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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  • Rubberducky - July 1, 2011 1:08 a.m.

    Links crossbow training?? This is the first I've ever heard of it! You guys need to do FAPs on everything since the SNES days since that was the last Zelda I played...
  • flare149 - July 1, 2011 1:13 a.m.

    I played Link's Awakening first, and I guess that explains why the gameboy ones are my favorite as opposed to the 3D ones. Generally I found the 3D to be easier, since you have more control and using the shield is much easier. Plus I always thought the puzzles of Ages and Seasons were much better (again, also due to their difficulty)
  • SirCheesedip - July 1, 2011 1:21 a.m.

    I loled at the fact CD-i Zelda has nothing positive about it, especially since it's true.
  • paganpoet - July 1, 2011 1:23 a.m.

    I pretty much agree with you. Link to the Past is the best 2D entry (as well as my favorite) and Wind Waker is the best 3D entry even in SPITE of the sea sailing and Triforce fetch quest.
  • Fady2Hotty - July 1, 2011 1:27 a.m.

    in Majoras mask you could play the song of time backwards which slowed down time so you wouldnt have to rush through the dungeons.
  • IAmARobotWhoTurnsIntoATruckAndIFindNoLevityInThis - July 1, 2011 1:34 a.m.

    I really wanted the reason why Spirit Tracks is to worst to just be the train.
  • fullmetallegend - July 1, 2011 1:45 a.m.

    I am currently playing ALTTP for the first time. (I'm about halfway through) I think most of the "best Zelda ever" comes from nostalgia. I will not deny that it is a very enjoyable and great entry, but I like many of the 2-D Zelda's better. =/ I know it's just opinion, but it still feels like one of those games that is looked at with too much nostalgia. I'm currently playing through all the Zelda games in a row (In no real order), to see which one is truly the most fun. (They all hold up really really well, except for you Zelda II)
  • FlashDancerElite - July 1, 2011 1:45 a.m.

    I still feel like Link's Awakening doesn't get enough credit for what it achieved. The last two dungeons feature some of the hardest puzzles in the Zelda canon and the story is both fascinating and memorable. Instead of a clear-cut distinction between good and evil, Links Awakening featured shades of gray that still have yet to be replicated in a Zelda story (except for perhaps Twilight Princess).
  • fullmetallegend - July 1, 2011 1:49 a.m.

    Ah, what am I saying? It's the memories that make a game your favorite! Just not technically "the best"... or is the best technically your favorite? @_@
  • NotPanicked - July 1, 2011 2:09 a.m.

    There werent two ds zeldas in 2 years. Phantom Hourglass came out in fall 2007 and Spirit Tracks came out in December 2009. Roughly the same amount of time that there was between Oot and MM and less time than there was between zelda 1 and 2, yet you don't fault those games for it. I understand your point though, i cant even finish phantom hourglass because of the stupid touch controls.
  • AirickG - July 1, 2011 2:13 a.m.

    I almost just died laughing while listening to that "faces of evil" intro!
  • mastersword369 - July 1, 2011 2:15 a.m.

  • HeroOfLegend - July 1, 2011 2:20 a.m.

    I love both of the DS games, honestly. Wind Waker is my favorite in the series, with A Link to the Past coming in second. The Wind Waker Trilogy, as I'll call it, has three of my favorite "sidekicks" in the franchise. The King of Red Lions, Ciela (and Linebeck), and Zelda are all completely awesome.
  • Crabhand - July 1, 2011 2:29 a.m.

    I was afraid you guys were going to rag hard on Majora's Mask (my personal fav). But your points are valid, so I don't need to take it as a personal attack by impersonal forces. And fuck Crossbow Training, I feel like such a jackass for even having the Wii Zapper. Useless hunk of plastic.
  • NotPanicked - July 1, 2011 2:30 a.m.

    oh. never mind my earlier comment. i thought you meant 2 ds zeldas in 2 years as in a yearly release. We did get 2 ds zeldas in two years, one at the very beginning of "year one" and the other at the end of "year two". We did get a year off. I should have known not to doubt you. Sorry if i caused any confusion. Also, this was a great article.
  • Nap1400 - July 1, 2011 2:45 a.m.

    Shouldn't you guys have saved this for AFTER Skyward Sword comes out? Anyway, I'm not exactly fond of ALTTP, but maybe that's partly because I still can't find the first dungeon item. I...still don't have a favorite. Both OoT and TP seemed too easy to me, and I still have yet to play the WW. The 2D Zeldas seem to be too confusing for them to be my favorite. But still, I love the franchise, and can't wait to see what else they will do with it.
  • koubo - July 1, 2011 2:53 a.m.

    I think you hit it right on the dot with A Link to the Past. Since it is the first one I played, I find it really hard to even play the first two Zelda games. I still haven't beaten either of them, in fact. I love LttP a ton, though. It's a game I play at least once a year. My favorite is Oracle of Ages, though. I really loved the puzzles in that game, and since my brother picked up Seasons around the time I got Ages, I was able to enjoy the connectivity the games shared. Since then I have acquired my own copy of Seasons and play through the both of them every couple of years. I still haven't played Majora's Mask yet. I not sure why, but now that I know it has the first appearance of Tingle, I may need to play it soon.
  • nadrewod - July 1, 2011 2:58 a.m.

    The bird in the colorful Link's Awakening photo looks just like Noctowl, except with shorter eyebrows.
  • Spybreak8 - July 1, 2011 3 a.m.

    A Link to the Past was where it all began. Ocarina of Time was like the Atomic Bomb. Minish Cap was really good and unique. Played a little bit of Majora's Mask on a rom, hated it. Liked Phantom Hourglass but the one temple, always having to use touch controls and sailing everywhere ruined it. Spirit Tracks also has it's problems but is better than Z:PH.
  • Genericide - July 1, 2011 3:03 a.m.

    I have played all but a couple Zelda games and agree with the majority of this list, but I have 3 points I'd like to bring up: 1. When you say there's nothing bad you can think of Link to the Past, I might suggest that some of the dungeon design is a bit archaic/frustrating. I was coincidentally was just this morning playing this game in the dark world forest dungeon, which has those bloody hands that take you back to the entrance spawning continuously in just about every room. Rooms that are filled with hard to kill enemies and lots of pits. Argh. 2. Speaking of frustration, I was surprised that in your assessment of Zelda 2 you didn't mention the thing that I hated the most and even kept me from finishing it: the difficulty. That game gets horrendously difficult at times, but what bugs me is it's often for the wrong reasons. The heinous 'lives' were probably the worst, and I can think of absolutely no benefit whatsoever to adding lives to an open world game. Especially one littered with near bullet hell moments and instant death pits. Other games like Mega Man did things like this, but stages in those games were several minutes long, whereas Zelda 2 sends you back to the starting point of the bloody game when you arbitrarily lose 3 lives. From a design standpoint I find this inexcusable because it completely ruined the game for me yet adds nothing I can think of to the gameplay. 3. I object to your entry on Link: The Faces of Evil! That shouldn't be on this list because it's not a Zelda game. It never happened. :D

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