Hyrule Hierarchy

Hyrule Hierarchy: Ranking The Legend of Zelda Games

By: Randy Soltero

A quick disclaimer before we get into it: As big of a video game fan, and to a much further extent Nintendo fan, there are still games out there that I have yet to experience for myself. This extends to a few of the LoZ titles. For that reason I will be leaving out titles that I cannot honestly fit into a ranking. If there are any that you think deserve to make the list, let us know in the comments!!

The Legend of Zelda is a series of games created by Shigeru Miyamoto that has been cherished and celebrated for over 30 years. The series has evolved so drastically, that comparing the newest installment to the original is almost impossible. Many things have changed including art styles, timelines, play mechanics and control schemes. But, one thing has remained the same: The Legend of Zelda is one of the greatest franchises, not only in Nintendo history, but in video game history. Here I will make an attempt to rank some of my favorite games in the series which, due to my undying love for the franchise, is actually not an easy task. Keep in mind this is list is based on my opinion of the games and probably doesn’t reflect most people’s lists. One of the great things about the series’ diversity in play style is that every gamer can find something to love about at least of the titles in the series. So let’s start some arguments!!

15) Link’s Crossbow Training

Considering this doesn’t even register as a proper LoZ title, I was almost reluctant to add it to the list. But, honestly it’s actually kind of cool…for a crappy game. Players hone their crossbow techniques in a First-Person Shooter set in the same time period as, and using characters and elements from, Twilight Princess. Even the developers were reluctant to give the game a cool LoZ-esque title, fearing that people would get the idea that they intended it to be a “real” Zelda sequel. The game isn’t very long, and doesn’t have much of anything to get the player deeply invested, but as a simple shooter it’s just fine. The coolest thing to come out of this game is the Wiimote peripheral which was released alongside the game that is loosely modeled after a crossbow. Seriously…that’s about it.

14) Tri Force Heroes

So I feel bad leaving this (technically) in last place. Partly because there are far worse games than this…if you have the ability to play it properly. Tri Force Heroes puts players in control of three of the Links from the Four Swords series. It is a great multiplayer title that allows each Link to stack up and split puzzle solving duties between three players. Finding two additional friends to play with makes the game a whole lot of fun, but in most cases it doesn’t work out that way. The game also supports online play, but trusting the online community NOT to troll other players is just foolish. It’s almost impossible to form any sort of comradery or symbiosis with your team mates due to the lack of communication offered. The cleverly devised puzzles seem to take a back seat when it’s possible to throw unsuspecting strangers down a pit to their demise. *evil grin* The only reason the game is lower on my list than its forgettable counterparts is actually pretty selfish: No Purple Link. C’mon Now. 

13) The Four Swords Trilogy

I decided to bundle these up, firstly, because the first two work best as multiplayer games, secondly, one of them isn’t very long, and the third I have yet to actually play (I know…blasphemy!). Four Swords was a really cool, new feature/game added to the Gameboy Advance version of A Link to the Past. It is the first multiplayer experience for the Zelda franchise revolving around a weapon known as The Four Sword. When Link pulls the sword from its resting place he splits into four versions of himself each donning its own colored tunic: Red, Green, Blue, and my personal favorite, Purple. Two or more players, each with a copy of Four Swords and their own GameBoy Advance, need to be linked in order to play the game, which is essentially a typical top down puzzle solving adventure. The Links play together and collect Rupees, all the while competing to see who can collect the most by the end of the level. It was a really fun, but short, alternative that allowed us to play with friends. Four Swords Adventures had its own full release on the Nintendo GameCube, and is a direct sequel to Four Swords. Picking up where the last game left off, we basically got the same options in the main story mode, along with some fun bonus modes. We still needed to have access to GBAs for additional players, which function as controllers, but also take over as the player’s screen if their Link wanders off of the main screen’s field of view. Generally, the game is very similar to its predecessor, although in this version all four Links are shown walking together on screen regardless of the amount of actual players. And finally, The Minnish Cap, which had its premise based off of an item in Four Swords called the Gnat Hat. While I haven’t had a chance to play this title, what I know about it doesn’t interest me much more than the first two. These are fun, yet easily forgettable games, and I don’t think they are amongst the “must play” entries on this list.

12) LoZ II: The Adventure of Link

I remember playing this back in the 90’s for the first time and even then I felt like it was too slow for my Super Mario infused mind. As well as it sold and was praised, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the forced side-scrolling sections of the game. The, then typical, top down style became more of a HUB or a game map while most of the adventuring, and all of the battling, took place in the side scrolling realm. As an avid fan of the original, I just couldn’t be sold on this new idea. I went back and replayed the game recently on my 3DS via the virtual console and I have to admit that I found the game a bit more fun. The battle mechanics actually required timing and skill, but my childhood memories still had me not feeling right about the title. Overall, it’s not a bad game, but it still winds up pretty low on my list.

11) Phantom Hourglass

The sequel to The Wind Waker leaves a bit to be desired. It picks up immediately after, and carries on the adventures of Link and Tetra. The game did bring some cool items into the canon including the titular Phantom Hourglass which has some interesting time functions towards the end of the game. However, forced stylus controls made possible by the DS’ touchscreen were clunky and boring, if I’m being honest. The game is as pretty as the DS’ graphics will allow it to be, and the story is pretty solid, but the gameplay is just not fun. My love for pirates and Ghost Ships can only go so far before deciding, you know what? I’m just not enjoying this game. I think if it were to be presented with normally functioning controls, it would be higher on my list. So much for innovation, eh?

10) A Link Between Worlds

Set after A Link to the Past, this is definitely a title worth playing just because it looks awesome. Classic top down Zelda action but with beautiful 3D graphics. One feature that allows Link to enter the sides of walls in order to access different areas is used so well that it makes Zelda II look even worse (as if it needed any help). Link becomes a painted mural when he enters walls and can be used to turn the map around to solve puzzles. The reason the game fell short for me was the way items are utilized in dungeons. The same thing that made Metroid: Federation Force not a “true” Metroid title, in my eyes, is used here as well. Items are brought into dungeons to be specifically used in those areas. Instead of figuring out which of Link’s many gadgets and weapons to utilize, the game basically spells it out for you and makes puzzle solving more like problem solving. Having just come off of the success and rigorous play through of Skyward Sword, it was nice being able to sit back and enjoy a more classic styled Zelda game rather than a sprawling epic 3D adventure.

9) Oracle of Seasons/Ages

Gameboy Color gave us something that was pretty unique at the time. Both games had to be completed separately in order to unlock a greater overarching storyline. Essentially, Link sets out to stop another Ganon-fanatic from resurrecting the evil wizard to once again wreak havoc on Hyrule. The story was a bit straightforward, and compared to the epic nature of some of the later installments, it falls a bit flat. Seasons did have one of my favorite features though: the ability to change the map’s season to access different areas. Each season had its own hidden paths and mechanics that made the game feel enormous. What could have felt like a poor attempt to port the original to handheld devices, actually turned out to be somewhat iconic in its own right.

8) The Wind Waker

Here’s a game that seemed to have trouble working its way into the heart containers of longtime Zelda fans. Due to its deviation in art style, many fans were put off by the game when it was first released on the GameCube. The game gave birth to the “Toon Link” version of the Hero of Time, having a more whimsical and cel-shaded art style. Honestly, it’s not my favorite stylization of the franchise, but over the years it’s grown on me quite a bit. Following the timeline of the adult Link from Ocarina of Time, Hyrule has been submerged under a Great Sea that now covers the entire land. Link spends a large portion of the game sailing from island to island to progress the story, find dungeons and solve puzzles. Sailing can get slightly mundane for some, but the amazing visuals and bright colors kept me from ever getting bored during my time on the water, and can actually be rather relaxing and cathartic. The storyline is one of my favorite in the series and leaves you with a magnificent feeling of hopefulness for the characters and a new kingdom. Another unique aspect is that, until later in the game, Link isn’t actively trying to save Zelda this time around. His adventure begins when his sister is kidnapped, and a new (but familiar) face helps him to rescue her. Tetra, who is introduced as a kind hearted pirate, turns out to be one of the coolest interpretations of a well-known character. As much as fans tried to put the game down for its new take on the characters, Wind Waker has become one of the most celebrated entries in the series, mostly due to the great story telling. As much as I love the Nintendo Gamecube, the game received an HD remaster on the WiiU, which actually has a much more enjoyable experience. Several aspects of the game were streamlined, and the graphics were brought up to date with the new console, so if you are looking to play this swashbuckling adventure, it may be the best option.

7) Skyward Sword

Here’s another title that comes into the crossfire of avid Zelda fans. Half of the fan base praises it for its truly epic-adventure storyline, graphics and music, while others still can’t get behind a forced, albeit unique, control scheme. Skyward Sword was released on the Nintendo Wii, so naturally Nintendo wanted players to experience the fluidity of their new motion based controllers. The controls are difficult to get used to, but once you do it is quirkily fun, has a feel that is contrary to most of the series, and actually pretty enjoyable. Even though Zelda had already appeared on the Wii, this game was developed solely for the system unlike Twilight Princess, so the motion controls felt a bit more in depth. Odd controllers aside, the story is probably one of the most well-done in the series. It isn’t unnecessarily convoluted but still has a sprawling feeling that feels historic to the Legend. Skyward Sword tells of a city in the clouds, long before the events of any other in the series, and serves as the official origin of Hyrule. It also gave us one of the best interpretations of Link and Zelda’s relationship that has appeared in any game, and speaks volumes about why these two characters are linked throughout time.

6) Twilight Princess

Originally developed for the Nintendo GameCube, Twilight Princess was released on two separate consoles. Midway through its creation, developers decided to add the game to the Wii’s launch library. Because it was initially announced as a GameCube title, many fans see that version as the definitive version. Some mechanics and controls were altered to be played with the Wiimote, but the game remained mostly similar. Mostly. Because developers felt it was odd to use the Wiimote to control the sword in Link’s left hand, the entire game was flipped around. This effectively altered Link from canonically left handed to a right handed sword wielder. Many fans believe Link should stay left-handed, but with Breath of the Wild now released, it appears Nintendo has certainly left that in the past. Hands down, Twilight Princess is the most mature, darkest and grimmest entry in the entire series. It also gave us one of the most intense final boss fights I have ever seen. Ganondorf doesn’t go down easily, managing to puppet a dead Princess Zelda (eek) and engage in an epic horseback battle before Link finally stabs him through the chest with the Master Sword. If I weren’t such a nostalgic man, this would probably be higher up the list, because it is that damned good. It also received an HD remaster on the WiiU last year, bundled with a Wolf Link Amiibo, which is probably the most accessible way to play the game.  

5) Majora’s Mask

Ah, the Nintendo 64 gave us some amazing games during its lifespan…two of which are in my top five, and also listed among the greatest video games ever made. Majora’s Mask is the second time Link was given his own 3D adventure coming off the heels of a game that was truly something special. The developers took a risk, in my opinion, taking a really fun optional minigame implemented in one title, and turning it into a full-on release that holds up all on its own. Majora’s Mask follows the adventures of Young Link from Ocarina of Time, now with over 20 masks to find and use in various ways, and armed with his trusty handy blue ocarina. The game has so many fun features that it’s no wonder it is regarded so highly. His ocarina is utilized to manipulate time, the weather and other aspects of the game again, but this time manipulates time in a really fun way. The game takes place over the course of three days, but allows you to travel to different moments in that timespan. Link can travel back in time three days, with his upgrades intact, in an attempt to keep the moon from crashing into the land of Termina. It’s one of the few games that have not been primarily set in the kingdom of Hyrule, which is fun but still a bit off putting. Majora’s Mask received a 3D remake on the 3DS which is a nice, accessible way to play the game, although it changes the difficulty and some other features that really make it a different experience. Like with most N64 releases, the game is best experienced on the original console.

4) A Link to the Past

While it may not the most technically advanced game in the series (in fact it’s not even in the running), it is one of my favorites because of what it added to the series. Even as a fat little toddler, it was one of my favorites because it was on Super Nintendo, and all of the coolest kids loved the Super Nintendo. Zelda II is by far one of my least favorites, and with ALTTP, they went back to what made the original game so great. The side scrolling was ditched and a new concept was added to the game play that would remain for decades to come. Link travels between two versions of Hyrule, one as we know it to be: Bright, vibrant and full of life, and the other a dark morbid version of itself that has long since fallen to decay at the hands of Ganon and the Triforce, referred to as Dark World. I love the stylization of the Dark World, which turns the bright colored water into a murky green and litters the scenery with skulls and dead foliage. Without the idea of traveling between separate worlds, we may not have had some of the greatest titles in the series including Ocarina of Time. Another key item fell into Links hands for the first time in this game and has been a part of Zelda lore ever since…The Master Sword! Oh yea. The famous blade, imbued with the power to vanquish evil and fight darkness, made its first appearance on the SNES and is now one of the most iconic elements of the series. When I first played it, I remember thinking that it was like the original LoZ on crack. Link was given more abilities and mobility, allowing him to move more freely and attack in different ways. The SNES had a pretty nasty habit of setting the tones for the future of Nintendo’s top franchises, while also remaining true to what made their original installments so loveable, and this was no exception.

3) Breath of the Wild

OK, so this hard. For the sake of transparency, this article was meant to come out weeks ago, but I ran into a problem. I grew up playing Nintendo and Legend of Zelda, and am a pretty intense fan of both. So, the new game amazed me, as well as many others who have quickly marked it as the best in the franchise. But, I felt that I needed more time to…research the game for this article (By which I mean logging over 200 hours in the first couple of weeks after release). I could easily say that it’s one of the greatest games of all time, but I’ve spent so much time with my choices for top 2, that I don’t think I’m ready to let it top my list of favorites yet. BOTW just changed the way we approach action adventure games, and its strides will be felt all around the gaming community, and not just in regards to Nintendo. To say that the game is enormous is quite the understatement. It’s EXPLICITIVE DELETED gigantic! Even after logging 200+ hours, I’m still nowhere near being finished with the game. The characters you meet in the sprawling open world are each given so much personality and charm that it truly feels like you are navigating through a living breathing world. You almost get the feeling that these NPCs are carrying on a full life of their own when you aren’t around. The reimagined enemies, characters and environments are breathtakingly beautiful. I want to go on and on about the new mechanics, the nods to previous timelines and the tumultuous relationship between Link and Zelda this time around, but I think the game deserves its very own review. As soon as I am finished with this massive work of art, I will be sure to dig deeper into the specifics.

2) Ocarina of Time

There’s not enough room on this website to properly convey what this game has done for the industry and the way story telling is done in video games. Ocarina was released on the powerhouse that is the N64, and it was truly like looking into the future. The N64 wowed us all when it launched with Pilot Wings and Super Mario 64, so we kind of knew what to expect from the next Zelda title on the console, but I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would continue to influence our games years later. OoT follows Link as he is thrusted into an adventure to stop the evil Ganondorf from taking the Triforce and using it to conquer Hyrule. The story takes place over two different timelines, beginning with Link as a child and picking up 7 years later with an older Link. By the time Link awakens as an adult, Ganondorf has already succeeded in taking over Hyrule, and Link must venture off to bring him down (hopefully). This is Link’s first 3D adventure, and it set the tone for the Zelda franchise from then on. It also defines the three separate timelines in which all of the games fall into, so it is probably the most important entry in the entire series. One of the most iconic features of the game, and possibly the entire series, is the titular Ocarina. There are twelve beautiful songs to be learned in the game that allow Link to travel to different areas, alter the weather and time of day, seek guidance, and even summon his trusty horse-of-legend, Epona. The music in the game is executed amazingly well, and is a main focus in the gameplay and the story, which is one of the reasons this game is so important to me. The story explores the kingdom of Hyrule and its inhabitants so comprehensively that it created the charming, well defined backdrop that fans still love today. The graphics are seriously antiquated by now, but when the game released, it was a stunning work of beauty that gamers had never seen before. Dated graphics aside, there are many moments in the game where the scenery, the atmosphere, the music and gameplay all combine to create something that is truly magical. Ocarina of Time has seen two releases on the N64, a port to the Gamecube, digital releases on the Wii/WiiU, and a 3D remake on the 3DS. A game so good, it took four consoles to release it.

1) The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy

While I think Ocarina of Time is probably the best game in the series, and arguably the greatest game of all time, the original Legend of Zelda on the NES will always be listed as my favorite Zelda game. As a child I spent hours, days, weeks, months…and yea…even years playing this amazingly well-crafted game. LoZ was the first game to allow players to play how they wanted, dropping you into an open world with little to no direction on how to proceed. I remember spending hours just exploring, walking in circles, and discovering new caves, stairways and secrets almost every time I played the game. To this day it is still a magical game to play, even as a gamer that has long been spoiled by advanced graphics, storylines and variation in gameplay. There is a wonderful sense of accomplishment when you finish the game because you truly feel that you did it all on your own. Nowadays, it’s easy to pop a quick Google search for “Zelda Walkthrough” but when we were growing up, the only things we had to depend on were our senses and inclinations. Of course there was a map and some “strategic playing tips” that Nintendo inserted in the box, but nothing close to what we have access to today. I have a deep predilection towards the days of 8 and 16 bit video games, so this may skew my selection for the #1 spot, but it’s not often that you spend half of your life loving the same game. This is the first game I ever broke the 200 hour playtime on, except maybe Tetris, so it will always be something that is drilled into my memory. It’s difficult to suggest it to a new generation of gamers, who may not understand what it changed about the industry and game development, but the original NES release will always be remembered as the grandfather of open-world adventure games.

Whether it was an 8-bit one dimensional romp or a full scale 3D adventure, the Zelda franchise has left its mark on the gaming community. The games are as iconic as the systems they were released on, and most are still very much playable today. Often games lose a bit of their magic after generations of upgrades, but even the original is an amazing experience, especially if played properly without the assistance of a guide. Each release expands on an amazingly detailed and rich lore that will hopefully continue to evolve for years to come. It’s a daunting collection of games for certain, and it can be difficult to narrow down a good starting point, but hopefully this list will help guide you…after all…it’s dangerous to go alone.

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