The Legend of Zelda franchise ranks as one of the best action-adventure game series of all time. It incorporated role-playing and puzzle game elements into a genre most commonly known for its hack and slash experiences—making a game enjoyable to a wide range of gamers.
During the course of this article, I will be talking a bit about each of the games that belong to this illustrious series, from conception to 2009.
* Game titles marked with an asterisk are games I have actually played.
The Legend of Zelda
- Release Date (North America): August 22, 1987
- Released for: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
- Gimmick: Ability to save in-game progress
This is the game that would lay the foundation for what would become one of the most epic action-adventure game series of all time. You assume the role of a young boy (canonically named "Link") that has to save the land of Hyrule from the clutches of Ganon. Armed with sword and shield, you explore the vast world, collecting Rupees (the game's currency) to buy potions and other helpful equipment and clearing dungeons to eventually reach your final boss fight against Ganon.
It is particularly notable for being one of the first video games to feature a battery backup that allowed the player to save their in-game progress. This meant that you didn't have to remember a password to resume your game or (worse) have to start the whole game over if you decided to turn it off. It also included a Second Quest that could be unlocked by completing the game or by typing in "ZELDA" as your character's name. In this Second Quest, dungeons and items are re-arranged and enemies are harder to defeat.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
- Release Date (North America): December 1988
- Released for: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
- Gimmick: Side-scrolling
The sequel to The Legend of Zelda was a complete deviation in the genre. Rather than a top-down action-adventure game, Zelda II is a side-scroller that added a few elements not since used in the series, such as a life counter and an experience system (by which Link leveled up and got stronger). It also marked the first time Link got to cast spells, and is perhaps the Zelda game with the largest selection of spells as well. But I would say that this game's selling point is definitely the side-scrolling experience was the gimmick.
A Link to the Past *
- Release Date (North America): 1992 (re-released several times)
- Released for: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
- Gimmick: The existence of a parallel world
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the first game of the series that I have actually played. In my humble opinion, it is also the best one out of the whole series. This game returns to the top-down tile-based style of gameplay that the first Zelda game had, while introducing a slew of new items and concepts as well. This game's gimmick is the existence of a parallel world called the "Dark World," which has both plot and gameplay relevance.
As the story goes, the Dark World used to be the Sacred Realm (or Golden Land, if you prefer) that housed the Triforce (an artifact of great power that can grant a wish to whosoever possesses it). However, an evil bandit wished to claim its power and, in doing so, turned the Sacred Realm into the Dark World.
In terms of gameplay, the Dark World serves as a parallel to the Light World in which you start the game, and quite a few puzzles involve you switching between the worlds in order to complete them (as things you do in one world can affect parts of the other world).
The Game Boy Advance remake of this game also included a multiplayer-only game called Four Swords, which would eventually spawn a sequel for the GameCube called Four Swords Adventures, which I will mention in somewhat more detail later in this article.
Link's Awakening *
- Release Date (North America): 1993 (re-released for the Game Boy Color in 1998)
- Released for: Game Boy
- Gimmick: The plot is a dream (Also, the Color Dungeon in the GBC version of the game)
Link's Awakening marks the first game of the Zelda series that was playable on a handheld. It is the sequel to A Link to the Past, and has Link going off on an adventure into unknown territory. He ends up at a strange place called "Koholint Island" that has a mysterious secret. He must proceed to clear dungeons in classic Zelda fashion in order to gain Instruments that will allow him to uncover the secret.
This game's gimmick is a minor plot point you discover at the end of the game, but the 1998 re-release of the game did add a cool gimmick dungeon that had puzzles based on color (and called appropriately the Color Dungeon).
This is also, by virtue of the system it was initially released on, the only Zelda game that has a monochrome color scheme (again, until the re-release).
Ocarina of Time *
- Release Date (North America): November 23, 1998
- Released for: Nintendo 64 (re-released several times)
- Gimmicks: Song-playing, time travel, traveling companion
Ocarina of Time is considered by many people to be the best Zelda game of all time. It represents Nintendo's foray into 3D with the Zelda franchise. It was released at a time when 3D games were starting to take off and most of them had bad graphics. While you wouldn't be able to call Ocarina of Time's graphics beautiful, they were also far from bad. The combination of decent 3D graphics with gameplay only a Zelda game could bring you catapulted the franchise as a whole onto another level.
This game has three distinct gimmicks. The first is song-playing via Ocarinas (hence the title being a minor spoiler to an item you'll get in-game). These songs can be used to do things such as make day turn into night (or vice versa), and make rain appear. Needless to say that these songs are an important part of solving puzzles in Ocarina of Time. The second gimmick is time travel. While not as world-reaching as A Link to the Past's world travel, this game's time travel still had significance. Certain items could only be attained in one time period or the other, and certain items could only be used in one time period or the other as well. Finally, this game's third gimmick is a traveling companion in the form of a fairy called Navi. She helps you to solve puzzles and defeat bosses by giving you hints and tips. Her "Hey, listen!" line has become an internet meme and is either a source of amusement or rage, depending on who you ask.
As if the above weren't enough, this is also the first Zelda game to introduce a horse that you can ride in your adventures. The canonical name for the horse is "Epona."
- Release Date (North America): October 2000
- Released for: Nintendo 64
- Gimmicks: Character transformation via masks, a time limit
Majora's Mask is the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time. It has what is probably the darkest plot of any Zelda game (except perhaps Twilight Princess) and a sense of urgency thanks to the fact that there's a moon descending on Termina, which is where the game takes place (which isn't Hyrule, making this the second Zelda game to NOT take place in the land of Hyrule). You can use your Ocarina to turn back time to delay the catastrophe (which you will have to do at some point, as the three-day limit you have is not nearly enough time to beat the game), but you lose certain items upon rolling back time, so you have to make sure to safeguard yourself against this eventuality.
This game's other gimmick is the ability to transform into different creatures via the use of masks you can equip and unequip. One mask may give you the ability to swim rapidly, while another can give you the ability to run faster.
Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages
- Release Date (North America): May 14, 2001
- Released for: Game Boy Color
- Gimmicks: Changing seasons to complete puzzles (Oracle of Seasons), time travel (Oracle of Ages), additional unlockable plotline after beating both games
The next two Zelda games are actually part of a single over-arching adventure that has a third unlockable plotline after you beat both games. This is achieved via the use of special passwords that unlock special bonuses for having beaten one game or the other. Each of the two games also has its own gimmick.
Oracle of Seasons has you changing the seasons to complete puzzles (paths blocked by snow in Winter may be passable in the Summer, for example) and Oracle of Ages has you time-traveling once again. Ages' version of time travel is more akin to the world travel of A Link to the Past than the time travel of Ocarina of Time as there's a centuries-wide gap between the setting's past and present (in contrast to Ocarina of Time's seven years) and events in the past affect things in the present (this is not nearly as prevalent in Ocarina of Time).
The Wind Waker
- Release Date (North America): March 24, 2003
- Released for: Nintendo GameCube
- Gimmicks: Sea travel via boat, power of wind
The Wind Waker is the first Zelda game that is predominantly played while in contact with water. In this version of Hyrule, most of the land has been flooded so as to prevent Ganondorf from attaining total victory. What this translates to is having to sail from one place to another with the aid of the titular Wind Waker (a baton that can control wind).
An object of much controversy in this iteration of the series is the shift from conventional graphics to cel-shading graphics, which turned off a fair amount of people from even playing the game in the first place. Even so, this is one of the most critically acclaimed games in the whole series.
The Minish Cap *
- Release Date (North America): 2005
- Released for: Game Boy Advance
- Gimmicks: Shrinking to access certain areas, solving puzzles using clones
The Minish Cap was created as the prequel to Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, but it can stand alone by its own right, and you need not play either of those games to enjoy this one.
In this game, there exists a race of small, helpful beings called the "Picori" (or "Minish"). They crafted a special sword called the "Four Sword" (this is not a typo) that allows its wielder to split into four clones of him or herself. However, not all Picori are so peaceful. This game's villain is Vaati, a Picori who seeks to gain power by draining Princess Zelda of her Light Force (yes, not the Triforce for once).
Besides the mentioned clone creation, this game's other gimmick is using the titular Minish Cap to shrink yourself. This is used both to solve puzzles and to access areas blocked by gates or terrain but with small holes that allow you to squeeze through.
This is a pretty fun game in the series that combines the 2D nature of A Link to the Past with some of the innovations the 3D games introduced, such as rolling attacks and special sword techniques.
Four Swords Adventures
- Release Date (North America): June 7, 2004
- Released for: Nintendo GameCube
- Gimmick: Multiplayer mode
Four Swords Adventures is the sequel to Four Swords, the multiplayer-only game included with the Game Boy Advance version of A Link to the Past. As you may imagine, this game's gimmick is the multiplayer mode itself, as it is the only Zelda console game to have it. Of course, for those of you in the crowd who prefer to play solo, Four Swords Adventures also has a single-player mode that plays similarly to a conventional Zelda game, albeit with four Links under your control instead of one.
- Release Date (North America): October 2007
- Released for: Nintendo DS
- Gimmicks: Use of the DS touchscreen, central dungeon
Phantom Hourglass is the first Zelda game released for the Nintendo DS and is the direct sequel to The Wind Waker. This game shares the sea-sailing mechanics of The Wind Waker, while also introducing the concept of a central dungeon that is unlocked over time by clearing the game's other dungeons. This game also shares the cel-shaded graphics that The Wind Waker had.
Twilight Princess *
- Release Date (North America): November 2006 (Wii), December 2006 (GameCube)
- Released for: Wii and GameCube
- Gimmicks: Transform into wolf form, alternate world, mounted battles
Twilight Princess features the most realistic graphics a Zelda game has ever had, as well as a trio of extremely cool gimmicks. The first gimmick, which is the game's main selling point, is the ability to transform into a wolf. At the start of the game, you can only morph into the wolf involuntarily after certain events. However, at a certain point in the game, you gain the ability to morph freely between human and wolf form, which becomes a requirement against certain bosses. As is a staple with The Legend of Zelda series, wolf form is also used to solve certain puzzles and progress in the game itself.
The second gimmick is the ability to fight while mounted on Epona. If you've ever played Ocarina of Time, you probably know how annoying it is to have to get off of Epona to use most of your weapons. Well, in Twilight Princess, you can swing your sword while mounted (just don't ask how you do it without hurting Epona).
The other cool gimmick is something that hasn't been done since A Link to the Past—The addition of an alternate dimension. In this case, it is more of a separate world than a parallel one, and you won't be visiting it in many capacities. However, game events force parts of Hyrule into Twilight, which allows you to get a taste for the Twilight Realm, and may I say that it tastes great!
The gameplay itself is solid—much more refined than Ocarina of Time, although the camera will still play tricks on you every once in a while. But at least you don't have Navi pestering you!
Spirit Tracks *
- Release Date: December 2009
- Released for: Nintendo DS
- Gimmicks: World map navigation via train, Zelda in a somewhat playable form, flute playing using the DS microphone
Spirit Tracks is a direct sequel to Phantom Hourglass. It shares both the graphics and the central dungeon gimmick of its prequel, while also adding three new gimmicks. The first of them is navigating the world via train on top of the titular Spirit Tracks. In this game, Link is an apprentice train engineer who is soon to graduate. However, on the day of his graduation, disaster strikes and Princess Zelda loses her body. Now, stuck in spirit form, she accompanies Link on his adventures to both restore her body and the Spirit Tracks which, for the most part, have disappeared as well.
This leads up into the second gimmick: Being able to control Zelda for the first time in the series. As a spirit, she can take over living suits of armor called "Phantoms" and use their varied abilities to help Link clear dungeons. All of this is done via the touchscreen, which takes a little getting used to, but is pretty innovative once you get the hang of it.
The third and final gimmick . . . I'm not so sure whether it's fun or annoying. While the concept of blowing into a microphone to emulate flute playing is cool in theory, in practice (at least in my playthrough) it's very hit and miss. You can miss a key note in a song (a few of which are blocking quests that prevent access to dungeons) and have to repeat the song again, and again, and again. Ad nauseam.
Despite that glaring flaw, Spirit Tracks is a worthy member of the franchise.
So, how many of these games have you played? If you haven't given them all a shot, I highly recommend that you do! I hope you've enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Feel free to comment below with your favorite game in the Zelda series!
Until the next time, take care and have fun!
Extra Reading Material
- "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" – A Review
This article includes my honest review of "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword," which is perhaps the best "Zelda" game of all time.
- Christianity in "The Legend of Zelda"?
A look at how Christianity was a theme in the early Legend of "Zelda" games, and how the theme was phased out in favor of an original mythos. Written by Chris Qu.
Bernie Ment from Syracuse, NY on April 08, 2014:
Very nice summary. I have only played a few titles from the series, but I suspect now that I know the ones I've missed, I might have to see if some of them are still available, along with the consoles on which to play them. Voted Up and following you.
Chris Qu on December 28, 2011:
Good stuff. I love The Legend of Zelda. Although I see a few missing asterisks in there... Get gaming, dude! ^^
Darrin Perez (author) from Puerto Rico on November 12, 2011:
@satomko: Hey! Long time no see! Hope you're doing great! :)
Well, I'll probably make a separate hub for my Skyward Sword review, sometime after I play it, assuming the game lets go of me long enough to actually write it up! :P
(Failing that, I would still add a little something on this hub about Skyward Sword, to make this synopsis complete).
Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on November 12, 2011:
A good retrospective of the Zelda Series. I hope you add information on Skyward Sword when it comes out.