Why every Zelda game is the best AND worst in the series

Earlier this year we pondered why each and every Final Fantasy game has the potential to be the best OR worst in the series. Each entry is so radically different in design and execution that it’s easy to argue the point either way – but what about a beloved series that more or less sticks to its guns with each sequel? The Legend of Zelda is just such a franchise, often relying on established staples instead of radical redesigns.

That isn’t to say Zelda totally relies on its legacy, either. Each title does contain something unique, and in rare cases a sequel will go totally off the rails in an attempt to shake things up. Zelda means many different things to many different people, but which one is really the best… or worst?

Contributors: Brett Elston, Carolyn Gudmundson, Henry Gilbert

Why it’s the best Zelda ever: Because it’s the beginning of everything. Link, Zelda, Ganon, Hyrule, the Triforce, even enemies (like Octoroks) and key items (boomerang, bombs, red tunic etc) got their start here. Oftentimes the first game in a series merely sets ground rules that future entries expand and elaborate upon; that’s certainly still true of Zelda, but a surprising amount of its structure began right here and remains largely unchanged to this day. It also introduces the (no pun intended) legendary Zelda overworld theme, which we believe is burned into the DNA of every NES-playing boy and girl.

Why it’s the worst Zelda ever: It’s not exactly a welcoming game. Aside from the opening “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” prod, there’s next to zero hints as to where you should go next. The massive map is laid before you, and all its secrets – like burning bushes, bombing walls, pulling statues etc – are discovered only by sheer accident or, in today’s case, a well-written FAQ. Gameplay is fine by ‘80s standards, but control is rigid and simplistic. This captivated a generation, no doubt, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just too archaic to be the best.

Brett’s take: I still love the original. As a kid, exploring that wide open field and gossiping with friends about which dungeons to tackle in which order consumed my entire being, and that sensation has barely lessened over the years. But if you’re coming into this cold, the total lack of direction (and schoolyard full of friends who’re also playing it) practically require a FAQ. However, I still think the dungeon music is one of Zelda’s creepiest moments.

Why it’s the best Zelda ever: After the utter ambiguity of the first game, Zelda II favors a more linear approach. It’s easier to wrap your mind around the overworld thanks to clear paths from place to place, as well as several towns filled with clue-giving inhabitants. In fact, those towns and roads make Hyrule feel more like a real place instead of some untamed wilderness seen in the first game. Gameplay is much more varied than most other Zeldas; you still roam the map from an overhead perspective, then switch to a side-scrolling view when fighting enemies and investigating labyrinthine dungeons. Link also learns magic for the first time, a trait that would carry on into the future.

Why it’s the worst Zelda ever: Without a doubt, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is the most non-Zelda game in the series. Link gains RPG-like experience points, casts multiple spells that suck up MP, talks to villagers, hell he even has a dedicated jump button! Link, jumping at will! Even stranger is the reason for the jump button – most of the game is a Mario-style side-scroller! To say this is the best game in the series is to say this mishmash of ideas is better than the tried and true Zelda formula.

Brett’s take: Odd as it is, Zelda II is one of my favorites. To this day it’s the easiest one to jump in and play on an annual basis, mainly because of the clear path that’s laid out in front of you. It also represents the Wild West days of game development; Zelda wasn’t a mega franchise yet, so Nintendo was willing to completely change the format for the sake of trying something new. Side-scrolling Link? Insane!

Why it's the best Zelda ever: If you're fan enough to take the time to read a Zelda-specific feature and you actually need it explained to you why Link to the Past could be considered the best Zelda ever, you should be disgusted with yourself. This is the open-world action-RPG epic distilled to its purest form. A well-balanced mix of exploration, puzzles and combat, the gameplay is as richly complex as it is elegantly simple. With two impressively expansive overworlds, looking back on it today it almost seems like a modern game that's been given a 16-bit treatment.

Why it's the worst Zelda ever: Link to the Past is only the worst Zelda ever if you have a pathological hatred of perfection. The only possible downside to LttP is that if you were introduced to the Zelda series with this game, you might find it harder to go back and play Zelda 1 and 2 after you've already experience this huge leap forward. Seriously, we can’t think of anything harsher to say.

Carolyn's take: Of every Zelda game, Link to the Past is the one I most easily revisit to replay on a yearly basis. Even though I know all the dungeons by heart at this point, I still haven't gotten tired of it. Sure, part of it is nostalgia, but the gameplay itself is what really fuels my desire to actually go back and play it over and over.

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  • ProChuga - January 5, 2013 8:20 p.m.

    i have to say Ocarina of time holds its place firmly at #1, it was the first game that i ever played, and captivated me every day of me playing me...All i wonder is how it took me 6 years to beat it..(water temple), but now i can beat it in 2 days. 2nd place would have to be Majora's mask. that game.that was difficult, but it was so freakin awesome. The only problem i have with the game is the water temple(always the hardest), but other than that, the game has so many side quests and possibilities it really puts those thinking muscles to work. Keeping track of time, collecting masks, fighting, and solving problems... very exciting. 3rd place would have to be the wind waker, so huge of an environment for its time, especially for a Zelda game, although not as many side quests as i would prefer the storyline of this game were amazing, i couldn't of asked for a game like it to be any better. Twilight princess was a huge let down to me and many other zelda fans, first problem was when it first came out i beat it in the first 2 days of arrival in stores, it just didn't feel like a classic zelda game for me, the older the better is normally the case for zelda games. Don't get me wrong, there were classic zelda features to the game...but...a bazooka!? really now, this guy saves your but with a rocket launcher... and i thought for a second that Ganon wasn't the main villain in this game, i thought it was the twilight lord, but boy was i wrong. The DS games were a let down, they just don't have the feel of even being a Zelda game, and for me, the phantom hourglass was so hard to beat on the whole phantom temple or whatever that place was, in fact i had to buy a strategy guide to get me through it half the time. Over all i think the Zelda games will always be my favorite series, even outranking the Fallout series and Elder Scrolls series. FYI, only zelda game that i never beat was minish cap, the last boss, i'm just not that good with her moves, even with the gameboy gamecube adapter.
  • christopher-gardiner - July 8, 2012 7:19 p.m.

    Wind Waker was and still is the best Zelda game in existance, because it was the one that got me into the series, and was the first one that i have played, with Ocarina of Time at close second.
  • navi-the-fairy - February 11, 2012 3:36 p.m.

    You're very biased, you know. If you can blame Zelda 1 for aspects of it that are primitive and only there because it was first, then you should probably point out that A Link to the Past has very little character development at all and is relatively uninteresting to many people who've not had experience with any games prior to the 3D shift. Take off the nostalgia goggles, being amazing for the time doesn't always mean amazing now. And for Ocarina of Time, where do I start. The field is bland, the characters are a clear step backwards from Link's Awakening, the only half of the inventory is usable at any point and the time traveling forces you to be unable to use items you've already obtained, the owl and the fairy hold your hand constantly, the first three dungeons are a chore and the game only gets good part-way through, and the game's biggest hook is "wow it's in 3D." I adore A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, I adore all of these games, but none of them are perfect and if you really want to make a list of what makes these games good and bad you should try a little harder :P
  • nomis - December 10, 2011 7:34 p.m.

    wow...Minish Cap is easy?! guess I got a lot to learn about Zelda games haha
  • TJF588 - October 4, 2011 4:31 a.m.

    I lament a lack of even commenting on the GBA version of ALttP (and perhaps the GCN versions of the NES and N64 games, but IIRC, only OoT's Master Quest was worth noting, and that's in the 3DS version). Why? Four Swords. How about the recent DSiWare Four Swords Anniversary Edition?
  • Ravenbom - July 9, 2011 7:46 a.m.

    I had fun with Link's Crossbow Training. For an hour. Also because I didn't use the stupid zapper.
  • egregious - July 6, 2011 2:40 p.m.

    A Link to the Past is my favorite game of all time. Still. I've had those discussion about top ten, five, hundred games, and ALTTP always comes out number one. The perfect game. Wind Waker is my number two Zelda game, to be honest. I loved the look and it just felt so lighthearted and fun.
  • Imgema - July 4, 2011 4:47 p.m.

    You know, technology and gameplay advances can improve graphics and um, gameplay, but they can't improve one the one thing that is the most important for me: Atmosphere. Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask are STILL the best Zeldas for me, not because of the nostalgia (i grew up with 8 and 16 bit zeldas actually) but because of their atmosphere. Ocarina of time also has the most content and secrets compared to any other Zelda and there are even little things that you may never see, unless you try them, like, have you ever played the Zelda lullaby near a destroyed sign? Did you ever let a butterfly land on your Deku stick? And dozens of other things like that. Oh and both games have the best soundtrack of any Zelda game. You can't improve music compositions with newer technology now, can you?
  • randomroy - July 4, 2011 7:26 a.m.

    How could you forget the Game and watch Zelda game?!!! My family couldn't afford a game boy so it was my pride and joy. It was my first ZELDA and holds a special place in my heart. I think I played it for 8 hours straight in the car from London to Edinburgh when I was young.
  • jackthemenace - July 3, 2011 4:03 p.m.

    Well, I enjoyed Phantom Hourglass and Spirit tracks, and, since I played Link to the past on GBA and Twilight Princess on the Wii, I've never really had the chance to play a LoZ game with a real controller, which I find disappointing, now I realised that 10 seconds ago.
  • Bobishungry - July 3, 2011 1:13 a.m.

    i've heard of each of these games before, even the link's crossbow training. But i had always thought the faces of evil intro video was a fake intro made by some random guy on youtube. I wish i was right!
  • AlbVega - July 3, 2011 12:33 a.m.

    Twilight princess for me. I was never really a Zelda fan until I played this and Ocarina back to back. Midna it's a great character, the towns and overworld feel incredibly alive and everything just screams EPIC. Plus the armors were cool. It's the Zelda I have completed the most, and that's in one sitting only. These articles are amazing, please do now Castlevania, Resident Evil and the sacred Mario games.
  • HowdyCowboyCheesesBurger0911 - July 2, 2011 3:51 p.m.

    I enjoyed the the Zelda faps but this is to much, no more Zelda.
  • The_Tingler - July 2, 2011 3:46 p.m.

    Oh, and Wind Waker is the only one in the series with f***ing camera control. Sigh.
  • The_Tingler - July 2, 2011 3:46 p.m.

    Nothing wrong with A Link To The Past? How about this: the story's tacked-on and there are no interesting characters in it, plus it doesn't do very well in guiding you to your objectives. These are the reasons I got bored with it. I completed it, but I had GameFAQs open for a great deal of time. Wind Waker is my absolutely favourite, mostly because of the superb story and characterization. Oh, and absolutely everything else. It's the only game barring Batman Arkham Asylum that I've got 100% everything on.
  • KingArchie55 - July 2, 2011 2:35 p.m.

    I loved LttP. I got it for GBA, and I played that game for like 3 years. Then I lost it. But man, that game is fantastic. It's gotta be my favorite game.
  • Tenfey - July 2, 2011 12:30 p.m.

    Your description for Link to the Past was actually dead on for me. It was the first Zelda I had ever seen, and I played it non-stop for weeks. When I went back to try the previous NES entries after borrowing them from friends, I could see how they had led up to LttP, but I could never really get into them. Don't worry though, I eventually sat down and played through both of them, albeit about 10 years later and with a FAQ.
  • AuthorityFigure - July 2, 2011 6:47 a.m.

    The DS games are inferior to the GBC games to my mind. Twilight Princess may have tried too hard to be like OoT, but I have a clear concious on that - I wasn't one of the ignoramous' yearning for a 'dark' (read: 'dull') Zelda game.
  • 510BrotherPanda - July 2, 2011 5:19 a.m.

    Since I live in San Francisco... THE NEXT TIME I SEE YOU GUYS AROUND THE CITY, I WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE A DISCUSSION ON THIS ARTICLE, PARTICULARLY YOUR OPINIONS OF THE HANDHELD ZELDA GAMES. Sure, I'm not "the guy with all the Zelda tattoos", and I'm not nearly as old or game-experienced as all of you, but I think my perspective on this is at least...worth...a little bit...
  • Limbo - July 2, 2011 4:22 a.m.

    Excuse me, the Faces Of Evil is one of my favorite games of all time. I find this article highly offensive. Jokes aside, my favorites would have to be Ocarina Of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker, in that order. Ocarina of Time because it encompasses everything Zelda games are about and is just fantastic, Majora's Mask because it is the most unique, memorable, and has dozens of side quests (ALIEN ATTAAACK), and Wind Waker because it was my first Zelda game and I have a nostalgia boner for it.