Here are my top ranked games in The Legend of Zelda series!
Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons
Format: Game Boy Color
With classic Nintendo timing, not one but two Zeldas were released in 2001 – at the end of the original Game Boy’s life, directly before the launch of the Game Boy Advance.
If Nintendo seemed like they had no idea what they were doing business-wise, at least Capcom’s Flagship, tasked with design duties, understood how to craft new Zelda experiences out of the old Link’s Awakening template (more on that in a minute).
Capcom squeezed every last puzzle from Oracle of Ages’ gameplay hook of manipulating time, with Link warping between past and present, tackling time travel paradoxes. And with Oracle of Seasons, the puzzles were spatial – lakes can be crossed when frozen in winter, vines sprout and can be climbed in summer. Basically, it’s all good stuff.
Highlight – Jabu-Jabu’s Belly – to get there you’ll need a head for time travel (islands drift between past and present). In the dungeon itself, you’ll need keen spatial awareness to raise and lower water levels, solve puzzles that span multiple floors, and dive beneath the water’s surface. Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple? A gentle training mission compared to this.
The Wind Waker
Format: GameCube, Wii U (HD remaster)
As much as I love The Wind Waker, this one was clearly unfinished, with a camera that’s more fiddly than the Nintendo 64 games, a sparse overworld, and dungeons that are too straightforward. Nintendo’s rush in getting The Wind Waker released meant that the sailing was not as well tuned as it should have been – changing the wind’s direction is a clunky process that breaks the flow of travel (later fixed in the HD Wii U remaster).
That said, The Wind Waker – thankfully, eventually – ditches the tutorials and lets you roam the seas. Whether or not you regard this Zelda as a classic depends on how much you enjoyed the sailing. Some gamers felt The Wind Waker relied too heavily on shuttling back and forth between islands. For me, despite all the flaws, the sailing and exploration makes for a zen Zelda experience.
The Wind Waker reaches greatness in other ways. Characters are cute, with dialog even more irreverent than usual for Zelda! The references to Ocarina of Time are poignant. And though mocked at the time, The Wind Waker’s wonderful, colorful, cel-shaded style make this an utterly gorgeous game to take in. Link’s oversized eyes give you visual clues – just follow his line of sight to points of interest.
The Wind Waker is the most expressive incarnation of Link, and possibly the most charming entry in the The Legend of Zelda series to date.
Highlight – the rocking of your magical boat on the ocean waves, the discovery and exploration of the Great Sea, the way that islands on the horizon seamlessly come into focus – sailing in The Wind Waker remains mesmerizing.
Format: Game Boy, Game Boy Color (DX re-release)
Link’s Awakening stands as an amazing programming feat. How did Nintendo crunch a full fat Legend of Zelda, complete with sizable world to explore and eight dungeons that represent some of the series’ greatest level design, onto a tiny Game Boy cartridge?
About the design: of any Zelda I’ve played, Link’s Awakening features a perfect learning curve. Unlike the difficulty spikes in other Zeldas (see again: the Water Temple), Link’s Awakening gradually layers on the complexity from dungeon to dungeon. As you’d expect, the first level is a gentle orientation; the final two – Eagle’s Tower and Turtle Rock – are intricate and challenging.
More than the technical ambition of the game though, there was the story and theme. My retrospective on Link’s Awakening pays tribute to the game’s motif of dreams and nightmares. Here it’s enough to say that Link’s Awakening’s haunting atmosphere sticks with you, and the overworld and dungeon design are pitch perfect.
Link’s Awakening: a portable epic adventure.
Highlight – the game’s surprisingly deep take on the nature of reality? Superb design, like the multi-layered Eagle’s Tower? The outstanding music? There’s too many excellent components in Link’s Awakening to choose!
Ocarina of Time
Format: Nintendo 64, 3DS (remaster)
An undeniable all-time classic. In making the leap from 2D to 3D Nintendo expertly stuck the landing.
Hey! Listen! You’ll enjoy this retrospective more if you hit play:
The detailed graphics, the sweeping music, the sense of adventure. The designers’ attention to detail still stands out – how the colors and tone reflect your environment, all hazy and burning red in the Death Mountain Crater, or golden green in Kokiri Forest (was Peter Jackson taking notes for The Lord of the Rings?). Remember the way your sword and shield shifted and rattled on your back as you trekked across Hyrule? Or how the dynamic music blended with the onscreen action? The little touches made Ocarina of Time feel like no other video game up to this point.
And of course there were the groundbreaking design innovations. Nintendo, more than any other developer, realized that 3D gameplay can be inaccessible – it was easier to navigate video games when you only had to deal with up, down, left, and right in two dimensions. Their solution for a 3D world? Navi, a fairy companion, a bubbly ball of light that created connective tissue to your new environment, highlighting baddies and and providing handy hints.
Even more important: Z-targeting, the ability to lock-on to a specific enemy or object, allowing for precision control. In an era in which developers were still feeling their way around three-dimensional design, this was truly revolutionary.
Ocarina of Time was the first time The Legend of Zelda went 3D – and possibly the first time we experienced what 3D games were capable of.
Highlight – what else? Exploring Hyrule Field and hearing that stirring overworld theme for the first time (didn’t you press play above?!)
Format: Nintendo 64, 3DS (remaster)
Released only two years after the first N64 title, Nintendo did not take the easy route – this is not Ocarina of Time 2.
Nor does this sequel ease you into things. Majora’s Mask picks up with Link trapped in Termina, a dark mirror image of Hyrule. And now there’s a time limit – only three game days to prevent armageddon!
Despite a short development cycle, and design and characters reused from Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask is a completely unique take on the Zelda formula. Evolving a design concept first seen in Ocarina of Time, masks here provide you with the ability to swap between Deku, Goron, and Zora form, each with different abilities. And while this game is smaller than Ocarina of Time (there are “only” four dungeons, though they contain some of the toughest challenges in the series), it is Majora’s Mask’s side quests that make the game. In many ways, they are the game.
In Majora’s Mask, you experience the hero’s journey where it’s not enough to be the plucky Hero of Time battling an existential evil. Although a demonic moon threatens above, the stakes are more immediate.
Almost every character in Clock Town has tragedy in their life. And it’s your mission to heal them. Your actions make a difference – not in a grand sense of “saving the world” (though you do still have to save the world!), but in simple, personal ways. Your day-to-day interactions with the troubled townsfolk make Termina feel like a living, breathing world.
Majora’s Mask’s three days rarely feel repetitive. Each pass reveals something new about Termina’s people. The game unfolds incrementally. In what other game could waiting outside a locked door to help a lost child feel so compelling?
The Nintendo team took risks with Majora’s Mask. This variation on The Legend of Zelda theme stands as an experiment that most likely won’t be repeated. Enjoy this one then, folks. Majora’s Mask shook up the Zelda formula, cranked the difficulty, and was not afraid to be dark, surreal, mournful.
Highlights – at the emotional core of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is the Anju/Kafei relationship. Anju is the innkeeper; her fiance, Kafei, has been transformed into a child by the Skull Kid. Your efforts to save the tragic couple before the moon comes crashing down show The Legend of Zelda at its dramatic best. See also: the finale, which mashes up confrontation, catharsis, and redemption all at once.
Agree or disagree with the rankings? Share your thoughts on your favorite Zelda games below!