Why every Zelda is the best Zelda

Written by: Michael Spada

The internet loves to argue. Even if people are on the same side, they can still find a way to get at one another’s throats.

legend of zeldaTake the Legend of Zelda series, for example. Fans of the critically acclaimed series, which debuted in 1986, have argued over which game truly is the best since the second entry. There’s no need to fight!

There are many, many elements that make up every entry in the series. There’s combat, puzzle-solving, side quests, and boatloads of exploration in every single Zelda game. Some games, however, stress one element more than others. This means that those who prefer a particular gameplay element will naturally believe the one that features that element prominently to be the very best one. Therefore, everyone is correct!

To celebrate the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, let’s take a look back at the entire main series to see why EVERY Zelda game is the best one.

For fans of old school challenge: The Legend of Zelda

The game that started it all – for both the series and basically the entire videogame industry – the original Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System gives old schoolers exactly what they want: the game is unforgiving in the challenge department. The game is old and, frankly, one of the few Zelda titles that doesn’t exactly stand the test of time. But that’s exactly what many people want. I dare someone whose first console was the GameCube to attempt the original Legend of Zelda and not die within five minutes. It is absolutely impossible.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda on the NES

The Legend of Zelda on the NES

The game does not hold your hand. There is no Navi or Midna to tell you where to go, there’s no three-hour tutorial at the start, and the enemies don’t let up. Instead, they respawn if you even leave the screen, assuming their deadly attacks will allow it. And due to its archaic design, the game is almost broken in a way, since you can visit the dungeons entirely out of sequence. Furthermore, the map system is barely helpful, the old-timey controls make even simple navigation a bit of a pain, and some parts are downright impossible to figure out without a walkthrough.

For some, the game is a frustration to even attempt to deal with; for others, it is pure old-school bliss that cannot be topped.

For fans of side quests and item collection: The Legend of Zelda – Majora’s Mask

Some people consider Majora’s Mask to be the weird black sheep of the Zelda family. Yet there are legions of fans elsewhere who believe this to be the absolute best in the series. Majora’s Mask for the Nintendo 64 is a dark and twisted fairytale of a game, where the moon is about to destroy the world of Termina and you have a mere three days to stop it – three days, mind you, that you can repeat as often as you want. What made this game endearing to so many, though, is the sheer amount of side quests and masks to collect.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Majora's Mask: The side quests are unique and feature utterly bizarre and fascinating characters

Almost every Zelda game features a few non-player characters here and there that give you fun, optional things to do for rewards that vary from a pat on the back to exciting and powerful new items. Majora’s Mask, however, features almost exclusively that. The villagers of hub world Clock Town and the massive Termina all have problems that only a young fairy boy can solve, and they all have masks to give as a reward. AWESOME.

There is so much to do, in fact, that you are given a little organiser near the start of the game to keep track of all the lives you have to make better. The best part is that all the side quests are unique and feature utterly bizarre and fascinating characters (HI TINGLE), thus making every single side quest worth doing. Whether you’re shooting down UFOs on a farm, starting a band made up of creatures you transform into, or helping a young man woo the love of his life, Majora’s Mask provides you with a sickening amount of incentive to collect every last item in the game.

Unfortunately, due to your constantly having to rewind time, your efforts are forgotten every time you restart the clock. The tasks may be thankless, but they are plentiful and brilliant, making Majora’s Mask the best in the series for those that like to do everything a game has to offer.

For fans of 2D gaming at its finest: The Legend of Zelda – A Link to the Past

This may seem like a sort of generic reason to justify A Link to the Past, but the truth is, there’s just a LOT that makes this game fantastic. Many people consider gaming to have peaked with the Super Nintendo, with the console powerful enough to make gorgeous 2D visuals, pump out incredible music, and provide unbeatable 2D gameplay. To see the true potential of the SNES, look no further than A Link to the Past. The game takes everything the original Legend of Zelda did, throws out the mistakes of The Adventure of Link, and injects it with a massive dose of steroids.

Screenshot of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Link to the Past: Zelda on steroids

The dungeons are artfully designed, the combat is challenging but fair, the world has many distinct locales to explore, and there is a LOT to do.The game is also about as gorgeous as 16-bit games get. The characters are big, the overworld is colourful, and the art style is clearly defined. The music is catchy and memorable, with songs perfectly fitted to the many atmospheres conveyed through the land of Hyrule.

The story even goes miles above the NES classics to give you characters with real personality and a story where everything truly feels on the line. And of course, the sense of exploration and freedom showed just where games would go when the 16-bit era ended.

When it comes to 2D games, A Link to the Past does everything the way it should, perfecting the Zelda formula that is still used to this day as a result.

For fans of dungeons, puzzle solving, and combat: The Legend of Zelda – Twilight Princess

When the trailer for the GameCube’s swan song and Wii’s debut killer app, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, was shown at E3 2004, grown men openly wept at the beauty on display. A bit of an extreme reaction, sure, but people were excited at the idea of what appeared to be a perfect Zelda game. It looked like it took everything Ocarina of Time did and upped the scale and scope by a massive degree.

While some felt the game lacked soul or felt like it tried too hard to top Ocarina of Time instead of trying something different, a large portion of the Zelda fanbase feel that this game does everything perfectly. And while much of the game’s quality is up for debate, the dungeons and combat are among the best the storied franchise has ever done.

A screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

There are a lot of dungeons in Twilight Princess, and they’re huge. The puzzles that lay deep inside are challenging and varied. One part new and exciting, one part a “best-of” all the previous Zelda games, means your brain is getting a workout. Best of all, the environments the dungeons take place in are made up of a similar formula – you get classic staples like a forest temple and a water temple, but you also get to explore a Yeti’s mansion and a city in the sky.

The combat is also the most advanced in series history. If you played it on the Nintendo Wii, like most people did, you got the joy of using the Wii remote to aim your arrows, and the ability to swing it to do battle with your sword. Gimmicky, sure, but the combat put you in the game and remained incredibly responsive. And even if you played the GameCube version, there was still a whole arsenal of weapons to take down your opponents with and keep things fresh. Even swordplay got a massive upgrade, with all kinds of new and exciting moves to destroy the most challenging of foes. Battling enemies in a Zelda game has never been more thrilling.

For those that love to solve puzzles and take down bad guys, the quality AND quantity of said action in Twilight Princess make this the best in the series for many.

For fans of role-playing elements: The Legend of Zelda II – The Adventure of Link

Often cited as the worst game in the series, the worst Zelda game is still an excellent game by any other measure. The most different and certainly most forgotten entry, The Adventure of Link for the NES is nothing like anything else in the acclaimed franchise. And of all games bearing the Zelda name, this is easily the weakest link (PUN HILARIOUSLY INTENDED) as far as people claiming this to be the best in the series. Oh, but some on the internet have to be different, and you can’t blame them for feeling this is the best one! Well, you sort of can, but The Adventure of Link surely has some merit, especially if you like some RPG in your Zelda.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

The weakest Link?

What separates this entry from other Zelda games is that Link gains experience points and levels up throughout the course of the game. Players can choose to upgrade Link’s offense, defense, and magic ability, creating a different Link for all who play the game. You can make him super powerful, allow him to withstand a ton of damage, or make him a flat-out mage. Managing Link in this way has never been done in a Zelda game since, so if you love leveling up characters and making them your own, this game certainly does the trick.

Yeah, that’s a pretty sorry excuse to call this the best. Sorry.

For fans of story, exploration, and graphics: The Legend of Zelda – The Wind Waker

I’m going to be a tad biased here, because the GameCube classic The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is not only my favorite Zelda game, but is also in my top three videogames of all time. It is absolutely fantastic. There are a multitude of reasons why this is the absolute best Zelda game for me, but let’s look at what makes this the best for everyone.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Pure beauty in every polygon

First off, it’s impossible to overlook the importance of this game’s visuals. The internet lost their collective mind when this game was revealed, thinking the Zelda series was over, freaking out over the cel-shaded visuals and cartoonish art style. Everyone thought the series went “kiddy,” forgetting that you almost always played as a KID in previous games. Most people ended up changing their tune by the time the game was released, though.

Today, many consider this game to be one of the most gorgeous videogames ever created. Link’s face was more expressive than the best Saturday morning cartoon, the worlds were animated and alive, and every character in the game had a definitive charm and personality to them. Who can forget the visual bliss of the endless ocean, the massive fortress housing Ganondorf, the temple made of lava, or Hyrule castle frozen in time? Pure beauty in every polygon.

The environments were gorgeous, but also ripe for exploration. A massive ocean awaited you after you left your grandmother behind on Outset Island, with hidden islands and grottos around every corner. With a ship at your hands and the wind at your control, there was an unbelievable amount of ocean to explore in this game. Whether you were finding pirate hideouts or hidden boss battles, the ocean was a vast playground that somehow felt like it offered more than fields of solid ground. Some despised this method of overworld exploration, but those that appreciated it fell in love and never looked back.

Finally, there is the story. While previous Zelda games had anything from a minimalist, bare-bones story to a fleshed-out tale of legend, nothing beat The Wind Waker as far as narrative is concerned. The most important thing of note is its connection to other Zelda titles – most games are standalone experiences that are implied to be hundreds of years apart; Wind Waker starts you off explaining the game’s exact position in relation to Ocarina of Time. This is the first piece of the timeline puzzle fans have debated for decades.

Timeline connection aside, though, Wind Waker also features a thorough and well-told standalone story as well. What starts off as a simple tale of a boy saving his sister evolves into something much bigger. Most amazingly, though, Ganondorf is depicted as a sympathetic character – a pathetic shell of a man who once had it all, looking for one final shot at glory. He was fat and desperate, but hungry to gain back the power he once had. After a series of interactions with incredible and memorable characters, the game concludes with one of the greatest final boss battles of all time – something that needs to be played and not told.

Wind Waker takes a lot of what makes videogames great and puts it together in one incredible package, making it the ultimate Zelda experience for those who crave story, visuals, and exploration. But one title seems to do all of the above and much more…

For fans of practically all of the above: The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

I may have painted The Wind Waker to be the ultimate Zelda game; its story, visuals, and world make it just that important for many, including myself. However, of all games in the Zelda series, it would appear that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time takes the cake for a huge amount of fans. It’s pretty easy to see why.

Screenshot from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Ocarina of Time: The centre of the Zelda series

Take all the positive things about the remaining games of the series, and almost all of them apply: You’ve got an old school challenge with things like the Water Temple and some of the late-game enemies; You’ve got plenty of side quests, like the many gold skulltulas and the Biggoron’s Sword fetch quest. While there are no 2D elements to Ocarina, the formula established in A Link to the Past which makes it incredible is expanded upon magnificently in this game. The dungeons, puzzles and combat in Ocarina are what set the standards for games like Twilight Princess. The various tunics, boots, and arrows in Ocarina incorporate the customisation established in The Adventure of Link. And the grand story and vast exploration of Wind Waker are only rivaled by what started in Ocarina of Time.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the centre of the Zelda series. Everything before it is perfected here, and everything that came after it started here. There is nothing wrong with this game, except for the visuals, an issue completely remedied by the excellent 3DS remake released earlier this year. This game not only set a tremendously high standard for the Zelda series, but for videogames as a whole. Things like focused targeting, massive hub worlds, various items, and of course, block-moving puzzles, would not exist were it not for Ocarina of Time. This game set standards that have yet to be changed in the industry.

Some people believe this to be the greatest game of all time. So naturally, many also believe this to be the greatest Zelda of all time. It’s tough to argue given the evidence suggested above.

Looking to the future

The Zelda series has one of the cleanest track records of all time. Of course I’ll make sure to make the obligatory mention of the CD-I failures of the 90s, but that aside there isn’t a single flaw in the series. The large selection of handheld entries are just about perfect themselves, with many considering the Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening to be better than any of the console entries.

So with a history as stellar as that, it’s very easy to see why so many people argue over which is the best – just about all of them make an incredibly compelling argument for why they are worthy of that title.

With Skyward Sword coming in the very near future, it’s good to look back at the other entries and know that disappointment is highly unlikely. What will Skyward Sword do to make itself the best in the series? Will its highly evolved gameplay and changed formula take the throne of any one of these games? Could its gorgeous watercolour visuals trump Wind Waker? Could its one-to-one swordplay make Twilight Princess look like a joke? Could the sheer amount of content dethrone A Link to the Past?

While we don’t know quite yet, it’s fairly obvious that no matter what the next title does, it’s bound to do something very, very right.

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Author: Michael Spada

Michael Spada is a gentleman who plays videogames and then writes about them on the internet. Solid Snake is his hero, but he'd just as quickly settle down with CM Punk. You can follow him on Twitter if you'd like.

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