Ranking the Legend of Zelda games

I’m pretty sure I’m legally required to try ranking the Legend of Zelda games on the 35th anniversary. Especially because it’s been my favorite series since I was a kid gaming on the NES! (when I had no idea what to do in Zelda II even though I loved it). No other game series embodies a sense of adventure, discovery, and joy like Zelda does. And nearly every title is of top tier quality! So let’s jump into (my best attempt at) ranking the Legend of Zelda games.

Zelda Ocarina of Time Collector's Edition box, cart, player's guide, amiibo, and green N64 controller

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As always, this is my opinion. Like I detailed in my top 10 N64 games post, I think “best” is primarily how well a game holds up today. I’ve played all of the Zelda titles, and have beaten the vast majority several times, so I count myself as pretty familiar with the entire series. May the way of the Hero lead to the Triforce!

18. Tri Force Heroes (3DS)

Hey, remember Tri Force Heroes? Exactly. Designed as a multiplayer experience for three, this game unfortunately released after the spectacular Link Between Worlds and during the wait for Breath of the Wild. It just wasn’t the Zelda game we wanted at the time. But it does have some neat ideas! The story is unique and silly. Solving puzzles and engaging in combat can be fun when playing with two other people online-you can communicate a surprising amount using only emojis!

Zelda Tri Force Heroes case and Hylian Shield 2DS XL

But unlike Four Swords Adventures, this one is very cumbersome to play single-player. Switching between each doll Link (“doppel”) and maneuvering them properly is time-consuming and frustrating. Put simply, it’s just not much on your own. And for that reason, this is the only Zelda game I have not finished (aside from the infamous CD-i games, of course).

17. Phantom Hourglass (DS)

Phantom Hourglass certainly has some things going for it. The graphics are pretty impressive for a DS title, Linebeck is a hilarious and entertaining character, and a lot of the stylus-based controls work surprisingly well. But some of the gameplay gimmicks are a bit much. I mean, there are times when you literally have to shout into your DS to progress. I was playing the game in a crowded airport terminal during that section, and definitely got some looks!

Zelda Phantom Hourglass case, special edition gold DS, and two Zelda-themed DS stylus

What really holds Phantom Hourglass back for me is the Temple of the Ocean King. You have have return time and time (and TIME) again to find new sea charts (to gain access to more of the overworld), all under a time limit as your life force drains. Sure, there are shortcuts to skip pieces of it, but that doesn’t much diminish how unpleasant and repetitive it gets. I’ve only finished this game once (despite multiple attempts to replay) largely because of the Temple of the Ocean King!

16. Zelda II: Adventure of Link (NES)

This was actually the title that got me into Zelda! I first played it in second grade, and was pretty lost in every sense of the word. I could barely get past the first palace, but I absolutely loved the gameplay and adventure, so I was still living my best life! Why was finding a candle inside a castle so thrilling? I still don’t know, but it is! Zelda II is full of some engaging mechanics, like the RPG-style leveling system and side-scrolling combat that haven’t been seen since.

Zelda II: Adventure of Link case, manual, cart, and NES controller

But it’s pretty rough around the edges. The game is punishingly difficult and pretty obtuse in giving you hints as to what to do. Combat is clunky and at times fairly brutal. Zelda II is seriously ripe for a remake-update the graphics, add a map system, more movement and combat options, and ensure more frequent save points. (I actually have a comment published in Nintendo Force Magazine suggesting that Yacht Club Games take on the project!) I hope to see that someday, but in the meantime, try it out on Nintendo Switch Online or the NES Classic where you can utilize save states and rewind features, because there’s a lot to like here!

15. The Legend of Zelda (NES)

If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know I only recently finished this game for the first time! I chronicled the whole experience in my Legend of Zelda NES review, where I used the amazing, and highly recommended, Hand Drawn Game Guide. Though parts of the game haven’t aged gracefully, the sense of adventure really does hold up. Only Breath of the Wild bests the original entry in terms of raw exploration and freedom!

Legend of Zelda NES cart, manual, case, and Hand Drawn Game Guide

Granted, the game can be frustrating between the difficulty and lack of guidance on pretty much everything. But once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty glorious! Exploring the overworld is fun, the dungeons are clever and generally not too challenging (until the the last few, at least!), and there are a lot of well-hidden secrets. I had a blast playing it, but I would recommend a guide for maximum enjoyment!

14. Four Swords Adventures (GameCube)

This often overlooked GameCube title does Zelda multiplayer right. Not only do the Link to the Past-inspired graphics and gameplay pull the nostalgia strings, but the new items and mechanics make for a fun and unique experience. Four Swords Adventures has my favorite use of the GBA-GC link cable, which any player beyond a single one will need to play! Four different color “Links” explore the overworld on the TV screen, but when you enter a house or cave, the action transitions to your individual GBA screen. It’s a cool addition and use of off-screen play! There’s a big emphasis on collecting a form of rupees (“force gems”) both to progress the story and as competition between players, which gets hectic and silly in just the right ways.

Zelda Four Swords Adventures case, disc, manual, and Zelda GBA SP with GC link cable

The downside is you’ll need an arsenal of gear to play with four players. But it’s still a joy with just one friend, or even on your own, since controlling all Links is intuitive with every play style!

13. Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color)

I’ll never understand why lists ranking the Legend of Zelda games put this and Oracle of Ages together as one! Though the structure of each is similar, they’re vastly different games in terms of gameplay focus, dungeon design, and items. Seasons is the more “combat” oriented of the two, which makes for tense and frequent battles throughout the game. There are some fun items to find and use, such as the amazing Roc’s Cape that essentially turns Link into Superman! The graphics, characters, and world also just exude charm.

Zelda: Oracle of Seasons box, cart, manual, insert, and Nintendo Power Player's guide

Though I preferred Seasons when the games released, I like Ages more now. I don’t find the dungeons of Seasons nearly as satisfying, and some of the boss fights are tough to the point of being frustrating. But the game still shines and is very endearing, especially when linked to Ages via the password system!

12. Spirit Tracks (DS)

A vast improvement over Phantom Hourglass! Fewer control gimmicks, no more Temple of the Ocean King, and more trains! Everyone likes trains, right? I understand the criticism that this entry is quite literally too “on rails” for a Zelda title, but I always enjoyed cruising through the overworld on my locomotive. There was plenty sights to see, and shooting things with the cannon never got old! The story itself is a lot of fun, set in a “New Hyrule” connected to the lore of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. The locations are varied and the world pretty detailed. And it’s a delight to have Zelda by your side the entire game, both for interesting puzzle solving and as a constant companion!

Zelda Spirit Tracks case, player's guide, and special edition gold DS

Spirit Tracks does suffer from the stylus-only controls being a bit much, but hey, there’s no Temple of the Ocean King! This is a title that’s often pushed aside when discussing the best Zelda games, but it’s worth playing. I mean, the overworld theme while you’re on the train alone makes it worth trying out:

11. Skyward Sword (Wii)

In ranking the Legend of Zelda games, this is the title I have the biggest love/hate relationship with. I absolutely adore some aspects of Skyward Sword. The graphics are beautiful watercolor paintings come to life. The dungeon design is some of the best (the Ancient Cistern in particular may be the pinnacle of the series!). Being the first game chronologically, the lore is fascinating and has huge implications for the rest of the mythology (check out the excellent Hyrule Historia if you haven’t). Some of the motion controls are great and very satisfying. And this is by far my favorite incarnation of Princess Zelda to date! She isn’t a “princess” yet; just a genuine friend of Link who ends up discovering some awesome revelations about her past.

Zelda Skyward Sword for Wii with 25th Anniversary Symphony CD and Skyward Sword Joy Cons
I really hope we see a return of the Symphony of the Goddesses soon!

But then there’s the dark side. The motion controls are taken too far-they’re used for nearly everything. (why can’t I just swing on a rope like in normal video games??) You are required to read endless amounts of unnecessary dialogue, especially from Fi with constant and unnecessary reminders. And it’s very padded out-several quests are repetitive and tedious, particularly in the back half of the game. Yet it averages out to being a strong Zelda entry, because its “highs” are very high!

10. Twilight Princess (GC/Wii/Wii U)

Why do I own all three different versions of Twilight Princess? Well first, because I’m obsessed with all things Zelda. And second, I love the game! The world is very beautiful, the gameplay is tight and satisfying, and the soundtrack is super atmospheric. I actually enjoy the game both with and without the motion controls-I’ve played through each a few times and don’t have a clear favorite. Regardless of which version you choose, you’re treated to some of the best dungeon design in the series! (Arbiter’s Grounds and Snowpeak Ruins being personal highlights). And Midna is easily my favorite Zelda “sidekick” in any game. She’s just the perfect mix of heart, sass, and coolness, with a great story arc.

Zelda: Twilight Princess for GameCube, Wii, and Wii U

I do have some issues with Twilight Princess. The pacing is slow (particularly at the start), the world feels pretty empty compared to other entries, and Wolf Link was very cool but fairly underutilized. And Zant didn’t quite “pay off” as a new villain. But I still love the game, and it’s one I’ve returned to frequently. It’s one of my favorite Wii games, and even more special since I bought it with the last Zelda Nintendo Power Player’s Guide!

9. Oracle of Ages (Game Boy Color)

Oracle of Season’s “other half” just sneaks in the top 10 when ranking the Legend of Zelda games! A lot of the charm exhibited by Seasons is present in Ages as well, but there’s several things I enjoy more here. I’ve mentioned a few times on The Chozo Project that I’m a sucker for a good time-traveling tale (even Sonic CD gets points for that!). Oracle of Ages really leans into the variations of its world in the past and present (much more than even Ocarina of Time did!), brilliantly utilizing them for gameplay. But where this game truly shines is in its creative dungeons.

Zelda Oracle of Ages box, cart, manual, insert, and Nintendo Power player's guide

The mechanics needed to conquer each labyrinth are very satisfying, and right in the sweet spot of “just challenging enough”. My favorite is the stellar Mermaid’s Cave, where you have to alternate visiting in both the past and present to finish it. Brilliance! The item selection is also extremely clever and fun, and the soundtrack rocks. Oracle of Ages is a lovely little title that needs a re-release along with Seasons.

8. A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

The Nintendo 3DS brought me back to gaming after a long absence from it. This game played a huge part in that! After finally finishing the bloated Skyward Sword, I picked this one up and was blown away by how streamlined everything was. You jumped right into the acton! Controls were intuitive and just felt right. You could pick up any item you wanted from the start, which felt refreshingly original. The “sticking to the wall as a painting” mechanic led to lots of fun puzzles that pushed your brain to think outside the box. And best was tackling dungeons in the order you wanted! It was very liberating, and levels were all the sweeter to work through because of it.

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Hylian Shield 2DS XL

Sure, the game is perhaps a bit too derivative of Link to the Past. They share the same map and most of the items, but dungeon design is radically different, and your expectations end up constantly subverted! The story is also really fun, the music remixes are stellar, and most importantly, I just have a wonderful time every minute I play it. A Link Between Worlds is my favorite 3DS game and a must play for anyone with the system!

7. Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance)

If there’s a single “most underrated” title in ranking the Legend of Zelda games, it’s Minish Cap. What a wonderful and often overlooked gem! Set long before Ganon enters the fray, Minish Cap has Link shrinking down to miniature proportions to explore literally every nook and cranny of this ancient Hyrule. The “shrinking” mechanic leads to a lot of clever puzzle design and fun secrets to discover across the game!

Zelda Minish Cap box, cart, manual, and Nintendo Power player's guide

The map may be a bit small but there are a ludicrous amount of secrets packed into every screen! The graphics and characters charm (Ezlo is hilarious!), the dungeon design is very satisfying, items are fun (the gust jar!) and the soundtrack is stellar (the Minish Village music is definitely playing in my head right now). Zelda: Minish Cap is just packed full of quality gameplay and Nintendo whimsy. It’s one of the best Game Boy Advance games too!

6. Wind Waker (Gamecube/Wii U)

The characters and story of Wind Waker may have the most “heart” of any Zelda title to date. You empathize and connect with many characters in a genuine way-even Ganon himself! The connections to the greater timeline, and especially the lore of Ocarina of Time, is very satisfying and well thought out. All of this is enhanced by the breathtaking graphics. Remember the fervor the graphics of Wind Waker caused when they were revealed? Hilarious in hindsight. The game is and has always been astonishingly gorgeous, especially in motion. They have more than stood the test of time!

Zelda Wind Waker GameCube and Wii U cases and discs

Sure, we can nitpick the infamous “Triforce Quest” at the end of the game. Or deride how much sailing and stopping to change wind direction there is. But most of those issues were fixed in the spectacular Wii U HD upgrade! You also have GamePad functionality for inventory management, and most importantly (for me), an “always present map” while sailing. It’s the definitive way to play this classic!

5. Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64/3DS)

Ranking the remaining Legend of Zelda games is no easy task! Cracking the top 5 is Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask is a much stranger, much darker, and all around more uncomfortable game than its predecessor, which scared off a lot of folks. Not only is the theme of loss and death front and center, but you reset progress every in-game three days, nullifying any joy you brought to the land of Termina. It’s an emotionally demanding game!

Zelda Majora's Mask N64 box, 3DS case, and Nintendo Power player's guide

But there’s beauty in it. Every inhabitant in Termina is beaming with unique personality, and some have very complex arcs over the course of three days. Clock Town is an insanely detailed hub (that doesn’t have many rivals in its depth, even to this day) with so much to discover. You truly get to know the world and its inhabitants and become driven to save them. Plus, the mask mechanics were a load of fun. Swimming as a Zora is ludicrously satisfying! Majora’s Mask has a steep learning curve, but once you clear that hump you’re in for a unique treat unlike any other.

4. Link’s Awakening (Game Boy/GBC/Switch)

This game might hold the title of “most comforting game ever” for me. Link’s Awakening is the Zelda title I’ve beaten the most, by far! It was a pack-in title with my Game Boy I got for Christmas in 4th grade, and holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Zelda game I actually finished on my own. (this was back in the days before the internet, and I didn’t have a guide, so it took me quite some time).

Zelda Link's Awakening for Game Boy cart and case, DX version cart and case, Switch edition case, and Zelda GBA SP

The quirky characters and little world of Koholint are so uniquely charming. Though it’s a bit strange with all of the crossovers from other Nintendo series, everything just works. The items are varied and fun to use, the characters endlessly endearing, and the soundtrack so catchy yet emotive. The tale is also surprisingly heartfelt and dark, especially for releasing way back in 1993. The Switch remake is great and adds a few “quality of life” upgrades, but I still prefer the original for the nostalgia factor!

3. A Link to the Past (SNES/GBA)

There are a lot of folks who think this is the best game ever made, and I won’t argue with them. A Link to the Past is an absolute masterpiece of game design from start to finish. It masterfully improves on everything from the original Zelda to a staggering degree-I seriously cannot believe it released on the Super Nintendo all the way back in 1992. The graphics are beautiful, movement and swordplay feel much better, and the game is much friendlier to newer players. From the opening moments, there’s not a second of “fluff” in the gameplay. No unnecessary tutorials, no tedious sidequests, no superfluous puzzles. And the game is very lengthy, with more than a dozen well crafted dungeons and a plethora of neat items to use, many well hidden. (the Magic Cape was a fun surprise!)

Zelda Link to the Past SNES cart, box, manual, and Game Boy Advance version

The gameplay and flow of the story were so successful they set the blueprint for future Zelda games, closely adhered to all the way to Breath of the Wild! This was the series introduction of the Master Sword (that legendary blade of evil’s bane!), Ganon’s origin story, the wonderfully nostalgic Zelda’s Lullaby, “parallel world” Hyrule, and many other staples. If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is. This game fires on all cylinders every moment of the journey, all the way up to the masterful and satisfying ending. Simply spectacular.

2. Ocarina of Time (N64/3DS)

The immersion and sense of adventure that Ocarina of Time provided when it released in 1998 cannot be overstated. Like Super Mario 64, I was floored by how well the transition to 3D was made on the first attempt. Ocarina was so epic and engrossing, and today is a huge part of my N64 nostalgia. Even though so many modern games owe a debt to Ocarina’s innovations, I do understand the argument that some of its mechanics haven’t aged well. Inventory management is a bit clunky. The world seems a bit small and stiff by today’s standards. Combat isn’t really complex. But what has withstood the test of time is the presentation of its story and themes.

Ocarina of Time N64 Collector's Edition, 3DS remake, and Nintendo Power player's guide

For me personally, this is the most well-told Zelda tale. Having Link start as a child, and getting to know and love the characters and world of Hyrule, then see it torn apart when he becomes an adult, is extremely powerful and effective. This is a beautifully told, perfectly paced story that’s surprisingly sad and dark for how traditionally “good triumphs over evil” it might appear at first glance. A perfect meditation about loss and growing up too fast, it’s still my favorite N64 game of all time.

1. Breath of the Wild (Switch/Wii U)

An absolute revelation. That’s what I felt about Breath of the Wild within just minutes of starting it until I put it down 120+ hours later. And this was with sky-high expectations after the long, long wait for the game. Breath of the Wild is the full realization of the original Legend of Zelda adventure. All the tools you need to traverse the world are given to you almost immediately, and you’re set free. You can truly, meaningfully, and authentically explore the entire world of Hyrule at your own pace.

Breath of the Wild is proof that an “open world” game doesn’t need a thousand little icons and markers all over the map to tell you what to do. You just need an interesting world that invites and allows exploration! I saw a meme that joked the game could be called “The Legend of Zelda: hey, what’s that over there??”, which is just spot on. It’s near impossible to stop playing because exploration constantly beckons.

Zelda Breath of the Wild for Wii U, Switch, and Game Informer BotW cover
The Wii U version will always be special to me for the memories of playing it with my newborn daughter.

Everyone’s journey through the game was so very different, which makes it even more unique. No two adventures were alike, and there’s no right or wrong way to play the game. And even though it takes a bit of a backseat, I also very much enjoyed the story and lore of this entry. I’m not-so-patiently awaiting the sequel!

Breath of the Wild tops my ranking of the Legend of Zelda games, and is my personal favorite game of all time.

That was epic-thanks for reading to the end! How would you go about ranking the Legend of Zelda games? Or what would be your top 5 or so? Let me know in the comments below!

16 thoughts on “Ranking the Legend of Zelda games”

  1. I do enjoy Zelda, and right now I play BOTW, and its interesting. (I’m not the biggest fan of Zelda though). I also played the original through an emulator, (retro arch) and I remember running around having no idea what to do, dieing left and right.
    but one thing I’ll always rememeber. Beware the Cuccos chickens.

    1. Zach Lindemann

      I think having no idea what to do in the original Zelda games is a quintessential childhood experience :). And for sure, the Cuccos are terrifying! I thought my copy of Link to the Past had glitched the first time the crazy attack happened.

    2. Breath of the wild is not even in my top 5. There’s no dungeons the story is mediocre. Vastly over rated game. To me it’s a great game over all just not a great zelda game.

      1. Zach Lindemann

        I think a lot of it comes down to what makes Zelda “feel like Zelda” to each player! This is my favorite series since I was a kid and I personally feel Breath of the Wild best embodies the feeling of exploration and sense of adventure that I’ve always loved about the series. But I totally understand the criticism of it! Excited to see what changes the dev team makes for the sequel 🙂

  2. It must be difficult to create and develop a new mainline Zelda title. Every announcement or press release immediately receives attention. High expectations indeed.

    And yet we’ve gotten some remarkable games out of all that pressure. Hopefully it’s not too far of a stretch to say that A Link To The Past was the blueprint for roughly 25 years. There must have been some heated discussions internally at Nintendo to deviate from that established formula to create Breath of the Wild. Would have been interesting to have seen those meetings first hand.

    The uproar of Wind Walker’s cell shaded art design felt, at the time, like a misstep and further proof Nintendo was out of touch with the gaming community. Silly to think about that being worthy of “gaming news” today? Absolutely yes.

    I’m probably the least qualified person to comment on Zelda, but I do enjoy dabbling in the series. The release of Breath of the Wild made it “ok” and “acceptable” to like Nintendo systems again. Who could forget Reggie and Miyamoto going on the Tonight Show and demoing Breath of the Wild? Pop culture appeal for your new game system matters.

    I was going to joke “where are the Zelda CD-i games???” But you already mentioned them. Therefore this list is complete! 👌🏽

    Reading about all these Zelda games makes me want to cut some grass with a sword. Be right back.

    1. Zach Lindemann

      Insightful as always, Kamal! Completely agreed on the power and weight of high expectations for the Zelda series. I honestly think that’s why Breath of the Wild 2 is taking so long, even though it’s using the same engine as the original. It’s got to be tough to make the next installment still feel innovative but keep what worked so well in the hundreds of hours we played the first game! I’m still hoping for more info on BotW 2 at E3 this year, but I’ll settle with any Zelda 35th anniversary news! (and would kill for a brand new 2D Zelda)

      Also I dearly miss Reggie’s antics. He and the Big N did a great job making Nintendo “mainstream cool” again with the release of the Switch! So many people I know that had been away from gaming for a long time came back and played Breath of the Wild, and just loved it. Awesome.

      And I hope you’re playing Link to the Past right now 🙂

      1. I’m still stuck in A Link To The Past and need to try again soon.

        We know Nintendo likes having a Zelda or similar game to launch a new console or hardware revision. This means for this cycle, and this is speculation of course, the Switch Pro will have the “definitive” BotW 2 experience while the existing Switch hardware will still be able to play it. I’ll bet you a complete in box Sega Nomad I’m correct!

        You heard it here first folks!

        1. Zach Lindemann

          That makes a lot of sense! It would certainly explain the long delay-that’s basically the exact thing that happened with the original when the Wii U was on its way out. And I’ll never wager my Nomad! 😂

  3. Love the list! I’m also a huge Zelda fan myself (who also got into the series/video games with The Adventure of Link!) and would have a hard time rating them, although I think BotW would be on the top of my list as well.

    I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks and wanted to say I enjoy your writing and your photography, your enthusiasm makes me smile!

    1. Zach Lindemann

      Thanks so much for all the kind words, Matthew! I really appreciate it, and am so glad you’re enjoying The Chozo Project!

      And yeah, it’s tough ranking such an excellent series! So many Zelda games are really special to me-I feel like I could probably have a different ordered list at different times of the same day 😂

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