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At this point, it's no secret to anybody. The Legend of Zelda series is undoubtedly my favorite gaming franchise of all time. With a perfect blend of action, adventure, puzzle-solving, and RPG elements, the games are truly unique and have spawned countless imitators, none of which have been able to capture the magic of Zelda. Every title has found a perfect formula for creating a well thought out world that expertly draws out the adventurous child in every one of its players. Like many of you, I grew up playing the heck out of almost every Zelda title. Now it is time to go down memory lane and see which games in the series deserves to be called the greatest. This is a subjective list, so I cannot please everyone. This was an EXTREMELY hard list to create. Also, A Link Between Worlds will not be on this list.
The Adventure of Link
One of the most common criticisms of the Zelda series is that every game in the franchise is the same because they all follow the same tired formula. This is my response to those people: "They did try a different formula once. It was a bold new direction that changed everything you thought you knew about Zelda. And it was only the second game in the series. You know what? Everyone hated it."
Alright, not everyone hates Zelda II, but it's become universally known as the black sheep of the Zelda family, and that reputation isn't undeserved. The game strayed so far from the original Zelda formula that it is almost unrecognizable. With the side-scrolling dungeons, random overworld map encounters, a large number of castable spells, and a near impossible difficulty, Zelda II really stands out from the series. However, it is these qualities that really attract me to this game. For this reason, I've found myself coming back to this title again and again ever since I first grabbed it back on the NES.
Both releasing at the same time and having nearly identical names, Ages and Seasons are meant to be two games that form a single experience. The Oracle games were developed by Capcom, which was a big deal because they were the first Zelda games developed by an outside company that didn't totally suck. In fact, they were actually pretty good. Each game had a unique focus, with Seasons paying more attention to combat and Ages being more puzzle-oriented. This made sense in theory, since the series has always been renowned for its perfect mixture of combat and puzzles, but when playing these games individually, that perfect mixture is missing and the overall experience suffers for it. However, despite the flaws in balance, these titles still manage to offer something new and fresh to the series. Dungeons were well- design, items were better than ever, and the bosses that were 'copied' from the original Legend of Zelda were actually better than their counterpart. The amount of exploration and great puzzles stuffed into these two simple Game Boy cartridges was just surreal. The Oracle games really are stellar pieces or work.
One of the weirder entries in the series, and one of the best: Link's Awakening stranded Link on an island to wake up a psychic whale that was creating the entire island in its dream. There's no princess to save, no threat of Ganon in sight, no Hyrule to explore. Instead, Link is tasked with finding eight magical instruments to wake this mystical being known as the Wind Fish. Admittedly, the stakes aren't that high, but that's a part of the game's appeal; the laid back approach makes the game all the more endearing. But what really makes this game unique is its off-beat tone. Zelda games can get pretty weird, but Link's Awakening might just take the cake; featuring cameos from Mario and Chain-Chomp, bizarre talking bosses, and a mischievous raccoon that needs to be knocked out with sleeping powder. Is it silly? Most definitely, but in a series that often takes itself a bit too seriously, it's refreshing to find a game so willing to turn and face the strange. In terms of gameplay, Link's Awakening offers very little over past titles outside of its talent for side-scrolling elements courtesy of Roc's Feather. But that doesn't matter. With and interesting, yet strange story, lovable cast of characters, and masterful dungeons, this title is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable Zelda games I've played.
if there's one thing I've discovered while doing research for this list, it's that Zelda fans hate an awful lot of Zelda games. Whether Ocarina of Time is being called unbearably overrated, or Twilight Princess is being dubbed the worst thing since Hitler, it seems like no game in this series is safe from scorn. No game except The Minish Cap. I've never come across anyone who seriously hates this game; and that's reasonable. Developed by Capcom for the Game Boy Advance, The Minish Cap is one of the most immediately charming games in the franchise. When Zelda is turned to stone by the evil magician Vaati, it's up to Link and Ezlo, the titular talking hat, to re-forge the Picori Blade and rescue princess. To do so, our heroes must use magical stumps around Hyrule to shrink in size and explore the microscopic land of the Minish.The "Normal World / Other World" trope has been a staple of Zelda games since A Link to the Past, but Minish Cap makes it feel fresh and organic, and collecting kinstones is easily one of the most addictive sidequests in the series to date. It's a shame this irresistible game is so unappreciated, always being overshadowed by its more famous (and infamous) siblings, but somehow, that only strengthens its appeal. With clever puzzles that use the ability of the Minish and some great exploration, this is definitely a hidden gem of the Zelda series.
One of the most recent Zelda games was met with a lot of criticism - as well as a lot of acclaim. It's not too surprising, considering this game came out in celebration of the Zelda series' 25th anniversary - after 25 years of some of the most consistently incredible and genre-defining adventure games, every game's expected to be somewhat like the last. 25 years is a long time for Nintendo to be pumping out games of this quality on a regular basis, which is an impressive feat in and of itself.
Its console predecessor, Twilight Princess, was developed for the GameCube, but then Nintendo decided they should also port it over to the Wii. The results were definitely mixed; the Wii's motion controls were great for aiming projectiles weapons, but sword combat was pretty weak. To swing Link's blade, the player had to awkwardly wiggle the Wii-mote and hope that no one walked in the room to see it. Needless to say, the Gamecube original is the preferred version. Many fans were understandably skeptical when another Wii Zelda adventure was announced. Even when Nintendo told us there would be accurate 1:1 motion controls for swordplay, we still had our doubts, but the finished product is arguably the finest example of video game motion controls, featuring sword combat that actually required strategy and precision. Of course, there were occasional hiccups, and using that harp was a pain in the ass, but my experiences with the game's motion controls were quite positive. Technical innovations aside, the game itself was pretty damn good. The classic formula is still there, but there are a few tweaks that made it seem fresh. With an interesting origin story, likeable characters, a beautiful orchestrated soundtrack, a very interesting villain, and visuals that harken back to The Wind Waker, Skyward Sword was definitely a masterpiece in its own right. Of course, that's not to say it didn't have flaws. Even though it wasn't even close to the level of Navi, the companion you brought along on your journey, Fi, was quite annoying, giving you repetitive information and treating the player like a mere child. The game was also was very linear, and it barely ever gave that sense of exploration like you get in the other titles. The dungeons were stellar, but the bosses were sort of hit or miss. Basically, Skyward Sword is a mixed package with many upbrings, as well as many faults.
Before I discuss the quality of the game itself, allow me to brief you a little on the history of Twilight Princess, perhaps the most reviled entry in this beloved series. Nintendo had received a lot of negative feedback for the unorthodox approach they took with The Wind Waker. Sure it was critically acclaimed and had plenty of fans, but there were many who were vocally displeased with its "kiddie" art-style, its short playtime, all the sailing, etc. Nintendo answered these complaints with Twilight Princess. When Twilight Princess was announced, the Wind Waker haters jumped for joy because it appeared to be more in line with the Nintendo 64 Zelda games. Upon its release, the game seemed destined to become a classic, with many critics calling it the best Zelda ever. Traditionalists were especially happy that it was nothing like Wind Waker. It had a "dark and realistic" tone, it was lengthy, and it had absolutely no sailing whatsoever.
So, what the hell happened? Fast forward to 2014 and everything has been reversed. Wind Waker is now universally adored, and poor Twilight Princess, once praised for being the second coming of Ocarina of Time, is now panned for... being the second coming of Ocarina of Time. Without question, Twilight Princess is most derivative entry in a franchise that is regularly criticised for being derivative. It tries so desperately to be Zelda-esque that it fails to bring anything new to table. Not only that, but its "dark and realistic" tone hasn't aged nearly as well as Wind Waker's lighthearted, cartoonish whimsy. I felt the game was being dark just for the sake of being dark, figuratively and literally. Literally because I couldn't see what was going on on the screen half the time. And sure, it's a long game, but so many of its hours are unnecessary padding that could have been trimmed to make a more concise experience.
Now, it may be an overblown, overly-serious, overly-nostalgic game, but it certainly doesn't deserve the amount of hate it gets. Too many seem to forget the things this game did exceptionally well. Even better than Ocarina of Time ever could. The level designs, especially the dungeons, were extraordinary, even when they were obviously ripping off Ocarina of Time. The bosses felt even more "epic" than ever, and the gameplay was fantastic and overall, smooth. (Well... The Gamecube version, anyway...) There was also a memorable cast featuring two of the series' best characters with Midna and Zant, the former being Link's most well-rounded sidekick and the latter being an antagonist that was as frightening as he was sympathetic. So while it may not be the best Zelda title ever, as some initially claimed, it's far from bad, as some claim now.
Ocarina of Time
There's no turning back now. I don't have much time left. GameInformer knows that I've placed Ocarina of Time in a position that isn't number 1. By the time you read this, I'll probably be crucified. Any justification for this unforgivable sin will most definitely fall on the deafest ears, but I'm still going to try to explain myself.
Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite games ever. It's the game that single-handedly redefined Zelda and was one of the first games to make the transition to the 3rd dimension, which led it to be well-regarded and highly-praised. Where as a lot of games couldn't make the transition from 2D to 3D work at all (lookin' at you, Castlevania), Zelda found a way to actually excel with Ocarina of Time. It feels a little pointless to rehash any of the details of the plot or gameplay, since everyone is so familiar with it, but let's do it anyway: the game doubled-down on cinematic sequences to great results, Z-targeting became a huge factor in making the game work and was copied by countless other games, and added some things that changed the Zelda series completely (including introducing Epona and time travel to the series). And even though in a lot of ways it copied the framework of A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time was the perfect combination of gameplay, design, and everything else that makes this game a masterpiece. It's the little things, though, that compel me to place three other titles before this inspiring piece of work.
Link to the Past
I'm a strong believer that videogames are art; the detail and creativity that go into their creation should be enough to convince naysayers. However, the one problem games face is that they age more rapidly than any other art form. The industry is constantly evolving, and games that are mind-blowing one year become archaic the next, but there are a handful of games out there that have not only passed the test of time; they've set the curve impossibly high for their inferior classmates. A Link to the Past is one of those games.
More than two decades after its release, ALttP is still one of the more superior titles I will ever experience. Like many games of the SNES era, its visuals and gameplay hold up amazingly well. While it may no longer be state-of-the-art, it has a retro charm that only gets stronger with each passing year. A Link to the Past (besides it having the punniest title of all Zelda games), is that this is the game that set the standard and the framework that pretty much every Zelda game afterwards would follow. Before A Link to the Past, there were two Zelda games: the original and Zelda II: Link's Adventure. The original is incredibly bare-bones filled with nostalgia, and Link's Adventure is such a weird entry that it's almost been discarded from Zelda canon. But A Link to the Past changed things. For one, it added a lot of atmosphere that previous Zelda games really didn't have - the story opens on a stormy night in Hyrule, when a psychic plea for help rings out. Link's uncle rushes to the rescue, when Link wakes up and decides to follow along. He finds his uncle, dying, in the dungeons of Hyrule Castle, is handed a sword and shield, and then is sent on a quest to save the princess and rid the world of evil.
If you're new to the series, I can't think of a better place to start than here. Every subsequent Zelda title owes its existence to this legendary title. This is where the classic "Zelda formula" was conceived, and Nintendo has yet to stray too far from it. And why should they? Why mess with perfection?
For a game that's rated E for everyone, Majora's Mask is a hell of a lot more mature than most M-rated games out there. Few games before it, if any, were as thematically complex or emotionally resonant. Link's surreal adventure through the strange land of Termina was packed with melancholy and heartbreak, to say the least. The villain wasn't some megalomaniac seeking world domination; he was a lonely, deformed child, corrupted by evil when he felt abandoned. The menacing moon descending on Clock Town provided a constant sense of doom, reminding players of their own mortality, and that no matter how hard you try, not everyone can be saved. If I were to base my rankings solely on storytelling sophistication, Majora's Mask would most definitely come out on top.
I've never had a game cause me to panic more than when the clock in Majora's Mask announces "The Dawn of a New Day" followed by how long everyone in Termina has left to live. The concept of it all is so surreal. This goes for the game's iconic songs as well. Each one, specifically the Song of Healing, seem to hit a chord with specific emotions. As you get to know and assist all of the townsfolk in the bustling and unique Clock Town, it tends to be saddening when you know they might be wiped from existence by what is practically the apocalypse. While I know many people have complained time and again about how they despise the three-day countdown or the fact that you have to reset time to save, I have never had any issues with either of these. They seem to be implemented this way to increase the amount of anxiety the countdown is causing you, which is what the game wants. It's interesting and provides some powerful moments in the narrative, and the only real problem I have with it is that if you screw up or take too long complete a task, you have to relive the whole cycle.
The mask gimmick this title holds improves the gameplay experience infinitely. The masks all have unique abilities, ranging from transforming Link into an all-powerful warrior God, to blowing up Link's face. Each one alters the way the game plays, providing enough variety to ensure the player never gets easily bored. The game has a total of four unique dungeons, which can come as a turn- off for some, but the sidequests and fantastic amounts of exploration does make- up for it.
Without a doubt, Majora's Mask is a definitive masterpiece of the Zelda series, a true cult classic. It may not have the most replay value, but honestly, one play-through is all you need for it to stay with you forever. Don't meet with a terrible fate and miss out on this truly wonderful game.
And Number 1...
The Wind Waker
What can I possibly say? No title in the Zelda franchise can rightfully take this spot other than this.
Wind Waker is the game that manages to recaptures the classic Zelda spirit of exploration, dropping players on a massive overworld with a seemingly endless adventure and a lovable cast of characters. It's arguably the most beautiful and charismatic game in the series. Its characters, worlds and animations bulge with humour and vitality. Considered to be a modern classic, The Wind Waker is a beautiful game even by today's standards. The vibrant and colorful cartoony look gave the title a personality that really made gamers such as I fall in love with it. From the emotions present on Link's face throughout the course of the game to the lovely, endless blue oceans, there is no other art style that could've fit this game. Wind Waker follows the magnificent story of a young, carefree ( and sort of lazy) incarnation of the Legendary Hero. After a malevolent intruder invades the peaceful island he resides on and abducts his own sister of all things, the poor boy uses his prophetic skills and risks his life to save all that's dear to him. This idea about saving the land from the great King of Evil has been a tradition of the series ever since day 1. The way that it's done in The Wind Waker is utterly brilliant. Paving the way for Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, this is the first Zelda game that made your driving efforts much more of a personal matter. You're not just saving random people you know nothing about. You're out there risking your life for your own family, fighting off gargantuan enemies just to bring your little sister home back to grandma. Not only is this motivation more relatable, it's also insanely effective. It may not be the only Zelda game to use this set- up, but it was the first and undeniably the most heart warming. If there was one corrispondent detail everyone plays the Zelda series for, it would have to be the exspansive adventure you feel while playing it. By all definition of what makes an adventure game what it is, THIS is an adventure game to the core. Everything about Wind Waker is vast. While most overworlds in Zelda have me retracing my steps, in this game, that's not really an option, when Hyrule is plunged under an entire ocean. The Great Sea in particualar is one of Wind Waker's most defining elements. For starters, it's huge. No other Zelda world before in the series has matched up to the sheer scale and undertaking of the Great Sea. Twilight Princess came close in size, but nowhere near the amount of things you can explore. The hours of adventure and seething atmosphere has never been as strong as they are in this game.
There is one specific detail about Wind Waker that I truly admire. It's how well they handle the hero. More so than any other Zelda game, Wind Waker's take of the traditional story formula of a boy becoming the Legendary Hero has never been executed so perfectly. Unlike most of the other titles where Link is either an adult to begin with or grows up into one, the one from Wind Waker remains a young child throughout the course of the whole game. A innocent, fun- loving island boy. Starting out, the boy is bombarded with talk of possibly being the Hero of Legends, yet still focusing on matters that are personally important to him, like saving his little sister. He's rendered helpless in the presence of Ganon on multiple ocassions, and is often set- back due to him being only a kid. Yet, as the plot unfolds, he works to obtain his power, his sword, and his role as a legend. He matures as a combatant and as a hero while still remaining the kindhearted he is in heart. This only proves that heroism and rightousness knows no age. In nearly every other titles, Link is merely pushed along for reasons only beneficial to those he set out to save. He usually doesn't have any sort of development during the course of the game. I've never felt so connected to Link before as I do in Wind Waker, and it leaves me with a powerful sense of triumph whenever I finish a playthrough.
Wind Waker can be credited for having much vaster dungeons and more puzzles to solve. Some of the dungeons could be as big as worlds themselves. The bosses are fantastic too, with a standout being the Helmrock King, Molgera, and the final battle with Ganon. It also makes creative and inventive uses with familiar items from the past, as well as some new weapons. And the music... Sweet soaring Lorde. Is it damn good. If the unique theme of Dragon Roost Island doesn't get you, then the captivating ending credits theme surely will.
Every single virtue that the Zelda series harbors is all right here. In a little compact disc. Wind Waker has everything I cherish about Zelda, and much, much more. A masterpiece at its finest.
What's your favorite Zelda game of all time? Comment below and thanks for reading!