With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild less than a week away (!), this final Hyrule Weekly before launch is going to be a bit different. Rather than focusing on an aspect of the upcoming title, I’m going to present my personal top 5 Zelda games. Breath of the Wild will hopefully break into this list one day! Bear in mind: I’ve played a lot of Zelda games, but not all of them. Opinions, hooray!
If you are after a specific Hyrule Weekly, check out the archive at this link! There you can find features on numerous different Breath of the Wild topics, including impressions, analysis, and story theories. Onto the list!
5. The Legend of Zelda
Where it all started – but not for me. My first major Zelda title was Phantom Hourglass on the DS (an unusual starting point, perhaps), but in a recent summer I decided it was time to go back to the original NES game.
Playing it through to the end gives such an understanding of what the core appeal of Zelda is. It really does leave you to learn the ways of Hyrule for yourself, starting you off with just a sword and a vague mission statement. It even feels like a roguelike sometimes, where death is almost necessary to get through the world. You run into locations way out of your league and get destroyed, but then know better for next time; the sense of satisfaction this leads to when you discover or beat a dungeon is fantastically rewarding.
Dungeons, items, and the core mythology of Hyrule all came from here. For a first game, it’s incredible how involving the world is. This appeal is so strong that, after around 3 decades of Zelda games, we’re circling back to that premise with the open world of Breath of the Wild. Survival and discovery, with a reduction of hand-holding, is a huge part of why that game is so anticipated.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
If The Legend of Zelda started off the identity of the series, Ocarina of Time was what really defined it for a modern era. The 1998 N64 title is still regarded as one of – if not the – finest games ever made.
An adventure game had never had quite the same sense of mystery and grandeur. The game starts off innocently enough, as you set off to gather the three Spiritual Stones needed to open the Temple of Time. For many games, that not-insignificant portion may have been enough. Not Ocarina of Time, though – that moment where you transition from child to adult is stunning. Witnessing the utter devastation Ganon had unleashed on Hyrule is a shocking moment, as the jovial residents of Castle Town were replaced with the wretched ReDeads. From here, you realised you had only just completed the intro to the game, as you quest to fix the world.
It’s the gameplay, though, that really pushes it to another level. Just take Z-targeting and how you generally move through a large world in 3D – these were important introductions not just for Zelda, but for gaming in general. Also, the scale of the world is still impressive, even if in pure numbers it has been greatly outdone. Hyrule Field felt like it went on forever when you first set foot onto its grassy plains, with the lands of Gerudo Valley, for example, far out of reach. As you personally learn the game and acquire new items, the sense of becoming a Hero really comes through. By the time you face Ganon in the final battle, the journey you have gone through really hits home.
Though I personally have enjoyed other Zeldas since more for what they are, it could be argued they all owe a debt to Ocarina of Time. It’s one of those few truly landmark games.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Raising the shield now! No, but in all seriousness, Skyward Sword seems to suffer from the Zelda cycle – you know, how everyone grows to dislike the most recent home console Zelda until the next one releases (look at who the perception of Twilight Princess changed over time). Released just a week after that niche Skyrim game in 2011, Skyward Sword was a game I threw myself into and found to be an amazing Zelda entry.
You can’t talk about Skyward Sword without talking about the motion controls. Wii came with a lot of expectations; after Wii Sports, we all imagined swordplay in a full-fledged adventure game. Skyward Sword was the game that finally delivered that, using it to refine combat especially. Fighting enemies became a new breed of puzzle, as you try to outfox their techniques and find your opening. Items such as the Beetle used the technology to improve control, and this addition was worth the rare recalibration of the Wii Remote. A highlight was the boss Koloktos, where you had to use your swipes to literally chop away the different parts of him.
The distinct style of Skyward Sword is the main thing which makes it particularly memorable for me. From the outset, the painterly art style is a beautiful way of getting around the limitations of the Wii. The impressionist look of the backgrounds? Another case of Nintendo using style over raw power. Furthermore, the idea of having the world above the clouds and the unknown one below to discover is a fantastic concept, and the story which unfurls is one of the best Zelda has told. Skyward Sword – the first Zelda chronologically – shows you the initial relationships between the characters we are used to, and also establishes the lore which bleeds into the rest of the beloved series. The ending, in particular, is one of the finest Zelda story beats ever.
2. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The Wind Waker is a really special game. Talk about reinventing a series, huh? After Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, the reveal of the colourful, cel-shaded The Wind Waker was meeted with… a mixed reaction. When we got the game, doubts faded away, as we were met with a seafaring tale full of character. Oh, and that art style is beautiful in action (especially in The Wind Waker HD on Wii U).
Sailing though vast oceans filled with secrets was immense, and gave the illusion of an open world without really making one. It was enjoyable just to explore the expanses between islands and find little secrets on outposts, with that infectious music behind you. Covering Hyrule with water enabled new takes on characters, such as the Koroks around the Great Deku Tree, but equally added mystery to the Hyrule beneath; when you finally manage to discover what happened, it’s another one of those epic Zelda moments. The way the character of Tetra is developed runs in tandem with this, too…
Once The Wind Waker grabs you, you can sink (what a pun) so much of your life into it. It manages to create a living, breathing world with so much expression to it that you can’t help but want to play on. It all has a fluidity to it that matches the art style and setting. The combat is all about this, with agile rolls and attacks that look more like a dance at times. Even Ganon got a new lease of life, becoming much more sleek in his evil (two swords doesn’t hurt that, either); whether you want to just enjoy casually sailing around and exploring or tackle the emotional main story, this game can get its anchors (they keep coming) in you. Oh, and that ending? Just awesome.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess is not only my favourite Zelda game, but also my favourite game ever.
The thing that puts it ahead of games like The Wind Waker, for me, is the kind of story it tells. There is definitely a gravitas to those games, but not in the same way; Twilight Princess has a Hyrule consumed by darkness in a way we haven’t really seen before, to the extent that you have to become a creature of that world to even tackle it. Being Wolf Link within the curtain of Twilight has an oppressive aesthetic that makes returning to the green tunic a liberating and joyous experience. Midna, too, comes out of this as one of the best supporting characters in the series. Her wit and design is central to helping you care about her, which pays off in surprising ways.
The map matches this with wide areas that emphasise the majesty of Hyrule, only making your desire to see it in light more prominent. When you see over into Snowpeak or the aforementioned Gerudo Desert, Hyrule feels bigger than ever before. Then you get to the dungeons, and they’re some of the best in the series. They introduce many clever new ideas, such as the Spinner used in the Gerudo Desert dungeon. You know the dungeons are good when you don’t even realise you’re in them; the Snowpeak Ruins are a masterpiece in this sense.
Now, the argument for making games more mature can feel very weak – it doesn’t necessarily improve something. But Twilight Princess is more mature in a way which feels earned, as it raises the stakes for Hyrule and the characters within it. We’ve never seen Zelda sombre in this way, and the late-game twist on the antagonist dramatically changes the whole game. My personal memory is of wanting to play Twilight Princess at every opportunity to find out what happens next. There was an urgency there, absorbing me unlike any other game has.
To pick just one sequence, the The Kakariko Village to Bridge of Eldin fight left an impression on me unlike any other game has. Epona raising up on hind legs with a victorious, heroic, Link on the back? That’s my image of what The Legend of Zelda is, and should be.
Your personal image of what The Legend of Zelda is may be different – that’s not really unexpected; topics like these are all about different opinions!
Hyrule Weekly will return after the launch of Breath of the Wild with a full-fledged review of the game. We’re so close now – just think of the years of waiting and how great it will be to get into Hyrule again. Have an awesome Nintendo Switch and Zelda launch week, everyone!