The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may be the first Zelda game you've ever played. If so, congratulations! You've discovered one of the greatest franchises in all of gaming (cue discovery jingle). But where should you go from here?
Zelda is a vast series that winds its way through all of gaming history, and there are many, many games (at least 25 the last time we checked). We've ranked them all, but for those who are new to the series, there are some games that are easier to pick up than others.
What is The Legend of Zelda About?
At its heart, Zelda is about a boy, a girl, and a pig monster named Ganon. In each game, a new hero named Link arises to take on the mantle and protect the Triforce—a legendary triangle representing Courage, Wisdom, and Power that has the power to grant whatever one's heart desires. He is aided by Zelda, a girl who is sometimes a princess, sometimes a pirate, and sometimes a ninja.
Most Zelda games follow a structure in which the hero battles Ganon's forces through a succession of dungeons featuring devious traps and puzzles. These dungeons are typically themed around a tool that can be obtained at the midpoint after defeating a mini-boss, which in turn allows Link to access new areas. Dungeons have long defined Zelda, which is one reason why Breath of the Wild is such a departure for the series.
When Link isn't exploring a dungeon, he's usually venturing through a vast overworld, where he can meet townsfolk, unlock hidden areas, and collect many, many items. In some games, he can also venture into the mirror-like Dark World, or travel through time. Many of the more modern Zeldas have some sort of central conceit that drives both the story and the puzzles.
Zelda's timeless appeal can be found in its classical story of good versus evil, its sprawling lore (there's an entire book called the Hyrule Historia on the subject), and its outstanding puzzle design. Over the years, Zelda has come to be known as Nintendo's flagship series, eclipsing even Mario in its mainstream recognition. That tradition has continued with Breath of the Wild, which some are already calling one of the best games ever made.
Where Do I Start?
With few exceptions, Zelda does not tell a linear story. Instead, it jumps around its mythical timeline, telling a variety of self-contained tales. The original Legend of Zelda is actually probably the worst place to start, as it is old, dense, and extremely difficult. It still holds up in many respects, but its appeal is in understanding the franchise's roots, not so much in its accessibility.
As the newest game in the series, Breath of the Wild is as good a place to start as any. It's harder than most (have you checked out our guides?), but it is a vast and thoroughly modern open-world game. Honestly, you could do worse.
If you're looking for a more traditional experience, then consider Wind Waker HD on the Wii U. Don't let its cartoony art style deceive you—it's one of the best-loved and most beautiful games in the series. Wind Waker takes Link to the high seas, where he hops from island to island looking for adventure. In addition to being very attractive, it's also one of the easier games in the series, making it a good choice for anyone looking to get into the series.
If you own a Nintendo 3DS, consider either Link's Awakening or A Link Between Worlds. The former is now 25 years old, but its design holds up extremely well, and it tells one of the most emotional stories in the series. The latter owes a large debt to the Super Nintendo's A Link to the Past, but its wonderful non-linear dungeon design and story are excellent on their own. You can find both in the 3DS eShop.
Understanding the Legend of Zelda
Now that you have a good idea of where to start, let's talk about the rest of the series. I've listed the rest of the games in the series with a brief synopsis, their platform, and whether or not I think you should play it.
The Legend of Zelda
1987 | NES
The first game in the series drops you in the middle of a devastated overworld and lets you explore at your leisure. It's a very hard, combat-oriented game that resembles Dark Souls more than later Zelda games. The secrets are esoteric and some of the dungeons are really, really hard. Still, it's remembered as a classic for a reason.
Should You Play It: Yes, but not right away. Unless you're a masochist, that is.
Where to Find It: You can find it on the Virtual Consoles for the Wii, 3DS, and Wii U, as well as on the NES Classic Mini (if you can actually find one). Otherwise, there's always the NES original!
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
1988 | NES
Zelda II has its supporters, but it's long been known as the black sheep in the series for shifting the perspective, introducing more RPG elements, and just generally being really fricking hard. It certainly has merit, but fair or not, there's a reason people tend to shy away from this one.
Should You Play It: It's a historical curiosity, but probably not. Definitely don't be like Nadia and make this your first one.
Where to Find It: Again, you can find Zelda II on the Virtual Console for pretty much every modern Nintendo platform. It's also available on the NES Classic Mini.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
1992 | SNES
A Link to the Past is known as one of the best games ever made for a reason. It's a major evolution from Zelda I and II, informing a huge amount of the series to follow. It has a much more involved story, and its graphics are a major step up from the first two games. It also has a kickass soundtrack and a lot of really great dungeons. You could do worse starting with this one.
Should You Play It: We called it the best Zelda ever made so... uh... yes.
Where to Find It: You won't find this one on the NES Classic, but it is widely available on Virtual Console. You can also find it on the GBA if you don't mind Link's incessant yelling (and, you know, you have a GBA lying around).
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
1993 | Game Boy
Following on from A Link to the Past, Link is shipwrecked on a mysterious island and must find a way to escape. This was definitely one of the trippiest Zeldas, and a lot of the franchise's personality stems from Link's Awakening's determination to be goofy and experimental. It's also the first game in the series to make music one of the game's primary themes. It's probably the best portable Zelda you're gonna find.
Should You Play It: Yes, definitely. You might even want to start with this one. It holds up much better than you think.
Where to Find It: You can find Zelda DX, the colorized version, on the 3DS eShop. It's totally worth it.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
1998 | Nintendo 64
The big one. Some people say that this is the best game ever made. It brought the series into the 3D era and cast a very long shadow on the games to follow. When people think of Zelda, it's usually Ocarina of Time that springs to mind. To tell you the truth, I find it a bit meandering, but there's no denying its masterful use of the time travel mechanic or its amazing dungeons. It's also the game that gave us Epona and the ocarina. It's a classic, no doubt about that.
MetaScore: 99. People kind of love this one.
Should You Play It: Yes! ... Eventually. It might come off as a tiny bit dated if you jump into it right away.
Where to Find It: A port of Ocarina of Time is available on the 3DS. You can also find it on the Wii eShop. If you have an old Wii lying around, consider grabbing Master Quest, which is harder and varies up the puzzles.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
2000 | Nintendo 64
Majora's Mask was kind of misunderstood when it came out in 2000, but its acclaim has grown considerably since then. We even ranked it above Ocarina of Time in our comprehensive rankings. Majora's Mask takes the series in a weird and dark direction as Link has to repeatedly relive the same three days in an effort to stop an evil moon from crashing into the earth. It's defined by its eponymous masks, which give Link new and different powers. This is Bob's favorite Zelda, and he's not alone.
Should You Play It: This is a weird one, so you might want to wait. But you should definitely keep it in mind for the future.
Where to Find It: A port was released for the 3DS a couple years ago. It's also available on the Wii U eShop.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons
2001 | Game Boy Color
In 2001, Capcom took the engine from Link's Awakening and made two separate adventures. One involves time travel, while the other is based on the manipulation of the seasons. They aren't as well-known as other games in the series, but they are generally well-regarded for their extremely intricate puzzles.
Should You Play It: If you really love Link's Awakening, then definitely give Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons a try. Their stories aren't nearly as good, but they will definitely scratch that Zelda itch.
Where to Find It: Outside of the Game Boy, you can find them on the 3DS eShop.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
2003 | GameCube, Wii U
Wind Waker was famously derided as "Celda" by angry fans when it was announced in 2003, but its reputation has been rehabilitated in the wake of a successful HD update on the Wii U. These days, Wind Waker is regarded as one of the best in the series for the way that it adapts the formula to journeying across the high seas. It also has one of the more nuanced and even tragic portrayals of Ganon in the series. A classic, even if it falls apart a bit in the second half with its infamous treasure map hunt.
Should You Play It: Outside of Breath of the Wild, this is the Zelda that you should probably play first. It's a gem, and it's cheap!
Where to Find It: You can find it for about $20 on Amazon. A great deal for a great game.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures
2004 | GameCube
In their quest to promote GameCube and GBA connectivity, Nintendo took the Four Swords pack-in from the GBA's Link to the Past port and blew it out into a full-blown game. It has a lot of great cooperative puzzles, but the fact that it requires multiple GBAs for multiplayer makes it kind of a non-starter in the modern era. A shame, because more people deserve to enjoy this clever little game.
Should You Play It: Nah.
Where to Find It: You can find it on Amazon for about $20 if you're looking for something to play with your friends. Don't forget the GBAs! And the GameCube. You won't be able to play it with friends on the Wii.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
2004 | GBA
The Minish Cap is one of several "gimmick" games for Nintendo's portable systems. In this one, Link can shrink down to a tiny size to solve puzzles. It's well-regarded by some, but most see it as kind of a middle-of-the-road entry in the series. It has some interesting lore if you're into that sort of thing.
Should You Play It: Nah.
Where to Find It: Now that it's available in the Wii U eShop, it's worth checking out. It's not what I would call a top priority, but like I said, it's regarded as a bit of a hidden gem in some circles. You can also find it on Amazon.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
2006 | GameCube, Wii, Wii U
Following on from Wind Waker, Nintendo's "mature" take on the series darkened the palette considerably. In it, Link is capable of becoming a wolf, which he must do to solve puzzles and save Hyrule from an invasion of the Twilight Realm. Aside from its art style, its best-known for introducing the world to motion controls on the Wii. Its big and bold, but it was here that the Zelda formula began to feel just a little bit stale.
Should You Play It: I reviewed the HD remaster and found that it didn't hold up as well as I would have liked, mostly owing to its glacial pace. It struggles a bit to get from under Ocarina of Time's shadow, and doesn't hold up as well as Wind Waker. Still a good game, but not one I would consider essential.
Where to Find It: You can find Twilight Princess HD (and its Amiibo) on Amazon without too much trouble. If you're looking for a real oddity, consider the Wii version and its motion controls, though be warned that they're kind of limited, and you obviously lose the HD aspect.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
2007 | Nintendo DS
Nintendo returned to the Wind Waker art style for this portable, stylus-driven Zelda. It's... not that great... mostly owing to its terrible stealth dungeons. It was mostly known for being really pretty back in its day (and being, well, Zelda), but it doesn't hold up so well now. Avoid.
Should You Play It: Absolutely not.
Where to Find It: If you must.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
2009 | Nintendo DS
Like Phantom Hourglass, but with a train. While Spirit Tracks gets a lot of hate for its somewhat linear overworld, I much prefer its dungeons, and its stealth temple isn't nearly as obnoxious as the one in Phanton Hourglass. Definitely one of the weaker games in the series, but maybe not deserving of the hate it gets.
Should You Play It: Not really.
Where to Find It: Huh. Wow. Spirit Track is kind of expensive, isn't it?.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2011 | Nintendo Wii
One of the most divisive entries in the series. Skyward Sword was the capper to the motion control era, leaning heavily on mechanics driven by the Wii Remote. It was also one of the slowest games in the series, revoking much of the freedom from the previous games and leaning heavily on ponderous cutscenes. And those collect-a-thons, guh. If you can't tell, I'm not much of a fan of this one. Still, it has some great dungeons, it adds more to the lore, and it has Groose. Everyone loves Groose.
Should You Play It: Only if you're a completionist. Like I said, I'm really not a fan of Skyward Sword. Mike hated it so much that he put it in the bottom tier of the entire series.
Where to Find It: You can get it here. Make sure to get a Wii Remote with a MotionPlus attachment as well. Happily, you can still enjoy it on your Wii U even if you've long since gotten rid of your Wii.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
2013 | Nintendo 3DS
A run of surprisingly weak Zelda games broke with this outstanding pseudo-sequel to Link to the Past. Though still a bit gimmicky—its main mechanic involves literally flattening Link against a wall and making him 2D—its non-linear dungeons and many nods to the original are a real treat for fans of the original. I may have even teared up a little at the ending. It tends to be overlooked a bit these days, but it's one of my absolute favorites.
Should You Play It: Hell yes. A Link Between Worlds is an essential purchase if you own a 3DS. Buy it immediately.
Where to Find It: You can get it here. It's also readily available in the 3DS eShop if you have the memory space.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes
2015 | Nintendo 3DS
Hey! A follow-up of sorts to Four Swords Adventures! Oh, it's not that good. D'oh.
MetaScore: 73. Ouch.
Should You Play It: Nope!
Where to Find It: Find it on Amazon and the 3DS eShop.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
2017 | Wii U, Switch
And here we are. Breath of the Wild is all the rage right now for the way that it largely dispenses with Zelda's tried and true formula in favor of a more open-world approach. It works brilliantly. Chances are you're even playing it right now! The thing I like most about Breath of the Wild that it respects your intelligence as a player, gently guiding you through its world without being pushy. Framerate drops aside, it's also really beautiful. Whether you play it on the Wii U or Switch, make sure you experience Breath of the Wild for yourself.
Should You Play It: Um, yes. Should you play it first? Also yes. Really, you can't go wrong with this one.
Where to Find It: It's back in stock on Amazon, so go and grab it. You can also find it in the eShop.