Today, we are here to honor some of the best of the best that The Legend of Zelda has offered to us. I don’t even need a prelude here; let’s just get right to it.
Warning: thar be spoilers below
Best Dungeons: Twilight Princess
Many have sited the Stone Tower Temple from Majora’s Mask s as the best Zelda dungeon of all time, and while that may be compelling and challenging, Twilight Princess has the most consistently excellent dungeons, with great weapons to match.
My favorite is the Arbiter’s Grounds, with the Snowpeak Ruins as a close second. The Temple of Time has grown on me over time, and once I got over my initial confusion, City in the Sky and Lakebed Temple are pretty sound too. I think the only place I can’t stand going through is the Twilight Palace, and that’s only because of the goddamn Zant Hands and their unnerving chase music.
They are more obnoxious than fun, and I hate them more than I initially hated the Silent Realms and the guardian chases in Skyward Sword.
The Arbiter’s Grounds feels like something out of The Mummy or Indiana Jones, and it takes advantage of your newly acquired ability to switch between your wolf and human forms at will. It also borrows the Poe quest from Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple, which is a pretty clever throwback; here, you track down the Poes using your sense of smell. The mini-boss has one of the coolest designs I’ve ever seen,
and the Spinner item is ridiculously fun, even when trial and error is required to cross a room. In my opinion, this is what the Shadow Temple from Ocarina of Time should have been: creepy and crypt-like, but not overly gruesome and severely clashing with the tone of its game. Not that the Shadow Temple is that bad, mind you; it just comes out of nowhere and kind of undermines the dark and sinister implications of Ganondorf’s plans thus far.
Trying to murder an entire race via starvation, and then, failing that, feeding them all to a dragon on their own mountain? Poisoning a race’s deity and freezing them under thick sheets of ice? A castle guard dying in a back alley after Ganondorf’s siege? That’s cool and all, but now check out this temple we made that’s a precursor to the Saw franchise!
It’s like watching a Japanese horror film for an hour, and then at the 30 minute mark it gets hijacked by Eli Roth.
Ikana Canyon is much the same, but it was perfectly in alignment with the tone of Majora’s Mask, and it does have it subtleties, believe it or not. I think the most disturbing, semi-subtle thing about the Shadow Temple is that Hyrule would even have a place where the worst criminals in history were entombed, and that their murderous spirits haunt the place. I can buy the Gerudo doing that because they are a warrior-thief race of badass amazon women who probably rape men to continue their population and wow have I digressed here. But again, dark implications that get a lot of their creepiness sucked away by the “In-Your-Face” Temple.
In conclusion: if you want fun dungeons, play Twilight Princess. They’re grrrrrrrrreat!
Best Enemies: Wind Waker
The common monsters, for the most part, are all variations of the same thing you get in every Zelda game. But while I like the design of the Twlight Princess incarnations, and love being able to beat on them as a human or tear them apart viscerally as a wolf, Wind Waker’s monsters are goofy and lovable in their own way; the moblins are in particular are somehow creepy and hilarious at the same time, all because of how they are animated.
As an added bonus, many of them drop piñatas full of hearts, rupees, and other useful items, and the ones that don’t often guard treasure chests or other important areas. It’s fun being able to sail up to an enemy watchtower, bomb the beejezus out of their canons, and climb the ladder to engage them in a twirling, fluid swordfight.
Or just snipping them with your bow or boomerang.
These enemies are pretty creative, but most importantly, they are fun. The ReDeads are a unique and clever improvement on their Ocarina of Time predecessors.
Best Sidequests: Majora’s Mask
See my top ten list here for more details.
Save a farm from alien ghosts. Stop bandits from attacking a milk wagon and smashing all its cargo. Put longing souls to rest. Do an awesome, physically impossible sound check.
Not only are the quests awesome, challenging, and even emotional, but the items you get from them are useful on their own or great for getting the Fierce Deity Mask.
Best Adventure (aka Most Fun Overworld and Gameplay): Wind Waker
Sailing the seas discovering new islands, people, and treasure; that’s what this game is all about. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon, but it has plenty of emotion and pathos too. In fact, the ending is probably the most depressing in all of 3D Zelda history.
This is the game I would recommend most to newcomers. The dungeons and monsters aren’t particularly hard, but the graphics and gameplay are engaging and awesome, and the sailing music really puts you in the mood for an adventure.
Best Bosses: Ocarina of Time
Twinrova, Volvagia, Phantom Ganon, and more. How can you not love these bosses?
Better bad guys may have come along, but I feel that Ocarina of Time has the most consistent fun, want-to-play-again bosses, and they set the sound foundations for many a boss battle to come. None of them are super hard, but they look cool, their lairs are cool, and I enjoy seeking them out on repeated playthroughs (or Ocarina of Time 3D’s bed of infinite rematch).
Best Character: Midna, Twilight Princess
Midna is also the least annoying companion character, so I’m including that in this category as well.
She is the young princess of the Twilight Realm, the Australia to Twilight Princess’s Britain. Her people are the descendants of power-hungry magic users who were banished from Hyrule when they tried to take control of the Sacred Realm. With the help of Ganondorf and his Triforce of Power, a Twili man named Zant steals the Twilight Realm and curses Midna, forcing her to flee. With his new-found power, Zant moves on to conquer the world of light as well.
When we first see Midna, we don’t know who she is. She seems arrogant, happy with the state of things in the world of light; and flippant in her concern for most people’s safety. Seeing an opportunity, she frees Link from prison and helps him restore light and order in exchange for gathering 3 items called the Fused Shadows, which she believes will help her overthrow Zant.
She genuinely wants save her people, but initially, she makes herself look like a bitter rebel. Midna also mocks Zelda, no doubt thinking that she is a coward who is trying to save some semblance of face by remaining a powerless prisoner with her people.
But as Link acquires each Fused Shadow, Midna grows more and more attached to him, to the point that she tries to protect him when Zant thwarts her plans and steals the cursed items away. After that, she is mortally injured, only saved by the actions of Link and the willing sacrifice of Princess Zelda’s life force.
In an early cutscene, it is revealed that Zelda willingly surrendered Hyrule to spare her people from death. While we don’t see the exact condition of Midna’s confrontation with Zant (a waaaay later cutscene), she implies that she was weak and ashamed of her cursed form. Midna went into exile and hid, allowing her people to suffer and mutate at the hands of Zant, so a parallel is definitely drawn between the two princesses and their choices.
Deeply moved and with a new respect for Zelda, Midna becomes more humble and considerate. She still gets angry, cocky, and impatient, but it’s more understandable, and definitely more subdued than the beginning. She clearly cares about Link and the world of light much more than she did before; for example, she feels awful for what the shard of the Mirror of Twilight did to Yeta, and for the fact that Link had to hurt her to stop the possession. Zelda’s people lived in fear and hopelessness, but she acted for their sake with no regard for her own fate, and she did what she could to aid Link and Midna, knowing that they were her best hope for saving Hyrule.
Like Tatl and Fi, Midna gets a character arc, but hers is far stronger and more emotional than either of theirs. She’s also much less annoying to take with you; her advice can actually be helpful, and she can lift large, heavy objects; warp you and said objects; and later, she can change you into a wolf or human whenever you want (thanks to an accidental “gift” of some of Zant’s magic).
She’s not only a great companion, but a great character in general, and she really makes Twilight Princess a more fun and compelling game than it already is.
Best Ultimate Villain: Motivation: Skull Kid, Majora’s Mask
Boss Fight: Ganondorf, Twilight Princess
I’ve already discussed the Ganon boss fight on my Top 10 Zelda Bosses list, so you can find the breakdown there.
Fifty points to Ocarina of Time Ganondorf for the best played game of tennis that Zelda has seen these many years.
Wind Waker Ganondorf had a little more humanity and insanity added to his character than the standard “Get Power/Take Over the World” mindset. Zant is a deranged, merciless heretic that is used and empowered by Ganondorf to plunge the Twilight World and the world of light into shadow and chaos. Ghirahim is the minion and sword of Demise, Skyward Sword’s ultimate villain; ambiguous like Fi, who is the Master Sword, but without any of her compassion and curiosity for human beings. Like Zant, he is deranged and unpredictable.
Despite often having the plot hijacked by Ganon/dorf, it’s clear to see that the Legend of Zelda franchise has some great villains that are especially fun and challenging to defeat.
But Skull Kid is, in my opinion, the most human and tragic of all of the villains. He’s a natural prankster, but he means well. When his friends, the four giants, appear to be leaving him, he tries everything he can think of to make them stay, including acting out like a spoiled child. His actions hurt and sadden the people of Termina, who summon their guardian giants back to save them from him.
While Skull Kid is terribly upset, he befriends two fairy siblings named Tatl and Tael, who briefly distract him from his pain. They start playing and pulling pranks together, which results in Skull Kid finding and putting on Majora’s Mask, a dark, possessed magical item that then uses him to inflict even more pain on the people of Termina. Majora’s Mask convinces Skull Kid, in his bitter loneliness, that he should even go so far as destroying the world, and soon, it is unclear how much of Skull Kid is left in the body being manipulated by the mask. Like Zant and Ghirahim, Majora’s Mask itself is deranged, dark, and dangerously powerful.
Among his many terrible actions, Skull Kid uses the mask to seal away the guardians, making them unable to hear the calls of the very people they are there to protect. It is a cruel, but poetic revenge.
Eventually, Skull Kid is defeated by Link and the guardian giants, but the mask then casts him aside like a doll and challenges Link directly, drawing him up into the moon that Majora created and intended to crush down into the town.
But, if you will remember, I’m picking Skull Kid, not Majora’s Mask itself.
It’s a sad story, and even somewhat relatable to the player. Skull Kid misunderstands his friends’ duty and inadvertently drove them away when he needed them most. It is everyone’s fault and no one’s at the same time, leaving everyone feeling betrayed and/or hopelessly alone. Skull Kid’s new friends try to help, but they can’t heal his bitterness, and they are powerless to stop his possession and subsequent terrible behavior. They are somewhat responsible for the monster he becomes.
You don’t have to be a genocidal asshole to see the tragic and pitiable elements, but that doesn’t mean that you have to condone or forgive Skull Kid’s actions either. He does bad things for bad reasons, but even Tatl, in all her harsh directness, can’t find it in her heart to completely hate him.
In the end, you can only work to clean up the mess he made, and bridge an understanding between old, estranged friends.
Best Link: Majora’s Mask
I’m basing this category not on personality, items, or hotness, but on which Link was best suited to his game. As far as I’m concerned, that would be Majora’s Mask.
While Wind Waker Link is adorable and bursting with cartoonish expressions, he was the outlier for a while as far as Zelda games were concerned. Link is the “link” – clever, right? – between the player and the game, so he has no real personality to speak of. I think that’s for the best, and it will be even better once the game designers finally figure out how to make players’ dialogue and choices actually mean something in the game experience.
Majora’s Mask Link is the epitome of a hollow shell, to the point that he can even summon one of himself with the use of his ocarina to solve certain puzzles. Because the clock is reset every 3 days and Link is constantly donning different masks to take on new identities, his actions are either forgotten or attributed to someone else entirely.
It really feels like he’s saving the world because he feels compelled to, not because anyone asked him to or it was preordained by some prophecy. Like the player, he is just some guy who now has the chance (read: is forced) to take on an adventure, and if you think about it, your choice to do any one thing in the game is ignoring and dooming other people throughout the world of Termina.
You wanted to spend 3 days working through a temple, or getting a side item? Well congratulations, you monster: the little girl at the ranch was abducted by aliens and is now a tormented, confused shell of her former self.
Despite its often colorful exterior, Majora’s Mask is grim, bleak, and unrelenting. It’s not just in the subtext; it is text. There’s a reason that it’s one of the more polarizing 3D Zelda games ever.
Cartoony Link was the closest we came to Link being an actual character (although Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword Links at least had jobs), but as far as player avatars go, Majora’s Mask Link made the most sense and fit the most with his given plot. His is a sad, sad, horribly tragic story, and it translates to his sad, sad, horribly tragic reincarnation into the Hero’s Shade in Twilight Princess. There, he got some character retroactively handed to him as a lonely, regretful soul, unable to pass on what he has learned and thereby rest peacefully in the afterlife.
Majora’s Mask Link can be a Zora, Goron, Giant, Fierce Diety, or Deku, on top of his other masks and items. There is also that.
Best Overall Story: Skyward Sword
It’s the one (for now) that started it all. This is why we have Links, Zeldas, and Ganondorf’s appearing across time and space.
Link and Zelda don’t have the most personality here, but they do get a believable friendship and almost romance going on, having been childhood friends. I like that while Link is gifted at the Knight’s Academy, Zelda makes it clear that her father spoils him, treating him almost like a son. Despite Groose being the way he is, you can understand why other kids might be bitter towards Link for all the favoritism he seems to get.
Zelda is snatched from your grasp by an unknown force, and Link leaves his sky island to dive down below the clouds, where no human, except one, has been in…centuries? I think I’ll go with that. He explores an uncharted land to save Zelda, discovering that she is the human reincarnation of the Goddess Hylia, who faithfully protected the Triforce and her people, but also wished to experience humanity.
Meanwhile, a long-banished demon is resurfacing, and he sends his minions to thwart Link and hunt Zelda down so that he can use her to fully revive.
The idea that Link and Zelda are both reborn, doomed to face Ganondorf forever but also bound by their eternal friendship, is tragic, powerful, and romantic. And in the game context, Link, not unlike Hercules, is given many tasks to prove himself worthy of protecting Zelda and being the hero that Hyrule needs and deserves.
Most Satisfying Endings: Skyward Sword
The villain is defeated, the people of the isolated town of Skyloft can now experience and repopulate the lower world; and Link and Zelda remain together in Hyrule as friends, their bond now stronger than ever. The saddest things involved in the conclusion of events are Impa remaining with the Master Sword and Fi retreating into the sword and going into a long slumber, but the latter is at least hopeful in that all games following, you can think of Fi being bonded to Link and helping to protect him and the land through the ages.
Fi can be very annoying as a companion character,
but she had her good moments, and it is genuinely sad to see her go, after she has come to understand humans so much better. It is sadder than Navi leaving, but also less of a relief (although to be honest, Navi never annoyed me nearly as much as she seemed to annoy other players).
Impa is a decent character as well, but her departure is sadder for Zelda’s benefit than the player’s. Old Impa was nice, wise, and helpful to you, but young Impa liked to give you crap for not coming to Zelda’s aid fast enough, which is fine I guess, but if I had no way to avoid being late to the party, it’s not really my fault then, is it Impa? Especially when I was only partially informed of the situation and was going above and beyond what an average person would do in a situation like that.
But yes. The ending is a bit sadder than in Ocarina of Time, but it has more weight and emotion attached to it, so it wins.
Best Item: Any game with the Double Clawshots
My God, is this item awesome! The original hookshot was a great idea, but this? Turning Link into Spiderman? Genius!
Bravo, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (as those are the only two games at the time of writing that employ them)! On the one hand, the former game lets you hang down on a chain if you need to and grab far away items, but on the other hand, the latter game lets you use the clawshots from hang vines, and uses the Beetle to fill that second function just fine.
Either way, great idea, great items, and unlike the much beloved Spinner, they actually have tons of use outside of the temple you find them in.
Best Use of Rupees: Skyward Sword
Way to make your in0game money finally mean something, Nintendo.
In Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, money was ridiculously easy to get your hands on, and in Twilight Princess, you definitely had to save for some occasions, but it was more annoying than fun. Especially when having to pay for something pulls the break on the story, like fixing the Sky Cannon.
And though I love the campy store, getting Malo Mart at the Castle Town is pretty much like doing homework. And what did I ultimately get for my efforts? I paid 3600 something rupees to get a cool suit of armor that sucks even more rupees out of me in order to function. Wheeeeeeee!
In Skyward Sword, there is only one real “shop,” but it allows you to upgrade your items, shields, and potions. Sure, you need bugs and loot as well, but rupees as an absolute must if you want better, cooler toys to play with. While they are easier to find than a lot of monster drops, there is some actual planning involved in their acquisition. I make it sound as though it’s mostly salad dressing, but this is the first game to really implement shield deterioration and increased potion potency.
Even your non-wooden shields can take damage and be destroyed now. And, as you might guess, the number of hearts a Red Potion can recover can now be increased.
That may be the closest any video game will come to actually teaching your kids the value of money, but only in the eccentric, spend-a-holic sense.
And finally, we come to some Honorable Mentions, which I have reserved for Zelda herself. She is the legend, after all.
Ocarina of Time gave us a great, positive gender-ambiguous Zelda incarnation. I have always believed that Zelda and/or possibly Impa altered the princess magically, so that she was physically a man. Zelda was aware of her true identity, but she was so committed to the disguise that she didn’t just tape her chest flat and pad out her ninja spandex. No, she became a man.
That has opened up so much room for debate over the years, but sadly, more recent games have tried to sidestep controversy by make Sheik indisputably female. I think that is a shame and even an insult, both to a character and the LGBTQ fanbase in general.
American game localizers have a bad habit of censoring and striping down positive gay and “coded gay” characters, while overemphasizing depraved, ambiguous villains, all in the name of parents, many of whom rarely give a crap about what their kids play. Japan has a bad habit of stereotyping people who are not Japanese, sometimes even demonizing characters who do not fit their ideal. In this case, I believe Japan made a good, interesting character, and then folded to pressure from America and other interest groups who didn’t want to offend the “right” people or raise difficult questions.
Nevertheless, I appreciate and admire the original Sheik. If you want an even more interesting take on his/her story, I suggest the Ocarina of Time manga. It’s not canon, of course, but it adds another layer of intrigue to the Sheik/Zelda distinction.
Wind Waker Zelda is probably the best character of all the Zelda’s.
Skyward Sword paints the young girl as a fairly typical anime-esque love interest and childhood friend to Link, but adds some depth when she remembers being the reincarnated goddess Hylia in human form. That’s pretty cool, but we only get the insight of Zelda distantly remembering her past life under a human filter. I’d personally be interested to know more about her mentality and exploits as a goddess, especially because the bigger goddesses Nayru, Din, and Farore never get any character whatsoever. Would they be like the Old Testament Christian God? The Greek Gods? New Testament God? Where did they come from, why did they want to create the world in the first place, and how are standings and power established?
Skyward Sword raises a lot of questions, but its Zelda is still an interesting and compelling character.
Wind Waker Zelda begins as Tetra, the leader of a crew of pirates. She reminds me of a fully realized Tatl or Princess Ruto; sassy and definitely aware of her standing , but warm, caring, and even fun. Even before being made aware of her great destiny, she feels obligated to help Link save his sister, compassionate for the people of Outset Island when a destructive storm threatens to destroy them, and even comes to Link’s rescue after she could have just sailed away to a great reward.
Tetra is great because she represents a moral grey area. She’s a thief that loves her life, but she’s also bound by her own code of honor, which is shown to not always align with her crew’s priorities. I have to dock some points, however, for how bland and ineffectual she becomes after donning the official Zelda dress.
You could say that she’s overwhelmed by the new sense of responsibility and purpose she feels, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like a downgrade to an awesome character.
Tetra is the kind of girl who should have been able to save her own damn self.
*Pictures and video belong to Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto.