The Legend Of Zelda 35th Anniversary: Our Favorite Games And Why
Our Favorite Zelda Games
It's impossible to deny the influence that The Legend of Zelda series has had on the gaming industry. Next to Mario, it's one of Nintendo's most enduring, well-loved franchises, touching the lives of countless people across multiple generations in its now 35-year history. Whether your first time experiencing The Legend of Zelda was through its inaugural entry or even the more recent Breath of the Wild, Link's adventures across Hyrule have likely impacted you.
To celebrate The Legend of Zelda's 35th anniversary this year, we took the time to wax on about our favorite games in the franchise. Below, you'll find write-ups that dig deep into our individual passions for various games in the series, going into great detail about why we love them and the circumstances that brought on that adoration.
The Legend Of Zelda | Phil Hornshaw, Editor
Picture being, like, eight-years-old and sitting down with The Legend of Zelda for the very first time. Suddenly you're just in the game, standing in a blank tan field next to a black doorway cut into a green wall. There's no text telling you what to do, so you walk into this black square and a weird old man hands you a sword. "It's dangerous to go alone," he says. "Take this."
Uh... take this where?
And then you just start...walking. Hit the edge of the screen and you move to another one, only this time it's full of spider beasts leaping huge distances to cascade down upon you. So you stab them with your (ostensibly wooden, rather crappy) sword. You move on a bit and then you're getting shot at by crawling heads with legs and giant noses that fling rock-shaped boogers at you.
What the hell is going on here?
The farther you wander in The Legend of Zelda, the more confusing it becomes--until eventually, you happen across a temple. You descend into the earth, where skeletons, ghosts, and blobs await. Your sword protects you, so you're alone, but not alone. You fight a dragon. You kill the dragon. You've seen only a fraction of what the world has to offer. You have no idea where to go next.
Picture being, like, eight-years-old, and getting lost in a cemetery, pushing against tombstones in hopes one will slide away to reveal hidden stairs--but instead, each summons a ghost, forcing you to run for your life. Or entering a dead forest filled with piglike monsters and quickly finding yourself lost in some sort of magical maze. Or scaling your way into dangerous mountains where boulders crash down all around you. Or finding a raft and boarding it, floating off into a bright, pixely blue unknown, having not a single idea of what awaits you.
The Legend of Zelda remains a singular experience. Nintendo has iterated on it over and over through decades, and an untold number of other video games have drawn inspiration from it. But there's still nothing quite like wandering through its enormous, mysterious world, with barely a hint or explanation to lead you on. It was dangerous to go alone. No help was coming. No guideposts were set along the way. There was just you, your sword, the pull to explore, and a game that rewarded you with nothing but hours of discovery--and the realization of what strange and fascinating worlds can exist in video games.
The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask | Kevin Knezevic, Associate Editor
There’s a cliche that your first Zelda game is your favorite, and that’s certainly true in my case. Although the series was already well-established as one of Nintendo’s flagship properties by then, I didn’t get my first taste of it until The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000. I was vaguely aware of the franchise before then (largely thanks to the widespread acclaim that Ocarina of Time received when it launched just a few years prior), but it wasn’t until I saw Link featured alongside many of my other favorite video game characters in Super Smash Bros. that I felt compelled to give it a try.
As far as jumping-on points go, Majora’s Mask was probably the most unconventional introduction one could have to the Zelda series. Not only did the game lack many of Zelda’s hallmark elements (no Hyrule, no Triforce, and even no Princess Zelda aside from a very brief flashback early on in the story), it imposed a strict three-day time limit over your adventure. Link had a mere 72 (in-game) hours to save the world of Termina from the falling moon. Fail to help him accomplish that goal within the time limit and you would have to play the mystical Song of Time to restart the entire cycle from the beginning.
It was an unusual conceit for a video game, and I admittedly had difficulty wrapping my head around it initially. I spent my first few hours with Majora’s Mask largely retracing my steps, making only incremental progress each time I restarted the three-day cycle. I had repeated the same actions so many times that I had actually begun to wonder if my copy was perhaps bugged.
Then, everything began to fall into place. Instead of following the same trail yet again, I spent the next three-day cycle simply poking around Clock Town, meeting the various characters who lived in this star-crossed city. Every conversation revealed something new about the world, but more importantly, it also shed some light on the everyday plights that these characters grappled with, adding a genuine sense of humanity to the story that . These vignettes were often sombre, occasionally humorous, but always affecting, and they’re the reason why Majora’s Mask left such an indelible mark on me the first time I played it.
Soon after I completed Majora’s Mask, I worked my way backward through the rest of the series, picking up Ocarina of Time before tracking down used copies of A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening at Funcoland. As wonderful as the other installments were, however, none moved me quite like Majora’s Mask, which is why it remains my favorite entry in the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time | Ben Janca, Video Producer
First off, this is a bit of a weird thing for me to write. Most of the time, I take on the quirky and occasionally obscure games that fit into these features on GameSpot. For instance, the 1080 Snowboardings, Donkey Kong 64s, or Buck Bumbles of the world--that sort of thing. But I was surprised to see that on the sign-up sheet for our list of favorite Zelda games, nobody had picked Ocarina of Time, a game many people look at as one of the greatest of all time. So here I am, talking about a game that means a lot to so many people, including myself, but I am excited to share what makes it so special to me nonetheless.
Starting from the beginning, my family did not get a Nintendo 64 until a few years after they were already out. When we did, it was via this super rad combo back from Sam's Club that included the system, two controllers (one of them being the cool see-through purple kind), a copy of Ocarina of time, and an official strategy guide. When we walked out of the store with this giant package, I remember getting my dad to pull the guide out so that I could spend the long card ride home learning every little detail about the game I could. After all, I was that weird kid who would sit on the side of the playground at recess, trading rare Pokémon on a Gameboy in one hand and reading a video game strategy guide in the other. I still have that Ocarina of Time guide and read it from time to time, but the big takeaway from mentioning how much time I spent reading that guide was that it allowed me to learn the ins and outs of the entire game.
The knowledge I accumulated about Ocarina of Time often led to people at my school asking me for help on how to get past the game's trickiest parts. My pursuits in helping others were not limited to just friends at school either. In previous features where I wrote about my gaming past, I often mentioned how I packed my video game systems with me when I visited my grandmother over the summer. During one of those trips, I remember one of my cousins watching me play in a side room, and they talked about how they had trouble getting through a fight with some lizalfos in a lava cavern. I ended up helping them through it, and eventually, they finally finished the game.
Doing stuff like that always gave me a good feeling, and I am sure it played a big part in inspiring the passion I'd have going on and working for multiple video game blogs. When I look back at it, guiding people through Ocarina of Time shaped my passion for helping people now. It also helped me realize how much I enjoy sharing video games I love with people and is what likely led me to streaming as much as I do. Some of my best memories are playing through games with my family and friends watching me, and I know so much of that kicked off with Ocarina of Time.
At this point, I've not said much about what I enjoyed about Ocarina of Time in particular. I could have gone on about the soundtrack, story, or the characters. I could have even talked about how the ending made me cry, seeing all its characters so happy together in a post-Ganon world during the credits. Heck, I could have written like three paragraphs about how Gerudo Valley's music is an all-time banger. But, honestly speaking, that has all been done to death. Ocarina of Time is significant to my life because it helped shape me into who I am today. Without a doubt, it still is a fantastic adventure well worth going on. But for me, it's about all of these memories I had playing and sharing the game with friends and family that make it one of my all-time favorites.
The Legend Of Zelda | Mat Elfring, Entertainment News Editor
The Legend of Zelda was one of the first games I got for my NES, right behind Mario Bros./Duck Hunt and Wheel of Fortune. It was unlike anything I had ever played before, as your character progresses throughout your playtime, and that progression doesn't magically disappear when you turn off the console. That was great for me and better for my parents--as I didn't have to keep the game going when Murder, She Wrote or Knots Landing was on the only TV in the house. While it's something we take for granted now, being able to save your progress felt like a revelation, along with being able to name your character "hilarious" names like "Butt" (I was like six at the time, lay off).
Where this game shined for me and set itself apart from others at the time was that I could go anywhere and do whatever I want. You started off with an old man/wizard/me at 60/hermit telling you the world is dangerous, so you're given a sword and forced into a world where monsters appear everywhere, and many of them are either spitting rocks or shooting arrows all willy-nilly, and you must dodge them. You traverse a landscape searching out dungeons, defeating monsters, collecting golden triangles, and dodging fireballs shot by mermen, until you face the ultimate evil, Ganon--a giant blue pigman with a skull belt buckle.
It's a game that's stuck with me for more than 30 years. Whether it's that sound when you blow up a wall and find a secret or the want and need to go north, west, south, then west on any map with four directions on it, my brain is always fixated on something from that game--even if I don't consider myself a hardcore fan of the series. Unlike many NES games from that era that I loved, like Basewars or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Legend of Zelda still holds up as fun and playable. Yes, like the majority of NES games, it was challenging at times, but it never beat me down to a pulp and made me rage quit (I'm looking at you Tiger Heli). It's something I'm very nostalgic about that still holds up, and you can only say that about a small handful of things from your childhood.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past | Gabe Gurwin, Associate SEO Editor
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past remains just as playable in 2021 as it was when it was released 30 years ago. It refined what made the original NES game so great while, thankfully, tossing nearly everything out from the game's sequel in favor of a refined, gorgeous, and challenging take on the dungeon-exploring and adventuring formula.
It's a testament to the game's enduring quality that I didn't play it at release. I was negative-three-years-old at that time, which didn't help matters, so I instead ended up experiencing the game via its Game Boy Advance port more than a decade later. The crisp controls, timeless 16-bit art, and excellent music all made it feel tremendous, and its story seems to have served as a rough framework for Ocarina of Time seven years later--the massive changes to the existing world, traveling across Hyrule to collect several sacred objects before finding the Master Sword and eventually battling Ganon. It may not hit the same emotional notes as its successor, but the seeds had been planted.
A Link to the Past undoubtedly benefited from its hardware, because unlike the Nintendo 64, GameCube, and even the Wii, the games released on the SNES generally don't feel like they've aged to the point of obsolescence or needless frustration. The game feels like it's what Shigeru Miyamoto and the development team at Nintendo would have done the first time around, had the technology allowed it, with its increased narrative-focus, more interesting world design, and crisper combat.
Does that mean that A Link to the Past is the unquestioned king of Zelda games at any particular point in time? No, in fact, Breath of the Wild tends to hold that distinction nowadays. But as time goes by, those games start to show their seams, whether it's Skyward Sword's backtracking or the camera problems that plague so many Nintendo 64 and GameCube games. With The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, what you remembered playing in 1991 is exactly what you'll play if you start the game again today. That alone is worth celebrating.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker | Evan Langer, Associate Video Producer
The Wind Waker is not only my favorite Zelda game, but it’s my favorite video game of all time, and it’s held that title since 2004. This might sound odd as there have been so many innovations since then with both gameplay and narrative, but let me explain.
First off, The Wind Waker is the first video game I ever owned. I got a GameCube for my 6th birthday, and one of my friend’s parents got me The Wind Waker since some of my other friends were playing it. That game not only shaped my taste in gaming, but it had a significant impact on my life. My childhood best friend and I bonded over the game, and the Zelda series has been a huge part of my life since. I don’t think I’d be at this job writing this right now if it wasn’t for The Wind Waker.
But enough about me, let me talk to you about the brilliance of the game. The Wind Waker, to me, represents the best mix of story and gameplay in any Zelda title. You’re a 12-year-old kid who isn’t even the chosen hero, you have to fight to earn your spot, and it all starts because your sister is kidnapped. The story takes a unique turn for Zelda and takes place after Ocarina of Time where Link saved the day but then went back in time, so when Ganon returned, nobody was there to stop him putting the world in chaos until the god’s flooded the land. Ocarina of Time required you to age up to beat Ganon, but in this game, a kid proved he could take down the king of evil, and as a kid myself, that felt empowering.
All of the dungeons are peak Zelda design and truly utilize the new items acquired (which are fantastic) and all the skills you’ve learned thus far. Sailing the ocean and discovering new islands is always exciting every time I boot up the game. Maybe I’m biased here, but the Triforce quest never bothered me. It’s not great, but you can buy the Tingle map for 200 rupees and it basically points out where you need to go to get the treasure maps. They did streamline it in the HD remaster, so I do appreciate that.
In my eyes, The Wind Waker is the best Zelda is and ever was. Skyward Sword has a fantastic narrative and Breath of the Wild has every game beat in pure discovery, but The Wind Waker is the best of everything and it’s absolutely worth your time. Nintendo, if you’re reading this, please put it on Switch.
The Legend Of Zelda: Link's Awakening | Steve Watts, Associate Editor
If Link to the Past is the unparalleled classic of the Zelda series, Link's Awakening is its strange portable doppelganger. The Game Boy adventure included all the clever puzzle design and swordplay of its console competitors, but adopted a more playful spirit of sheer unadulterated weirdness. This is how we got Mario elements like a Chain Chomp pet and wandering Goombas, alongside a trading game that included giving a can of dog food to a bipedal crocodile.
That creative streak ran throughout the experience, using the new platform to explore a greater degree of flexibility within the Zelda formula. It added jumping for the first time in an overhead Zelda game, and the ability to map your equipment to any button meant you could mix and match abilities for combinations like a dash-jump to cover greater distances. Dungeons and hidden secrets would often have subterranean platforming segments. And the story ventured outside of Hyrule and even shook off the old trope of princess-rescuing. Instead, this time Link was simply investigating this mysterious new setting.
And in that setting, the story had a lovely somberness to it. The Flute Boy in A Link to the Past introduced melancholy with a sparseness of written dialogue into the series. Link's Awakening carried that concept further, as the entire island and all of its inhabitants were figments of a dreaming creature, the Wind Fish. Freeing the creature from its evil Nightmares--naturally, the heroic thing to do--also meant saying goodbye to the island and its colorful cast of characters. Some of them even showed some level of awareness of their own ephemeral nature and impending disappearance and expressed concern about being forgotten once Link finished his quest. The Ballad of the Wind Fish is an appropriately haunting melody that evokes feelings of loss and change.
The final image of Link staring up at the sky is burned into my memory--a pensive moment for a hero who by all rights deserved to live out his days on an idyllic tropical island, but did the right thing anyway, and woke from the dream.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild | Max Blumethal, Video Producer
Breath of the Wild is my favorite Zelda game of all time, but it is a strange and special case for me. This game helped me get a job, make a name for myself, and carve out an entire section of my gaming career. With 17.5 million views on my Breath of the Wild content across two YouTube channels and 3 million more on social channels, it did--without getting too corny--change my life.
That being said, I don't remember much about my first playthrough anymore. I started roughly seven months after the initial launch, and I remember enjoying the game, just like everyone else. After some time, though, something clicked, and I wanted to make a quick video with some combat tips of my own. This was my first voice-over in a video I'd ever done, and I loathed listening to my own voice. I wrote it off as a one-and-done project, even stating at the end of the video: "Please DON'T subscribe; I don't make content like this on the regular, so just enjoy the content you may have learned today."
At that time, there was a large void of combat-specific content for Breath of the Wild, and after that video's initial success, for some reason, I slowly started to come out of my shell and grow to become a content creator. Being one of the first combat players in Breath of the Wild and the originator of the whole genre of Breath of the Wild combat montages with cinematic music was something I am still proud of. Other gaming outlets such as Kotaku, IGN, and Gameology even picked up on content I created.
But after four years of growth with the game, there is a part of me that wishes that I could go back and forget what I learned. I've been playing the game wrong, after all. The insane journey that this game has led me on career-wise is amazing on its own merit, but it's the original wonder and magic of the game itself that I miss the most. Being a glitch hunter and all, breaking the game and understanding its mechanics too well naturally destroyed the magic of Breath of the Wild's immersion for me, and Nintendo's acute understanding of how to make a world that feels alive and breathing at all times is something that feels less impactful four years later after having broken the game so much.
Yet, when I think about it, I know that I still love Breath of the Wild's tone, style, environments, characters, and most of all, the absolute freedom, resulting in what I think is the best sandbox game in history. Embedding something like rules in the world, such as burning grass or slippery wet cliffs, is nothing new to gaming, but it's the way the game presents itself without too much hand-holding or direction that makes it such an enjoyable experience that really connects with me on a personal level.
Ever since I played my first Zelda game, Ocarina of Time, when I was seven years old, Link has always been an icon and anchor of my childhood, and that has never stopped throughout the years. Breath of the Wild just cemented my love for the series more than it ever has before. Breath of the Wild did indeed change my life.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past | Dave Klein, Video Producer
I was a big fan of the original The Legend of Zelda and its sequel before excitedly playing A Link to the Past. And while I’d spent hours combing over the world of the original game with a friend, excitedly discovering its secrets, nothing could compare to the sheer scale and imagination I felt while playing A Link to the Past. While the overworld, graphics, and music were all bigger and better, these games have always been about exploration to me, and A Link to the Past introduced a new tool that completely reshaped this--that being the Dark World and the ability to travel back and forth between worlds.
This all meant that if I found something out of reach in the overworld, I could try traversing the Dark World, use the mirror, and sift back to potentially find a secret. And speaking on those secrets, the game is absolutely filled to the brim with them. There were more items than ever to collect for your inventory, finding Zora’s fin and diving in the water introduced all new ways to explore the world, and I’ll never forget how excited I was every time I figured out a new way to upgrade my sword.
The dungeons and puzzles of the game were all vastly improved, with even finding the dungeons themselves sometimes presenting their own interesting puzzle. This ranged from needing to dash into a bookshelf to find a secret book that would unlock the way, to utilizing the aid of a monkey companion, to even falling through a hole in the Dark World, only to discover this was another entrance to a secret part of a dungeon.
While the world wasn’t overly large--which I think hinders a lot of modern games--I still found myself always excitedly jumping back into the game feeling like there was more to find. Maybe I can push THIS grave, maybe if I swim under THIS bridge, maybe if I dash into THIS tree I’ll find something special. And just about ever dungeon presented a new tool that made exploring all that much more fun. They weren’t limited to being useful in the dungeons, but oftentimes even in the over world.
The Dark World theme still remains my favorite Zelda song to date, and I’ll oftentimes go on runs listening to orchestral versions of this theme, and the latest remix of it. While I love every Zelda game, A Link to the Past will likely always remain my favorite, and one that I still replay when I have the chance.
The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess | Matt Espineli, Editor
Video games are often tied to some of our happiest memories in life, but they can also be just as deeply rooted in our worst. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess came to me when I was suffering from the crippling anxiety surrounding a question that all approaching twenty-somethings ask: "What the hell am I going to do with my life?" Nothing hits harder when the bubble of your youth violently bursts, and you realize you've received no guidance where to even begin at such a conundrum. It's easy to spiral into depression at that crossroads, and so, that's what I did.
At the time, I was in community college when a dear friend tried desperately to get me into The Legend of Zelda, with none other than the timeless classic, Ocarina of Time. It took several months for me to beat that game, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't enjoy it. But then my friend directed me to Twilight Princess--a game I was fortunate enough to own because I forgot to return it to an old high school pal that lent it to me. My love affair with The Legend of Zelda began soon after.
What instantly enamored me about Twilight Princess was its sinister, foreboding tone. Not long after the tender warmth of its introduction, you discover the Twilight Realm, a corrupt parallel dimension slowly consuming Hyrule. As Link, you must naturally answer the call to thwart this invasion, even if these dark forces limit the Hylian hero by transforming him into a wolf. All the while, you're joined by Midna, a pestering trickster whose haughty attitude makes it seem like she's frequently working against you. In Twilight Princess, these circumstances create a feeling that the odds are stacked against you--not unlike the overwhelming dread I experienced every day back then.
Each day I attended class in community college, I struggled, wondering if anything I was doing would amount to anything safe and secure in my future. Instead, I withdrew myself, looking forward only to the moment I could return to Hyrule when classes were over, and I was back home. It was escapism in its purest form, but exploring Twilight Princess's wondrous, fantastical world and talking to its delightful characters never failed to lift my spirits. As Link, I could wander Hyrule and accomplish something in the face of a malevolent force so unfathomable, so devastating, and unstoppable.
Twilight Princess holds an enormous place in my heart, not because of things like its art direction, dungeon design, or music (though that's all worth praising). Rather, I deeply cherish this game because of the outlet it gave me to grasp a sense of control when everything around me felt out of control. Little by little, it helped me find courage and confidence, fighting hard with all the tools and knowledge I accumulated. It was a game that reminded me of my love for adventure and the adversity therein. If I could make a mark in Hyrule, couldn't I hope to do the same in my own life? The impact of this revelation was unconscious but poignant all the same.
Climbing out of the hole I was in didn't happen overnight, but Twilight Princess gave me a semblance of hope amid a universal existential crisis. It wrapped itself around me like a warm blanket, assured me that I wasn't alone, and provided the context I needed to feel comfortable carving out a future even if the challenges ahead seemed impossible to overcome. No other Zelda--no matter its quality--can ever hope to top what Twilight Princess means to me for this reason alone. It is my favorite Zelda game of all time.