The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most recognizable franchises, alongside Super Mario, Metroid, Star Fox, and Kirby. It’s a franchise that’s been going strong for over 35 years and has 27 games to show for it. If you’re new to the series, it can be a little intimidating on where to start, especially when you consider how wonky the timeline is. So I’ve narrowed down a list of the 10 most essential Zelda games and ranked them to the best of my ability!
While I’m mostly covering the main series of games, and primarily those released on Nintendo’s home consoles, I would first like to give a quick shoutout to a few honorable mentions: The “Hyrule Warrior” games (Wii U / DS, Switch), The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance), Four Swords (Game Cube), Phantom Hourglass (DS), A Link Between Worlds (3DS), The Oracle of Ages/Seasons (Game Boy Color), and last but definitely not least: Link’s Crossbow (Wii)!
10. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES) -1987
“I am Error…”
While this one is widely regarded as one of the worst entries in the series by many a frustrated gamer of the NES era, I think it absolutely deserves a spot on this list. It’s easily one of the toughest, most unforgiving games in the franchise, and to date, it’s notably the only 2D side-scrolling adventure in the Legend of Zelda series.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link picks up years after the first game with Princess Zelda being trapped in a sleeping spell by Ganon’s minions who are attempting to resurrect their dark master. Link (all grown up now) must travel across Hyrule once again to save the kingdom, this time by collecting magical orbs from several palaces, and ultimately ends with Link coming face to dace against Dark Link! Throughout this game you’ve got random side quests for townsfolk, several magic upgrades, a levelling system, mazes, and some extremely tough boss fights, including an encounter with the dragon, Volvagia!
It might not be my favorite Zelda game, but “The Adventure of Link” is at least worth checking out. If nothing else, you should at least listen to Season 1 of the Super Switch Club Podcast where I described it as an “8-bit Dark Souls”…
9. Twilight Princess (GC/Wii) – 2006
“Shadow and Light are two sides of the same coin…One cannot exist without the other.” – Princess Zelda
Twilight Princess is a solid entry in the Legend of Zelda series. The game was a spiritual successor to the 64-era Zelda games (Ocarina and Majora), going with a more “realistic” and darker art style after the notably “cartoony” and colorful “Wind Waker”.
Set 100 years after “Ocarina of Time”, the game is centered around a conflict between Hyrule and an alternate dimension called the Twilight Realm, which had been corrupted by an evil sorcerer called “Zant”. Link, the hero reborn, must join forces with Midna, a twilight being, and must transform into a wolf to traverse the two worlds, eventually coming face to face with the evil Ganondorf who was sealed away in the Twilight Realm by the sages.
While it’s certainly not my favorite Zelda game, it does have a lot going for it. The graphics for the time were a pretty big step up from Ocarina and the map was far bigger than anything we were used to from those earlier games, some of the locales felt really fleshed out, and a lot of the scenery was gorgeous. (I also highly recommend the spin-off game, “Link’s Crossbow”, also for the Nintendo Wii, which utilizes a lot of the same locations, enemies and assets.)
One of the drawbacks to this one was that there were a lot of temples to get through, each of which were extremely long and grueling, and some of the puzzles were maddening (but a good challenge is better than none at all). This wasn’t a game you could just put down for months and pick up, so I remember being very frustrated trying to retrace my steps every few months, especially since I was super busy in college when this came out.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the wolf mechanic / gimmick, personally. Still, I enjoyed the Ocarina / Majora connections and the overall story was good. If nothing else, Twilight Princess built up more of the mythology around the ‘history’ of Hyrule.
8. Skyward Sword (Wii/Switch) – 2011
“Though this is not the end. My hate… never perishes. It is born anew in a cycle with no end! I will rise again. Those like you… Those who share the blood of the goddess and the spirit of the hero… They are eternally bound to this curse!” – Demise
While I haven’t yet had a chance to play the recent release of the Skyward Sword remaster on the Nintendo Switch, I did buy the special collector’s edition for the Wii when it first came out, which came with both a really fancy gold Wii-mote, and a soundtrack! (Both of which I still have and cherish to this day.)
“Skyward Sword” is (so far) the earliest game in the Zelda ‘chronology’. Taking place centuries before “Ocarina of Time”, and is in fact about the origin of Hyrule itself! Being that this was a Wii title, it was actually a tie-in with the Wii Motion Plus (which for those who don’t remember was an adapter that made the motion controls way more accurate and was required for certain games). The motion controls were actually pretty inventive for the time, but I have to admit, I’m really happy Nintendo went back to classic controls for future systems (and ditched the AA batteries in exchange for charging ports).
While it’s one of the few Zelda (console) games that I haven’t beaten, I actually remember enjoying this one a lot when it first came out. The only reason I never beat it was because my late 20’s got really crazy and I ended up getting a Wii U and just haven’t had a lot of opportunities to look back since. There were a lot of new and intriguing aspects to this one: the flying and gliding mechanics, and for better or worse, this game introduced the stamina wheel. All that said, there’s a lot to love about this one: I loved the cut scenes, storyline, art style, characters, and music. I especially enjoyed how they handled Link and Princess Zelda and their relationship.
However, there were a few major drawbacks that made this one really difficult for me to return to. For one, the game’s companion this time around (the spirit of the sword itself) ended up being one of the most annoying guide characters in a game of all time. Mostly because you couldn’t easily skip dialogue in this game! I’m actually the kinda person who loves reading dialogue and lore in games, but when the game stops every five seconds to tell you how much a blue ruby is worth, coupled with the sometimes frustrating Wii Plus controls, it really starts to chip away at your enjoyment.
That said, I have heard that the new version fixes a lot of those issues, so I’m definitely looking forward to revisiting it soon!
7. The Legend of Zelda (NES) – 1986
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”
The one that started it all! Created by Shigeru Miyamoto (of Super Mario, Star Fox, and Donkey Kong fame), with some of the most recognizable music in gaming history, composed by Koji Kondo (who also worked on the classic Super Mario Bros themes), the original “Legend of Zelda” (for the Nintendo Entertainment System) first hit shelves in Japan back in 1986 and changed the world of gaming forever! Not only was this an awesome fantasy adventure game, it was also one of the first console games with a built-in save feature!
While it’s pretty straight forward by today’s standards, this wasn’t just the origin of the Zelda franchise and many of it’s time-honored tropes, it was also the genesis of open world video games, way before that became the norm. Unlike most of the games in the series, the original Zelda title was rather non-linear for the most part, if you were skilled enough, you could go straight to Ganon.
There’s so many iconic aspects to this one: the music, the dungeon layouts, the enemy designs, the boss fights, and some of the most memorable NPC dialogue this side of the NES. Despite it’s age, this game still holds up like crazy. “The Legend of Zelda” was successful enough to create 26 sequels and spin-offs over the last 35 years. There’s a reason that this is one of the few games I’ve re-purchased on nearly every Nintendo console I’ve ever owned.
6. Link’s Awakening (Gameboy/Switch) – 1993
“BUT, VERILY, IT BE THE NATURE OF DREAMS TO END! WHEN I DOST AWAKEN, KOHOLINT WILL BE GONE…”
“Link’s Awakening” is another classic Zelda game that recently got a remake on the Nintendo Switch, this time with a significant graphics upgrade from the black and white version for the Game Boy! This was actually the first Zelda game I ever played, and I specifically remember when the DX version was released for the Game Boy Color, it blew my mind that there was a whole new unlockable dungeon – in a game that I had played to death on my old clunky Game Boy.
This one felt like kind of a spin-off from “A Link to the Past” on the Super Nintendo, especially with the hints that it was all a dream and the fact that ‘Link to the Past’ opens with Link awakening… get it? It was also kind of a departure from the first three games which all took place in Hyrule with Link saving Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. Ganon, Hyrule, Zelda, and even the Triforce were nowhere to be found in “Link’s Awakening”, which really adds a lot to it and I kind of wish more Zelda games took a similar approach.
You come across a lot of strange characters and there’s a certain odd dream-like quality to it, which makes sense thematically, but it also just really adds to the overall mystique of it. Not to mention it also has a really clever fishing mini-game. It might not be the deepest or most complex Zelda game ever made, but this one has such an undeniable charm to it, even if that might be the nostalgia talking.
5. The Wind Waker (GC/Wii U) – 2002
“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death.” – Ganondorf
To me, “Wind Waker” is easily the most underrated Zelda game to date! First released for the Nintendo Game Cube, it was the first new console Zelda game since Majora’s Mask, so many fans were completely thrown by the totally different direction the art took with its cell shaded aesthetic, which was a notable departure from what they were going for with the earlier games.
To me, the coolest thing about “Wind Waker” is traversing the wide open seas of what was once Hyrule. There’s a real sense of swashbuckling adventure here that I haven’t really gotten from any other game since. It might not have been what we were used to, but in a way it felt more like a new and fresh interpretation on an old formula. While the game isn’t going for realism, the wind, water, and lighting effects alone are really impressive. Still shots of this game don’t really do it justice either, it feels like a vibrant painting brought to life. Add in an incredible score and it’s easy to see why so many of us got swept up by this one. It’s a breathtaking experience.
There’s a few twists and turns along the way too, but overall it’s a pretty great by the numbers Zelda adventure with plenty of puzzles, weird characters, and a cool sailing mechanic. It’s just a fun time. (If you’re a fan of this one and own a DS, check out the follow up game, “Phantom Hourglass” as well!)
4. Majora’s Mask (N64/3DS) – 2000
“You’ve been met by a terrible fate, haven’t you?”
“Majora’s Mask” was a direct follow up to “Ocarina of Time” on the Nintendo 64, but in a lot of ways actually feels more like a DLC expansion pack than a sequel, because it reuses a lot of the same assets from the first one, but remixes them in a really clever way.
Like “Link’s Awakening”, “Majora’s Mask” isn’t focused on the typical story of Link using the Triforce to stop Ganon and save Hyrule. Instead, this one has a young Link on a mission to save the doomed town of Terminus from a creepy moon crashing to Earth, because of a cursed mask created by a chaos deity.
This game supposedly takes place after the events of Ocarina of Time, where Link was sent back in time by Princess Zelda to live out his childhood after saving Hyrule from Ganondorf, but there’s a lot of not-so-subtle hints that the story is in fact much darker, that it’s about Link coming to terms with his own death in a strange limbo dimension and helping others find peace and move on from their own grief. (Check out Game Theory’s awesome breakdown of this theory here.) For further evidence of this, it’s worth pointing out that this Link is the same “Hero Of Time” who fell in battle, that trains the new Link in Twilight Princess.
This one is very unique in the series, incorporating a really interesting time travel mechanic where you relive the same 3 days with an encroaching apocalypse looming overhead. The use of the different masks and Link’s subsequent transformations are also really cool. But it’s the themes of the game’s story about the very human struggle of time and loss that really make this one so memorable. Link’s own journey is further emphasized by the tragic story of the Skull Kid who was corrupted by the cursed mask.
One of my favorite aspects of “Majora’s Mask” is the characters you encounter on your quest and how their lives are affected by your actions in the short time they have left.
3. A Link to the Past (SNES) – 1991
“Link, you can do it! Save the Princess…”
Easily one of the best Super Nintendo games, not to mention still one of the best Zelda titles to date. Only the third entry in the series, this one was a game changer (no pun intended). It was originally created as a prequel to the original game, but “A Link to the Past” really deepens the overall story and mythology of Hyrule to the point that it really stands on it’s own. With some of the toughest puzzles in the franchise and retaining the top down perspective of the original title, it’s basically a way better version of the original game.
This Link’s call to adventure happens one stormy night, when his uncle is killed while racing to defend Hyrule castle! His uncle tells him he must save Princess Zelda from the evil wizard, Agahnim, who has entranced the royal guard! Link picks up his sword and shield and races into battle without a second thought! From there, you travel across the four corners of Hyrule, eventually discovering the Master Sword and upgrading your magical arsenal with several random trinkets along the way. During his adventure, Link crosses over to an alternate dimension known as the “Dark World” where the spirit of Ganon resides, using Agahnim as his avatar, in an attempt to escape his exile.
Link to the Past is an absolute juggernaut of the 16-bit era and really captured the collective imaginations of a generation.
(And if you’re a fan of this style, you might also like it’s spiritual successor, “A Link Between Worlds” for the 3DS.)
2. Ocarina of Time (N64) – 1998
“Time passes, people move. Like a river’s flow, it never ends…” – Sheik
Following “A Link to the Past” on the SNES and “Link’s Awakening” on the Gameboy, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” was the first 3D Zelda game and like it’s predecessors really pushed the envelope for both the series and gaming in general. It’s arguably one of the first 3D platformers to really master the genre, and despite some blocky graphics, holds up remarkably well.
First released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64, Ocarina of Time followed a young Link who was orphaned and raised as one of the Kokiri in the Lost Woods, under the watchful eye of the Deku Tree. The story follows Link as he grows up to become the “Hero of Time” armed with a magical ocarina, and a wide variety of weapons and items, including the hookshot. It’s also an origin story for Ganon, as we see Ganondorf’s rise to power and eventual transformation from a Prince of Thieves in the Gerudo Desert to the Great King of Evil, driven by his greed for the power of the Triforce.
This game has so much going for it: captivating characters, incredible lore, fantastic art design, interesting locales, great items and weapons, tons of hidden secrets, dozens of challenging puzzles, amazing music, and one of the coolest game mechanics ever invented: the ocarina itself. Seriously, the use of a magical instrument is cool on it’s own, but the fact that you have to memorize and play melodies to accomplish different tasks or teleport to different areas of the world? Genius. Chef’s kiss. It’s so good in fact that I’m completely flabbergasted that they haven’t really used it since Majora’s Mask. Sure we got the wand in ‘Wind Waker’ and… howling (?) in ‘Twilight Princess’, but it’s not quite the same.
Throughout Link’s journey, you travel to Death Mountain, befriend the Gorons, make peace with the water-dwelling Zora’s, and overcome a gauntlet of trials to united the seven elemental sages and restore balance to Hyrule! You meet a number of allies along the way, including a mysterious stranger called ‘Sheik’, who is later revealed to be (spoilers) Princess Zelda herself! It was the first game to really use cut scenes and one of the earliest 3D games to really use them effectively. It’s no ‘Mass Effect’ or ‘The Last of Us’, but it really felt like we were witnessing an epic saga unfold, and in a lot of ways proved that gaming could be used to tell a compelling story.
This is another game I’ve re-purchased on nearly every subsequent Nintendo console, including the 3DS version, I’m somewhat baffled we haven’t gotten a true remaster of this one yet. Out of all the games, this one deserves it the most. “Ocarina of Time” isn’t just a great Zelda title, it’s still (in my opinion) one of the greatest games ever made and it was only recently usurped by the next title on the list…
1. Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) – 2017
“Whether skyward bound, adrift in time, or steeped in the glowing embers of twilight… the sacred blade is forever bound to the soul of the Hero.” – Princess Zelda
I’ll admit, I was a latecomer to this one, not because I didn’t want to play it, but because I was hesitant to shell out $300 for another new Nintendo system. That said, as much as I liked my Wii U, I have to admit, the Nintendo Switch might be the best Nintendo console ever made. The ergonomic controllers, the light-weight design, the fact that it’s both a home and portable console, and an incredible library of both new and retro games? Nintendo managed to improve on everything awesome about their last 3 consoles and learned from all their previous mistakes. There’s so many great titles for this system, but I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent getting lost wandering around Hyrule (and falling off mountains).
Although it’s the newest game in the series, in a lot of ways, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” feels like a modernized take on the classic NES game. Unlike so many of it’s predecessors, this one ditches the hard-lined linear storytelling (that sort of became a hinderance in games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword) and really embraces the open world aspect of the original, in a new and exciting way. Seriously, as cheesy as it sounds, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
It’s a game that really leans into the exploration side of things, where curiosity is often rewarded. The game incorporates many of the classic Zelda trappings like hearts, swords and shields, bows and arrows, bombs, and fairies, but it also ditches some of the typical things we’ve come to expect from the series like keys and dungeons. You still get a number of classic puzzles in shrines peppered around the map, but the real focus is on the world itself.
Speaking of Hyrule, this is by far the biggest version of it to date! And when I say the map is huge, I mean it legitimately feels like traversing a small continent. This is a massive game and while I don’t get a lot of gaming time these days, I’ve invested hundreds (if not thousands) of hours into this game over the last couple years and I still haven’t fully explored every corner of the map!
You can gather random ingredients, cook meals and potions to help along your journey, upgrade and customize your weapons and outfits, and even train wild horses. While it may seem like a Zelda-version of Skyrim or Red Dead, it’s so much more than that. While there is a bit of a learning curve, once you get a knack for the controls and physics of the game, it really feels like the possibilities are endless.
“Breath of the Wild” is a gorgeous game in every sense. The graphics, use of color, sound design, and overall aesthetic are all top notch. It also doesn’t hurt that it has the best soundtrack since Wind Waker. Between the weather effects and realistic environments with plenty of wildlife that you can interact with and in some cases even hunt, this really does feel like a living and breathing world that you can really get lost in. And because there isn’t one set path to beating the game, you don’t feel pressured or frustrated when you do wander off into the wilderness and forget what it was you were originally setting out to do, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! And the more you explore, the better you get at it, eventually upgrading and honing your skills until you’re ready to take on the main quest.
While we don’t know for sure where in the timeline(s) this one fits, it seems to be in the later age of Hyrule with their being a 10,000 year history and how much technology has progressed in some ways. In ‘Breath of the Wild’, Link wakes up from a 100 year slumber with amnesia. You soon find out that an evil force known as ‘Calamity Ganon’ swept over Hyrule and has since ensnared Hyrule Castle in it’s tendrils. Much of the kingdom is in ruins, with hundreds of ancient robotic sentinels known as ‘Guardians’ rusting and covered in vines.
The game starts off with an elderly sage guiding you (much like the beginning of the NES game), before the old man reveals himself to be the spirit of the Hyrule’s former king, Princess Zelda’s father. You slowly start to piece the story and lore together through dialogue, random bits of material you come across, and a dozen memories from the past that you can unlock on a series of side quests. Because of the way the story unfolds because of your choices and actions, it all feels earned, and it really makes you feel invested in the fate of Hyrule, it’s legacy, and its many denizens. Ultimately, the goal of the game is to reawaken the four Divine Beasts to help Princess Zelda put a stop to Ganon once and for all.
As great as ‘Ocarina of Time’ still is, ‘Breath of the Wild’ absolutely soars past it, building off of every Zelda game that’s come before, but by not being chained to the past, they managed to create a game that’s truly timeless, that pushes the boundaries of what a video game can be. I seriously can’t think of a game with more replay value than this one. This is a game that transcends the medium, and like many great works of art, it’s open to interpretation. Regardless of how you rank it, there’s no denying that “Breath of the Wild” is without a doubt, a masterwork.
The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that has managed to keep reinvented itself over the years, despite re-hashing the same basic plot time after time, but the cyclical nature of the story itself really lends itself to remixing new and old elements. While there’s a sequel to ‘BOTW’ in development, not much is known about it as of this writing. Will it surpass it’s predecessor? What’s in store for the future of Hyrule? Does Zelda II really deserve all the hate? Will we ever get a true Ocarina of Time remaster? Only time will tell…
What’s your Zelda rankings? Let us know in the comments below!