Ranking the Zelda games is perhaps the most daunting task Nick and I have ever faced in our gaming journalism careers. No series has been this venerated and loved by gamers so universally and it’s a hell of a thing deciding what is better than another, especially when over the 25 year history of Zelda comparing a certain title to another can be like weighing a tonne of apples against a tonne of kumquats. It’s all very tricky, but we have here a list that we have picked after careful debate of a few handpicked games in the franchise. These are the standout games in the series. Sometimes flawed, always breathtaking to legions of fans.
Those games that didn’t make the list are still good games – Nintendo’s rarely put a foot wrong with the series, but whether it’s that they’re a touch derivative, too old for their own good, or simply inferior to something on this list, they aren’t as memorable as the following titles:
NICK: For those who played Wind Waker, what is the thing that you remember about the game? Some people will undoubtedly say the cel-shading graphical style, some will say the cutesy take on the formulaic Zelda story. Not I, however. For me, the most memorable thing about Wind Waker was nothing so happy. Instead, what I remember most are the endless treks between areas in the game.
Wind Waker followed the conventional Zelda formula of travelling between temples and the like, but where games like Ocarina of Time or Link’s Awakening would throw simple puzzles and battles at you to make the travel time interesting, Wind Waker instead put you in control of a ship sailing across open sea. Which, as a concept, sounds fine enough.
Until you realize that the open sea is nothing more than a graphical representation of empty space. In which nothing happens. Thus we give the game the bottom ranking on this little list.
You certainly have to hand it to them for coming up with an original idea; an adventure game where you get to actively sail around the world is something that hasn’t been seen before. Of course, I think there’s a reason for that: sailing usually precludes other activity, which means that you can’t do anything else. And when you have to spend about half of your gameplay time traveling around the map, doing nothing, it’s hard to stay invested.
ZANE: Twilight Princess is a notable game for very many reasons. First of all is that Nintendo continued to experiment with Zelda. The notable words in this sentence that should jump out at the reader is ‘Nintendo’ and ‘experiment.’ Nintendo is notorious with picking a handful of guns and sticking to them to the point when the only way to get them away from the company is to pry them their cold dead hands. Twilight Princess did rock the boat a bit, albeit in a less satisfactory way than Majora’s Mask, where Nintendo really threw out the formula and heaped burning fire upon it.
But unfortunately, we give it such a low slot because even though it was Zelda, it could easily have been another game if you had swapped out the story and the character set. It was perhaps the most generic fantasy of the series, and the fact that Nintendo went for the dark and edgy approach didn’t help.
Not to say that it was all bad. I award Nintendo points for taking a risk, and I must admit the graphics were singularly beautiful and stylistic. Combat as well Nintendo got right (when it wasn’t with a Wiimote) which is obviously very important. And I can’t really deny that it didn’t have a few memorable moments.
Despite all of this, I have to give it the low slot because, in the end, there is no excuse for making it a generic adventure game when you’re making another Zelda title.
NICK: While there are many out there who think quite highly of Link’s Awakening (our own EIC included), it must be said that, as compared to other Zelda titles, Link’s Awakening was a huge deviation from the formula.
And that’s the best thing about it.
Where nearly every other Zelda game pits you, as Link, battling against Ganon to save Princess Zelda and the kingdom of Hyrule, Link’s Awakening instead pitted you, as Link, trying to find a way off the damn island you’re stuck on. In a way, Link’s Awakening is the Lost of the Zelda series, only with a coherent ending and a lack of wishing it had ended two seasons earlier, and without that damn good versus evil thing that never gets resolved. And what’s the deal with the whole — sorry. Back on topic.
With enough content to nearly match Ocarina of Time and the same beloved Zelda formula transplanted into a separate world, Link’s Awakening certainly deserves a high spot on this list, if only because it is one of the most original titles of the franchise. But the real question is how it stacks up against the classic that spawned the original formula. Well…
ZANE: Well see, thing is here is that we have to award a tie. Simply because of the reason we’re comparing apples and oranges, and it is impossible to decide what goes higher on this list.
A Link to the Past was the first “real” Zelda game; where all the canon and formula finally took root and defined every future game. Admittedly it had its flaws but that is to be expected of this prototype. Game design certainly could have been better, but we will forgive them for that exact reason.
But for the record, while I’m still talking about A Link to the Past, the temples in that were waaaay harder than those of Ocarina of Time. Yes. Even the Water Temple. *cue nerd rage*
ZANE: Majora’s Mask is perhaps one of the most criminally underrated games of all time. While everybody played OoT, nobody played Majora’s Mask. Maybe it was because Nintendo was too daring, or that it required some real hard thought in some places to solve. In any case, it didn’t do very well in pop culture.
Like I said previously, Nintendo really threw out the formula here and just said: ‘screw it. We’ll do something else.’ And they did. With startling results.
The mechanic the game revolved around was the three days you had before the Moon, the most horrific moon I have ever seen, crashed into the land of Termina (NOT HYRULE! ZOMGWTFBBQ!).
Link, being a time travelling kid with too many swords and free time on his hands decides to save the land, without any real clear cut personal reason to, other than the whole doomsday thing. Although in my opinion, he could have just gone back to Hyrule with a clear conscious. Saving one nation is enough for a lifetime, right?
Also it had the BEST companion of any of the franchise. Tatl’s dingalingding was so much more pleasant compared to this:
Before I get too off track I’ll hand over to Nick for the reasons why this game was so very different and amazing.
NICK: As Zane has pointed out, the best part of Majora’s Mask was how different it was. Much like with Link’s Awakening, Link wasn’t stuck saving Zelda from Ganon in Hyrule. Instead, you were introduced to an entirely new world, one that seemed so much more alive than the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time. You were able to interact with people, see them living their lives, and come to care about whether they lived or died.
Other Zelda games haven’t managed to make you care so much about the NPCs around you: in Ocarina of Time, you have the one village that actually had people in it but Majora’s Mask had numerous settlements, all filled with characters that were depending on you to save them. And the most amazing part of it all was that they all seemed to matter; maybe it was because of the visible impending doom, or perhaps it was simply because the characters were better realized. Whatever the case may have been, you came to care about the NPCs to the point where you were saving the world not for yourself, but for them.
The other fantastic thing about Majora’s Mask was that you got to delve further into the culture of the races that they had created by actually becoming one of them. The Zora, the Deku and the Goron; all of them were so diverse and alien, but Majora’s Mask allowed you to explore their worlds and come to care about them as much as the humans.
Majora’s Mask conjured some fantastic emotions, most of which seem foreign to Zelda games. It was that originality that really made it stand out and it was that creativity that makes one of the best — and certainly the most underrated — title of the Zelda franchise.
ZANE: Now, if I know my audience, at least half of you have done a spit-take upon reading the number two next to Ocarina of Time, and the other half are scrambling to Google search my name in attempt to find my home and torch it to the ground for such blasphemy. Before you get those rags soaked by that Molotov you’re holding right now, read the rest of this and let me explain why.
I believe the reason why Ocarina of Time has been booted out of number one spot is because of a couple of factors.
Firstly, I think it all really comes down to nostalgia. Ocarina of Time is the sort of game that you have to play when you’re ten years old. Because you’re so young, what is awesome becomes super-incredible-nothing-in-the-world-is-going-to-ever-beat-this-EVER because you’re reasonably impressionable. To back up my point here, watch this clip from Final Fantasy VII – when Aeris dies.
Well that’s interesting. That’s not nearly as emotionally intense as it was all those years ago…
The generation that loves and holds up this game as the shining light of the Zelda series played it when we were all about ten – and this emotional amplification increased over time with nostalgia and old impressionability.
However, we were right in holding it up and cherishing it as Miyamoto’s (God’s) gift to gaming kind. It is still one of the best games out there. Period. And not just Zelda, in the history of gaming itself. Forget Mario, forget Metroid, forget Call of Duty, forget Final Fantasy VII, forget all of them. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time kicks the snot out of them, and fourteen years later – fourteen years – it still beats all comers. (I feel old now.)
Well, almost all comers.
ZANE: Skyward Sword has beaten Ocarina of Time because of lots and lots of small reasons that turn it into a big ball of awesome.
I think the main factor is what they have done to the relationship between Link and Zelda. In every single game, Zelda has been this far off woman in an ivory tower – who you’ve only met once – that begs you to save the kingdom of Hyrule from whatever evil is going down in this generation/continuity/universe/whatever the hell is going on with Nintendo and the Zelda universe.
Zelda isn’t this anymore. She’s a, er, person.
Zelda is no longer just this woman guiding your journey to kick evil ass and collect cool toys, she’s an actual character that you really grow attached to, and the incentive for rescuing the princess is no longer the obligation of Link and the player, but now a personal desire to save this person and have her back among the clouds with you.
I cannot even begin to describe how monumental this is in terms of this franchise. An analogy I can take from Mario, however, can.
Imagine a game where Princess Peach is given a backstory, a personality and discards her one-dimensional facade in order to take on the appeal of Half Life’s Alyx Vance. Mario is no longer trying to rescue her just as a by product of giving Bowser a good beating, but because the audience gives an actual damn about her.
Mind blowing, huh?
The game itself is just polished to a mirror sheen, reflecting everything Zelda should be and has been. The graphical style utterly nails it. It’s very slightly cartoony and it feels like someone’s taken all the hard edges out of Ocarina of Time and replaced all the textures with updated renditions. The combat is very satisfying and they finally worked out all the problems that the WiiMote had with Twilight Princess. The Master Sword has never been more fun to swing. The puzzles are tricky but intuitive, and to my utter delight, there are more sliding block puzzles! Huzzah! It is Zelda, distilled into an intoxicating cocktail of awesome.
On a more frivolous note, Fai beats every other companion except Tatl. Hands down, despite the fact she sounds like GLaDOS in a blender. (and the fact that she doesn’t have any hands…)
Well, that’s my reasoning, but I still suspect pitchforks are being sharpened as I type this, so if you have an opinion or a well-honed blade, check out our forums.
Let us know. Did we get it all wrong? Should I reinforce my doors and fireproof my bed?
Zane M. & Nick J.