If Mario is to video games what Budweiser is to beer, then Zelda is like the Alchemist Brewery. If you’re not a beer enthusiast that’s to say that Zelda is like fine wine to Mario’s table offering. And if you’re not a wine person, well I’m just saying that while Nintendo is best known for Mario, it’s Zelda that is their true flagship offering. Ever since The Legend of Zelda debuted in 1986 for the NES, it’s been the franchise that Nintendo is most apt to make sure isn’t over-exposed and benefits from long development cycles to best ensure a quality product is delivered. That’s not a slight against Mario, it’s just he has way more spin-offs and lesser outings than Link tends to (not that he’s immune from the occasional Hyrule Warriors or Crossbow Training).
To celebrate thirty years of Zelda, it seems like a good time to take a look back at the main entries in the series and rank ’em! I did it with Mario, so why not Link? The same criteria applies. I’m only ranking the main entries so Hyrule Warriors is out. I also choose to not acknowledge those horrible and forgettable entries on the CDi console. Portable entries do count, and where a remake exists I’ll acknowledge it, but for the most part, I’m ranking the originals. The era in which the game was released is also factored, though more weight is given to the games that are just plain more entertaining to play. So while some may argue that the original should be considered the best because it laid the foundation for all of the rest, I would argue that’s not enough to guarantee a number one ranking. Many of these games I’ve reviewed before, and where I have I’ll link to my original review so you can pick through what I said and criticize me for contradicting myself in places.
Before I really dive in, I would just like to say that a truly awful Zelda game has not been released in the main series. While some are definitely better than others, even the worst are playable. We’re definitely grading on a curve here. Essentially, what I’m saying is if you don’t like my criticism of your favorite Zelda game just remember I’m not saying it’s actually a bad game. So let’s get this thing going. Between the home consoles and the portables, I count a total of 15 games – 8 on consoles, 7 on portables. That doesn’t count remakes and it doesn’t count the side entries (Four Swords, Tri Force Heroes, etc.) and it obviously doesn’t include the as yet released Breath of the Wild. Now that I’ve established that, let’s see what the number sixteen, and worst Zelda game, happens to be…
15. Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS 2009) – Not surprisingly, our first entrant is a portable. Perhaps surprising to some, is that it’s not an infamous sequel on the NES. That’s because Spirit Tracks manages to be annoying, and kind of ugly. For Zelda on the DS, Nintendo thought it would be a great idea to force a stylus-based control scheme on the player. I can’t put into words how awful a decision that was. For the portables especially, Nintendo loves adding gimmicks to Zelda games. For whatever reason, Nintendo associates gimmicks with innovation, which I’d argue is a terrible mindset as a game developer. Regardless, the gimmick fails. The DS also isn’t powerful enough to do justice to the Wind Waker inspired visuals. To top it off, there’s also a really boring train mechanic added to the gameplay that’s topped only by Wind Waker’s sailing as most boring form of transportation featured in a Zelda title. I said before that a truly bad Zelda game has never been released on a Nintendo console, but Spirit Tracks is a game I would not recommend to casual gamers. Only Zelda enthusiasts need apply.
14. Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS 2007) – Given what I said about Spirit Tracks, it’s probably no surprise that Phantom Hourglass ranks beside it. Truthfully, there’s little separating the two as the control scheme is my major beef with both entries. Spirit Tracks just happens to have the more annoying train junk, while Phantom Hourglass has a slightly less cumbersome version of the sailing featured in Wind Waker. I’d also like to point out how wrong reviewers were when both games came out. Zelda has such a strong reputation that fans and professional reviewers alike seem to overlook things. As a result, if you look back on the review scores both games received you may be surprised at how high they are. I bet if you had most of those reviewers sit down today and replay these games they’d probably agree they were little over enthusiastic at the time their review was first published.
13. The Adventure of Link (NES 1987) – Ahh here it is, the black sheep of the Zelda family. The Adventure of Link, like the American Super Mario Bros. 2, was Nintendo attempting to radically change their IP with its first sequel. Wanting to approach Zelda in a whole new manner, The Adventure of Link (often referred to simply as Link) was a side-scrolling action RPG that is unlike anything that has followed in the Zelda canon. As such, it’s hard to rank amongst the other games which all follow a pretty standard formula. Link is not the 13th best Zelda game because it’s different though. In fact, my main criticism with the Zelda franchise is that it needs to take more chances (and stupid gimmicks don’t count) or risk becoming stale. Link is simply ranked here because it has a lot of warts. It’s control scheme is subpar as Link’s range of attack is brutally short. It’s also a very difficult game, but with a surprisingly easy final boss, and it’s unforgiving nature is something no other title in the series shares. With some better tuning and balancing, Link could be a stellar title and it’s the type of game I’d like to see Nintendo take another stab at. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a rare direct sequel in the Zelda timeline (not that it’s in-game storyline is remotely satisfying, making the sequel bit more of a novelty than anything).
12. Skyward Sword (Wii 2011) – Here it is, our first controversial entry! While the DS games may have their fans, most probably rank them towards the bottom of the pile in terms of Zelda games. And Zelda II is as close to being universally disliked as a Zelda game gets, but Skyward Sword? IGN gave it a perfect rating when it came out! Luckily, this isn’t IGN.com and it’s my list and I say that Skyward Sword is modern Zelda at its worst. Nintendo has been trying to make Zelda “grow up” and be a more epic style of game seemingly ever since the backlash received by Wind Waker when it first debuted at E3. Nintendo’s solution for Skyward Sword was to make the game slower and overly pretentious with its storyline. I don’t think I’ve encountered a game with a more dull opening few hours than Skyward Sword. For all of the things Nintendo does well, crafting a compelling storyline is just not one of them. Skyward Sword is boring, and the motion controls are terrible. I couldn’t stand them. Criticize me if you wish, but I couldn’t even finish this game and yet I’m still rendering a verdict. I won’t call it a terrible game, but I will say it’s a game that I hated. Since I like to be positive when it comes to my reviews of games and art alike, I will say the visual style is wonderful and I’m impressed with what Nintendo achieved with the aging Wii hardware. Here’s hoping Breath of the Wild is better.
11. The Wind Waker (Gamecube 2003) – All right, so we’re following up one controversial entry with another, but hear me out on this one. We’ve already reached the part of our list where the games are getting much closer in quality, and few would even be considered average games by traditional measures. Though in some respects, Wind Waker still trends more towards that “OK” range than that “Wow!” one. It’s a game with a funny legacy. When the Gamecube was first unveiled it was accompanied by a tech demo that featured a Link vs Ganondorf battle that largely resembled the visual style of Ocarina of Time. Most gamers took this as an indication of what the next Zelda title would look like. Then Nintendo unveiled Wind Waker with its cel-shaded toon look, and gamers revolted. By the time it was released in early 2003 opinions had softened some and it seemed like there was an over-correction to the initial backlash and the game was largely praised. It seems to be a common favorite for many, but for me, I consider it mostly a doldrum affair. It looks fine, it runs fantastic, and the controls are more precise than the N64 games that preceded it, I just find it boring. The modern Zelda titles, much like the modern Mario ones, are not known for their challenge, but Wind Waker takes things too far by being the easiest Zelda game in existence. The combat is especially trite as the parry system is just far too powerful. And then there’s the sailing…The sailing is painfully boring, but most people already know that and even the game’s adorers acknowledge that low point. The game is flashy though, and I think that’s a big reason why so many people enjoy it, but I just don’t have much fun when I play it. At least there’s no Navi though!
10. Oracle of Ages (Gameboy Color 2001) – When the Gameboy Color came out, it was announced that Zelda would be coming to the console by way of Capcom, who had a solid working relationship with Nintendo. Three games were to come that would interact with one another. Three games eventually became two, and the delays were severe enough that by the time Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons made it to retail most gamers ended up playing them not on their Gameboy Color, but on their Gameboy Advance. Oracle of Ages was to be the more puzzle-oriented of the two, and it’s main gimmick was a time-traveling one that was also similar to the light and dark worlds found in A Link to the Past. The visuals and play style were very similar to the Gameboy title Link’s Awakening, which had also been re-released for the Gameboy Color. The look and feel of the game though was more rooted in traditional Zelda, but did carry on the tradition of the handheld games not featuring Ganon as the main antagonist. When the games launched, I expected to enjoy Ages more for its supposed puzzle-oriented approach, but I actually found it kind of lacking. The time puzzles felt rather ordinary, especially considering Ocarina of Time had tread similar ground, and the game started to become a bit of a grind towards the end. An enjoyable game, to be sure, but perhaps not as good as it could have been.
9. The Minish Cap (Gameboy Advance Japan 2004, NA 2005) – The Minish Cap represents Link’s lone, non port, outing for the Gameboy Advance, a relatively underrated console in the grand scheme of things. It borrows heavily from The Wind Waker in terms of looks, a trend that would continue on the DS, while retaining much of the gameplay style of the Gameboy titles that preceded it. And like most of the handheld games, it features a gameplay gimmick that sometimes works and sometimes does not. In this one, Link’s hat is sentient and has the power to shrink him when he stands on specific platforms. As Minish Link, he can reach places he normally cannot. The game itself is tried and true top-down Zelda, and it’s mostly enjoyable. The gimmick overstays its welcome by the time the end arises, and stand-in villain Vaati is no Ganon, but it’s a fun, unremarkable kind of game. As such, it doesn’t really stand out amongst the Zelda library, for good or bad. If it had chosen to do more with itself it probably would have placed higher as the game looks, and handles, quite well. Re-used boss fights from older games and the same basic setup as others is what harms it more than anything. It also strikes to the core of my main point of criticism with the franchise as Nintendo is content to think whatever new gimmick it has added to the series is the basis for which it should be judged as far as originality is concerned, never mind that the same boss fights are recycled over and over.