I've been thinking a lot about Link and Hyrule with Zelda's 35th Anniversary just around the corner. Do you remember which Zelda game was your first? Of course you do. After all, it was probably the adventure that sucked you in for the rest of the franchise. So what was it about Zelda that caught your interest? What do you consider to be the best Zelda game? And why is there so much controversy among fans for what they think is the greatest Zelda game?
While Zelda games tend to feel connected to each other, they also use drastically different elements in each interation to make every title unique. I mean, even Majora's Mask feels incredibly different from Ocarina of Time, even though it employed many of the same character models and assets. As such, it stands to reason that we'd really grow attached to our Zelda gateway game and all its idiocyncrasies.
Best Zelda games: My first Zelda
My very first experience with Zelda was when my older brother borrowed A Link to the Past from a friend and I watched him play on SNES. He quickly returned it, as he didn't find it interesting (yes he has awful taste, I know), but the pink-haired boy had captured my attention. Unfortunately, I hadn't remembered the name of the game and wasn't able to fully invest in it.
A few years later, I had grown into a tween and was eagerly running through every Nintendo 64 game I could get my hands on. One summer day while playing at my friend's house, we were going through her 64 cartridges. I pulled one up to my eyes and scrutinized the red lettering on a golden background. Zelda? I'd never heard of this game. I asked if I could borrow it. She told me that she didn't care for it so I could borrow it as long as I wanted (again, bad taste). As I walked home cartridge in hand, I had no idea what I was getting into nor how much this game would impact the rest of my life.
When I got home, I plugged the cartridge into my console and immediately fell in love with The Ocarina of Time. The 3D world was huge and explored so many different fantasy elements. I dove into a world with a talking tree, rode my own horse, figured out a vast range of puzzles, and grew into a powerful adult. The game manual also inspired me to draw my own characters. I was smitten and ended up buying my own used copy of the game just so I could replay it four more times.
When Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages released on GameBoy not long after, I startled to see that some of the same characters were also employed in that game. Shortly after that I learned that Zelda is a huge franchise with a long history and I'd only just jumped into it. This is when I learned that the pink-haired boy that had captured my attention years earlier was none other than Link.
I eagerly began hunting down other Zelda games and playing them. But for me, the world of Zelda had begun with Ocarina of Time and so that's the standard by which I judged all other Zelda games, until I learned to love each one for its own quirks. Today, I freaking love most games in the Zelda franchise (the weird CD-i Zelda of nightmares being an exception), but Ocarina of Time will always have a special place in my heart.
Best Zelda games: Why we love our Zelda so much
There are so many elements involved with making a memorable and lifechanging Zelda masterpiece. It stands to reason that we'd all fall in love with a specific Zelda game for different reasons. Here are what I believe to be the biggest ones.
1.) Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Zelda art styles
Zelda and Hyrule have gone through some crazy changes through the years. For comparison, take a look at the original Mario designs and compare them with what we have today, there really isn't that much of a difference to how he or the Mushroom Kingdom looks. Sure, they've received tweaks to make them more in line with current art standards. However, Mario's still in overalls, he's short, he's got his hat, and he has a mustache. Perhaps most importantly, Mushroom Kingdom characters always have a lighthearted, cartoony look to them.
Now think about your favorite Hylians through the years. True, Link's iconic green tunic and hat have been a common element, as well as the Master Sword. However, the art styles employed between games has differed — a lot. Sometimes drastically. Just think about Twilight Princess versus Wind Waker. Anyone who first experienced the world of Zelda while riding the seas with the cartoony King of Red Lions is going to expect more of a playful feel to the next games in the Zelda series, while anyone who first fell in love with Zelda while playing Twilight Princess expects darker, grittier adventures from upcoming titles.
I'm all for Zelda exploring new art styles and game mechanics as this keeps the series fresh. There are definitely some other franchises that could learn from this. cough Pokemon cough. Excuse me. However, this also means that there are different types of Zelda fans since people are brought into an existing franchise after falling in love with a specific style.
2.) Zelda characters with... character Unique personalities
If I had to choose one word to discribe Zelda NPCs, it would definitely be "quirky" or maybe even "weird". Just look at Tingle the fairy man, ??? the ghost hand that's usually in a toilet, Ghirahim the fabulous sword-licking fiend, or the voluptuous Great Fairies with their larger-than-life...personalities. I mean, sometimes when playing a new Zelda game, I bump into a brand new character that has so much charisma that I figure it is a recurring character only to realize that it's just a very memorable new one.
The strange side-stories and personalities that Link encounters along his journey helps give the whole Zelda game character and provides a unique feel for that game. Naturally, we come to love or even hate some of those characters. Tingle is a prime example of this. There are people that aboslutely love his enthusiastic nature while others find him down-right creepy.
Seeing how Link fits into NPCs' lives as they deal with the loss of a loved one, life-altering transformation, or even the lack of parental love helps him get a better understanding of the world that many of us can relate to.
3.) Dungeons & puzzles Amazing Zelda logic
As with most of you, I'm a huge sucker for Zelda puzzles and dungeons. Figuring out what tools I need to use or what moves I need to make in order to defeat bosses or unlock new areas keeps me going and let's be honest, makes me feel smart when I figure them out. Each Zelda game has puzzles that tend to match the look and feel of the story.
The dungeon and puzzle difficulty plays into our interest in the games. When a game meets our level but still remains challenging, I think we're more inclined to like it than when a Zelda title is too easy. But of course, that distinction differs from person to person.
4.) Ageless stories Link helps us come of age
Just about every Zelda game is a coming of age story. Link learns of a great evil in the land and must venture out on his own to try and stop it. He begins as a weak little boy and grows into a strong and knowledgable warrior. No matter how old you are, the process of growing into something better is always appealing. And Zelda makes you earn it. Those puzzles and many of the bosses aren't easy, so you have to use your brain and really think things through in order to progress.
When we find a version of Link that seems to match how we see ourselves, it becomes cathartic watching him grow and best his demons as it gives us a sense of control over the bad things that can happen in our real lives. Some games are lighter while others delve into darker themes, but there's still a decent range within each Zelda title. I think we tend to gravitate towards the ones that match what we need right now.
5.) Different weapons and mechanics Shaking up the Zelda formula
Link's arsenal isn't just filled with weapons — many of his gadgets and abilities are necessary for completing puzzles. As such, each game employs new tools for him to use, which help shake up the existing Zelda formula. Admittedly, we all find that some of these mechanics and weapons have been better than others. But that once more helps us solidify why we think a certain Zelda game is better than the rest.
I personally found the motion controls of Skyward Sword to be difficult to control, especially since my Wiimote disconnected every few minutes. However, some other people absolutely love swinging their controller around while playing that game. Breath of the Wild introduced weapons with durability levels and while some people have grown to like it, many people have it on a list of things we don't want to see in Breath of the Wild 2. At any rate, we learn to love the mechanics of certain Zelda games which helps us determine which are the best Zelda games.
You never forget your first Zelda
The first Zelda we fall in love with shapes our idea for what to expect from other games in the series. Since each game employs such a unique art style and vastly different characters, it makes them all very unique even while still feeling like Zelda titles. This makes it so that the Zelda fan base is filled with people who love the games for very different reasons. While we might not all agree on which titles are the best Zelda games, it's nice knowing that there are so many of us who love these quirky, fantasy puzzle adventures.
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Gaming aficionado Rebecca Spear is iMore's dedicated gaming editor with a focus on Nintendo Switch and iOS gaming. You’ll never catch her without her Switch or her iPad Air handy. If you’ve got a question about Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, or just about any other Nintendo series check out her guides to help you out. Rebecca has written thousands of articles in the last six years including hundreds of extensive gaming guides, previews, and reviews for both Switch and Apple Arcade. She also loves checking out new gaming accessories like iPhone controllers and has her ear to the ground when it comes to covering the next big trend.