The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that anybody who has an interest in gaming has tried at least once. One of Nintendo’s flagship series, there have been dozens of entries along with spin-offs and cameos. Zelda has inspired hundreds of developers to create the games we know and love today. Arguing about the best game in the series is a topic that rages to this day, so I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring by ranking every 3D Zelda game in the franchise from worst to best.
A few things to cover before we start. Please remember that this is a subjective list and that this is my opinion. Zelda is such an important series for loads of people growing up, including myself, that nostalgia will undoubtedly play a part in this ranking. Just because your favourite might be lower than you expect doesn’t diminish your experience with that game. That being said, let’s get into it, but if you could refrain from sending any nasty comments my way, that’d be swell.
6. Ocarina of Time (1998)
The disclaimer at the beginning is mainly relevant to this entry in the ranking. With my introduction to the series coming in the GameCube era, I only got around to playing Ocarina of Time until just a few years ago with the 3DS remaster. Whilst I still enjoyed the game, there were far too many elements that irritated me that have been ironed out in modern titles. Despite being remastered, the controls were simply too finicky and particular to be enjoyable. The camera is still a glaring issue, and having to trek across the vast fields of Hyrule feels like padding.
It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of Ocarina of Time these days because it hasn’t aged well. There’s no doubt that it was an important game at the time, but it feels too dated compared to other games in the series. There are positive aspects, parts of the game which still warrant revisiting. Ocarina of Time has some of the most memorable enemies and boss fights in the franchise. Who can forget the first time you encountered the Dead Hand or an Iron Knuckle? Ranking every 3D Zelda was always going to be a difficult task, but I unfortunately experienced Ocarina of Time after being spoiled by future games.
5. Majora’s Mask (2000)
Releasing only two years after the first 3D Zelda, it’s no surprise that Majora’s Mask has a lot of the same issues that I have with its predecessor. Having yet again only got around to playing the game via the 3DS remaster, it doesn’t have the nostalgia factor going for it, just like with Ocarina of Time. The controls are wonky, requiring too much precision, and the camera is just as infuriatingly wild. However, Majora’s Mask gets one over on the previous game by having a unique premise and more interesting mechanics.
While true that there were time travel elements in the first 3D Zelda, Majora’s Mask takes the opportunity to expand upon it. With only a handful of days before the moon crashes into the planet, you have to use your time wisely before the next cycle. Collecting masks that let you transform into different species is enjoyable and adds a depth to the game that Ocarina of Time was sorely lacking. Rolling around as a Goron is immensely satisfying and solves the padding issue in the previous game. These new species resulted in some of the more irritating mechanical issues, but I admire the largely successful attempt at trying to spice up the series instead of simply treading water.
4. Skyward Sword (2011)
In my opinion, Skyward Sword was unfairly maligned from the offset. Whilst its not a perfect entry in a franchise that demands perfection, it tried to do a lot of unique things. The Wii’s motion controls were used in a variety of different ways to try and capitalise on Nintendo’s new gimmick. Enemies required specific slices to be defeated which added a level of depth to the combat that previously had you standing still with a shield and waiting for an opening. I understand these controls were a breaking point for some, yet it never really bothered me.
My main issue with Skyward Sword was Fi, the overly talkative helper that halted your progress every ten minutes. Apart from that, I found the game very charming and has some of the best characters in the series to date. On almost every 3D Zelda ranking, you’ll usually find Skyward Sword languishing towards the bottom. However, I think it deserves a lot more love. It’s a vibrant, enjoyable, and varied experience and I would kill for a Switch port similar to the rumoured Mario remasters. It even caught unfair criticism for its stamina meter, something which even modern games in the franchise use to this day. Speaking of which…
3. Breath of the Wild (2017)
In stark contrast to the previous entry, Breath of the Wild is near the top of almost every 3D Zelda ranking. This list is no exception. Nintendo blew everyone away in 2017 with a reinvigoration of the classic Zelda formula. Whilst I don’t think it’s a masterpiece like many others, there’s no denying it’s a brilliant game well deserving of all the praise it’s accumulated over the last three years. Putting the focus on exploration brought Link back to his roots after a number of combat heavy games. There are still some intimidating challenges, but exploring this new version of Hyrule was the selling point.
There are some issues with the game, nitpicks as it were. Weapon durability is a hassle in any game, but is a much larger issue in Breath of the Wild. Swords would break in just a few dozen hits, but the game regularly threw new weapons at you to combat this problem. Having every reward for shrines and puzzles be either a Korok seed or an orb was also a little irritating, but there are optional puzzles within shrines to earn chests that would often give you a cool new weapon or a stylish set of threads. There are better 3D Zelda games out there, but that’s more of a testament to the series as a whole than a sleight of Breath of the Wild. Hopefully the sequel is just as good.
2. Twilight Princess (2006)
I’ve already mentioned that my introduction to The Legend of Zelda was during the height of the GameCube. These next two entries were so difficult to separate because of much of an effect they had on my childhood. People tend to overlook Twilight Princess as one of the best in the series and I have no idea why. It gave fans a moodier and more sinister Zelda game not seen since Majora’s Mask, yet improved upon it in every aspect. Combat is more fluid, the story is more relatable and heartwarming, and you can play as a wolf for crying out loud.
These wolf sections broke up the standard Zelda formula nicely, and really highlighted the oppressive tones the game set out to make players experience. Seeing civilians quake in horror as you approach them in wolf form showcases how horrifying it is for normal people. But even after the wolf sections, you’re treated to some of the best dungeons in the franchise’s history. The Forest Temple is still my favourite introductory dungeons for just how creative the puzzles and their solutions are. Twilight Princess is a fantastic experience and is only topped by one other game.
1. Wind Waker (2002)
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is a game that I have sank hundreds of hours into. Despite its rocky reception back in 2002, it became a classic game in the franchise. Its divisive art style angered a lot of fans, but has arguably made it a game that never ages. Swapping gritty realism for a colourful, cell-shaded world was what originally captivated me. Wind Waker was my first ever Zelda game and I’ve replayed it countless times since then. The HD remaster for the Wii U fixed any issues that I previously had, and I think it’s the perfect Zelda game that hasn’t been topped since.
Sailing the open seas with that sweeping orchestral soundtrack is an amazing experience. Just thinking about it makes we want to dig out my Wii U and boot it up again. The combat is simple, but incredibly rhythmic and the dungeons are so memorable that I can run through them in my head from start to finish. Link himself has never been so expressive and hasn’t been since. Wind Waker is the only game that gave him a personality and its more charming because of that. Until we see a direct sequel for Wind Waker, I don’t think it could ever be topped in my mind. It’s not only the best 3D Zelda ever, but also one of the best games ever, period.