Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of Zelda games? Read through our selection of the best Zelda games to find out which are worth your time.
Now more than ever is a great time to look back at all the very best Zelda games ever released. With the recent success of Breath of the Wild, there are many new fans to this acclaimed 30+-year-old franchise. It broke the series wide open by embracing new mechanics and has created intense debates in the Zelda community about what Zelda games are indeed the best.
Well, I’m here to do just that! This is a list of my top 11 all-time favorite Zelda games. This list contains only official releases, meaning all games on the official timeline plus Breath of the Wild.
What Aspects Define A Zelda Game
Zelda means something different to everyone. We all have different ideas about what aspects make up a Zelda game, and you never know what to expect with each entry.
Here are the features that I consider to be parts of the core formula that make up a Zelda game:
- World Building & Presentation
- Dungeons & Quests
- Key Items & Combat
- Story & Character Development
- Overall Impact
11 The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons
|Initial Release Date||Feb. 27, 2001|
In the same way, Pokemon always releases 2 games, Zelda does it here with Oracle of Ages and Seasons.
Originally on the Gameboy Color, the games were meant to be played back to back and you could use the link cable between them! You needed to finish both games to get the full story!
The Harp of Ages allows Link to travel through time, while the Rod of Seasons controls the seasons. These were integral items to the story and for traversing the land and solving puzzles.
The games play similar to Link’s Awakening. I hope with the recent success of the remake on Nintendo Switch that the Oracle games are remade next!
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10 The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
|Initial Release Date||June 23, 2007|
This first entry on the 3DS brought new innovative and complex puzzles, a redesigned control scheme, and a continuation of the story from Wind Waker. We do not see direct sequels often in the Zelda series which made this game particularly exciting.
Sailing of course returns from Wind Waker, but this time you get a fully customizable steam boat! Enter Captain Linebeck, who refers to himself as a “real man of the sea”. His personality couldn’t be any more opposite. Linebeck provides comical relief to the plot and can be a very quirky individual.
Even the puzzles in this game will make you scratch your head. One has you screaming into the DS mic at the top of your lungs, “Give me the salvage arm”! There are plenty more one of a kind puzzles that you won’t want to miss!
9 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
|Initial Release Date||June 6, 1993|
This game really set up a lot of the core standards of the Zelda series. Zelda 1 established the important characters and themes, but Link’s Awakening brought the linear story structure and overall Zelda magic. Zelda 1 doesn’t really have a story, save for a few pages in the game’s manual and brief game text. This is why Link’s Awakening is so special.
It starts with the opening cutscene. Link is wrestling with lightning crashing down on his little wooden boat as he fights the gigantic waves. He sinks and washes ashore a strange island only to find a strange egg atop the island. This egg contains the sacred windfish who is fast asleep. You must defeat the nightmares of the 8 dungeons to collect instruments to wake him up!
Only then will you be able to leave the island. The presentation comes off as vibrant and cheerful, but the residents of Koholint Island are unaware of the darkness across their humble land.
8 The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap
|Initial Release Date||Nov. 4, 2004|
This is a game you won’t find on many top 10 Zelda lists. It’s a shame! Minish Cap is a handheld game but it really brings a lot to the table in terms of new characters, a charming presentation, and unique gameplay. It’s also one of the few games not developed by Nintendo.
You meet the Minish who have secretly lived beneath the Hylians for generations. They stay especially close to the royal family and most Hylians believe they are just a fairy tale. Minish are only the size of a thumb and it is said only children can even see them!
Link will meet the “Picori”, the name given to the Minish by the Hylians, by discovering a magical green hat that allows him to shrink down to Minish size. This presents all sorts of new and unique puzzles to solve. Chuchus were never thought to be tough enemies, but battling them as the size of a Minish will force you to rethink how to defeat it.
Kinstones were items found throughout your adventure and were involved in a massive side quest. The problem is that you always only find 1 half! You must travel the land and find the person with the missing half. It is said that if 2 pieces are joined together, “something good” will happen!
7 The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
|Initial Release Date||Dec. 7, 2009|
Spirit Tracks only beats Phantom Hourglass by a hair, as they share many of the same elements.
A lot of the mechanics are similar but also changed to have a unique feel. Instead of a boat, Link travels this new land in a steam train! In fact, the beginning of the game finds you rushing into town to take your engineer exam. Just look how cute link is in his little engineer outfit!
Throughout the adventure, you will restore more and more railroad tracks which allow you to travel even further. To do this, you must venture to each dungeon to meet the Lokomo spirits who help restore the land. You’ll also work to rebuild a tower which is the key to locking away a great evil.
And yes, you can blow the train whistle whenever you want!
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6 The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
|Initial Release Date||Nov. 19, 2006|
Twilight Princess could be considered one of the darkest games because of its realistic art direction and its story. Hyrule has been taken over by the Twilight, which turns people into spirits. Luckily because Link holds the Triforce of Courage, he is transformed into a wolf.
On your quest to restore the light back to Hyrule, you use the tools you are familiar with as Link. However there are new puzzles and bosses that can only be completed as a wolf! Your dark companion Midna, who rides atop wolf Link, aids you on your quest to save Zelda.
Twilight Princess also has the most diverse set of dungeons in any Zelda game. You will shoot to the sky in a canon, dive deep beneath a lake, and even travel back in time. The sky is home to one of the quirkiest races in Zelda lore, the Ooccoo, who are considered even more advanced than the Sheikah tribe. You’ll also use the Dominion Rod, one of my favorite Zelda items, to take control of ancient statues.
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5 The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
|Initial Release Date||Dec. 13, 2002|
Wind Waker used to be a very sensitive topic among the Zelda community. When the game originally released, it was at a time when games and hardware started pushing for more realistic graphics. This left many people confused by cell shaded art style.
For me, the look of a Zelda game is important, but that doesn’t mean it must be realistic. Every game uses its own art style that best fits that adventure. Wind Waker is no different. You will see some of the most expressive and vibrant cast of characters in a Zelda game.
It is truly one of the most open Zelda games out there as you set sail on the open sea with your trusty companion, the King of Red Lions. You also meet Tetra and the whole pirate crew who really get in your way and put you in nefarious situations. Every one of the 50 islands has treasure to find and secrets to uncover.
The Wind Waker instrument, which looks like a baton, let’s you use the power of the gods to direct the wind and call upon ancient powers to assist you on your travels. You also “delve deep” into Zelda history as you discover what happened to the legendary land of Hyrule beneath the waves.
4 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
|Initial Release Date||Nov. 21, 1998|
This is the first Zelda game to move into the 3D space and it holds a special place in my heart. Much like Link’s Awakening set a lot of the core mechanics in the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time did that for the 3D games that would eventually follow.
Several famous landmarks from Zelda lore got their start here. Gerudo Valley, Hyrule Field, and Zora’s Domain are locations found in many Zelda games. The musical motifs of these areas are some of the most beloved in the series.
A lot of the lore in the Zelda series was first discovered here, and it takes place at a pivotal point in the Zelda timeline. With the legendary Master Sword and Ocarina of Time in hand, Link holds the fate of the kingdom in his hands. In Ocarina of Time, you discover the meaning behind the Triforce and the creation of Hyrule.
You play as both a child and adult version of Link, each with separate items and equipment to use. You literally “travel through time” to defeat the evil Ganondorf as he attempts to obtain the Triforce.
The gameplay elements introduced shook the entire gaming industry. Have you ever played a game with Z-targeting or “lock on” for when you are fighting enemies? Ocarina of Time brought that to the world and this feature is still used in games today.
3 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
|Initial Release Date||March 3, 2017|
Breath of the Wild shines in the fact that it refuses to have any rules. The game is complete and utter freedom. Want to attempt to fight Ganon, the final boss, in the first 20 minutes of the game? Well, you can surely “attempt” to make it there, but you might die in the process. You might make it to Ganon to find that you’re only equipped with a stick and a pot lid!
To the birds chirping, the winds bustling, and the rushing of water, Breath of the Wild has the most alive and breathing world out of any game I’ve ever played, not just a Zelda game.
The physics completely break the game wide open. You can literally go anywhere and do anything, your imagination is the only limit. Every puzzle, obstacle, and quest has several different ways to solve them.
Link has no memories of the war that wounded him so badly that he needed to rest for 100 years. The story in the game is shown through flashbacks of memories Link has from those days. This is actually really clever! In an attempt to keep the freedom of the game it definitely works, but it left me wanting more.
2 The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
|Initial Release Date||Nov. 18, 2011|
Skyward Sword has the most well-crafted story out of any Zelda game. Period. It’s the only game where they started development with the story first. Be prepared for a heart wrenching and tear-filled adventure as you witness the birth of Hyrule, the most iconic land in the series.
Time travel or manipulation is sort of a staple at this point. Skyward Sword does it best. Timeshift stones are used to literally warp time around you. Even the famous Ocarina of Time is made from these stones!
These stones are found throughout the desert province of Lanayru as it was once home to a thriving robotic civilization that used these stones as their power source.
When the stones are struck, the surrounding area is set back to that time with lush greenery, huge oceans, and thriving technological advancements prior to the rapid climate change that caused the desert. This creates puzzles that are quite challenging! I loved sailing through the ocean and watching the sand turn to water as I ventured forward.
The combat is also one of a kind. Using Wii Motion Plus controls, you could slash Link’s sword in 8 different directions. This was needed to defeat certain particularly difficult foes.
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1 The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
|Initial Release Date||April 27, 2000|
No other Zelda released is quite like Majora’s Mask. With its dark story, abundance of side quests, and overall time management system, it really stands out.
With a moon hurling down towards the land and the townsfolk desperately fleeing in terror, it is up to Link to stop the moon in only 3 days. You constantly live through this 3 day cycle, each time getting closer to stopping the evil contained within Majora’s Mask and the skull kid that it possesses.
Link must help calm the afflicted and assist the dead in moving on throughout his adventure. Healing these individuals grants Link with 24 unique masks, each with their own abilities. Some masks even allow Link to transform into other races found in this new land called Termina.
These mask transformations are so satisfying. Too often we are stuck playing as only Link with a limited set of moves and tools that generally don’t change much with each game. Not in Majora’s Mask. Link can take on many forms that give him a broader moveset to explore the kingdom and defeat his foes.
Want to save cows from an alien invasion? Infiltrate a pirate fortress? Witness a wedding ceremony in the final hours as the moon comes crashing down?! These are just a taste of some of the complex quests that you take on as a member of the Bombers Secret Society of Justice! If you want to join this exclusive club, be prepared to play hide and seek with some bratty kids…
It’s hard to express in words how truly special the Zelda series has been for me throughout my entire life. I hope you found a few games you want to check out and have a better understanding of the Zelda series as a whole!
More importantly, though, I hope you leave here with a better sense of the “magic” that is The Legend of Zelda series, and what makes a Zelda game, a “Zelda” game!
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