February 9, 2019
Though I have finished up my Lens of Truth ranking series, the question of a tie at the top still remains. What is truly the greatest game in the Legend of Zelda series? To determine this, one must throw factual information to the wayside and just decide what they like. Personally, the series for me has been about the exploration and the puzzle-based combat. These staples define Zelda to me, and without them it would be devoid of uniqueness, and fall in with so many other jejune games rather than standing like an ever burning beacon, the luminosity of which other series fail in their attempt to achieve.
These two categories alone will be the pillars upon which this list is constructed, as all other aspects, to me, are lesser, unimportant fluff that serves no other purpose than present the important part. At long last, we have the finale to my rankings, so why are we still dawdling in the introductory paragraphs?
#5: Link’s Awakening
My love for the series began over twenty years ago with a little adventure on an island, which I explored intently for hours upon hours before I even really knew what a Zelda game was. From the first moment I set out to find a sword on a beach to years later when I revisited the title and finally defeated the Nightmare plaguing this peaceful place, I have seldom felt an equivalent feeling of satisfaction in exploration. If this was the only factor I would rate this game above every other two-dimensional game ever made.
Beyond this, the combat, as I mentioned before, cannot be overstated as a factor of why I love this game. On the very beach where I found my sword, I first had to use my shield to push spiny urchins out of the way. This puzzle is simple, and almost can’t even be called combat, but it set the stage for the method of thinking I have employed to overcome every challenge in gaming since.
I said I wouldn’t let any aspect other than these affect my rating, but I would still feel remiss were I not to mention how deeply connected I felt with the story of Link’s Awakening. After all the adventures I had experienced around Koholint, to discover it was all for naught and to return to my own world is to destroy this one broke my heart. I had to pause for a few minutes before fighting the Nightmare because a feeling inside me wanted to reset the game, not kill him, and simply continue to adventure and defend the indigenous folk from the Nightmares, knowing I would never return. In a real-world scenario, this absolutely would have been my decision. I would have let my greed and my hubris best me in order to save this world from annihilation, and the fact that I ended up beating it just to see how it ends still pains me a little. A story so spectacular has been seldom seen since.
#4: A Link to the Past
As many points as Link’s Awakening hit on, A Link to the Past managed to edge it out, if only by the skin of its teeth. Many of my favorite items from the former originated in this terrific title. From the Hookshot to the medallions and the Golden Master Sword, the breadth of item diversity makes this my favorite inventory in the series. In addition, this game made some of the best use of these items, creating the iconic cycle of stunning bosses or exposing their weak points with items, then slashing to your heart’s content. This formula has not only been applied to the Zelda series ever since, but imitated innumerable occasions by riffraff copycats.
The exploration was also deeper than any Super Nintendo game, and though I would argue the sense of adventure was not as deep as Link’s Awakening, it felt just a tad more realistic. Hidden passageways underneath the castle, interconnected caves filled with treasure, even a hobo under a bridge willing to give you his empty bottle. Everything about this game world was worlds ahead of any other title for the console with only the possible exceptions of Chrono Trigger and a handful of Final Fantasy games.
This is one game I would argue is flawless. With no objective thing holding it back, the only reason anyone could avoid calling it perfect is that some people just don’t like Zelda games, so it does not have universal appeal. Still, in any gamer who enjoys explorative games, a negative opinion is a lie. To this day, I marvel at the ingenuity of the design team.
#3: Breath of the Wild
As has been brought up before on the site, my overwhelming desire for an open-world Zelda was exacerbated by the release of Skyward Sword, which felt like a step back in terms of exploration for the series. Until this point, the series had felt as though it was steadily growing, and the sudden drop off left me with a feeling of despair, yearning for something I knew the series had the potential to accomplish, but for whatever reason they had neglected their apparent duty to do so. After many delays, and even a push back to a new console, expectations were set impossibly high. As the feelings of excitement escalated approaching the release date, it felt ever more unlikely that this game could deliver half of what it promised, and despite all odds, it succeeded in every way.
I have had my dreams shattered by games I felt fell short of the hype, and the fear that my favorite series would let me down was almost overwhelming before release, but this game not only succeeded in creating one of the best open-world landscapes in all of gaming, but built on the idea of openness like modern games could not even imagine. Being able to touch every part of this world provided the most special feeling I could imagine, as I have gone out of my way to take odd routes through games like Skyrim and Morrowind only to touch parts of the world and then realize that the designers did not want me to do so.
Being able to do anything is one thing, but this game encouraged it and deeply rooted this idea within the gameplay. So deeply, in fact, that every other aspect of the game was interconnected by exploration. This is the most fun game to explore in. PERIOD.
#2: Octopath Traveler
Oops, this is supposed to be a Zelda list. This game must be a typo. Well, wait, shouldn’t that mistake have been caught when I proofread and edited this? Well, I’m just going to humor myself and briefly analyze how this game stacks up against the others in terms of exploration and puzzle-based combat. Maybe that will shut down the idea of having a JRPG developed by a different company on the list.
Octopath Traveler is a Zelda game in a very clever disguise. As deeply integrated as it has ever been, exploration is abundant in this retro-styled instant classic. Within the main quest in the game, you generally have fairly linear dungeons with sporadically placed treasure chests that aren’t that far off the beaten path, but many times you will find that they take a little backtracking to find. This may not sound like much, and in fact the treasure is usually superfluous, but an identical feeling to the exploration at the heart of Zelda games kept me engaged, constantly finding every last treasure simply for the joy of seeing the world and all of its beautiful details.
After the primary quest strings, I found I needed to grind up some characters before the final challenge. This task was easy to move past, as the world is filled to the brim with optional dungeons just off the beaten path. These are often hidden quite well by clever placement of objects in the 3D space which combined with the 2D graphic style to make for a wonderful mix of easy to find and easy to miss, which I would previously have considered impossible.
Of course it’s also a turn-based RPG, so how could it include the puzzle-based combat mechanics one would expect of a Zelda game? Ironically, it does so in exactly the same way that nearly every Zelda game does; you have to use the right weapon to stun the boss, and then you beat the crap out of it. In Zelda, the combat generally hinges around using whichever item you have found in the dungeon to stun the boss, and more often than not, enemies can be stunned by items from a previous dungeon. In Octopath Traveler, your items are pretty much all there from the get-go, but the seemingly endless number of unique monsters to fight are all weak to a different combination of weapons or elemental magics. Discovering these weaknesses is generally a matter of trial and error, just as it would be in Zelda. To compound this puzzle-based feeling within the combat system, most bosses will periodically shift their defensive stance, mixing up their weaknesses to a new combination.
Somehow this game managed to pull me into its world in exactly the same way Zelda does, despite how different it appears on the outside. It even went so far as to be the deciding factor between whether my favorite game of all time was Breath of the Wild or…. Well, I assume you can see the number one spot already.
#1: Ocarina of Time
Outclassing every game before its release and being imitated (but never duplicated) by nearly every game since, Ocarina of Time is truly the most timeless game ever created. Going back to it just over the past few weeks, I have thought of new ways to play the game, and even after fifty or more playthroughs, it doesn’t even need that to be fun. I have played this game more times through than I will likely ever play any game again, and I’m not stopping replaying it even after twenty years.
To call this game flawless is an understatement. It is more playable today than any other early 3D title, and even more so in its 3DS reincarnation. Even if one was put off by the pixelated style and flat textures of the Nintendo 64, the remake updates any graphical imperfections in such a way that even the pickiest of gamers would probably be fine with it. That on top of extremely fluid motion controls (which are optional for those that like them) as well as some quality-of-life improvements to the UI, if anything could be found annoying in the original version, it is gone for good.
The two elements of Zeldaness I am basing all of my choices on were not only present in this title, but they immediately became the standard for not just this series, but the entire action-adventure genre, and most of the tropes started herein are found in game after game to this day. Ocarina of Time’s impact on gaming as a whole is undeniable, and likely unsurpassable. This is the closest gaming will ever get to perfection.
And with that, I officially wrap up my ranking of the Zelda series. Sort of. I technically left out the Oracle games, which I believe to be devoid of objective flaws, and therefore worthy of the 40/40 rank, but I just like these games better. What about you, though? What are your top five Zelda games? Did I just sell out because everybody says Ocarina of Time is the best? Did I cheat by placing a non-Zelda game on the list? Feel free to decry my opinions in the comments below, or on Twitter and our Discord server, I would love to keep the conversation plummeting!