We’ve had countless adventures and plenty of memorable moments in the story of Hyrule, which is no small feat when you consider that Nintendo has released 18 Zelda games over the years, with a new one due in just a few weeks.
We thought it would be fun to rank every major Zelda game released since the original in 1986. To be clear, this list will only cover the 15 games listed in Nintendo’s official Zelda timeline, first published in Hyrule Historia, along with the three titles to come out since then, A Link Between Worlds, Hyrule Warriors, and Tri Force Heroes. This means we’re not including re-releases or remakes, like Wind Waker HD and Ocarina of Time 3DS. And please don’t ask us about those Philips CD-I games.
This list is. of course, just one writer’s opinion, but for the record, I’ve played every game here at least once and many of them multiple times. Disagree with me? Let me know why in the comments. To Hyrule, we go.
18. Four Swords
2002 | GBA, DSi
Kicking things off (or bringing up the rear if you’re a pessimist) is a game that was first released as a multi-player add-on for the Game Boy Advance release of A Link to the Past. It was later updated with a single-player DSiWare edition. The game allows up to four players to run through randomly generated dungeons that look like they were ripped from its counterpart. Half the fun is stabbing your friends in the back to get as many rupees as possible, giving it a bit of a Gauntlet-esque feel. Zelda‘s never been known for multiplayer, so I suppose Four Swords is a fun enough game as long you go in not expecting a full Zelda experience.
17. Four Swords Adventures
2004 | GameCube
Four Swords was enough of a success for Nintendo that the company decided to bring the concept to the GameCube. Four Swords Adventures once again allows up to four players to make their way through dungeons, but this time, the adventure is hand-crafted and not randomly generated. It’s possible to play Adventures by yourself, but the title is still a multiplayer experience at heart. The price of entry could be steep, however, as it required hooking up multiple Game Boy Advances to the GameCube in order to give each of the four players their own screen to explore on while keeping an eye on the overall situation on the TV. We’re placing Adventures ahead of the original Four Swords due to the extra effort that went into creating the original dungeons.
16. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
1987 | NES
Majora’s Mask is often described as “different,” but it doesn’t even come close to how much Zelda II deviates from the now familiar franchise formula. The sequel to the original game abandoned the popular top-down view for a side scroller with an overworld map. Zelda as a franchise has always had some RPG elements to it, but Zelda II really focused in on that genre, with players able to level up different attributes like life and attack, while searching the world for new magic spells to learn. Zelda II is essentially the black sheep of the franchise, but one that many people still love despite its faults.
15. Tri Force Heroes
2015 | 3DS
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes promised a gleaming mixture of the pitch-perfect gameplay in A Link Between Worlds and the cooperative nature of games likeFour Swords Adventures. The result is a finely-crafted series of 3D Zelda dungeons that you can fully explore with your friends. And you’ll need some support on your journey as well, because much of the game revolves around clever puzzle designs that utilize the power of three formidable heroes. Despite a few odd bumps along the way in terms of story and online communication, Tri Force Heroes boasts a lot of longevity to its name, thanks to the excellent level design and a rewarding collection system.
14. Hyrule Warriors
2014 | Wii U
Hyrule Warriors is the most recent release on this list, and like Zelda II, it’s a clear deviation from the standard formula. Some reviewers, including ours, loved it, while others were more middling. Whether or not you enjoy the title probably has a lot to do with how much you enjoy the frantic action-packed gameplay of Dynasty Warriors, the franchise this game is based on. If you go in expecting a traditional Zelda game, you are likely to be disappointed, but if you keep an open mind and just view the game as a fun, mindless smash em up with lots of Zelda fan service, this game can keep you entertained for a long time.
13. The Minish Cap
2004 | GBA
Zelda is well known for introducing a new item or two in each new iteration of the franchise. Many of them become vital to the game’s progression. This game’s main item, the Minish Cap, allows you to shrink in size. This Honey, I Shrunk the Kids development does come across as a bit gimmicky, but it still made for some interesting puzzles that no other Zelda game could pull off. Like several other entries on this list, the end game of The Minish Cap does feel a bit slow and drawn out. Still, not bad for a handheld entry.
12. Oracle of Seasons and Ages
2001 | Game Boy
These two games for the Game Boy Color were developed by Capcom and feature a twist unique to the franchise, but not unfamiliar to anyone who has played Nintendo’s dual Pokemon releases. Each game is its own unique title, but the two games combined are set in the same world and complement each other. In Seasons, you manipulate the weather, while in Ages you can control time. The only way to truly beat the game is to beat both titles, which unlocks a special boss. The more action-oriented gameplay of Seasons was not loved by some, but any true Zelda fan should play through these unique entries in the series at least once.
11. Phantom Hourglass
2007 | DS
According to the Hyrule Historia, most Zelda games end up featuring a new Link and a new Zelda, but this game is one of a couple true sequels in franchise history. Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to The Wind Waker and uses the same once-hated, but now-loved, cel-shaded art style. This was the first Zelda game to make use of a touch-screen, and it actually made inventory management much less of a hassle. Link once again hits the open seas, but this time you can head to specific waypoints instead of having to sail it yourself, a notable improvement. The one big knock against this title is that you have to keep returning to a central temple. This starts to feel like a drag sooner than later and kills the pacing of an otherwise good game.
10. Spirit Tracks
2009 | DS
Spirit Tracks is a follow-up to Phantom Hourglass. First things first, it fixes that central temple issue. Link gets to play conductor on a magical train, and while this is certainly a fun change of pace from riding a sailboat or Epona, it also ends up giving the game a much more linear feel than Phantom Hourglass or The Wind Waker. What’s really cool about this game is that Zelda gets to take on a much more visible role, fighting alongside Link throughout the entire game instead of just helping out in the final boss battle.
9. Link’s Awakening
1993 | Game Boy
For my money, the original Zelda handheld game still holds up as the best portable title in franchise history even today. Sure, the graphics can’t compare to something like Spirit Tracks, but the gameplay and story are both a joy. It’s even more impressive when you consider that this epic adventure to wake the Wind Fish somehow originally fit on the first Game Boy system. The title is a wonderful diversion for players who are sick of always sticking to the same old “rescue the Princess and save Hyrule” template.
8. Skyward Sword
2011 | Wii
The most recent traditional Zelda installment is actually the very first game in the series chronologically. This is the game that feels the best to control, making use of the Wii Remote Plus to give the player unprecedented control over Link’s sword and other items. Skyward Sword is our lowest ranked traditional 3D Zelda because the story and gameplay progression can feel a bit unfocused at times, but there are some gamers who did enjoy the many side quests.
7. Twilight Princess
2006 | GameCube, Wii
When Twilight Princess was first announced, it created the most passionate reaction ever from Zelda fans. Multiple outlets reported at the time that fans in the audience at E3 had tears in their eyes upon seeing their beloved franchise return to “realistic” graphics as opposed to the cel-shaded look of The Wind Waker. Things took a turn though, when Nintendo pushed the game back so that it could serve as a launch title for Wii. (It actually released for the GameCube a week later, but most consider this to be a Wii title.) The gameplay was very similar to Ocarina of Time, that is, when Link wasn’t busy pulling off his Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf impression. The game didn’t provide any major innovations, but still holds favor with many as the game where Nintendo finally listened to what its fan base wanted.
6. The Legend of Zelda
1986 | NES
It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this. The game that started it all still holds up well today. The top-down open world allowed players to roam freely, provided they have the right items, of course. The game is devoid of many Zelda staples that might dock it some points in the eyes of today’s gamers, namely an easy-to-read overworld map or any sort of help with uncovering the game’s correct progression path or secrets. But for those of us who are old school at heart, it’s these absences that make it one of the best 8-bit titles of all-time.
Back in the day, we all had to head out to Hyrule and truly explore every nook and cranny, with no one but perhaps the Nintendo Power hotline to help hold our hand. I still remember randomly stumbling upon the entrance to the Level 9 final dungeon on Death Mountain long before I was equipped to actually tackle it. I obviously didn’t make it past the entrance, but it was that thrill of suddenly uncovering a big secret that gave me the adrenaline rush I needed to push forward through the game.
5. The Wind Waker
2002 | GameCube
If you talked to the average Nintendo fan back in 2002, they would have told you that this game was the death of their beloved franchise. Thirteen years later, it’s quite amazing how perception has changed. The GameCube was Nintendo’s first console capable of churning out realistic graphics, and many fans were looking forward to the first life-like Zelda on the system, especially after Nintendo released an early tech-demo showing off just that. Fans felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath them when Nintendo introduced Cartoon Link and his cel-shaded world.
But looking back now, The Wind Waker has probably the most “charm” of any game in the series, and it’s those graphics that have helped it stand the test of time. We do have to dock the game a bit though for that awful fetch quest right before the finale, and for the fact that the game felt a bit unfinished in spots. There were rumors then that have since been pretty much confirmed that Nintendo cut out at least one full dungeon in order to meet their release schedule.
4. Majora’s Mask
2000 | N64
And here we are, the game everyone is currently talking about. Majora’s Mask is like Ocarina of Time if the latter went all emo or goth, and we promise that’s actually a compliment. Link has three days to save the world from a particularly spooky looking moon that is plummeting towards the planet. The game features some of the more adult jokes and storylines in the franchise, and its use of masks to transform Link into different forms is both refreshing and creepy. The game doesn’t have as many traditional dungeons as other games in the franchise, but you spend so much time managing… well, time, that you hardly notice. We have to dock it a few points because, while the story itself is quite unique, the game did rehash assets and even characters from Ocarina.
3. A Link Between Worlds
2013 | 3DS
This 3DS title is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, set in the same world as the Super Nintendo title, albeit with a new version of “Link.” This title’s gimmick gives Link the ability to transform into a painting-like being who can shimmy back and forth along the dungeon walls in order to progress to his next destination. Nintendo did a great job of coming up with some unique puzzles that would be impossible in any other game.
A Link Between Worlds also pays a great deal of fan service to fans of the original game, while providing its own unique twists that keep things fresh.The ability to rent any item you want really opened up the world and allowed players to tackle any dungeon in any order. It’s a twist we hope Nintendo brings back in future games.
2. Ocarina of Time
1998 | N64
Ocarina of Time is the best 3D Zelda and one of the best video games of all-time. Super Mario 64 may have been responsible for popularizing 3D worlds and controls, but Ocarina gets the credit for influencing just about every open world game that we have today. Every dungeon is well thought-out, some of them, (Water Temple, ugh) are excruciatingly difficult, and the game accelerates at just the right pace all the way through to the end. It’s graphics may be quite dated, but this is still some of the best gameplay that money can buy.
1. A Link to the Past
1991 | SNES
Plenty of Zelda fans will no doubt be coming for me with pitchforks for putting any other game besides Ocarina at the top of this list, but if you grew up with a Super Nintendo, hopefully you’ll see it my way. Similar to what Super Mario World accomplished for the Mario franchise, A Link to the Past took an already established formula and absolutely perfected it. I’d argue that A Link to the Past is the most perfect game of the 16-bit era.
Everything about the title, from the graphics, to the gameplay and even the music was top notch for its time. But we’re giving this game the #1 spot because A Link to the Past also set the standard for every Zelda game that’s been released since, including Ocarina of Time, when it comes to its epic story and overall structure. Its relatively easy opening dungeons, followed by obtaining a more powerful weapon that can be used to tackle much more difficult challenges is a formula that has mostly remained intact in every game since.