The Legend of Zelda is my favorite video game series. And its best game, as you’ll see, is my favorite of all time. I’ve even devoted hours and hours to discussing Nintendo’s famed fantasy installments in the form of the first season of my podcast Butt Heads with my friend Isaac Ili. Suffice to say, there is an appeal to every single entry in the Zelda series that often eclipses other games of its genre and time; often, because even though I don’t think there is a bad game in the run so far, there are definitely some disappointments. In ranking the 20 games that have been released in the more than 37 years since 1986, I’ve sidestepped spin-offs like LINK’S CROSSBOW TRAINING (2007), the notoriously bad Philips CD-i games, and even canonical installments like the LINK’S AWAKENING remake (2019) and HYRULE WARRIORS: AGE OF CALAMITY (2020) that don’t fit into the “mainline” Legend of Zelda progression.
All titles prefaced with THE LEGEND OF ZELDA and all games developed by Nintendo unless otherwise noted.
#20 — TRI FORCE HEROES (2015)
In many ways, TRI FORCE HEROES isn’t the worst Zelda game. Its evolution of the multiplayer incarnations of the franchise still offers the potential for exciting collaboration. While it borrows heavily from A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS for its look and a lot of its puzzle design, that’s no big problem because that game is great. And the experience of “Hytopia,” a new canonical land out of Hyrule, is interesting even if it is a bit bland, paired as it is with the extensive costuming mechanic. But this is all kind of moot because TRI FORCE HEROES isn’t really playable today. Unlike the great single player solution of FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES, which allowed one player to gather the other Links into formations for easier, if not ideal, puzzle-solving and combat, this 3DS game makes a player switch between each of the three characters. It’s a clumsy answer to the ideal conceit of three players…which also can’t be found in today’s online landscape, although TRI FORCE HEROES’ servers are still technically active, if not exactly thriving, at the time of this writing. I guess I could be lucky enough to have two friends inclined to play together, because yes, you can’t just play with two people and a third computer-controlled Link for the aforementioned reasons. It’s all so maddening, all the more so because the game could have been great and maybe it was upon its release over eight years ago. But Nintendo’s future-proofing or lack thereof for TRI FORCE HEROES, which would never have been a top-tier Zelda game to clear, sinks it to the very bottom.
#19 — FOUR SWORDS (2002)
FOUR SWORDS, for a long time, wasn’t available as a stand alone game. Today, it’s still quite difficult to access whether you want to play it alone or with friends. Released on the same Game Boy Advance cart of the port of A LINK TO THE PAST, FOUR SWORDS could originally only be played by linking GBAs (but you didn’t have to have a full foursome unlike the necessary three for TRI FORCE HEROES). In 2011, for the 25th anniversary of the Zelda series, FOUR SWORDS: ANNIVERSARY EDITION was released for the DSi and later was backwards compatible through the 3DS…but it was taken down for sale shortly after its release. This is particularly frustrating because a single player mode was added to what was essentially the same game, graphically and all. I lucked out because I have the game downloaded from back in the day. But in spite of a share play option through wifi, today’s configuration of routers is not compatible with Nintendo’s backwards DSi technology. This lengthy explanation of the intricacies of FOUR SWORDS’ technology is crucial because it almost entirely defines the game and whether it’s worth your time. The truth is that, once you can actually get the game up and running, whether alone or with help, you’ll find a short and basic “twist” on Zelda dungeons. FOUR SWORDS is level-based and those levels are randomized maps to boot. I suppose it offers a bit of replayability, but the structure of non-permanent items and a lack of typical Zelda upgrading make it a pretty shallow experience. Nintendo’s first foray into multiplayer incarnations of their singularly single player series had some interesting ideas as an add-on to one of the best games of all time, but FOUR SWORDS is definitely a footnote in the history of Zelda.
#18 — THE ADVENTURE OF LINK (1987)
Developed and released in the formative years of the NES, when sequels to hit games became retroactively strange sidesteps from the formulas that would define their series, ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK is also the black sheep because of its notorious difficulty. Indeed, it is the hardest Zelda game; so hard, in fact, that I’ve never beaten it without save states. But there is something I appreciate about its weirdness, its intensified combat, and dark fantasy vibes that are even more investing than that of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA. THE ADVENTURE OF LINK is also probably the closest thing to an “RPG” in a series that is often dissected and categorized as such or as “action adventure” (I’m in the latter camp). Gaining experience points, spells, and other upgrades are satisfying, especially since getting them can be a challenge. And there are elements of this apparent detour that carried over into previous games, including “lore” of sages’ names and the like. THE ADVENTURE OF LINK is undeniably and clearly one of the last Zelda games I would pick up to play if prompted, but I admire it.
#17 — PHANTOM HOURGLASS (2007)
Definitely less admirable but certainly more playable and simply easy, Zelda’s DS debut is often linked to an era of more “casual” gaming for Nintendo. I find that a bit silly because Nintendo always tried to be inclusive with its game design (well, barring accessibility considerations with their wild input decisions over the years). But there’s no denying that the stylus control for PHANTOM HOURGLASS is a distracting detractor for what would otherwise be a decent little 2.5D continuation of THE WIND WAKER art style and story. I love when the Zelda games take us out of Hyrule (or at least the ocean above them) and that’s what this game, which features the very same Link and other characters from the GameCube game, does. There is somewhat of an allure to PHANTOM HOURGLASS’ central repetitive dungeon, although that would be done better in short order. The dungeons and beautiful little diorama-like landscapes offer streamlined Zelda experiences, so sure, if this exposed some younger kid to what the series had to offer, I’m on board. But PHANTOM HOURGLASS’ empty sailing, which is paired with a pretty unexciting array of side quests and only lowers it in comparison to WIND WAKER, really stands out as the game’s failing, along with its forced stylus controls (and other inputs like the DS’ mic).
#16 — SPIRIT TRACKS (2009)
The next game in the Zelda series continued the “Toon Link” style and PHANTOM HOURGLASS’ structure, but advanced the story about a 100 years…onto a land full of trains. The concept of SPIRIT TRACKS feels a bit like Nintendo was now attempting to capitalize on kids who liked trains, instead of boats, but once again, I appreciate leaving Hyrule. And the story is certainly better told than the relatively barebones PHANTOM HOURGLASS. Although the world does feel slightly empty, the straight lines of the railroads (which can admittedly be expanded in interesting ways) dispel the illusion that you’ll be able to travel a vast area that ends up having little in it. But that very same strength makes getting to different locations in SPIRIT TRACKS, even with fast travel, a total game-lengthening chore, especially if you go after side quest goals. But at its core, the game does the same kind of “Zelda for beginners” experience as PHANTOM HOURGLASS but better, with more intriguing items and twists on dungeon themes. Most notable is how much stronger SPIRIT TRACKS’ central repeated dungeons is, even as the game doubled down on the blowing into the DS’ mic that made me lightheaded, and after the feeling returned, furious. It’s a testament to SPIRIT TRACKS’ best moments, however, that it was a no-brainer to put it ahead of the otherwise very similar PHANTOM HOURGLASS.
#15 — THE MINISH CAP (2005)
I know THE MINISH CAP has its lovers, quite a few who consider it one of the best Zelda games. For my part, I think it’s a strong adventure and probably one of the best games for the GBA, but it just can’t stack up to more refined entries in the series. Made at the tail-end of Capcom’s “domination” of the series in the early 2000s, when Nintendo paired with the large developer and publisher to make a number of good little complements to the huge console pushes, THE MINISH CAP does take place in Hyrule. But something about its “vibe” and art style make it feel a little cheaper than even similarly scaled Zelda games. Its central Hyrule Town is a cool evolving experience, reminding me of the intricacies of Clock Town in MAJORA’S MASK, and the shrinking mechanic allows for some interesting puzzles. But the ongoing collection of unexciting and generic “Kinstones” and its discouragement of open exploration make THE MINISH CAP not much more than a minor Zelda experience.
#14 — FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES (2004)
Nintendo took Capcom’s FOUR SWORDS concept, developed it in-house, and released it to the GameCube to great effect. FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES holds a soft spot in my heart, even as it is also emblematic of Nintendo’s inability to make a multiplayer Zelda game you can actually play with people with unmitigated ease. FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES allows one person to operate a GameCube controller, but everyone else has to jack in with their GBA link cables. It’s a frustrating bit of design that nevertheless doesn’t destroy the game because its aforementioned single player solution is so strong. I’m sure playing FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES cooperatively would make it a breezier and tighter experience, but I didn’t really mind swapping through formations and splitting up my four Links to complete puzzling boss battles and dungeons. The game even makes a level-based Zelda intriguing. Doing away with the randomized maps of FOUR SWORDS, ADVENTURES creates an expansive adventure that contains thematically consistent stages. Some even task you with doing typical Zelda exploration and side quest behavior, incidentally making it a stronger story, if not some incredible epic. The tone and look of FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES is also great, a skillful evolution of the LINK TO THE PAST look that makes its world a great 2D space to just exist in. It’s a testament to the Zelda series that the pleasant and slightly challenging experience of FOUR SWORDS ADVENTURES is technically in the lower rung of this ranking.
#13 — THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (1986)
The same goes for the game that started it all. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA, released during Nintendo’s initial Golden Age, still holds up 37 years later. Many complain about the difficulty and obtuseness of games of its era, and I can be one at times, but the way this game leads players to explore and discover is more an exciting challenge than a fierce punishment. The sparse world of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA, which was positively huge for 1986, contributes to the game’s feeling of being a true explorer through dangerous territory. And while its range of upgrades and side experiences are of course limited compared to future innovations, finding secrets that make the game just a bit less difficult is truly exciting and impactful. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA is a stone-cold classic, one that may not offer the same depth I expect from the series today, but one that had a tremendous effect on the entire medium while also still being immensely playable.
#12 — ORACLE OF AGES (2001)
The brief period of the Game Boy Color got two original Zelda games, even while the longer Wii U era didn’t. But those “two” are often counted as one: ORACLE OF AGES and ORACLE OF SEASONS. Obviously playing on the Pokémon fascination of the day and linking extra rewards for people who had both games, these Capcom adventures (the first mainline Zelda games not only developed by Nintendo) brought the series back into 2D after the N64 blockbusters. And they did so with incredible results. There is no denying that ORACLE OF AGES and ORACLE OF SEASONS are immensely similar, but each take Link to different non-Hyrule locales while spotlighting a different central mechanic. ORACLE OF AGES concerns Labrynna and a time-travel mechanic that is certainly reminiscent of OCARINA OF TIME. The connections don’t stop there, as many of the characters encountered in ORACLE OF AGES are sprite work versions of myriad characters from both N64 Zelda games. Moving back and forth between two eras in Labrynna and exploring a pretty large world that is a worthy continuation of LINK’S AWAKENING in both look and gameplay structure is pretty fun, and the game’s story is certainly more involved than ORACLE OF SEASONS. But if ORACLE OF AGES offers a really solid Zelda experience, it does “just” that; it doesn’t soar into greatness.
#11 — ORACLE OF SEASONS (2001)
ORACLE OF SEASONS isn’t incredibly better than AGES. But as my first Zelda game ever, it certainly holds a nostalgic place in my heart. While its story is much more barebones and its villain only really present at the beginning and end, this brighter game’s central conceit also allows for more varied puzzle-solving. Throughout ORACLE OF SEASONS, Link gains the ability to, well, change the seasons of various eras to his benefit, from revealing passages once buried beneath snow to creating waterways to travel down. It’s not so integrated that it totally re-contextualizes the aforementioned Game Boy template, to its benefit and detriment. ORACLE OF SEASONS is just a hair ahead of its GBC partner, but if it’s a “middling” Zelda game, it’s better than many games of its era and type.
#10 — LINK’S AWAKENING (1993)
Speaking of LINK’S AWAKENING yet again, this transition to the handheld Game Boy for the series is a marvel of possibility. Using the LINK TO THE PAST formula and for the first time transporting Link outside of Hyrule, to the whimsical and offbeat Koholint Island, full of TWIN PEAKS (1990–2017)-inspired characters and locations, this sleeper favorite Zelda game for many is only “this low” because of its incredible complements in the series. I love LINK’S AWAKENING and the way it ably created a console-like experience for a handheld more known for its reduction of bigger game concepts. Its dungeons are incredibly well-designed and its overworld one of the best in 2D Zelda, full of interesting designs and kooky characters in spite of, or perhaps because of, the greyscale limitation of the platform (although there was a GBC version, LINK’S AWAKENING DX ). LINK’S AWAKENING is probably the best release on the Game Boy and to this day an uncompromised 2D Zelda experience.
#9 — A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS (2013)
I remember skipping A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS when it came out because I though it was “just” a 3DS remake of A LINK TO THE PAST. And while of course it owes a lot to that SNES classic, including its entire overworld, A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS ingeniously rethinks the structure of that game and Zeldas since. Allowing players to complete dungeons essentially in any order they like, the game also features an item collection mechanic that skilled players (ahem, perhaps like myself) can capitalize on immediately to have the full arsenal that, in previous games, is doled out piecemeal. I am a bit wary of the look of A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS, but its central mechanic of fusing into a wall space greatly expands dungeon puzzle-solving possibilities, even while those very same dungeons just iterate beautifully on LINK TO THE PAST concepts. And that aforementioned overworld is totally diversified with new experiences and characters even as it nostalgically and innovatively brings back old standbys. A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS is nearly the best 2D Zelda and its placement at #9 showcases my 3D bias.
#8 — TWILIGHT PRINCESS (2006)
Speaking of: the first 3D Zelda on this list is still, to be clear, a great game, even as it is technically the worst of this particular format and structure. What holds TWILIGHT PRINCESS back is a kind of gatekeeping that was common for Zelda for its time and extended story sequences and rigmarole that prevent expedient exploration. But in the same breath, those moments really flesh out the dark fantasy bent of the game, which was a “gritty” answer to WIND WAKER’s art style while also being grimly beautiful in its own right. TWILIGHT PRINCESS was also defined by its motion controls as the series’ debut on the Wii, but as a modern player, the HD remake solves some of the frustration that could stem from that. And besides, the GameCube version, released a month later, would have removed that same problem at the time. TWILIGHT PRINCESS’ rendition of Hyrule and its wonderfully designed and paced dungeons make it an investing world to visit, that’s for sure, even as it can’t stack up to fellow 3D releases.
#7 — SKYWARD SWORD (2011)
SKYWARD SWORD has some of the same problems as TWILIGHT PRINCESS. Notorious as one of the most linear Zelda games, with corridors leading into bigger areas that don’t feel as deep or rich as other Zelda games, this Wii installment nevertheless provides a lot of enjoyment for me. Sure, the sky islands don’t quite offer the WIND WAKER 2.0 experience I would have liked, but it’s undeniable that SKYWARD SWORD is beautiful, and many of its characters just as weird and likable as those from any other game in the series. While the game is more linear, it still presents a number of intriguing puzzles and unique new items with which to solve them. And I haven’t really mentioned the infamous/famous official Zelda timeline in this piece, but as someone semi-invested in it, its reveal and the naming of SKYWARD SWORD as the origin point for all the retellings of Zelda lore is really intriguing. The Zelda series is defined for me in large part by how much I want to reside in its games’ worlds. And SKYWARD SWORD offers an incredible one aesthetically and narratively even as it represents a somewhat compromised yet differently enjoyable version of the established Zelda formula.
#6 — A LINK TO THE PAST (1991)
That formula as we know it can actually be traced not as strongly to the first game in the series, but the third, the incredible A LINK TO THE PAST. The SNES upgrade to the Zelda series is eye-poppingly gorgeous to this day. But with more than the delightful 16-bit graphics and rich music, A LINK THE PAST informed future games in the series by introducing a more defined structure of exploring the overworld: being led to a dungeon, finding an item in said dungeon, using it to complete said dungeon, then rinsing and repeating. It sounds so much more reductive than it actually is because the atmosphere of the game and the moment-to-moment actions of swinging Link’s sword and using various items in concert with puzzle-solving skills and to help various characters is incredibly satisfying. I sound like a broken record, but A LINK TO THE PAST is simply a superior world I would want to exist in (besides, you know, the moments of extreme danger). That polish woven into the fabric of meticulously designed gameplay concepts is indicative of the high quality of Nintendo and Zelda games in particular. A LINK TO THE PAST is the first masterpiece on this list, which may indicate a sort of overuse of the word, but from here on in, the Zelda series offers some of the best games yet made.
#5 — BREATH OF THE WILD (2017)
Shortly after its release, BREATH OF THE WILD was proclaimed by many as the new best Zelda game, and even the new best game of all time. That opinion is still held by many (although TEARS OF THE KINGDOM complicated it), and while I obviously don’t agree in full, there’s no denying this landmark rethinking of the Zelda formula is immensely fun and investing. Calling it merely a “rethinking” is kind of inaccurate, actually, as BREATH OF THE WILD totally throws out so many conventions of previous games to create a huge open world full of unmarked secrets to discover, echoing the philosophy of the first LEGEND OF ZELDA. Its physics mechanics manifest in creative ways in the bite-sized shrines just as its desolated world offers quiet moments of exploration as often as truly dangerous enemy encounters. The sheer sandbox feel of BREATH OF THE WILD and its myriad possibilities to face essentially any challenge are mind-boggling in its game design scope. Yet even still, I find myself yearning for the now-old-school structure of Zelda games in this more than half-decade new era of the series, especially in regards to “traditional” dungeons, which this game only half has, I’d say, in the form of the Divine Beasts. That is a minor and nostalgia-inflected complaint, however, and those same rose-tinted glasses may be what lead me to choose, well, a number of Zelda games over BREATH OF THE WILD if given the chance to play just one in the series. But my experience with BREATH OF THE WILD was about as rich as they come in the world of gaming, indeed making it one of the best games in its series.
#4 — TEARS OF THE KINGDOM (2023)
And yet its long-awaited sequel, which came after the biggest gap between mainline Zelda games at just over six years, almost overrides BREATH OF THE WILD. Rarely am I of the opinion that a vastly improved sequel totally negates my desire to play its again predecessor at some point because, in most cases, that doesn’t eliminate story, world, or other different gameplay components that have their own appeal. But I can’t quite imagine myself returning to the expansive Hyrule of BREATH OF THE WILD in quite a while, with the “same” overworld present in TEARS OF THE KINGDOM, without the rethought physics abilities, construction tools, and even more deep array of secrets, side quests, and quirky character encounters. There was some concern from many, myself included, when it was announced that TEARS OF THE KINGDOM would be using essentially the same open world of its predecessor. I shouldn’t have worried, however, because the way its developers transformed the space with story-influenced changes both “make sense” and offer deeper gameplay possibilities. And of course, that “deeper” comes into play literally, even as TEARS OF THE KINGDOM soars. Two more different overworlds are essentially present with The Depths and The Sky, the latter with its dark (yet a bit empty) nooks and crannies and the latter with its great assortment of islands. It all makes for a massive game that took me many, many hours to “finish,” even as I surely left behind myriad enticing secrets. Part of my point about it being hard to return to BREATH OF THE WILD is exaggerated and and is at least somewhat based in not being able to traverse to the top of mountains quite as easily as I can with springboards and gliders and the like, but that feeling is really just rooted in the fact that Nintendo somehow topped the amazement of that experience with TEARS OF THE KINGDOM.
#3 — THE WIND WAKER (2002)
Amazement is a good word to describe how I feel playing many Zelda games, and whether it’s because of their different approaches to their worlds, their open yet more directed gameplay styles, or pure nostalgia, these next three games on this list are all-timers for me and impossible to get out from under my skin (in a good way). THE WIND WAKER is a perfect window into what I love about games and its particular GameCube era. Bright yet dramatic, controlled in its island settings yet open in its expansive sailing, and unique yet traditional Zelda in its dungeon designs, this great adventure is full of details and moments that stand out as some of my favorites in gaming. From its incredible opening to its descent into a frozen-in-time Hyrule, WIND WAKER serves up heartwarming and chilling story beats as often as it brings the player into well-designed dungeons, curious exploration of many themed islands with central puzzles or conceits, and smaller, quirky encounters with side characters. It’s hard to put into words how much the world and experience of WIND WAKER mean to me, but I can say that it is deeply representative of the wonderful expansion of the GameCube era, the refinement of 3D gaming that Nintendo pioneered in the previous generation. As always, I just like spending time in its world as much as getting into the “crunchier” aspects of combat and puzzle-solving. WIND WAKER has few faults and those it does have are washed away on the Great Sea.
#2 — OCARINA OF TIME (1998)
I’d say before BREATH OF THE WILD and now perhaps TEARS OF THE KINGDOM, OCARINA OF TIME was the default “best game of all time,” the CITIZEN KANE (1941) of gaming if you will. That was earned for decades, and still is for those that still hold that opinion. Once again, I disagree, but perhaps only marginally. Zelda’s foray into 3D on the N64 is a watershed moment in gaming and the impact and genius of OCARINA OF TIME has been documented time and time again. For my part, it still scratches some part of my past, primordial, still-forming childhood brain, one that was totally enveloped by the apparently limitless world and dramatic circumstances that I, in that truly satisfying interactive way, impacted with nothing more than my thumbs and (OK, the terrible N64) controller. In structure, OCARINA OF TIME is totally based in A LINK TO THE PAST, even as it expands puzzle premises into three dimensions and sheer size, spectacle, and storytelling capabilities exponentially. Retrospective evaluations have found the game lacking in the truly open possibilities of LEGEND OF ZELDA or the Switch era of the series, but I think this game is emblematic of the perfect Zelda formula, one with just enough openness to instill wonder while ably guiding players to where they need to go with distractions along the way. OCARINA OF TIME will always envelop me in its warm, wonderful, epic embrace when I play it.
#1 — MAJORA’S MASK (2000)
And yet Nintendo somehow topped OCARINA OF TIME within two years’ time. Famously using the same engine of their previous hit but twisting it into dark mania as a freakish moon hurtles toward Termina (another outside Hyrule experience), MAJORA’S MASK is the encapsulation of what I love about Zelda and games in general. Almost frightening in its depiction of a number of characters, locations, and even concepts like existential dread, the story of the game is almost as potent as its gameplay, something that is not always the case with, well, anything in the medium, but even in Zelda. And yet I am so invested in how much MAJORA’S MASK explains about its Wonderland-esque world, just a bit more than how much it doesn’t explain. There’s something almost spiritual to the story it tells, allegorical even. Then of course there’s the game part. Some can’t get into MAJORA’S MASK’s three-day structure, which passes incredibly quickly in real time, but can be stemmed, fast forwarded, and restarted with growing abilities. And as the player becomes more aware of where different characters are at different times, the genius of the game unfolds. It’s not like there weren’t games before or since that feature games operating on a schedule, but the potency of the character interactions and the intricate webs and relationships, represented in a darkly beautiful fantasy world, is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in video games. MAJORA’S MASK’s “typical” Zelda moments, like the dungeons, aren’t necessarily the best for the series, while still being incredibly fun, but the typical upgrades of power and items are just as satisfying. But if there’s one thing I take away from the game, it’s the incredible power of interactivity in reclaiming some agency in the midst of a chaotic and doomed world. It really is that deep, even as it’s all supported by incredible gameplay mechanics. MAJORA’S MASK is my favorite game of all time, so of course by extension, it’s the best in The Legend of Zelda series.