Ever since the release of the original The Legend of Zelda game, Nintendo has done a vast number of experiments with the franchise, often making precise tweaks in the attempt to deliver the ultimate Zelda experience. The result has been a collection of games of such consistently high quality that it becomes impossible to confidently point out the overall best installment, given that each game has shone particularly bright in one or more areas. In these Zelda Awards, ten distinct categories are selected and the finest game in each one of them gets its deserved accolades.
Storyline – Wind Waker
From the get go, it is clear The Wind Waker is out to tell one pretty epic plot. Its opening segment, backed by gorgeous music and beautiful panels, tells the legend of a kingdom that has been lost in time after war was waged between a hero and the servants of an evil beast. Then, it promptly cuts to a large ocean on which tales of that land are constantly whispered in the wind.
There are two keys to the game's storytelling: its constant development and its numerous twists. And although a few other Zelda titles have managed to combine those two qualities, not a single one has done it as well as the cartoonish Gamecube outing. As Link travels around the world, not only is he after key items, but he is also – sometimes unknowingly – always on the trail of some huge reveal that is related to the grand underlying plot of the lost kingdom and the ocean. Through over thirty hours of gameplay, it is a script shrouded in mystery that never stops moving; growing in scope and presenting wild turns with every passing segment.
Combat – Twilight Princess
Since the locking system from Ocarina of Time was first presented, battles on Zelda games went from 2-D simplicity to tenser battles between a swordsman and his foe. As new mechanics were added little by little with every new affair, Twilight Princess was certainly the peak of that curve, accurately capturing the essence of one-on-one duels.
Despite the general weakness of the enemies, which lead a lot of people to overlook how great the battle system was, it actually had a lot of depth. Across his journey, Link would learn a large array of techniques precisely activated through combinations of button presses and stick movements. With those, each enemy could be beaten in a different way, and battling became something more complex than simply waiting for a foe to be vulnerable in order to swing the character's sword.
Overworld – Wind Waker
Perhaps the most controversial overworld in the series, The Great Sea delivers an unparalleled sense of adventure. Although the attacks towards its emptiness are definitely valid, that happens to be a characteristic inherently present on any large body of water. With a whopping forty-nine islands waiting to be charted, numerous submarines and watchtowers ready to be plundered, and some intriguing mysteries to be solved, it is an overworld that rewards those who are drawn to it.
As the sun sets over the horizon and the morning is replaced by the silence of the night, it is impossible not to feel immersed and excited by the unknown looming out there. The Great Sea is the epitome of the game: it is huge, adventurous, and filled with content. Those who dare explore it discover the truth that every fisherman knows: every sea has a heart and soul, and The Great Sea is no different.
Character Development – Majora’s Mask
Inside the walls of Clock Town there lived the deepest and most amazing set of supporting characters the series has ever had. Each one of them, it doesn’t matter how insignificant they may have looked, had a story to tell and a problem for players to solve. It was easy to spend three days running around town just watching people do their daily routines and, consequently, unveiling the riddle that was their lives and the way they interacted with each other.
But it was not just in that tight little town that Majora's Mask showed its prowess in character development. Every corner of Termina presented personages with great depth that worked as the centerpieces of four minor, yet big, storylines that served as supports for the game's main plot. As Link toiled to clear the issues on each of the regions of the world, becoming deeply involved with the characters living there was a natural consequence of the game's masterful writing.
Boss Battles – Phantom Hourglass
Locate the dungeon's main item then find a way to use it to bring down the boss. From a minimalistic standpoint, such two-step recipe describes how to beat every big baddie that has ever appeared on a Zelda game, and Phantom Hourglass does not run away from the rule. However, thanks to the Nintendo DS' two calling cars – the two screens and the touch controls – the game is able to excel in that regard.
The pair of screens is used in conjunction to convey the enormous size of the beasts. Meanwhile, through creative use of the stylus and the items, the battles turn into fun touch mini-games on which players must figure out how to defeat the bosses. It is a simple yet challenging format that works wonderfully.
Sidequests – Wind Waker
While on most Zelda games the only interesting reward one could gain from doing a sidequest was a Heart Piece, Wind Waker successfully changed that annoying pattern. Not only did it introduce many collectible items that brought new motivation to those missions, it also had Tingle and his chart-reading skills serve as a tool to give meaning to the mountains of rupees Link would find by exploring the sea.
The importance given to the mission rewards ended up playing right into the hands of the quality of the sidequests and the utter charm of the game's world, creating a delightful cycle: finely written sidequests of varied structures lead to exploration, which paved the way to exciting rewards.
Difficulty – A Link To The Past
A Link to the Past was the installment responsible for solidifying the archetypal structure of a Zelda game, and it is also the title where one finds the fine balance between the extremely brutal challenge of the first two Zelda titles and the benevolence of the latest 3-D entries. It is, from the get go, a daunting journey even to experienced gamers, but its challenges rarely feel cheap or impossible.
Enemies are a constant menace both inside and outside the dungeons, and every new area that is explored will most likely present gamers with the Game Over screen at least once before they can figure out a proper strategy to make their way through the challenges. It is a very fair test of skills, especially on its boss battles, but it almost never reaches the point of complete frustration.
Atmosphere – Majora’s Mask
The dark atmosphere of Majora’s Mask is often the deserving target of many compliments. However, its biggest feature, and the one that joins said darkness to take the game to legendary heights is its sense of urgency. On most RPGs or adventure games, the sentence “Hurry up! Or the world will be destroyed!” is frequently used. Unfortunately, it is nothing but an empty claim. Characters can take their time, visit the local shop, play with the village kids, drink some soda at the local bar, sleep three nights on their comfortable bed, travel to far away regions, and the world will still be there.
On Majora’s Mask things are different. Whenever someone tells Link to hurry up, they mean it. The looming moon, the sinister songs, and the despair found on every region around Termina do not let players forget that the world will truly end within seventy-two hours, and they had better step to it before their progress is lost. Though it does bother some people that time constraints limit the exploration, that is the defining trait of Majora's Mask. It always highlights that the end is coming fast, and it thrives on the bleakness of its very real threats.
Dungeons – Skyward Sword
While most Zelda games will use one of its dungeons as an introductory lesson, Skyward Sword – perhaps due to its limited number of seven mazes – goes all out from the very beginning. Absolutely none of its dungeons feel like half-baked temples. Their puzzles, heavily aided by the smart use of the Wii's motion capabilities, are mostly fully original and rather creative; while their settings are brilliantly designed beauties that do not let players forget that danger lurks on every corner.
Out of the seven, four are certainly among the greatest dungeons of all time: the Lanayru Mining Facility and the Sandship with their mind-blowing use of the time-shift stones, which transform the dungeons on the blink of an eye; the Ancient Cistern, where heavenly watery beauty clashes with menacing hell; and the Sky Keep, whose structure is a puzzle in itself. And that all goes without mentioning the Fire Sanctuary – possibly the best fire dungeon of the entire franchise – and the first two good temples. Its dungeons amaze from beginning to end, working as the greatest moments of a very good game.
Progression – A Link Between Worlds
A Link Between Worlds implemented a feature for which fans had been claiming ever since Nintendo stated they were looking for ways to change the franchise's traditional structure: it gave players the power to choose the order on which they would tackle the dungeons of its second half. Making a return after being absent since The Legend of Zelda, that freedom was better deployed here, for instead of bumping into dungeons randomly while exploring the map (which was the case on the map-less original game), they could knowingly choose what to do next.
That exciting way to progress into the adventure did have a cost: plot development was almost completely sacrificed since writers and developers had no control of where players would go. However, it opened the way for a more seamless and explorative gameplay on future titles, and also gave birth to an item-rental system that could have interesting ramifications if it is used again. It showed that Nintendo does occasionally listen to what its fans have to say, and it proved that they are always looking for ways to make the Zelda experience better.