At E3 2019, Nintendo dropped the mic at the end of its press conference with a trailer for Breath of the Wild 2 – a follow up to what’s regarded as one of the best Zelda games of all time, if not the best.
BOTW 2 is in development now and isn’t expected to drop for a while yet, so in the meantime, why not take one of the many Zelda titles for a spin – or, if you’ve already played them all, why not revisit your favourites?
Here’s our round-up of the best Zelda games, why you should care about them and how you can play them.
1. Breath of the Wild
The breathtaking pinnacle of the series
- Beautifully realised huge open world
- Incredible depth
- Very satisfying gameplay
- Beautiful art direction
- It’s tough, but always fair
- So-so voice acting
- Minor performance dips
Breath of the Wild received rave reviews for a reason – it’s a huge adventure which takes everything that’s great about Zelda games, and console RPGs in general, and magnifies it.
While ‘epic’ as a descriptor gets tossed around all too easily, Breath of the Wild is genuinely that. The game requires and rewards exploration, something that is encouraged by the landscape, the horizon of which is dotted with temples, peaks, forests and other points of interest. Breath features a combat system which doesn’t forgive anyone who thinks they can just barrel in and hack away at enemies, which adds a level of challenge which has been absent from more recent Zelda games. There is little hand-holding, and it’s very easy to die early on, even within the confines of the initial plateau which serves as a training area.
For those early stages of the game where you’re weak, underpowered, and only have flimsy weapons which break all the time, the fear of being discovered and relentlessly hounded by one of the spidery mechanical Guardians is real.
Breath of the Wild’s story unfolds gradually and gracefully. Short cut scenes are triggered by an amnesiac Link visiting certain areas. These can be visited in any order, meaning that how you experience the story depends largely on you.
While the game does nudge you on a specific path, you are entirely free to ignore that, and chart your own course. Feeling badass? Well, there’s nothing stopping you heading straight for the end boss as soon as you’re done with the training area – but unless you’re exceptionally good, you won’t last long.
A huge amount of agency is placed in the player’s hands, more so than any other Zelda game, and it’s this sense of freedom, not to mention the many lush and varied environments there are to explore, which makes Breath of the Wild truly special.
- Read our full Breath of the Wild review
2. A Link to the Past
The best 2D Zelda game which set the standard for what was to come
- Huge, beautifully designed world
- Clever interplay between Light and Dark worlds
- Smart dungeon design
- Structure places restrictions on exploration
- Far easier than The Legend of Zelda
A Link to the Past was Nintendo’s only Zelda outing for the SNES, and refines on a lot of what was established by the first NES title – top down action with sword swings locked to the A button and a huge inventory of items which can be mapped to the B button. But more than just an iterative update, Link is significant because it’s the first Zelda game where the concept of travelling between parallel worlds was introduced.
Action takes place between the Light World – the lush, green ‘normal’ world you start off in – and the Dark World, its twisted, distorted reflection which features similar but fundamentally different terrain. Furthermore, some actions you perform in one world will have a knock-on effect in the other, and some areas in one world are only accessible if you warp to it from the other – by way of a magical mirror you carry with you, and specific portals.
The story of A Link to the Past is also far more prominent than in the first Zelda game, which lets you wander around Hyrule and complete the main quest in any order you like – here, you’re encouraged (and most of the time, required) to visit locations in a certain order.
This structure – obtain three medallions before advancing to the game’s second act – would be reprised in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. Both of these also see Link moving between two realities, different timelines in the case of Ocarina, and a coterminous shadow realm in Twilight, which cements A Link to the Past’s position as one of the most influential games in the franchise.
Copies can be picked up for the Nintendo 3DS, which is probably your best bet, unless you can grab one of the few copies of the Classic SNES Mini.
3. Ocarina of Time
The first 3D Zelda game still casts a long shadow
- Excellent performance, even when gaming
- Solid build quality
- Fantastic keyboard
- Amazing screen
- Combat mechanic has not aged well
- Structure-wise, it doesn’t build on A Link to the Past
Many players cite Ocarina as their favourite Zelda game, and that’s probably because it’s the first one where you’re able to yomp around Hyrule in three dimensions, not only on foot, but on horseback too – Ocarina is the first game to feature Epona, Link’s trusty steed.
As well as being able to roam sprawling fields, scale mountain paths and tear through forests all in lovely 3D, combat and puzzle-solving here (literally) take on a new dimension as well.
Where before, you’d enter a dungeon room and be able to see everything you needed to solve a puzzle in front of you, now switches, chests, and items needed to progress will be hidden around corners, behind statues, or even on the ceilings of rooms. As the quest begins, you’re gently encouraged to think in three dimensions instead of two, so that by the time you’re ready to take on the game’s final challenges, all of the skills, items, and experience you’ve picked up along the way will be put to the ultimate test.
There’s a musical element to Ocarina of Time too – playing tunes on the titular ocarina not only adds an extra layer of charm, but is also required to access certain items and later, building on a concept first introduced in A Link to the Past – necessary for travelling around the world map quickly.
By today’s standards, Ocarina’s combat is rudimentary, sometimes laughably so, but the grandeur of the game has endured to the point where it was successfully ported to the Nintendo 3DS not so long ago. If you’re unable to pick up a second-hand Nintendo 64 anywhere, the 3DS option is by far your best bet.
4. Wind Waker
This seaborne adventure represents the biggest departure for the series so far
- Fantastic cartoon graphics given a new HD sheen
- Hours of mystery and adventure
- Many oddballs to meet and islands to explore
- Some sensible changes make the game even better
- No abandoned material restored
- Minor glitches and gameplay issues
Killjoys greeted Wind Waker’s cel-shaded cartoony style with derision when it was first unveiled, but the joke’s on them, because they overlooked a huge, not to mention utterly charming, adventure game.
While it follows the A Link to the Past’s structure for the most part, Wind Waker’s real masterstroke was to do away with the rolling hills and dales of Hyrule and take to the high seas. Instead of facing down dragons, skeletons and the usual fantasy fare, here you’ll take on sea beasts, storms, and pirates. There’s a greater emphasis on stealth here than on other titles, with one of the earliest moments of the game requiring you to sneak through a pirate’s island fortress undetected.
It looks beautiful too, whether you’re picking up a copy of the GameCube original, or you’re checking out the remastered 3DS version (our review of which you can check out below), Wind Waker will delight, unless you’re of the opinion that games shouldn’t ever be fun and must always be Serious Business.
- Read our full Wind Waker HD review here
5. The Legend of Zelda
The one that started it all
- Challenging adventure
- That Zelda theme tune still sounds great
- Now free to play on Switch, with an Online pass
- Lack of direction and virtually no in-game storytelling
- Shonky controls
The Legend of Zelda might not be the most approachable title, thanks in part to it being nails hard (something that’s not helped by the rudimentary controls) and also down to a near-total absence of guidance.
After you’ve entered your name, you’re plonked into the first screen with not even a hint of where to go or what to do. All you know is that there are eight pieces of one third of the Triforce which you’ll need to collect in order to save the day. How you go about doing that? You’re on your own, kid.
This lack of instruction might frustrate modern players, but it’s also a blessing – you’re free to roam the land and seek our those eight Triforce pieces, all located in subterranean dungeons, in whichever order you choose. Locations which become Zelda staples, like the Lost Woods and Lake Hylia make their first appearances here, as do faeries, pieces of heart, Octoroks, Tektites, and Zoras.
It’s not perfect, you will find yourself cursing at the unfairness of combat, health pick ups are few and far between.
It’s probably best enjoyed on the Switch these days – with a Nintendo Switch Online pass, you can not only get OG Zelda for no extra cost, there’s also a Special Edition version of The Legend of Zelda, which sees you starting the game with every item and 225 Rupees jingling in your wallet.
6. Majora’s Mask
A twisted, tenebrous left-hand turn for the franchise
- Ingenious time-twisting structure
- Unusual atmosphere
- Inventive puzzles
- Only four real dungeons
- Contains Tingle
Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, but where the former game was heroic in scope and scale, Majora’s Mask is hermetic and contained. There are dungeons to delve, bosses to beat and the stakes remain high – the fate of the world is, once again, in your hands – but a great chunk of the action is actually focused on running errands in and around Clock Town, the game’s central location.
There’s a twist in proceedings, too. You have only three days to finish the quest before it’s all over, but, thankfully, you can prevent disaster by playing the Song of Time on your ocarina at any point to travel back to the start of the first day.
Of course, doing so means that any unfinished side quests will have to be started all over, and any Rupees not stored in the game’s somehow time-proof bank (I have no idea how this works, OK?) will be taken from you, so the mechanics of Majora’s Mask requires you to think about how you’ll go about saving the world a little differently.
The game is also notable for being the first time we get to meet Tingle, the adorable/annoying man cosplaying as a fairy who will sell you maps of the game’s various regions.
Imagine Groundhog Day meets The Wicker Man minus the ritual sacrifice and Bill Murray, and you’re halfway to getting Majora’s Mask’s overall mise-en-scène. Again, the 3DS version might be your best option here, unless you can track down an original copy and a working N64.
- Read our full review of Majora’s Mask 3D
7. A Link Between Worlds
A stylish return to form on the 3DS
- Classic Zelda gameplay with some bold new twists
- Excellent use of 3D
- Big, brilliant and immersive
- Not as charming or stylish as Wind Waker and its off-shoots
- Occasionally frustrating
A Link Between Worlds had a lot to live up to being the successor of Nintendo’s smash hit A Link to the Past, especially after years of intensifying nostalgia. Impressively, this top-down The Legend of Zelda 3DS adventure not only met expectations, but made a name for itself as one of the best entries yet.
Worlds has all the classic series tropes, with plenty of dungeons, boss battles and goofy characters to encounter, and also introduced innovative new ideas. Having Link able to morph between 3D and 2D forms was the game’s unique special sauce, allowing you to squeeze through tight spaces, forcing you to approach some brain-teasingly brilliant puzzles in a different way.
- Read our full review of A Link Between Worlds
What is the Legend of Zelda and why are Zelda games so popular?
Generally, Zelda titles see you step into the shoes of a silent warrior canonically named Link (though you can call him whatever you like, even ‘Zelda’ if you want to get really meta), who is tasked with aiding Zelda, a princess possessing latent magical abilities, in her struggles with the evil sorcerer-king Ganon.
These three characters and their namesake descendents are inextricably bound to the Triforce, a mystical Holy Grail-like artefact. Whoever can control all three aspects of the Triforce can remake the universe in their own image – if only Thanos had heard about it, the MCU might have been a lot shorter – and generally speaking, stories tend to focus on good guys Link and Zelda working together to deny Ganon his ambition of world domination.
This story has been told and re-told many times throughout the Zelda franchise, with each new release generally riffing on, or developing, the themes of destiny, ambition and sacrifice in some way.
It’s been like this since 1987, when the first game, The Legend of Zelda, was released for the NES, and, if the recently-dropped trailer for the follow-up to 2017’s Breath of the Wild is anything to go by, we’re going to be in for more of the same.
Not every Zelda game follows this well-worn path, though. As you’ll see from the entries above, adventures like Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker deviate from the main story beat and offer fresh adventures that are no less epic in scale. Hopefully, one day, we’ll see a Zelda game with Zelda as the main character, the action moved away from the usual fantasy setting to a more futuristic-looking Hyrule.
Ryan Jones contributed to this round-up.