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Who Makes the Best Zelda Games?

Many minds have contributed to the Zelda franchise, but whose work holds up best?

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

A while back, we asked, "Who makes the best Mario games?" When it comes to long-running franchises, the creative minds behind the games we love change over time, or the brands end up being lent away for other teams and companies to dabble in. While the Zelda franchise doesn't offer anywhere near as extensive a discography as Mario, this particular pie has nevertheless seen quite a number of different fingers poking at it over the years.

So who makes the best Zelda games? Well, you tell us. We've condensed the groups responsible for the full run of original Zelda games (remakes, like Grezzo's Ocarina of Time 3D, excluded) into a handy list, including pros and cons. It's not an easy question to answer, and we're interested to hear your thoughts. Who's your pick?

Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (under Miyamoto)

Nintendo's EAD division handled Zelda from its inception in 1986 up until Nintendo's big internal reorganization about 10 years ago. This is where Zelda began, under the direction of designer Shigeru Miyamoto. However, after Ocarina of Time, Miyamoto stepped back somewhat from the Zelda series and let Ocarina's co-director, Eiji Aonuma, take lead duties on the series. The following games are those that were overseen by Miyamoto in a direct role rather than a more advisory capacity.

Zelda titles created: The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986); Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987); The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1992); The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, 1994); The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)

The case for: Well, this should be obvious. Without Miyamoto's EAD team, Zelda wouldn't exist. The entire series got its start here; not only that, but several of these games (notably A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time) established a template that defines the structure of the games even now. Miyamoto's Zelda creations are true classics of the medium, and often could be quite unconventional (see: Link's Awakening).

The case against: Well, most of these games are classics, anyway. As with many older games, not every classic Zelda has aged well. The NES games can feel needlessly oblique, particularly Zelda II, which comes off like a game designed in part to help sell strategy guides.

Animation Magic

A rare instance of Nintendo outsourcing Zelda, Animation Magic's pair of adventures came into existence entirely for political reasons. Basically, Nintendo backed out of a deal with Sony and teamed up with Philips instead, and the result of that fruitless union was a handful of licensed Zelda and Mario games. They are widely regarded as terrible.

Zelda titles created: Link: The Faces of Evil (CDi, 1993); Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon (CDi; 1993)

The case for: The bizarre, overanimated cut scenes of these games is great for a laugh.

The case against: Terrible art, music, story, and game design. Nintendo doesn't even acknowledge these games' existence, and for good reason.

Viridis

The second studio to get their hands on Zelda as a result of the Philips deal, Viridis actually didn't do too completely terrible a job with the property. Their creation certainly wasn't the dire garbage that Animation Magic churned out.

Zelda titles created: The Legend of Zelda: Zelda's Adventure (CDi, 1993)

The case for: While they only created a single game that Nintendo has disavowed, Viridis' take on Zelda was actually pretty faithful – and, it should be noted, marks one of the few episodes in the entire franchise in which Princess Zelda herself takes up her sword to save the day (and not just as a supporting character).

The case against: Still nowhere near as polished as a "true" Zelda game, you can certainly argue the case that Zelda's Adventure only seems good by comparison to its abysmal CDi peers. Those load times...!

Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (under Aonuma)

After Ocarina of Time, Shigeru Miyamoto handed the keys to the kingdom (that is, Hyrule) over to Eiji Aonuma, who has served as the series' creative lead ever since. Although his stint as Zelda boss under the auspices of Nintendo EAD were fairly short, the handful of games his team created were all quite strong.

Zelda titles created: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64, 2000); The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2003); The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure (GameCube, 2003)

The case for: This may actually be the most experimental three years of Zelda ever. Majora's Mask operated by means of an unconventional time-loop structure; the Wind Waker adopted an almost entirely open-world structure that, in hindsight, seems to have been well ahead of its time; and Four Swords Adventure expanded on a promising but inadequately explored (to mention largely overlooked) concept to properly realize the vision of multiplayer Zelda. There's not a false step in this batch of games.

The case against: This period represents only a small sliver of time, and these games' experimental nature also means they don't represent what many people see as the "true" Zelda style.

Flagship

Around the turn of the millennium, Nintendo contracted out several portable Zelda games to a division of Capcom called Flagship. These games generally seemed to pattern themselves after notable main line releases; Oracle of Ages resembles Ocarina of Time, Oracle of Seasons the original Zelda, etc.

Zelda titles created: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (GBC, 2001); The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (GBC, 2001); The Legend of Zelda: The Four Swords (GBA, 2002); The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA, 2004)

The case for: Unlike the Philips debacle, this trilogy of adventures didn't evoke a sense of regret and failure from the decision to license them out. Flagship's work can stand toe-to-toe with just about any chapter of the Zelda series, and arguably these titles feel a lot more faithful to the spirit of the franchise than the subsequent portable games for DS. The Oracle duology in particular pulls a rather brilliant trick: The two games can be played in either order, but whichever you play second will reveal the story's "true" ending. Meanwhile, Four Swords may have been a mere bonus mode, but it cracked the puzzle of how to incorporate satisfying multiplayer into the Zelda style.

The case against: Some feel Flagship's titles lack a certain spark of innovation and polish. And the group overstepped its capabilities; the Oracles games were originally meant to be a trilogy but were scaled back once Flagship realized it didn't have the resources or clarity of design to execute their bold plan.

Nintendo Software Development Group 3

Around the time Satoru Iwata took control of Nintendo in the wake of Hiroshi Yamauchi's retirement, the entire company undertook a massive reorganization. Aonuma's team, formerly of EAD, ended up in its own separate division: Software Development Group 3. It's here that the past decade's worth of Zelda games have been crafted, and where the future of the series is currently being defined.

Zelda titles created: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii/GameCube, 2006); The Legend of Zelda: Link's Crossbow Training (Wii, 2007); The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007); The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS, 2009); The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii, 2011); The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013)

The case for: There have been some real Zelda gems published under the auspices of SDG3. Most recently, A Link Between Worlds inverted the traditional Zelda sequel technique of creating new settings for a familiar structure of progression, instead recycling A Link to the Past's setting in order to take a totally new approach to the quest concept. The DS games experimented with mechanics and interface design in order to create fundamentally accessible adventures that still felt truly Zelda-like. And Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, for all the flack they take, easily rank as the two largest and most epic chapters of the entire series.

The case against: There can be a real sense of wheels being spun in contemporary Zelda games; the console titles tend to play it a little too conservative, while the portable games throw out a lot of assumptions in an attempt to appeal to the masses. Zelda's still great... but is it as great as it used to be?

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for DiscordInc #1 DiscordInc 3 years ago
    It's interesting to see that while there were a lot of internal studios working on Mario games, there's a bit more of a sense of continuity to the Zelda games.

    Based on this I got to go with EAD under Aonuma. I love the way they tried to experiment in that era, and Wind Waker feels like one of the few attempts to evolve the franchise.

    Sadly, I feel like Aonuma got reigned in after Wind Waker, since a lot of the follow up titles don't feel nearly as inspired. I do hope Link Between Worlds marks the start of a new trend though.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #2 sam-stephens 3 years ago
    I am a pretty big Zelda fan who has played all but the CDi games, so this question is a bit difficult for me. If I had to pick my least favorite era in the series, it would be the first two game for the "obliqueness" mentioned in the article. It was really A Link to the Past that established the guided structure and useful visual/audio cues that we all have come to understand.

    As for who makes the best games in the series, it would have to be Development Group 3. Some say these games are "stale." I say that they have made the most clever and fully realized games in the series. Phantom Hourglass is, in my opinion, one of the best video games I have ever played. The use of the DS touch screen, the ability to draw notes, and the evolving central dungeon are both technically and structurally genius ideas.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @sam stephens I think SDG3 can be kind of hit-or-miss (mostly because they're hampered by trying to make the console games too inclusive), but I definitely agree that the DS games take way too much heat and are pretty clever and entertaining.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #4 sam-stephens 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish

    Yes, the DS games are undervalued, but I guess that can be expected from a handheld game in a series that is often known for its big adventures.

    "I think SDG3 can be kind of hit-or-miss (mostly because they're hampered by trying to make the console games too inclusive)"

    I'm not really sure what you mean by "too inclusive." Are you referring to the early tutorials in Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword? I can understand why they might frustrate veteran players who are familiar with all the tropes and cues of the series already, but in terms of teaching new players the ropes (never a bad thing), the tutorials work quite well. In fact, I could not imagine even veteran players completing Skyward Sword without the slow buildup which effectively teaches the use of motion controls.
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  • Avatar for aett #5 aett 3 years ago
    I've always been a big fan of Flagship, and it's a damn shame that they haven't had the chance to make more 2D Zeldas in the last decade. Their games never broke the mold, but they were fun, solid games (apart from Oracle of Ages' fetch quests) that I've replayed more than any other Zelda, apart from LttP.
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #6 Windwhale 3 years ago
    Honestly: I think the art and music of the first two CDi-Zeldas are actually kind of good (the third one by Viridis looks terrible). The background graphics have a nice painted feel and the music can be quite catchy. Both aspects are not great (in-game animations can look occasionally akward, and the music loops to soon), but far from being bad. I cannot speak for the gameplay itself, though, since I have only watched videos. And those overanimated cutscenes look really charming to me. The way characters zoom in and out and turn constantly looks odd in front of the static backgrounds, but the animators clearly had some amount of talent.
    Actually there are some cutscenes of games that came a little later, like Sierra's King's Quest 7 or even some Lucas Arts games like The Dig and Herc's Adventure ;) , which remind me little of the CDi-Zeldas. Sure, they look more polished, but they are still done in low-resolution, with a slightly rubberish animation-style. Maybe I like them in a similar way I like Bakshi's animated movies..

    The best Zelda to me has always been Link's Awakening: It shines so brightly, that every other Zelda pales in comparison (and there are quite a few I really like). So I guess EAD (Miyamoto) wins for me.Edited 3 times. Last edited February 2014 by Windwhale
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #7 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    All but the CDi devs had some great titles under their belts. But I'm going to side with EAD under Miyamoto, because not only does it have A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening (the latter of which is my favorite Zelda of all-time), but it also happens to have Ocarina, which almost everyone seems to love, and one of my favorite black sheep in any series, Zelda II. (I might be biased a bit, it was my first NES game.)

    I'd say EAD3 is nipping on the heels, though, especially after the excellent Link Between Worlds. I also enjoyed the heck out of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (with Skyward particularly scratching that dungeon itch), and those handheld games are far better than most give them credit for.
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  • Avatar for Makgameadv #8 Makgameadv 3 years ago
    The original EAD under Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka had a better feel for Zelda. There was a noticeable change with The Wind Waker with Aonuma's influence and preference for text based adventures and the things you could do in ALttP outside of action. Until ALBW, it seemed like every interview with Aonuma was about getting to the essence of Zelda.

    Majora's Mask still had Yoshiaki Koizumi directing with Aonuma before he went to work on Super Mario Sunshine and EAD Tokyo for Galaxy. Koizumi wrote the backstory to A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening, and joked in a Iwata Asks about trading series with Aonuma. Takashi Tezuka heavily worked on Link's Awakening too.

    There feels like a whole changing of staff after Majora's Mask. Maybe that's why the continuity of the timeline became so weird. The games in general seemed more consistent. If you look towards the back of the Hyrule Historia book, they show Link throughout the years on 2 pages. On the left its the earlier games and Link's design keeps changing with artists but there's a consistent feel to it. On the right Link is either ultra cartoonish or extremely realistic.

    I got the feeling with Twilight Princess (and even looking at The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword) that the people working on Zelda at the time were interested in making a different game than the Zelda people might expect. They're only now getting back to the essence of what Zelda was with A Link Between Worlds.Edited February 2014 by Makgameadv
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #9 MetManMas 3 years ago
    For me, the majority of Zelda games I love were made by Nintendo EAD. Link to the Past and Link's Awakening are my favorites in the series, Zelda 1 still has a lot of things I like about it, and while I feel it's aged horribly next to every other 3D Zelda ever, Ocarina set the template for Zelda in 3D and doesn't keep the leash around players' necks as tight as later games.

    Animation Magic and Viridis, I've never played. I hear some people claim the AM games aren't that bad, but I'm sure there are also a select few people who claim that Bubsy 3D was the greatest game ever made so I just tune them out.

    Aonuma EAD, I like how experimental the games were. While the islands leave a lot to be desired Wind Waker's world feels huge, and even though it can be stressful I like how Majora's Mask embraces the bizarre while doing interesting things with the game being set across three days.

    Flagship, though I wouldn't exactly consider their games top tier, I've enjoyed them quite a bit, though I will admit I prefer the Anniversary remake of Four Swords over the original because it's not locking away content in LttP's remake and the bonus dungeons are pretty action-oriented. The only one that really disappointed me was Minish Cap, which has some good tools and abilities but way too small and cramped a world to use them in.

    NSDG3, for the most part have made games that I wanted to love, but tend to have some gimmicky nonsense that makes me lose interest in replaying them...or in some cases (Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword) finishing them. For TP it was the wolf bug hunting and tools that became useless outside of their dungeons, for PH it was repeating the same few dungeon floors over and over again,* for ST it was a combination of mic controlled tools/increased movement linearity because train/stylus controls wearing out their welcome/murder trains, and with Skyward Sword it was the various awkward control gimmicks, the Skyworld feeling like a crappier version of WW's ocean, and a gut feeling that I had done everything worth doing once I got the bow and anything else would just be filler.

    A Link Between Worlds is great as a one-off, though if they do another 2D style Zelda I hope it'll be a wholly new world with some more new tools to play with.

    So yeah, Nintendo EAD in general with a side of Flagship and a hint of NSDG3 (ALBW) is my preferred poison when it comes to Zelda.

    * I know you can do new things with your new tools on previous floors, but I didn't feel like you could do enough new things.
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  • Avatar for LunarKnite #10 LunarKnite 3 years ago
    I would have to go with EAD under Miyamoto followed closely by Flagship. Like the others, Link's Awakening is my favorite Zelda. There's just something about the story, setting, and characters combined with classic 2D Zelda gameplay that make the perfect combination.

    But, I'm a bad Zelda fan having never beaten the first two, or OoT, which is why Flagship comes in close second with their Oracle games. They pretty much gave us two more Link's Awakenings. I'm more of a 2D, portable Zelda fan, so Flagship with their portable Zelda offerings really give EAD Miyamoto a run for their money in my eyes.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #11 TernBird 3 years ago
    Ocarina gets all of the fan love, Majora's Mask is my favorite Zelda, Wind Waker is incredible, Twilght Princess is gorgeous...

    and yet, there's something to be said about those three games that are just so much fun and thumb their nose at the Ganon/Zelda/Link dynamic that hasn't been fresh since Wind Waker.

    I give Aonuma the nod, since Majora's Mask is, y'know, my favorite Zelda ever and also leaves the Ganon/Zelda/Link thing on the shelf, where it belongs, and because Wind Waker Link is my favorite Link. His expressions, man!
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #12 AxiomVerge 3 years ago
    I vote Miyamoto! Though I haven't played the Capcom games.
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  • Avatar for retr0gamer #13 retr0gamer 3 years ago
    The first two Cdi games aren't all that bad. Sure the cutscenes are dreadful but they are playable enough. They are by no means perfect with lots of annoyances but you'll get some fun out of them.

    What I really don't understand is when people say that zeldas adventure is a better game and a decent one at that. The game is an absolute travesty. It's near unplayable takes to awful design, ridiculous load times between screens and the fact that the game is a buggy mess that is obviously unfinished. I get the feeling that people that write about the Cdi games haven't actually played them considering how hard it is to get a working Cdi and the fact that there's still not an emulator that emulates them properly so just go with the common consensus, the first two have naff cutscenes and wonky controls while the third looks like zelda so must be good.
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  • Avatar for alexb #14 alexb 3 years ago
    They need to let Yoshiaki Koizumi and his Mario Galaxy crew take a crack at this. Aonuma doesn't really even like the original core game design of Zelda, which is why nearly every game from him has labored under gameplay gimmicks, lockstep "puzzles," and lots of pointless chatter with increasingly ugly NPCs. Zelda used to be the holiest of holies when it came to prestige. Let's go back to those days.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #15 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    Zelda in my view is better for the most part than it used to be
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  • Avatar for docexe #16 docexe 3 years ago
    Mmmm… I suppose I would give the nod to EAD under Miyamoto, but primarily because A Link to the Past is still my favorite game in the series (although I sometimes wonder how much of that is nostalgia, what with it being the first Zelda game I played to completition).

    But honestly, I don’t think the Zelda series has ever stopped being great. If anything, I think it just has fallen victim of its own hype. When a particular entry is so influential and lauded as Ocarina of Time was, it can be difficult for any later entry to live up to that precedent. It also doesn’t help that every fan has his/her own mental image of how the series should be.

    Even then, I think every entry in the series is not only an excellent game by itself, it usually has elements that make it stand out among the rest. Do the later entries in the series have flaws? Yes, but so did the first entries. No game in the series has truly being perfect if we have to be honest.

    Even then, ultimately I have enjoyed every Zelda game I have played for different reasons: from Ocarina of Time with its fully realized 3D world and mechanics to Skyward Sword with its excellent level design and endearing characters; from Link’s Awakening with its melancholic storyline and quirky characters to A Link between Worlds with the trip through memory lane coupled with experimental mechanics.Edited February 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #17 benjaminlu86 3 years ago
    Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, and Four Swords Adventures are 1, 2, and 3, my favorite games in the series. The choice is clear; EAD under Aonuma takes it.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #18 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    For me, EAD under Miyamoto is the winner. I love the first four games, with only Ocarina being the one I'm hesitant to pick up.

    SDG3 is second. I loved Twilight Princess and enjoyed Skyward Sword for the most part, and A Link Between Worlds is my favorite since EAD's days under Miyamoto. I also like Link's Crossbow Training.

    The DS games are the only sore spot, due to the controls more than anything. Trying to use the flute in Spirit Tracks is a pain, especially on an original DS.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #19 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    EAD is the winner for me, although there are some great games from some of the other developers, notably Wind Waker, Majora's Mask, and Twilight Princess.

    However, for me, Zelda 2 is still my favorite in the series. I love how punishing it is, and I love the style and music of the game, there's just something very alluring about it. It's the most exciting Zelda for me to play.
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  • Avatar for abuele #20 abuele 3 years ago
    If I take into account gameplay over story, SDG3 are the ones who currently hit the spot for Zelda games, I love the game mechanics for the DS games, I haven´t taken a chance to play their console counter parts.

    But currently I'm enjoying Link Between Worlds, I was exceptic at first, but once I received it as gift, it became the gift that keeps giving. I am simply delighted by the ways they improved the questing issues and progressiveness in a Zelda game.
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