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The Best Legend of Zelda Games Ranked

I’ve been a fan of The Legend of Zelda for as long as I’ve been playing video games. Like many other gamers in my generation, I started out as an avid Nintendo fan who found a home away from home in the company’s brilliant IPs.

But none of them have ever spoken to me as much as Zelda.

Wind Waker was the first game I ever truly fell in love with, and it’s been my personal gold standard for action-adventure games since. Every time a new installment to the series is announced, I feel like a kid on Christmas all over again.

Suffice it to say, I’m absolutely stoked for the release of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, which is just around the corner. The anticipation has me looking back at the franchise as a whole, making it a great time to rank all of the incredible titles Zelda has to offer.

The 10 Best Zelda Games Ranked

Making this a true “Zelda games ranked” list feels a bit disingenuous, as it’s difficult to fairly compare some of the Zelda titles. The qualities that make Breath of the Wild such an incredible game aren’t necessarily the same ones that make A Link to the Past so fun to play, but that doesn’t make either game inherently better or worse than the other.

The solution? Better to rank them by category. Each title is given a fair shot to stand out based on what makes it unique, rather than the top spots going to games on newer, more capable systems by default. We’ll be sorting our games into five categories, each with a winner and a notable runner-up. Let’s get started!

1. The Minish Cap

The best handheld Zelda game 

Zelda Minish Cap
  • Original Platform(s): GBA
  • Developer: Flagship
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: January 10, 2005

Starting our list of Zelda games ranked is our pick for the best handheld title, The Minish Cap. This is one of the earliest entries into the official Zelda timeline, serving as a prequel to Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures.

The game follows Link in his first encounter with Vaati, a sorcerer from a race of insect-sized people called the Minish (also known as the Picori). He teams up with a talking bird-like hat called Ezlo, who grants him the power to shrink to the size of the Minish. Throughout his adventure, Link proves that the true measure of a hero is not his size, but the strength of his convictions.

The shrinking feature proved to be a successful addition to the classic Zelda mechanics, introducing creative new challenges by making the environment itself more of an obstacle. Ironically enough, the game’s main source of critique is its size — many fans felt that the high-quality and immersive campaign was just a bit too short.

The best handheld Zelda game runner-up

LBW
  • Original Platform(s): 3DS
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: November 22, 2013

Our runner-up spot goes to A Link Between Worlds, the series’ most recent handheld title (not including the 2015 Majora’s Mask remake). The game’s title is based on Link’s unique ability to travel between the realms of Hyrule and Lorule by becoming a painting and merging with the walls to travel through the cracks between dimensions.

The game is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, and effectively brings the retro title’s gameplay into the modern era. Fans were overall pleased with the successor, making it worthy of a spot on our list of Zelda games ranked.

3. Breath of the Wild

The best console Zelda game

Breath of the Wild
  • Original Platform(s): Wii U, Switch
  • Developer: Nintendo EPD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: March 3, 2017

Breath of the Wild is hands-down the most beautiful and well-designed Zelda game to hit consoles. After so many years of following a pretty rote formula, Nintendo decided to test their self-imposed boundaries and release a semi-open-world title that returned to the series’ explorative roots. The result is an expansive, vibrant world with plenty of hidden secrets at every turn and a deeply emotional story that’s equal parts tragic and hopeful.

In this installment, Link wakes after a hundred-year slumber to find Hyrule in ruins, populated only with monsters and tiny pockets of civilization that somehow survived the Calamity. When he learns that Princess Zelda is still alive and barely holding Ganon at bay, Link must awaken the four Divine Beasts and recover his lost memories in order to save her and quell the evil haunting Hyrule once and for all.

Breath of the Wild’s larger world introduces mechanics and creative opportunities that aren’t really possible in other titles. Link can now jump, swim, climb, and glide to his heart’s content (as long as he doesn’t run out of stamina), and has access to a number of interesting items via the Sheikah Slate. It’s a welcome change-up to the established formula — rather than using the key item of a given dungeon to defeat the boss or solve puzzles with only one solution, the game encourages you to make clever use of the items and abilities you already have on hand. Although some puzzles do have intended solutions (such as the Koroks and a handful of the game’s many, many Shrines), you’re mostly given creative rein over your path through the game.

Best of all, it’s all optional. If you don’t want to bother with the Divine Beasts, Link’s memories, or even the Master Sword, you can skip straight from the tutorial on the Great Plateau to Hyrule Castle. You probably won’t survive, but hey, sometimes fortune favors the bold!

Check out our review here!

4. Ocarina of Time

The best console Zelda game runner-up

Ocarina of Time
  • Original Platform(s): Nintendo 64
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: November 23, 1998

We really can’t talk about the best Zelda console titles without mentioning Ocarina of Time. While it may not be the best the series has to offer anymore, it’s easily the most influential installment to date. It literally brought the franchise into the next dimension, breathing new life into the series’ existing lore and establishing mechanics and world-building elements that would become standard for future titles.

In all honesty, the only thing keeping Ocarina of Time from taking our top spot is its age. While it brought story, gameplay, and level design together in a way that no other Zelda game had before, later titles expanded and improved upon each of these elements as the series (and gaming technology) continued to develop.

Still, it’s got the nostalgia factor on its side. Ocarina of Time still holds a special place in our hearts, and it’s largely responsible for making the Zelda series what it is today.

The best classic Zelda game

Link to the Past
  • Original Platform(s): SNES
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: April 13, 1992

Although Ocarina of Time hugely influenced the direction of future Zelda games with its 3D approach to the series, the impact of A Link to the Past can’t be overlooked for its influence series as a whole. The game returned to the top-down perspective of the original Legend of Zelda, but added a more story-driven campaign and introduced a handful of staple items to the series, including the Master Sword itself!

Gameplay builds on concepts from both The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, giving players more control over Link and improving the mechanics of certain items. It also introduced the idea of traveling between two worlds, a theme that would become prominent in other installments and would feature heavily in the direct sequel, A Link Between Worlds.

A Link to the Past remains one of the most popular titles in the Zelda series and one of the overall highest-rated video games to this day, eventually being ported to multiple Nintendo consoles and released for the Super NES Classic Edition.

The best classic Zelda game runner-up

Link's Awakening
  • Original Platform(s): Game Boy, Game Boy Color
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: August 1993

Link’s Awakening takes our runner-up spot for the best classic Zelda game. Originally intended to be a Game Boy port of A Link to the PastLink’s Awakening steadily evolved into a unique adventure set on the mysterious island of Koholint. As Link tries desperately to find a way back to Hyrule, he must slowly uncover the island’s many secrets and face the nightmares that would stop him from ever returning home.

Link’s Awakening received an adorable remake for the Switch earlier this year courtesy of Grezzo, the development team behind the Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D titles. The game’s toy-like aesthetic recaptures the nostalgic joy of playing this game, bringing a fun adventure to a new console and a new generation of gamers.

7. Cadence of Hyrule

The best Zelda spin-off game

Zelda Cadence of Hyrule
  • Original Platform(s): Switch
  • Developer: Brace Yourself Games
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: June 13, 2019

The best spin-off title on our list of Zelda games ranked?

Cadence of Hyrule is a creative and surprisingly challenging spin-off by the developers of Crypt of the NecroDancer. After a villain named Octavo begins terrorizing the Hylian people, Cadence (the heroine of the original game) is transported to Hyrule by the Triforce. She wakes Link and Zelda from their cursed slumber, and the three of them must work together to stop Octavo and save Hyrule from future destruction.

If you’re not already familiar with Cadence of Hyrule or its spiritual predecessor, it’s a rhythm game in which movement and attacks must be conducted (ha!) precisely on beat. The game’s soundtrack consists of punchy, synthpop reimaginings of Zelda overworld and dungeon themes, giving you a clear and steady rhythm to follow when exploring the world and defeating baddies. The enemies have all been slightly redesigned from their classic Zelda counterparts to fit the game’s gimmick, providing you with unique challenges that require you to stay one step ahead and always in time.

Cadence of Hyrule is a fantastic unofficial addition to the Zelda franchise, especially considering that music has always played a key role in the series. A rhythm game is a strange yet perfect fit for the franchise, adding all-new mechanics while retaining and refreshing beloved aesthetic elements.

Check out our review here!

8. Hyrule Warriors

The best Zelda spin-off game runner-up

Hyrule Warriors
  • Original Platform(s): Wii U, 3DS
  • Developer: Omega Force, Team Ninja
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: September 26, 2014

Our honorable mention in this category is Hyrule Warriors, a hack-and-slash title developed by the teams behind Koei Temco’s Dynasty Warriors. This game allows you to test your mettle by fighting off waves of monsters as various iconic characters from across the Zelda franchise, proving that Link himself isn’t the only hero capable of saving Hyrule.

The first game is technically set outside of the official Zelda timeline, but Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity promises to be an interesting entry into the established canon. The upcoming installment catalogs the eponymous Age of Calamity, showing the battle that Link, Zelda, and the four Champions waged against Calamity Ganon’s overwhelming army in the moments before all hope was lost.

It remains to be seen if we’ll have a chance to create an alternate timeline in which our heroes are victorious. I’m looking forward to the game’s official release next week — for now, you can download and play the demo, which covers the full first chapter!

9. The Wind Waker HD

The best story in a Zelda game

The Wind Waker HD Game
  • Original Platform(s): Wii U
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: September 20, 2013

Is my personal bias showing? Maybe. Wind Waker is my favorite game of all time, and I’m not above admitting that my love for it likely affects its ranking on this list of Zelda games ranked, but it’s hard to argue with facts. Wind Waker has a sweet, personal, well-written story that’s easily one of the most compelling plots in the series. 

Link sets out on his adventure because his beloved little sister is kidnapped, and he’s the only one on his island with the means to save her. This installment treats Link as more of a character in his own story, rather than merely the player avatar. He’s got a distinct personality that’s expressive and a bit sarcastic (especially if you choose some of the snarkier dialogue options), and the story is vastly improved for it. You experience not only the adventure to save a kingdom from further ruin, but the story of a little boy who learns to be a hero because people need him, not just because someone told him to be one. 

I’ve played Wind Waker several times at this point, trying out both the original GameCube release and the HD remake for the Wii U. While I’m generally not a fan of the Wii U as a whole, I have to say that the HD remake is absolutely worth your time, and easily the superior version of the game. The graphics get an update that reflects the console’s higher processing power, and gameplay is made a bit easier by the Wii U’s touch screen and motion controls.

More importantly, however, the remake takes a lot of the unnecessary tedium out of sailing. The Swift Sail moves faster than the game’s starting sail and automatically changes the wind’s direction, meaning that you don’t have to constantly stop and readjust your course. Crane fishing takes less time, and you save a literal boatload of rupees with a modified version of the Triforce quest that doesn’t require you to have Tingle translate every one of your treasure maps.

Wind Waker is an incredible game with an incredible story, and the improvements made with the HD remake only serve to further enhance the story.

10. Twilight Princess

The best story in a Zelda game runner-up

Twilight Princess
  • Original Platform(s): GameCube, Wii
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: November 19, 2006

If Wind Waker is the ultimate winner of our “best story” category, Twilight Princess is an extremely close second. It’s certainly the grittiest of the Zelda games ranked, possessing a notably darker feel than the rest of the series. Optimism and family-friendly themes are replaced with an unprecedented level of death and despair, and the graphics (while undoubtedly beautiful) embrace the more grotesque aspects of the game’s lore.

Despite all of this, the game doesn’t feel like a drag. We’re once again treated to a version of Link who’s very much his own character within the world — while not as expressive as his Wind Waker incarnation, he’s a young man with a close-knit group of friends that he’s determined to rescue. Even after the sinister darkness plaguing the land takes his humanity from him by transforming him into a wolf, Link is determined to piece the broken shards of Hyrule back together and return the light to a land cast in permanent shadow.

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Further Reading

That’s it for our ranking of the best Legend of Zelda games! Thanks so much for reading! If you’d like to talk about any of these titles in further depth (or if you have a personal favorite that didn’t quite make it to our list of Zelda games ranked), please let us know in the comments.

Happy gaming!

 

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