With eighteen mainline titles and more than twenty years of history, Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series is one of the most celebrated and complex in the broad annals of gaming history. Spanning seven console generations and boasting more gameplay and storytelling innovations than anyone could keep track of, the Zelda franchise is undoubtedly one of the most important, and it stands as a testament to the importance of the medium as a whole.
That said, those looking to get into the series may find it a bit daunting at first. The games vary in quality and require would-be adventurers to own almost every Nintendo console ever released, so it’s not exactly the easiest line of games to jump into. For intrepid Zelda explorers looking to discover what makes these games so great, here’s our preferred method of playing through this transcendental gaming odyssey.
Today, most fans would immediately point newcomers toward Breath of the Wild on Switch or Wii U. While it is an utterly fantastic title which will go down in history as one of the best games ever—that’s not an exaggeration—it’s not the most indicative of the typical Zelda style. Taking place largely outside of the established timeline and introducing a host of gameplay features which are new to the series, we’d recommend saving BotW for later. Instead, start off with the first Legend of Zelda title on NES. It’s a simple title which will quickly introduce gamers to the most prevalent gameplay conceits seen in the games. It’s old and requires a bit of patience to get through, but it’s still a worthwhile experience.
Next, we’d recommend skipping Zelda 2 altogether and heading straight for the SNES title A Link To The Past. The first Zelda title to tell a genuine story without relying on ancillary sources, for many, this is the quintessential series experience. Introducing many story beats and gameplay features which would become staples of the lineage, A Link to the Past is a mandatory playthrough for new fans.
Following that, Ocarina of Time is an obvious choice. The first fully 3D Zelda title, it established how z-axis combat should be handled, and every other title in the franchise owes its existence to it. OoT is also perhaps the most pivotal in terms of story, explaining how the Zelda timeline came to be fractured and introducing series antagonist Ganon for the first time in canon. After that, it may be worth checking out Majora’s Mask, the direct sequel, though it’s the wackiest and most irreverent of the entire timeline.
After that, players may want to explore some of the series’ mobile offerings. This may be a good chance to take a stab (get it?) at the new Link’s Awakening remaster. Though a non-essential side story in the overall chronology, it’s a quirky, cute title which shows off some of the franchises more humorous qualities. There’s also something to be said about the Oracle of Seasons and Ages GameBoy Color duology, as well as the Minish Cap GameBoy Advance outing. Each of these titles prove how well Zelda can work on the go, and they’re all worthwhile series entries (with the exception of Four Swords and its sequel on the GameCube, the first of which is impossible to play these days and shouldn’t even be counted as a mainline Zelda title).
The Nintendo DS games, on the other hand, are skippable. Reception to Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were fairly mixed, and those who don’t have a DS handy aren’t really missing out on anything. Don’t bother emulating them, either, as DS emulation is, as one might imagine, a bit awkward to play.
Also, when it comes to the 3DS, give A Link Between Worlds a shot at this point, but do yourself a favor and just forget that TriForce Heroes even exists. Rather, we would recommend jumping to the Wind Waker HD Wii U port. A breathtaking title from a visual standpoint, it’s one of the most open Zelda titles which always promises the thrill of discovery.
From there, it’s probably best to check out more modern titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. While the former is available on the GameCube and is a wonderfully dark experience, the latter is a bit of a struggle, as it’s a Wii exclusive and relies heavily on motion controls, thus making it a pain to emulate and a bit of a headache to track down in 2019. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much mandatory, as it’s the first title in the series’ canon.
Finally, Breath of the Wild is an absolute must-play. We’ve saved the best for last, and it’s an excellent modernization of a series which some felt to be a bit stale after Skyward Sword. An open-world game unlike any other, it’s an example of how games of this nature should be constructed.
At the end of the day, the story and mechanics are more or less similar in every game, and any game in the series could be a serviceable starting point. Though we would suggest ordering things this way, part of the fun of Zelda is the ability to experience it in essentially any order.