There’s less than a week to go until The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is finally upon us. In preparation, I thought this was an ideal time to run through my five favourite games from the series, before Tears of the Kingdom inevitably makes me re-consider my rankings!
The Legend of Zelda is my favourite series in gaming, and has managed to maintain its core magic whilst constantly innovating upon itself with each entry. In my eyes, the five Zelda games listed below are the best examples of these qualities – now, join me as we run through the list, plus a few honourable mentions…
There’re a few Zelda games which, whilst not in my Top 5, mean a lot to me for various reasons. Firstly, Phantom Hourglass on the DS was the first Zelda game I ever properly played from start to finish, so the handheld seafaring adventure is close to my heart for introducing me to the series I’d come to love. The wonderful sailor companion Linebeck and ingenious touch-screen puzzles drew me in, but since playing other Zelda games, I can see some of the limitations of Phantom Hourglass, in particular the repetitive central Temple of the Ocean King dungeon.
As I became increasingly enamoured with the series, I went back and played many previous Zelda games. The original The Legend of Zelda and Ocarina of Time stand out as two of the most seminal entries, clearly establishing elements of Zelda gameplay which remain staples to this day – even if I think later Zelda games end up surpassing them.
Obviously, The Legend of Zelda started it all – both in terms of the central Triforce and characters of Zelda, Link, and Ganon, and also the blend of overworld exploration with ingenious dungeon design. With Ocarina of Time, Nintendo masterfully brought Hyrule into the 3D realm, revolutionizing how we navigated these environments. Meanwhile, on the story side, the time-travel aspect and dramatic plot twists gave Ocarina of Time a new cinematic feel – which continues to this day, as evidenced by the enthralling trailers for Tears of the Kingdom!
#5: Breath of the Wild
It’s easy to forget now, but after the commercially difficult times of the Wii U, Breath of the Wild rejuvenated both the Zelda franchise and Nintendo’s popularity as a whole. Released as both a Wii U swansong and a Switch launch game, this was the title everyone was playing in March 2017, and wow, did it deliver. No other game has replicated the sense of limitless freedom and discovery in Breath of the Wild, and a huge part of that is the environment design. Unlike so many open-world games, I rarely looked at my map whilst playing – instead of checking off a bunch of quest icons, the world naturally pulled on my curiosity, whether it be the glow of a new challenge Shrine in the distance, an unexpected character wandering the desolate Hyrule, or that first time you encounter a Lynel! Surprise was waiting around every corner, and the physics systems encourage creativity from the player, allowing you to create your own unique stories to share with other players.
With all this praise, you may wonder why Breath of the Wild isn’t higher in my rankings. Two things hold Breath of the Wild back for me: firstly, the pseudo-dungeons within the Ancient Beasts don’t match the peaks of dungeon design in other Zelda games, and secondly, the story here is relatively underdeveloped, especially compared to the more mature and complex narratives elsewhere in the franchise. Both the dungeon and story elements are major factors in why I love the series so much, and in Breath of the Wild they’re distinctly overshadowed by the exploration that the game does so well. Even so, Breath of the Wild is unmistakeably a landmark game for both Zelda and gaming as a whole!
#4: Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword seems to fluctuate wildly in the standings of Zelda fans, but I’ve adored it ever since it released all the way back in November 2011 (whilst everyone else in college was playing Skyrim that week, I was charging through Skyward Sword… )! The vibrant world of Skyloft, the formative version of Hyrule below, and the increased focus on the Zelda/Link dynamic all drew me in from start to finish. Skyward Sword is the earliest game in the Zelda timeline, and I love seeing certain parts of the lore get established and expanded upon. For example, the climactic moments of Skyward Sword explain why there are so many incarnations of the Princess, Hero, and Demon King throughout time – all whilst introducing new charismatic characters such as the fabulous Ghirahim and the loveable Groose!
A major element of Skyward Sword is the focus on 1:1 motion controls, originally utilising the Wii MotionPlus for accurate swordfighting and item usage. It needed recalibration now and then, but mostly worked exceptionally well, and sets Skyward Sword apart on the gameplay front. The new HD remake on Switch has since added separate control options for those who prefer it, but I’ll always associate Skyward Sword first and foremost with motion control. Skyward Sword also contains some top-tier dungeon designs, with the late-game Sky Keep a particular standout, requiring the player to take control and correctly assemble a variety of rooms to reach their goal. The limitations of being on the Wii towards the end of that console generation can definitely be recognised in places, such as the confined Loftwing flying, but overall Skyward Sword is one of my most memorable Zelda adventures (for more thoughts, you can read my review here)!
#3: A Link Between Worlds
Is this the most underrated and overlooked Zelda game? Quite possibly. A Link Between Worlds blew me away upon releasing on 3DS in late 2013, and remains one of the most tightly-designed Zelda games out there. The game partly acts as a sequel to the classic A Link to the Past (though these are new iterations of the characters), and like many Zelda games, uses a dual-world mechanic. In A Link Between Worlds, the parallel world is named Lorule, with its own versions of the main characters; for example, the purple-haired Princess Hilda instead of Princess Zelda. The story is straightforward but well-executed, with Link chasing down Yuga, an evil sorcerer who’s capturing the Seven Sages and Zelda in order to bring back Ganon. Yuga has the power to turn living beings into paintings, though Link manages to turn this into an advantage, gaining the power to merge into walls and navigate across them to access out-of-reach areas.
This 2D/3D split is used for countless smart puzzles within the supreme set of dungeon designs. Both this and the Hyrule/Lorule dynamic give A Link Between Worlds a satisfying sense of duality, where everything works together to make for a streamlined and utterly playable experience. The modernised top-down art style also feels both classical and new, and I love the character designs – it’s little wonder that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate specifically took Princess Zelda’s design from this game. A Link Between Worlds lacks the sprawling scale of my top two Zelda games, but as far as a contained Zelda experience goes, it’s one of the best examples of the story and gameplay that made this series so popular in the first place.
#2: The Wind Waker
If the feel-good emotion was a game, it might be The Wind Waker! It has dark and dramatic moments, but The Wind Waker consistently makes me grin whilst playing it. Sailing the wide open Great Sea (with that infectious musical theme) is an utter delight; by today’s standards, the post-flood Hyrule isn’t that large, but it’s full of explorable islands, outposts, and mysteries which make it seem more expansive than it is. The story takes the characters to fascinating situations, perhaps none moreso than the underwater Hyrule Castle and its frozen denizens. Ganondorf’s exaggerated, samurai-esque appearance has a strong villainous presence, which is notably felt in both your first and last encounters with him. The pirate elements and the introduction of Tetra breath new life into aspects of the Zelda lore, too!
Nintendo took a bold step with the art style of The Wind Waker, departing from the more “realistic” look of Ocarina of Time/Majora’s Mask and settling on a bright, expressive cel-shaded art style which makes the world come alive. The welcoming look and easy-to-understand overworld makes The Wind Waker one of the easiest Zelda games to pick up and play, whether it’s for the first time or a repeat playthrough. Speaking of, The Wind Waker HD on Wii U is another reason to do so, accentuating that striking art style and firmly reasserting The Wind Waker as one of the best-looking Zelda games. It even improves the Triforce hunt from the late stages of the game, which is a sticking point for some players. The Wind Waker is full of character and creativity, and has something to love for all players, regardless of age or experience.
#1: Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess topping his list will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my Zelda-related posts over the years (you can read my full review here)! Not only is it my favourite Zelda game, but Twilight Princess is my favourite game ever. As aforementioned in this list, Phantom Hourglass was my introduction to the Zelda series, and was an effective jumping-on point for me as a younger gamer. I followed that up with Twilight Princess on the Wii (it’s since had a HD re-release on the Wii U in 2016), and this was the epic adventure which sealed the deal – and in many ways, is responsible for why I’m such a gamer now. For me personally, Twilight Princess has the most intensely cinematic feel of any Zelda game, spinning a story of light against dark (the “Twilight”) with huge stakes and shocking reveals. Not only are Zelda and Link depicted in a more mature way, but major supporting characters such as Link’s mischievous companion Midna are given significant depth. This version of Hyrule feels both expansive and deliberately designed, with secrets everywhere you look, and reason to keep playing long after the credits roll.
Link’s Wolf form adds a major new side to the gameplay, and I find that it’s presence additionally makes the sections as adult Link hugely cathartic in contrast. I love the way Link moves in Twilight Princess, whether it’s jogging through the overworld, sidestepping around opponents in combat, or riding exciting new items like the Spinner. Furthermore, Twilight Princess has (in my opinion) the best dungeons of the series, making each one feel like a unique locale that fits into the world. Take the Snowpeak Ruins, an abandoned frozen mansion in the mountains; or the City in the Sky, where you have to master the Double Clawshot to get Link to the jaw-dropping boss fight against Agoroc, an armoured wyvern! Gameplay is so often rewarded with these sorts of epic set-pieces in Twilight Princess – and this extends to the final face-off, a 1v1 swordfight for the fate of Hyrule where Link (and the player) have to channel everything they’ve learned in order to emerge victorious. Twilight Princess is everything I love about Zelda ramped up to eleven; the tone, the puzzles, the gameplay, the world. It’s simply… epic.
Thanks for reading through this list! I’d love to know your own personal Zelda games in the comments, too. It’s mere days until Tears of the Kingdom, and I’m feeling prepared. I’ve even booked days off work so I can disappear into Hyrule… Yeah, my excitement levels are off the charts, can you tell?!
Have an amazing day, and I’ll see you again next week!
3 thoughts on “My Top 5 The Legend of Zelda Games!”
I feel like you aged yourself, perhaps unintentionally, by stating that Phantom Hourglass was your first Zelda title. Granted, that’d mean we’re not too far off from one another in that regard.
As far as Zelda games go – for me it really comes down to what particular aspects of them we’re talking about. I say that because I’ve never really nailed down exactly why I like them. The dungeon design is always a highlight, but my favourite ones to play are not the ones with the best dungeons – they’re the ones where I just get to go on an adventure.
With that in mind, it probably comes as no surprise that Wind Waker, and Breath of the Wild were my 2 favourite Zelda titles to play. None of the other titles from across the franchise have managed to capture the same feeling of adventure. I just like to wander, and both of those games let me do that.
If we’re talking about dungeons though, both of the aforementioned titles are, frankly, among the worst in the entire franchise. Like…Wind Waker has 1 well designed dungeon (the wind temple), and Breath of the Wild’s dungeons are 40 pounds of trash falling out of a burning plane into the centre of a volcano. They’re just…not great.
So when it comes to dungeons I’d say Majaro’s Mask, and Skyward Sword rank among my favourite titles. Neither are particularly long, but almost all of the dungeons are bangers that really challenge your ability to keep track of the space you’re traveling through. That’s a skill that very few games actually test, and is something I really appreciate about Majaro’s Mask in particular. The Great Bay temple is my favourite temple in the entire franchise because of how players need to keep track of the water flow while they explore every corner of it.
Having said all of that, I do wish Skyward Sword was more fun to actually play, and that Fi would talk less. A lot less.
I’m rambling now, so I’ll show myself to the door hahaha.
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When I stop and think about it, Phantom Hourglass is such an odd Zelda game for me to start with. I don’t even really know how younger me started playing it, it just sorta happened?!
In terms of which games have the best exploration, and which have the best dungeons, I mainly agree with you here. Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild excel at that whole open-road feeling, but there’s definitely trade-off with the dungeon design. I’m eager to see what the balance is like in Tears of the Kingdom!
For me that’s another reason Twilight Princess is my favourite. It does both so well – I remember enjoying the open Hyrule plains, but equally, there’s incredible dungeon design.
Majora’s Mask is one I really need to finish one day. I’ve played a bit on both N64 and 3DS, but both times I’ve stopped after the first dungeon. Partly it’s because of the stress of the time limit – it’s ingenious, but it does put a timer on you, and I love having that limitless feeling of exploration.
Also what do you mean? Don’t you love Fi telling you what a Rupee is every time you play, haha? (sarcasm, of course)
Thanks for the comment! Always enjoy a ramble. 😀