The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most influential and well-known video game series of all time. It has had 16 main titles and a number of HD remakes and spin-off games. However, despite the fact that the games are titled The Legend of Zelda, you actually play as Link. Zelda is the Princess of Hyrule (most of the time) that typically needs saving. However, not all of her incarnations are helpless.
I’ve gone through and examined all of the various Zeldas from all of the main titles (when present) and a few spin-off games (i.e. Hyrule Warriors and the CD-i games). There are a couple of cases where one version of Zelda shows up in multiple games and there are some games that don’t feature her at all.
Each Zelda was ranked on one of three aspects: agency, characterization, and presence. For agency, I looked at how much she did of her own volition. Did she spend most of the game unconscious or was she running around and kicking butt? When it came to characterization, I looked at how strong her character was. Now, this doesn’t refer to how mentally or physically strong she is. It has more to do with the number of strengths and weaknesses. Does she actually have a personality? Finally, I looked at how present she was in the game itself. Does she spend most of the game locked in a tower or can you actually play her? If you can’t play as her, how often does she appear on screen?
Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead. Also, keep in mind that I did not factor the quality of the game into my analysis. Check out our Zelda games ranking if you want to know which one is the best.
15 Fast Asleep: The Adventure Of Link
Out of all of the incarnations of the goddess, the Zelda in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link completely encompasses the damsel in distress trope. She is so bad that she was actually in need of rescuing before the events of original game occurred.
In order to separate her from the previous Zelda, The Adventure of Link Zelda was granted the title of Zelda I. Her father, the King of Hyrule, hid the Triforce of Courage before he died and only told Zelda where to find it. Zelda’s brother, an unnamed Prince, wanted the piece so that he could claim the title of King. However, when Zelda refused the Prince hired the Magician to extract the information from her. When that didn’t work, the Magician placed a sleeping curse on Zelda. Stricken with grief, the Prince locked his sleeping sister in one of the towers of Hyrule castle. He also decreed that all women in the royal family would be named Zelda, after his fallen sister. The plot of The Adventure of Link revolves around Link trying to undo the curse.
This Zelda is simply atrocious. She spends 99% of the game completely unconscious. She has no character and zero agency. All she gets is a single line at the end of the game where she thanks Link for rescuing her. That’s it.
14 The Ditz: Four Swords
This Zelda isn’t much better. She and Link are childhood friends and she drags him into the Sanctuary of the Four Swords in order to check on the seal that keeps Vaati imprisoned. Like a lot of the Zeldas in the series, she has some future sight and sensed that the seal was weakening. Of course, Vaati’s already free when they arrive and he kidnaps Zelda almost immediately because she’s pretty and he wants to make her his bride; which is gross. While this particular Zelda isn’t the youngest incarnation, the oldest is around 18 and she’s certainly not the oldest. So there’s that horrifying thought.
Honestly, not only is this Zelda useless, she’s kind of dumb too. When Link and his three clones finally rescue her at the end of the game she notices something is different about him, but it takes her a minute to realize that Link had split into 4 versions of himself. Honestly, the fact that being a complete ditz is considered a character trait is the only thing that kept her from being the worst Zelda. Much like the Zelda from The Adventure of Link, the Four Swords Zelda has zero agency, no presence, and her only defining character trait is that she’s dumb.
13 What Personality? Four Swords Adventures
Now, there actually is a difference between in plot Four Swords and Four Swords Adventure. Basically, Ganon is in Adventure and is behind everything. In the first Four Swords Vaati is just a monumental jerk because he can be. Zelda also gets a slightly larger role in this game too. She pulls Link to check on the Four Swords, but this time she actually bothered to hide the Sanctuary away. Zelda and six other maidens unlock the Sanctuary first and then Vaati breaks free and kidnaps them all. Progress!
Okay, the real progress with this Zelda is that she actually assists Link in the final fight. She creates a ball of light while Link distracts him. Once complete, the ball of light defeats him and the day is saved. Her ability to be something other than a pretty face is only marginally higher in Four Swords Adventures and her presence lasts a few seconds longer. Even so, she’s still basically a cardboard cutout of a character. I’ve met sacks of potatoes with more personality than her.
12 Could Be Worse: The Legend Of Zelda
Even at number 12 on this list, the original Zelda, from the very first Zelda title, The Legend of Zelda, is only marginally better than the previous ones. Her personality is completely non-existent. You don’t even see her in the beginning of the game! All you get is a wall of text that tells you she’s been kidnapped and you need to save her. When you finally do rescue her, she has one line that is used to thank you for saving her. Honestly, I wanted to put her on the bottom of this list for just how little of a presence she is in her game. However, this Zelda has one saving grace; her backstory.
After the Demon King Ganon stole the Triforce of Power, Zelda took it upon herself to split the Triforce of Wisdom and hide the eight pieces throughout her kingdom. After that, she ordered her nursemaid Impa to find someone who could defeat Ganon. Although these events don’t unfold in the game itself and we only know about it through the scrolling text at the start, it is more than I can say about any of the other Zeldas on this list so far.
11 The Disney Princess: The Minish Cap
The Minish Cap Zelda suffers a bit from Princess Jasmine syndrome. The game starts with her sneaking out of the castle to wake Link up so that they can go to the Picori festival together. She leads Link to the festival and then proceeds to drag him around in her unbridled excitement. Zelda ends up winning a lottery contest and is presented with three choices: a heart, a gem, or a shield. She chooses the shield. Although the shopkeeper tries to talk her out of the shield, she insists on taking it and gives it to Link as a present. Of course, Vaati attacks at the end of the festival and turns her into stone for the rest of the game. To add insult to injury, he kidnaps the stone Zelda. So not only does she need to be rescued, Link also has to break the curse on her. Eventually, Link does rescue her and Zelda uses the Mage’s Cap to restore the damaged Hyrule and its citizens.
This Zelda still has pretty low agency and a fairly low presence in the game as well. However, she gets a few points because of her excitable and stubborn character. It’s not much, but it’s enough to put her at number 11.
10 Three Games, Totally Wasted: A Link To The Past/Oracle Saga
This Zelda was featured in not one, but three games. We first meet her in A Link to the Past. She also has a small role in both The Oracle of Ages and the Oracle of Seasons. However, Zelda only shows up in those two games if you have the linked version of the Oracle Saga.
This Zelda also starts off A Link to the Past game in captivity, but she’s a lot more proactive about her rescue. She telepathically calls out to a descendant of the Knights of Hyrule, which just so happens to be Link, and informs him that the wizard Agahnim has kidnapped her and the other female descendants of the Seven Wise Men. Agahnim is using them as sacrifices to break the seal between Hyrule and the Dark world in order to resurrect Ganon. In the Oracle Saga, her entire job is to be kidnapped by Twinrova so that Link can save her.
Zelda’s character in these games is generic. She’s nice and worries about others. However, she does call out to Link and, after he saves her the first time, she leads him through a secret passage in the castle. After Link saves her a second time, she and the other maidens combine their power to break the seal on Ganon’s tower so Link can defeat him. She's basically a non-entity in the Oracle Saga. This Zelda is okay as far as Zeldas go.
9 She Did Something! A Link Between Worlds
This version of Zelda appears in two full cutscenes before she gets captured in A Link Between Worlds! Normally they’re just snatched right out of the gate or before the game even starts. Yuga pops up and starts turning people into paintings early on in the game. Link goes to Zelda where she gives him a special charm to protect him before sending him to Kakariko Village. It’s only after Link gets back that Zelda is kidnapped by Yuga and turned into a painting. Link follows Yuga into Lorule and eventually rescues her along with the kidnapped sages.
In all honesty, A Link Between Worlds is not Zelda’s game, it’s Hilda’s. So Zelda’s presence in this game is fairly low and she’s not given much of a character outside of being a generic, nice princess. Zelda does play a larger role in the finale and helps Link to restore Lorule’s Triforce. Except, at the end of the day, that’s not really a lot.
8 Getting There: Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess is one of the better Zelda games, so it’s unfortunate that it’s particular iteration of Zelda is very middle of the road. She’s not horrible. Yes, she is in captivity before the game starts, but it’s not kidnapping. Zant gave her two options: watch her people die in a horrible war as her kingdom is burned to the ground, or surrender herself and kingdom. She chose to surrender and Hyrule to be enveloped in Twilight. Zelda was locked away in one of Hyrule Castle’s towers. When you meet her the first time, she works as an exposition mouthpiece. However, the second time you go to her she saves Midna’s life in exchange for her physical form. Ganon uses her spiritless body as a puppet during the final battle. Once she is restored to her body, she helps Link defeat Ganon by shooting him with light arrows. This particular Zelda is brave and selfless. She places others before herself and does what she can to protect her people. She doesn’t have much of a presence and spends most of the game in a tower or incorporeal. However, it’s a step in the right direction.
7 An Actual Character: Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword’s Zelda has an actual, real personality. She’s playful and impulsive. Her friendship with Link is evident from the start. Zelda calls Link 'Sleepyhead' on a few occasions and literally pushes him off a couple of precipices. She has confidence in spades but isn’t so high on her loftwing that she doesn’t worry about others. On top of all of that, she is jealous of Link’s relationship with his loftwing. This Zelda is an actual character! While she’s not a huge presence in the game, she isn’t entirely absent from it either. She’s a major player in the start of the game and shows up several times throughout. There is one rather heart-wrenching scene between her and Link about halfway through the game that showcased their relationship perfectly. It’s just too bad she doesn’t have all that much agency.
Zelda doesn’t just get kidnapped, she gets kidnapped three times. Each time, she has to be rescued by either Impa or Link. Impa takes her from one place to the next, leading her through the tasks she has to perform. She does make some choices for herself, but she’s not the driving force behind a good portion of her actions. It’s a shame, really.
6 Girl Power: Ocarina Of Time
The Ocarina of Time Zelda gets a lot of props from me, especially with how crazy it can get. This Zelda is a young child for at least half the game. Yet, she was able to recognize the evil in Ganondorf and instantly jumped into action. Zelda, being a child, did the smart thing and warned her father. When he didn’t believe her, she decided to stop Ganondorf herself. Zelda followed her prophetic dreams and sent Link on the task to saving Hyrule. She helped him as best she could from the sidelines while vowing to protect the Ocarina of Time. When it became clear that she couldn’t protect the ocarina, she chose to give it to Link. After that, she went into hiding and disguised herself as the Sheik. As Sheik, she used her ninja skills to continue to assist Link. Zelda was constantly scheming and adapting her plans as the situations changed. Granted, not all of her ideas are very good and she is singlehandedly responsible for splitting the timeline. However, Zelda is powerful. She’s also the Seventh Sage and leader of the Sages. It’s just unfortunate that her character isn’t explored very well and she only appears sporadically throughout the game. She also managed to get kidnapped shortly after revealing herself to Link and couldn’t break out despite her power and abilities.
5 Lost Potential: Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass
I can’t even begin to describe how badly I wanted Tetra to be higher on this list. Tetra, also known as Princess Zelda, is first introduced to us in Wind Waker as a selfish, vengeful, cocky, brash, brave, and bossy pirate captain. She doesn’t bother with useless people and doesn’t let anyone walk over her. What’s more, she gets an actual character arc where she learns to be kinder and to take responsibility as the princess of Hyrule. On top of that, she saves Link just as many times as he saves her. It’s just a complete shame that her agency is stripped from her in the latter half of the game. Once she learns she’s Princess Zelda, she goes into hiding until Ganondorf kidnaps her. Zelda also spends half the final battle unconscious. However, she does help Link fight in the second half and they defeat Ganondorf together.
Tetra’s real tragedy, and the reason why she’s so low on this list, is because of Phantom Hourglass. All of her agency gets stripped away from her. Link gets all the credit for defeating Ganondorf. Tetra’s brain goes on permanent hiatus and she manages to get herself kidnapped thanks to her own stupidity. She’s turned to stone and about two seconds after Link breaks the curse, she gets kidnapped again. Her presence is practically nonexistent in Phantom Hourglass. Her low standing is absolutely this game’s fault.
4 The Hero: CD-i Zelda Titles
This hurts. This physically hurts. The CD-i Zelda games are so bad that most Zelda fans refuse to acknowledge their existence. The CD-i Zelda games are unequivocally terrible and easily the worst of the Zelda games. They aren’t even canon. The only good thing about them is that they are so easy to mock. Unfortunately, this list isn’t about the games, it’s about the characters. Now, I will absolutely admit that Zelda’s character is really bad in the first CD-i game. Zelda in Link: The Faces of Evil is about as dumb as dumb can be. Not only does she get kidnapped, but she spends the entire game unconscious. When Link saves her she wakes up and asks what happened. Link tells her that he saved her from Ganon and her instant response is: “You did not.”
The reason why she is so high on this list is because of Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Zelda’s Adventure. Although it can be argued that the Zelda in Zelda’s Adventure is a different Zelda, the fact remains that she scored ridiculously high because of her agency and presence in the game. The last two CD-i titles exclusively feature her as the main, playable character where Link gets kidnapped and she saves him. She's got a lot of spunk and is fearless in battle. Just like Tetra, she doesn't let anyone push her around. In both games, she is the hero.
3 The Warrior: Hyrule Warriors
Hyrule Warriors is another non-canon Zelda title, but it would be a disservice to this list if we ignored it. One look at Princess Zelda in Hyrule Warriors is all it takes to see why she would make it into the 3rd spot. Zelda is plagued by nightmares and their potential scares her. She starts to look for a warrior who could help to protect her kingdom, but an army attacks before she can make a decision. So, instead, she orders the troops to battle and marches with them into the fray. Zelda goes missing during the battle, but it’s not because she was kidnapped. Instead she transforms into Sheik and fights alongside Link and Impa to protect her people. Zelda absolutely kicks butt in Hyrule Warriors. Unlike her Ocarina of Time counterpart, she doesn’t get kidnapped right after revealing herself. She continues to fight throughout the game and is a major presence in the story and gameplay. The only downside is that she isn’t well explored as a character. Too much emphasis is placed on her as a mystery and not as a character.
2 The Savior: Breath Of The Wild
It honestly took some time and contemplation for me to place the Breath of the Wild Zelda on this list, especially this high. Zelda is, on the surface, not really that interesting. She isn’t a fighter in the same way the Hyrule Warriors Zelda is and her personality isn’t as evident as some of the others. It also seems like she doesn’t really do much. However, I placed her this high for a reason.
Zelda knew about her destiny from an early age and dedicated her every waking moment to unlocking the power she needed to defeat Ganon. She’s the one who controlled where they went and when they did it. When Ganon finally did attack, she saved Link and then proceeded to kidnap Ganon. Okay, she trapped him for 100 years, but it’s basically the same thing. Breath of the Wild’s Zelda has arguably the most agency out of all the Zeldas. Her personality isn’t as bombastic as the others, but it is still there. She isn’t as mentally strong as the others, but she’s serious and intelligent. Her anger towards Link in the flashbacks is redirected frustration at her own powerless state. Zelda works herself to the point of exhaustion because she is acutely aware of the immense weight on her shoulders. The only thing that keeps her out of the number one spot is her presence. While she has plenty of cutscenes, she is relatively absent in a game that can easily run over 100 hours.
1 Perfect: Spirit Tracks
The Zelda in Spirit Tracks is one of the few incarnations of Zeldas that is actually playable. Her character, while mentally weak, is the strongest in the series. She’s easily bullied by the Chancellor and doesn’t have much of a spine at all. Zelda is a bit foolhardy but not completely naive. She knows the Chancellor is up to something and recruits Link to help her sneak out of the castle in order to figure it out. When her body is taken from her, her spirit remains. She starts off as a scared little girl who is more than willing to let others risk their lives to help her. In fact, she basically threatens Link. Plus, her reaction to when she learns that Ganon is going to use her body as a meat suit is priceless! However, over the course of the game she becomes braver and goes through a genuine character arc.
The two biggest things that spirited this particular Zelda into first place is that she is present throughout the entire game and fights alongside Link as an equal. Zelda learns to take control of Phantoms and they work together to overcome challenges and defeat their enemies. When she isn’t fighting, she gives Link pointers and helps direct him to where he needs to go. She is also noteworthy for being the only version of Zelda who is shown to actually do the work of a ruler! The game ends with her filling out paperwork.
Out of all of the Zelda incarnations, the Spirit Tracks Zelda has the most presence, agency, and character.