Folks, share your experiences. WHY were they great games? Give us an anecdote or two. The poll will tell us your favorites, but the anecdotes will be a fun complement to the results.
Oh, you want anecdotes? Fine! I'll give you anecdotes!
Notwithstanding that I've only played seven games in the series to completion, but fine, let's go:
7) Phantom Hourglass
This is in the realm of "okay." Not "bad," not "good," just "okay." And a lot of that can be boiled down to the control scheme (not unplayable, but still awkward and sometimes silly with the blow mechanic), the villain (Bellum is easily the weakest villain I've encountered in the series), and Linebeck, while likable enough, is a character we've seen in fiction a dozen times. Linebeck is...fine. Jolene is fine. Ormus is fine. A lot of the game is just...fine.
That's not to say it's without its bright spots. The ghost ship dungeon is particuarly memorable, the stylus is used to great effect for some items (e.g. the bow and boomerang), and there's that boss that you have to fight when seeing things from its point of view. The fairy spirits had great gameplay effects, and Ciela is easily the best fairy companion in the series. Also, despite what some have said, I didn't find the Temple of the Ocean King that frustrating. There's a lot to like in Phantom Hourglass, but it doesn't reach the heights of other games for me.
6) A Link to the Past
Ugh, I'm going to get a lot of flak for this. No, I don't think ALttP is a bad game. I just think it's "okay." It's fine. Gameplay is fine. It's hard too. I had some fun while playing it. But there's two things that keep me from enjoying it as much as other games, and that's the story and characters. Or rather, the lack of it/them. On the character front, there's Link, who barely receives any characterization at all, and...who else? I mean, characters are present, sure, but we don't really get to know any of them. Not Zelda, not Sarashalska, not Ganon, not Agaheim. The maidens exist purely to be saved. And as for story...well, it has a story, sure, but a very vanilla one. Link must get the three pendants, then get the Master Sword. Link fights Agaheim after Zelda is kidnapped. After this, the story basically stops as you're left to save the maidens. Oh sure, you get lore tidbits, but it's not really a progression of narrative. There's also the fact that the dungeons feel interchangable, whereas in OoT each one felt distinct.
Maybe I'm being unfair. But the point is, of all the Zelda games I've played, ALttP is easily the least story-focused, to the point where it detracted from the experience for me. It's certainly a series milestone, but it's not one I enjoy that much, even if the gameplay is solid.
5) The Minish Cap
The Minish Cap is wearing LttP's influences on its sleeve. Replace Agaheim with Vaati, replace the Master Sword with the Four Sword, replace the Dark World with going down to the picori's level, replace Link and Zelda with...Link and Zelda, replace one Hyrule map with a very similar map, replace the Hyrule castle theme with a similar Hyrule castle theme and...yeah. People point out the similarities between ALttP and OoT, and point out that A Link Between Worlds (which I haven't played), but IMO, Minish Cap is a game that also takes great inspiration from its forebear. Like I said, while I don't particuarly like A Link to the Past, I do accept it as being a turning point for the series. That said, I do feel that Minish Cap is superior. Or at the least, it's a game I like more.
For starters, Hyrule feels far more like a world here than in ALttP. Hyrule Castle Town feels alive, far more than Kakariko Village does, and the picori have their own culture, whereas the monsters of the Dark World...well, you had the whole 'inner self' thing going on, but I enjoyed my time with the picori more. I liked shrinking more than doing the world shift as well. But where Minish Cap surpasses its forebear is in regards to its characters. Both Links have similar tasks, but Ezlo being present makes a world of difference. He's not my favorite companion, but at least Link has company on his adventure, and Ezlo does have a history with Vaati. History that's probably revealed a bit too soon, as is Vaati's possession of the king, but it's welcome nonetheless. Vaati is also more interesting than Agaheim, both in terms of character, and as a boss. The final dungeon is very memorable in regards to the mechanics of the four Links, and likewise, the other dungeons do have clear themes.
If Minish Cap has a weakness, it's its length. But I do feel that Minish Cap does succeed A Link to the Past, taking the best elements of its gameplay, while also being strong in plot and taking elements that began in Ocarina of Time (e.g. the dungeon theme idea). Finally, there's the game's theme. Every game on this list from now will have a theme ascribed to it, and this is one of the series's greatest strengths. For MC, the theme is "kindness is its own reward." A very basic theme, but it does shine through, from the picori to Ezlo, to arguably even Link. Vaati is selfish, and both he and the world pay for that. The Lorerunner has elaborated on the themes of Zelda better than I ever could, but at the end of the day, MC is a solid, and, IMO, underlooked entry in the series.
4) Majora's Mask
This is a weird one. Back in the day, I barely cared about Majora's Mask. Yeah, I beat it, and enjoyed it, but it was no Ocarina of Time. Since then, the game seems to have picked up its own following, some claiming it to surpass Ocarina of Time, others calling it the strongest entry in the series. If anything, this poll speaks for itself. Personally, I do like the game, and watching Lorerunner's rumination on Majora's Mask did increase my opinion of it. However, while I like the game, it's still easily the weakest 3D Zelda that I've played. And if anything, it's the inverse of A Link to the Past. Majora's Mask shines when it comes to theme and setting, but the three day cycle is its Achilles heel. Everything in the game is rushed. Oh sure, there's the time loop, but every other Zelda game that I've played, to one extent or another, has given me time to explore at my own pace. Majora's Mask allows exploration, but again, you're on a time limit. There's only four dungeons, which is fine, Minish Cap had only a few dungeons as well, but the thing is, Majora's gameplay feels more along the lines of "sidequests, plus a few dungeons," whereas most other gaves have had "dungeons, and a few sidequests." For me, I prefer the latter. I got all the masks, but only out of a sense of obligation. Unlike Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask felt like a chore to me, and once I finished it, I had little desire to play it again. Granted, the masks themselves are fun to use, especially the species-based ones, but to get all the masks in the game...just too much effort.
So, fine, I don't like the gameplay much, what about the story? Well, here's the thing. In terms of plot, Majora's Mask is very simple. Link must save Termina, Skull Kid is possessed, Link must awaken the giants, yay. There's no real revelation or plot twist, like Ganondorf getting the Triforce in OoT, or Zant's true nature being revealed in Twilight Princess. That's not to say it lacks meat, given yes, this game has lots of potential sub-text. I get that. I've seen a lot of theories on Majora's Mask, and people discussing its theme. I give it credit for that. It's #4 on this list for a reason. However, lots of Zelda games have themes and sub-text. Lots of Zelda games have narrative depth. Majora's Mask gets credit for them, but it doesn't hold a monopoly, and I feel that while people harp on Majora, other Zelda games tend to be overlooked for having similar amounts of thematic depth. And there's the theme itself. Again, personal opinion, but if I had to sum up Majora's theme in one word, it would be "nihilism." The sense that none of this matters. That the little people are irrelevant. They'll do the same thing day after day with no deviation, because they're bound to the same cycle. That maybe this world isn't even worth saving, because what is Termina but an echo of Hyrule? Majora's Mask has a theme unlike any other in the series (in my experience), and while that may be a good thing, I can't help but feel that it feels...off. Like it's a black sheep. That it's OoT 2.0 in a lot of ways. Sometimes a different theme and tone work (e.g. I actually applaud the Star Wars prequels for being different in tone and feel to the OT), but with Majora's Mask...like I said, something just doesn't click when I think about the game. Apart from Phantom Hourglass, every game on this list shows a key stage of the overall legend, but you could cut out Majora's Mask and lose nothing from the overall timeline.
So yes, I do like the game. It does take the #4 spot. But the next three Zeldas are all 3D, and all very close. Majora? It easily exists outside that clique for me.
3) Ocarina of Time
Ah, Ocarina of Time. First Zelda game I played. Called by some to be the best in the series, some even the best game of all time. Others say it's overrated, that it's aged terribly, that Sequelitis was right and it signalled a shift in the series for the worst. As for me...well, it's not the best game in the series, or the best of all time (hint, the best game of all time is #1 on this list). But it's still a damn good one. And why? Well, do I have to explain it?
Fine, let's play. Ocarina of Time was when the series entered the 3D space. Ocarina of Time built on A Link to the Past, and made the world alive. Ocarina of Time gave us characters that we cared about. It started the idea of dungeons being built around themes. Ocarina of Time gave us Ganondorf, and showed us how that man became Ganon. Ocarina of Time's narrative introduced actual plot twists, character development, and is, IMO, a tragedy. Ocarina of Time is the story of how a boy saves the land, yet loses his childhood in the process. Ocarina of Time, not surprisingly, has the theme of "time." How times changes people. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Ocarina of Time is the story of a boy who is forced to grow up too fast - time goes ever onwards, yet one must cherish their childhood as well. I mentioned above that Majora's Mask is praised for its sub-text, but IMO, Ocarina of Time has plenty of sub-text as well, and manages to tell it through a longer, better developed plot.
Is the game perfect? No. The overworld feels a bit empty at times. Plus, the next two games on this list do surpass OoT in some key ways that I feel in the end, put them above it. But OoT is without a doubt the basis on which those games were built. It brought Zelda into the 3D space, it was the start of proper characterization and plot, and clear theme. I do admit that Link's Awakening might have started some of these things beforehand, but in the scope of my knowledge, OoT absolutely takes the no. 3 spot.
2) Twilight Princess
Twilight Princess gets some flak, and I can understand why. Of all the 3D Zeldas that I've played, this is easily the most linear. Some also say that's not as innovative as other titles that came before it. Concerning those comments, I do agree that this is a fairly linear game compared to others, but I don't think a lack of innovation should be held as an inherent negative. That, and I do feel that the game innovates in a key area, but we'll get to that. This is my #2 Legend of Zelda game. Back in the day, I declared to a friend that "you know what? I think this might be better than Ocarina of Time." Much, much later, my current conclusion is that while OoT is undoubtedly more groundbreaking and influential on the series, TP's strengths do, in the end, make it the superior game.
For starters, the combat. This is TP's shining beacon as far as gameplay goes, and it's easily the best Zelda game I've played in regards to the combat aspect. Both on Epona and on foot, Link's a master of the sword. It's fitting that the game ends in a sword duel against Ganondorf, while OoT fought against Ganon. The Ganon fight is big and new, but the swordsplay, while smaller, is far more intricate. Some have criticized TP for its combat focus, but for me, it's easily one of its strengths.
Second of all, there's characters. In terms of theme, Twilight Princess is a bit more simple than other games. I'd sum up its theme as "shades of grey," or, fittingly, "twilight." The dark is not inherently evil, light is not inherently benevolent. Midna sums up both, how she's harmed by the light spirit (unintentionally), yet despite being a twilii, she's an ally and friend to Link. Oh, and there's Midna herself. Easily the best companion the series has ever seen. I know I'm not the only one who felt frantic when she was exposed to the light spirit, as we sprinted around in wolf form with her on Link's back. When I first encountered her, I hated the little git, but when this happened, I was left to ask, "wait, when did I start caring this much?" To this day, I can't answer, but god damn was the shift executed brilliantly. And Midna aside, the other characters aren't sloches either, whether they be Link himself, the resistance members, the yetis, or heck, Zant. Yes, Zant. I think he's a great villain because he's revealed as a simpering wreck, not in spite of it. Oh, and the Hero's Shade. 'Nuff said.
Twilight Princess doesn't have the same thematic depth as Ocarina of Time, nor is it as open to exploration. However, its combat, characters, overall tone, and writing, do make it the superior game in my eyes.
1) The Wind Waker
The best Legend of Zelda game ever made. For me, personally, the best game of all time. Go figure that when it came out I was put off by the toon Link, played it for a bit (up to the forest temple), then gave up. A few years ago, I went back. And didn't stop until the end. So why do I love this game so much?
Well, first, let's go over the drawbacks. In terms of plot, in isolation, the game is fairly simple. Not as simple as Majora's, in that we do get plot development and twists, but it doesn't get as intricate as OoT or TP. Likewise, the combat. While decent, it's not as intricate as in Twilight Princess. It has memorable characters, but not as many as other games. Daphanes is fine, but he's no Midna. Aryll is a delight, but the closeness isn't as close as, say, Saria. Makar and Medlii are fine as sages, but they don't have the same punch as the OoT ones. But it's all good enough. Because the Wind Waker excels in two key areas that I feel push it above every other game in the series - exploration, and theme. The Great Sea is a goldmine, ranging from monsters, to treasure, to charting islands. Wind Waker made me want to explore more than any other Zelda game. Even after I got the ability to teleport between islands, I still sailed them because I just couldn't get enough of it. I even loved fishing out the Triforce pieces because it gave me an excuse to keep sailing. Wind Waker is, IMO, the most exploration-focused Zelda game that's been released. 2D fans will probably cry foul, but sorry, walking around Hyrule as a sprite doesn't compare to using a boat.
And then there's theme. Wind Waker's theme is, ultimately, "letting go." Literally everything in the game that leads up to Ganondorf is built upon this idea. Both Ganondorf and Daphanes want Hyrule back for different reasons. Ganondorf is dismissive of the ocean. He asks, what could they accomplish? He compares the islands to leaves. He claims, perhaps correctly, that the goddesses betrayed their people. They 'saved' them by destroying the old world. It helps that Ganondorf is at his most interesting and sympathetic in this game. And yet...he's wrong. Everything, EVERYTHING in the Wind Waker shows him to be wrong about the world. The Wind Waker has a world that feels alive, whether it be creatures in the sea, Windfall, or the koroks revegetating the islands. Wind Waker shows a Link (also the most interesting and expressive that he's ever been) succeeding despite conspicuously NOT being related to OoT Link. It's been said that a good work will ask "can this world be saved?" while a great work will ask "does this world deserve saving?" Wind Waker puts forward a different question - does this world NEED saving?" And the answer is...no. Hyrule is flooded. Ganondorf snaps. Daphanes just gives up and accepts his fate, leaving it to Link and Tetra (who conspicuously returns to being Tetra, NOT Zelda, by the end of the game) to find a new land. The Wind Waker ends with Link, Tetra, and the pirates sailing south from Outset, whereas up until this point in the game, you couldn't sail south from the island as it was the limits of the overworld. The Wind Waker is based around the wind, and that's exactly what its theme means. The wind brushes over you, for a moment, then is gone. You can never capture it again. Just like Hyrule. The world has moved on. The world suffered because Ganondorf, and arguably Daphanes, couldn't let go. In many ways, the Wind Waker feels like the opposite to Majora's Mask. Majora's Mask showed a world where the little people didn't matter. That they were peons in a time cycle, fated to do the same thing over and over. Wind Waker celebrates those people, Link included. Shows them moving on. Living. Remembering the past, but not being bound to it.
That's why the Wind Waker is not only the best Legend of Zelda game, but to me, the best game of all time.
So, um, yeah. There's your anecdotes. 0_0