The Legend of Zelda, the Nintendo adventure that revolutionized games and introduced one of the most beloved worlds in fiction, turned 30 a couple of weeks ago. Let’s not weep for our youth, though. Let’s celebrate what the series means, both for games as an artform and for the people whose lives have been touched by Link and Zelda since that first golden cartridge arrived for the NES in 1986. We’ve looked back at the entire history of Zelda, from the official installments to the weird spin-offs, and argued over which ones are the most important and best designed. Here are the results.
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23-21. The CD-i Games (Link: The Faces of Evil; Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon; Zelda's Adventure): The internet will continue to introduce future generations to these three unmitigated disasters, but I am old enough to have actually played one at a CD-i demo station in a mall in 1993. They might bear the visual trappings of a Zelda game, but they simply aren't: they weren't made by Nintendo, and despite some minor similarities to Zelda II, nothing about how they're played or structured feels like anything else the series has ever tried. We can pull up the YouTube clips and laugh at the bad cut-scenes, but that doesn't capture the peculiar soullessness of the actual games, which look vaguely like the Zelda we had come to know by that point without imparting any of its essence. Zelda clones were everywhere back then, but these games, which were sanctioned by Nintendo and used the familiar names and character designs, made accomplished knockoffs like Neutopia look as great as the real thing.—Garrett Martin
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20. Link's Crossbow Training: This isn't even a Zelda game in name only, as the princess's name is nowhere on the box. A barebones pack-in title for an inessential Wii peripheral, Link's Crossbow Training borrows the look of Zelda for a game that otherwise has nothing to do with the series in any way. It even gets Link's weapons wrong: he normally uses a bow and arrow, and has never picked up a crossbow outside of this curiosity. That training must not have gone too well for him.—Garrett Martin
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19. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes: The first hint something isn't quite right is the name. "Wait," you say, "I thought Triforce was one word?" And you would be right. This legendary symbol, the fragmented Holy Grail of the Zelda series, is no longer a treasure to be found but a word split in two for punning effect. You play alongside two other heroes—you are a Tri Force—to work together, solve puzzles and defeat treacherous baddies. Instead of items and crests, you unlock new outfits to wear. Though many provide special skills, the attire itself is often worth the trouble: Seeing Link prance in his pajamas or sashay in a dress is, admittedly, more interesting than another hookshot (though it's too bad Zelda herself couldn't fight alongside you instead of two clones).
As the first online-multiplayer Zelda game, there are clever concessions to the inevitable kinks—you earn rupies as consolation for a partner leaving the quest (or losing a Wi-Fi signal); you communicate via one of eight graphical icons instead of voice-chat, which gives the game a kind of "Simon Says" quality, if Simon was mute and hand-drawn. And when the game works, there is a kind of magic to be found here. But too often the franchise's reputation for complex, intuitive design is let down by something beyond your control: A stubborn anonymous partner, say, or a lack of close-by mates with a hunger for adventure.—Jon Irwin
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18. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords: Included as part of the Game Boy Advance version of A Link to the Past, and later released as a standalone game through DSiWare, the original Four Swords had an interesting concept but was bound by too many limitations to shine on its own. Because the game was built around co-op on a system which required people to link their GBAs together with a cable, you had to commit to finding a group and making sure everyone would stick with it. The dungeons and bosses themselves were neat, but didn't leave too much of a lasting impact. It was a short experience and didn't exactly beg you to play it again—not when it shared cartridge space with one of the greatest games of all time.—Suriel Vazquez
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17. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures: Most people don't remember Four Swords Adventures and would likely hesitate to call it a "real" Zelda game, whatever that means. That's a shame, because it had a lot of great ideas. It was a co-op game at just the right length: short enough to beat in one extended session with a group of friends, but long enough that it would take your group all of an afternoon to do so. You didn't even need friends to play it; one person could command all four Links and run them in formation with the GameCube's C-Stick. And it had one of the best uses of GameCube-to-Game Boy Advance connectivity; small caves and other indoor areas showed up on the GBA screen, which meant you could explore a house while your friends goofed around outside.—Suriel Vazquez
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16. Hyrule Warriors: Another Zelda-related game that's not really a "Zelda game," Hyrule Warriors places Zelda characters and iconography in a game based on the Dynasty Warriors template. Instead of Link facing down small groups of moblins or lizalfos, he can wipe out dozens of them with a single combo. Its simple, repetitive combat can be a fun diversion, but it misses the grandeur expected from a Zelda game. It helps to have a brain, but unlike most Zelda games you can still make it to the end without one, simply by tapping buttons at the right time.—Garrett Martin
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15. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap: Though it was perhaps the least creative handheld outing for the series, Minish Cap was far from a bad game. Its scope was not as grand as its handheld brethren, but it had a lot of heart. Being able to shrink down to the size of an ant was an elegant way to send you looking for new areas to work through between dungeons, and damn it if Ezlo isn't the best partner character in this whole series. It had a diverse set of tools and quite a few of side quests worth seeing through for more than their reward. It even gave Four Swords villain Vaati a decent backstory that tied him into the rest of the series' convoluted timeline.—Suriel Vazquez
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14. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks: Cel-shading isn't the only distinctive trait of the peculiar Zelda sub-series that kicked off with The Wind Waker. All three games are defined by transportation. The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass are built around sailing, but Spirit Tracks introduces a train that Link uses to travel from town to dungeon and everywhere in-between. Understandably it's more limited than the boats in the other two games—you have your choice between moving forward or backward—and the train portions feel less like a fully integrated main component than a weird minigame that occasionally breaks up the main quest. Still, it's a gorgeous little handheld Zelda, with some smartly crafted dungeons and a Phantom-possession mechanic that makes full use of the hardware's stylus.—Garrett Martin
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13. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: The first sequel in the landmark franchise had a weighty burden to carry. This was the first Zelda game I played back when it came out in 1988, and so my opinion of the series was unfairly skewed by the title's idiosyncrasies. A mix of RPG trademarks, such as random battles and experience points, melded with a side-on perspective that confused veterans of the top-down original. Townspeople spat out spare hints that, if not heeded correctly, would make progress near-impossible. The elegance of the original was traded for a complex duality, between overhead maps and side-scrolling action scenes, that has yet to be returned to in the subsequent thirty years of revision.
But for all of its stubborn quirks, there is a contingent who champion this odd duck for its compelling challenge, clever swordplay and unique take on a well-worn story. And if nothing else, The Adventure of Link gave us one of gaming's most memorable non-characters: Error, the poorly-named townsman with low self-esteem.—Jon Irwin
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12. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening: The first handheld Zelda was an extraordinary one. It deftly translated what made the series great (eloquent dungeon design, a world full of interesting things to do) to a handheld, and you never felt like you were missing out on a "grander" adventure because you were playing Link's Awakening on a Game Boy. You were far too busy learning the Ballad of the Wind Fish and working your way through an entirely new world and set of characters to really think about color depth or screen size, and you couldn't have asked for much more out of a handheld game in 1993.—Suriel Vazquez