At its heart, the Legend of Zelda series is all about exploration, growth, and discovery. In each game, players are let loose in a vibrant, daunting, and exciting world. There, they are encouraged to conquer this world through the mastery of its dungeons, the slaying of its beasts, and the purging of its darkness.
The formula has evolved gradually as the years have gone on, until the newest entry of the series which at first seemed like the biggest departure but was actually the one closest to the one that started it all – but we’ll get to that. With a library this vast, and with so many quality games to enjoy, how do you begin to choose a favorite? Well, that’s subjective. But here’s my ten.
10 Twilight Princess
This game did a lot of things right: its dark tone came along at just the right moment; it was available to GameCube owners as well as those lucky enough to have the (at the time) brand new Wii console; it was also a return to the beloved Ocarina of Time formula of traversing a vast green world of plains and forests on horseback, after the grand departures that were Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker.
That return is also the reason this game isn’t higher on the list: it is a little too much of a call-back to an old favorite. It did very little (other than allowing players to turn into a wolf) to evolve the formula, and instead came off as a bit of a back-track. It’s still a quality game, though.
9 The Legend of Zelda
Any discussion about a video game series does not necessarily have to mention the game that started it all (the first Assassin’s Creed is hardly a hot topic these days) but when it comes to Zelda, the first game really was that good. With a shockingly limited amount of processing power, Nintendo managed to provide a character design, soundtrack, and gameplay formula that would define a generation.
Compare this open world that demands a lot of player confidence and fortitude to the hand-holding that started with Ocarina of Time and you can’t help but be impressed with the trust that Nintendo put in its fans to make the experience of playing The Legend of Zelda something personal.
8 The Minish Cap
A somewhat overlooked and forgotten game in the series, and unfortunately hard to find these days, The Minish Cap is still one of the best-looking games in the series. Some fans prefer the more subdued colors and gritty tones of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, but the Zelda series is at its best when its colors are bright and its animation is cartoonish.
Elements like this guarantee that the game garners a wider audience and its aesthetic also stands the test of time for far longer. This charming little game, which takes many of its cues from A Link to the Past and has a far less annoying sidekick than Navi or Midna, is the game in the Zelda series most deserving of the word ‘charming’. It’s a delight to look at and a delight to play.
7 Link’s Awakening
The recent news that this beautiful game, somewhat lost to the ages, is getting a full remake for the Switch is incredibly exciting. Since it was released for the Game Boy, it’s hard to get access to Link’s Awakening these days, but this is the game that defined Zelda as we know it today, introducing character and enemy types, as well as weapons, tools, items, and other staples of the series that, if taken away, remove the Zelda from Zelda.
All of this is somewhat ironic given that Zelda herself is not in the game at all, but you get the idea. The jump between this and A Link to the Past is surprisingly small, and given the popularity that has carried that game through the decades, enough praise cannot really be showered on Link’s Awakening. When the remake is out, make sure to pick it up.
6 A Link to the Past
The Zelda series has arguably had three big hits that have become instant classics since its inception: Ocarina of Time for the N64, Breath of the Wild for the Switch, and this: A Link to the Past for the SNES. This game was the pinnacle of 2D Zelda, the culmination of everything Nintendo learned as it built and built game after game.
While it’s clear to see the path taken from the first Zelda game to here, the leaps in music and visual quality, the direction the art and animation was taken in, the sharpened combat and movement mechanics, the emphasis on using items and tools for world traversal, all of this has led to what still stands as one of the best games in the series. And it truly hasn’t aged a day. How is that even possible, Nintendo?
5 A Link Between Worlds
The spiritual successor to A Link to the Past was released on the 3DS a few years back and improved on the first game in almost every respect. It took everything that made A Link to the Past a timeless classic and built on its map design, its gameplay mechanics, its art style, its character designs, everything.
Everything here is bigger and better, and to this day the game remains too much of an underdog, especially as it preceded the giant success that was Breath of the Wild. This game is gorgeous, though, with fluid mechanics, a perfect pace and length, an emphasis on imaginative and curious exploration and playing around with the world. In fact, looking at how it was designed now, it’s easy to see the road which took Nintendo to 2017’s Breath of the Wild.
4 Ocarina of Time
This game has topped more than one ‘Best Game of All Time’ list since its launch 21 years ago, and remains a favorite game for countless gamers the world over. It is dated, though. It honestly is. That being said, it is still a fantastically design game with a beautiful musical score, memorable supporting characters, a fantastic time-travel mechanic that mixes up the tone and the story perfectly, and fluid exploration and combat gameplay (especially for its time).
Upon release, Ocarina of Time was flawless, and even though its cracks are showing now, that can be forgiven for the fact that it’s almost as old as I am, and I have cracks in abundance.
3 Majora’s Mask
This wild departure from Ocarina of Time, a game which took the tried-and-true formula of the Zelda series and made in 3D, has long been touted as the underdog favorite of many a Zelda fan. Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Link’s first 3D outing and is easily the darkest, most sinister game in the series.
Working on an anxiety-inducing three-day time limit in which the player must save a twisted and strange world from being crushed by a big scary moon with a face on it, all wide eyes and gritted teeth. The game features masks, ominous carnival music, and awesome transformations. It’s easily one of the most fun, flamboyant, and flavorful games in the Zelda series to date.
2 Breath of the Wild
The success of the Switch in 2017 can be attributed to its genius design and its fantastic launch with one of the best Zelda games ever made: Breath of the Wild. This game took the series back to its very beginning, when the player was let loose into a world accessible all at once, given a few tools of survival, and told to go conquer.
The feeling of traversing, discovering, and learning the world is unparalleled, and the ingenuity the game encourages is as boundless as your imagination. The story might not be all that enticing, the first ever real voice acting in a Zelda game also happens to suck, and the lack of an actual villain outside of a purple cloud is disappointing. But this game is very much a man vs nature deal, and it does that better than any game to date.
1 Wind Waker
How many die-hard BotW fans are going to be upset by this, I wonder. If you want a justification, it’s that Wind Waker, upon its release, was one-of-a-kind. Breath of the Wild went back to its roots and was heavily inspired by the original Legend of Zelda for the NES; Twilight Princess was an attempt to recapture that Ocarina of Time magic; and OoT itself is now very much starting to feel dated, graphically and mechanically. But just go back and play Wind Waker. It’s still gorgeous, and that’s thanks to the clever decision to utilize cell-shading, which keeps games looking fresh for longer.
On top of that, its animations, character designs, and soundtrack still stand out so far in the Zelda universe. Its ocean traversal is fun; its characters are alive with personality; the feeling of conquering the winds and traversing the open seas is an adrenalin-filled feeling that no other Zelda game has managed to capture. Just thinking about sailing the open ocean in that game has my heart racing. It’s perfect. Wind Waker is peak Zelda.