As Tears of the Kingdom Hits the Shelves, a Look Back at the Best Games in the Legend of Zelda Franchise

“It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.”

Thirty-five years ago, we first learned that it was dangerous to go alone. But we accepted the sword and our mission, embarking on our initial quest to save Hyrule. Little did we know that the short game would spawn an epic adventure filled with mystical places and vibrant cities, fairies, sages, and timeless friendships. 

But the treacherous world would also be filled with moblins, lizalfos, keese, oktorok, and an endless brigade of terrifying foes. As the Legend of Zelda celebrates the release of its latest franchise title, here’s a look at why the series is so Iconic

A Tale As Old as Time

No, it’s not Beauty and the Beast.

It’s a tale of a power-hungry villain, a king who is too naïve to notice, and a princess that works behind the scenes to save the kingdom she loves. She recruits the Hero of Legend, who appears to be a young boy without any special skills to everyone else. It’s not Aladdin either, though the main story is eerily reminiscent. It’s the story of Princess Zelda and Link, the heroes who team up to save Hyrule from evil again and again.

An interesting thing about the series is that Zelda, the titular character, is not the character you play. She’s the princess of Hyrule, who is often thrust into an epic battle with Ganon, a male Gerudo whose only ambition is power. Throughout the series, he finds new and deceitful ways to increase his strength through nefarious means, becoming Dark Ganon, Ganondorf, Shadow Ganon, and a slew of other dangerous mystical hybrids.

Link, the legendary hero, is awakened just in the nick of time to save Hyrule from Ganon’s evil clutches. He must fight through temples buried deep in ancient forests, solve complex puzzles in depths of long-forgotten water temples, and battle his way through countless minions of ever-increasing mystical powers.

The Best Legend of Zelda Games

The entire Legend of Zelda series is iconic. It’s hard to pick just a few games to call them the best. However, if I were forced to make a list, these games would be on it.

The Legend of Zelda

It starts with the original. The Legend of Zelda hit the shelves on February 21, 1986. Although I remember playing this game a few times as a youngster (I was four when it came out), I was never super into it. As a Mario player, this game seemed too hard. Three heart pieces were never enough, and I never even reached the first dungeon. Little kid me was not impressed.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned to appreciate this game. It’s one of my best friends’ favorite games, and during one of our yearly visits, we decided to have a playthrough. I watched her beat the game in about five hours.

It was glorious to behold! She knew every secret pathway, the location of every dungeon, and where to get the best materials. I realized that I never really appreciated the game, and spending that time watching her play was like a lightbulb going off in my head. 

This game was iconic!

The open-world concept that it tried to portray was groundbreaking for 1986, and ever since then, the Legend of Zelda pushed its way into our hearts and spawned an empire of new and exciting gaming experiences.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

My first real experience with the Legend of Zelda franchise was with its first Nintendo 64 release, The Ocarina of Time. This is the game that got me interested in gaming. Sure, I played the Mario games before, and they were fun, but there wasn’t much of a story. It was all run and jump and rescue the princess.

The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time changed all of that for me. For the first time, I was thrust into a magical world of villains and princesses; NPCs, and side quests. There was so much more to the game than rescuing a princess in despair. 

Link had to help the townspeople corral their cuccos, sneak past castle guards to speak to the princess, and outsmart shifty stable owners.

There are also so many fun and exciting items to find! Link had to solve mini-puzzles to find heart pieces, attempt side missions to get better weapons, and help villagers to complete his bottle collection.

Another stunning attribute of the Ocarina of Time was the 3D world. Although Mario 64 came out two years before, Ocarina of Time took the 3D open-world game to the next level. Mario 64 was still stuck to screens with limits. Sure, you could wander the castle and do screens in varying order, but there was a lot of structure to it.

With the Ocarina of Time, that structure somewhat disappeared. Yes, you needed to find specific items to go to the next dungeon, but skilled gamers found ways to bypass those restrictions. You could wander around Hyrule at your leisure, visit the various villages, talk to the townspeople, and fish at Lake Hyrule. The main quest would be there when you were ready for it.

This iconic, groundbreaking game was my absolute favorite game for many years, only to finally be bested by the series’ major Switch release, Breath of the Wild.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda; Breath of the Wild is the most amazing game I’ve ever played in my life. I don’t think it’s possible to do this game justice in a few paragraphs.

Where the Ocarina of Time failed at being a fully open-world adventure, the Breath of the Wild succeeded. If you wanted to fight Ganon immediately after leaving the opening plateau, you could (though you’d probably die trying). You could visit any village in any order, attempt any quest, and try your hand at any shrines. The vast world is open and ready for you to explore however you see fit.

Breath of the Wild also surpassed any other game I’ve ever played with its crafty gameplay. While walls in most games are designed to keep players on a certain path, Breath of the Wild allows you to climb most of them. There are very few areas of the map that your character is not allowed to explore, as long as you have enough food/stamina to make it.

And speaking of food, you can collect almost anything in this game and try to make food or potions out of it. There are a variety of flowers and mushrooms, fruits, and meats to collect and turn into delicious (and sometimes dubious) culinary masterpieces. Some ingredients offer special powers, like increased stamina, defense, or agility, while others refill your life force.

The imagery is one of the most epic things about Breath of the Wild. I’ve never cared much about game graphics, but even I have to admit how breathtaking the world of Hyrule is in this game. Majestic snow-covered mountains, dense tropical forests, clear beaches, and open plains grasslands are just some gorgeous landscapes you will encounter. When you stand on top of a cliff or at one of the towers, you can see the vast expanse of the map in all directions. It almost feels like you are really there.

This game is so good that other games have tried to copy its style in recent years. Immortals: Fenyx Rising came out two years later and is eerily reminiscent of Breath of the Wild in both style and gameplay. Genshin Impact tried to copy the main points in an anime style. It’s safe to say that this game greatly impacted the gaming world.

Gamers Discuss Their Favorite Zelda Games

The great thing about this series is how the games impacted people differently. My top three are listed above, but other gamers have different opinions. 

Three of my favorite gaming pals discuss their favorite Legend of Zelda games!

Games With Coffee

Blogger, Gamer

Zelda II is my all-time favorite Legend of Zelda game. I’m not joking.

My love for this game does stem partially from nostalgia. However, one can’t deny that the direction Nintendo took with this game was interesting. Developed in the halcyon years of the ‘80s, The Adventure of Link is the follow-up to the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. 

The game stars Link, who discovers a triangle-shaped mark on his left hand a year after his first adventure. Impa discovers this and drags him to a palace in the northern-most part of Hyrule. Inside this palace was a sleeping woman.

That woman was the first Princess Zelda.

Cast into an eternal sleep by a wizard long ago, only the fully completed Triforce could awaken her once more. The third Triforce – the Triforce of Courage – was sequestered in a vast palace deep in the Valley of Death, found on the eastern side of Hyrule. To open the Great Palace, one must travel to six other temples and insert crystals into stone monoliths. With this information given, Link takes up the quest to reawaken the sleeping princess. But in the background, minions of Ganon – the previous holder of the Triforce of Power – are convinced that the key to reviving their dead leader was to sprinkle the blood of the hero over the Evil King’s ashes.

Zelda II was the first instance of worldbuilding within the Zelda series. While the first game established the land of Hyrule and its many nooks and crannies, Zelda II introduces and establishes key elements that would go on to become staples within the extended series. These include the completed Triforce, magic, various enemies, and sword combat. Despite these elements, Zelda II is known as the black sheep of the series due to its more action-adventure focus compared to the first game. The main action happens in side-scrolling screens. Here, Link can perform many actions, like stabbing, jumping, and casting magic.

I mentioned above that this game is my favorite in the series. I was even in a podcast discussing this game with a fellow fan, and the host asked me why. Why is Zelda II still my favorite in the series? The reason it remains so is a simple, yet long answer.

I was seven or eight years old when I first played this game. Before this, I had never played a game in the Legend of Zelda series. So, I borrowed it from an older friend of mine, and I immediately fell in love with it. It felt so different from other games that I’ve played. There were encounters on the field, the actions felt tight and you could even talk to townspeople and gather spells to aid in your quest. The combat though was the difficult part to handle. Enemies were just so hard to deal with during my first playthrough and I ended up dying. A lot.

Now, most kids my age would just give up after the constant death and move on to something else. For some reason, I didn’t and I think I know why. This game was teaching me about patience, strategy and about perseverance. I never gave up on beating this game, not even after my friend took the game back. Not even after he left for high school and later dumped me as a friend.

 In the back of my mind, I wanted to conquer Zelda II.

I finally had that opportunity when I was fifteen and putzing around with emulation. I beat the game using save states… but it left me feeling unsatisfied. I cheated my way through, and the victory felt hollow. So I decided to try again. Each time I played, I changed up my sword-fighting strategy. I waited and observed, experimented with the mechanics. I was patient and I was precise. And one day, my efforts paid off when I finished Zelda II without using save states two years later. This time, victory tasted sweet.

Today, I can breeze through Zelda II with no problems. It’s almost an afterthought to me, funnily enough. However, on every playthrough since the first time I beat it, I’ve come to appreciate the efforts Nintendo put into this game. Sure, it’s not like any other Zelda before it and it may not fit with what could be considered a “traditional” Zelda game. But Zelda II pushes the series forward. It’s an important piece in the Zelda series history because it forms the basis of all other games that come after it.

Like many games of its era, Zelda II is tough. However, it’s not impossible to beat. With patience and a never-give-up attitude, you too can beat this game. And hey, it may teach you something along the way.

Seasalt Flavour

Twitch Streamer

There are several reasons I love Majora’s Mask. It has arguably the most replay value of any of the Zelda games that I’ve played (and that list includes Breath of the Wild). You can replay nearly any aspect of the game whether you want to re-challenge a temple boss, re-complete your favorite mini-game or play through your favorite story/quest at any time without having to start a new save file.

The game has a very unique storyline and, consequently, a complex game mechanic that requires you to complete whichever quest you’re working on within the span of three (in-game) days. If you haven’t beaten the game by the end of the third day, all of your complete progress is saved and Link is sent back in time to start it all over. 

You get to keep whatever items and masks you collected, but you lose any money that you didn’t save at the bank, and none of the characters you interacted with remember you or the help you gave them.

The NPCs that are directly involved in quests have personalities and, oftentimes, you’re helping them through something painful and deep, giving the characters depth that has them tugging at your heartstrings throughout the entire game. 

It’s the first and only Zelda that made me feel invested in the characters and their hardship,  and there were SO MANY characters leading to SO MANY quests! It was an incredibly difficult game to complete 100%, which gave me even more incentive to play it over and over. Half the time I would replay just to see a specific scene that I loved.

On top of all of that, the game has some pretty scary moments, including a scene that required you to kill an entire group of enemies before they abducted your little friend to experiment on her. Not only was it super stressful, but failing meant that you needed to reset the clock back to day one and try again… unless you wanted to see your friend return on day three, emotionally defeated by whatever trauma she endured, a very, very brief interaction that haunted my childhood and probably tonight at bedtime.

Deep Delver

Streamer and Youtuber

If I had to pick a personal favorite, would probably have to be Twilight Princess. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time on a DVD that came with Nintendo Power and thinking it was the coolest, most epic thing I had ever seen (especially that music!!!). It was probably the first time I ever got hyped for a game, and it’s also how I got introduced to the Zelda lore-nut community.

 As for the game itself, I love almost everything about it. I think it has the most well-paced and well-told story in the series (from an execution standpoint at least) with the most memorable supporting cast since Majora’s Mask. This is the reason I’ve always been an ardent defender of the game’s lengthy prologue, because of how it sets everything up. Midna is also easily one of the best companion characters in any video game I’ve ever played, certainly the best in the Zelda series.

I love the general atmosphere of the world. Even though the art style hasn’t aged as gracefully as Wind Waker, I loved how vast and ancient TP’s version of Hyrule felt. This was a couple of years before I played TES, so for me it felt like BotW before BotW. 

 I think it has one of the best dungeon lineups in the series. Even if they aren’t as mechanically intricate as Majora’s, I think they more than makeup for it in memorability alone. The Goron Mines and their mix of fire, water, machines, and magnetism elements, coupled with indoor and outdoor rooms make it easily the most unique Fire dungeon ever. The Lakebed Temple’s serene naturalistic beauty, with its chiseled choral look. And a great puzzle box design too. Arbiter’s Grounds felt straight out of Indiana Jones or The Mummy. Darkness, quicksand, skeletons, scarab swarms. The ghost hunting that made good use of Wolf Link. And of course, there’s the prelude of fighting/sneaking through the Bublin camp under cover of night. Literally EVERYTHING about Snowpeak Ruins. The uniqueness of it. The realistic practicality of its design, the mystery surrounding its unspoken history, and the contrast between the warm welcoming atmosphere of the Kitchen and sitting room contrasted with the cold foreboding of the rest of the dungeon. I loved how the Temple of Time had this dichotomy between its pristine architecture and the disgusting spider enemies inhabiting it.

Then you start to explore the back rooms of the Temple and its decrepit, infested true nature, almost like Portal in a way. Then of course there’s the City in the Sky, with its lengthy build-up (complete with a Wild West shootout), its amazing visual design, its haunting music, its lore implications, and the sheer fun of zipping around a flying city via grappling hook (like BioShock Infinite 7 years earlier) The dark alien beauty of the Palace of Twilight. The heart-pounding orb chases. And of course, storming Hyrule Castle at the end.

 BotW did this better from a gameplay standpoint, but I’ll never forget the eerie silence of the haunted graveyard, earning the respect of King Bublin, or having your friends save you from a last-minute ambush. And that’s just the dungeons!

 Don’t even get me started on the bosses (and minibosses)! Ook, Diababa, Dangoro, Fyrus, the Deku Toad, Morpheel, Dead Edge, Stallord, Darkhammer, Blizzeta, the Darknut Duel, Armogohma, Dracofos, Argorok, Zant, Puppet Zelda, and the epic 3 part Ganon battle. Each one is etched in my memory. Yeah, most of them are pretty easy, but in terms of sheer epicness nothing would top them for me until I played SotC and Dark Souls 5 years later.

All of the items were fun to use as well. The Gale Boomerang, magnetic Iron Boots, and Clawshot, put new spins on old faithfuls. I loved how you could carry multiple types of bombs, combine them with the Bow for Bomb Arrows, and even upgrade the Bow with a sniper scope!

 The Spinner was a blast to use (and anybody who says it doesn’t get enough use outside Arbiter’s Grounds is objectively wrong). The Ball and Chain can be pretty useful in combat in the right situation. The Dominion Rod is a cool novelty and an interesting evolution of the Command Melody from WW. And of course, the Double Clawshot is just the epitome of AWESOME!!!

Oh, and the combat! I loved the visceral feel of it, an interesting contrast to WW’s fluid swashbuckling that I think fit TP’s change in tone well. I loved unlocking the Hidden Skills, and the options they gave you in battle, as well as the awesome way in which you learn them, howling Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask songs with a spirit wolf, then being taught by bad*ss looking spectral warrior who also happens to the ghost of a previous Link?! How can you get more awesome than THAT?!

What’s Your Favorite Legend of Zelda Game?

It’s fair to say that Twitch streamers and gamers are incredibly passionate about the Legend of Zelda series. What’s your favorite memory of the franchise? Tell us about it in the comments!