Part 2 of this ranking feature for the games in the Legend of Zelda series should be less controversial than Part 1. Hopefully that doesn’t make it boring because we are just about at that point with this list where I’m splitting hairs. It’s probably not really a spoiler to say that the top 2 Zelda games are not really in question, and I think for many, the order is mostly agreed upon. I also think the next two games on our list are pretty clearly inferior to what follows, though some of that does depend on what your appetite for retro gaming is (suffice to say, if you were born sometime after 1990 the order of the following games is probably different from mine). Let’s move along though to take a look at these prestigious games which made it deep into the top ten.
8. Oracle of Seasons (Gameboy Color 2001) – The sister title to Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages, has already appeared on this list. Seasons was to be the more action-oriented of the two titles, but it’s still a Zelda game and isn’t really lacking for puzzles. It’s a more balanced title that manages to challenge the mind just as well as one’s ability to wield an in-game sword. The gimmick here is obviously the seasons, as indicated by the title. Early on Link acquires the Rod of Seasons that he can use to change the season of the screen he is on. Each screen has a default setting that it will reset to once the player exits it. As far as gimmicks go, it isn’t too bad, but it is rather limited in terms of puzzle application. It’s often easy to see what needs to be done to reach a certain area or acquire a certain item and it’s mostly a matter of time when the player will acquire a dungeon item or open a new path to clear the way. It’s a fine entry in the Zelda series, but it’s lack of diversity and a missing ingredient or two keep it from being among the franchise’s best.
7. Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64 2000) – Released two years after Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask has the distinction of being one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda series. It plays more like a companion piece than a full-fledged entry in the main canon, making it similar to the majority of the handhelds in that respect. And like the handhelds, it’s gameplay is driven by another gimmick, but this time the gimmick is pretty interesting. Majora’s Mask takes place over the course of three in-game days as the moon is on a collision course with earth thanks to the actions of the Skull Kid, who has stolen the magical artifact Majora’s Mask. As Link, the player sets out to acquire other powerful masks that enable Link to change form in order to progress further into the game. Using the Ocarina of Time, Link is able to continuously reset time to avoid disaster while keeping the items he’s obtained along the way. Essentially, this means that as the player you’re constantly in a race against the clock to advance the plot as far as possible before having to reset everything and do it again. It’s a clever idea, but it naturally overstays its welcome towards the end of the game. The game takes place in Termina, as opposed to Hyrule, necessitating a new, but less interesting, setting. And even though it’s in Termina, expect to encounter the same types of characters that Link did in Ocarina of Time. Thankfully, the game is shorter than its predecessor, otherwise the time-rewind function would really get old, but it still offers a pretty meaty experience. The game was remade and released on the 3DS in 2015, much like Ocarina of Time, and that edition is probably better than the original, but mostly just because it’s nicer to look at.
6. A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS 2013) – The next three games on this list I consider pretty fluid. I could have ordered them in any way and it probably would have pleased me, and that’s because they’re all great, but are just missing a little something which keeps them out of the top three. For number six, I’m going with the most recent game in the main series, A Link Between Worlds. Like Majora’s Mask and The Adventure of Link, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to another game in the series. In this case, that game is the SNES classic A Link to the Past. If you’re a Zelda fan, then you know that makes this the only game in the series to be a sequel of a game that already has a sequel. That’s because Link’s Awakening also takes place after A Link to the Past. I have no idea how this one relates to Link’s Awakening, but since the plot of that game is basically a dream I suppose it doesn’t matter. A Link Between Worlds is both helped and hindered by its predecessor. It borrows heavily from A Link to the Past, and if you’re going to borrow heavily from a game it might as well be one of the greatest ever made. It’s main difference is in the item system. Instead of entering dungeons and uncovering a new item, they’re all made available early from a merchant to rent. The idea seems to be that the player would be exchanging items here and there with the merchant, but since they’re not very expensive and rupees are never that hard to come by in a Zelda game, most gamers probably rented them all at once fairly early in the adventure. So while the game does rightly attempt to change things up a bit, it’s mostly for naught. There’s another parallel world for Link to enter, Lorule (get it?), which is very reminiscent of the Dark World from the first game. Link also has the new ability to become a painting on the wall to access normally inaccessible areas. As far as Zelda gimmicks go, this one is solid as it’s not overly intrusive and does lend itself fairly well to puzzle solving. The game is a joy to play and it’s only major flaw is the difficulty. This is the only Zelda title I’ve ever played start to finish where I didn’t die once. I don’t need it to be as hard as The Adventure of Link, but I would like some challenge. There’s also really no point in the game’s progression that will tempt you to reach for a strategy guide or wiki, making it feel like a light, breezy, Zelda adventure.
5. Twilight Princess (Nintendo Wii/Gamecube 2006) – During the press tour for Wind Waker, Nintendo assured those gamers irritated with the design choices made for that game that a more traditional, mature looking Zelda game was in development and would be released in the same console life cycle. As such, Twilight Princess feels like Nintendo’s reaction to the backlash they received for Toon Link. The game is visually dark and strikes a somber tone. Zelda herself is portrayed as a sad and somewhat tragic figure and the Twilight Princess hinted at by the game’s title is even more so. Link is his usual stoic self, but even he seems to sport a permanent scowl on his face and the moments where he appears to experience any semblance of joy are few and far between. Twilight Princess was developed on the Gamecube, but first released as a Wii launch title with some motion controls tacked on. They’re not overly intrusive, but only the aiming mechanic offered by the Wii-mote would be considered an improvement over a traditional control scheme. As such, most seem to consider the Gamecube version superior. The game largely plays like the previous 3D titles with the game’s Z-targeting combat system once again limiting Link to only one-on-one encounters. With Ocarina of Time, that went almost unnoticed at the time, but by now it was an obvious limitation of the Zelda style. Of course, the main difference between Twilight Princess and other Zelda titles is Wolf Link. When Link enters the Twilight Realm (yet another dark, parallel world to Hyrule) he takes the form of a wolf. As a wolf, Link can track enemies with his potent sniffer and tap into some twilight powers to kill Shadows. He is accompanied by Midna, a sort of cat like being that doubles as this game’s version of Navi. She’s just as intrusive, but I found her less annoying for the simple reason that she has a personality. And she’s not nearly as bad as that wretched sidekick in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess is an appropriately grand adventure and another quality entry in the Zelda series. It’s main failing, aside from wolf Link being surprisingly uninteresting to play as, is that it feels far too familiar. Twilight Princess is to Ocarina of Time what The Force Awakens is to Star Wars. It’s very similar to Ocarina, almost to the point of deja vu. It even has a fishing hole with mostly the same challenges and goals of the one from Ocarina. It has a lot of the same themes for its temples, most of the same items, and so on. Had it come before Ocarina of Time, it’s possible it would be considered the better of the two, depending on how much you like or dislike the wolf and the Twilight Realm.
4. The Legend of Zelda (NES 1986) – Just outside of the top three is the one that started it all. It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t experience this one in 1986 just how different an experience it was from other games. It’s a game design so perfect that it remains largely unchanged thirty years later. It’s rather incredible just how playable this game still is, and just how much fun it remains to be. It’s main difference from the modern games is mostly just how cryptic it is. It’s pretty clear where the game wants to send you in virtually every other Zelda game except this one. Here you’re just dropped into the fray and told to go beat the game. There’s a few hints along the way, if you happen to uncover them, and if you read the instruction booklet you get a few more, but that’s it. Word of mouth, and eventually Nintendo Power, was the way to beat this game back in the day as there was always a friend with an older brother, cousin, or cousin’s cousin that knew how to get into Level 6 or whatever. The game manages to be cryptic without being unfairly so, for the most part. There is one part where you have to find a specific bush and use a specific item on it that is pretty ridiculous, but it’s not on Simon’s Quest level. The combat is generally the same as the top-down Zelda titles that followed, but harder because all of the other enemies seem to be able to move much faster than Link. Some of the boss fights are so well constructed that Nintendo has returned to them over and over again. Really, if you grew up with one of the later Zelda titles being your gateway to the series then you owe it to yourself to go back and give this one a try. Once you get past the crude visuals and accustomed to how the game handles you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it quite a bit. The game is readily available as a downloadable title on basically every modern Nintendo device and will also be included with the NES Mini this fall. I’m obviously ranking this one somewhat on a scale to place it so high and affording it some deference for how important it is to the franchise and gaming as a whole, but I also genuinely love the game. I’ve returned to it over the years more than once, which is something I haven’t done for every game I’ve ranked behind this one (but something I have done for the ones ahead of it) which is a testament to its quality and its longevity. It’s really one of the greatest of all time.