Having recently finished the last of what are generally considered the main games in the Zelda series I decided to do what I couldn’t before and rank them. I am shying away from “best to worst” though as all of them have redeeming qualities and I wouldn’t describe any as “bad”. Although I will say that the lowest ranked games I am sure I would never have even considered playing had they not had the “Zelda” name to them. I am going strictly by what seems to be generally agreed on as the main titles and I am not including any spin-offs like the Tingle DS games, Link’s Crossbow Training, Hyrule Warriors and absolutely not the CD-i games.
With that out of the way, let’s begin!
- Four Swords
I played the 3DS anniversary edition of this on my own over the New Year period and I honestly only played it because I hadn’t played it. I think I would have enjoyed it better multiplayer but even then, it isn’t a game I’d normally be interested based on mechanics alone. Probably the best thing about it is that it made for a great little bonus for those that bought the Game Boy Advance release of Link to the Past.
- Tri Force Heroes
This was the last one I played to complete the series and I spent the vast majority of the game on my own. As with Four Swords, this is a good idea with solid mechanics but another game I simply would not have looked at was it not a Zelda game. I do like the irreverence of the story and the effort to try something new but I think it’s legacy will be more that of a curiosity than a legend.
- Four Swords Adventures
It isn’t a coincidence that the multiplayer focused entries have wound up at the bottom. Multiplayer is a very recent addition to the series and one that I’ve never thought was necessary. Four Swords Adventures is certainly the best of them and still quite an enjoyable adventure played alone. The main problem with this and the previous games is that it is really just a portion of what makes the series so fun stretched out into a full game.
- Phantom Hourglass
Phantom Hourglass is the game that temporarily turned me off the series. I remember being excited by its announcement and bought it on release but I didn’t finish the game until around a year afterwards. This was during a gaming drought and I still found myself struggling through it. I was hoping for more of the Wind Waker and instead got an experiment. I found the forced touch-screen controls irritating but having to go through the same temple over and over was the main source of annoyance. Once I had got used to this, the game was enjoyable enough but I have little desire to go back to it. Also note that this is another title featuring a decent (and thankfully optional), multiplayer mode that did at least have some rewards for the main adventure.
- Spirit Tracks
This was a totally unexpected sequel that I didn’t play until years later because of my experience with Phantom Hourglass. I have to say that I enjoyed this one a lot more – especially as it reduced (without eliminating), some of the more annoying aspects of the previous title. Using the train was a genuinely enjoyable diversion and it was a much more satisfying adventure overall.
- The Legend of Zelda
It might seem low on the list but this is certainly not to say the original game is bad as I made clear in the introduction. I think the major reason is that I didn’t play it until many years later so I could never see it the way someone who played it when it was first released could. It still holds up well as a rewarding and challenging game today. I see it more as the genesis of a series I love than as one of my favourite games. Still, if you want to experience Zelda in its purest form, there is no better title to start with. Without this, none of the other games would exist.
- Oracle of Ages and Seasons
These are both separate games but as they were released at the same time and designed to be played together, I am including them together in the list. One focuses more on puzzles, the other action but both play to the series strengths overall. I played them both one after the other so they both blur together and I don’t know which I would prefer if I had to choose. I would recommend these titles particularly to those who prefer the traditional gameplay to that introduced in Ocarina of Time. As you can probably already tell, that isn’t me.
- A Link Between Worlds
This is one of the more recent releases and a direct sequel to A Link to the Past which is a favourite of many. In hindsight, a lot of what was done here could be seen as experimenting with what would be later done in Breath of the Wild. The ability to get every item and play much of the game as you see fit was a welcome change but much of the game still felt familiar. I have only played through this once but it is one I would want to go through again. It was also the first title I played all the way through in Japanese.
- Skyward Sword
I did not play Skyward Sword until a few years after it was released as I was sick of motion controls and as I mentioned, Phantom Hourglass had caused me to temporarily lose interest in the series. Despite the motion controls, I very much enjoyed Skyward Sword and would certainly buy it again if it was ever re-released without them. I honestly didn’t expect much from it going in but found an engaging and lengthy adventure wrapped in underappreciated art design.
- The Adventures of Link
The Adventures of Link is actually the first Zelda game I ever played though not the first I ever finished. I remember playing the early portion of the game at my cousins house and being shown the ending too. I played all the way through it many years ago now when I borrowed the NES and the very same copy from my cousins. I still have fond memories of playing it though I don’t remember finding it so difficult as people say today. I personally consider the original to be the most challenging in the series. As it was the first title I played, it didn’t register just how different it is to the rest of the series until years later. Even if you didn’t like the change in design, it was healthy for the series as it set a precedent for change from the first sequel.
- A Link to the Past
A Link to the Past was a mysterious title growing up as I knew it existed but had never seen it. I don’t remember any of my friends owning or even borrowing a copy and I never saw it for rent in a video shop. I first played it on the Game Boy Advance and I certainly enjoyed the experience. This is one I can fully understand being a favourite though it is not one of my favourites. This is still probably the most ambitious and deep of the traditional Zelda titles.
- Link’s Awakening
This was the second Zelda game I finished and my fond memories of it are what probably bring it higher than some other titles that might be here instead. I first played the DX re-release for Game Boy Colour and I loved it. Even having to start the whole game again due to a mistake in one of the dungeons didn’t put me off. The only problem I really had with this was the ending wasn’t as epic as I would have hoped it to be.
- Minish Cap
A lot of criticism I’ve noticed on Minish Cap is its relatively short length and how easy it is compared to other titles. It is definitely a briefer and easier experience than the Oracle games and A Link to the Past but I found it to be a charming little adventure. I played to completion – including all the kinstones and figurines. The Minish Cap is actually a great title to start with if you’ve never played a Zelda before as it has all the series staples in one little package.
- Majora’s Mask
I’m sure I’m not alone in initially not being very impressed with Majora’s Mask. This wasn’t because of the time mechanic (though I didn’t like it initially), but because it didn’t really feel like a genuinely new game. With most of the same character models being recycled from Ocarina of Time and the much smaller overworld, it just didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up. The other thing that didn’t help was that I rented it the first time I played it and didn’t see myself very far into the game though I did finish it on subsequent rentals. A few years later when I borrowed the game off friends and had time to experience it at my own pace, I ended up with a much better opinion of it and saw it through to completion. Now like many, I appreciate the darker direction and unique time mechanic.
- Breath of the Wild
The most recent Zelda as of writing and already widely considered one of, if not the best title ever released in the series. This title both sent the Wii U at the same time as it greatly helped the launch of the Nintendo Switch. The problem with it being new is that I still feel I need to play it more and this game may move up (or down) in my esteem in the future. As of right now, I consider the direction it took the series to have been logical and successful as I state in my review from last year. Nintendo rightly understood the series was stagnating and took inspiration from both the series roots and more modern games to make a game that manages to be the right balance of familiar and new. I have been hoping that this success paves the way for a futuristic/cyber-punk take on the series.
- The Wind Waker
Similarly to many others, I was not initially impressed with Wind Waker. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the Wind Waker tasted good despite all the salt. People generally either loved or hated the sailing and I was certainly in the former category. I never had a problem with the emptiness of the ocean because I simply loved exploring the map. People also often forget that the real thing is a lot emptier than the one found in Wind Waker. Outside of the gameplay, I think the Wind Waker still holds up as one of the most striking games visually in the series.
- Twilight Princess
A few years ago I would have almost certainly rated Wind Waker ahead of this but after playing the HD re-release without the forced motion controls of the Wii version, I feel this is overall the better game. What soured me on Twilight Princess when I finally got to play it was not the game itself but that I chose to play it on Wii when I would have enjoyed it a lot more on the GameCube. Twilight Princess at first glance, is what people thought the sequel to Ocarina of Time should have been. But it wasn’t just that, it was also full of quirky characters, creative game mechanics and had a striking visual design and musical score. It was so much more than first appearances and twelve years later still holds up very well.
- Ocarina of Time
This may not be the most original choice for number one but it is the honest one. As previously stated, this was not my first experience with the Zelda franchise but it was the most defining. After getting a Nintendo 64 for GoldenEye 007, I remember buying this during the Christmas holidays not quite knowing what to expect. My brothers and I took up a collection of our Christmas money and took a chance. This soon became my favourite game and I still say it is to this day. I replayed it on 3DS before finishing this article and though the experience is a bit routine after playing it so much, I have still been engrossed and enjoying seeing it all again for the first time in a decade. I don’t think the games holds up as well as many of the other games but it is still my favourite.