The Best Legend of Zelda Games

Games Lists The Legend of Zelda
The Best Legend of Zelda Games

How is it already time for another Zelda game? Tears of the Kingdom has been out on the Switch for a month now, just over six years after Breath of the Wild set a new standard for the series and the medium as a whole. Six years is a decent clutch of time, and yet it feels just like yesterday that we first ventured out into the latest mystery-filled version of Hyrule to take down Calamity Ganon. With Link’s latest chapter devouring all our free time, we’ve been thinking about the history of this series, and wondering how its past games stack up. These thoughts are as crucial as the arguments they’ll probably incite (and if you want to argue ‘em, go leave comments at Paste’s Facebook page). So join us on an epic adventure through over 30 years of Legend of Zelda and Legend of Zelda opinions, as we plunge ever deeper into danger towards an inevitable (and perhaps too-obvious) end.

26-24. The CD-i Games (Link: The Faces of Evil; Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon; Zelda’s Adventure)

Zelda CDi games

The internet will continue to introduce future generations to these three unmitigated disasters, but I am old enough to have actually played one at a CD-i demo station in a mall in 1993. They might bear the visual trappings of a Zelda game, but they simply aren’t: they weren’t made by Nintendo, and despite some minor similarities to Zelda II, nothing about how they’re played or structured feels like anything else the series has ever tried. We can pull up the YouTube clips and laugh at the bad cut-scenes, but that doesn’t capture the peculiar soullessness of the actual games, which look vaguely like the Zelda we had come to know by that point without imparting any of its essence. Zelda clones were everywhere back then, but these games, which were sanctioned by Nintendo and used the familiar names and character designs, made accomplished knockoffs like Neutopia look as great as the real thing.—Garrett Martin

23. Link’s Crossbow Training

Link's Crossbow Training

This isn’t even a Zelda game in name only, as the princess’s name is nowhere on the box. A barebones pack-in title for an inessential Wii peripheral, Link’s Crossbow Training borrows the look of Zelda for a game that otherwise has nothing to do with the series in any way. It even gets Link’s weapons wrong: he normally uses a bow and arrow, and has never picked up a crossbow outside of this curiosity. That training must not have gone too well for him.—Garrett Martin

22. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

Tri Force Heroes

The first hint something isn’t quite right is the name. “Wait,” you say, “I thought Triforce was one word?” And you would be right. This legendary symbol, the fragmented Holy Grail of the Zelda series, is no longer a treasure to be found but a word split in two for punning effect. You play alongside two other heroes—you are a Tri Force—to work together, solve puzzles and defeat treacherous baddies. Instead of items and crests, you unlock new outfits to wear. Though many provide special skills, the attire itself is often worth the trouble: Seeing Link prance in his pajamas or sashay in a dress is, admittedly, more interesting than another hookshot (though it’s too bad Zelda herself couldn’t fight alongside you instead of two clones).

As the first online-multiplayer Zelda game, there are clever concessions to the inevitable kinks—you earn rupies as consolation for a partner leaving the quest (or losing a Wi-Fi signal); you communicate via one of eight graphical icons instead of voice-chat, which gives the game a kind of “Simon Says” quality, if Simon was mute and hand-drawn. And when the game works, there is a kind of magic to be found here. But too often the franchise’s reputation for complex, intuitive design is let down by something beyond your control: A stubborn anonymous partner, say, or a lack of close-by mates with a hunger for adventure.—Jon Irwin

21. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords

Zelda Four Swords

Included as part of the Game Boy Advance version of A Link to the Past, and later released as a standalone game through DSiWare, the original Four Swords had an interesting concept but was bound by too many limitations to shine on its own. Because the game was built around co-op on a system which required people to link their GBAs together with a cable, you had to commit to finding a group and making sure everyone would stick with it. The dungeons and bosses themselves were neat, but didn’t leave too much of a lasting impact. It was a short experience and didn’t exactly beg you to play it again—not when it shared cartridge space with one of the greatest games of all time.—Suriel Vazquez

20. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Four Swords Adventures

Most people don’t remember Four Swords Adventures and would likely hesitate to call it a “real” Zelda game, whatever that means. That’s a shame, because it had a lot of great ideas. It was a co-op game at just the right length: short enough to beat in one extended session with a group of friends, but long enough that it would take your group all of an afternoon to do so. You didn’t even need friends to play it; one person could command all four Links and run them in formation with the GameCube’s C-Stick. And it had one of the best uses of GameCube-to-Game Boy Advance connectivity; small caves and other indoor areas showed up on the GBA screen, which meant you could explore a house while your friends goofed around outside.—Suriel Vazquez

19. Hyrule Warriors

Hyrule Warriors

Another Zelda-related game that’s not really a “Zelda game,” Hyrule Warriors places Zelda characters and iconography in a game based on the Dynasty Warriors template. Instead of Link facing down small groups of moblins or lizalfos, he can wipe out dozens of them with a single combo. Its simple, repetitive combat can be a fun diversion, but it misses the grandeur expected from a Zelda game. It helps to have a brain, but unlike most Zelda games you can still make it to the end without one, simply by tapping buttons at the right time.—Garrett Martin

18. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Hyrule Warriors Age of Calamity

Age of Calamity is about as far from a “real” Zelda game as you can get. Instead of the exploration and abundant mystery of Breath of the Wild, this spin-off is a fast-paced, action-heavy, hack-and-slashathon where you’ll mow through countless enemies en masse. It does possess some intrigue as our first return to the world of Breath of the Wild, filling in the backstories of that version of Hyrule and its heroes. And as far as the “musou” genre goes, Age of Calamity has a bit more going for it than the standard Dynasty Warriors game, with a solid variety of combat options tailored to each Zelda character. As one-off aside to the Breath of the Wild epic, it’s a fine, if repetitive, diversion.—Garrett Martin

17. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

The Minish Cap

Though it was perhaps the least creative handheld outing for the series, Minish Cap was far from a bad game. Its scope was not as grand as its handheld brethren, but it had a lot of heart. Being able to shrink down to the size of an ant was an elegant way to send you looking for new areas to work through between dungeons, and damn it if Ezlo isn’t the best partner character in this whole series. It had a diverse set of tools and quite a few of side quests worth seeing through for more than their reward. It even gave Four Swords villain Vaati a decent backstory that tied him into the rest of the series’ convoluted timeline.—Suriel Vazquez

16. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Spirit Tracks

Cel-shading isn’t the only distinctive trait of the peculiar Zelda sub-series that kicked off with The Wind Waker. All three games are defined by transportation. The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass are built around sailing, but Spirit Tracks introduces a train that Link uses to travel from town to dungeon and everywhere in-between. Understandably it’s more limited than the boats in the other two games—you have your choice between moving forward or backward—and the train portions feel less like a fully integrated main component than a weird minigame that occasionally breaks up the main quest. Still, it’s a gorgeous little handheld Zelda, with some smartly crafted dungeons and a Phantom-possession mechanic that makes full use of the hardware’s stylus.—Garrett Martin

15. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II

The first sequel in the landmark franchise had a weighty burden to carry. This was the first Zelda game I played back when it came out in 1988, and so my opinion of the series was unfairly skewed by the title’s idiosyncrasies. A mix of RPG trademarks, such as random battles and experience points, melded with a side-on perspective that confused veterans of the top-down original. Townspeople spat out spare hints that, if not heeded correctly, would make progress near-impossible. The elegance of the original was traded for a complex duality, between overhead maps and side-scrolling action scenes, that has yet to be returned to in the subsequent thirty years of revision.

But for all of its stubborn quirks, there is a contingent who champion this odd duck for its compelling challenge, clever swordplay and unique take on a well-worn story. And if nothing else, The Adventure of Link gave us one of gaming’s most memorable non-characters: Error, the poorly-named townsman with low self-esteem.—Jon Irwin

14. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess is a tale of two opposed forces, and I don’t mean the regular world / “Twilight Realm” dichotomy found in the game’s story. On one side are the dungeons, which might be the best in the entire series. Almost all of them are smartly designed, filled with challenges and surprises without any of the more annoying traits that occasionally pop up in Zelda games. And then you have almost everything that happens outside the dungeons, from an unnecessarily long and boring tutorial in your home village, to a cast of grotesque and unlikable townspeople that unfortunately can’t be ignored. Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker were built on the same general 3D formula that Ocarina of Time introduced, but their unique structures (and Wind Waker’s beautiful art) made that formula feel fresh. Despite the gimmick of Wolf Link, Twilight Princess doesn’t really do anything structurally to distinguish itself from Ocarina of Time, and so it just feels a bit uninspired. The dungeons are tremendous, but the rest of the game falls a little bit flat.—Garrett Martin

13. The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

Phantom Hourglass

Phantom Hourglass is the kind of game that would have been impossible to predict at the dawn of Zelda two decades prior. First, there’s the luscious cartoon look, mimicked from GameCube’s divisive The Wind Waker and developed into a style of choice for both of Link’s journeys on the DS handheld. The more surprising development to the player circa 1986 would be the interface: in lieu of using buttons to attack, you wield your weaponry by swiping the stylus on the bottom touch-screen.

The ability to scribble directly onto the playfield gives way to new kinds of challenges, whether it’s tracing the path of your boomerang or needing to sketch a quick note to yourself for later. But even with a few handware-enabled gimmicks of the time—Rule #7: If There is a Microphone, You Must Blow Into it—the excursion proves nearly as enticing as the console game that inspired it.—Jon Irwin

12-11. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons / Oracle of Ages

Oracle of Seasons / Oracle of Ages

The two Oracle are remarkable for a number of reasons; one, they were developed by a third-party company (Capcom) and still captured the magic of the series, which was impressive after the whole Phillips CD-i fiasco. Second, they out-Pokémoned the Pokémon series; both games, released on the same day, had separate plots, overworlds and dungeons. Owning both got you a final boss fight which wrapped up the story without seeming like a cash grab. Ages and Seasons were both great games in their own right (which the slight edge going to Seasons) and played off each other perfectly, since Ages was more methodical and puzzle-based while Seasons was more lively and action-oriented. To get two great Zelda games in the same year gave you hope for the future of 2D Zelda at a time when it seemed the series’ main focus was in 3D, and that can’t be understated.—Suriel Vazquez

10. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword

Until Breath of the Wild, there hasn’t been a universally beloved console Zelda since Ocarina of Time. 2011’s Skyward Sword split the audience with its Wii Motion Plus-enhanced swordplay, which was intricate and hard-to-master. Some thought it brought a new gravity to a facet of the series that had long felt perfunctory, others thought it turned routine combat into a slow and frustrating roadblock. Either way it made you more aware of the time between puzzle-solving and dungeon exploring. The new combat and a beautiful, painterly look couldn’t make up for another long, slow beginning in another dull town full of off-puttingly cartoonish side characters. The stagnant Skyward Sword stuck too closely to the structure that had been in place since Ocarina of Time.—Garrett Martin

9. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

Link's Awakening

The first handheld Zelda was an extraordinary one. It deftly translated what made the series great (eloquent dungeon design, a world full of interesting things to do) to a handheld, and you never felt like you were missing out on a “grander” adventure because you were playing Link’s Awakening on a Game Boy. You were far too busy learning the Ballad of the Wind Fish and working your way through an entirely new world and set of characters to really think about color depth or screen size, and you couldn’t have asked for much more out of a handheld game in 1993.—Suriel Vazquez

8. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Ocarina of Time

The last time we saw Link, he was a chubby blob of pixels seen from a mile up. Now we watched from eye-level as he walked through open pastures, ran across floating logs, and rode a horse. I recall observing a college roommate running through Hyrule Field, his face slack, his torso unmoving. My friend’s grades suffered that term. But we, the players, did not. As the industry stumbled into three dimensions, Ocarina of Time was Part Two of Nintendo’s jab-uppercut combination that, along with Super Mario 64, brought everyone else up to speed as to what polygons made possible.

To many, it’s the greatest game of all time. What makes Zelda such an enduring franchise is that such a historical title can’t even make its own Top Five. You may dispute the ranking. But even we can’t dispute Ocarina’s peerless design and innovative control. Z-targeting has remained a staple not only of the series but the 3D game space writ-large, with The Witcher 3, many site’s Game of the Year last year, borrowing a version of the lock-on system. And though our memories of the Nintendo 64 title are more beautiful than the muddy reality, the 3DS remaster from 2011 only cemented the classic’s reputation. Even with sharper graphics and a better camera, this was the game we remembered, and it remains as indispensable as ever.—Jon Irwin

7. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Link Between Worlds

A Link Between Worlds gave me hope for the future of Zelda at a time when I figured the series would be stuck in its rhythms forever. I enjoyed Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword quite a bit in their day, but their allure dwindled as time went on. They only meddled with the most peripheral aspects of the series’ formula, and what they added often made it worse. By offering a less rigid approach to dungeons (they could be tackled in any order), A Link Between Worlds shook up the series more than any Zelda since Majora’s Mask had done. It showed that Nintendo isn’t done throwing new ideas into the series, and it’s the only thing that makes me believe the company’s claims that the next Zelda game will be a radical departure. That it struck a direct comparison to A Link to the Past and didn’t make me wish I was playing that game instead was a nice bonus.—Suriel Vazquez

6. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Tears of the Kingdom

Tears of the Kingdom looks like Breath of the Wild, sounds like Breath of the Wild, and even plays like Breath of the Wild, and yet it’s so fundamentally different that it’s almost impossible to confuse the two. The sequel to our favorite game of the last decade expands greatly on the original’s map, introducing both upper and lower levels to trek through, and also introduces an Erector Set-style construction toolset that gives you an extreme amount of freedom to experiment and explore. Many love it more than Breath because of that freedom, while others (uh, like me) think it overcomplicates the elegant, immersive beauty of Breath just a little too much. Still, it’s an absolutely amazing Zelda, one of the best games for the Switch, and a clear-cut favorite of the best game of 2023.—Garrett Martin

5. The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda

Adventure on Atari 2600 may have invented the open-world role-playing game, but The Legend of Zelda refined the still-fermenting genre into something complicated and organic: the difference between white bread and brioche. Shigeru Miyamoto’s paeon to his youth, spent roaming nearby hills and exploring unlit caves, was no less than a revelation to those who played it upon release. You could go anywhere from the first screen. You weren’t told where to go or what to do. You either survived or perished, became lost or found your way. Even holding the physical game felt special: as if this golden cartridge was the last remaining shard of the Triforce itself. —Jon Irwin

4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Majora's Mask

There have only been two new console Zelda games in the last 13 years, but Nintendo didn’t always take their time with them. Majora’s Mask came out less than two years after Ocarina of Time. It might feel like an expansion at first, clearly reusing a lot of the same assets, but it winds up innovating within the standard Zelda formula more than perhaps any other game. From its unique structure, where you have to constantly rewind time backwards and relive the same three days over and over, to Link’s many mask-enabled transformations, the dark and complex Majora’s Mask stands alone within the Zelda lineage.—Garrett Martin

3. A Link to the Past

A Link to the Past

For many, this is where it all finally came together. The original inspired with its scope and sense of freedom. The sequel flummoxed with its obtuseness and drastic swerve. Here, then, was a return to what worked before—an overhead perspective, with a reliance on the player’s wits and curiosity to push them onward—but with the juice of a new machine to reinvigorate the proceedings. Now, you could hear rain pounding on the roof overhead before stepping out into the storm. You burned bushes not with pixelated candles but flaming torches. Rooms had elevation; this was a layered Zelda experience, both vertically (in space) and horizontally (in time). What was merely hinted at in The Legend of Zelda was now seen fleshed out and fully realized.

It’s almost a shame the designers at Nintendo reached such a peak so early in the franchise’s lifespan, as the success of A Link to the Past rendered future iterations toward perfection unnecessary; we would not see a return to the formula for two decades. No matter. Like few of its contemporaries, you can play this today, for the first time or the fortieth, and the experience holds up. And if you haven’t? Your sword awaits.—Jon Irwin

2. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Wind Waker

More than anything else, Zelda games are about adventure, and never has the series felt more adventurous than in The Wind Waker. Not only did it introduce a new timeline and a new way to traverse its world, it completely transformed how a Zelda game can look with its gorgeous, cartoon-influenced, cel-shaded graphics. It’s a 13 year old from the days before HD was everywhere, but because of its style it still looks better than most new games that come out now. And it wasn’t just a visual upgrade: few games in the history of the medium can match Wind Waker when it comes to mystery and the power of discovery. As you sail across its massive ocean, stumbling upon weird secrets and stories on the many islands that dot the map, you’ll actually feel like an explorer illuminating the darkened corners of this unknown world. Wind Waker is a creative highpoint that Nintendo and the industry at large have struggled to reach again.—Garrett Martin

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild

Nobody wants to make a rush to judgment, but it was very quickly obvious that Breath of the Wild was something special. It’s a great testament to the massive achievement that is Breath of the Wild that we were ready to slot it in at number one on this list after perhaps ten hours—and that several years later we still pick it up occasionally and enjoy it as much as we did in 2017. As I wrote in our review at launch, Breath of the Wild “is a fresh approach to what Zelda games have strove for since the very beginning. The depth you expect, the open exploration and constant sense of discovery the series is known for, are here in perhaps greater effect than ever before, but with the systems and mechanics that drive the moment-to-moment action heavily overhauled. The result is a Zelda that feels unmistakably like a Zelda, but that also breathes new life into the venerable classic.” Over six years later, with far more time spent entranced by this new version of Hyrule, all of those words ring truer than ever. Breath of the Wild is the best Legend of Zelda game yet, and one of the very best videogames ever made.—Garrett Martin

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