It's been more than 30 years since the original Legend of Zelda, and in that time it's grown into one of the most popular and significant franchises in gaming history, encompassing a huge number of sequels and spinoffs. The question is: what's the best Zelda game of the bunch?
We decided to follow up our Mario rankings with similar rankings for the best Zelda games. The staff ranked the games from best to worst, with the final list being determined by each game's average ranking. You probably won't be shocked to find that the infamous CDi games sit at the bottom of the list; but rest assured, there are a few surprises in here, particularly at the top.
The Best Zelda Games of All Time
Alright, here are the best Zelda games of all time (give or take the CDi games). The list includes last year's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which was not available when we first sat down to rank all of the games back in 2016. You'll recall that we thought pretty highly of it last year, but is it the best Zelda game of them all? Read on to find out!
26. Zelda: Wand of Gamelon/Link: Faces of Evil
What, you expected anything else? Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: Wand of Gamelon are linked here because they are essentially the same game, having been developed together to save money. Both are consistently ranked among the worst games of all time for their stilted platforming, wretched controls, and astonishingly bad cutscenes, the last of which continue to live in infamy on Youtube and elsewhere. Seanbaby put it best: "The gameplay is almost as deep and engaging as flipping from one option to the next on a DVD menu."
25. Zelda's Adventure
We all knew the CDi Zelda games would end up at the bottom, but there's still justice in the world despite the existence of these externally developed games: We broke Zelda's Adventure apart from Wand of Gamelon and Faces of Evil because it's merely terrible as opposed to being so atrocious it tears a hole in the fabric of reality. A well-meaning attempt to reproduce the screen-by-screen quest design of the original NES Zelda, and one of only a tiny handful of games to put the eponymous princess in the lead role, Zelda's Adventure trips up over the CDi's tech limitations (it takes longer to load each new screen of the overworld than it does to traverse it) and its creators' general inexperience. It's dreadful, but not entirely without merit.
24. Freshly-picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland
Okay, maybe it's a tiny bit unfair to rate Tingle's Rosy Rupee Land so low. It's even received relatively decent reviews! As you might expect, it's about getting as many rupees as possible by complete a variety of dungeons. It's not terrible; but seriously, what possessed Nintendo to give the worst character in the Zelda pantheon his own game? That boxart alone... gah.
23. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
We'll let our review of Tri Force Heroes do the talking: "Nintendo had a fantastic idea with Tri Force Heroes, but the premise is underserved and undermined by some fundamental design issues and shaky online infrastructure. It's nothing short of a tragedy to wait a whole decade for another multiplayer Zelda and receive what feels like a largely unfinished idea with great potential." That pretty much says it all, unfortunately. It was nice seeing the Four Swords multiplayer concept return for another round, but it ultimately didn't work out. Hopefully this isn't the death knell for an otherwise worthy concept.
22. Tetra's Trackers/Navi Trackers
This import-only component of Four Swords Adventure remained stranded in Japan due to giving fans what they always demanded: Voice-acting in a Zelda game. Tetra's Trackers was a sort of scavenger hunt adventure in which the tanned-and-sassy alter-ego of Princess Zelda would bark orders aloud to players, calling them by their own custom-defined names… something possible due to the nature of Japanese language, but too difficult for Nintendo to reprogram to work in English. (They eventually sorted it out 10 years later with Tomodachi Life.) Not necessarily the most amazing game ever, but definitely worthy of an asterisk in the history books.
21. The Legend of Zelda
I had to do without an NES for a long time, so my Nintendo-crazy hands grasped onto whatever substitute I could find. I thought The Legend of Zelda Game & Watch adventure might be a good, affordable replacement for the real thing. Spoilers: It’s not. But what’s here is still pretty admirable for a handheld liquid crystal beep-beep game. Link beats Stalfols to collect parts of the Triforce, which he wins by defeating dragons (Gleeok, is that you?). If you’re lucky enough to find a lonely Zelda Game & Watch in a bin at some Goodwill somewhere, act fast and grab it young hero.
20. BS Zelda no Densetsu
There were actually two BS Zelda games (BS meaning "Broadcast Satellaview," not… something else), designed for a Japan-only Super NES add-on that allowed players to download digital-only games (like this one!). We only included one on the list, because the other—while incredibly cool—actually involved live satellite transmissions of people giving player guidance in real-time. That's nearly impossible to emulate (though people are trying!), so unless you happened to play those episodes when they broadcast, you can't have experienced it in its proper form. This one, though, was less unconventional and has been, uh, preserved for the ages online. It's essentially a 16-bit remake of the original Zelda, with Link replaced by a school kid. Neat, but a bit esoteric to have a place in our North American hearts.
19. Link's Crossbow Training
The is one of around 20 games that used the Wii Zapper peripheral, which was little more than a plastic shell that you could slot the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The concept was that shooters would require you to hold the Wii Remote out in front of your for long periods of time and the peripheral could ease some of that arm strain. Link's Crossbow Training, based visually on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, was the first game designed for the Zapper and came packaged with it. You have nine levels to test your shooting skills and get the highest score. Yeah, that was it. Look, it was a pack-in game, you really shouldn't expect much.
18. Hyrule Warriors
If you're Koei Tecmo subsidiary Omega Force, you have only one job: bring the Musou/Warriors gameplay to every property imaginable. Hyrule Warriors was a collaboration between Omega Force, Nintendo, and Team Ninja. Ganondorf is gathering Zelda villains across various worlds together in order to restore the pieces of his fractured soul. Link, Zelda, and friends from across the Zelda timeline comes together to destroy thousands upon thousands of no-name enemies on the battlefields of Hyrule in order to stop him. If you love Zelda and are willing to rock a Musou game, you'll get a kick out of this multiverse adventure.
17. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords
Four Swords is actually not a standalone game, instead serving as an additional multiplayer adventure for the Game Boy Advance version of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Despite being a multiplayer-focused game, Four Swords does have a rough plot involving Link standing up to the Wind Mage Vaati by being split into four identical copies. Regardless, the point is that two or more players take on randomly-generated dungeons together in cooperative fashion, though the Medal of Courage awarded at the end of each stage added a competitive bent. Four Swords was meant to be played again and again across three "Epics", but it's likely most players never had the chance to even finish one, given the requirement of linking multiple Game Boy Advances together.
16. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Spirit Tracks tends to get a bad rap because of its method of overworld exploration, which literally puts Link on rails. Beyond that, it feels like an unnecessary follow-up to the already disappointing Phantom Hourglass, which we'll get to in a minute. It's burdened by the same awful stealth missions as Phantom Hourglass, and its use of the DS microphone is more aggravating than novel. Still, it has its strong points, including some pretty strong dungeon design. Alas, it will never be a favorite, even if Toon Link is astoundingly adorable in a train conductor outfit.
15. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Phantom Hourglass has a lot going for it: it's a strikingly attractive addition to the Nintendo DS library, its touchscreen controls are novel and interesting, and it has Toon Link. Unfortunately, it never quite lives up to its promise, burdened as it is by its stealth missions—a series of troublesome puzzles in which you have to work your way past phantom guards under a strict time limit. Worse, you have to return to it repeatedly throughout the game, fostering a heavy sense of repetition. Add in its middling dungeons and lack of excitement and pace, and Phantom Hourglass feels surprisingly lackluster despite its impressive technical achievements. It's a shame that Phantom Hourglass' design doesn't live up to its fantastic visuals.
14. The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap
The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap is a Zelda game that doesn’t seem to inspire strong feelings one way or the other. “Oh, that was the one with the hat, right? That was a fun game.” Yeah. That sums it up. Though a bit middle-of-the-road as far as Zelda adventures go, Minish Cap is a thoroughly enjoyable action RPG, and I’d recommend it to anyone, Zelda fan or not. Exploring the teeny Minish world in lieu of a sprawling Hyrule may not feel like a great trade-off, but if you love teeny-tiny things like myself, you’ll have a very nice time with Minish Cap. Travelling with a trash-talking bird-hat holds its own appeal, too.
13. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Sometimes when you push the limits of game design, the limits of game design also push back. (I think Nietzsche said that.) Zelda II has never been the most beloved entry in the series; back at the time, most kids were confused by the RPG elements. And once the Zelda concept codified itself as more of a top-down (or over-the-shoulder) approach with A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, Zelda II's multi-format side-scrolling platform action became the weirdo exception to the franchise's rule. But this was an early attempt to combine several different genres into a single game, and while it sometimes ran afoul of its own ambitions and the design practices of the time, it succeeded in expanding the scope of the Zelda universe beyond that of the original game and introduced a number of concepts and mechanics that would go on to become core elements of the series.
12. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Poor Skyward Sword. I adored my time with it, but at the same time I can’t say that the people who hate it are dumb and wrong. The game’s motion controls were an admirable experiment, but they just turned out to be a poor fit for the series. Unfortunately, Skyward Sword’s controls and boxed-in exploration are what come up when it’s time to pen retrospectives on the game. Too few of us spare kind words for Skyward Sword’s inspired dungeons, amazing character designs (those dragons!), and its personality in general. Link smiles, laughs, gets serious, and gets furious in Skyward Sword.The range of emotions he displays is fantastic, and it makes a good case for sticking to tradition and keeping him silent. Oh, and Skyward Sword also has Groose. Come on. [Ed. note: Skyward Sword proved divisive among our staff, with one editor ranking it as low as 21. Ouch.]
11. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Oracle of Ages
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages are a pair of Game Boy Color titles that were originally supposed to be a trilogy, each game representing a different aspect of the Triforce. However, they were downsized to a duo when development became too complex and protracted. They're also the first games in the franchise’s history to be created by a third party developer: Capcom-owned Flagship, led by Yoshiki Okamoto, whose resume includes classic coin-ops such as Gyruss, Time Pilot, Gun Smoke, Final Fight, and Street Fighter II. Oracle of Ages is centered around a dual time line plot, and features plenty of puzzles, while Oracle of Seasons focuses on overground and subterranean environments, and is more action-oriented. Both are essentially meant to be played together, and each uses passwords to unlock secrets, items, and plot points in the other game. As a pair, they work brilliantly together to create a deep and involving adventure that was incredibly well received. Both games sold over four million copies apiece.
10. Four Swords Adventures
Four Swords Adventures is the best thing to come out of Nintendo's push to connect the Game Boy Advance and the GameCube. An updated version of the GBA's Four Swords, it introduces a more coherent narrative and better graphics while building on the co-op concepts introduced in the original game. It's an early example of the Nintendo's experimentation with second screen gameplay, which would manifest more fully in the release of the Nintendo DS at the end of the year, and much later in the Wii U. Mostly, though, it thrives on the fun of competing and cooperating as four Links, solving puzzles, and generally seeing the series in a whole new light. With that, it's no surprise that Four Swords remains a popular flavor of Zelda even today.
9. The Legend of Zelda
A revolution in game design, The Legend of Zelda brought PC-like depth and console-style action together in a satisfying way for perhaps the first time ever. Presenting players with a vast, convoluted overworld filled with secrets and challenges, Zelda could afford to emulate the structure and design of role-playing games thanks to the relatively roomy memory size—and the persistent save files!—afforded by the Famicom Disk System expansion… features eventually replicated in a fancy golden cartridge for NES. The basic tenets of Zelda's design, from the supplementary weapons Link collects to the overworld/dungeon dichotomy, live on as standard features of the series, three decades later. Nintendo hyped this one through the roof back in the day… but then, hype is nothing new. What's remarkable about Zelda is that it lived up to its billing. As new players continue to discover both the game and its sequels 30 years later, it truly has proven to be a "never-ending adventure."
8. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
After the somewhat controversial Wind Waker, Nintendo decided to go with a crowd pleaser for the next entry in the series. Twilight Princess was bigger and darker than its predecessor, which was exemplified by the murky Twilight Realm and Link's snarky companion Midna. It also borrowed heavily from Ocarina of Time in returning the story to Hyrule and following on from the exploits of the Hero of Time. You can debate whether it has issues with pace, but it's tough to argue against its dungeons, which are some of the best in the series. It remains one of the most epic and ambitious entries in the series, and retains a sizable following to this day. And with Twilight Princess HD now available, it's getting an opportunity to shine again.
7. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
We probably all would have been OK with Nintendo upgrading the graphics for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before slapping it on the Nintendo 3DS. We would have gobbled it up with a fork in one hand, and the Master Sword in the other. But A Link Between Worlds is so much more than a mere upgrade. The landscape is familiar, but different enough to make you feel like you’re embarking on a totally new quest, even if you’ve played A Link to the Past hundreds of times (cough). A Link Between Worlds doesn’t just play well, though. It also gives us a “Dark World” populated by characters who aren’t evil or twisted so much as wary and unlucky. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the wily Ravio or feel sympathy for Princess Hilda, though I still want to hit whomever came up with the name "Lorule."
6. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
Link's Awakening had a tough act to follow. A Link to the Past had set a new standard for the series on the Super Nintendo - then one of the most powerful systems on the market. It seemed unlikely that its successor, which had been developed for the humble Game Boy, could ever live up to those lofty expectations. But live up to them it did. Link's Awakening lacked the complex Light World/Dark World interactions of A Link to the Past, but it made up for it with intricate dungeons, a quirky personality (remember Ulrira?), and a surprisingly emotional story. Link's quest to uncover the secret of the Wind Fish was a surprising left turn for a series that had up to that point mostly focused on Ganon kidnapping Zelda, setting the table for the even more ambitious Ocarina of Time. It makes a pretty strong argument for being the best Game Boy game ever made.
5. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Despite its controversial visual style, which ironically has proven to be a huge part of this game's timelessness, The Wind Waker turned out to be in many ways the best Zelda to date. If Nintendo hadn't shortchanged us on dungeons and hadn't padded the latter portions of the adventure with tiresome fetch quests, it might have gone down in history as the pinnacle of the series. As it is, Wind Waker still holds a firm claim on best combat to date; its flexible yet intuitive sword mechanics leapfrogged over the rudimentary lock-on style of Ocarina of Time. Here, the visual style played a part as well; Wind Waker's disdain for "realism" allowed the action to flow with cartoonish fluidity, as tiny Link darted and rolled around towering foes with exaggerated (and deeply satisfying) grace. And finally, Wind Waker's character design drove home an important detail about the series' greatness: With about a dozen unique enemies appearing in the game and several dozen unique villagers to interact with, it finally became clear that Zelda is really more about the interactions and vignettes than it is about killing monsters. If you've still never played Wind Waker, stop dawdling and grab the Wii U remake stat.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Originally developed for the N64's disk drive peripheral, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was eventually released as a massive 256-megabit cartridge to rapturous critical acclaim. Indeed, it still remains one of Metacritic's highest-rated games of all time. It was a real breakthrough for the series: It was the first Zelda game to feature 3D graphics, and it introduced revolutionary game mechanics such as a lock-on targeting system, and context-sensitive buttons, which have since become staples of 3D adventure games. But really, it's the gameplay that makes Ocarina of Time one of the all-time classic Zelda titles. Featuring an epic, time-traveling tale that takes place across an impressive open-world environment that simply begs to be explored, the cinematic-feeling game features engaging dungeons, some great puzzles, and plot twists and turns that really set a benchmark for the series.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
When Nintendo first unveiled The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, fans and the press started chattering excitedly about “the first adult Zelda game.” That’s when I realized, "Wait, there’s already an adult Zelda game. It’s Majora’s Mask." But when I say "adult," I don’t mean "omg, the girls have big boobys!" I mean the game’s characters are stricken with grown-up problems: Runaway lovers, meddling parents, back-stabbing friends, and simply having to carry on in the face of utter destruction. You know. Grown-up stuff. But Majora’s Mask does more than deliver the series’ most emotional story. It recycles the characters and models from Ocarina of Time brilliantly, managing to make Termina feel fresh and new despite its familiar faces. The game’s time-travelling mechanics and twisted atmosphere lend it a Twin Peaks flavor. It’s no wonder Majora’s Mask is fiercely loved by its fans.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
We've come to think about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as "an open-world Zelda game," but really, producer Eiji Aonuma brought the series back to the tip of its roots. Breath of the Wild challenges you to find your purpose by climbing mountains, riding down hills, and overturning every stone—much like the very first Zelda game did. And, like the first Zelda game, Breath of the Wild guides you with timeless landmarks. Death Mountain looms to the north. The unmistakable Duelling Peaks guides you to the relatively tame lands surrounding Kakariko village. Hyrule Castle, your eventual goal, is smack in the middle of the blighted land. You can wander for hours in Breath of the Wild and never get lost. Some critics argue Breath of the Wild's perfectly-crafted overworld comes at the expense of the varied dungeons and boss fights that keep Zelda games warm in the hearts of fans. I can understand that criticism, even though I still love to occasionally load up Breath of the Wild and go on a long pony ride. Keep working on that vital balance, Aonuma.
The Best Zelda Game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Within a year of releasing the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom, Nintendo dropped this amazing gem. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past remains the best damn game in the series, a quintessential title that continues to define what The Legend of Zelda is today. As the third major Zelda title, it's probably one of the bigger jumps in the series history. Compared to its NES predecessors, the graphics were far better, the world was bigger, and the storytelling improved vastly. Link found himself in a quest across all reality, divided between the Light and Dark Worlds. The two interconnected worlds added an interesting dual-world dynamic to puzzles, aided by some of the best dungeons in the series. While other Zelda games like Ocarina of Time haven't aged all that well, A Link to the Past sits in this amazing sweet spot. It still looks and plays as good as it did when you first put the cartridge into your Super Nintendo back in 1992.
A Link to the Past defined Zelda as we know it today. The first two games outlined what the series would become, but A Link to the Past filled in the rest of the details. In addition to laying the foundation for much of the subsequent lore, it shifted its focus from combat to the intricately designed dungeons and puzzle solving the series would become known for, which was amplified by the way it used the Dark World and the Light World. Add in some fantastic pacing and a kickass soundtrack, and you get a game that still holds up extraordinarily well after 25 years. It's the best Zelda game of all time.
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