Now that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the Nintendo Switch have each reached their first anniversary of release into the wide world of video games history, we’ve dusted off each of the 18 games in the franchise to reflect on its history and the merits of every individual game! This is not necessarily a “worst to best” as worst doesn’t really apply to a beloved series like Zelda, but rather a ranking from least to most favorite among our writers and editors on The Young Folks staff. These rankings are cumulative from each individual person’s list and combined based on a points system. So this is a subjective, collaborative piece, and may not necessarily reflect your own opinion. That’s okay! If you wanna share how you feel about the best of the Zelda franchise, comment below or tag us on social media at @TYFOfficial
UPDATE: as of 2021 we have yet to come back to this article to add Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, or consider the ranking of Link’s Awakening after the 2019 remake, but it should be noted they’re both wonderful games and are worth your time. Enjoy the list!
#18 The Legend of Zelda: TriForce Heroes (2016 Nintendo 3DS)
While being at the bottom of a list of Zelda games isn’t the same as being a truly bad game, it’s no secret TriForce Heroes didn’t click with a lot of people. The three-player take on a Four Swords team adventure was a novel idea; one made far more interesting by the inclusion of a loadout equipment system. The Links of this game could change into all kinds of costumes for various buffs (including Zelda’s own clothes and a Gatchaman knockoff) and equip a single classic item. Being able to tackle complicated dungeons when you could get friends together was fun, but that’s also the start of the problems. As is the case with the other multiplayer Zelda efforts, getting a proper group together was difficult, and the 3DS never had a good communication system. Because the game is meant to be played together, it’s nearly impossible to complete solo. Add a constant problem with grievers and trolls on top, and it really isn’t surprising why this didn’t take off. Even so, Link should absolutely get another crack at fashion, because he can kill it in a dress.
– Travis Hymas
#17 The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (2007 Nintendo DS)
MAN was this game frustrating. The first title to follow up on the Wind Waker’s narrative through-line, Phantom Hourglass sees Link and Princess Tetra attacked by the evil demon Vati, and Link is washed ashore a la Link’s Awakening. It’s here that he has to go on a merry touch screen portable adventure across multiple islands to defeat the new demon lord. The most memorable aspects of this game were the best and worst of touch screen controls. Solving puzzles in dungeons by drawing lines to throw boomerangs and arrows was all well and good, but to navigate Link across a map by running and rolling with a drag of the stylus across the screen was tiring and frustrating. The only thing that is more frustrating, and is the most frustrating in the franchise, is the game’s Temple of the Ocean King: a temple that you would have to repeatedly return to after each stage of the game to solve new puzzles. This would be all well and good if it wasn’t padded with a life timer for the poisonous fog, and a stealth element, with no ability to quickly travel back to your previous progress point. Each floor became faster over time, but still, starting from square one every time you returned made for the only time in my life playing a Zelda game that I would dread doing something.
– Evan Griffin
#16 The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009 Nintendo DS)
This game is so delightfully charming, and to this day I wish more people gave it a chance. Everything that people disliked about its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass, is gone or improved upon. The oceanic navigations are replaced by a spirit train that takes link along his journey through Hyrule, with what I would argue is one of the most underrated overworld themes in the series. The navigation, combat, and item usage with the touch screen is improved, where even using this game’s musical instrument to complete spells and tricks activated with the DS’ microphone is fun, despite being a bit of a gimmick. The larger Temple of Spirits that is regularly returned to, reminiscent of Phantom Hourglass’ Ocean King temple, but with far more engaging puzzles and less necessary backtracking, as well as the ability to utilize a suit of armor as a helpful companion, embodied by none other than Princess Zelda! Another notable feature of this game is that for the only time in the franchise’s history does the princess accompany Link on his quest, even if it isn’t in corporeal form.
– Evan Griffin
#15 Zelda II Adventure of Link (1987 Nintendo Entertainment System)
The black sheep of the main Zelda series, Zelda II does a lot of things differently than the rest of its family. In contrast to modern Zelda games, which focus on collecting items used to solve a wide variety of puzzles, Adventure of Link is a hardcore 2D side-scrolling Action RPG. The standout mechanic is the experience system, where slaying enemies grants XP used to level up your attack, health, and magic stats. Scattered across the world are 8 towns, each with a woman who can restore Link’s health and magic (because there are no health or magic drops from enemies whatsoever), and a sage that teaches Link a new spell, giving the discovery of each new town feelings of relief and excitement. The reason to love (or hate) Zelda II though, is its combat.
Zelda II lives and dies by the 2D side-scrolling combat which makes up 90% of the game. By modern standards it’s extremely barebones, only boasting a high or low stab attack (oh and Link can jump for once!), and yet, it’s still very intuitive, fluid, and fun. The addition of two hidden sword techniques, the up stab and (hilariously overpowered) down stab (more recognized from Super Smash Bros.), all add a bit of unique flair to the side-scrolling swordplay.
There’s just one little part that probably turns off 95% of players, and it’s the second area of the game: death mountain. A long, confusing maze with some of the hardest-hitting enemies in the game hits you out of nowhere, and quite frankly, isn’t fun in the slightest on your first go. But afterward, the game continues on a more gentle difficulty as if nothing ever happened.
At the time there was no Zelda formula (there wasn’t even a master sword yet), and Zelda II was actually really successful (it’s the 8th best-selling NES game). But with each new entry following the formula laid out in ALttP, Zelda II faded into near-obscurity, beloved by some for its unique take on side-scrolling swordplay, and cast aside by many.
– Alex Taubert
#14 The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011 Wii)
Directionally, Skyward Sword is actually a very cool game. With artful graphics, the ability to wield Link’s sword with the Wiimote, and the impressive mechanic of soaring through the skies of Hyrule, Skyward Sword had a lot of potential to sit as another classic game of the Zelda franchise. Unfortunately, it managed to squander a lot of its potential and stands as a widely disliked game. The motion controls for the sword were notorious for doing anything but what they were supposed to, and the flying mechanic is widely considered to be a waste of a great idea considering the overworld beyond Skyloft had little treasures and puzzles for players to find. However, the real loss of Skyward Sword comes in the minute details, with large sections of boring design, dated graphics by the time it released in 2011, and a Navi-like companion who just won’t shut up. Overall, Skyward Sword definitely had love put into it and could’ve been a soaring success for the franchise, but managed to waste it and end up as one of the most disliked games of the series.
– Sam Carpenter
#13 Hyrule Warriors (2015 Wii U)
“Nuts and gum! Together at last!”
WARNING! If you don’t like Dynasty Warriors to begin with, then there’s nothing for you here. Keep moving.
Okay, so as I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now “Hyrule Warriors? What the hell? Why isn’t Wand of Gamelon on here?!?” Trust me, I know, but hear me out. Hyrule Warriors (or Hyrule Muso, for all you cool kids) is a SHOCKINGLY good hybrid of classic Zelda and Dynasty Warriors, of all things. Now, I know that sounds insane, and believe me, it is, but this game is an absolute gem. Hyrule Warriors beautifully mashes the iconic look and sounds of Zelda with the “skin deep but miles wide” hack and slash gameplay of warriors in the greatest mashup since Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza. ABSOLUTELY do not miss this game when it comes to Switch!
In conclusion, Hyrule Warriors is a game of contrasts. Thank you.
– Miles Stanton
#12 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993 GameBoy)
Welcome to the earliest head-scratcher in the Legend of Zelda series! No, it’s not because this is a bad game; in fact, Link’s Awakening is a good handheld entry for the GameBoy. The elements that set it apart were the plot and the surprising twists to dissect its subtextual themes, a first for the series.
Link’s Awakening focused on Koholint Island after Link washed up onshore. As you complete the dungeons to get the musical instruments to ultimately go home, you discover a bigger mystery is going on. Link’s Awakening has one of the best plot mysteries because as details emerge about the island and the legend, you get the sense/hints that there is a secret everyone else is aware of and kept from you. It’s a good twist and one that has a big impact.
While Link’s Awakening isn’t as well-known as other entries in the series, this one-off adventure did launch firsts for the series, like allowing Link to jump, the first non-Hyrule setting, and learning songs on the ocarina.
– Justin Carreiro
#11 The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (2004 GameBoy Advance)
This little hidden gem for the GameBoy Advance went super under the radar for the lifetime of the Zelda franchise and is one of the most charming adventures in Link’s history. When Princess Zelda is turned into stone, Link goes to the Minish Woods seeing aid and weapons and finds an elder turned into the iconic green cap of the Hero of Time, as wells the village of the Minish, small mice who grant Link the power to shrink to their own size and solve problems he couldn’t as a normal sizes human, creating one of the most unique companions, and fun art direction, in the series to date. The sprite work and color palette for Minish Cap make a nice hybrid of the cartoonish cel-shading for the Wind Waker and the recognizable overworld of A Link to the Past. Sure, it may be a brief adventure, but at the end of the day, when you’re making a portable game, the essential goal is to make it fun in short bursts of gameplay, and Minish Cap has this in spades with some creative new items, fun boss battles, and creative side quests.
– Evan Griffin
#10 The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons (2001 GameBoy Color)
You could look at The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons / Ages as the twin sisters of the series. Both games are (almost) identical in structure, but each has their own differences that set them apart. The setting within each game is different, as well as the dungeons, and both completely change due to its special power!
If you play in Seasons, you get the power to change the elements, while in Ages, you can travel throughout time. The best reason to play either game is to experience how the land, and the people within it, changes as the season/time updates. Sometimes being in winter or traveling to the past can be the ticket to discovering the secret you need. These game elements are a novelty gimmick, but the story is fun to follow.
And, when you play both games together, you get to connect them with a special code that makes them a singular story mode. You can enjoy the handheld game as a standalone story or connect them for a full adventure as your Link character. That really is incredible.
– Justin Carreiro
#9 The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (2004 Nintendo GameCube and 4 GameBoy Advances)
Four Swords is one of those moments in Zelda that history has overshadowed a bit, partially due to its strange release schedule. After an initial first experiment in a multiplayer-only add-on to the GBA port of Link to the Past by connecting four GameBoy Advances together with proprietary cables, the concept of Four Swords was eventually developed into a full-fledged campaign as a separate GameCube title under the name Four Swords Adventures. Despite good critical reception and selling at least one million copies, spawning a Players Choice Edition and a manga offshoot, Four Swords pales in the face of such classics as Wind Waker, which came out at around the same time. While it will be remembered more for the amount of portable and home consoles, and accessory cables required to set up a session of the game, this first multiplayer experience in Zelda resulted in a wonderful story, and puzzles that fit both the series and the new multiplayer capabilities, Four Swords stands as a solid title but cannot compare to some of the most famous titles in the series.
– Sam Carpenter
#8 The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006 Wii, Nintendo GameCube)
The Legend of Zelda series isn’t always known for taking a darker turn with their themes; it’s more heroic, light-hearted and awe-inspiring as you follow Link’s adventures but when it finally explored its dark side, like fans begged for years for, it hits it out of the park. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was the result of those efforts.
As the land of Hyrule is shrouded in mysterious darkness, Link is transformed into a wolf and has to battle the ever-changing balance of darkness and light. With Twilight Princess, you get all the elements of a Legend of Zelda game you love, like horseback riding and sword fighting, but you also get to explore different environments affected by the darkness and the ability to play as the wolf. These added elements change up the experience as you interact with and see Hyrule through two different lenses: the light world as Link and the dark world as Wolf Link.
Twilight Princess shouldn’t be overlooked in the series. The game is visually beautiful, it stands out with its darker tone, and the characters feel the most realistic/human in the longest time. Plus, Midna is a way better companion than Navi!
– Justin Carreiro
#7 The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013 Nintendo 3DS)
might be the best proof that there is no “perfect” video game. To many, even it isn’t their favorite, Link to the Past is the perfect version of the top-down Zelda title. In response to that, Worlds creates new challenges and ideas from scratch; from the free travel between to its two overworlds, the open-ended nature of the narrative, and of course the ability to merge into walls. Every step of the way, what might be unable to be polished more can still be reconfigured to make something brand new. On top of that, it has the very special distinction of playing with the conventional character tropes of the franchise even if the twist itself is predictable. Pulling all that off is a great argument to keep the top-down Zelda formula on hand even while we have increasingly large full-scale games on tap.
– Travis Hymas
#6 The Legend of Zelda: (1986 Nintendo Entertainment System)
There is a reason that The Legend of Zelda franchise is so prolific after 30 years in the video games industry, and this game is the one that made it stake its place. It is a game that, for the time, revolutionized the mere concept of using a digital cartridge to establish a sense of big wonder. When exploring the map of Hyrule, you felt alone, but you also felt accomplished, and thanks to such strong game design, you eventually realized you weren’t alone. Nintendo did a damn fine job of making you feel like a true, independent adventurer, carried along by the most iconic overworld adventure theme in video games. With copies of the golden sacred game cartridge, the most useful instruction manual ever made came with it: presenting an incomplete map telling you where to find particular items, and even more importantly, the first four of the nine labyrinths in the game. It’s your quest to complete, after all. The game gives you hints, like wise men and women hiding away in caves with hints to lead you forward in the least cryptic way possible: “Go behind the waterfall,” “Bring this message to the old woman” and the infamous “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” The challenge came from finding these messages, and when you took a moment to think about them, you’re stuck with the “ah-ha” moment as you become more familiar with the overworld.
This is a feeling that was unique to this individual release in gaming history at a very specific point in time that would not even come close to being duplicated again until the release of Breath of the Wild on the Switch console this time a year ago.
– Evan Griffin
#5 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003 Nintendo GameCube)
The cutesy aesthetic might have been panned when it was released, but time has proven Wind Waker to be one of the more distinctive and better-aged of all modern Zelda entries. Toon Link and the cell-shaded ocean world of Wind Waker evokes a sense of wide-eyed wonder and whimsy, which juxtaposes nicely with its more realistic themes of family and overcoming failure. For the first time, Link had a full family to look out for with a grandma and sister, stumbling upon Zelda (as her greatest incarnation as a pirate princess) and the hero of time business as more of an afterthought.
And who could forget the pure sense of adventure sailing the high seas and changing the winds at whim, like you were both your own Odysseus and Poseidon? It was always a thrill sailing past islands and wondering what new threats lay beyond its shores, or whipping out the cannon and engaging in naval battles. Even the swordplay proved to be richer than the N64 predecessors, introducing mechanics like counterattacks and picking up enemy weapons that made fights more dynamic, and no doubt paved the way for future titles like Breath of the Wild.
It also has some of, if not the best beginning dungeons in all of Zelda. The Forsaken Fortress had memorable stealth mechanics. The Forbidden Woods introduced the adorable Koroks and the best boomerang action in the series. And the mechanics of using the grappling hook to grab the dragon’s tail in Dragon’s Roost Cavern remains the best encounter of Gohma in a franchise that is just littered with Gohma fights.
Wind Waker is a Zelda game chock full of polish and complexity underneath its layers of charm, and for that, it deserves to be known as one of the best. Though that bit where you have to fish for the triforce pieces was shameless padding and we all know it.
– Alex Suffolk
#4 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991 Super Nintendo Entertainment System)
For many, Link To The Past isn’t just the definitive Zelda experience, it is the gold standard of what video games could be. Using the 16-bit capabilities of the Super Nintendo, ALttP fills its version of Hyrule with larger, more active sprites than any game prior, breathing extra life into the previously flattened overworld. Environments themselves were made significantly more diverse, giving the sense of a larger scale of the adventure. This is where the Zelda story could be told through actual in-game events, instead of clucky cutaways and reliance on the manual translations. With these new horizons, ALttP took helped fully realize the imagined backyard adventures of Shigeru Miyamoto, refined to a point that the franchise had to completely reinvent itself to continue at all. As if that wasn’t enough, this title’s style returned to produce one of the best 3DS titles ever – A Link Between Worlds.
– Travis Hymas
#3 The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000 Nintendo 64)
This game wins the award for the best Zelda game in my lifetime simply because of its tone and aesthetic. Yes, the three-day timer seems like it would induce a lot of stress, but it’s kind of a fourth wall breaking stress. It creates an emotional response to put players under a time crunch that is relative to how Link would feel when trying to complete as many dungeon crawls and save as many townsfolk as he can before the moon crashes, or has to turn time back to the beginning. That puts players in the position of experiencing hubris from Link’s perspective, realizing that they can’t be a perfect hero in this story for Termina. It’s also important to note that, even though the moon crashing seems like world-ending stakes at first, the true game is much smaller in scale, as each of the 25 masks you collect amidst the games four spectacularly designed dungeons are more than simply fetch quests. They’re distinct, and create dialogue that makes Link’s connection to these strangers feel insanely personal, especially under the gun of doom hanging literally over their heads over the entire game. Plus, this game’s art direction and color tones are so good at creating a surrealist tone that has never been even close to duplicated by another Zelda game, not even Majora’s own 3DS remake.
– Dylan Griffin
#2 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017 Nintendo Switch, Wii U)
Breath of the Wild is probably the boldest game in The Legend of Zelda series. Ever since Ocarina of Time, most of the games since have followed the same format of going into dungeons, unlock rooms until you get an item, use an item to solve puzzles then defeat the boss, use an item to unlock new dungeon, and then rinse and repeat until Gannon, but Breath of the Wild eschewed that old paradigm, instead choosing to go back to the roots of the series and tap into what made the very first Legend of Zelda so full of wonder: that feeling of exploring and making your own adventure.
Instead of a linear progression, Breath of the Wild plops you into a massive world and lets you carve your own path by giving you a set of magic runes and a glider to traverse and interact with the world however you see fit. Though the weapon durability and armor upgrade systems were major adjustments to fans, they enhanced the sense that you were always a survivalist scrabbling your resources and wits together to take on challenges, and later they became avenues for greater customization. Finally, its world is so jam-packed with side quests and challenges, that there’s nearly limitless gameplay to be found in Breath of the Wild, and given the beauty and charm around every corner, you’re bound to love every second of it.
Breath of the Wild provides a hopeful outlook for the future of Zelda. It served not only as a triumphant start for the Nintendo Switch, but as an example that this beloved franchise will continue to innovate and amaze. And for that, we can’t praise it enough.
– Alex Suffolk
#1 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998 Nintendo 64)
These days, it is often questioned exactly why Ocarina always tops these kinds of lists. That makes sense, as many of the other Zelda titles below this have been bigger, bolder, and more expansive. The Water Temple is hardly as scary as it once was. So why this one? Because at the moment Ocarina of Time hit, gaming sat at a crossroads. Kids who fell for Hyrule in 1986 were beginning to move into their own young adulthood. Gaming was stepping into the third dimension. At this moment, Ocarina of Time decides to weave the uncertainty into a narrative of a stolen childhood, someone who wasn’t ready to a grown-up but expected to. On a meta-level, Ocarina tackles the future head-on, putting a young person against a broken world and adults beyond their understanding. Through it, the audience is reminded of the merits of childhood joy and of the encouragement of plain goodness when the world was less scary and complicated. Even today, much of what is under the surface is resonant for people of our age; and it’s for that reason that Ocarina of Time successfully sets the standard all other Zelda games strive to achieve.
– Travis Hymas