Take the word “definitive” with a grain of salt, of course. When judging art, it’s never possible to completely remove subjectivity from the equation, but I’m gonna try my damnedest.
I’ve spent the past year and a half replaying all five of the existing 3D titles in the Legend of Zelda franchise (for the record: that’s Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora’s Mask 3D, The Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD, and Skyward Sword.) Now, less than two weeks away from the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I want to attempt to break down each of these five titles into their collective components and rank them over nine categories. The stronger a game performs in a category, the more points it receives across a scale of five to one points. The game that has earned the most points in the end is, definitively and objectively and according to my own personal opinion which makes this whole thing the opposite of definitive and subjective, the best 3D Zelda game.
At least for another week or so.
Also, let me offer this disclaimer: all five of these games are Zelda games. So when one is ranked at the bottom of a category, keep in mind that they are being measured on a very harsh curve. These are Zelda games. Zelda games are all excellent. C’mon.
Presentation – We begin with presentation: graphics, sound, and overall world-building. The Wind Waker HD (+5) easily tops in this category; no other video game ever has felt quite so much like playing a great animated feature film. Skyward Sword (+4) is next; even without HD presentation the water color impressionist graphics are a thing of wonder and beauty. Next time you play, stand in the middle of Faron Woods and stare at the Great Tree for a little while and you’ll begin to appreciate what I mean… turn up the volume and you’ll appreciate the orchestrated score. Twilight Princess HD (+3) is often touted as the “realistic” Zelda, when really it’s an amber-hued adventure done up like Resident Evil. Majora’s Mask 3D (+2) and Ocarina of Time 3D (+1) have both aged well but still show said age, and Ocarina in particular has a great score… but Majora’s edges its predecessor with its Third Day atmosphere: atonal music, a blood red sky, and a grinning moon.
Combat – Zelda‘s combat has naturally evolved over time, so let’s follow the evolution. Ocarina of Time (+1) established Z-targeting, perhaps the single most important mechanic ever created for 3D adventure games. Majora’s Mask (+2) improved on that system by granting Link three additional forms, each with their own unique attack styles. Wind Waker (+3) kept Link as a Hylian throughout, but added timed counter attacks to the Z-target system; Twilight Princess (+4) introduced advanced sword techniques in addition to the counter system. Z-targeting reach it’s arguable apex in Skyward Sword (+5). Some don’t like the game’s motion controls, but the 1-to-1 movement match allowed for depth of combat most games will never achieve; you learn quickly that every fight in the game, from the lowliest bokoblin up to the final boss, requires a unique combat strategy. If you don’t figure that out quickly, then you won’t get far in Skyward Sword.
Pacing – The flow of a game does a lot to dictate the enjoyment of the overall experience. Ocarina of Time (+5) is almost flawlessly paced. The endgame runs a little long, but other than that, the story and adventure keep moving. The Wind Waker (+4) takes criticism for its endgame Triforce quest, but if you’ve been treasure hunting while sailing the Great Sea for the whole game, odds are you’ll have most of the… *ahem*… “Triumph Fork” pieces by the time you reach that quest. Twilight Princess‘s (+3) cow-wrangling opening is looooong, but once the quest itself begins the game keeps moving at a proper clip. Majora’s Mask (+2) has an inherent flaw baked into its central design element: the Groundhog Day of Zelda games requires the player to repeat tasks multiple times after resetting the world every three days, and repetition in adventure games is almost never a recipe for success. Skyward Sword’s (+1) pace is wildly uneven and repetitive: Link must explore the same compact environments over and over, going so far as to have to re-enter some dungeons, and both the beginning game and endgame are long, drawn-out, seemingly interminable affairs. A direct quote from early on in my play-through: “I’ve been playing this game for three hours and I’m hunting squirrels in the forest. Eff you, Nintendo.”
Narrative – Skyward Sword (+5) is the first Zelda game to openly acknowledge the larger chronology of the series, for better or for worse. Its structure as the definitive origin story of Zelda lore and as the game with the deepest development of the Link/Zelda relationship combine to give it the strongest narrative in the series. Also: Groose. Ocarina of Time (+4), on the other hand, sets the standard for what a Zelda story is: three parts of the Triforce represented in a trio of figures, a sealed off golden land, a Hyrule (and an alternate Hyrule) to explore, etc., etc. The Wind Waker (+3) presents a pivot point in Zelda lore, effectively acting as an end point to the legend of Hyrule and the Triforce, a counter-balance to the origin elements in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess (+2) is a self-contained story, but one that touches upon all the key elements that make up a Zelda game, and introduces a compelling new character into the franchise in Midna. Majora’s Mask (+1) has a strange narrative structure, in that it takes place outside of Hyrule and Link is, more or less, an observer to the fates of the inhabitants of Termina, the land in which the game takes place. Link has no… *heh heh*… link to Termina, and if he has no link to the land, neither does the player for whom he serves as an avatar.
Overworld – There is no more serenity-inducing moment in all of video gaming than when you first strike out onto the open seas of The Wind Waker (+5), all set to explore the water-logged Hyrule (and sinking beneath the waves to visit ancient Hyrule) to your heart’s content. Majora’s Mask (+4) takes place in Termina, a land that is compact in geography but dense and deep, as you would expect from a game that lives and dies on the strength of its multitude of side quests. Another one of the greatest moments in gaming history was the first time the player, as Link, ran out onto Ocarina of Time‘s (+3) Hyrule Field and took in the wide vastness in which you could go anywhere and do anything, and then adventuring out into that wilderness and slowly pulling back the curtain on the varied regions of Hyrule. Twilight Princess‘s (+2) overworld is large, and takes some time to cross, but it’s sparse, designed for horseback traversal and mounted combat. Skyward Sword‘s (+1) overworld comes in two layers. The first of those, the sky, is empty and dull, and the three sections of the surface to which you can descend are dense but repetitive, asking you to run around in them back and forth over and over again. For a game set in the open sky, Skyward Sword offers an annoyingly limited overworld experience.
Dungeons – If there is one area in which Twilight Princess (+5) excels, it is in the game’s dungeons. There are a lot of them, and they are almost all unique and original experiences. Skyward Sword (+4) also has some of the best dungeon designs in the history of anything, particularly Lanaryu Mines and Sky Keep, but as there are two dungeons in each of the game’s three geographic regions, the themes and puzzles in the region-locked dungeons actually repeat a bit. Ocarina of Time (+3) also has a whole bunch of dungeons, but there are a few that are outright annoying to get through… while there are others that are absolutely brilliant in design. Majora’s Mask (+2) has three “just okay” dungeons, and then one of the best dungeons in the whole series, Stone Tower Temple. The Wind Waker‘s (+1) biggest weaknesses are its polished-but-generic dungeons, which stands to reason. Nintendo cancelled a few of the game’s dungeons late into development and the game feels like it, as it if were one or two dungeons short, and the dungeons that remain are simply solid, not spectacular.
Boss Battles – While Wind Waker‘s (+5) dungeons are comparatively weak, the game’s boss battles are excellent, with nary a clunker among them. They’re all fun and cinematic. Skyward Sword’s (+4) boss battles are much the same, but two of them repeat three times with only slight variations… fortunately, though, those battles are pretty good. Twilight Princess (+3) and Ocarina of Time’s (+2) have a similar pattern with boss battles: there’s a lot of them, some are great, and some are annoying. Twilight Princess gets the edge, though, because of its proliferation of excellent mini-bosses. Finally, Majora’s Mask (+1) suffers from its sheer paucity of bosses. Four dungeons means four bosses, two of which are annoying, one of which is very good, and one, against the mechanical bull Goht, is among the best battles in the entire franchise.
Side Quests – Majora’s Mask (+5) greatest strength lies in its seemingly endless multitude of side quests. Filling up your Bomber’s Notebook to completion is probably the most exciting part of the game. That’s not a knock on the rest of the game; that’s a compliment to the depth of the side quest system. Ocarina of Time‘s (+4) side quests are worth undertaking; they grant you useful items like Biggoron’s sword or the hint-granting Mask of Truth. Twilight Princess (+3) only has two major side quests, but both (the search for golden bugs and the search for Poe souls) are engaging and fun to pursue in their own right. The Wind Waker‘s side quests are almost entirely mission based, short, vague, and the magnitude of the rewards earned rarely reflect the effort of undertaking the quest. Skyward Sword‘s (+1) side quests are barely worth the effort; most of them revolve around running errands for the residents of Skyloft, and your reward, more often than not, are the orange gratitude crystals that you exchange with Hylian Dracula for bigger and better wallets. Yippie.
Final Battle – And now comes the endgame, both of our breakdown and of the 3D Zelda titles. The final battle matters; the thing that people see last is what leaves the strongest impression on them. Twilight Princess‘s (+5) final battle is exceptional, broken down as it is into four portions: Puppet Zelda, Dark Beast Ganon, Ganondorf (Horseback), and Ganondorf (Duel). Wind Waker‘s (+4) final battle is notable not only for the experience itself, but for the drama of its setting. You first battle Puppet Ganon in three forms, then climb the rafters to the roof of Ganon’s Tower to duel Ganondorf alongside Zelda, while the waters of the Great Sea come rushing into Old Hyrule from above. Ocarina of Time (+3) has a two-tiered final battle and a timed escape. The Ganondorf back-and-forth battle isn’t excepti0nal, and the fight with Demon Ganon isn’t terribly difficult, but the moment where Ganondorf transforms into Ganon for the first time in 3D is a breathtaking one, even twenty years or so after the fact. Skyward Sword (+2) has a three-tiered battle, and each tier is arguably less interesting than the one before. You first fight through a horde bokoblins on your way down into the sealed grounds, in a portion of the game that may have single-handedly inspired the creation of Hyrule Warriors. You then face Ghirahim in his final invulnerable form, battling to knock him off a series of platforms before taking him on in a final sword duel. It’s a fun fight, if not a terribly challenging one. And then you face Demise in another duel, and though he is physically imposing and the battle is visually impressive, it’s fairly simple: an extended series of shield strikes and fatal blows is all it takes to defeat him. Majora’s Mask (+1) final battle, against Majora’s Mask itself, is halfway decent as Link… but if you’ve claimed the Fierce Deity’s mask and don it, the battle is a button-mashing, seconds-long joke.
That’s it. That’s all of the categories. All summed up, the breakdown we’ve established looks something like this:
Tension mounts. When you add up the totals, you get:
- The Wind Waker HD (+32 pts.)
- Twilight Princess HD (+30 pts.)
- Skyward Sword (+27)
- Ocarina of Time (+26)
- Majora’s Mask (+20)
See? Definitive and final. Completely objective. Well, okay, there’s two problems with it, I admit. First: you may disagree with my breakdown. Second: even if you agree with my breakdown, you may very well not care. Majora’s Mask is my lowest ranked of the 3D Zeldas, but it’s your favorite? Okay, well, then eff my stupid list; ditto if you absolutely hate Wind Waker or Twilight Princess.
Play what you like. Who cares? Rock on. Smoke if you got ’em.