The release of the excellent The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS means there’s no better excuse to take a look back at some of the best games in the series.
It is somewhat fitting that, surrounded by the furore of the next gen console releases, the latest entry in the Zelda series should prove that graphics really are secondary compared to quality gameplay. When all the talk has been of frames per second, 1080p vs 720p and cross-gen upgrades, a game with graphics only marginally better than its 1991 predecessor, A Link To The Past, shows that none of that really matters if the game itself is of a high standard.
Although everyone will have their own opinions on which they prefer and why, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a poor Zelda game. Personal favourites can often be swayed by nostalgia or the fact it happened to be the first one in the series you played, but there is no definitive formula to rank them objectively side by side. Of course, that won’t stop me from trying. What follows is my own (un)official top ten Zelda games of all time.
10. Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007)
Returning to the cel-shaded graphics and ocean travel from The Wind Waker, the first Zelda on the DS also replaced the traditional buttons with touchscreen controls. Being attractive and instantly accessible for a more casual audience, then, made it all the more jarring to find a few frustrating gameplay elements introduced. With arbitrary stealth sections, time limits and invincible enemies, the constant return to the central temple to clear the same puzzles felt like an unnecessary grind.
9. Twilight Princess (Gamecube/Wii, 2006)
The darker, less stylised look was a direct reaction to divisive opinions on cel-shading, but unfortunately the lack of imagination in the graphics also filtered through to some of the level design. Attempting to recapture the success of Ocarina Of Time in everything from the dungeon structure to the horse riding, Twilight Princess often felt like Zelda by numbers. However, if the worst you can say about it is that the game is formulaic in such a great series, then it’s not doing too badly at all.
8. The Wind Waker / HD (Gamecube/Wii U, 2002)
A fan favourite boasting some of the most gorgeous and vibrant looking visuals ever seen, particularly in the Wii U HD remake released in 2013. The Wind Waker also features some of the series’ most endearing characters and fun side-quests, which is just as well seeing as there are only four main dungeons. Due to a rushed release, that unfinished feeling extends to the tedious Triforce treasure hunt (partly rectified in the remake) and having to repeat all the bosses in order at the end of the game – both clearly acting as extra padding for those missing dungeons. Nintendo later admitted that the dungeon designs were reused in subsequent Zelda games, and therefore couldn’t be included in The Wind Waker HD.
7. Four Swords Adventures (Gamecube/GBA, 2004)
One of the few games to utilise the full potential of the Gamecube to GBA link-up, Four Swords Adventures is similar to the original Four Swords released two years earlier, only without the randomly generated dungeons. It’s still ideally a four player experience, though, so to get the most out of it you need a Gamecube, three friends and four GBAs with link cables. This makes it about as easy to recreate as a SodaStream party in Czechoslovakia, but if you manage to get everything together, you’ll likely have one of the best multiplayer experiences there is to have. With the much lauded multiplayer in this year’s Super Mario 3D World, one can’t help but feel that a similar approach to Four Swords in a new Wii U Zelda, using the gamepad and 3DS, wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
6. Majora’s Mask (N64, 2000)
Perhaps the most overlooked of all the Zeldas, certainly in terms of its influence on later iterations, Majora’s Mask is also one of the most distinct. Like The Wind Waker it suffers a little from a lack of traditional dungeons, but rather than dishing out a few more repetitive chores, the game instead remains focused on its unique concepts of identity and time. Indeed, the wearing of masks to fulfil different roles and the game’s perpetual three day cycle both added to the unique structure and the darkly disturbing plot. Overseen by a giant grinning moon awaiting the end of the world, Majora’s Mask‘s mechanics and atmosphere are still unlike anything else in the series.
5. Link’s Awakening / DX (Game Boy/GB Color, 1993)
Following A Link To The Past was always going to be difficult, but thanks to the tightly designed dungeons, genuinely worthwhile side-quests and a different take on the story of Hyrule, Link’s Awakening did an admirable job. In fact, that such a mountain of content was crammed into a Game Boy cartridge, and then a graphical update and an extra dungeon in the later DX version, was a minor miracle in itself.
4. A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013)
Eiji Aonuma, the man who will continue to guide the evolution of the Zelda series, was recently quoted as saying he was ‘getting tired’ of the traditional formula, yet still strives to make ‘something so distinctly Zelda that it can only be done in a Zelda game’. A Link Between Worlds certainly shakes up the formula with a more open-ended approach, allowing players to attempt any dungeon and gain access to most of the items right from the off. It’s also quintessentially Zelda with familiarly themed locations and a rehashing of characters and plot. The fact that this sequel to A Link To The Past reuses an almost identical map layout and graphical style, however, does very little to detract from the multitude of masterful dungeon designs. The central gimmick of turning into a flat 2D painting to traverse the environment is equally ingenious, and the experience is only marginally let down by some underwhelming boss battles.
3. Skyward Sword (Wii, 2011)
Released near the end of the Wii’s natural lifespan, it’s a real shame that Skyward Sword was perhaps the only non-party game to make full use of the system’s motion controls. Rather than acting merely as an unreliable gimmick, the movement of the Wii remote translates to Link’s on-screen swordplay so accurately it makes combat in anything else seem intangible by comparison. Whether you felt comfortable playing this way or not, Skyward Sword also used the ability to angle your sword for some clever puzzles that would be nigh on impossible to reproduce in any other way. However, the colourful visuals were an odd mix of retro and realistic, and the open sections never quite matched the joy and ambition of the dungeons themselves. Even so, it’s a pity more people didn’t get to experience what is as much a revelatory control scheme as it is a masterclass in level design.
2. A Link To The Past (SNES/GBA, 1991)
Not only did A Link To The Past establish the classic Zelda formula, but it also heavily influenced a generation of top-down adventures from Chrono Trigger to Secret of Mana. The game’s varied locations and truly inspired Light/Dark World twist now appear rather clichéd, but that’s only because they’ve been copied ad infinitum by much lesser titles. Pioneering vision aside, both the overworld’s and dungeons’ fiendish puzzles have rarely been bettered, and it’s a testament to their design that the game still stands up as well as ever.
1. Ocarina Of Time / 3D (N64/GameCube/3DS, 1998)
If A Link To The Past defined an entire genre of 2D adventures, then Ocarina Of Time has surely had a say in just about every 3D action/adventure since its original release in 1998. From the unobtrusive camera to the lock-on combat, every element, no matter how seemingly obscure, felt revolutionary. No gamer will ever forget the first time they stepped out onto Hyrule Field and experienced a true 3D open world. Likewise, as the 3DS re-release attests, the story still hasn’t lost the ability to blow your mind, not once but twice, in what culminates as one of the smartest endings in all of gaming. All this and not even to mention some of the most challenging dungeons, charming characters, and of course riding Epona. The fact that the game’s time shifting mechanic ends up tying together the whole series’ history is extremely apt for what, for me, is quite simply the best Zelda ever made and arguably the best video game of all time.