And before you pull out your pitchforks: This list is far from definitive! I honestly believe that every Legend of Zelda game is, at worst, very good. I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to play any of these. But some Zelda titles are undeniably more equal than others.
Before I get started, I want to give a shout-out to the Legend of Zelda games that aren’t part of the main series. There are a ton of Zelda spin-offs out there, each created with varying levels of official Nintendo approval. I’m not going to include these side games in my ranking, but I do want to call out the more notable ones.
First off, being a side game doesn’t mean a game is bad. There are some spin-offs that are pretty fun, such as Link’s Crossbow Training, Hyrule Warriors, and Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland. But the spin-offs that truly deserve mention are Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure. These games were created for the Philips CD-i, an obscure 90s console/CD player, and nowadays they are known more for the YouTube Poops and memes created from their goofy animations than for their gameplay.
Okay, now that the CD-i games are out of the way, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of this discussion: the main-series Zelda titles.
18. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
The cel-shaded graphics and plot continuation from The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass make this game well worth playing, but it lacks a lot of the elements that make Zelda games great. Its use of an overworld map makes you feel more like you’re playing a mash-up of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Legend of Zelda, and locomotives, while cool, are kind of a weird addition to the Zelda universe.
17. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures
This one gets a low rank for its heavy multiplayer focus. While it’s quite possible to play Four Swords Adventures as a single-player game, you always feel like you’re missing out if you’re not playing it with friends, and in my opinion, it’s important that single players are able to get a complete and fulfilling experience from a Zelda title. The same critique can be applied to its predecessor, the Four Swords multiplayer game paired with the Game Boy Advance release of A Link to the Past. Due to the combined nature of that release, I won’t be treating Four Swords as a standalone game for the sake of this ranking.
16. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
First of all, Roman numerals are a weird title choice. What is this, a Rocky movie? Honestly, this is just an odd title overall. Why “The Adventure of Link” over “Link’s Adventure”?
But that’s not why I’m giving this Nintendo Entertainment System classic a relatively low spot on this list. As someone who enjoys the top-down Legend of Zelda titles almost as much as the more modern installments, the gameplay in Zelda II just ain’t as good as the gameplay of the sequels that followed it. Playing Link in a side-scroller feels weird—there’s a reason that none of the subsequent Zelda titles (aside from the aforementioned CD-i games) went down that road.
15. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
I don’t really have much to say about this title, one of the more forgettable Zelda games in recent years. It suffers from the same multiplayer-focus issues as Four Swords Adventures, but the gameplay is pretty crisp, and the puzzles are fun. It’s a shame the single-player options are lacking—and that playing as a pair is literally impossible.
14. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
Released as a pair alongside Oracle of Seasons, this Game Boy Color game features classic top-down gameplay and a bunch of fun puzzles. But it’s my opinion that the interconnected-game factor that makes the Oracle games so unique kind of shoots them in the foot. In order to really experience the plot of the games, you need to purchase both, which—though a pretty cool concept—isn’t ideal for Zelda fans on a tight budget.
13. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
Pretty much the same critique that I gave Oracle of Ages, but Oracle of Seasons is cooler because of its unique season-changing mechanic.
12. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
This one is a personal favorite of mine, so it’s probably a bit higher on this list than you expected—but this is about as high as I could justify putting it. It’s got the same cel-shaded 3D graphics that I love in Spirit Tracks and The Wind Waker, and its plot and gameplay are pretty solid. But the heavy reliance on touchscreen controls (and a microphone) feels like a bit of a gimmick designed to showcase the then-relatively-new Nintendo DS.
11. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
This is a seriously great game. The fact that it’s coming in at No. 11 is simply a reflection of how good the Zelda series is as a whole, not an indictment of Link’s Awakening itself. But while it deserves props for being the first Zelda game to be released for a handheld gaming device, its plot is lacking many of the classic Legend of Zelda plot elements. Call me a traditionalist, but… no Hyrule? No Triforce? No Zelda? It’s a damn good game, but dang, Nintendo. Give the people what they want!
10.The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Released in 2004, this Game Boy Advance game provides players with a fresh take on the top-down gameplay of the original Zelda titles, much like the Link’s Awakening remake will do for the newest generation of Zelda fans. The game is fun as heck, but its relatively short narrative gives it less replay value than some other Zelda titles.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
If Phantom Hourglass was a gimmick designed to showcase the unique controls of the Nintendo DS, then Skyward Sword was equally gimmicky in its mandatory use of the Wii’s motion controls. The story and gameplay are generally quite good, but the motion controls get tiring fast, and present new and frustrating challenges for disabled gamers.
8. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
This fantastic follow-up to Link to the Past did justice to its predecessor, with a very cool and unique wall-merging mechanic to spice up the somewhat familiar gameplay and world of LttP. There was nothing particularly revolutionary about A Link Between Worlds—it’s just good old-fashioned Zelda fun.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
I fully realize that I am entering hot-take territory by ranking Twilight Princess this low, but what can I say? I just didn’t like it as much as any of the games that follow on this list. It has a ton of awesome elements that deserve praise—I mean, who doesn’t love Epona? But to me, the darker story and aesthetic represents a departure from the lighthearted and colorful fun of the Zelda series, and the motion controls of the Wii version are a bit unwieldy (though this issue is not present in the GameCube release).
6. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
This sequel to the esteemed Ocarina of Time has become a classic in its own right. It’s birthed memes and characters that remain Nintendo staples to this day, such as Skull Kid and that freaky moon. But despite the weird darkness of the story, Majora’s Mask manages to preserve the cartoonish fun of its predecessor with a truly unique time-repeating mechanic reminiscent of Groundhog Day. Plus, it brought us one of the most fun Super Smash Bros. stages ever: Great Bay. Majora’s Mask was a brave choice by Nintendo’s developers, and one that paid off in spades.
5. The Legend of Zelda
This is the true OG of Zelda games, the one that spawned the series. For that reason alone, The Legend of Zelda has undoubtedly changed the lives of countless gamers far and wide. But it wasn’t just influential—it was good, too. With its iconic opening scene, its narrative innovation, and its amazing replay value, the original Zelda title deserves its high position on this list.
4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Oh man, this is getting hard, guys. All of the remaining games have a solid argument for the greatest game of all time. This was the first Zelda game I ever played, and by far the best of the top-down entries in the series. The world is immersive and detailed, and every dungeon pushes you to your limit while being eminently beatable for players who are willing to put in the work. The inclusion of a fun side game, Four Swords, in the GBA release doesn’t hurt, either.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
There’s so much to praise in Breath of the Wild. Its focus on exploration meshes perfectly with the Zelda series’ classic open-world elements. To bring The Legend of Zelda to the Switch, Nintendo’s developers re-engineered the entire series from scratch. While puzzles are an important element of almost every Zelda game, the entire world is the puzzle in Breath of the Wild. With nearly infinite replay value and truly breathtaking graphics, Breath of the Wild will go down as one of the greatest games of all time.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The first three-dimensional Zelda title is also one of the best. Ocarina of Time innovated many of the gameplay elements that have made subsequent three-dimensional Zelda games some of the most well-received titles ever. I still remember winning a copy of the Master Quest GameCube port at a school event and running home to give it a whirl—I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a video game since then. And on top of its awesome gameplay and beautiful soundtrack, Ocarina of Time has become one of the most popular speedrunning titles, leading to some truly zany and entertaining strategies.
1. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
I might get some flack for putting this one on top of my list, but The Wind Waker is a perennial classic, destined to withstand the test of time better than any other Zelda game. Its bold cel-shaded graphics are iconic and unique, holding up just as well in the Switch era as they did on the GameCube. The aquatic open world is a blast to explore, and the game’s combat system is as intuitive as it is fun. The Wind Waker is the best Legend of Zelda game—if you disagree, see me in the comments.
Top image via Nintendo
This article was written by Alexander Lee, an esports journalist, lifelong Nintendo fan, and proud cat dad. Follow him on Twitter @alexleewastaken, and check out more of his work on his website www.alexlee.work.