To say that the Nintendo Switch has been a smash success would be an understatement. In less than a full calendar year since its release, it has out-sold its predecessor, the Wii U, which required four years to achieve. Of course, it helps that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, was a launch title, even if it was cross-platform.
Back in May 2017, we at Geeks Under Grace attempted to run a “Zelda Week,” a week dedicated to publishing pieces on various aspects to the Legend of Zelda universe. Unfortunately, we experienced several service outages from our web host, killing our momentum as a site, let alone this piece which was supposed to serve as a finale for Zelda Week. Better late than never, I think our writers would all agree.
I like “Top 10” lists as much as Satan likes Jesus. While I am certain that I could readily find “Top 10 Zelda,” articles, one of our tabletop gaming department writers, Derek Thompson, suggested that we not necessarily focus on the “best” Zelda game, but instead, why a specific entry in the series is our personal favorite. Here is hoping that readers will find their personal choice among our staff’s contributions.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It’s so easy to allow the “high” of the newest game in a series to influence your opinion of its entire legacy. It’s the same for movies: during the movie, and even a bit after, it’s easy to come away feeling like it was a spectacular experience. As time passes and you’re allowed to digest and stew over the film—perhaps even see it twice—you begin to find its flaws and generate a more honest opinion of it. I’m very guilty of this, especially when it comes to titles for which I have had high expectations. Every new Zelda release with exception of Phantom Hourglass has blown me away in one way or another. However, after beating them and moving on to another game, I am able to look at them more critically. As cliché as it may be to say at this point in time, Breath of the Wild is as close to perfection as a Zelda title can get.
In Breath of the Wild, Link is finally given his own personality. He emotes, reacts, balks, gasps, winces, and projects himself into the situations in which he finds himself. Mind, he’s done this for most 3D releases in the Zelda franchise, but there was always a distance between himself and what was going on around him. In BotW (and Skyward Sword…), Link seems as much a part of the world as the quest he undertakes. Zelda, for once, has her own personality. She’s a strong character without the cost of her dignity, femininity, or resolve. She’s given a life of her own, a story, a family, a motivation, and even a proverbial dragon to slay before she can rise to fulfill her role. It’s through Zelda that we are given an explanation for Link’s franchise-famous silence. Link himself is very much the noble innocent—bold as a tiger, but quietly he’s wrestling with insecurity and the crushing weight of the expectations of him. In a way, he and Zelda carry the same burden. Where Zelda outwardly expresses her struggle, even turning on Link as a result, Link holds his in so he can be strong for her and instill confidence in those around him. Their relationship to each other and to the champions expands on their character even further. For example, it’s revealed that Zelda’s mother passes away before she could teach her how to be a strong leader. In one of Link’s memories, we see Urbosa filling the gap that this loss leaves within Zelda’s heart. She’s a strong, confident leader of her people, but she allows Zelda to see a very motherly side of her.
The narrative in BotW is so subtle that casual players run the risk of missing it. On the other hand, the little details that diehard fans want are there—if they’re willing to look for them. The game presents a powerful case of “show, don’t tell,” and while the its focus is on exploration and discovery of the world, this applies to the characters, too. You explore who they are and discover them as individuals. For me, this is the defining factor. I love the massive world map, the mechanics are well executed, the crafting and cooking are nice touches, and the story itself is a strong one. But the way that the heart of the characters endeared me along with the humanity and the spirit of the cast swept me off my feet. Finally, we know the princess that needs saving. At long last, we understand that Link is courageous not because he charges head first into combat, but WHY he does so. He suffers in silence, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders without a peep of complaint. He’ll stop to help anyone and risk life and limb for someone that wrongly projected her envy and frustrations out on him. He’s humble in his prowess and works to improve himself despite everything. At long last, the characters that I grew up beside feel like genuine human beings rather than untouchable figures of legend.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
When video games moved to 3D, I was not ready. I’m still not. I got an NES when I was around 5 years old, and was a die-hard Nintendo fanboy even after Squaresoft defected to Sony and its PlayStation (I eventually just had to buy twice as many consoles). Those days of 2D games on the NES and SNES are still some of the greatest gaming moments of my life, and certainly The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was a huge part of that experience.
3D games were supposed to impress, but to me they just looked blocky, and first-person games gave me motion sickness. (I didn’t play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time until years after the fact, because in the worst mistake of my life, I told my mom I wanted a Virtual Boy and didn’t want to wait for an N64. Didn’t I just mention I get sick from motion?) When I got a GameCube, however, I played Wind Waker “on time” and loved the cel-shaded graphics. I’m a sucker for cartoony, anime-esque art in any medium (nowadays, particularly board games). Bright colors and third-person gameplay kept my nausea issues at bay. It was a fantastic experience; even though I don’t care much for water in general, and the middle stretch of the game took way too long.
At the same time, the Game Boy was growing up into the Game Boy Advance. This was basically a portable SNES! The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap took the cel-shaded style of Wind Waker and transported it to the 2D realm. This was a perfect mash-up for me. Furthermore, while many of the handheld Zelda games have had a “gimmick” with varying success, Minish Cap‘s shrinking mechanic was especially fun, building on traditional puzzles in new and exciting ways, and led to beautiful environments for mini-Link to explore.
Minish Cap showed how much farther Zelda could go in the 2D realm, and solidified, for me, that the Game Boy Advance was a legitimate gaming system, different from how we might have viewed phone games as “time wasters” in recent times, like the original Game Boy was often viewed. This was something much greater. Final Fantasy games coming back to Nintendo, Fire Emblem, Metroid (2D again!), and many other geeky games rotated through my GBA’s cartridge slot, but Minish Cap was the game that solidified the system as my favorite platform to this very day.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
My first exposure to console gaming came early in my life with the Nintendo Entertainment System. I think every person with any familiarity of that platform at the time, whether they owned one or not, was incredibly familiar with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, being that they were packaged with the system. My cousins had an NES before I had one of my own, and with my time over at their house, I became well-trained in the art of Mario before I ever got a chance to play at my own home. Their collections were fairly indicative of their age group with those two titles and several licensed games that probably haven’t stood up as well against the test of time. Gaming in those days was good, but I was limited in not having games of my own. In those days, my family didn’t have a whole lot of extra money, but one day, my dad brought home an NES, much to my surprise. With it was one sole game, a cartridge I had yet to see or ever hear of—a shining gold cartridge, slightly weathered on the exterior, but its label was like new. The image and name on it thoroughly intrigued me: an ornate lone sword with a title, alluding to a continuation of events unknown to me: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
My dad hooked up the machine, blew on the cartridge (because that’s just what you do), and fired up the game. The music chimed through our living room like electronic harps, and the menu image was almost Arthurian: a sword was plunged into the edge of rocky cliffside. After entering his initials, the game began with the side view of a green-clad character, standing below a princess. Wait, what?!? She isn’t in another castle; she’s already here! With no instructions, my dad jumped up repeatedly at her, as if to wake her, but to no avail. We knew the maiden slept, so surely, we must seek a way to wake her. He moved right until something happened, and suddenly the perspective changed. Wait, now it’s all top down. Ok, that’s a change, but we’re on a road, so that’s awesome! Wonder where it goes? Let’s find out. We walked a bit, slightly wandering off the trail. Wait, where did those enemies come from? They’re moving fast! Get back to the road! AHH! Too late! Slash! slash! slash! …and I guess we can move right out of here. Ok, now we’re back; we should probably get on the road. It might be good to stay on it…but look, there’s the opening to a cave. We should probably go there. we’ll just cut through the trees and…OH NO! RUN! more enemies are coming! Whew! We made it to the cave. It’s awful dark in here, but everything seems alright. We’ll just move along, just keep going. Ouch! Something hit us; we’re not alone in here. Swinging wildly, we run! AHH! Ok, we’re safe; daylight welcomes our escape! Hey, look, there’s a castle! We’ve got to go there.
From that point, we played all night. Now, keep in mind: I had been actively playing NES, but my dad had not. In retrospect, I can’t overstate the instant hook that game had over my “non-gamer” dad. I also can say that we didn’t have any deep history with Castlevania or any game in that vein that I now see Zelda II to evoke. To us that night, the experiences within Zelda II were entirely new, and little did I know as a kid in a pre-internet age, they were unexpected experiences for anyone who came to the game after playing through the original. As was common of games then, difficulty was high and health was sparing; newbies like my dad didn’t progress very far. Ganon chuckled heartily and often at our failures. We did the best we could, but we only ever got so far—this is until my dad brought home a Game Genie and its accompanying code book. With one of his friends over, I stayed up all night with them both as my dad journeyed through the game from beginning to completion. Some might see this as unabashed cheating…maybe it was, but still, with near infinite lives, the only thing holding him back in this hero’s journey was his own drive to move forward. We made our way through mazes, caves, and forests, and we even journeyed over rivers and seas. We gathered gear that enabled us to do incredible things, battled creatures throughout, and, in the course of a very long day and night, we saved Princess Zelda.
Had my dad and I played through The Legend Of Zelda first, we might have had reason to be hesitant to the allure and trappings of Zelda II. Over the years, I’ve heard all the “Not My Zelda” talk about the game, but gaming and gaming journalism was very different back then. Reporting didn’t go much further than magazines like Nintendo Power and GamePro, and honestly, promotion didn’t go much further than there either. I don’t know how most people even heard about games other than just taking a fistful of cash to the store and gambling like so: “That cover looks nice. I’ll take it.” These were the days when GameStop had yet to take over the world and multimillion-dollar ad campaigns for video games was considered an embarrassing waste of money. Thus, my dad and I had never heard of this game. It didn’t matter. We found Zelda II, or better yet, it found us.
I think my dad had no intention of getting any other game, and I enjoyed playing with him so much that I didn’t mind. Still, in time, I would acquire and expand into many other titles, but my dad never really connected with any other game, NES or otherwise. There was a great journey in that title, no matter how different it is within the entirety of the series. Of course, most 2D games in the franchise that followed it were modeled after the gameplay of the original, but being different doesn’t equate being bad. Throwing the gauntlet down, I’ll say that Zelda II gives players much more incentive to keep going than the original did. Most games of that day left plot development largely up to imagination, but there’s a natural progression of gear accumulation that became a series hallmark that really found its way here. The first on the scene always gets those obligatory nostalgia feels, but being one who didn’t have my entry point there, I can say that Zelda II unfairly gets a bad wrap.
Down the line, I will say that The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on the SNES merged the great strengths of those first two games in the series into a perfect whole—it’s a game that I have purchased on multiple systems and still play to this day. Yet, my love for, the world, the lore (even if most of it was elaborated upon by my own imagination), and the series, started for me in Zelda II. Yep, that famously maligned game sucked me in. There’s a quality game there, believe it or not. Still, if you have never tried it, please don’t join that chorus of boos. Better yet, go ahead and give it a try. Just make sure your plans are open, because you may very likely be up all night until completion.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Imagine my surprise when I found out that Link’s adventure in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past didn’t stop after saving Hyrule and the Dark World from the big blue pig-beast Ganon. Link didn’t want to be caught off guard if Hyrule were to get attacked again and set off to train, taking a boat and crossing to new lands to become stronger. On the way, a vicious storm churned the ocean and violently tossed his ship in the waves. Lightning strikes the mast, and tears the ship apart. Unconscious, Link is at the mercy of Poseidon’s rage. By all accounts, he should’ve been lost to Davey Jones’s locker, but luck was on his side, and he washed up on a mysterious island that wasn’t on his map. This is The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Upon coming to, Link learns that he had been rescued by a young girl and her father, who then presents Link’s shield to him. Seeking answers, Link returns to the shoreline to find his sword. Before he can pluck it from the rolling waves, an owl reveals to him that the monsters have become more violent ever since Link arrived, and it had been said that an outsider will come and wake the Wind Fish. Link isn’t sure what it all means, but the owl instructs him to meet in the forest to the north and flies away. Link grabs his sword, which apparently has his name engraved upon it, and then sets out to discover what lies in wait for him in the Mysterious Forest.
When Link returns to the village, he finds all sorts of interesting characters. There’s a boy playing catch with his brother who will tell Link how to do something by pressing the A button…and then promptly says that he has no idea what that means because he’s just a kid. There’s an old man in a house who is too shy to speak to anyone directly, but if Link happens to find a telephone, the old man will know exactly where Link’s is and what he needs to do. There’s a Yoshi doll in a claw machine arcade that is part of an important side quest, a Chain Chomp that thinks it’s a dog, a smaller Chain Chomp that wants cute accessories, and a fishing game right before Link leaves town, because when the world is in danger, there’s always time to go fishing!
Link’s Awakening, has this cute and quirky charm to it. There are Mario and Kirby references from Cheep Cheeps to Anti-Kirbys. In the village of talking anthropomorphic animals, an artist crocodile is painting a hippopotamus as his model. There is a man who looks oddly like a certain character from SimCity on the SNES, who is infatuated with his pen pal who he thinks looks like Princess Peach, but is in fact, goat.
However, despite the goofy and self referential humor, there is still a tone of creeping darkness the farther the story goes. Let’s go wake this sleeping Wind Fish! In order to rouse the sleeping Wind Fish, Link must travel around the island in search of special instruments which are guarded by bosses —of course they are, because Zelda. But these aren’t just normal bosses; these are called Nightmares. They’re not content to just try to destroy Link, but they will verbally threaten him (something I wish was brought back to new Zelda games).
When Link reaches Slime Eel about half way through collecting the instruments, Slime Eel seems disturbed to see that the outsider has gotten so far. After the battle, Slime Eel screams out, “You don’t seem to know what kind of island thisss iss…What a fool…” and then explodes. Link then visits a temple that has a relief on the wall, stating that this very island is but a dream of the Wind Fish. However, the people who live there aren’t sure what will happen if the Wind Fish were to awake. Understandably, no one has tried! So what should Link do?
Link’s Awakening blew my young mind. What does a hero do? Does he slay the monsters and continue his quest, even if it means everything on the island disappears, or does he try to make himself content to stay on the island, allowing all the islanders to continue living? Were the bosses actually the good guys, trying to keep instruments safe? Are we all just a dream? This game raised so many philosophical questions my little prepubescent mind didn’t know what to do with. Video games rot your mind? Nu uh! No. Nonono!
This particular Link, the one whose adventure begins in A Link to the Past, carries on to this one, Link’s Awakening, and continues into the Oracle games, is by far my favorite Link out of the incarnations of the spirit of the hero. However, this particular adventure is just the best. It overflows with personality, existentialism, and some of the best puzzles and dungeon design in a Zelda game.
I have mentioned in previous writings how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has played a huge part of my life. This addition to the series came during what was a rough period of time for my family. My dad had multiple sclerosis, he and my mom divorced a year or two prior, and I was beginning a long struggle with school. Ocarna of Time brought us some consistency when we needed it most. My dad, my brother, and I all contributed to the game in some capacity, whether it was a boss fight, a dungeon, or finding the secrets around the game world. Ocarina of Time was so instrumental in our lives that it was an instant “yes” when we were deciding on a name for our new puppy and someone suggested “Navi.”
My brother and I were stunned at the fact that the theme of Conan the Barbarian, one of our favorite movies, was used in the Ocarina of Time trailer. If I remember correctly, one of the first times we saw it was in a movie theater. That was long before commercials ever plagued our movie-going experiences. We had known about the Legend of Zelda series, and I owned A Link to the Past on SNES at my Mom’s house, but had no real attachment to it. Ocarina of Time was one of the first open-world video games to be captured in 3-D.
It wasn’t just the updated graphics that drew us in so much; it was also all of the classic tropes that we have come to expect from the series. The land of Hyrule was huge, with various races and wacky characters that have found a home in every corner of it. Then there were the dungeons; we had no idea what kind of foes or challenges were awaiting our arrival behind every door. Most impactful of all was the story, the fight of good versus evil—the hero defeating the bad guy to save the princess. Little did we know, it was Ocarina of Time that would become a turning point in the development of the series and its timeline. Though I have come to know and love every other games in the series, those are the reasons that Ocarina of Time will forever be my favorite Legend of Zelda game.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
I didn’t own A Link to the Past myself until well into my adult years. Before that, I’d only had scattered exposure in visits to a friend’s house when I was small and new to the gaming scene. My friend, her sister, and I would hide ourselves away in their basement and switch on the SNES for a few hours. It was in these moments I discovered glorious 16-bit Hyrule.
I got my fix in short doses at a time, but they were enough to spark my wonder. I witnessed treachery and danger in rescuing Princess Zelda from the castle, experienced the mix of calm and disquiet in Kakariko village, stepped into new dungeons with a definite lack of confidence.
The moment that completely blew my baby mind, though, was when Link first crossed into the Dark World. Suddenly, we’d gone from daring young warrior to helpless pink bunny. In an age where walkthroughs didn’t exist in easy access, the only recourse was to wander in what to me was a terrifying alternate reality that made no sense. Bunny Link couldn’t even lift a flower; how could we survive this parallel world?
Some twenty years later I know my way around the game far better, but I’ll still sometimes step into the Dark World mirrorless and relive those moments as a meek little rabbit. It brings back that sense of childlike vulnerability – something I think the game developers knew would spark in the hearts of us little gamers. Something like that is so hard to experience again as an adult with so many years building a heavily-guarded heart.
I suppose that’s one reason Link to the Past remains my favorite to this day. It reminds me even heroes can and should have moments of vulnerability. As children, we’re ready to accept this because we haven’t been attacked so many times where we’re weakest. With age comes hurts and insecurities.
But you know, if you truly believe in a God who guards you, sometimes you just have to learn to be a bunny in a Dark World.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
In our community review of BotW, I hinted at why I felt that it might be the greatest Zelda game: though it is the latest game in the franchise, it is the first game to develop the titular character, Zelda, as a character beyond a Damsel in Distress. In The Legend of Zelda, she is captive throughout the game, and on screen for 35 seconds after defeating Ganon (70 seconds if the game is beaten twice). In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, she is a Sleeping Beauty, only conscious for the last 20 seconds before the credits roll. In A Link to the Past, Zelda telepathically alerts Link to her plight, and he has to rescue her twice—once from prison and a second time from the Dark World—along with seven other maidens.
Ocarina of Time marks the first instance when Nintendo decides to differentiate Zelda from Princess Peach, but to do so, creates the androgynous character Sheik, leaving fans in a panic for over decade concerning Zelda’s Mystique-like gender fluidity; still, Zelda is a fugitive, not empowered. In Wind Waker, Tetra is captain of a band of pirates until it is revealed that she is, in fact, Zelda; despite her previous swashbuckling, it is then decided that she is too vulnerable and is immediately sidelined, only to be captured anyway. In Twilight Princess, she is arguably refrigerated, sacrificing her life to save Midna’s. All of this, and I need not delve into the portable games, because it would be more of the same. Notwithstanding, I would love to see some fanfiction discussing how Hyrule Warriors is canonical with Zelda serving as a playable field general
I am always getting on my writing team about cliché phrases, but I’ll allow myself this one for the pun: Princess Zelda’s three-dimensionality in Breath of the Wild is a…breath of fresh air ( for the record, I still cringed when writing that line). Though we are told that she is yet again captive by Ganondorf, trapped in something similar to an eternal power struggle as she restricts Ganon to Hyrule Castle and not the kingdom itself, I consider the memories one of the greatest feature in the franchise since L-targeting.
That is some embellished praise for a feature such as cutscenes that has existed in video games since full-motion video was a thing. However, it is not just the memory cutscenes that are important, but the way in which BotW game allows the player to encounter them, or not at all, that impresses me. While many of the sequences can be aligned in a certain chronology, the majority of them resist any concrete order, resulting in the story paralleling the emergent gameplay allowing for their discovery.