The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most widely celebrated in all video games, and for good reason. Even the worst Zelda game is in a class of its own, but all of them have their occasional drawbacks. We’re here today to break down the best and worst parts of each mainline game, from the iconic original NES adventure to the Switch’s landmark open-world Breath of the Wild. Join us on this journey through Hyrule history.
The Legend of Zelda (NES)
Best: The exploration was unmatched for the time
Even now, the original Legend of Zelda feels like an adventure into worlds unknown. Yes, it’s not the technical marvel it once was, but Hyrule still feels like a dangerous, magical world Link has to fight through. The legendary line “It’s dangerous to go alone” still rings true as you explore this world full of mystery. Miyamoto’s breakthrough action-RPG set a stellar foundation for everything that was to come, and the series is still riffing on its design philosophies to this day.
Worst: As with many first games, its sequels did it better
This isn’t something unique to the original Zelda, but a lot of long-running franchises inevitably surpass their originators with new entries and iterations on old systems. While Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a momentary detour for the series, A Link to the Past took everything the original game did and added new layers of depth and an emotional core, and was just a plain better version of what the original game proposed. It’s a great foundation, but it is just that.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)
Best: Points for boldness…
After establishing what would become the Zelda formula with the first game, Nintendo made a hard pivot in Zelda II with side-scrolling combat and RPG-style levelling. It’s bold, especially for being so early in a series figuring out what it wanted to be. The combat’s jumping and high / low strikes add depth that wasn’t possible in the original game’s overhead format, and after all these years, there’s no other game quite like it in the series.
Worst: …but your mileage may vary
All that being said, whether or not you’ll actually dig those things after the first game is another question entirely. There’s an argument to be made that Zelda II is clunky, with close-quarters combat feeling somewhat stiff and some of the side-scrolling traversal never feeling quite as robust as in full-fledged platformers. You might also think it doesn’t spend enough time building upon what made the original Zelda compelling. The Adventure of Link is an exercise in your tolerance for things being different than you might prefer. I applaud its willingness to swing for the fences, but get why some players might feel less enthused.
Read more: 11 ‘Bad’ Games We’ll Die Defending
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)
Best: All of it
Man, what a banger. A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo is such a haunting escalation of everything the original game built. Who can forget the first time they used the Magic Mirror to warp into the mysterious Dark World? While the first game was a foundation for what was to come, A Link to the Past feels like the game that really solidified what the world of Hyrule was and how the player would navigate its 2D entries. It’s a sublime realisation of everything the first game aspired to be.
Worst: The difficulty
A Link to the Past is perfect.
But fine, if you want to nitpick, it’s an early example of the series getting gradually easier as time went on, and compared to the challenge of the first two games, it was kind of a cakewalk. A Link to the Past built on the original Zelda’s mechanics with new gadgets and gizmos at Link’s disposal, but the gradual difficulty curve ended up a bit flat by the end. One Kotaku staffer who wishes to remain anonymous was saddened when they got this most anticipated game at launch, then blew through it in just a day or two. Where’s that second quest?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64)
Best: The new standard
If the first game was a foundation and A Link to the Past is the full realisation, Ocarina of Time is a complete overhaul and the golden standard every Zelda game would draw from for years to come. The series’ jump to 3D holds a near-universal level of notoriety most games in the series can’t claim, and that’s because it was the new blueprint in structure and design. The dungeons and puzzles are still pretty great, the music is incredible, and to this day it’s still just a really solid action-adventure classic.
Worst: It feels a little generic these days
As with the first game, Ocarina set a new standard, and more interesting takes came later as future games iterated and experimented. Majora’s Mask in particular riffs on everything Ocarina of Time did to great effect, and as a result, Ocarina of Time’s strides can sometimes feel less impactful after you’ve played everything that sprang from it. This is the curse of being a paradigm shift for an entire genre and franchise.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)
Best: The tone
Zelda games had been dark long before Majora’s Mask, but to this day, no other game in the series just sits in the bleak misery of a situation the way it does. Link travels to the land of Termina, which is on the verge of a cataclysmic event with the moon set to crash into the surface. Link spends a lot of time helping the people in this doomed land find peace, and that includes delving into some of the darkest storytelling the series has ever reckoned with. I still remember the scene when Link meets Mikau — the Zora whose soul is contained in the Zora mask that allows Link to transform into the aquatic species — in which Mikau dies while leaving his powers in Link’s hands. That scene, among many others, has stuck with me as an example of Majora’s Mask’s bittersweet storytelling. The game has plenty of impressive dungeons and puzzle mechanics that stand the test of time, but when reflecting back on it I’ll always remember stories like Mikau’s.
The worst: This shit is stressful
Majora’s Mask’s three-day cycle is a point of contention, for some. The game takes place over three days the player is able to rewind and fast-forward through by using Link’s ocarina, and completing tasks and questlines is all contingent on being in the right place at the right time. It does mean that some events are on a strict time limit, and manipulating time is key to seeing most of the game’s content. This can be stressful for some, and I know it was for me when I tried to 100% the game as a kid. It’s definitely the kind of game that worked best with a guide that helped you keep track of when and where you needed to be to accomplish things, and it’s understandable that a lot of people aren’t able to get past that.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube)
Best: Completely revolutionised combat
While the N64 Zelda games were serviceable as action games, they were pretty stiff as far as sword combat went. This all changed with The Wind Waker, which still feels incredibly fluid to this day. With more attention put into dodge mechanics, sword-based combos, and just an overall feel for movement within a combat space, Wind Waker’s swordplay helped elevate the series’ fighting to the level of its dungeon and puzzle design. It’s because the combat is so great that the final boss sequence is still one of the best in the franchise. Link and Zelda teaming up to fight Ganondorf in a flooded Hyrule hits as hard as it does because the fight capitalises on all the mechanics introduced throughout the adventure to create an all-time great moment melding drama with gameplay.
Worst: The Triforce shards
Wind Waker forcing you to gather all those Triforce shards was and still is pretty universally derided. This entails travelling around the world by boat to track down pieces of the Triforce that are buried at sea. It was incredibly tedious, but necessary to progress the story, so it served as a huge momentum killer for a lot of players. Wii U’s HD remaster attempted to streamline this, but the Triforce hunt’s still recognised as the biggest drawback to an otherwise beloved game.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii / GameCube)
Best: They turned Link into a friggin’ wolf
Wolf Link rules. Sorry, I know there’s an argument to be made that Twilight Princess overuses Link’s transformation at the expense of more traditional Zelda gameplay, but look at him! He’s such a good boy, saving Hyrule and such. My guy looks regal as heck. On top of making Link just a little guy, the transformation was a much-needed injection of originality that helped Twilight Princess feel really distinct. I love him and I love playing as him.
Worst: It was the start of the Wii Remote waggle
Because Twilight Princess was in development as both a GameCube and Wii game, it was the first game in the series to experiment with the latter’s motion controls, to the point where the entire Wii version is mirrored so Link uses his sword with his right hand as opposed to his typical left. It was mostly just swiping your Wii Remote to trigger Link’s sword swing, but as with numerous Wii games, the novelty went away, and it made me long for the GameCube version to just avoid the waggling entirely.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
Groose is just the best. An absolute king among men. Link’s rival in Skyward Sword is easily the best character in a Zelda game full of good characters. Sit down, Fi. We don’t need to hear from fives when a 10 is speaking. Groose is a big jerk in the beginning and all that bravado goes away when he’s around Zelda. He’s such a dorky himbo and he more than redeems himself in the end. I love this guy. What a king.
Worst: They really baked motion controls into this one, huh?
Skyward Sword is the only game made natively for the Wii, and it’s built into every facet of its design. The game came out in 2011, long after any fervor for the Wii’s motion controls had passed. It really tested the limits of what the tech was capable of, to the point where it required the Wii MotionPlus peripheral to register more precise motion. But by then, the novelty of swinging the controller to swing your sword had worn off, and it’s made Skyward Sword a contentious entry in the series. The more recent Switch remaster does a bit of work to make the game’s input more along the lines of a traditional Zelda game, but some of those mechanics just weren’t meant to function any other way, so the game can still feel a bit clunky.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch / Wii U)
Best: One of the best-realised open worlds of all time
There’s a reason we’re in an era of open-world games chasing the highs of Breath of the Wild. The 2017 Wii U / Switch game set a new standard not just for the Zelda series, but for open-world games in general. It’s such a stunning realisation of what the first Zelda set out to do way back in 1986, with the design philosophies perfectly expanded upon to create one of the most influential games of the modern era. This reimagined Hyrule is rich with systemic depth, narrative threads worth following, and just full to the brim with reasons to explore every nook and cranny of its map. I don’t envy Nintendo’s position in making the forthcoming sequel Tears of the Kingdom, because following up Breath of the Wild in the same console generation is going to be a monumental task.
Worst: Weapon degradation
For some players, weapons breaking as you use them is paramount to what makes Breath of the Wild effective. You gather resources in its world while knowing that you’re basically flying by the seat of your pants and improvising solutions and arsenals as you make your way from one side of the map to the other. It can be thrilling and challenging, but it’s also a constant barrier to progress. That was my read on the game when I first played it; the hurdles I had to overcome were respectable, but also made me want to stop playing. Tears of the Kingdom is bringing this mechanic back, which probably fills you with either delight or dread depending on where you fall on this argument. But the fragile weapons are pretty contentious in a game that is otherwise pretty universal in acclaim. Thus, it lands here as the worst part of Breath of the Wild.
Read more: The 22 Best Games For The Nintendo Switch
With Tears of the Kingdom just a few weeks away at this point, it’s been interesting to look at just how much The Legend of Zelda has built upon itself over the years and wonder where the next game will land. Will it be a paradigm shift like Ocarina of Time or Breath of the Wild, or more of a refinement of established ideas? We’ll find out when it launches on Switch on May 12.
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