For 36 years, Link has been traversing the fields and ruins of Hyrule in a seemingly never-ending quest to save Princess Zelda. His journey has spanned many consoles, redefining the franchise in many ways. From its humble beginnings on the NES to the groundbreaking 3D action-adventure in Ocarina of Time, we decided to take a look back at The Legend of Zelda’s impressive history in gaming, bringing you the very best mainline Zelda games, ranked.
10. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess gets an unfairly bad rap among Zelda fans. As the darker and edgier Zelda, it often receives unfavorable comparisons to Wind Waker, which has arguably held up better in comparison. But buried under all the cruft is a quality Zelda adventure, with a large world to explore, many enjoyable sidequests, and some great dungeons, the Snowpeak Ruins being a highlight. But the strongest element of Twilight Princess by far is Midna, a snarky imp who rides around on Wolf Link’s back and basically trolls him for the duration of the game.
She’s a far more appealing companion than the pestering Navi, her story tying firmly into Twilight Princess’ world and lore. She gives Twilight Princess a style all its own — a style that deserves more respect than it’s been given over the years. It’s not quite enough to push it into the upper level of Zelda releases — the bloat in this game is extreme — but it’s still a quality entry with a lot to offer the Zelda mythos. — Kat Bailey
9. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
Mainline Pokemon entries always come in pairs, and Zelda followed their lead with The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Season and Oracle of Ages. Unlike Pokemon, however, the pair had significant differences, and both were required to see the true ending of the ultimate story. These Capcom and Flagship-created games also varied from each other in that Seasons was more focused on combat, while Ages put greater emphasis on the puzzles.
Each game also had a unique mechanic that assisted you in solving puzzles: Seasons let Link use the Rod of Seasons to change the… well… season to accomplish such tasks as making it winter to freeze a lake that would have been impossible to cross in the summer. Ages, on the other hand, let you utilize the Harp of Ages to travel through time and enter a cave in the past that would have been inaccessible in modern time, for example. Despite it costing double to see this story to its end, it was a joy to explore both Seasons’ Holodrum and Ages’ Labrynna and learn all the secrets these lands held. — Adam Bankhurst
8. The Legend of Zelda
The original Legend of Zelda stands as a testament to the power and allure of sprawling, vast video game worlds. It was ambitious enough to throw you right into the middle of a world infested by monsters without so much as a weapon to defend yourself, confident that the thrill of free-roaming exploration would lead players to investigate, experiment, and find their own way.
The Legend of Zelda cast aside linear paths and storytelling in favor an open-ended exploration that continues to be iterated on to this day, and crammed its world full of dungeons and secrets that endeared itself to encouraging players into sharing tips and revelations with their friends at school. Even now, it stands the test of time as one of the best examples of giving players the freedom to find their own path, learn from mistakes, and slowly master a strange new world. — Brendan Graeber
7. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
A Link Between Worlds was a pleasant surprise when it first released on Nintendo 3DS in 2013. Initially dismissed as a pale copy of A Link to the Past, fans were surprised and delighted by its non-linear progression and high-quality dungeon design. Far from a mere knockoff, A Link Between Worlds turned out to be one of the tightest, most enjoyable Zelda experience in years. Because it’s a portable entry, A Link Between Worlds tends to be overlooked when discussing the top Zelda games, which is a shame.
While it’s in some ways a tribute to A Link to the Past, featuring many of the beats of the original, it also stands up rather well on its own. The ability to tackle dungeons in any order hints at the direction Breath of the Wild would take a few years later, and its story is surprisingly emotional, with a wonderful reveal at the end that will delight fans. As a tribute to classic Zelda, A Link Between Worlds is a wonderful treat. — Kat Bailey
6. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening crafts one of the more unique stories in the Legend of Zelda Franchise. The world, characters, and story venture off the beaten path and succeed without relying on locations or characters like Zelda and Ganon that are typically expected to appear.
We’ve seen three iterations of Link’s Awakening, and each one’s additions to the formula have made this entry on the list even better. The DX version included an additional dungeon and filled the world with vivid colors. The 2019 remake advanced it further with an updated art style for its characters, world, and overall visuals that energized the heartfelt moments throughout Link’s journey like never before. New additions like “The Chamber Dungeon” added replayability, allowing us to create and explore custom dungeons and share them with our friends.
Link’s Awakening is a testament to the franchise with its dungeons, puzzles, and music which became the foundation for many of the future Zelda games. It is one of the simpler games in the franchise, but the mastery of the gameplay loop and core elements of what it means to be a traditional Zelda game is what makes it special for Legend of Zelda fans. — Jada Griffin
5. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Time has been kind to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Though some fans greeted its cartoon-y, cel-shaded style with ire after the promise of more mature takes on the franchise, The Wind Waker’s vibrant, colorful world is now more widely accepted for how beautiful and unique its take on Hyrule is. Yes, there’s a lot of ocean to sail around, and even with the improvements made in The Wind Waker’s Wii U re-release, sailing around on extended hunts can weigh the experience down. But the sailing, when it often works, is a zenlike, freeing experience that nailed the sense and feel of open adventure that Zelda has perfected so frequently throughout the franchise.
Exploring new shores and not quite knowing what to expect from each new island, whether it be some great dungeons, intriguing civilizations, or something else entirely, Wind Waker captures that sense of thrilling mystery with each new chapter, introducing a surprisingly dark and fascinating story that ranks among the best actual tales told throughout the series. Add to it some familiar but solid combat, that makes each hit impactful, a cast of endearing familiar and new characters, and, as ever, a moving score, and The Wind Waker not only nails the Zelda staples it needs to, but charts new territory in one of the series’ most memorable adventures. – Jonathon Dornbush
4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Majora’s Mask is most recognizable for adding a divisive three-day time limit that you either loved or hated. It’s intrinsic to the core gameplay loop, permeating through the world, NPC behavior, and side quests. Incentivizing us to optimize and prioritize our time management to get as much done in each three-day cycle before needing to play the Song of Time and restart once again.
Many of the characters and items in Majora’s Mask were reused but reworked and amplified to make them more compelling and influential than their previous appearances. Masks and other items were enhanced and placed into the forefront as centerpieces to how the story would unfold. People in the world became integral to advancing elements of the story and its subplots. Time itself and your trusty ocarina became a necessary tool leading to the destruction of Link and all the inhabitants of Termina if managed poorly.
Majora’s Mask remains one of the most somber entries in the franchise and often deals with heavier themes such as abandonment, trauma, and death which sets it apart from other entries in the franchise. While we may not have all loved the time limit and darker tones it pushed the franchise forward and gave us a new perspective on the adventures of our Hero of Time.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time tops our list of best Nintendo 64 games ever made, so it’s testimony to the overall quality of Nintendo’s Zelda games that it “only” came in at number 3 here. When it launched in 1998, Ocarina of Time instantly defined what 3D adventure games would be like for decades to come. From the lock-on camera that made switching between exploration and one-on-one combat a cinch, its innovative 3D puzzles, to the way series staples like the hookshot and bow and arrow are implemented, Ocarina of Time is rightfully remembered as the best game of its era.
Nintendo 64 games haven’t always aged gracefully given the hardware limitations of its day, but Ocarina of Time remains incredibly playable and engrossing to this day. And whether you’re talking about the original classic or its tweaked and improved 3DS remake, Ocarina of Time will always remain the definitive Zelda experience to date for many fans. It took everything that worked in A Link to the Past and near flawlessly translated it to a three-dimensional realm. Which brings us to the game that narrowly beat out Ocarina of Time for our panel of Zelda rankers… — Peer Schneider
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Building off the vast top-down world of The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule, A Link to the Past refined the scope by trading in a free-form adventure for an engaging storyline, a dense and populated world, and the grand reveal of an equally sprawling mirror dimension that was The Dark World. It’s a masterclass in adventuring game design, with an impeccably paced grand story, and a huge variety of puzzle-filled dungeons lorded over by some of the most imposing bosses in the series.
With a rip-roaring soundtrack and beautiful sprite graphics, A Link to the Past was the perfect package to immerse yourself in the land of Hyrule – featuring tons of quirky characters to help out, as well as secrets and heart pieces hiding in almost every screen. Each new item gained on your adventure practically begged to be experimented with to find new applications in delving through it’s expertly crafted dungeons or uncovering new areas on the overworld map. Even all these years later, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more quintessential Zelda experience. — Brendan Graeber
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reinvented a 30-year-old series in a way we rarely see. After Skyward Sword offered a slightly more linear, story-driven campaign than most fans were used to, Breath of the Wild readjusted dramatically in the opposite direction. Suddenly you could go anywhere and climb anything in any order you wanted, and goodness gracious was there a whole lot to choose from.
There are plenty of fair criticisms to throw at Breath of the Wild, with common ones being around its lack of Zelda’s traditional dungeons and items. But what’s truly impressive is how much it maintained the heart of a Zelda game even as it altered nearly every system around it. To a certain extent, Zelda has always been about exploration and choice, and Breath of the Wild simply leaned into and enabled those aspects of itself above all else, now making the world a place that would react to those choices as well. There’s just so much to see, so many people to meet and secrets to find hidden throughout this long-since devastated version of Hyrule.
But while the options available to you are enormous in scale, there’s a subtle restraint at play here as well, with Nintendo refraining from cramming your mini-map full of markers and waypoints like so many other games do. Indeed, Breath of the Wild didn’t just reinvent Zelda in this way, it shook up the entire open-world adventure genre by empowering you to make your own moments rather than giving you an exhaustive checklist to methodically go down. No one is telling you to climb that one particular hill in the distance, but if you want to do so you better believe a Korok will be waiting there to reward you for the effort.
There’s always been a bit of a distinction between 2D and 3D Zelda games, but Breath of the Wild and its successors may end up defining a third category for the series going forward. Whether or not you prefer the more structured nature of the mainline games before it, the impact Breath of the Wild has had on both Zelda itself and the industry as a whole is undeniable – and the endless slew of magical, natural discoveries it provides make it easy to see why. — Tom Marks
And there you have it! Our picks for the top 10 Zelda Games. With Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 set to release sometime next year, we’re sure to be blown away and inspired by Link’s continued adventures in Hyrule. With 36 years under his shield, the young adventurer shows no signs of aging out of existence. Now let us know which of these Zelda titles stuck out the most to you, and which one was your entry point into the vast world of Legend of Zelda? We’d love to know. And for more on gaming, keep watching IGN.
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Author: Adam Bankhurst