In the pantheon of video games, The Legend of Zelda is royalty. So many of many of this franchise’s games are burned into the collective consciousness of gamers because they’re such memorable classics. No other gaming properties other than maybe Mario can even begin to claim the level of innovation and amount of classics that the Zelda franchise has. Today, I will be ranking every Zelda entry. I’ve yet to be legally declared insane, so of course I’m only counting main series releases and not spinoffs and side games like Link’s Crossbow Training. I also will not be rating the different versions of games; I will rank them based on what I think are the best versions of the game available. Keep in mind also that these are purely my own subjective rankings, not a definitive or objective list. Without further ado, let’s get into the list.
Phantom Hourglass (2007)-
I don’t think there are any mainline Zelda games that could officially be labeled as “bad” (except for the CDI games which we don’t talk about.) Zelda has a level of quality that virtually no other franchise has been able to maintain. However, I think Phantom Hourglass is the closest the IP comes to mediocre. I do like the ability to customize your ship and the overworld is pretty cool. While there are some fun characters and interesting bosses that use the unique mechanics of the DS handheld, there just isn’t that much here compared to most Zelda games. But what really makes this game the lowest ranked title in the franchise for me is the stupid timed mega dungeon you have to keep going back to that murders the game’s pacing. Overall, I don’t think Phantom Hourglass is a bad game by any means, but it’s the Zelda game I had the least fun with, I really would have liked something more from a direct sequel to Wind Waker, and the less I say about the touch screen only controls, the better.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1988)-
Released in the maverick days of the gaming where the sequel to your innovative, best-selling, era defining masterpiece could be a completely different fucking genre to the last one, Zelda II is a hard game to place. It has more in common with RPGs like Final Fantasy than it does with what most people would associate with Zelda. It’s more of a side scrolling platformer than the action-adventure formula that the other games in the franchise have more or less stuck to. So many early internet memes were made from this game because it’s just so fucking weird. Zelda II is also extremely hard. If you think Dark Souls is hard, Zelda II makes it look like a Kirby game by comparison. Even with save states on virtual console, Zelda II is ball bustlingly difficult. Ultimately, while it is a cool game and honestly an interesting “What if Zelda was a 2D platformer” type experiment, I think I speak for most people when I say that Zelda II is just far too different from the established formula that made Zelda Zelda for it to be placed any higher on this list.
Zelda Four Swords/Four Swords Adventure (2004)-
The four player Co-op game Four Swords Adventure was a unique direction for Zelda, being the first multiplayer game in the franchise. I honestly really enjoyed this game and remember bringing my Game Boy Advance over to a friend’s house and playing this on their Gamecube a ton. It has a very simple scoring system that makes the game both cooperative and competitive which is always fun when you’re playing these types of games with friends. There are some really clever bosses and dungeons designed around the idea of it being a co-op focused game, and as a novelty, it is really fun to play with friends. That being said, I and pretty much everybody else associate Zelda with single player, story driven experiences and I still think that’s what Zelda at its best is.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)-
Don’t get me wrong, if I was ranking games purely based on historical importance, this would be near the top of the list. The OG Legend of Zelda is inarguably the most important video game ever made, and it defined the action-adventure genre for literally all games that came after it. This game invented so many things that we take for granted now in video games like save states and is objectively a massively important game in the history of the medium. Revisiting it nowadays, it’s honestly shocking how open ended it is, and how much it has in common with modern open world adventure games like Skyrim. From a creative standpoint, this game was literal decades ahead of its time. But, and it’s a massive but, I hesitate to place it any higher because I think the game is extremely archaic. Not archaic in the sense that the gameplay has aged poorly, but the vagueness and lack of any sort of direction paired with the cryptic types of NES era secret bullshit makes it hard to recommend this game by modern standards. I couldn’t beat this game without consulting a very detailed walkthrough and I doubt anybody else playing it for the first time in 2022 without a school yard full of friends to discuss with would be able to either. The game is massively important and still maybe worth checking out if you can look past the elements that have aged poorly, but I think it has really been surpassed at this point by much better games.
Spirit Tracks (2008)-
Spirit Tracks in my opinion is a really underrated Zelda title. The game takes place in an overworld where your only means of transportation is a train, which seems like a really dumb idea to base a Zelda game around, but it honestly works out well and there are a lot of cool ways this idea of trains is worked into the standard Zelda formula. This feels like a natural evolution of the overworld in a game like Wind Waker, and it did the concept of the master dungeon that you keep returning to far better than Phantom Hourglass. While I do really like a lot of aspects of the game, the dungeons and bosses are pretty poor and it feels like it lacks the polish that most Zelda games have in its ideas probably due to the quick development time. Spirit Tracks is a really underrated Zelda title that is worth checking out if you can grab a copy.
Oracle of Ages/Seasons (2001)-
Developed by Capcom, these two games tell the same story essentially, but with different mechanics. Ages focuses on action while Seasons focuses on puzzle solving, and these games can be bridged together to tell one cohesive story. I really like the narrative and characters in these games, and especially with Seasons, there are some insanely smart puzzles here. The world and the atmosphere they managed to create is honestly super impressive given the level of technology. But that’s the elephant in the room when it comes to both these titles. They were released literally 3 days before the Game Boy Advance, and from both a graphical and gameplay perspective, it fucking shows. Part of me wishes we could have lived in an alternate timeline where these titles were released using the graphical power and control convenience afforded by the GBA because these games are definitely held back by the system they were released on. Furthermore, while the idea of having two separate games that combine to tell one story is cool, ultimately it feels like two different games forcibly conjoined at the waist and it hurts the overall structure of the narrative. Despite the flaws and technological hurdles, these games are great and I would absolutely love if they were to be remade someday.
A Link Between Worlds (2013)-
A Link Between Worlds is a super belated sequel/reimagining of the SNES classic A Link to the Past. ALBW is definitely an interesting take on the Zelda formula. Instead of the standard go to dungeon, get item, use item in other dungeon progression, the game allows you to buy key items as you see fit, and this permits you to solve puzzles in several different ways. The unique mechanic here is merging with the wall which opens up so many cool puzzles and interesting ways to solve them. I think this is exactly how a handheld Zelda should play, the moment-to-moment gameplay is top-down Zelda perfected. While the dungeons themselves are admittedly not that memorable, they remix the ideas presented in ALTTP perfectly, and it feels like a fresh fusion of new and old. Also, this game, just like the title it takes its namesake from are both very open ended, which was definitely a breath of fresh air considering the direction Zelda was going at the time. While it’s maybe not the most memorable or original Zelda title, A Link Between Worlds provided the perfect mix of nostalgia and new ideas for me, and that made it one of my favorite games on the 3DS.
The Legend of Zelda, Minish Cap (2003)-
The third title developed by Capcom in association with Nintendo, Minish Cap is probably the most underrated Zelda title. I almost never hear people talk about it when they talk about Zelda, yet I find it to be one of the better handheld Zelda entries. On a surface level, Minish Cap isn’t all that original, the concept is simply that you have a sentient cap that shrinks you to the size of a race of miniature creatures called the Piccori. Minish Cap does so many cool things with the premise though, and one of the best things it does is truly make the bosses seem colossal compared to Link. A lot of the 2D Zelda games struggle to make really memorable dungeons compared to the 3D counterparts because the movement and hardware limitations force the developers into a much shallower bag of tricks, but Minish Cap has quite a few memorable dungeons, especially in the first half. Speaking of the Minish Cap, Ezlo is one of if not the best helper/partner characters in the entire franchise. I really like his sarcastic attitude. The crowning achievement (ah, ah… See what I did there?) is the unique 16-bit art style that really makes the game’s visuals pop.
Skyward Sword (2011)-
Skyward Sword is probably the most divisive game in the entire franchise. Zelda games tend to go through a cycle of Loved > Hated > Underrated > Overrated, but I’m just now a decade later starting to hear people really appreciate this title, probably aided by the recent remaster. I haven’t played the latest edition yet, so I can’t judge this game based on what’s probably the best version. Having said that qualifier, I can see why this game is divisive. It is incredibly linear and handholdy for a Zelda game, and the overworld is pretty barren and honestly not cohesive or fun to get around. There are a lot of repetitive aspects that kill the game’s pacing and a lot of people just couldn’t get on board with the motion control combat. With all that being said, I think a lot of the aspects of the game that were once divisive are what make Skyward Sword unique. The motion controls aren’t just a random gimmick thrown in, the entire combat system revolves around using them and I honestly think they’re really intuitive and fun once you get used to them. The expressionist, watercolor art style was also a point of contention but now I think it’s one of the coolest looking Zelda games. The fully orchestrated soundtrack is one of the best in a franchise full of amazing OST’s and the story, being a prequel to all the events in the other games and timelines was an interesting place to go story -wise. Ghirahim is a cool new villain and I think this is my favorite portrayal of both Zelda as a character and Link and Zelda’s relationship. What really makes Skyward Sword more than the sum of its flaws though is how excellent the dungeon design is. Just Ancient Cistern and the Sand Ship alone usually make top Zelda dungeon lists, not to mention the other great ones. While I think Skyward Sword is a great entry in the franchise, it does have a lot of drawbacks and negative aspects that prevent me from placing it higher.
Link’s Awakening (1993)-
Link’s Awakening is a very odd game, even by Zelda standards. The directors of the game were inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and it shows. The title is very surreal and dreamlike with tons of weird and oddly creepy at times characters, and even incorporating cross Nintendo cameos. It’s that uniqueness that makes Link’s Awakening really stand out, and the recent remake really unlocked the goldmine of potential this game had. What I love about Link’s Awakening is that it gets away from the established conventions of the franchise. There is no Hyrule, no Tri-force, no Zelda and no Gannon. It’s a surrealistic story that takes place on an island manifested in the dream of a whale. While people in 1993 were simply stoked to have a massive adventure like this on a handheld, I think a lot of people write Link’s Awakening off as inferior to the other Zelda titles when that couldn’t be further from the truth. The gameplay is great, the overworld is fun to explore, the game is varied and honestly, the dungeons are fantastic. That’s not to even mention the side quests which are also really cool and well done. Overall, Link’s Awakening is by far my favorite handheld Zelda game and now that the remake is out, people have no excuse to ignore its quality now that almost all the age and system related quirks have been fixed and removed.
A Link to the Past (1991)-
I know for a fact people are yelling at their monitors right now. After all, A Link to the Past is the definitive best Zelda game, right? Look, I know that ALTTP is for a lot of people the defacto best Zelda game, and I get it. There was probably a time where I thought that too. It makes sense; ALTTP is the action-adventure game distilled to its purest form. There are so many secrets and areas to explore and discover, it’s insane they packed it all onto a game from the SNES era. The gameplay has aged flawlessly, and there are a lot of memorable dungeons and bosses, my personal favorites being the Thieves’ Den. With that being said though, I think personally that ALTTP has been surpassed in a lot of ways from when it originally came out. There are Zelda games with better atmosphere, better music, better dungeons and better stories out there. That isn’t to diminish how amazing of a game ALTTP is, and even though I didn’t play it when it first came out, I have a lot of nostalgia towards the title, it being my first Zelda game. But I think it’s a testament to how amazing this franchise is that an all-time classic like A Link to the Past can easily be argued isn’t the best game in the franchise. There are simply games I love better even if ALTTP is one of the best video games ever made.
Breath of the Wild (2017)-
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a magical game. After a string of great but by the number’s titles, BOTW finally returning to the roots of Zelda with a true open world and thousands of secrets to find is a breath of fresh air. Breath of the Wild is a sandbox game to its core. You can go anywhere after the Great Plateau at the start of the game, even straight to fight Gannon an hour in if you dare to do so. The so called “Chemistry Engine” paired with the physics engine, allow the player to come up with fun and unique ways to approach combat and getting around the open world. This extends to the dungeons and the new shrines dotted across the land, as you can often times solve puzzles in whatever way you find, even if it isn’t the intended way. This game also has one of my favorite portrayals of Zelda in the franchise. What makes Breath of the Wild so good is the structure in its lack of structure. Your only objective in the game is to defeat Gannon and everything you do in the open world builds towards that ultimate goal. The game is super far from flawless, the dungeons are weak, there’s too many combat focused shrines, there’s a lot of repeated content and weak side quests, so I’ll probably get slack for putting it above games that have stood the test of time as classics like ALTTP, but I find myself thinking about and coming back to BOTW a lot, and I think this game really embraces what Zelda was originally about, and that’s not to mention the undeniable influence it has had on the open world genre, for better or worse. Also, I don’t give a fuck what anybody says, the soundtrack might be understated, but it’s still amazing.
Ocarina of Time (1998)-
Again, I can hear people grabbing their pitchforks and lighting up their torches. In the realm of Zelda games, the only entry more sacred to most people than A Link to the Past is Ocarina of Time. Don’t get me wrong, more than any other game on this list, Ocarina of Time is a true classic in every sense of the word. Very few games can boast the level of quality and innovation that OOT does. The world is so packed full of secrets and easter eggs and fun things to discover, it’s honestly insane how well Nintendo nailed their first attempt at 3D Zelda. The way the story is told visually, Koji Kondo’s masterpiece of score, the iconic dungeons. Every ingredient to making an amazing action-adventure game is there, so why isn’t it my favorite? Simply put, I think there are Zelda games that have better dungeons and more unique concepts that I like more. You have to remember that unlike a lot of people my age, I don’t have nostalgia for OOT, so that doesn’t play into my opinion of it at all. In a way though, that almost makes it come off better because I still love this game despite having zero emotions towards it before playing it the first time. The 3DS version also fixed a ton of the issues the game originally had. OOT is a true masterpiece that is one of the most important video games ever made, and it deserves to be top 5 on this list, it’s just not my personal favorite.
Twilight Princess (2006)-
Twilight Princess was another game that was divisive upon release that I tend to see people speaking fondly of nowadays. Twilight Princess is one of the only Zelda games that can be described as “Cinematic.” The iconic duel on the Bridge of Eldin comes to mind, but the final battle where you go one on one with Gannondorf in a sword duel evokes a Kurosawa-esque samurai film as much as it does Zelda. I really love the atmosphere and aesthetic of Twilight Princess, and I get flooded with so many positive memories when I hear the music from this game. I think Midna is also one of the best partner characters in the franchise, and overall, the characters are really strong, especially some of the wacky side characters like Agatha. The game is not without its faults. I understand the pacing is awful, especially at the start and it does have a lot of filler and repetitive elements (The HD version helped but not much.) But, from the point of the 3rd dungeon onward, Twilight Princess is a nearly flawless Zelda game. There’s a reason why this game is now held in such high regard and it’s because if you look at nearly anybody’s top Zelda dungeons list, there is assuredly going to be at least 3 if not more Twilight Princess dungeons on that list. Arbiter’s Grounds is my favorite Zelda dungeon and Snow Peak Temple is also very close, as is City in the Sky. Twilight Princess is an update to the classic Ocarina of Time, and one of my favorite Zelda games period, even if it isn’t a popular opinion to put it quite this high.
Majora’s Mask (2000)-
One of the things about Nintendo that makes them such a great developer is that they aren’t afraid to experiment with the core mechanics of a franchise while keeping the elements that people love. It’s how a franchise like Zelda manages to constantly stay fresh and relevant despite being around since the 80’s. Unfortunately, that means very few Nintendo games build on the ideas of the others, which can lead to a lack of continuity between entries. Majora’s Mask is a perfect example of how Nintendo forming some sort of continuity can lead to some amazing ideas (See also, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year’s Door.) Enter Majora’s Mask which is a direct sequel to OOT that builds on what made that game good. The difference is that Majora adds in a Groundhog’s Day style time loop. This is such a great mechanic because it gives firm context to both the gameplay and the story. The characters and side quests in Majora’s Mask are some of the most memorable in any Zelda game, and how the characters change over the course of the 3 days leading to their impending doom is masterfully done. While the dungeons and bosses aren’t the best and I think the core mechanics can lead to frustration, everything from the music to the characters in Majora’s Mask is so well crafted in comparison to some of the other Zelda titles that it really puts it over the top for me. Majora’s Mask really feels like a cohesive, lived-in world more so than any other Zelda game and I think how they handled the time bending mechanics is awesome. Majora’s Mask has consistently creeped up the rankings of my favorite Zelda games since I first played it all those years ago.
Wind Waker (2003)-
Zelda is my favorite gaming franchise, and even among these amazing games, Wind Waker holds a special place in my heart. It’s not particularly different than the other games at its core, but there’s an intrinsic feeling of adventure that comes from sailing the ocean, maybe it’s because the sea is inherently a mysterious and chaotic place, but no game has made me feel the spirit of adventure the same way that Wind Waker has. The cell shaded “cartoony” graphics were reviled before and even until well after release by fans, but now those people look awful stupid because that unique visual style has made Wind Waker withstand the test of time incredibly gracefully. Wind Waker isn’t very challenging or even long for a Zelda game, and the quality of the dungeons is debatably not really up there with the best in the series. But Wind Waker has what few other games in the series do and that’s charm. Link has always been made to be the literal “link” between the player and the game, but here he actually has a lot of personality. He’s more animated and amiable than usual, and that even extends to Zelda and a lot of the side characters. Koji Kondo’s soundtrack takes this game up another level just as all his scores do.
Gannon is a world ending threat in this title like he usually is, but just sailing around the various islands where people live, you wouldn’t really sense that. The game has a laid-back vibe that gels with my own personality more than a lot of the other games in the series. As a kid, for some reason I had the strategy guide for this game even long before I ever got it, and just looking at the map of the game world and the screenshots of people sailing around and finding treasure and secrets stimulated my imagination like few other things did. The sailing has always been one of the most polarizing features in the entire franchise, but I can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s because it makes it really feel like a swashbuckling adventure, or maybe because I have a ton of patience for mechanics that add to the atmosphere and narrative pacing of a game, but the sailing has always made the game for me. I think the sailing is going to be the sticking point for most people, if you love it, you’ll probably think Wind Waker is one of the best Zelda games, if you don’t, it probably won’t rank highly. The HD version fixes a lot of the small issues the original game had, and I would absolutely recommend it as my favorite game of all time.