The Legend of Zelda means more to most Nintendo fans than their own middle names. And there’s a great reason for that: Link has hopped around more timezones than a pogo stick in a TARDIS, and provided more fun for kids and nerds in the process.
Our favorite elf-like adventurer has gone on many quests over the years, facing off with dastardly villains like Ganondorf, Twinrova, and Skull Kid, while also searching for his young sister Aryll and stopping an evil moon from crashing into the land of Termina. There has been no shortage of quests.
With the Triforce Hero celebrating his thirtieth anniversary we’re looking over the best, worst, and weirdest of his adventures.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil
1993 | Animation Magic | Philips CD-i
Of course the worst games were the CD-i disasters. Nintendo collaborated with Philips to make a CD accessory for the Super Nintendo, but bailed when they realized it would be a catastrophe. Then they kindly let Philips prove them right with the Zelda licence. The results prove there’s no point having seven hundred megabytes of storage space when you only pay animators seventy cents to fill it.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil did almost everything you could do wrong with in Zelda game without actually becoming Ganon. They were released simultaneously, cutting their own potential markets in half. They were based on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, aka Zelda II: By Far the Least Popular One at That Point. We’re not sure how you ignore A Link to the Past, but guess it starts with the inability to understand what a good game is, and everything on these discs supports that theory. Philips would have been better off selling photocopies of their contract with Nintendo.
1994 | Viridis Corporation | Philips CD-i
Zelda’s Adventure tried harder. But that only allowed it to fail harder. The top-down view showed that Viridis Corporation had at least played Zelda before, but everything else proved that even that had probably required help. The “revolutionary” CD-i digitized graphics were some of the worst ever made, with the developer’s vacation photos used directly as backgrounds for single-path dungeons less complicated than the average set of stairs. And about as much fun to climb, assuming you’re doing it during an earthquake and being knocked repeatedly unconscious to simulate the glitches and loading times.
And that was still nowhere near the worst Zelda game.
Zelda Monopoly is something Satan would make to destroy the concept of happiness. You might think we should say Ganondorf, the evil conquerer of Link’s universe, but everything Ganondorf ever did was awesome for players. Taking over a magical land with darkness and forcing us on an epic quest through time to fight him off? Thanks, Ganondorf! He was like the Santa Claus of quests.
Monopoly was originally designed as a moral lesson to teach children that capitalism would crush them in an excruciatingly drawn-out way, and in a satire even its own makers couldn’t anticipate, a huge corporation started inflicting the game on kids for profit by telling them they’d enjoy it. You couldn’t destroy Zelda harder if you filled a cartridge with sugar, hung it from a rope, and called it a pinata. Because kids still enjoy smashing things to pieces. Link’s adventures are the story of how anyone can get out there, gather up the things they need for free, just find money lying around, and beat someone else who already got everything earlier. That is the exact opposite of every lesson of Monopoly.
Zelda no Densetsu: Kamigami no Triforce (Barcode Battler II)
Barcode Battlers were a strange craze where players roleplayed as computer memory chips. Playing barcode games meant finding the right card, scanning it into the device, pressing a button, then being told to get another card. The player spent most of their time scanning codes that could have been digitized in less than a kilobyte. Not a kilobyte per code. A kilobyte for every card. It turns out that if you include a beeping box and claim it’ll end if you lose a battle with the boss, kids will do anything. Which is why so many people grow up to work in offices.
Nintendo gave Epoch the right to make Mario and Zelda games. Which meant printing stock art of the characters on thin strips of cardboard and charging more money for them. It’s about as close as you can get to printing your own money without being prosecuted. We’re not saying it was a lazy cash-in by a system literally designed to lazily scan in new ideas for money, but choosing between playing as a warrior or a wizard character meant choosing a card marked “Link” or “Link(Magic).”
Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland
2006 | Vanpool | DS
This game starts with the weird question, “Why would you make a Zelda game based on the creepy little sex-offender-looking jerk?” The answer is even worse than the question. “Tingle” isn’t his name, it’s how his body feels when people look at his skintight bodysuit in public.
Tingle used to be a bored but ordinary 35-year old man. A demon called “Uncle Rupee” tricks him into gathering money to buy a paradise. Uncle Rupee transforms the man, cursing him with the creepy elf costume, even rewriting his name across reality as “Tingle,” and makes him fight his way across multiple levels to make money. In the end, Tingle realizes that it’s a trick, breaks free of Uncle Rupee’s control, defeats him in combat, and…has to stay as Tingle? The curse doesn’t break! He’s stuck like that forever!
Four Swords Adventures
2004 | Nintendo | GC
Four Swords Adventures was a fun multiplayer game that combined the top-down view of A Link to the Past, the cel-shaded graphics of The Wind Waker, and more hardware requirements than a Skynet versus Cybermen wrestling league. The game was entirely built around the idea of four players. You might say the GameCube had four controllers, but Nintendo can’t hear you over the sound of crashing cash registers because every player needed their own Game Boy Advance and a GBA-GameCube Link Cable. Even the person who owned the GameCube. Either it was the first game designed to be played exclusively in Nintendo hardware factories, or they desperately overestimated how much people were prepared to pay to play one-quarter of a game.
Sure, you could play it on your own, in the same way you can do lots of group activities on your own. It’s much less fun and sort of misses the point, though. Which is a tragedy, because until then, the whole point of Zelda games was making players feel good about being able to spend hours, days, weeks entirely alone with their consoles.
Ocarina of Time
1998 | Nintendo | N64
One of the best Zelda games of all time. One of the best games of all time. One of the best anythings of all time, Ocarina of Time holds Guinness World Records as the best-reviewed game ever. It could replace the Voight-Kampff test as a way of measuring if someone can feel human joy.
Mario had already introduced a whole new generation of gaming with the 3D Super Mario 64, but it was Link who let them live an adventure there. This is one of the most important games in 3D gaming history. Lock-on targeting? Context-sensitive buttons? Batman, Drake, Hitman, all those Creeding Assassins, they all owe their most powerful abilities to Link.
Majora’s Mask was made using Ocarina‘s engine, making it a rare example of Zelda re-using assets from an earlier game. Because Ocarina‘s record as one of the best games ever made is still unbroken. But Nintendo decided to fix it anyway. They made Majora’s Mask darker and more doom-laden, proving that Nintendo can make anything excellent. Even the modern urge to roll everything bright and shiny in grit for more money. Except they did it back in 2000 and then never did it again.
They upgraded the time-travel aspect to Groundhog Day plot, pitting Link against the MOON ITSELF. People make jokes about Nintendo having only a few games. And they might be right. But that’s because Nintendo makes those games amazing over and over and over again.
The Wind Waker
2002 | Nintendo | GC
How do you follow two of the greatest games ever made? By being original. And making it three. Wind Waker followed the shadowy doom of Majora’s Mask with a younger and brighter Link than ever before. As usual, hordes of nay-sayers and autocritics complained, and as usual, they were revealed as idiots. Everyone else was too busy playing the game to listen to their complaints.
Wind Waker broke up the usual landmass into an archipelago, spacing action sequences with almost spiritual sailing breaks. The recent Wii U remake improves things further by streamlining a few of the resulting problems, removing repeated animations, and increasing animation speed. That’s the sort of remake we can get behind: going back to do what we did before, but better and with less wasted time. Which is what most of us would do if we could time-travel like Link.
A Link to the Past
1991 | Nintendo | SNES
A Link to the Past wasn’t just a masterpiece, it was the entire future given form in only 16 bits. There has never been such a spectacular leap forward in franchise technology. Super Mario World had shown fans just how much better graphics had gotten compared to the NES, but it was A Link to the Past which expanded our vision of games the same way. A huge world you didn’t just play, you explored. And in a world without an internet, schoolyards buzzed with rumors of half-magic, secret rooms, and magical medallions, all straight from the mouth of an uncle who totally worked for Nintendo.
It’s still our link to the past. To a time when new games were better than we could have imagined. When games worked when they were released. When AAA titles didn’t spend half their time trying to sell you more stuff. It was a high point of pretty much everything about gaming. Early 3D polygons now look like clumsy origami accidents, but the beautifully-crafted pixel art of 1991 still inspires generations of indie artists. The audio was unprecedented. The adventure was incredible. The game was and still is one of the best anyone will ever play.
Luke McKinney is a freelance contributor.