With the new 3DS title A Link Between Worlds being released just last week, and with a Dealspwn review still a work in progress (early impressions are very positive though), I thought I’d compile a Top 5 that should whet your Zelda appetite, and hopefully provoke plenty of discussion. So without further ado I present to you the Top 5 Best Zelda games.
NB. There may be some light spoilers, but to be honest if you’ve not played these games yet, then shame on you!
5. The Wind Waker HD
The original game received a lot of unfair criticism when it was released, due to its new direction in art style, its apparently low difficulty level, and all that sailing between small islands of interest. However what lay underneath was a game that was packed full charm, even from Link himself – normally a protagonist void of emotion and character. It also introduced a parry mechanic which added a new dimension to combat, which created a much more fluid fighting system, and a more energetic and flexible Link than we were used to seeing.
Essentially it was an adventure that never took itself too seriously and was probably the most fun Zelda that has ever been released. Upon realisation of that, you understand the new visuals worked perfectly with the game’s core design and allowed for a really enjoyable experience.
When the HD version released this year for Wii U, we finally had the game we’d always hoped for, with Nintendo addressing many of the technical criticisms, and adding in a new Hero Mode to really up the challenge. Unmissable.
4. Twilight Princess
On the complete other end of the spectrum comes Twilight Princess. Touted as the real true sequel to Ocarina of Time in terms of visuals (given the reception Wind Waker received), this game had a much more traditional Hyrule to traverse, and a much darker undertone, thanks to the world of Twilight and Zant as additional threats to the ever-imposing antagonist of Ganondorf.
The game had a cracking soundtrack, and a really detailed Hyrule to explore. The Twilight Realm and Link’s transformation into a wolf was balanced well in that its use wasn’t overused in game, but wasn’t so fleeting to be a gimmick.
The dungeon design in the game was also some of the best I have seen in Zelda games, with clever use of items to progress, and some very varied and unique puzzles to solve. That being said, this game more than most perhaps used the launch and abandon idea of items being used just to get through the dungeons they were found in, which meant that whilst these items were quirky and different, their application in the rest of the game was a little uninspired.
It meant that Twilight Princess was very good but stopped just short of greatness.
3. Majora’s Mask
Released in 2000 for the N64, Majora’s Mask flipped the concept of Zelda on its head, with Link needing to save the world from the impending crush of an angry moon. The game didn’t really have an antagonist as such, more a lonely child coerced by a mysterious mask. Time was Link’s greatest enemy, really, given that he only had 3 days of game time to save the world.
This sense of urgency placed a lot more emotion in the characters Link met on his travels, not least in the central Clock Town where Link begins his adventures. Their despair as time slipped away was evident in conversations and actions, with them following set patterns throughout the 72 hours, which Link could impact for better or worse.
The other plus was the fact that Link learns to transform into a Deku, Goron and Zora, giving him new skills and combat actions. It allowed for new puzzles and even boss fights, with the Goron section being particularly fun.
The game was somewhat let down by its lack of dungeons, and as such was sometimes viewed as short, however that would be overlooking the 3 day NPC character relation piece that is so integral to what makes Majora’s Mask great.
Bottom line, this was one of the most atmospheric Zelda titles, and an example of how to shake up the Zelda formula successfully.
2. A Link to the Past
It’s a game that’s not only relevant due to its sequel, but this game was also the first Zelda game I every experienced, way back in my youth in 1993. But before the naysayers pooh-pooh its position down to my dewy-eyed nostalgia, there are some very good reasons why this game is at number 2.
Firstly the game’s amount and variety of dungeons gave it the substance to feel like a truly epic adventure. 11 dungeons in total dwarfs all the other games mentioned so far and gave this game real longevity and variety. And when you throw in the usual Zelda formula of new items each dungeon, you come across for me one of the game’s other big plusses. Simply put, Zelda games are at their best when Link has a large arsenal of weapons to choose from – and Link to the Past had them in bucket loads.
But unlike the trap that Twilight Princess fell into – these items were well implemented throughout the game – not just in dungeons, but to access new areas and to discover the game’s many secrets. I also loved the fact that there were items you didn’t need to finish the game, but were there if you were willing to find them. A cape that could turn you invisible and invulnerable was available for the completionists, for example.
The story was engaging, if clichéd – true to form for Zelda games – and I still absolutely adore the simple but well refined soundtrack. The Dark Wold / Light World dynamic also added variety and ingenuity to the gameplay. It’s no surprise then that it is this game that I measure future Zelda games up against to measure their worth. So far, only one game has surpassed it...
1. Ocarina of Time
It may feel like an obvious shout, but there are loads of reasons why this game is many people’s favourite Zelda, and tops Metacritic’s list of all time video game scores.
When game developers successfully take a beloved 2D franchise and implement it to 3D they are remembered. Mario 64 and Metroid Prime are two other such examples. But Ocarina of Time wasn’t just your run of the mill transformation. Nintendo and Miyamoto knew that to make a game like Zelda really work, they would have to build on Mario 64. The now oft-used ‘Z-Targeting’ feature was first established in Ocarina, and forms a staple of why the game works. Simply, the game works because it works. The game’s controls are so refined and fluid that gamers can master the basics in minutes, but the challenge the game presents really tested gaming veterans at various points – Water Temple anyone?
Its time travelling dynamic built on the Light / Dark world play of Link to the Past and surpassed it, as Ocarina of Time not only embraced the cause and effect mechanic, but also adopted the bold move of age-unique items which opened up the game to a wider variety of options and challenge.
The titular ocarina was a masterstroke too, as it meant a seemingly plain item became more valuable as you progressed the story, and it was no wonder that follow up games in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess also embraced this instrument dynamic to an extent to tap into this successful element from the late 90s.
Visually it was one of the best of its generation, and I challenge anyone to find a more rousing Zelda tune than Hyrule Field from Ocarina. It had secrets galore, packed full of cleverly designed dungeons, and unique items that worked great in 3D – Lens of Truth and Hover Boots anyone?
It is a game that embraced what Zelda is all about – a grand quest to save the girl, plenty of sidequests and hidden extras - , it is a game that instantly grabs you in and never lets you go. Nor will you want it to until Ganon is dead and the credit roll. Simply stunning.
Oh and it had an awesome fishing minigame.
So there you have it, the top 5 Zelda games for you to ponder over. I’m sure you all have your favourites that haven’t made the list - Link’s Awakening? Phantom Hourglass? Skyward Sword? Let us know in the comments section below your thoughts.