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: Ocarina of Time

In the eighties, a man named Eiji Aonuma took classes at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He majored in design, primarily working on moving mechanical figures. After graduating in 1988, he interviewed at Nintendo, a company that rose to international fame throughout the decade with their classic arcade games and their successful home console – the Famicom (NES). During the process, Mr. Aonuma met Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the company’s most prominent figures, and he took the opportunity to show him samples of his college work.

His samples impressed the company, and he was given a job. However, there was one minor issue; he had never played a video game before, as he did not grow up with the medium. He then asked his girlfriend about video games, and she in turn introduced him to two of Yuji Horii’s works: the genre-defining JRPG, Dragon Quest, and the title responsible for codifying the visual novel, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Prior to their respective inceptions, such games by and large did not exist in Japan. It was through experiencing these pioneering games that Mr. Aonuma’s career with Nintendo began in earnest. His first projects involved designing sprites for Famicom games such as the 1991 title Mario Open Golf (retitled NES Open Tournament Golf overseas). Five years later, he found himself in the director’s seat, overseeing the creation of Marvelous: Another Treasure Island for the Super Famicom. Impressed with his work, Mr. Miyamoto recruited Mr. Aonuma for an important development team. They were to bring The Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises – both commercially and critically – to the Nintendo 64.

The origins for a possible Legend of Zelda installment on Nintendo’s first 3D console date back to 1995 when a technical and thematic demonstration video was unveiled at the company’s Shoshinkai trade show of that year. The game was originally slated to be released on the Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive) – a peripheral touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”, making full use of its superior storage capabilities. Unfortunately, the device was delayed multiple times, and when it became dubious that it would ever see an international release, the team moved the project to a standard cartridge format.

Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been the principal director of Super Mario 64, was now in charge of several directors as producer and supervisor for this project. The five directors were: Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizumi, and Toshio Iwawaki. Mr. Koizumi was notable for having conceived the scenario for Link’s Awakening, the then-newest Zelda installment. Mr. Osawa created the scenario for the new project based on a story idea between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Miyamoto. It was stated in interviews by Mr. Miyamoto that the real-time rendering engine allowed the three-to-seven-person team in charge of developing cinematics to rapidly adjust the storyline and develop additional gameplay mechanics even up to the final months of development.

Within the first two years of the Nintendo 64’s debut, people criticized the console for a decided lack of hit first-party releases. Though there was a fair bit of variety within the scant games they did create for the console, they needed to aim even higher to avoid being decimated by the Sony PlayStation, their new, powerful rival. Next Generation magazine stated that “Nintendo absolutely [couldn’t] afford another holiday season without a real marquee title”. With Super Mario 64 having been one of the first successful games to feature three-dimensional gameplay, sparking a revolution that would shake the foundation of the entire medium, the prospect of The Legend of Zelda receiving a similar treatment was enough to make the new installment the most anticipated title of the decade.

After much speculation from the press and enthusiasts alike, the game, entitled The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was at last released in the final two months of 1998. In a series that already had a stellar track record and worldwide fan adoration, the reception Ocarina of Time received seemed to utterly dwarf any of those previous accomplishments. It didn’t just get universal praise or win “Game of the Year” distinctions from every publication; it sold 2.5 million units in 1998 alone, and earned 150 million dollars in United States revenues – higher than any Hollywood film released within the final six weeks of that year. In the game’s lifetime, 7.6 million copies were sold worldwide. The year 1998 provided no shortage of competition, for it happened to be the same year that saw the release of Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and Half-Life. It stands to reason that something about Ocarina of Time managed outshine all of those efforts. Indeed, the reception this title received can never be said to have faded away; even today, it’s considered by many to be the absolute best game ever made. With all of the various artists who have appeared over the years to challenge the status quo in their own ways, how does Ocarina of Time remain a critical favorite all these years later?

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