We’re down to the top three in our rankings for the best games in The Legend of Zelda franchise. As far as climaxes go, this one is probably fairly anti-climactic as there’s a pretty clear top two in this series that the majority of gamers agree on. Though, as these games collectively get older there is undoubtedly more affection for the more recent games as suddenly a title like The Wind Waker is a normal gateway for players in their teens and twenties. Nostalgia always plays a role in a subjective exercise such as this one, though I sincerely feel these three games are the most dense and most fun Zelda experiences that Nintendo has put out. And I’m also not beholden to them. I really hope the next game in the series dethrones our champ, or at least forces its way into the conversation. Time will tell.
3. Link’s Awakening (Gameboy 1993) – Of the three titles I’m going to highlight in this post, Link’s Awakening is probably the one with the least tenable hold on the number three spot and the most fluid of the titles. I mentioned it in part two, but games six through three are really interchangeable. The order isn’t that important, but I chose to put Link’s Awakening in the three spot because it’s a very unique entry in the series, an important one, and it’s also a damn good game. Link’s Awakening is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, which is probably why the cover art is almost indistinguishable from that of A Link to the Past. When it first came out, I actually thought it was just a Gameboy port, but I of course found out I was mistaken. It’s the first portable entry in the series and is quite easily the best game released for the Gameboy, and it’s color edition is the best on the Gameboy Color, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. It laid the groundwork for all of the portable Zelda titles to follow establishing certain trends like the ability for Link to jump and equip any combination of any two items he wishes. Want to walk around with bombs and the bow? Go for it! You don’t need to just carry sword and shield everywhere. It also features a totally offbeat approach to world-building. This game is pretty wacky, and of particular delight are the numerous cameos from characters common in the Super Mario universe, in particular the US edition of Super Mario Bros. 2. There’s a lot of genuinely funny dialogue and the plot is very care-free and loose. The Gameboy hardware has some obvious limitations when it comes to handling a Zelda title, but it’s surprisingly capable here. The only aspect of the game where the hardware limitations persist is really in the two-button control setup. It does become rather tedious switching between items constantly. There’s no shortcut to do so forcing the player to pause the action and access the items from the game’s menu. It’s an inconvenience, but a necessary evil. That’s really the game’s only negative for me. It’s challenging, provides a lot of replay, and is pretty unique among the other games in the series. If you never played it, it’s available on the Virtual Console. Go for the DX version as it’s in color and has a bonus dungeon. It’s truly one of the best Zelda titles around.
2. Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64 1998) – Ocarina of Time has become perhaps the defining, and most popular, game in The Legend of Zelda series. Its use of three-dimensional polygons makes it modern, and since the game is almost twenty years old it’s become a popular introduction for many gamers to the franchise. It’s also a well-crafted, expertly paced, and visually impressive title for its era which has since been improved upon with a 3DS re-release.
Let’s go back to the mid 90’s for a minute and reminisce about the era defined by the Playstation and Nintendo 64. There was a battle for supremacy between those two consoles, and poor old Sega was left behind in the dust thanks to the Saturn. When Sega created the Saturn, they foolishly decided not to make the system natively capable of 3D graphics (it had no geometric processor and achieved 3D with the use of 2D sprites). It was a puzzling move since Sega had been at the forefront with such technology with titles like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. The Saturn was built to be a 2D powerhouse, and it was as it was the only title that could probably handle the Marvel VS series. Since it couldn’t do great 3D, consumers and game developers largely ignored it leaving Sony and Nintendo to duke it out for console supremacy. And when it came to 3D titles, Nintendo had an advantage with its more powerful hardware and analog control stick which Sony had to add years later. In this era, many popular 2D titles tried to make the move to 3D and fell hard. Eight and sixteen bit legends like Castlevania and Mega Man just couldn’t cut it in 3D, but Nintendo had great success with its properties. It started with Super Mario 64, one of the most well-received games in history, and it continued with Zelda.
Nintendo’s solution to making Zelda work in this new environment was to move the camera behind Link. The toughest challenge with any 3D game is the camera and getting it to be in the most optimal position, especially when negotiating jumps. Nintendo, realizing Zelda was never about platforming, decided to institute an auto-jump feature for Link. To attack enemies, the Z-trigger was used as a lock on mechanism where pressing the button would cause Link to lock onto an enemy. This was called Z-targeting, and once Link engaged an enemy no other enemies would pester him. As such, the combat was essentially a series of one on one affairs. While locked on, Link’s controls changed slightly allowing him to dodge left and right and hop away and towards enemies. This approach was called context sensitive actions, and it applied mostly to the A button on the N64 controller which was used for almost every action in the game. This all sounds elementary to anyone who grew up with the game, but at the time this was the kind of thing that stumped developers, but Nintendo figured it out.
Ocarina of Time’s defining trait, aside from the whole 3D thing, was the ability of Link to move back and forth through time. In the present he was just a kid, but in the alternate, dystopian future (does any other type of future exist in games?) he was an adult. The game didn’t require too much back and forth which helped keep it from getting stale. It also featured one of the better plots for a Zelda game that even saw the titular princess get her hands dirty. It introduced Ganondorf, the humanoid version of main villain Ganon, and even gave him a pretty interesting backstory. Gorons and Zoras also became more fleshed-out in Ocarina of Time and have largely remained unchanged since. The game has been so popular and so successful that every console edition of Zelda has basically played the same. That’s somewhat a weakness for newer games, but for Ocarina of Time I hardly consider it a weakness. Like the original Legend of Zelda, the game’s only real weakness is that it was limited by the technology of the time. The open fields of Hyrule are sparsely populated and pretty boring by today’s standards and it’s a damn shame the game was on a cartridge and not a CD as the score is too good for such compression. That’s all fairly trivial though. I’d tell you to go out and play the game if you haven’t already, but you probably already have numerous times.
1.A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo Japan 1991/North America 1992) – In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising A Link to the Past wasn’t titled Super Legend of Zelda, following basically every other naming convention of the time. It may not have received such a lazy title, but in many ways A Link to the Past is simply Super Zelda, because it feels like the game the original Legend of Zelda was trying to be. Not only does it look and sound much better, but it’s huge, boasting more items, more dungeons, and two whole maps! The Legend of Zelda felt like a beast of a game when it came out, and it’s crazy that in a relative short amount of time it could be bested and improved upon so completely. It makes me miss the days of old when a new console was clearly a new, and more powerful, entity.
A Link to the Past basically added everything that has become standard to the Zelda franchise. Running, tossing items, changing worlds, ocarinas, you name it – A Link to the Past has got it. The game also features a tighter narrative so gone are those cryptic messages and random puzzle switches. It might not be as hard, as a result, but it also isn’t an easy game. Be prepared to die and hear that horrid beeping sound when low on health as you try to make your way to the next dungeon. The path isn’t always clear, making the game feel like a true puzzle at times. Remember the shock of going to The Dark World for the first time and finding Link transformed into a rabbit? Or pulling the Master Sword out of the stone for the first time? A Link to the Past is full of classic moments and classic sounds. The score is legendary now and is probably still the best of the series, even if it’s not as grand in scope as the more recent entries due to limitations of the time. It’s also no less fun to play. I challenge anyone to play this game for an hour and not have a good time.
A Link to the Past arrived early in the life cycle of the Super Nintendo. It wasn’t a launch title, but gamers only had to wait about a year for it. And since the console launched with Super Mario World they had plenty of time to kill before Zelda dropped. It was a must have title when it did, and my friends that got the game first became very popular overnight. Playing through it and completing it felt like a serious accomplishment, because games just weren’t routinely this big at the time. The same phenomenon would repeat itself with Final Fantasy II and III. It wasn’t that games like this were overly difficult, they just felt like serious tests of endurance. In truth, they just highlighted how much time average gamers spent playing video games. We probably spent as much time on Super Mario Bros. 3, we just weren’t as aware of it.
A Link to the Past is the best Zelda game because almost everything in it has been carried over into the games that have followed it, even more than twenty years later. It also holds up in every respect. It may not be in 3D, but it’s still easy on the eyes and possesses a lot of visual charm. I already mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, and it’s suitably challenging and a bunch of fun to play. If I had to find a fault with it then I’d say its storyline isn’t very compelling, but that can be said of just about every Nintendo first-party title. They’re not storytellers at Nintendo, just game makers, and with A Link to the Past they may have created the greatest game ever made.