the fact I didn’t get to play the new Zelda games. That is until I played Okami and quickly forgot those longing dreams. It has an expansive open-world, the controls are tight, it looks beyond gorgeous especially with the HD version — the list goes on. The most obviously stolen Zelda conceit is your fairy-like guide, and the fact townsfolk talk in gibberish.
Too bad Wolf Link sucks compared to the majesty of Amaterasu. Who, I will add, is literally a god. Okami is such a treasured game in my life not just because it’s fanatic, but it was the most thoughtful gift my girlfriend at the time ever got me.
As was the case for 3D Dot Game Heroes, I appreciate what Evoland was going for here. It’s a Zelda history lesson, or more like a history about the evolution of action games and or RPGs in general. The game begins as an 8-Bit adventure, which increases in scope once you acquire items to add in sound, new mechanics, new graphics and perspectives, et cetera. It’s a nice build up that had me going for the first hour before things started to taper off. It feels like the developer had to artificially extend this great concept into an actual game to the point where everything started to feel trivial. Evoland works in the short term, but not in the long run. To those interested there is a sequel as well.
12 Ys: The Oath In Felghana
The Ys series started a year after The Legend of Zelda and has been kind of overshadowed. Not sure if it was the platforms they graced, or what, but I ignored the series for a long time until I was desperate for a new PSP game. So I randomly bought the remake of the third game, Ys: The Oath in Felghana. Needless to say, I was ashamed of my past ignorance because it was awesome. The story is pretty cliché, and I’m not a fan of the B-tier anime art, but the gameplay is second to none. It’s a frantic hack and slash game with a dash of puzzle elements. Nothing on the scale of Zelda, but that's fine. Highly recommend it as a jumping point into the franchise.
11 Adventure Time: The Secret Of The Nameless Kingdom
If 3D Dot Game Heroes was a clear copy of The Legend of Zelda then Adventure Time: The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom is an obvious clone of A Link to the Past. First off, A Link to the Past is my favorite Zelda game. Second, WayForward Technologies is an amazing developer for licensed based games and their own franchises too. Finally Adventure Time is an amazing cartoon for all ages. So I had no reason to doubt this would be bad and it’s not, but it’s also not that great either. There’s a decent core of a game here, but one confusingly designed. Perhaps it was rushed, as these licenses based games tend to be. The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom is more disappointing than it is awful.
10 Final Fantasy Adventure
Technically, this is more like a backdoor pilot for the Mana series than it is a Final Fantasy game. So if I‘m putting a Mana game in here then why didn’t I go for the obviously better Secret of Mana? It is a greater game yes, but I think Final Fantasy Adventure better embodies the Zelda experience. In my mind, I actually think this game is a stronger sequel to the first Zelda than The Adventure of Link. It’s a top-down game with simple screen-to-screen interaction. You’re armed with a sword and shield, but you actually get to level up. Plus there are loads of towns to go through and a more in-depth story. The only drawback to calling this a better Zelda sequel is the lack of puzzles.
In terms of AAA games, the first Darksiders is probably the most recent game to ape Zelda's style. That said it's also completely original too. War was sent ahead of his other four horsemen under false pretenses. Now, both angels and demons are wreaking havoc on Earth as the apocalypse draws near. There's a semi-open world interconnected with pathways you learn to traverse with new equipment. This new gear becomes available in dungeons, and yes there are lots of puzzles too. Aside from Zelda, Darksiders borrows from other big hits from the time. There’s a Portal gun in all but name. Is it homage or just a rip-off? Mechanically this game is somewhere in between, but the concept of creating a game based on the four horsemen is pretty original.
8 Golden Axe Warrior
Golden Axe is a pretty fantastic series of beat’em ups that premiered exclusively for Sega’s consoles. Outside of arcades that is. It’s pretty straightforward for the genre, but rad nonetheless. I expected the same out of Golden Axe Warrior, but was flabbergasted to see it was not a beat’em up. Instead, it’s probably the most vicious clone on this list. Your sprite looks like the hero from Dragon Quest in a world copy and pasted from The Legend of Zelda except with slightly better graphics. Seriously! There are screens in this game that literally look like they were ripped from Zelda. I kind of understand why it was made. It’s all about those executives chasing after that sweet Zelda money. Why make it as a Golden Axe spinoff though? Ugh, so bizarre.
7 Oceanhorn: Monster Of Uncharted Seas
Darksiders may be the most recent AAA game cloned from Zelda, but Oceanhorn is the most recent copy from an indie studio. It began life crazily enough on mobile devices. I can’t imagine playing it on a phone, or even a tablet, but that’s a whole other story. When it was ported to the PS4 last year, I dug it. Imagine if The Wind Waker was made for original PlayStation instead and that’s this game. You sail around from island to island fighting monsters, helping out townsfolk, and exploring dungeons. For a small team it’s great, and clearly, a lot of love went into creating this, but it’s not perfect either. The layout and general design of the dungeons and world feels a bit empty at times.
Can’t quite make up my mind, which is the bigger fake between Neutopia and Golden Axe Warrior. At the very least Neutopia feels more original. The screens don’t exactly look like they’re taken from Zelda, but that’s really the best thing I can say about this game. Oh, and it looks good on the TurboGrafx-16. There, now I’m done with praise. The overall quest line is boring and actually hitting enemies is somehow harder than it should be. Sometimes I went in for a hit, and the enemy just shrugged it off like my blade was invisible. Perhaps in a time where people were desperate for Zelda clones, this was amazing, but it certainly has no place in today’s world. All in all, it’s just sloppy.
5 Beyond Oasis
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Sega games up until this point, but I finally found a gem hidden in the rough. Beyond Oasis is an Arabian-themed Zelda-like. Prince Ali stumbled upon a magical gold armlet that wields the power of the elements within. Each dungeon will unlock a new power, which will help with puzzles and blasting bad guys. Astoundingly, the game is beautiful on the Sega Genesis. I say that because nine times out of ten Sega Genesis games look and sound terrible. Also, the box art is awful, but now I’m just trolling because I dislike the system. Despite my allegiance to the Super Nintendo, the greatest console of all time, I will freely admit Beyond Oasis is awesome.
4 Monster House (GBA)
Look. If you’re a developer trying to spread its wings by making licensed based games I feel for you. Making one for a forgettable film like Monster House is even more sympathetic. So if you’re going to make one, you might as well develop it as a Zelda clone. Three kids are trapped in a creepy house they think is haunted. You can switch between each child on the fly, and they each wield a water gun to fend off baddies like bats. It’s an admirable attempt and certainly a better than the movie itself. Like The Secret of the Nameless Kingdom, Monster House probably suffered from a short development cycle. That and the team had to create four versions of the game.
3 The Samurai Lord Musashi: Gimmick's On The Run
The Samurai Lord Musashi: Gimmick's On The Run is a mouthful to say, but not as bad as the Japanese title without a translation. It’s based on an anime, which is probably one of the reasons why it was never localized. There’s an English patch though thanks to dedicated group of fans out there. Praise to the Internet aside you’re a traveling samurai out to aid those in need. Fighting enemies will level you up, and gold can be used to buy disposable items, or new equipment. It’s colorful for a NES game and the music is charming too. Like Final Fantasy Adventure, I find The Samurai Lord Musashi to be a more engaging sequel in terms of mechanics than The Adventure of Link. Better than Final Fantasy Adventure though? Not quite.
2 Beyond Good And Evil
I’m actually not a big fan of this game. It was a fresh idea at the time it was released during the PS2 era of consoles, but it doesn’t hold up as well even with that HD version. Still, the world is amazingly realized, and Jade is one of the best female characters in a video game. She’s smart and sexy, but not overly so. The pacing is my general problem with Beyond Good and Evil and the combat, thanks to a bad camera, is clunky. It has its problems, but despite my more negative thoughts, I do want that sequel to resurface especailly since Ubisoft has become so violent with their game output lately. How many different ways can I shoot a guy? Come on Ubisoft!
1 Gunple: Gunman's Proof
Gunple: Gunman’s Proof has everything I’ve ever wanted in a video game. The design is reminiscent of A Link to the Past, but with the visual pop and humor of EarthBound. Plus it’s a Western. And just listen to this premise! You’re a child who stumbles upon two space sheriffs on the hunt for alien criminals. One of the sheriffs decides to posses a part of you allowing the player to wield a variety of guns. There’s also a deputy that accidentally possessed a horse, which comes from the sky when summoned. Need I go on? It’s hilarious, gorgeous, and oh so good to play. Unfortunately it also never left Japan, but there is indeed an English patch readily available. I almost put this game on my best/worst list of Western games, but it’s more fitting here.