The Legend of Zelda has been launching players off to save the princess, collect the triforce, and defeat Ganon — either in pig, human, or other forms — for 30 years. Link after Link has ventured out into the plains, dungeons, temples, and more of Hyrule and the occasional other fantasy world.
One of Nintendo’s longest running franchises, The Legend of Zelda, which turns 30 on Feb. 21, has remained a touchstone of every major Nintendo console and handheld release. We barely know a thing about the upcoming major entry in the franchise, and it’s already one of EW’s most anticipated games of 2016.
While that upcoming entry as well as an HD update of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess are both on the way to ring in the 30th anniversary of the franchise, there is a long and storied history of adventures for fans to revisit or that newcomers should still experience. The original Zelda, Ocarina of Time, Link to the Past, and so many entries in the Zelda franchise have become beloved classics, hallmarks of the entire medium and some of their respective generation’s best games.
With that in mind, several of EW’s staffers ranked their three favorite The Legend of Zelda games. Read on for why these Zelda‘s have stood the test of time, remained indelible moments in our gaming histories, and how they keep us coming back to a 30-year-old franchise that shows no signs of slowing down.
Few gaming memories stick out in my mind as clearly as sailing on the Great Sea of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Yes, the sailing and late-game treasure hunting is needlessly arduous (so much so that the game’s HD remake introduced an item to speed up that process), but there’s something serenely beautiful about idling through the gorgeous cel-shaded waters of The Wind Waker. It’s got all the action, dungeon exploration, and triforce hunting of the other games, but the promise of the open seas is so exhilirating in the secrets, the promise, and the adventure it holds. Initially viewed as an oddity when first revealed, The Wind Waker has proven itself to not only be an enduring entry in the series, but one of my favorite games to return to, even just to have one more nice, quiet sail.
A Link to the Past is the superior game. Let’s get that out of the way. But Link Between Worlds came at a much needed point in the franchise’s history. Years had passed since the last Zelda experience that harkened back to the series’ roots, and the previous few console releases were personally underwhelming. A Link Between Worlds felt like a return to form, a sequel to one of the greatest classic games ever made that somehow stands outside the shadow of its predecessor. It’s certainly not the most beautiful Zelda, but it serves as a reminder of the wonders of discovery and freedom the franchise has delivered since its earliest days.
I’ve returned to few Zelda‘s as much as I have the original, mostly because of how brutally difficult it is. The original game established both a closely followed set-up and an oft-abandoned template. Traversing a world and completing dungeons is the foundation of nearly every Zelda game, but the original’s openness, allowing those dungeons to be stumbled upon in any order, was unique for its time and remains a hallmark inspiration of game design. And combined with the limitations of the original NES — no map to guide you, unforgiving enemies, and more — the experience remains unforgiving yet rewarding for those willing to take on the quest.
My thoughts about the most recent true Zelda game are on the record and maybe totally bananas. I make no apologies. Here’s a game that crisscrosses multiple layers of franchise myth, constructing a kind of Ur-Zelda saga rife with time-hopping climate-skipping aero-space adventure, a world of ancient robots gone fossil and deserts once were oceans. Skyward Sword is the only worthwhile argument for the Nintendo Wii, and it is convincing. Some people find the sword-swinging/giant-bird-flying motion controls annoying, I guess? Not me. Nothing in Nintendo’s recent history can match the pure lizard-brain delight of a successful sword-slash, or every time “The Sky” theme strikes up anew. Sixteen games in, 25 years deep, The Legend of Zelda produced its bighearted, lightfooted, meticulously messy masterpiece. Bury me in Skyloft.
There have been bigger open worlds. Has there ever been a better one? The moment of emerging onto Hyrule Field is the moment when video games make the great leap infinityward from “something you play” to “something you experience,” or maybe just “something you are.” And post-Ocarina, games got more “mature” in the dumbest R-rated way, but here’s a game that’s about growing up in the most subtle-yet-cosmic way possible. You might fix the dark future, but you never forget it. Ocarina of Time should be mandatory in schools, so that every kid can learn what regret feels like.
Every time I play the other Nintendo 64 Zelda game, I come one step closer to loving it. Majora’s Mask holds a strange place in franchise lore. Some people despise it as a frustratingly un-sequel-y Ocarina sequel. Some people exault it as a masochistically precise high-difficulty truly-a-game videogame. The clock is always ticking. The world is always ending. And good luck trying to win without completing every freaking sidequest. I can’t love it like I love Skyward and Ocarina. But that’s a flaw in my character, not the game. I am not good enough at Majora’s Mask to fully appreciate Majora’s Mask. Someday I will be.
Link’s first game on the Nintendo 64 set the template for 3D adventure games, but more importantly, it brought the world of Hyrule to life like nothing else before it. Link’s greatest adventure sees him using the titular musical instrument to travel through time and features some of the most challenging dungeons (damn you, Water Temple!) and most memorable boss battles in the series’ history. If you played the game back in the day, just hearing the Song of Time will transport you — much as it did Link — back to this magical world and epic adventure all over again.
The 1986 original is certainly more influential, popularizing the action-RPG genre for consoles, but it was in the Super Nintendo sequel that Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision fully cohered into an instant classic. Its sprawling overworld, labyrinthine dungeons and introduction of series staples like the Master Sword and Light and Dark Worlds feel modern and delightfully playable even 25 years later.
The 2002 Gamecube game was already fantastic, but it was hampered by clunky sailing mechanics where you constantly had to monitor the direction of the wind and some seriously tedious endgame collecting. The Wii U remaster not only polished up the already impressive graphics, but it added a map and touch controls to the Wii U Gamepad and simplified traversal with the Swift Sail, which made coasting through the gorgeous cel-shaded waters a breeze. Wind Waker’s hyper-expressive cartoon look, so controversial when it was initially unveiled, will always remain timeless, like classic Disney animation.