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The Many Legends of Zelda: Which Games Are the Most Essential?

On 08/10/2014 at 12:20 PM by Pacario

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In my last blog, I discussed the Wii U, detailing both the good and the bad of the struggling system. And that was to be my “Nintendo piece” for the foreseeable future.

But then something fateful happened—a few weekends ago, I stumbled upon a “buy one game, get one free” sale at the local Best Buy store. I don’t play many 3DS titles, but seeing that both The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Bravely Default were among the available titles, I decided to go for it.

I haven’t touched Default yet, for the moment I booted up Zelda I was completely smitten. The game is everything I love from the classic series that culminated in 1992’s A Link to the Past and 1993’s Link’s Awakening. So much so, in fact, I found myself playing it every night instead of the batch of PS3 games I had just downloaded.

I have since completed the game, and like a dutiful fan, have thus combed the appropriate Wikis to see where Worlds fits within the overall Zelda timeline and multiverse. But that got me thinking—if I were a newcomer to the entire Zelda franchise, where would be the best place to start? The games are numerous, their stories an almost inscrutable web of lore and legend. For the beginning player, which games are the most essential?

Zelda Timeline

The Zelda Timelime: If it looks complicated, that's because it is.

Hence the following list, which should help those unfamiliar with the Zelda franchise and its sprawling mythology. This means, of course, that some quality games like Majora’s Mask will be “ranked” lower than others due to their lack of accessibility for novice players. And for the sake of simplicity, I’ve decided to separate the classic 2-D, overhead perspective titles (A Link to the Past) from their 3-D, more complex counterparts (Ocarina of Time).

The Legend of Zelda, 2-D Style

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Probably the most quintessential installment of the franchise, Past has been lavished with praise since the time of its original release and has continued to serve as the general template for nearly every Zelda game since, especially those of the 2-D variety. Its only weaknesses by modern standards involve a weak narrative and slightly unbalanced difficulty for the first hours of play.

2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

As an indirect sequel to A Link to the Past, Worlds plays very similarly, even duplicating the original’s overworld and retaining many of its mechanics and design sensibilities. Unfortunately, this means it also suffers from a middling narrative and a somewhat derivative nature. Nevertheless, the game serves as both an excellent introduction to the series, and a nice nostalgic tribute to what’s come before.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

Although hugely popular during its era, Link’s Awakening has become a sort of underappreciated gem in later years, rivaling even Majora’s Mask (another cult favorite) in terms of its dark horse status. And, at first glance, it’s not hard to understand why—the game’s simplistic 8-bit graphics, while impressive at the time, don’t make much of an impression in our modern age of 3-D wizardry. Even so, anyone who delves into the game’s rich world will uncover an adventure unlike anything that has come before or since, with a mysterious, existentialist plot (the first for the series), a fresh cast of endearing characters (Zelda is nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the lovable Marin), and an amazing number of hidden secrets and cameos (it’s practically a Super Mario crossover in parts). The game even sports a second, hidden ending. A must play for any fan of the franchise.

Link's Awakening Overworld

The overworld in Link's Awakening--8-bit and beautiful.

4. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

This is a controversial choice; designed by Capcom and merely overseen by Nintendo, the game bears an unusually distinctive quality that renders it either essential or trivial depending on one’s point of view. Either way, there’s no denying the game’s accessibility, charm, and focus on action, and for anyone looking for a fun, breezy adventure, this game will surely please.

5. The Legend of Zelda

As the first entry in the entire Zelda canon, the game was revolutionary for its time and remains inescapably fundamental to the entire series. Conversely, and somewhat ironically, it’s also a much different experience than what would later follow, with an open world full of cryptic traps and secrets and a plot that could be summarized in a fortune cookie. Worth playing, but probably not before trying some of its most more sophisticated brethren.

The Others: Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, The Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks

Although perfectly fine in their own right, these games lack either the distinctiveness or the accessibility to make them good initial choices for the casual newcomer. The Oracle titles are very derivative of Link’s Awakening, for example, while The Phantom Hourglass is a direct sequel to The Wind Waker and features an onerous central dungeon that has tried the patience of even the most dedicated Zelda fans. I’d first recommend Spirit Tracks if I had to recommend any of them.

The Legend of Zelda, 3-D Style

1. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

Much like A Link to the Past continues to influence its 2-D descendants, Ocarina is still the favorite of many Zelda fans, and its mark can be found on every 3-D sequel that has come since. Indeed, much like Super Mario 64, Mega Man Legends, and Tomb Raider showed both developers and gamers alike the promise of 3-D design, Ocarina proved it with a groundbreaking adventure that still resonates to this day. Beginners need only be aware of its higher than average difficulty and greater complexity in controls.

2. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Rendered in a charming cel-shaded style, The Wind Waker might be a better starting point for those wanting a massive 3-D world to explore, but without Ocarina’s greater emphasis on difficulty. The story and setting, of course, will seem a little strange at first to those not familiar with the series’ lore, but the gameplay is fast, polished, and generally easy to master. The lack of dungeons and a series of padded (and forced) sidequests are among the game’s most egregious negatives.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess is an odd game in that, at the time, it’s what every Zelda fan seemed to want. After being disappointed by the kiddie-style of Wind Waker, gamers salivated at the chance to control a “realistic” Link through a world more consistent with Ocarina’s. But paradoxically, once the game finally released, many quickly snubbed it as being too much like its original forebear. Nevertheless, this is still a highly polished, accessible title for those looking for something resembling a true sequel to Ocarina.

Twilight Princess

Somewhat inexplicably, some fans turned against Twilight Princess after its release. Still well worth a play, however.

The Others: Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword

Both of these titles are excellent in their own way, but neither is a proper entry point into the overall Zelda canon. Majora’s Mask is, frankly, a little weird and esoteric, featuring a dark plot and ideas about temporal manipulation that might prove overly heavy-handed for the merely curious. By contrast, Skyward Sword is more conventional in tone and spirit, but its sometimes awkward motion controls and emphasis on fetch quests have degraded it to a lower status than perhaps it rightfully deserves.


Of course, I’ve excluded certain titles that don’t really fit, from the GameCube’s The Four Swords Adventures to those awful CD-I games to that awkward experiment that is Adventures of Link. But as a basic primer to everything Zelda, the games listed here are the perfect portals for those adventurers setting forth for the first time.

But what do you think?


(Incidentally, many of the older titles listed here can be found on Nintendo's Virtual Console download service available through its 3DS, Wii, and Wii U platforms. But there are some quirks with the arrangement, the foremost being that the Gameboy titles [Link's Awakening and the Oracle games] are only offered on the 3DS, while the Gameboy Advance's The Minish Cap is found exclusively on the Wii U.)


Thanks to,, and for the images.




08/10/2014 at 02:26 PM

I would recommend the first 5 games in the order they were released so one can properly evaluate the evolution of the series.

 1. LoZ so a new player has a baseline from which to judge the series. i believe origins of anything, whether it be words and their definitions or entertainment series, to be extremely important in defining what a thing so that we can judge whether any alterations or additions to that thing helped or hurt. Plus, like you said, it's quite different from the rest of the series. I personally think Nintendo needs to go back to square one with this series and bring back tougher combat, gloomy dungeons without the themed gimmicks and puzzles, and a faster pace, but with improvements to environmental variety, boss battles, dungeon layout, and item selection. Call it New Legend of Zelda and watch it be a surprise hit akin to NSMB.

 2. Adventure of Link.  Message board revisionism abounds with this game. But it remained in top 10 NES lists even past the launch of the SNES - not quite the black sheep people who probably weren't even alive then claim. Some of the best side-scrolling sword combat of the day, and it's an early example of how the series can go in a different direction while maintaining the original spirit.  It does have questionable design decisions, but like its predecessor. its uniqueness within the series makes it a must play.

 3. A Link to the Past -  Overrated to me, but still a near flawless game in terms of polish and content. Expands the series by offering more visual variety, more geographical variety, more fleshed out NPC interaction, more narrative thrust.  The series would become more whimsical and fairy tale-like from this point on. A must play just because of the extreme high quality and, being a turning point in the series, for comparison to what came before and after.

4. Link's Awakening - A better version of Link to the Past, imo. Not as groundbreaking for the series, but so well crafted. And somehow recaptures the spirit of the original game while maintaining the additions of ALTTP.

 5. Ocarina of Time.  Huge game for the series and 3D games in general. Its structure would define LoZ going forward, sometimes to a fault. Due to this, it's the only essential 3D game in the series.  Introduced Z targeting. Made themed dungeons the status quo.. Established the type of puzzles the series is now known for.  Introduced mounted/piloted transport (as far as I'm aware).  It's just one of the most significant releases in the series and in video games in general. 

 Maybe I should have made my own blog on this, but that's my take on the essential games. 


08/10/2014 at 03:42 PM

I'm actually replaying Link's Awakening right now, and agree it bears a lot of the original game's influence spread through its design, especially the dungeon layouts, which bear similar pictoral themes (Awakening's level 3, for instance, is shaped like a key).

I can find no fault in your views of the others games, either, although I doubt most newbie players will appreciate the antiquated design of the first game over the more modern sensibilites of the others. That said, I think the original is a game everyone should play at some point, as I think it will only further their appreciation of the series as a whole. (A pseudo-remake of its ilk would indeed be interesting.)

Super Step Contributing Writer

08/10/2014 at 02:46 PM

I'd pretty much just say LttP if they're interested in 2D and OoT if interested in 3D. Now I'm wondering how a remake of OoT utilizing the top-down perspective and letting you traverse the dungeons in any order would turn out. 


08/10/2014 at 03:20 PM

A top-down Ocarina remake is a very interesting idea, my friend. Sadly, that'll probably end up being a fan project at best.

Cary Woodham

08/10/2014 at 03:06 PM

Link's Awakening is my favorite.


08/10/2014 at 03:22 PM

You have my full support on that one, although for a first-timer, Link to the Past is probably still a more accessible entry point, if only because of the more iconic world, characters, and visuals.


08/10/2014 at 09:19 PM

I also loved A Link Between Worlds.  Thought it was a bit easy, though.  As for the Zelda timeline, I ignore it and just treat each game as its own story.  They're all good, although i had a tough time getting into the Oracle games.


08/10/2014 at 10:04 PM

Yeah, the timeline stuff is pretty silly, which is why I don't focus too much on it here. And I agree--the Oracle games are tough to care about, especially now with the more modern Zelda games out and about. I did play through Seasons and liked it well enough back in the day, though, and I hear Ages has some nice puzzles.


08/11/2014 at 02:19 AM

ALttP definitely on the 2-D side.

On the 3-D side, I'm gonna be a contrarian and say Twilight Princess. Honestly, I thought it improved on Ocarina of Time in all but a few ways.


08/11/2014 at 09:00 AM

Yeah, I never understood the backlash Twilight Princess got. I never actually completed the game, but I always thought it was pretty top notch stuff.


08/11/2014 at 03:01 AM

I honestly feel like LttP and OoT were the best in the series and the follow ups haven't quite out done the predecessors. Zelda Windwaker HD looks gorgeous though, so it might be easier on the eyes and I think Twilight Princess was pretty modern.


08/11/2014 at 09:03 AM

Although Wind Waker bears a quirky story and connects to a weird scenario in the Zelda timeline (thus making it harder for a newcomer to understand), I do think it's probably the most accessible 3-D Zelda thanks to its charming visuals and low difficulty. And anyway, people just seem to love that game, perhaps more than it really deserves.


08/11/2014 at 08:19 AM

As you play through the more recent entries you can see that Nintendo tries to make them easily accessible to new players.  There are countless tutorials and hints.  That being said, I did enjoy Twilight Princess quite a bit and probably prefer it to Ocarina of Time.  A Link to the Past will forever be my favourite, with Link's Awakening coming up second.


08/11/2014 at 09:05 AM

That's a good couple of pairings you've come up with--for 2-D, Past and Awakening, and for 3-D, Ocarina and Twilight.

Yeah, I think you're on to something there.


08/11/2014 at 11:09 AM

I read somewhere recently that Link's Awakening started out as Nintendo trying to put A Link to the Past on the GameBoy.  What they ended up with is still pretty staggering in my opinion.


08/11/2014 at 11:44 AM

Yeah, in many ways Awakening eclipses its predecessor, especially from a character and narrative standpoint.


08/13/2014 at 06:36 PM

Zelda and Link and Windwaker by far is the best in the series of course thats just my opinion and I did like a link to the past but 1 and 2 had such a unique feeling and the only other that made me have that same feeling was Windwaker what a awesome game.

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