Ranking the 3D Legend of Zelda Games
With the recent reveal of the sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild, I’ve decided to take on the task of trying to rank each of the 3D entries in Nintendo’s critically acclaimed, influential and iconic fantasy series The Legend of Zelda. While this list is subjective (it’s impossible to find a true winner in such an outstanding series of games) I will be providing reasoning and explanations for each of my rankings in an attempt to add as much clarity as possible.
6. Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword came at a time when the Zelda franchise was having somewhat of an identity crisis. While the series obviously needed a shot in the arm to diverge itself from the conventions that were starting to suffocate each new release, the developers were struggling to figure out what that new direction could and should be. One of those attempts at doing something new with the franchise came in the form of Skyward Sword, and if its positioning on this list is any indication they didn’t exactly achieve their goal.
While Skyward Sword did offer an exciting new control scheme utilising the Wii’s MotionPlus controller for 1-to-1 sword control and extra precision, the structure of the game itself was its biggest failing. Skyward Sword is by far the most bloated 3D entry in the franchise, with the game seemingly being incapable of taking the training wheels off players and letting them explore at their own pace.
A point of criticism that’s often levied towards the game is Fi, Link’s companion who refuses to stop interrupting the flow of the game to constantly provide unnecessary information and assistance. Arguably an even more egregious design choice is the linearity of the entire adventure. There are three major regions in the game, and throughout the game you’re sent to revisit each of these regions several times to access different dungeons. While the game attempts to make each of these revisits feel distinct, it hardly matters because they’re structured like well-disguised corridors. Instead of being given vast spaces to move around in and explore, players are pushed in very specific directions with very little room to go off-the-beaten-path and discover secrets throughout the world. It’s antithetical to the beating adventurous heart of the series, and it’s by far Skyward Sword’s biggest downfall.
Despite having some of the most enjoyable dungeons and one of the most well-constructed narratives in the series, the miserable pacing and complete lack of freedom keep Skyward Sword firmly at the bottom of the list.
5. Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess was my first entry into the series, so naturally it has a very special place in my heart. With that being said, it’s hard to argue that Twilight Princess has a fair few missteps that keep it from being one of the strongest entries in the series. Its most damning issue is that it struggles to carve out an identity of its own, instead riding on the coattails of previous titles (most notably Ocarina of Time) and relying too heavily on fanservice, as opposed to fleshing out its own ideas and characters.
These issues become most apparent in the game’s narrative. The conflict between Link’s companion Midna and the enigmatic Zant is so thick with mood and emotion that you can feel the intense history between the two long before it becomes fully elaborated on. The looming Twilight Realm, which is engulfing Hyrule and bridging the gap between two worlds that were never meant to collide also helps to give Twilight Princess a distinct flair initially. There’s a sense of mystery and dread that permeates the early parts of the game until the story reveals that the old villain Ganondorf was actually behind everything, undercutting the fresh new world building and conflict that made the narrative intriguing in the first place.
From then on, Zant slowly starts to take a backseat before he’s inevitably dealt with as players are subjected to what is essentially a clash between Ocarina of Time fanservice and a game that’s trying to be its own unique take on the series.
It doesn’t help that a couple of fundamental gameplay issues hurt the package as well. The sections of the game where it’s necessary to play as Wolf Link have some interesting ideas, but on repeat playthroughs they can feel like an absolute chore. The same can be said for the game’s intro, which drags on unnecessarily long. The most questionable design choice is the low difficulty of the game, which feels like it directly contrasts against the darker tone and more adult tone that the developers were obviously trying to go for.
However, the strongest moments of Twilight Princess more than make up for its misgivings, with the overall positives far outshining the flaws in the end. In some ways, Twilight Princess feels like the most “epic” instalment in the series even to this day, with excellent set pieces and a large sense of scale, including multiple plot threads that run simultaneously throughout the course of the narrative and a large cast that all contribute something to the overall game. Not only that, but it has some of the most impressive dungeons in the series both mechanically and visually, and an overworld that provides a good balance of scope and content.
Twilight Princess is a truly dense game that misses the mark in some key areas, only to completely outshine itself in others. It’s an uneven game, but it’s also one that’s sure to win over most players by the time the credits roll.
4. The Wind Waker
If there was ever an argument to be made about art direction over realism, it would without a doubt be The Wind Waker. Despite receiving a strong negative reaction during its reveal for being seemingly too “childish” and “cartooney”, Nintendo stuck to its guns with its vision, releasing a game that managed to win over almost everyone who played it. It’s no easy task to completely change a person’s mind, but it’s a testament to how truly outstanding The Wind Waker is as a videogame.
Not only is the game undeniably charming with the most expressive and immediately endearing incarnation of Link helming the adventure, but its cell-shaded visuals have left them feeling timeless, looking almost as good now as it did over 15 years ago. This expressiveness also helps to create a more instantaneous connection with the cast of characters, with each of them becoming almost immediately memorable and distinct, which also helps create a strong foundation for a story that has a surprisingly strong emotional undercurrent beneath its childish façade.
The beautiful world of The Wind Waker is further supported by the seemingly endless ocean that can be explored freely through the use of Link’s talking boat and companion The King of Red Lions, and in doing so exploration leads to numerous useful upgrades and fun secrets.
While The Wind Waker manages to match the content of the other 3D Zelda titles when all of the side content is explored, its main story feels noticeably rushed. During the second half of the game, things start to take a downward turn as players are subjected to the infamous Triforce Quest – arguably gaming’s most notoriously irritating fetch quest that can last hours for the unprepared. While the initial requirement of searching the world for missing pieces of Triforce sounds like a reasonable enough idea on paper, the real irritation comes from the absurd number of Rupees players are expected to amass to decipher the charts that lead to those pieces. It’s such an egregiously long-winded process that it single-handedly makes replaying the game feel like a daunting process.
If The Wind Waker managed to have a late-game that was as strong as the early sections, not being so clearly padded, then it would no doubt be gunning for the top spot. With that being said it’s still undoubtedly one of the most cheerful and smile-inducing adventure games ever created.
3. Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is a game that’s so far removed from the series as a whole that it could be treated as a reboot. Not only did it re-define the series in a way that was both refreshing and indicative of past entries, but it also heightened the standards for the open world genre as a whole, making its contemporaries look somewhat dated by comparison upon its release.
Breath of the Wild’s key component is its commitment to the idea of pure player freedom. This freedom is so profound that immediately after the tutorial, players are given the option to go and try and tackle the final boss. In an era where games are so obsessed with players experiencing them the way designers intended, it’s incredibly refreshing to experience a game that doesn’t seem to care if you skip whatever you want to skip.
Not only is the design philosophy great for an open world game, but its interactions also put other open world games to shame. It feels like you play around with almost everything, with a chemistry and physics systems that can lead players to discover new methods of play well after they thought they’d figured it all out. When these ideas are combined with a world that’s so full of distinct and varied locations and landmarks, it’s hard not to feel like you’re playing an instant classic.
Breath of the Wild is far from a flawless game. It has balancing issues with its cooking system, enemy variety could be a little larger, the narrative doesn’t quite stack up to other 3D entries, and I’m sure there are numerous other aspects of the game that people take grievance with; but when a game is this forward thinking and well realised, it feels pedantic to hold on to those smaller issues and not just get lost in the feeling of true adventure.
2. Majora’s Mask
What is arguably Nintendo’s darkest and bravest game ever created also happens to be one of their best. Being the sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask had an incredibly tough act to follow, and what was even more daunting was the seemingly absurd one-year time limit the developers had to work on the game. By all accounts, a single year to create the sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time should’ve led to disaster, but miraculously it was this short schedule that led to the masterpiece that Majora’s Mask became.
Majora’s Mask is a game that deals with a lot of heavy themes. It deals with the denial and acceptance of death, existentialism, identity, bullying, isolation, and companionship. It even deals with the topic of climate change, a discussion that’s only become more relevant and important over recent years. It’s hard to know whether the developers intended to include all these themes into the game, but the time constraints meant that there was no time for second guessing, and it led to a game that manages to hit so many emotional beats that it could be comparable to a piece of classic literature.
At its heart it’s a beautiful, emotive piece of art, but it’s also a strong divergence from the series mechanically and thematically, and in that sense, it perfectly matches the more foreign and dreamlike feeling the game entails. Unlike past entries in the series that support players taking their time to explore the world and uncover secrets at their own pace, Majora’s Mask is on a three-day time limit that forces players to complete certain parts of the game before the moon that’s looming over the land of Termina crashes down, annihilating everyone. There’s a foreboding tension constantly permeating throughout the game because of this, with planning ahead being a necessity.
The constant countdown to doomsday leads to some of the most interesting NPC interactions in gaming, with each character processing the events differently. Some characters refuse to believe the moon will crash, while others start to cower in fear as the end of their life draws nearer. These interactions also lead to some incredibly sombre questlines. Sure, you’ve helped a pair of sisters keep their farm safe, but does it really matter when you know the two of them aren’t going to wake up the following morning?
Majora’s Mask constantly balances a tightrope tonally between its small victories, and the knowledge that there’s still a much bigger threat that needs to be taken care of. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another Zelda game - or another videogame for the matter - like this again, but it’s this unique journey into the macabre that makes Majora’s Mask so special.
1. Ocarina of Time
While this might be a predictable placement, there’s a good reason for its constant recognition as one of gaming’s finest. Ocarina of Time is the perfect balance of the necessary components for a great adventure.
Throughout the early parts of the game, players are deceived into believing they’re doing the correct thing by collecting the Spiritual Stones from around Hyrule to unlock the Temple of Time, only to have the rug pulled out from under them when they realise that doing so has transported Link seven years into the future, and during that time Ganondorf has taken over the world. It’s from that moment that Ocarina of Time transforms itself from an enjoyable and optimistic adventure about defeating evil to a game about taking responsibility for your actions, and what it means to be an adult.
It’s an uphill struggle for Link and the players, with every part of the world that once felt inviting and friendly becoming imposing and threatening. But it’s also at this point that the game becomes something truly special. There aren’t many happy conclusions in Ocarina of Time, just bittersweet outcomes. Even by the time the credits roll, Link is sent back to his own timeline to never interact again with the world he just risked his life to save. It’s a game that plays with the tropes of an adventure story, taking expectations, flipping them on their head and transforming them into something greater.
It might sound like a gloomy game, but the sheer joy of playing it makes it impossible to put down. There’s a genuine sense of comradery between Link and the various characters and species he assists throughout the game, and it’s that sense of commitment that makes the player want to continue through. The game is also accompanied by arguably the best soundtrack in the industry, breathing extra life into each location and scenario.
For an early 3D adventure game, it miraculously still somehow manages to play well to this day. The controls are intuitive, with sword fights having a great sense of pace and control, and each item feeling unique with their own animations and functions. These fundamental controls are also helped along by numerous brilliantly designed dungeons, with distinct atmospheres and a great difficulty curve to accompany them, topped off with bosses that are both visually distinct and mechanically engaging.
Ocarina of Time is simply a timeless classic, one that maintains its relevance no matter how many years pass. It wasn’t just a huge leap forward for 3D gaming upon its release, it’s an outstanding title to this day, with a masterful sense of pacing and cohesion that’s still putting most modern AAA games to shame.