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When it comes to ranking Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, you’re really just ranking a group of top-tier games. A list ranking the Zelda series is a list of bangers, and even the “worst” entry is better than most other games. So don’t get mad if your favorite is on the lower half of this list, it’s standing alongside some of the all-time greats. That said, let’s rank the mainline Zelda games from worst to best.
Skyward Sword is very much emblematic of its time as a Wii exclusive, and by the time it hit the market in 2011, the world had gotten bored of the system’s motion control premise. For whatever it’s worth, the game is a mostly impressive display of the potential the Wii promised when it launched. It’s the most integrated the Wii’s motion controls felt in a first-party game, and Nintendo had to add an entirely new peripheral with the Wii Motion Plus to pull it off. That being said, it just felt a little too late, and the novelty had worn off. Even with the Wii Motion Plus, Skyward Sword can be spotty with its motion control, to the point where Nintendo opted to tweak its motion mechanics and replicate them with an analog stick on the Switch remaster. It’s an earnest attempt to build motion controls into an established format when Twilight Princess felt like it was bolted onto an established game. But it remains pretty divisive to this day, and that’s why it lands at the bottom of our list.
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The second Legend of Zelda game has always been a little bit of an oddball. While it does maintain the overhead view in its overworld, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link trades it in for a sidescrolling format that has seen controversy over the years. It feels like a detour from the first game before it gets to Link to the Past, which would go on to perfect much of what the original set out to do. It’s a shame the series hasn’t really revisited these ideas, but it went on to innovate in plenty of other ways as the years went on. It does mean that Zelda II feels like a hypothetical of what the series could have been. Had it not pivoted back into the original direction, would we talk about Zelda alongside sidescrolling greats like Castlevania and Metroid? It’s fun to think about, but we’ll only be able to imagine it.
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There’s a non-zero chance your feelings on Twilight Princess were largely painted by which system you played it on. The much-anticipated GameCube game ended up being ported to the Wii as a launch title, and if you managed to get your hands on the thing in that first year, you had a pretty different experience just playing the thing with the Wii remote. But whether you were swinging your controller around or playing with the GameCube controller, Twilight Princess is still widely regarded for its darker tone, innovations like the Wolf Link transformation, and for introducing one of the series’ best companion characters in Midna. There’s speculation that the game may play into Tears of the Kingdom’s lore, so perhaps there will be a chance for the game to get a bit of a critical reevaluation in the coming months.
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As the progenitor of everything that would follow it, the original Legend of Zelda still holds up as a blueprint for the story of Link and Zelda. Compared to all the games it spawned, it’s a minimalistic take on the format, but that minimalism gives it an even greater sense of mystery and adventure compared to the more overt, story-driven games that follow. While the lore has since colored in the spaces between, there’s still magic in how unknowable the first Legend of Zelda feels. Nintendo built a lot on these bones, but the foundation was and remains very strong.
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It feels like the Zelda series has had multiple “new blueprint moments” over its life, and Ocarina of Time was that for the 3D games. The original Nintendo 64 game might feel a bit generic in the face of years of innovation, but for its time, Ocarina of Time revolutionized the series in the jump to 3D, much as Super Mario 64 did. Its design DNA can be felt even in games like Breath of the Wild, and it established baseline truths about the world of Hyrule and its cultures that became the foundation for what we know the Zelda name to mean.
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If Ocarina of Time was the moment for 3D Zelda to establish what the series would be moving forward, Majora’s Mask was Nintendo’s moment to just go nuts with the Nintendo 64 tech it had and really riff on some cool design elements and themes. Majora’s Mask has some of the most varied gameplay in the series thanks to Link’s ability to transform into other forms using masks. From the agile Zora form to the hulking power of the Goron form, Majora’s Mask just feels like one of the series’ biggest sandboxes to play in, and that’s not even taking into account how all the non-transformation masks like the Bunny Hood that increases Link’s speed factor into play. It also is one of Zelda’s most pensive stories as civilization deals with an impending doomsday event. It’s haunting, innovative, and hopeful by the end. Majora’s Mask has always been an underrated moment for the series compared to Ocarina of Time, which is why we’re doing right by it by putting it above its predecessor on this list.
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Wind Waker faced a lot of scrutiny when it was first revealed for its cel-shaded visual style, especially after Nintendo teased what fans believed to be a more traditional Zelda game for the GameCube before its reveal. But time has been incredibly kind to Wind Waker in the years since, largely because it remains a peak moment in the franchise for its stellar combat design, charming and animated take on the world of Hyrule, and for its stunning interpretation of the conflict between our heroes and Ganondorf. There’s a youthful, adventurous heart to Wind Waker that, as the series has gone on to explore darker themes and worlds, remains a bright spot for the franchise even when it takes dark turns. Try and listen to that main menu song and tell me adventure is out there on the deep blue sea. Wind Waker is incredible.
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It’s hard to talk about Breath of the Wild as this greatly influential moment in The Legend of Zelda’s lifetime when we’re still living in its world right now. Tears of the Kingdom is only a few weeks away, and while it will no doubt build off what Nintendo accomplished in 2017, Breath of the Wild has been a fulcrum point for the open-world genre ever since it launched alongside the Switch. Every developer has been trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle Nintendo did in terms of integrating deep systems that make its world feel alive rather than just a map with icons to clear. At a point in time where most AAA games are trying to be these massive, life-sucking, open-world time wasters because Skyrim tricked people into thinking bigger is always better, Breath of the Wild stands as a testament to open-world design being more than simply filling a map with stuff to do.
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There’s a craft to how Nintendo has expanded Hyrule into a living world that most studios seem to only understand on a superficial level, and I hope Tears of the Kingdom puts the entire trend to shame once more when it launches on May 12.