Why it’s the best Zelda ever: Like the idea and general structure of Zelda but wish it didn’t take itself and its story so seriously? Link’s Awakening (now on 3DS’ Virtual Console) takes the dungeons, items and core mechanics that made Link to the Past one of the greatest games of all time and spins them into an utterly bizarre adventure that exudes a sense of childlike wonder. It’s also the first to stray from the primary canon, offering no interaction with Zelda or Ganon, and going so far as to suggest the entire game is a dream (which explains the pervasive oddness and liberal mix of new and old ideas). There are even cross-Nintendo cameos – Mario, Yoshi and Chain Chomps all appear!
Why it’s the worst Zelda ever: Because it’s just so damn weird. The guts are all solid as ever, but where’s the sense of urgency, or the grand legend of a realm ravaged by an ongoing struggle for the Triforce? The stand-in story about the Wind Fish may float your boat, but in the grand scheme of things, it just ain’t Zelda enough to be the end-all be-all title.
Brett’s take: This is actually the first Zelda I didn’t finish right away. Took years to get to that point. It just never grabbed me, partly because the original Game Boy was a horrid system for a grand adventure, what with its Exorcist-vomit-green screen and blurry refresh rate. The Game Boy Color version alleviated those concerns for sure, but in the end it’s a fun side story – not the best in the series.
Why it’s the best Zelda ever: It brilliantly and boldly took everything that made Zelda work, from the vast overworld to the puzzle-heavy dungeons to the generations-spanning story, and converted it into a 3D world. Hyrule now more than ever felt like a true location, with multiple cultures and civilizations existing side by side, as well as a full day/night cycle that let you watch the sun set over the expansive Hyrule Field. All those misty eyed, nostalgic feelings we had for the original Zelda were fully realized in Ocarina, and that’s why it remains one of the most beloved titles of all time. Best Zelda ever? Extremely likely.
Why it’s the worst Zelda ever: There’s no good argument why this could be the worst, but it’s arguably no longer the best. Just as the original Zelda paved the way for A Link to the Past (and the series in general), Ocarina laid the groundwork for all 3D sequels. That means future games (Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, potentially Skyward Sword) expand and improve on the ideas that began here, like enemy combat, the size of the overworld and the scope of the story. Ocarina remains a historically important game, but advances in technology and design prevent it from retaining the lofty #1 spot it enjoyed for so many years. The new 3DS version cleans up the aging graphics and archaic inventory system though, so it helps keep Ocarina more relevant and suggestable than other ‘90s games.
Brett’s take: I’ve gone on record multiple times saying Ocarina is no longer the de-facto “best Zelda ever.” Yes it was flat-out amazing in 1998, and I, like the millions of others who played it, was dumbstruck by the sheer amount of content crammed into every corner. But nostalgia is just a prettier word for “rose colored glasses,” and while playing Ocarina with modern tastes in mind I can’t put it at the top spot. Again, the 3DS version addresses many of the age-related quirks, but not all.
Why it’s the best Zelda ever: No Zelda before or since has been as ambitiously weird as Majora’s Mask. Starting with off-putting villain Skull Kid and a visibly angry moon, MM has a shockingly dark edge to it, one we found strangely appealing. A shadowy, ill-fated air hangs over everything, and with the Groundhog Day-like repeating three day cycle, you must witness the destruction you’re trying to prevent over and over. With the set schedule of events repeating every trio of days, it makes the world of Termina one of the most densely designed and memorable settings in Zelda history. Additionally, the hook of Link wearing masks to take on the abilities of different mythic races gives this adventure a spirit all its own. The fact this peculiar title is the best looking N64 game to date (thanks to the required use of the Expansion Pack) is gravy on what makes Majora’s Mask incredibly unique and memorable.
Why it’s the worst Zelda ever: That three day gimmick is also Majora’s greatest weakness. Having to battle the clock is antithetical to the spirit of exploration that Zelda is based upon, sometimes sucking all the fun out of the title. It’s at its worst in the dungeons, as anyone who raced to beat a boss before the moon crashed into the earth, forcing them to retrace their steps can attest. And if you’re not feeling the vibe of MM, then its strangeness will push you away, wishing for a more straightforward experience. Lastly, this game features the first appearance of Tingle. Nuff said.
Henry’s take: Majora’s Mask is weird to be sure, and even its strongest supporters will admit they were annoyed at least once by the time constraints placed on them. Still, you have to appreciate the Zelda team for trying something so bizarre after Ocarina, probably the most traditional Zelda game ever made. Majora’s Mask encapsulates the inventive spirit Zelda needs to stay fresh, even if its creativity got a little ahead of itself.
Why they’re the best Zelda ever: Individually, the Oracle games are great handheld Zelda adventures. Together, they’re a huge tale that spans two interconnected Game Boy carts, something few other games can boast. Imagine getting two brand new Zelda games on the same day – one (Seasons) focused on action and boss battles, the other (Ages) packed to the brim with mind-bending puzzles. No matter your taste, one of these games delivered. Then, when you finished one, you could use its end-of-game password to affect the companion game and continue the journey. Using the password effectively turned the second title into a true sequel, altering dialog and the final boss encounter so thoroughly that it really was worth playing through both. It also had the all the familiarity of a good “normal” Zelda yet many of the same quirks (off the wall characters, one of a kind abilities etc) that made Link’s Awakening so oddly alluring.
Why they’re the worst Zeldas ever: For all their cleverness, these are largely just two games cobbled together using existing Link’s Awakening assets. They reek of last-minute cash-ins, shoved out the door before the Game Boy Advance sucked the wind out the of Game Boy Color’s sails. And splitting content across two games? Why not spend that time making one really robust game instead of forcing us to buy two for the full experience? Or at least save them for GBA so they could look like new games, not some weird remix of Link’s Awakening?
Brett’s take: I preferred Seasons to Ages, but as with Awakening, I had a hard time committing to a handheld Zelda. And after the amazing Ocarina of Time and supremely creative Majora’s Mask, these felt comparatively weak. Still, they’re both worth playing (aren’t all Zelda games?), so I hope Nintendo has plans for them on the 3DS Virtual Console.
Why it's the best Zelda ever: All you jerks who hated on the "cartoony" visuals of Wind Waker can go eat your tunics now. The most hotly divisive aspect of Wind Waker, the cel-shaded graphics, are a big part of what makes it the best in the series – it's the first fully 3D game that truly has a timeless look. But even more important than its uniquely artistic appeal, Wind Waker's incredibly natural, intuitive controls absolutely perfected the system that Ocarina of Time introduced.
Why it's the worst Zelda ever: The first and most obvious complaint lies in the open sea – you’ll spend lots (lots!) of time sailing a big blue nothing, slowly floating from place to place. You can eventually teleport around the map, but even then, this isn’t an overworld in the usual Zelda style, and turned a lot of regular players away. Gutsy move on Nintendo’s part, but it didn’t entirely pay off. Furthermore, the fetch quest near the end is pretty insufferable, requiring even more piddling around when what we wanted was some damn adventure. And need we mention the Tingle Tuner?
Carolyn's take: Wind Waker is easily my favorite 3D Zelda. It's not just the timelessness of the graphics – I also love the actual artistic style, from stubby-legged Link to the billowy smoke clouds that poof out from defeated foes. My favorite character from the Zelda universe by far, Tetra, was also introduced in this game, so the story holds a special place in my heart too.