When they hear the term “video game,” people often think of The Legend of Zelda. Whether those two simple words conjure up images of series protagonist Link, the monstrous main antagonist Ganon, or Princess Zelda herself, no one can deny the influence Legend of Zelda has had not only on video game fandom but also on pop culture.
From the series’ earliest entries in the mid-1980s to its most recent sequels, check out all the essential Zelda games everyone should play after beating Tears of the Kingdom.
The Legend of Zelda
In 1986, the world of video games changed forever with the arrival of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda. The first entry in the now-classic series, The Legend of Zelda, follows the adventures of an elf-human boy named Link in the mythical fantasy kingdom of Hyrule.
When the evil sorcerer Ganon captures Princess Zelda, Link must find eight fragments of an artifact known as the Triforce to rescue the princess and defeat him. Released to the NES, The Legend of Zelda became a critical and commercial success for Nintendo. In later years, it earned praise as one of the most remarkable games of its era and an early classic for the Japanese studio.
Over the years, Zelda (1986) has been rereleased to various Nintendo systems, including the GameCube, Wii, 3DS, and Switch. It remains an influential game that set a high standard for nearly every game that followed.
It may seem dated by today’s standards in terms of gameplay, but it remains an undisputed classic that any self-respecting gamer should play at least once in their lifetime.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past
The original Legend of Zelda may have been the first in the franchise, but The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past helped cement the series as the pop culture phenomenon we know today.
Years after the first two Zelda games, A Link to the Past sees Link again battling the series’ antagonist, Ganon, to save Hyrule while attempting to rescue the descendants of the Seven Stages (magical protectors meant to defend Hyrule).
With previous games, Nintendo had implemented a sideways camera angle in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. With A Link to the Past, the game’s developers went back and improved the gameplay style of the original game, returning to the top-down perspective of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.
Rather than copying the original game’s format, A Link to the Past improves every aspect of the initial game, introducing well-known staples like the Master Sword and the idea of parallel worlds.
Released to overwhelming praise in 1991, gamers now consider it one of the greatest games ever and one of the most essential Zelda games the studio has ever released. It has since been made playable on every Nintendo system that followed the SNES, including the Wii, the Wii U, and the Switch.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Like many Nintendo properties, the Zelda series has seen plenty of games released to handheld consoles like the Game Boy, DS, and Wii U. The first of these came with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, released in 1993 to the Game Boy.
One of the few games not to feature Zelda herself or the land of Hyrule, in Link’s Awakening, players find themselves stranded on a magical island guarded by a sleeping whale-like creature known as the Wind Fish.
Battling various monsters, players control Link as he searches for eight musical instruments to wake the Wind Fish and return him home.
Though made for the Game Boy, Link’s Awakening does not suffer from the usual complaints video game fans have when it comes to handheld console games (the main being it’s too short, poorly developed, and feels like an unnecessary cash-grab rather than an honest attempt to make an enjoyable game).
Instead, Link’s Awakening can stand on its own and justifiably compete with the other entries in the series.
With the high acclaim the game won upon release, anyone can see that Link’s Awakening could do just that, going on to be named one of the greatest video games of all time and later being remade for the Switch.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Like A Link to the Past before it, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time improved and developed the overall Zelda series, introducing popular new concepts praised by fans, including the use of a third-person perspective, a targeting-lock system, and an open 3D world to explore.
Ocarina of Time finds Link on a quest traveling through time to stop the villainous Ganon from obtaining possession of the Triforce. Like the numerous other Zelda games on this list, Ocarina of Time pushed the gaming world in new directions, introducing many elements now commonplace in the Zelda series and video games in general (including that influential targeting system and context-sensitive button controls).
A direct influence on everything from Grand Theft Auto III to The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Ocarina of Time set a high standard for video games that followed, helping keep the Zelda franchise relevant 12 years after the franchise began.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
In 2000, Nintendo released a direct sequel to the popular Ocarina of Time in the form of Majora’s Mask. Set two months after the events of Ocarina of Time, Link finds himself in Termina, a parallel world facing potential annihilation with a nearby moon set to crash into the planet in three days.
Though little had changed in gameplay from Ocarina of Time, the game made just enough innovations to differentiate itself from the previous entry to the franchise. Said innovations included the time-sensitivity aspect of the game and several collectible masks that allowed Link to transform into different creatures.
While it performed only about half as well as Ocarina of Time from a commercial perspective, it earned positive reviews and is now considered one of the most beloved video games ever.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The tenth overall installment in the Zelda franchise came in 2002 with The Wind Waker, another popular and viable release for Nintendo. Set on a group of islands in the middle of the sea rather than the series’ signature setting of Hyrule, The Wind Waker follows Link as he tries to save his sister from the clutches of Ganon.
Using a talking ship called the King of Red Lions, Link takes to the high seas, sailing from island to island using a magical conductor’s baton known as the Wind Waker to control the direction of the wind.
Abandoning the more realistic graphics of earlier games, The Wind Waker utilizes cartoon-like cel-shaded figures (a feature that looks spectacular to this day). However, the new artistic style divided die-hard fans of the series, opting for Nintendo to revert to the series/ more realistic presentation of Twilight Princess.
Despite mixed reception over the game’s graphics, The Wind Waker earned praise for its gameplay, story, music, and addictively fun level design. Fortunately, fans have warmed to the game’s design since its release, with The Wind Waker now considered one of the finest Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
As mentioned under Link’s Awakening, Nintendo released more than a few games exclusively made for the company’s handheld consoles, with the Zelda series releasing nine games to said devices over the years.
Aside from Link’s Awakening, the most notable remains The Minish Cap, released to the Game Boy Advance in 2004. Acting as a prequel to 2002’s Four Swords, the game begins when Zelda is turned into stone.
To save the princess, Link, with the help of a magical talking hat named Ezlo that can shrink Link to microscopic size, sets out to find the Minish, a small race of humans about the size of a thumb. The game utilizes many gameplay mechanics pioneered throughout the Zelda franchise, including the top-down perspective, and provides an origin story for the Four Swords’ creation.
The second entry in the Four Swords chronology, The Minish Cap won positive reviews upon release, going on to earn the GameSpot award for 2005 Game Boy Advance Game of the Year (it had been released in the US a year after it hit stores in Japan and Europe).
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
The final Zelda of the GameCube and the first released on the Wii, Nintendo intended Twilight Princess as a project that harkened back to the tone and gameplay style of the earlier Zelda games after the somewhat radical departure of The Wind Waker.
Set centuries after Ocarina of Time and between the events of Majora’s Mask and Four Swords Adventures, in an alternate timeline to The Wind Waker (the Zelda chronology is pretty confusing), in this game, players again control Link, this time as he tries to save Hyrule from a dark parallel dimension known as the Twilight Realm.
Though Twilight Princess reverted to the basic mechanics of the Zelda games before Wind Waker, it did little to improve or develop the gameplay style of the franchise any further. Much of the overall gameplay remains similar to earlier Zelda games, with little room for innovation (aside from Link now being able to take the form of a wolf). Regardless, Twilight Princess won positive reviews from fans and critics, winning several awards for Game of the Year.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The sixteenth entry in the Zelda franchise, Skyward Sword relied heavily on the Wii’s MotionPlus system, allowing players complete control over Link’s sword movements.
Perhaps the most unique game in the Zelda series for this reason alone, Skyward Sword is the perfect kind of game developed for the Wii, utilizing an innovative set of mechanics designed for the Wii (similar to how Link’s Awakening had been designed to take advantage of the Game Boy’s unique format).
Released in 2011 after five years of development, Skyward Sword finds Link in the floating city of Skyloft before he embarks on a journey to save Zelda from the Surface (the abandoned world under the clouds). Inspired by the artwork of Post-Impressionist painters like Cézanne, Skyward Sword notched another major success for Nintendo, resulting in high sales numbers, and the game itself remains one of the greatest achievements tied to the Wii.
The game’s popularity later resulted in a remastered version, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, released for the Switch in July 2021.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild
Breath of the Wild is one of the most popular games in recent memory, and it continues to be seen as the greatest game in Zelda’s canon. Praised by most fans, it’s the series’ masterpiece, possessing little to any flaws or weaknesses, and is considered by many to be an almost perfect video game.
The nineteenth entry in the Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild, takes place at the very end of the series’ timeline, with Link waking up after a century-long hibernation to once again battle Ganon and save Hyrule.
In many ways, Breath of the Wild feels like the most liberating installment in the Zelda series, with the game offering very little instruction or guide telling players what to do. Instead, gamers let loose to explore the world, collect various items, and complete the missions in any fashion they choose.
The game introduces such new concepts as the idea of an expansive open world, a realistic physics engine, slo-mo combat mechanics, and extreme attention to detail when it comes to in-game settings. (Players that wear metal during a thunderstorm will get electrocuted; if they don’t dress warm enough in a cool location, they suffer damage.)
Lauded by longtime fans of Zelda and video game critics, Breath of the Wild ranks among the most innovative, fleshed-out, and enjoyable Zelda games. It allows players to explore a large mapped-out world at their disposal and, much like the original ’86 Legend of Zelda, set a new standard for all open-world video games that followed.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).