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11. The Legend of Zelda: 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
12 of 20
10. 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
13 of 20
9-8. 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
14 of 20
7. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: There hasn't been a universally beloved console Zelda since Ocarina of Time, has there? 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
15 of 20
6. The Legend of Zelda: 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
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5. The Legend of Zelda: A 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
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4. The Legend of Zelda: 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
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3. 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
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2. 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
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1. The Legend of Zelda: 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