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

They can't all be legendary. Or can they?

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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