To celebrate the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I’m taking a look back at the games I love. Here is my (loose) ranking of The Legend of Zelda series in its entirety. Nearly.
Nearly? You’ll notice a few omissions! The big one – I haven’t played enough of Super Nintendo classic A Link to the Past to do it justice. Nor have I played Spirit Tracks or A Link Between Worlds. And I’ve only played Four Swords Adventures in one player, so can’t speak to the multiplayer experience. Here goes…
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
The Zelda faithful will defend this odd one out. You can get a lot out of Zelda II, they say. Stick with it, they whisper, just give it a chance!
But why did Nintendo turn the first sequel into a sidescroller? Why is the gameplay so repetitive, and the random encounters so utterly unforgiving? I realize the game has its defenders, but I checked out early.
Highlight – the music remains epic, despite the limitations of an 8-bit console.
Format: Nintendo DS
If you weren’t a fan of the sailing in The Wind Waker, you might get on better with Phantom Hourglass. Sailing here makes use of the DS’ stylus and touch screen, an intuitive system which allows you to easily plot your course and let your steamboat do the work. The stylus also works surprisingly well for direct play, with short swipes translating to Link’s sword attacks.
More controversial was the Temple of the Ocean King, a different take on the traditional dungeon mechanic that incorporates time limits, stealth, and near-invincible bad guys that can wipe out Link with one hit. Also – you had to revisit the dungeon multiple times. Many Zelda fans hated this approach; others found it a welcome challenge. For me, this and Phantom Hourglass’ other dungeons were solidly put together, if somewhat forgettable.
And while Nintendo’s control innovations are usually welcome, shouting into the DS’ microphone is not a good choice when you’re in an airport.
Highlight – drawing routes for your steamboat and marking islands and secrets for further exploration with the DS stylus was a perfect blend of old-school mapmaking and innovative technology.
Just because it’s ranked this low doesn’t mean that I disliked Skyward Sword. The dungeon design was clever throughout (see the Ancient Cistern for a wonderful water temple challenge). Nintendo’s imagination is on full display with the Lanayru Sand Sea sailing section – a “timeshift stone” mounted on your boat transforms a desert in the present into a beautiful lake in the past. Also, the new Wii MotionPlus controls were put to good use. And the impressionistic art style makes this one of the prettiest Zelda games.
And yet… there’s no denying that Skyward Sword takes an achingly slow amount of time to start. The handholding feels constrictive – despite appearing like an open world, Skyward Sword funnels you through stifling linear segments. There’s an unfunny companion. There’s frustrating Silent Realms. Flying on your Loftwing should have provided a sense of freedom, but those floating islands in the sky yielded no surprises. And The Imprisoned… how many times did I need to battle The Imprisoned?
Nintendo looks to have completely reversed course with the open world Breath of the Wild. As for Skyward Sword – the colors are vibrant, but dungeons aside, the game was a bit dull.
Highlight – the precision of the new Wii MotionPlus controls were expertly built into traditional Zelda gameplay – it felt genuinely innovative to use your motion-controlled sword to flip a Skulltula onto its back.
Format: GameCube, Wii, Wii U (HD remaster)
Not until after I’d completed Twilight Princess did I find out why the Wii version felt wonky. To accommodate the motion controls – and the greater proportion of right-handed players – southpaw Link had to switch his sword from his left hand, and rather than alter his animations from the GameCube version, Nintendo mirrored the entire game. So if, like me, you were confused why Lake Hylia and Gerudo Desert were in the east, not the west, now you know.
And while the return of the “realistic” art style of Ocarina of Time was a concession to fans left cold by the cel-shaded visuals of The Wind Waker, the graphics for Twilight Princess appear washed out.
Still, there is excellent music (Midna’s Lament is a highlight). Dungeons are well-designed. Plus you get to be a wolf.
All decent enough, but Twilight Princess remains a bloated Ocarina of Time remake – Hyrule feels twice as large and half as interactive as that of the 1998 classic. Twilight Princess reminds us that bigger worlds are not always better, folks.
Highlight – Regarded as one of the best dungeons in the series, the chilly Snowpeak Ruins works in a warm story about a cute Yeti taking caring of his ill wife.
The Legend of Zelda
Going back to the game that started it all, one thing stands out – this is no rough first draft. All the Zelda elements are fully formed here: the open overworld structure and dungeon design, the secrets and items, the puzzles and boss battles.
The Legend of Zelda remains surprisingly playable today – and even clearer now that this game was far ahead of its contemporaries from the mid-1980s. My only issue with The Legend of Zelda? The inability to move diagonally!
Highlight – the expansive overworld and sense of exploration defined the original, creating a template that every subsequent Zelda – and countless other games – have emulated.
The Minish Cap
Format: Game Boy Advance
The Minish Cap builds on The Legend of Zelda’s tradition of design mechanics that revolve around manipulating the environment – light/dark worlds, travel between past and present, or transforming into other forms such as a wolf. In The Minish Cap, the hook is size – through Ezlo, a sarcastic talking hat (bear with me!), Link can shrink to tiny size, bringing you in contact with the cheery Picori, and seeing the world from a different perspective.
A cute and clever hook was complemented by The Wind Waker’s cartoon aesthetic, an art style perfectly suited to the Game Boy Advance.
Highlight – Throughout the game Kinstone pieces can be collected and fused with others held by the Picori, unlocking further special items. In a series packed with secrets, The Minish Cap’s Kinstones are especially compelling.