You’ve already had your say on the very best Zelda games as we celebrate the series’ 30th anniversary – and you did a mighty fine job too, even if I’m fairly sure A Link to the Past belongs at the head of any list – so now it’s our turn. We asked the Eurogamer editorial team to vote for their favourite Zelda games (though Wes abstained because he still doesn’t know what a Nintendo is) and below you’ll find the full top ten, along with some of our own musings. Can we get the games in their rightful order? Probably not…
10. A Link Between Worlds
How brilliantly contradictory that one of the best original games on Nintendo’s 3DS would be a 2D adventure game, and that one of the most daring Zelda entries would be the one that so closely aped one of its predecessors.
It helps, of course, that the template was lifted from one of the greatest games in the series and, by extension, one of the finest games of all time. There’s an endearing breeziness to A Link to the Past, a fleet-footedness that sees the 16-bit adventure pass as pleasurably and memorably as a perfect late summer day. A Link Between Worlds takes all that and positively sprints with it, running free into the familiar expanse of Hyrule with a new-found freedom.
In giving you the ability to rent any of Link’s well-established tools from the off, A Link Between Worlds broke free of the linear progression that had shackled previous Zelda games; this was a Hyrule that was no longer defined by an invisible path, but one that offered a sense of discovery and free will that was beginning to feel absent in prior entries. The sense of adventure so dear to the series, muffled in recent years by the ritual of repetition, was well and truly restored. MR
9. Spirit Tracks
An unfortunate side-effect of the fact that more than one generation of gamers has grown up with Zelda and refused to let go has been an insistence – during the series’ adolescence, at any rate – that it grow up with them. That led to some interesting places as well as some silly tussles over the series’ direction, as we’ll see later in this list, but at times it threatened to leave Zelda’s original constituency – you know, kids – behind.
Happily, the portable games have always been there to look after younger players, and Spirit Tracks for the DS (now available on Wii U Virtual Console) is Zelda at its most chirpy and adorable. Though beautifully designed, it’s not a particularly distinguished game, being a relatively hasty and gimmicky follow-up to Phantom Hourglass that copies its structure and flowing stylus control. But it has such zest! Link uses a little train to get around and its puffing and tooting, along with an inspired folk music soundtrack, set a brisk tempo for the adventure. Then there’s the childish, tactile joy of driving the train: setting the throttle, pulling on the whistle and scribbling destinations on your map.
Best of all is that, for once, Zelda is along for the ride. Link has to save her body, but her spirit is with him as a constant companion, sometimes able to possess enemy soldiers and play the brutal heavy. The two even enjoy an innocent childhood romance, and you would be hard pressed to think of another game that has captured the teasing, blushing intensity of a preteen crush so well. Inclusive and sweet, Spirit Tracks remembers that kids have feelings too, and can show grownups a thing or two about love. OW
8. Phantom Hourglass
In my mind, at least, there’s long been a raging debate going on as to whether Link, Hero of Hyrule, is actually any good with a boomerang. He’s been wielding the faithful, banana-shaped bit of wood since his very first adventure, but in my experience it’s only ever been a pain in the arse to use.
The exception that proves the rule, however, is Phantom Hourglass, in which you draw the path for your boomerang by hand. Poking the stylus at the touch screen (which, in an equally lovely move, is how you control your sword), you draw a precise flight map for the boomerang and then it just… goes. No faffing about, no clanging into pillars, just simple, straightforward, improbably responsive boomerang flight. It was when I first used the boomerang in Phantom Hourglass that I realised this game might just be something special; I quickly fell in love with the rest.
Never mind that so many of the puzzles are based on setting off a switch and then getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Never mind that watching some gameplay back to refresh my memory gave me powerful flashbacks to the hours spent huddling over the screen and gripping my DS like I wanted to throttle it. Never mind that I did want to throttle my DS. The point is that Phantom Hourglass had touches of class that remain – and I’m going to go out on a limb here – totally unrivalled in the rest of the Legend of Zelda series. JC
7. Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword is maddeningly close to being great. It bins the familiar Zelda overworld and set of discrete dungeons by throwing three huge areas at the player which are constantly reworked. It is a beautiful game – one I’m still hoping will be remade in HD – whose watercolour visuals leave a shimmering, dream-like haze over its azure skies and brush-daubed foliage. After the grimy, Lord of the Rings-inspired Twilight Princess, this was the Zelda series confidently re-finding its feet. I can defend many of familiar criticisms levelled at Skyward Sword, such as its overly-knowing nods to the rest of the series or its slightly forced origin story that unnecessarily retcons familiar elements of the franchise. I can even get behind the smaller overall amount of area to explore when the game continually revitalises each of its three areas so successfully.
I couldn’t, unfortunately, ever get along with the game’s Motion Plus controls, which required you to waggle your Wii Remote in order to do battle. It turned the boss battles against the brilliantly bizarre Ghirahim into infuriating fights with technology. I remember one mini-game in the Knight Academy where you had to throw something (pumpkins?) into baskets that made me rage quit for the rest of the night. Sometimes the motion controls worked – the flying Beetle item pretty much always found its mark – but when Nintendo was forcing players to leave behind the reliability of a well-worn control scheme, its replacement had to work 100 per cent of the time. TP
6. Twilight Princess
When Ocarina of Time came out in November 1998, I was ten years old. I was also pretty bad at Zelda games. I could stumble my way through the Great Deku Tree and the Fire Temple alright but, by the time Link dove headlong into the Great Jabu Jabu’s belly, my desire to have fun with Ocarina of Time easily began outstripping the fun I was actually having.
When Twilight Princess rolled around, I was at university and something in me – most likely a profound love of procrastination – was ready to try again. This time, it worked. I remember day-long stretches on the sofa, huddling underneath a blanket in my cold flat and only poking my hands out to flap about with the Wii remote during combat. Resentful looks were thrown at the stack of books I knew I had to at least skim over the next week. Then there was the glorious morning when my then-girlfriend (now fiancée) woke me up with a gentle shake, asking ‘can I watch you play Zelda?’
Twilight princess is, honestly, captivating. There’s a wonderful, brooding atmosphere; the gameplay is hugely varied; it’s got a lovely art style, one I wish they’d kept for just one more game. It’s also got some of the best dungeons in the series – I know this because since then I’ve been able to go back and mop up the recent titles I missed – Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker – and enjoy myself doing it. That’s why I’ll always love Twilight Princess – it’s the game that made me click with Zelda. JC
5. Majora’s Mask
Zelda is a series defined by repetition: the story of the long-eared hero and the princess is handed down from generation to generation, a self-fulfilling prophecy. But some of its greatest moments have come when it stepped outside its own framework, left Hyrule and Zelda herself behind, and asked what Link might do next. The self-referential Link’s Awakening was one, and this N64 sequel to Ocarina of Time another. It took an even more radical tack: weird, dark, and structurally experimental.
Although there’s plenty of comedy and adventure, Majora’s Mask is suffused with doom, regret, and an off-kilter eeriness. Some of this comes from its admittedly awkward timed structure: the moon is falling on the world, the clock is ticking and you can’t stop it, only rewind and start again, a little stronger and wiser each time. Some of it comes from the antagonist, the Skull Kid, who is no villain but an innocent with a sad story who has given in to the corrupting influence of the titular mask. Some of this comes from Link himself: a child again but with the grown man of Ocarina still somewhere inside him, he rides rootlessly into the land of Termina like he’s got no better place to be, far from the hero of legend.
Mostly, it comes from the townsfolk of Termina, whose lives Link observes moving helplessly towards the end of the world along their appointed paths, over and over again. Despite an unforgettable, surreal conclusion, Majora’s Mask’s main storyline isn’t one of the series’ strongest. But these poignant Groundhog Day subplots about the stress of ordinary life – loss, love, family, work, and death, always death – find the series’ writing at its absolute best. It’s a melancholy, compassionate fairytale of the everyday that, with its ticking clock, wants to remind you that you can’t take it with you. OW
4. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
If you’ve had children, you’ll know that there’s incredibly strange and touching moment when you’re doing laundry – stay with me here – and these tiny T-shirts and trousers first start to turn up in your washing. Someone new has come to live with you! Someone implausibly small.
This is one of The Wind-Waker’s greatest tricks, I think. Link had been young before, but now, with the gloriously toon-shaded change in art direction, he really looks young: a Schulz toddler, huge head and tiny legs, venturing out amongst Moblins and pirates and those crazy birds that roost around the clifftops. Link is tiny and vulnerable, and so the adventure surrounding him seems all the more stirring.
The other great trick has a lot to do with those pirates. “What’s the Overworld?” This has been the standard Zelda question since Link to the Past, but with the Wind-Waker, there didn’t seem to be one: no alternate dimension, no switching between time-frames. Instead, you had a wild and briney sea, reaching out in all directions, an endless blue, flecked with abstracted breakers. The sea has been controversial: so much racing back and forth across a huge map, so much time spent in crossing. But look at what it brings with it! It brings pirates and sunken treasures and ghost ships. It brings underwater grottoes and a castle waiting for you in a bubble of air down on the seabed.
Best of all, it brings that unending sense of discovery and renewal, one challenge down and another awaiting, as you hop from your boat and race up the sand towards the next thing, your tiny legs crashing through the surf, your huge eyes already fixed on the horizon. CD
3. Link’s Awakening
Link’s Awakening is near-enough a perfect Zelda game – it has a vast and secret-laden overworld, sparkling dungeon design and memorable characters. It’s also a fever dream-set side-story with villages of talking animals, side-scrolling areas starring Mario enemies and a giant fish who sings the mambo. It was my first Zelda experience, my entry point to the series and the game against which I judge every other Zelda title. I absolutely adore it. Not only was it my first Zelda, its greyscale world was one of the first adventure games I truly played. I can still visualise much of it now – the cracked floor in that cave in the Lost Woods, the stirring music as you enter the Tal Tal Mountains, the shopkeeper electrocuting to an instant death if you dared return to his shop after stealing.
There’s no Zelda, no Ganon. No Master Sword. And while it still feels like a Zelda, even after playing so many of the others, its quirks and characters set it apart. Link’s Awakening packs an astonishing amount onto its little Game Boy cartridge (or Game Boy Color, if you played its DX re-release). It’s an essential experience for any Zelda fan. TP
2. The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past
Bottles are OP in Zelda. Those humble glass containers can turn the tide of a battle when they contain a potion or – even better – a fairy. If I was Ganon, I’d postpone the evil plotting and the dimension rifting, and I’d just put a solid fortnight into travelling Hyrule from top to bottom and smashing any glass bottles I came across. After that, my terrible vengeance would be all the more terrible – and there’d be a sporting chance that I might be able to pull it off too.
All of which means that, as Link, a bottle can be a real reward. Real treasure. Something to set your watch by. I think there are four glass bottles in Link to the Past, each one making you that bit more powerful and that bit bolder, buying you confidence in dungeoneering and hit points in the middle of a bruising boss encounter. I can’t remember where you get three of the bottles. But I can remember where you get the fourth.
It’s Lake Hylia, and if you’re like me, it’s late in the game, with the big ticket items collected, that wonderful, genre-defining moment at the top of the mountain – where one map becomes two – taken care of, and handfuls of compact, ingenious, infuriating and enlightening dungeons raided. Late game Link to the Past is all about sounding out every last inch of the map, which means working out how the two similar-but-different versions of Hyrule fit together.
And there’s a gap. A gap in Lake Hylia. A gap hidden by a bridge. And underneath it, a man blowing smoke rings by a campfire. He feels like the greatest secret in all of Hyrule, and the prize for uncovering him is a glass vessel, perfect for storing a potion – or a fairy.
Link to the Past feels like an impossibly clever game, fracturing its map into two dimensions and asking you to flit between them, holding both landscapes super-positioned in your mind as you solve a single, vast geographical puzzle. In truth, though, someone could probably copy this design if they had enough pencils, enough quadrille paper, enough time and energy, and if they were determined and smart enough.
But Link to the Past is not just the map – it’s the detailing, and the characters. It’s Ganon and his evil plot, but it’s also the man camping out beneath the bridge. Maybe the whole thing’s a bit like a bottle, then: the container is important, but what you’re really after is the stuff that’s inside it. CD
1. Ocarina of Time
Where do you start with a game as momentous as Ocarina of Time? Maybe with the Z-Targeting, a solution to 3D combat so effortless you hardly notice it’s there. Or perhaps you talk about an open world that’s touched by the light and shade cast by an internal clock, where villages dance with activity by day before being seized by an eerie lull at night. How about the expressiveness of that ocarina itself, a delightfully analogue instrument whose music was conducted by the new control afforded by the N64’s pad, notes bent wistfully at the push of a stick.
Maybe, though, you just focus in on the moment itself, a perfect snapshot of video games emerging sharply from their own adolescence just as Link is thrust so suddenly into an adult world. What’s most remarkable about Ocarina of Time is how it arrived so fully-formed, the 2D adventuring of past entries transitioning into three dimensions as gracefully as a pop-up book folding swiftly into life.
Other Zeldas may make for a better play today – there’s something about the 16-bit adventuring of A Link to the Past that remains forever impervious to time – but none could ever claim to be as important as Ocarina. Thanks to Grezzo’s exceptional 3DS remake it’s retained much of its verve and impact, and even putting aside its technical achievements it’s an adventure that still ranks among the series’ best; uplifting and emotional, it’s touched with the bittersweet melancholy of growing up and leaving your childhood behind. By the story’s end Link’s youth and innocence – and that of Hyrule – is heroically restored, but after this most radical of reinventions, video games would never be the same again. MR
Contributions from Martin Robinson, Johnny Chiodini, Oli Welsh, Tom Phillips and Christian Donlan.