For over thirty years, fans all over the world have enjoyed the magic of The Legend of Zelda franchise. Starting with The Legend of Zelda in 1986, Nintendo has consistently put out some of the most popular and highly regarded games of all time. The series currently has 17 main story games spanning 12 different systems. Including the first, Ocarina of Time, the Legend of Zelda team has produced six 3D home console games, and Nintendo announced a new Zelda game is in the works, to follow up the critically acclaimed Breath of the Wild. The franchise has come a long way since Ocarina of Time redefined gaming in 1998. It’s been two years since Breath of the Wild was released, and that begs the question: “where it stands among the other five 3D games?”
What makes a good Zelda game?
Legend of Zelda games are meant to be a grand adventure and each game provides a unique adventure centered around protagonist Link. In the first Legend of Zelda game, there were no directions. Link started out in the middle of Hyrule and was given a sword because it was too dangerous to go alone. Players fell in love right away. The sense of adventure, the characters, the puzzles and dungeons, the locations, the gameplay, the music, and the story are the key elements that make Legend of Zelda games what they are.
Each game takes pieces from the original game and expands on them. The games became more linear as the series went on, but an open world isn’t necessary to create a memorable adventure. We just want an immersive world that tingles our senses. Each section of Hyrule or other lands Link explores are filled with vibrant colors, imaginative details, fun and challenging dungeons and puzzles, and interesting characters. The visuals of each game coupled with a sensational soundtrack are what give them a realistic feel that players crave.
Story elements play a key role in crafting the Legend of Zelda world. Whether you are in Hyrule, Termina or Koholint Island, you are sucked into a story that makes you happy, sad, laugh and cry. Link’s many journeys take us to places like beautiful Lake Hylia, desolate yet welcoming Gerudo Desert, hot and scary Death Mountain, a place filled with wonder called Rito Villiage and a multitude of other memorable landmarks. It is all about who is there, what the landscape looks like and how it makes you feel. Every character is important and it all starts with Hyrule’s resilient and lovable princess, Zelda. Meeting a Goron or Zora feels more like talking to an old friend instead of a non-player controlled robot. You want to be invested in the story all the way until you fight the villain at the end and save the world. The team at Nintendo puts their heart and soul into each game and it shows. No matter how many times you play, each adventure is different.
Of course, the gameplay itself is also important. You want to feel like you are Link. Each swing of the sword or arrow shot has to feel as real as possible. Players want a challenging yet fun game filled with unique weapons and tough combat. Solving puzzle like objectives have been the backbone of the games and dungeons have become a key element to each game. When you first walk into a dungeon, you want to be excited and ready to explore with sword and shield in hand. The first five 3D games followed a similar formula. You go from area to area, explore the dungeon, take out the boss using new weapons to gain access to the next part of the adventure. Breath of The Wild was more about open world exploring, but kept many of the same gameplay elements.
All of these essential elements are what make a game a Zelda game. Each 3D game has these features in them in one way or another, but not all Legend of Zelda games are created equal.
Ranking these games may seem impossible, but I’m going to give it a shot! These rankings are based on my personal opinions, the team at Zelda Universe and the opinions of many Zelda fans.
Breath of the Wild is officially two years old. So where does it fall in these rankings? You’re about to find out!
Remember: these rankings are purely opinion and do not represent the entire Zelda Universe staff…trust me.
6. Skyward Sword
All games in the Legend of Zelda series are great games, however, they are all not great Zelda games. Skyward Sword is an essential piece of the lore, but it is not an essential game in the Zelda library. The franchise has been held to a higher standard since the release of The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and with each subsequent release, Nintendo has solidified The Legend of Zelda as one of the greatest video game franchises of all time.
Skyward Sword follows a great story, and you meet a ton of great characters along the way. The incarnation of Zelda in this game is a fan favorite. She is funny and charming which adds another layer to the relationship between her and Link. You see them interact in a way they never have before. The supporting characters like Groose and his swoopy red hair add some humor into narrative. The world is full of bright colors and fun loving characters. Even the music in each section is memorable.
But The Legend of Zelda is based around exploring. The older Zelda games allow you to more freely explore Hyrule, and even though the 3D games are more linear, exploration is still a large part of the experience. Unfortunately, Nintendo missed the mark in Skyward Sword.
The hand holding and having to retrace your steps repeatedly made the game feel stale at times. Not often in a Zelda game are you bored of exploring, but here it felt more like a chore than an adventure. The constant dialogue with Fi can slow down the adventure. The dungeons in this game are hit and miss. Some are way too easy, others are unnecessarily difficult and tedious. Not to mention the motion controls made playing more frustrating than it needed to be for many players. Skyward Sword would benefit greatly from a remake for the Switch. Skyward Sword just did not have the same feel to it as other Zelda games.
That does not mean Skyward Sword is a bad game. It is just a bad Zelda game. The charming and supporting cast, vibrant landscapes, and enjoyable music all make this game a memorable experience, but when you are being compared to the games on the list, it is easy to see how Skyward Sword is on a lower level than the other five.
5. Majora’s Mask
Nintendo knew they needed to deliver a great sequel to Ocarina of Time, and they did. Majora’s Mask is a game shrouded with mystery right from the title screen. You find yourself racing against the clock to save Termina from the moon crashing into it. Majora’s Mask was a different kind of adventure than the others on this list because you only had three days to save Termina. Luckily, Link can control the flow of time. The sense of adventure is present immediately, and there is very little direction. It is just you and Link trying to figure out why the kid in the scarecrow mask wants to destroy the world with a moon.
The dark atmosphere and undertones in the story are nothing like we have seen in any other Zelda game. The tension is thick as you attempt to save the world in time. The moon slowly inches closer and each in-game hour goes quick. Right from the beginning, Clock Town is a unique and fun setting. You meet a cast of memorable characters, including the Bombers and Skull Kid. Skull Kid is one of the most memorable villains in the series, and it was nice to see Link squaring off against someone other than Ganondorf.
The more realistic game design only adds to the mystique. You can feel the impending doom in this game, and the anxiety of saving Clock Town really adds to the tension and urgency. The dungeons are well designed and Majora’s Mask is rewarding due to its difficulty. Urgency is something that is unique to Majora’s Mask, and the race against time is exhilarating. Flipping between masks and fighting memorable bosses makes you want to beat the game in one sitting. Luckily, it’s long enough to make one sitting a challenge for most people. Majora’s Mask’s dark yet compelling story and a plethora of side quests give it replayability. Even the music is eerie. I will never forget the sounds of the Southern Swamp leading to the Deku Palace. There are a lot of tempo switches in the music which only boosts the sense of urgency. This game makes it clear Link has little time, and you better make the most of it. It is easy to see why so many people love this game.
Overall, Majora’s Mask feels different than the rest of the games. It’s just odd. People are divided on whether the three-day feature is great or frustrating, and I think that it can take away from experience. The game was basically a rework of Ocarina of Time so it had many of the same character designs and features. Of course, Majora’s Mask is a great game, but it feels too much like a sequel and does not add much to the series, which is why it ultimately sits at number five on this list.
4. Ocarina of Time
The game that started it all for 3D Zelda games. Ocarina of Time is widely regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, not only because of the way it revolutionized gaming but because it created a world like no other. Exploring Hyrule for the first time in a game of this magnitude was just so special. So many 3D games are inspired in some way by this game. This is part of its long-lasting appeal, and it holds up after all these years. Those first few music notes on the title screen bring on a wave of nostalgia that no other form of media can. This game is simply perfect.
Ocarina of Time is amazing from the second Link wakes up in his tree house all the way to delivering the final blow to Ganon with the Master Sword. The music gently guides you through a story that has highs and lows. Songs like the Serenade of Water and Prelude of Light are beautiful even though they are only a few seconds long. The story was intriguing and you made you want to keep going. You just had to know what happens next. Ocarina of Time has so much replayability because you discover something new each time. The sights and sounds of Hyrule are something that invokes joy and adventure in your heart.
Where Ocarina of Time really shines is gameplay. When this game first came out, it was a spectacle. The 3D battle sequences and movement of characters was nothing short of spectacular. The dungeons and overworld are so well put together and interesting that you want to explore every inch. Even difficult areas like the Water Temple are exhilarating. Everything in this game meshes together so well. The music, the landscape, the characters and the dungeons all come together to create an epic story that may never be recreated.
Ocarina of Time does have its flaws. It’s been 20 years and we should now take a look at it from an objective perspective and be able to recognize its faults, but also its brilliance. The controls can feel clunky, but that is to be expected. Certain aspects like as Golden Skulltula collecting, are almost impossible to figure out without help. However, it was one of a kind when it came out and still is.
Overall this game is as perfect as a Legend of Zelda game can be. The story is well written and interesting, the dungeon designs provide an exciting challenge and it never feels boring. The brilliance of this game has shaped the rest of the series.
3. Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess and Majora’s Mask are both cult favorites. Twilight Princess is often lauded as “Ocarina of Time 2.0”, but some people say that as a knock on the game, but that is what makes it so great. Nintendo took some of what made Ocarina of Time one of the best games ever made and improved it. They opted to go with a darker tone similar to Majora’s Mask. The presentation make it clear that the objective was to provide a more realistic and mature story. The eerie sounds and the almost blurry graphics add to the realism and dark ambiance.
This game did so many things right. The story is memorable and each character you meet adds another dimension to the story. Each event that happens in the story sucks you in more, and the dark themes make you want to keep playing. Each area is charming, most notable are Zora’s Domain, Ordon Villiage and Castle Town. The dungeons are a masterclass in design because they are interesting and the puzzles are challenging yet rewarding. Midna is one of the best companion characters in the entire series. Her sassiness and humor make this dark world a little more bearable. You cannot forget the music. every track in this game is so beautifully put together and it makes the game that much better. Twilight Princess is an epic adventure from start to finish, even if the first three dungeons are almost replicas of Ocarina of Time. Plus you get to hold cats in this game. You couldn’t even pet the dogs in Breath of the Wild.
The gameplay in Twilight Princess is some of the best in the series. Link’s combat movement is fluid and feels quick. The overworld is well designed and interactions with characters during talking sequences or combat sequences are well executed. Turning into a wolf is one of the most fun and imaginative features in the entire series. I wish I could have seen my face the first time he transformed. I assume it was the same awestruck face I had the first time I watched The Dark Knight. The final sword fight with Ganondorf is the best battle in the series.
There are some critiques to the game, such as the art style, and the barren Hyrule Field and other areas. While I understand that this did not revolutionize the series, it was still was made well. The HD version made welcome improvements like improved visuals and fewer Tears of Light.
Overall, the combination of a compelling story, interesting characters, strong dungeon design, dark yet intriguing music, and gameplay overshadow any tiny flaws it may have and makes Twilight Princess a masterpiece. Twilight Princess checked all the boxes.
2. Breath of the Wild
I believe Breath of the Wild is what the original Legend of Zelda would have been if Nintendo had the technology and resources of today. This is exactly what The Legend of Zelda was meant to be. The first time you walk out of the Shrine of Resurrection and see Hyrule a chill runs up your spine. Just the massive scale of the world made you want to dive in head first. The expansive world delivers a sense of adventure that The Legend of Zelda series has not had in a long time. Picking up your first stick and whacking away at your first enemy is so fun it feels like you are playing your first video game ever. It is just that great.
The story is designed allows you to play the game however you want and to do whatever you want. Eventually, you have to fight Calamity Ganon, but you have the choice to confront him immediately after leaving the Great Plateau or after 100 hours of collecting Mighty Bananas and making elixirs. Each section of Hyrule is well designed, and there is so much to do you never get bored. The sheer magnitude of the world that they created is overwhelming but in the best way possible. The Great Plateau alone is enough to make its own game. No other game in this series embodies a “do it your way” adventure like this game.
Then comes the gameplay. Of course, the weapon durability can be frustrating, but that’s the point. Breath of the Wild is supposed to an epic and unforgiving journey. You are supposed to collect everything you can and play it smart. I love that the Master Sword needs a recharge. The combat is fluid and fun, and you never run out of enemies to fight. The variety of enemies and terrains is one of the many highlights. There is so much to explore you are never really done.
You may be asking “if this game is so perfect why isn’t it number one?” While all the exploration is great, the lack of real dungeons and lackluster story take away from how great the rest of the game is. The shrines and Divine Beasts were fun to explore but they just were never enough.
All other 3D Zelda games crafted stories that make you make you want to play the games over again. Once great stories become an integral part of the series, players craved those as much as the adventure. Breath of the Wild just didn’t create a story like the games before it has. The story was more of an outline than a complete body of work. Yeah, we got the big idea, but where are the little details. Those make a Legend of Zelda game.
Only one Zelda game has been great in every aspect, and really captured what it is to be a Legend of Zelda game.
1. The Wind Waker
The Wind Waker encompasses everything that is great in this series. The adventurous spirit can be felt in every facet of the game, and the story is rich with memorable moments. The colorful world and endearing story won the hearts of Zelda fans. The cel-shading made this uplifting game that much more enjoyable. The cast of supporting characters like Makar and Tetra provide this vibrant world with even more charm. This game includes Link at his most expressive, whether he is swinging his sword or climbing up on a ledge.
When you first ride the King of Red Lions you can almost smell the ocean and feel the wind on your face. The second the music starts you can feel the fire of adventure rage in your stomach, and that feeling does not subside at all. The dungeons were immersive and fun to explore. The Tower of the Gods and the Wind Temple are two of the most well-designed dungeons in the series. At some points, the game may have been too easy, but that is part of its charm. The Wind Waker is just fun and cheery. Other games went for more darker tones, but The Wind Waker did a complete 180. The Wind Waker struck a perfect balance between serious and light and fun.
Dragon Roost Island and Windfall Island are two of the most interesting places in all of Hyrule, and you visit them near the very beginning of the game. The use of Medli and Makar in the dungeons and their stories to becoming sages are great pieces to the story.
The combination of a sense of adventure, fun and lovable characters, immersive and well-executed dungeons, a multitude of interesting and beautiful islands, fluid gameplay and whimsical graphics, upbeat and cheery music, and a compelling story make The Wind Waker such an amazing game.
Even so, The Wind Waker does have its critics. Not everyone was a fan of the cel-shading design that gave it the cartoon feel, and that backlash directly led to the darker style used in Twilight Princess. We also cannot forget about the dreaded Triforce Shard quest. Sailing all over Hyrule and collect hundreds of rupees is ultimately a drawn-out fetch quest. Luckily for us, Nintendo listened to this criticism and decided to make this quest easier on the HD version. The Swift Sail is another great improvement made in the HD version that was a direct response to criticism.
The Wind Waker is universally regarded as one of the best in the series. However, during my research, there was one person who put it last. LAST!? But what does that guy know?
This game is perfect down to every little detail. Each expression on Link’s face and the tiny details on every island make this game immersive in every way. Outset Island is so much fun to explore and was the perfect way to start this game. The sailing mechanic defines the spirit of adventure that is Legend of Zelda. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the best Legend of Zelda game. I would also say it is the greatest game ever made. Hands down.
Concluding The Rankings
It is no secret that The Legend of Zelda series has created some of the most memorable video game moments of the last 30 years. What Nintendo did with Ocarina of Time revolutionized video games forever, and we are all forever grateful. The sense of adventure, the characters, the puzzles and dungeons, the locations, the gameplay, the music, and the story of all these games make them what they are. Each game is great in its own way, and they all have flaws (even The Wind Waker).
The future of the series is at a crossroads. We’re are not exactly sure what form the next Zelda game will take. If I had to guess, Nintendo is going to create a Zelda game that is a hybrid of all these games. Either way, I know the next game will bring Legend of Zelda fans closer together and provide us all with endless memories.