A Zelda Retrospective Addendum: The Series Ranked from Worst to Best

From the very beginning, I always had a vague idea of where I would place each installment in Nintendo’s long-running The Legend of Zelda franchise. Even so, I did change my mind a few times in the process of writing these reviews. Furthermore, when I wrote my review of The Legend of Zelda back in June of 2017, there were either three or four games I hadn’t yet cleared. Once I did, there were obviously many more aspects to consider. Regardless, I have completed and reviewed every single canonical entry, so as a postscript for the retrospective, here they are – ranked from worst to best.

NOTE: For the sake of this retrospective, I judged that Four Swords isn’t enough of a standalone game to warrant a separate review, lacking a single-player campaign in its initial release and coming across as a bonus feature for the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past. As such, it is not represented on this list. It’s good for what it is, but difficult to judge using my metrics.

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 to a reception unlike anything that came before. To a skeptical crowd, Nintendo proved they were still relevant in a gaming scene that was then dominated by Sony, their new rival, by releasing what is considered to this day the medium’s greatest achievement. Even though Nintendo was naturally interested in creating a follow-up to this landmark title, they themselves knew it would be a tough act to follow. As one of the directors of Ocarina of Time, Eiji Aonuma, noticed, they were “faced with the very difficult question of just what kind of game could follow Ocarina of Time and its worldwide sales of seven million units”.

Nonetheless, requests for a sequel ensued, and Nintendo knew it would be for the best to create one soon while members of the gaming sphere were still talking about Ocarina of Time. Shigeru Miyamoto proposed a concept akin to the second quest of The Legend of Zelda wherein the dungeons of Ocarina of Time were rearranged while retaining the same plotline. It was to take the form of an expansion disk entitled Ura Zelda, roughly meaning “Reverse Side Zelda”. The unit was planned to utilize the Nintendo 64DD, a peripheral device intended to be attached to the bottom of the Nintendo 64.

However, Mr. Aonuma believed that the dungeons in Ocarina of Time complemented the story and the gameplay in such a way that replacing them wouldn’t work at all. Without Mr. Miyamoto’s knowledge, Mr. Aonuma began working on dungeons and environments independent from the tentative Ura Zelda. After some time passed, Mr. Aonuma summoned the courage to approach his boss with a proposal of his own. He asked permission to stop work on Ura Zelda to create an original game that would treat audiences to an entirely new experience. Mr. Miyamoto was surprised, but offered Mr. Aonuma a deal; he could direct a brand new Zelda installment, but it had to be completed in one year. Even those not in the industry would realize a problem with this deadline. By this point in gaming history, development cycles lengthened as technology became more sophisticated. For the sake of comparison, Link’s Awakening, the then-newest 2D installment, took eighteen months to create. Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, spent four years in development. The idea of creating another 3D installment in less time than a Game Boy title seemed impossible.

Even with the odds massively stacked against him, Mr. Aonuma accepted the task. Fortunately, Mr. Miyamoto wasn’t going to leave his colleague to his own devices. He allowed Mr. Aonuma to reuse art assets and character models from Ocarina of Time, which by itself significantly cut down on the amount of work they would have to do. Moreover, Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had made a name for himself writing the scenario for Link’s Awakening and serving as one of the five co-directors of Ocarina of Time, was asked by Mr. Miyamoto to aid Mr. Aonuma in this project. Mr. Koizumi approached with a game concept he came up with while daydreaming: the ability to rewind time so the player may revisit the same levels, eventually unlocking new content through their successive experiences. As time travel was a concept featured heavily in Ocarina of Time, this would appear to be a perfect fit for the series.

Despite all of the measures taken to cut development time, Mr. Aonuma was feeling the pressure of the rapidly approaching deadline. At one point, he even had a nightmare wherein he was attacked by characters in the game. Mr. Miyamoto took notice of this and graciously allowed Mr. Aonuma to take extra time to get the project done. To the former’s surprise, Mr. Aonuma expressed his determination to fulfill his promise, and he and his team soldiered onwards. As if to punctuate this, his nightmare even inspired the creation of a cutscene in the final product. The team took all of the emotions they carried throughout this arduous journey, and used them to help craft their work. Finally, as promised, the game was completed after one year, seeing its official release in 2000. Though it began life as Zelda: Gaiden, the game evolved into a full-fledged entry in its own right by the name The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Though it sold millions of copies and garnered a lot of critical acclaim, Majora’s Mask was overshadowed somewhat by its predecessor. However, by the end of the decade, it had gained a dedicated following, allowing it to stand side-by-side with Ocarina of Time as one of the greatest games ever made. Does Majora’s Mask successfully answer the question of what kind of game could possibly follow a work as universally beloved as Ocarina of Time?

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