By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
The Legend of Zelda recently turned 30, so I’m using that as an excuse to share my five favorite Zelda games. In addition, guest contributor Steve MacDougall also shared his. It’s always good to have a second opinion, especially on a topic of this size.
My top five:
#5 – Skyward Sword (Wii)
It only took five years, but we finally got the Wii Zelda that we dreamed about when we first saw the Wii-mote. With Wii Motion Plus, the movement between the controller and Link’s sword were pretty much one-to-one, and Nintendo made excellent use of that with the deepest and most interesting combat in series history. Fighting bad guys in Zelda was always fun enough, but it was also pretty shallow–hack hack roll, hack hack roll, and so on. Having to study each enemy’s movement and adjust accordingly which way to swing my sword made every encounter satisfying. The dungeons are as creative as they always are, but in Skyward Sword you don’t just walk in the front door–you have to basically get through an outside dungeon before you even start the dungeon proper, making the play time between core dungeons much more exciting than simply scouring a countryside or ocean for random treasure chests or doing arbitrary chores for villagers. Lastly, the visuals are gorgeous, with a water color look that strikes a nice balance between the “grown up Link” of Twilight Princess without that game’s oppressively dark environments. A lot of people complained that the game is too long, and more specifically, it was too long because it requires you to revisit dungeons you’ve already beaten. It’s definitely a fair complaint; without that unncessary padding, Skyward Sword might have had a serious chance at being my second-favorite 3D Zelda.
#4 – Link’s Awakening DX (Game Boy Color)
The Game Boy often struggled to properly represent AAA Nintendo franchises that didn’t begin on the handheld–Metroid and, yes, Mario never quite lived up to their console counterparts. Link’s Awakening changed that, delivering an epic adventure on a par with any of Link’s console outings up to that point. Not only did it capture as much of the spirit of an SNES game as any Game Boy game could possible accomplish, but it is one of the only Zelda games that broke free from the traditional, retreaded narrative that most of the game’s follow; you don’t even rescue Zelda or fight Ganon. For much the same reason that the oddball Majora’s Mask is the personal favorite of so many Zelda fans, breaking away from so many series conventions makes Link’s Awakening something really special. And while the special color-centric dungeon that was added to the “DX” version is nothing special, there’s no denying that being able to play the game in full color brought the game to life in a way that the original’s pea soup filter never could’ve. Everyone is clamoring for Nintendo to do a 3D remake of Link to the Past for 3DS; my vote goes towards doing Link’s Awakening instead.
#3 – A Link to the Past (SNES)
Gamers of a certain age can remember the first time we saw screenshots of “Zelda 3” for SNES; those lush graphics, those multi-tiered environments, it was almost impossible to even wrap our minds around what we were looking at. And after replaying the first Zelda dozens of times for years and years–and cursing at how difficult and disappointment Zelda II was–to say that expectations were high for LttP is an understatement. To say that it exceeded those lofty expectations is equally selling short just what a masterpiece this game is. Simply taking The Legend of Zelda and amping everything up to 16-bit proportions would’ve been good enough for most of us, but once we discovered that there was an entire second (dark) world to play through was unexpectedly awesome in a way that games today can’t manage with leaks, social media, etc. People accuse the Zelda series of being the same game over and over again, and that all of the Zelda games since LttP have just been remakes of it. Maybe that’s true–but you’re talking about a basically perfect game. I can think of worse things than being able to keep playing remakes of a perfect game.
#2 – Wind Waker (GameCube)
Nintendo gets a lot of grief now for being safe and predictable, but what people forget is that they were anything but during the GameCube era, and they were crucified for it. The response to the debut of “Toon Link” wasn’t just negative, it was angry. People who grew up with Zelda were adults now, and they wanted an “adult” Zelda game. Well if you want an action-RPG with blood and naked women, there’s plenty of that available to you–the rest of us are too busy playing the second-best Zelda game ever made and one of the most beautiful, polished, and well-paced adventures of all time. Nintendo had a strange obsession with water in the GameCube era, and while that manifested itself in strange ways with Mario Sunshine and water-propelled jetpacks, moving a Zelda game out of Hyrule Field and into the open seas was a masterstroke. Like with Link’s Awakening, it gave Wind Waker a unique feel that helped to set it apart from the series. And that music–the Celtic flavor of the Wind Waker soundtrack make it the best in series’ history and one of the best in overall Nintendo history without question.
#1 – Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64)
Yes, Ocarina of Time is basically A Link to the Past in 3D. Again, why is that a bad thing? In fact, that’s exactly what makes it better than LttP, because there’s something about navigating cavernous dungeons and riding a horse across a vast field and descending deadly volcanoes and fighting room-filling bosses that overhead 2D just can’t quite capture the way 3D can. People often talk about how only 2D games are truly timeless, and that 3D ones–especially from the 90’s–haven’t aged well and are too ugly to look at and too clunky to play. Well I think that’s absurd, and there’s no better proof of that than Ocarina of Time; I can play it today and be just as enthralled with it as I was the first time. Yes, 3D games can be timeless, and Ocarina certainly is.
A Second Opinion
By: Steve MacDougall, contributor
First of all, I’d just like to say that in my opinion, there is no such thing as a bad Zelda game. I own every mainline Zelda game ever released, and almost all of these I have bought multiple times. So if you don’t see your favorite Zelda on the list, rest assured, I own it and love it too. With that, here we go.
#5 The Phantom Hourglass
As you can see from this list, I really value new experiences and when Nintendo tries something new, so Phantom Hourglass was right up my alley. Sure, it looks like Wind Waker, and has a sailing mechanic and water-covered overworld, but it doesn’t PLAY like Wind Waker. It’s completely different. The stylus was such a unique way to control Link, and it worked really well! And the game had some great puzzles. Having to close the DS to solve one puzzle, for instance, was brilliant, and evoked memories of Hideo Kojima’s back of the box trickery and second controller shenanigans in the original Metal Gear Solid. Phantom Hourglass isn’t a popular Zelda game, with the most common complaint coming from the central dungeon that requires the player to visit it after every dungeon, and there is some backtracking in the game. Some, but not much. Most of the time you’re able to skip the parts of the game you already played thanks to the new item you picked up in the previous dungeon, so I always felt complaints about the Temple of the Ocean King were overblown.
#4 The Wind Waker
Man, how well I remember when Nintendo announced THIS game. When Nintendo announced the GameCube, they showed a tech demo of a realistic looking Zelda game. That demo looked incredible and fans salivated at the idea that this is what the next Zelda was going to look like. And then Nintendo announced Wind Waker and all hell broke loose. Mockingly referred to as ‘Celda’, nobody was happy that the realistic, beautiful tech demo we were expecting was replaced with a childish cartoon. And then we got to play the game and we saw how expressive these new characters could be. How much personality Nintendo was able to give them. How gorgeous the environments looked with the new cel-shading method, and those complaints were forgotten. Wind Waker was gorgeous and it was huge. The sailing mechanic was novel and it made exploring the world a ton of fun. It kept up the tradition of optional side quests. They started to get a little more ubiquitous and time-consuming to perform (like photographing every character and enemy in the game) but it was still all optional, and it was a fun distraction from the main game. If I had any criticisms about it, it would be firstly that the game was just too easy. It was fun and beautiful, but not challenging at all. And also you could start to see that Nintendo was adopting a template from Ocarina and fitting it to all future Zeldas. There was still a ton of creativity and new ideas, but the days of seeing a complete change of pace ala ‘The Adventure of Link’ were over.
#3 The Adventure of Link
The sequel to the very first Zelda game was an absolute shock to gamers in 1988. Nintendo took a top-down adventure game and mostly made it into a side-scrolling adventure game. They added experience points and magic to the game! This game to me represented Nintendo at their very best. They never made sequels haphazardly. A sequel never felt like simply more of the first game and they didn’t make a sequel unless they had a new idea which usually resulted in a drastically different game than we had seen previously. I loved that about this game and Nintendo in general. This game was unique and fun and challenging. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is easily the hardest Zelda game. Getting all the way through and beating Shadow Link on just 3 lives is not easy in the slightest. Just getting to his castle without losing a life is hard. I have played this game more than probably any other Zelda game save for A Link to the Past over the years. It doesn’t deserve any of the hate it gets for daring to be different.
#2 Ocarina of Time
1998 was just a magical year for video games. I remember getting Metal Gear Solid and being absolutely blown away by it. I had never seen anything like it. And then, two weeks later, THIS came out, and I was blown away all over again. I couldn’t believe Nintendo succeeded in making the same leap with Zelda that they made with Mario 64. All the elements of Zelda that made that series what it was, the puzzle elements, the exploration, the action and the charm were preserved to perfection. All the new elements Nintendo added fit perfectly and have since become series staples and some have become industry staples. In the dark ages of 32 bit video gaming, with developers all over the world struggling with how to adapt video games to a 3D plane correctly, Nintendo stepped forward and gave them a road map that has been used and copied numerous times. Like A Link to the Past before it, you could finish the game just by running through the dungeons. There were side quests available, but they could be ignored if the player didn’t want to do them, but if the player did undertake them, they resulted in some of the game’s most memorable moments, like Poe Hunting and collecting all the gold skulltulas.
#1 A Link to the Past
No game has ever had more of an impact on me than this game. I remember vividly Christmas of 1992 receiving this (and a Super Nintendo) on Christmas morning and playing this for the rest of the winter break. I remember seeing the pouring rain, and hearing the haunting music as clearly as if it were yesterday. That vacation was spent with the earliest form of online gaming. I called my best friend who also got the game, and we spent the whole day playing through the game together on the phone, telling each other where we were in the game, and helping out if the other person got stuck. This game represents the pinnacle of 2D Zelda, every Zelda game after incorporated elements from this game, and I’d like it if some incorporated more. The game wasn’t overloaded with side quests, and it wasn’t ultra-linear. You could play some of the dungeons out of order if you wanted. And there were tons of secret items you could find that were completely unnecessary in beating the game, but made subsequent playthroughs more fun.
So who’s list do you agree with more? Or maybe you’re just interested in sharing your own top five. Either way, have at it in the comments!