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Ranking the Zelda Games – The Top 4

5caa2739-c222-443c-8d6a-dff6048064c4We’re down to the top four in our rankings for the best games in The Legend of Zelda franchise. As far as climaxes go, this one is probably fairly anti-climactic as there’s a pretty clear top two in this series that the majority of gamers agree on. Though, as these games collectively get older there is undoubtedly more affection for the more recent games as suddenly a title like The Wind Waker is a normal gateway for players in their teens and twenties. Nostalgia always plays a role in a subjective exercise such as this one, though I sincerely feel these four games are the most dense and most fun Zelda experiences that Nintendo has put out. And I’m also not beholden to them. I really hope the next game in the series dethrones our champ, or at least forces its way into the conversation. Time will tell.

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Link’s Awakening is the rare Gameboy game to utilize cut scenes.

4. Link’s Awakening (Gameboy 1993) – Of the four titles I’m going to highlight in this post, Link’s Awakening is probably the one with the least tenable hold on its spot and the most fluid of the titles. I mentioned it in part two, but games six through three are really interchangeable. The order isn’t that important, but I chose to put Link’s Awakening in the four spot because it’s a very unique entry in the series, an important one, and it’s also a damn good game. Link’s Awakening is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, which is probably why the cover art is almost indistinguishable from that of A Link to the Past. When it first came out, I actually thought it was just a Gameboy port, but I of course found out I was mistaken. It’s the first portable entry in the series and is quite easily the best game released for the Gameboy, and it’s color edition is the best on the Gameboy Color, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. It laid the groundwork for all of the portable Zelda titles to follow establishing certain trends like the ability for Link to jump and equip any combination of any two items he wishes. Want to walk around with bombs and the bow? Go for it! You don’t need to just carry sword and shield everywhere. It also features a totally offbeat approach to world-building. This game is pretty wacky, and of particular delight are the numerous cameos from characters common in the Super Mario universe, in particular the US edition of Super Mario Bros. 2. There’s a lot of genuinely funny dialogue and the plot is very care-free and loose. The Gameboy hardware has some obvious limitations when it comes to handling a Zelda title, but it’s surprisingly capable here. The only aspect of the game where the hardware limitations persist is really in the two-button control setup. It does become rather tedious switching between items constantly. There’s no shortcut to do so forcing the player to pause the action and access the items from the game’s menu. It’s an inconvenience, but a necessary evil. That’s really the game’s only negative for me. It’s challenging, provides a lot of replay, and is pretty unique among the other games in the series. If you never played it, it’s available on the Virtual Console. Go for the DX version as it’s in color and has a bonus dungeon. It’s truly one of the best Zelda titles around.

BreathoftheWildFinalCover3. Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch 2017)

The newest entry in the series has forced me to update these rankings. What was once a post about the top three, is now about the top four, and Breath of the Wild has forced itself into the top three, nearly top two. What made me rank it behind Ocarina of Time? Well, I think start to finish Ocarina is just a little more fun. It’s the perfect Zelda experience, but in 3D. – finding dungeons, collecting new gear, defeating Ganon. Breath of the Wild ditches that old formula in favor of a more relaxed approach that leans heavily on its vast map. It’s a phenomenal game and that approach may lead to a newer, and better, standard for the Zelda franchise, but right now it feels like it’s just scratched the surface of what makes an open world game so special. If you want more thoughts from me on Breath of the Wild, I made a nearly 4,000 word post on the subject right here.

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Hyrule may not look as good now as it did then, but many games from this era have aged worse.

2. Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64 1998)  – Ocarina of Time has become perhaps the defining, and most popular, game in The Legend of Zelda series. Its use of three-dimensional polygons makes it modern, and since the game is almost twenty years old it’s become a popular introduction for many gamers to the franchise. It’s also a well-crafted, expertly paced, and visually impressive title for its era which has since been improved upon with a 3DS re-release.

Let’s go back to the mid 90’s for a minute and reminisce about the era defined by the Playstation and Nintendo 64. There was a battle for supremacy between those two consoles, and poor old Sega was left behind in the dust thanks to the Saturn. When Sega created the Saturn, they foolishly decided not to make the system natively capable of 3D graphics (it had no geometric processor and achieved 3D with the use of 2D sprites). It was a puzzling move since Sega had been at the forefront with such technology with titles like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. The Saturn was built to be a 2D powerhouse, and it was as it was the only title that could probably handle the Marvel VS series. Since it couldn’t do great 3D, consumers and game developers largely ignored it leaving Sony and Nintendo to duke it out for console supremacy. And when it came to 3D titles, Nintendo had an advantage with its more powerful hardware and analog control stick which Sony had to add years later. In this era, many popular 2D titles tried to make the move to 3D and fell hard. Eight and sixteen bit legends like Castlevania and Mega Man just couldn’t cut it in 3D, but Nintendo had great success with its properties. It started with Super Mario 64, one of the most well-received games in history, and it continued with Zelda.

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These guys were freaking terrifying in 1998.

Nintendo’s solution to making Zelda work in this new environment was to move the camera behind Link. The toughest challenge with any 3D game is the camera and getting it to be in the most optimal position, especially when negotiating jumps. Nintendo, realizing Zelda was never about platforming, decided to institute an auto-jump feature for Link. To attack enemies, the Z-trigger was used as a lock on mechanism where pressing the button would cause Link to lock onto an enemy. This was called Z-targeting, and once Link engaged an enemy no other enemies would pester him. As such, the combat was essentially a series of one on one affairs. While locked on, Link’s controls changed slightly allowing him to dodge left and right and hop away and towards enemies. This approach was called context sensitive actions, and it applied mostly to the A button on the N64 controller which was used for almost every action in the game. This all sounds elementary to anyone who grew up with the game, but at the time this was the kind of thing that stumped developers, but Nintendo figured it out.

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Another one of Ocarina of Time’s popular additions:  fishing.

Ocarina of Time’s defining trait, aside from the whole 3D thing, was the ability of Link to move back and forth through time. In the present he was just a kid, but in the alternate, dystopian future (does any other type of future exist in games?) he was an adult. The game didn’t require too much back and forth which helped keep it from getting stale. It also featured one of the better plots for a Zelda game that even saw the titular princess get her hands dirty. It introduced Ganondorf, the humanoid version of main villain Ganon, and even gave him a pretty interesting backstory. Gorons and Zoras also became more fleshed-out in Ocarina of Time and have largely remained unchanged since. The game has been so popular and so successful that every console edition of Zelda has basically played the same. That’s somewhat a weakness for newer games, but for Ocarina of Time I hardly consider it a weakness. Like the original Legend of Zelda, the game’s only real weakness is that it was limited by the technology of the time. The open fields of Hyrule are sparsely populated and pretty boring by today’s standards and it’s a damn shame the game was on a cartridge and not a CD as the score is too good for such compression. That’s all fairly trivial though. I’d tell you to go out and play the game if you haven’t already, but you probably already have numerous times.

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This world still looks beautiful to me.

1.A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo Japan 1991/North America 1992) – In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising A Link to the Past wasn’t titled Super Legend of Zelda, following basically every other naming convention of the time. It may not have received such a lazy title, but in many ways A Link to the Past is simply Super Zelda, because it feels like the game the original Legend of Zelda was trying to be. Not only does it look and sound much better, but it’s huge, boasting more items, more dungeons, and two whole maps! The Legend of Zelda felt like a beast of a game when it came out, and it’s crazy that in a relative short amount of time it could be bested and improved upon so completely. It makes me miss the days of old when a new console was clearly a new, and more powerful, entity.

A Link to the Past basically added everything that has become standard to the Zelda franchise. Running, tossing items, changing worlds, ocarinas, you name it – A Link to the Past has got it. The game also features a tighter narrative so gone are those cryptic messages and random puzzle switches. It might not be as hard, as a result, but it also isn’t an easy game. Be prepared to die and hear that horrid beeping sound when low on health as you try to make your way to the next dungeon. The path isn’t always clear, making the game feel like a true puzzle at times. Remember the shock of going to The Dark World for the first time and finding Link transformed into a rabbit? Or pulling the Master Sword out of the stone for the first time? A Link to the Past is full of classic moments and classic sounds. The score is legendary now and is probably still the best of the series, even if it’s not as grand in scope as the more recent entries due to limitations of the time. It’s also no less fun to play. I challenge anyone to play this game for an hour and not have a good time.

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One of the game’s many boss encounters.

A Link to the Past arrived early in the life cycle of the Super Nintendo. It wasn’t a launch title, but gamers only had to wait about a year for it. And since the console launched with Super Mario World they had plenty of time to kill before Zelda dropped. It was a must have title when it did, and my friends that got the game first became very popular overnight. Playing through it and completing it felt like a serious accomplishment, because games just weren’t routinely this big at the time. The same phenomenon would repeat itself with Final Fantasy II and III. It wasn’t that games like this were overly difficult, they just felt like serious tests of endurance. In truth, they just highlighted how much time average gamers spent playing video games. We probably spent as much time on Super Mario Bros. 3, we just weren’t as aware of it.

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Atta boy, Link!

A Link to the Past is the best Zelda game because almost everything in it has been carried over into the games that have followed it, even more than twenty years later. It also holds up in every respect. It may not be in 3D, but it’s still easy on the eyes and possesses a lot of visual charm. I already mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, and it’s suitably challenging and a bunch of fun to play. If I had to find a fault with it then I’d say its storyline isn’t very compelling, but that can be said of just about every Nintendo first-party title. They’re not storytellers at Nintendo, just game makers, and with A Link to the Past they may have created the greatest game ever made.


Ranking the Zelda Games Part 2

images-223Part 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.

67651-legend_of_zelda_the_-_oracle_of_seasons_usa-68. 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.

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If Link doesn’t take care of business this creepy ass moon is going to kill everybody. 

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.

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Link is able to get flat in this one and it’s a gimmick that actually works fairly well.

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.

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The color palette in this one is so earthy. Everything looks dusty/dirty. It reminds me of Resident Evil, believe it or not.

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.

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Bosses were a lot smaller back then.

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.

 


Ranking the Zelda Games – Part 1

link_hyrule_historiaIf 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…

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What could be more fun than sailing?

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.

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Maybe Nintendo should just get it out of their system and release Link’s Sailboat Training.

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.

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I chose this image to illustrate how pathetically small Link’s sword is. As a male, he should be embarrassed to be seen in public with that thing.

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).

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Nintendo released a legitimately beautiful game and decided to clutter with the screen with a bunch of garbage.

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.

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So have we collectively decided that Toon Link doesn’t look stupid?

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!

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Link gets to be a fish in this one, which is certainly different.

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.

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I think I would have liked this game more if Link was shrunk at the beginning and stayed that way so he could hang out with shoe gnomes.

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.


Ranking the Mario Games – Part 1

images-142Super Mario, the portly plumber with the black moustache, is not just the mascot for Nintendo but the ambassador for all video games.  Gamers are intimately familiar with Mario, his history, forays into pop culture, and of course his games.  He was the nameless Jump Man before he was Mario and though early titles like Mario Bros., which introduced brother Luigi, kept true to the plumber occupation it was Super Mario Bros. that helped launch the Nintendo Entertainment System into video game legendary status.  Since then, Mario, usually alongside Luigi, has appeared in a great many games in either a starring or supporting role.  He’s dabbled in just about every genre save first-person shooter (don’t take that as a suggestion, Nintendo) and has done so successfully, for the most part.  He’s been challenged along the way by other would-be mascots and felled them all.

Mario’s games are typically of a high quality, and while some are better than others, there really are no true lemons.  These next few posts are going to attempt to distinguish the best from the not best, but in truth, all of the games to follow are still a good time, even today.  This list only concerns itself with Mario’s starring platform adventures which began with Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and will continue this fall with Super Mario 3D World.  Excluded are two titles which borrowed the Mario name for marketing purposes, namely Super Mario Land 3:  Wario Land and Super Mario World 2:  Yoshi’s Island.  I think most would agree those two games are actually the first in new franchises for Wario and Yoshi, respectively.  This also excludes those educational Mario titles that popped up on the Super Nintendo, and the few games starring Luigi.  I considered excluding Mario’s 3D adventures and relegating them to a separate ranking but decided against it.  They’re still Mario titles, and whether the game is a side-scroller or in 3D, they actually manage to play very similarly.  Maybe it would just be easier to list the games about to be ranked, so here they are in chronological order of release:  Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros. 2/Super Mario USA, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario Land, Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, New Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. U.  That’s 16 Mario titles in total, and if this thing drags on long enough, maybe I’ll do a 17th as a postscript for Super Mario 3D World, though the pile of dust that has collected on my Wii U suggests that won’t be happening.  On to the rankings!

16.  Super Mario Land (1989, Gameboy)

Different, but similar, Super Mario Land was a worthy first attempt at bringing Mario to the smallest of screens.

Different, but similar, Super Mario Land was a worthy first attempt at bringing Mario to the smallest of screens.

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to immediately pick on the Mario title with the least amount of technological backing, but I’ll reiterate what I said in the intro which is that all of these games are worth playing and remain so.  That said, Super Mario Land is basically a scaled-down version of the original Super Mario Bros. for the then recently released Nintendo Gameboy.  Nintendo should be commended for actually not just porting Super Mario Bros. and actually giving Super Mario Land its own distinguishing characteristics.  Set in Sarasaland, the game puts Mario in an Egyptian inspired setting with tried and true Mario gameplay.  There are some noted differences from the console games, in that Mario’s fireballs shoot at an angle and bounce off walls and hearts are used for extra lives while coins function as a currency.  There are also some scrolling levels where Mario pilots a spaceship or submarine which help break up the routine.  Otherwise, it was a pretty basic platforming-side-scroller.  The Gameboy’s display made it a little tough on the eyes, and Mario felt a little loose as a result.  Gamers who had this title in 1989 mostly seemed to enjoy it, even though they knew they were getting a somewhat lesser experience than what they had on their home consoles, but considering the Gameboy’s main competition was Tiger handheld games, they were pretty content to have Super Mario Land.

15.  Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1986)

One of the defining characteristics of Super Mario Bros. 2 was the emphasis on making the Luigi experience different from the Mario one.

One of the defining characteristics of Super Mario Bros. 2 was the emphasis on making the Luigi experience different from the Mario one.

By now, anyone with an interest in video games is well aware of the story of the “original” Super Mario Bros. 2.  It was a Japan only release for a couple of reasons.  The main reason was the difficulty which Nintendo of America thought would prove too frustrating for US gamers.  Also, Nintendo of America wasn’t very impressed with the title simply because it was too similar to the original Super Mario Bros.  For that, we should be thankful as NOA was absolutely right with that stance.  Super Mario Bros. 2 would eventually be released as The Lost Levels in the US alongside the other NES Mario titles in the Super Mario All-Stars compilation released on the Super Nintendo.  The game basically plays like a set of add-on levels for the original title.  The original was such a massive success, that Nintendo of Japan felt it had to strike quick with a sequel.  When early attempts at a sequel proved too ambitious (more on that to follow), this game was created in its stead.  It’s basically just a harder version of the original, with the addition of poison mushrooms and Luigi being given his own characteristics (higher jumps but slippery feet) to make him play different from Mario for the first time.  Needless to say, when the game was eventually released in the US, few American gamers felt like they had really been missing out on anything.

14.  Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The original, but not still the best, Super Mario Bros. set the standard for all Mario games to follow.  These types of lists are always a little tricky because one is forced to weigh present value against past value.  My take is always to just judge the games as they are.  Perhaps that gives the modern titles a huge advantage but a good game is a good game, regardless of era or graphical horse power.  Plus, games should be better today than they were 20 years ago as I’d like to think we’re always moving forward.  With that out of the way, it should be said that Super Mario Bros. still holds up today as a fun and challenging game, just one notably simplified.  It’s the classic “go right” game and the player is expected to run and bounce along to each stage’s flag pole in an attempt to rescue the princess.  The clock actually plays a role in this game, as opposed to the more recent games, and later levels force the player to hold the run button throughout.  The game’s challenge is mostly found in negotiating jumps and platforms that become smaller as the game goes along while dodging classic Mario enemies like koopa troopas and Lakitu.  It’s true that it may be hard to impress a young gamer today with the original Super Mario Bros., but it is a textbook take on the genre it launched even if its sequels have improved upon it immensely.

13.  Super Mario Land 2:  6 Golden Coins (Gameboy, 1992)

New bunny ears and a new villain are the defining characteristics of Super Mario Land 2.

New bunny ears and a new villain are the defining characteristics of Super Mario Land 2.

Super Mario Land 2 was a huge improvement over its predecessor.  It borrowed heavily from the the current console games in terms of defining Mario’s look and power-ups and pushed the Gameboy to produce one if its best looking and best playing titles.  This game also introduced Wario, who served as the primary antagonist for Mario for basically the only time before becoming a playable character in his own line of games.  Super Mario Land 2 held onto the first game’s quirks while giving Mario some new power-ups, most notably the bunny ears.  Mario being able to fly had been a big deal since Super Mario Bros. 3 so it’s no surprise he was able to do the same in this game.  Keeping things weird, as they were with a raccoon tail bestowing flying powers in SMB 3, the bunny ears let Mario fly by rapidly pressing the jump button.  Mario didn’t gradually descend, like he did with the cape and tail, so it gave Land 2 a unique feature.  The fireballs had their angled shot replaced with traditional fire power, and the game had a map layout like Super Mario World.  The worlds the map is segregated into can be played in any order, giving this game a less linear feel, and secrets abound which help the replay factor.  Which is a good thing, because the 32 levels will be breezed through by Mario veterans making Super Mario Land 2’s biggest weakness its short duration.  This is a fun game though, and it was the first Gameboy experience that came close to matching the console one where Mario titles are concerned.

12.  New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo 3DS, 2012)

I did a big write-up on this one around the time it was released, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Suffice to say, if anything my opinion of the game has lessened since.  It’s a fun experience, but in general it did little to nothing as far as advancing the series goes.  The focus on coin collection was a mistake as it didn’t add to the experience.  The much publicized street pass functionality and downloadable content was basically a dud, and the game’s difficulty was basically non-existant.  This is a by-the-numbers Mario game, and its sister-title New Super Mario Bros. U is the far superior game, and not just because it’s on the more powerful console and in HD.  I did enjoy the return of the super leaf power-up as well as the inclusion of the Koopa Kids and the game does not have a shortage of levels.

11.  New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS, 2006)

New Super Mario Bros. was a welcome return to the side-scrolling genre for Mario and Luigi.

New Super Mario Bros. was a welcome return to the side-scrolling genre for Mario and Luigi.

New Super Mario Bros. was a supremely refreshing title when it was first released in 2006.  A new side-scrolling Mario game had not been released since 1992’s Super Mario Land 2, unless you count the Wario and Yoshi games in between.  New Super Mario Bros. was a like a kid’s dream of what the original Super Mario Bros. could have been with mega mushroom power-ups and the mini mushroom, letting Mario shrink to a microscopic size.  Of the two, the mini mushroom was actually the better as controlling a lightning quick Mario was a lot of fun.  Not that it wasn’t fun to control the Godzilla-like Mega Mario, but it got old after a few experiences.  Mario also retained some of his 3D controls like the ability to double and triple jump.  Not very useful, but a lot of fun.  The game is also massive with 80 levels to explore, some of them only unlocked after finding the various star coins hidden in each stage.  Like its sequel, the game’s biggest drawback was its lack of challenge.  Notably trickier than the follow-up, but still lacking compared with the well-balanced Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64.  This is a good game though, and as you can probably guess from these rankings, I actually recommend it over New Super Mario Bros. 2 for its tighter gameplay and better level design, though the level design is actually a weakness for the game when compared to other Mario titles.  This one was a nice nostalgia trip in 2006, and even though the New Super Mario Bros. franchise has had a hard time living up to the classics, I still think we’re better off for having it.


The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda series tends to be late to the party when it comes to Nintendo’s newest technology.  The only exceptions I can recall would be A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess.  Twilight Princess should come with an asterisk though considering it was in development as a Gamecube game (and even released on that platform too) before being ported to the Wii to make that system’s launch.  Typically gamers have to wait a couple of years for Link to grace their latest console or handheld.  That was especially the case when it came to the Gameboy Color.  Nintendo, partnered with Capcom, focused on making a set of three games that would take place in the world of Zelda and interact with one another to form one grand adventure.  This would take time, and to placate eager gamers to have a Zelda adventure on the go and in color Nintendo re-released Link’s Awakening with some minor color enhancements and a new dungeon (which took full advantage of the new color palette).   Development was delayed on the series with Capcom, and eventually the three titles became two.  Worse still, they didn’t arrive to market until after the Gameboy Color’s successor hit retail; the Gameboy Advance.  Did this stop people from picking up the old tech?  Of course not, this is Zelda after all, Nintendo’s most consistent franchise.  And for those who upgraded to the Gameboy Advance, the system was backwards compatible so as long as gamers could get passed the fact that they were playing a fairly low tech set of games it was a pretty easy thing to convince them to go out and pick up the latest Zelda titles.

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Ages (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (2001)

There are exceptions though, and for whatever reason I became one of them.  I was a day one purchaser of a Gameboy Advance and I was eager to upgrade my portable gaming.  I had a Gameboy Color and primarily only used it for Pokemon (I had a copy of Shantae and never got into it, and I ended up trading it in at Gamestop which proved to be a mistake).  After over a decade of playing sub-NES quality games on a Gameboy I, and many others, were more than ready for the GBA.  Plus I knew the eventual A Link to the Past Advance was on the way and figured I’d get my Zelda fix then, so I completely overlooked the two GBC games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.  It took a long while, but finally Nintendo has released both titles on its e-shop and both are playable on the Nintendo 3DS.  A good portion of my summer has been spent on these two titles, and in short, they’re quality Zelda experiences.  You don’t want short though, so feel free to read on for more!

If you’re an owner of a 3DS and are thinking of playing these games I would recommend that you play Link’s Awakening DX first, if you have not done so already.  While the games are not connected in a narrative sense, the three play pretty much identically to one another with the Oracle games feeling like sequels.  I imagine the fact that the groundwork was laid with Link’s Awakening is what allowed Nintendo to feel comfortable about handing the series over to Capcom.  These portable Zelda games all feature diminished visuals when compared to most of the series, with the only exception being the original Legend of Zelda.  Link can have two items equipped at any one time via the A and B buttons, and they can be any two items the player wants making it theoretically possible for Link to go thru the bulk of the game without a sword.  These games also are unique in that they allow Link to jump once a certain item is obtained.  Link could jump in the side-scrolling Adventure of Link, but not in his other top-down adventures.  The portable games also bring back the side-scrolling screens present in the first game often as a basement of sorts throughout the various dungeons.  There are some sequences where Link has to swim and some familiar faces from the mushroom kingdom make appearances.  I actually prefer Link’s Awakening to the Oracle games in large part because of all of the Mario references which just give the game this offbeat feel.  There’s even a sequence where Link needs to take a chain-chomp for a walk.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of.  Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of. Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons distinguish themselves from the prior games with their special items, the harp of ages of rod of seasons, respectively.  In Oracle of Ages, Link is able to use his harp to move thru time.  Early versions of the harp only allow him to do so at certain patches of soil but later versions allow him to move thru time at will.  Since there are only two versions of Labrynna, where the game takes place, it’s bound to evoke a similar feel to the light and dark worlds from A Link to the Past.  As expected, changing things in the past affect the present, which is sort of the nature of the game.  It’s not real specific though, and sometimes the past or present is different from each other seemingly just for sake of it (sometimes a wall is bomb-able in the past, but not the present, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense).  As such, I was actually kind of disappointed with the whole time-traveling aspect of the game and it started to feel like a hassle.  In Oracle of Seasons, Link is able to manipulate the seasons with the rod of seasons.  This has obvious applications such as lakes becoming frozen in winter or dried up in summer.  A weird type of mushroom is only harvestable in the fall, and certain special flowers only bloom in the spring.  Having to cycle thru each season one at a time is a bit of a chore, but overall I felt the application of the seasons worked better than the time-travel in Ages and it also offered a fun visual change as well.  The only thing I didn’t like about it was that sections of the overworld map are arbitrarily broken out and are assigned a default season.  This results in the player changing the season on one screen, and then having it switch to another season by going as few as one screen over.  The designers obviously did this to make it easier on them to block off certain sections of the map until Link obtained a certain item, but it feels lazy.

In addition to their gimmick, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are often distinguished by type of gameplay present.  Ages is often described as being the more puzzle-centered game with Seasons being more action-oriented. I found this to mostly be the case, but make no mistake, both are tried and true Zelda experiences.  There are still plenty of enemies to take down in Ages, and there’s also plenty of dungeon puzzles to solve in Seasons.  I expected to enjoy Ages more as I usually like the Zelda puzzles, but I actually ended up preferring Seasons.  The problem I have with Ages is just that a lot of the puzzles felt really drawn out and the constant switching between items (since there are only two action buttons on a GBC, everytime you need to re-assign something you have to go into the menu and do it) could get tiresome.   There are also plenty of “Zelda Puzzles,” which to me mean puzzles with no logical solution that forces the player into trial and error mode.  These types of situations seem to crop in every Zelda title and are often the result of the game just not being consistent.  There was one dungeon where I got stuck for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to get a pot onto a floor switch that needed to be pressed in order to open a door.  I tried all kinds of different things and just couldn’t get it.  Then I just stepped on it with Link and walked off and the door stayed open.  Every other switch in the game necessitates an object being placed on it to keep the door open.  I was so annoyed.   That’s a Zelda puzzle.  There were some of these in Seasons too, but they just felt more prevalent in Ages.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game:  Twinrova.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game: Twinrova.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons share many of the same dungeon items.  Both also have a trading game which leads to an improved sword for Link and both feature seeds.  All around the map are soft patches of soil where Link can plant a seed.  After a certain amount of enemies are slain a tree with a nut will sprout and inside the nut will be an item.  Usually this item is a ring, which is the only equip-able accessory for Link in both games.  They usually add some function or improve another such as Link’s throwing distance or damage output.  They’re not all that essential to the experience, and both games seem to have the same rings.  There’s also a password system that allows players to transport items back and forth between games.  This is the only way to get some traditional Zelda items like the mirror shield and master sword.  These items just make the game easier, and to be honest, they’re easy enough as is, so I never did much with them.  I did take advantage of the game-link where beating one game provides a password for the other game which alters the story.  The story in both games is basically crap, but if you want to face the ultimate boss you have to link the games and it does add a little more fun to the experience.

I’ve been a bit nit-picky with these games, but both are enjoyable and worthwhile entries in the Legend of Zelda series.  If you were to play only one, I would recommend Oracle of Seasons as I found it to be the better overall experience.  One thing I liked about Seasons over Ages is how it’s a total nostalgia trip for gamers who played the original Legend of Zelda.  Oracle of Ages is basically just as good though, and if you can, you really should just play both.  These two games, together with Link’s Awakening, are among the best portable games ever created and are still the best portable Zelda games ahead of The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.  Hopefully, the upcoming A Link Between Worlds is able to give them a run for their money as these games have reigned supreme for long enough.


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