The Essential Zelda Games To Play Before ‘Breath of the Wild 2’

The Legend of Zelda is one of the main games people think of when they hear the word “video game.” Whether those two simple words conjure up images of series protagonist Link, the monstrous main antagonist Ganon, or Princess Zelda herself, there’s no denying the influence Legend of Zelda has had not only on video game fandom, but on pop culture as a whole.

With the widely anticipated next addition to the series, the as-of-yet untitled Breath of the Wild sequel, scheduled for release sometime this year (fingers crossed it doesn’t suffer delays), we thought we’d take a look back at some of the most noteworthy Zelda games since the series’ inception in the mid-1980s, highlighting the ones every Zelda fan absolutely must play.

The Legend of Zelda

legend of zelda

In 1986, the world of video games changed forever with the arrival of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda. The first entry in the now-classic series, The Legend of Zelda follows the adventures of an elf-human boy named Link in the mythical fantasy kingdom of Hyrule.

When the princess Zelda is captured by the evil sorcerer, Ganon, Link must find eight fragments of an artifact known as the Triforce to rescue the Princess and defeat Ganon. Originally released to the NES, The Legend of Zelda quickly became a critical and commercial success for Nintendo, in later years going on to earn praise as one of the most remarkable games of its era, and an early classic for the Japanese studio.

Over the years, Zelda (1986) has been rereleased to various Nintendo systems, including the GameCube, Wii, 3DS, and Switch, and remains an incredibly influential game that set a high standard for nearly every game that followed.

It may seem dated by today’s standards in terms of gameplay, but it’s easily an undisputed classic that any self-respecting gamer should play at least once in their lifetime.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

zelda a link to the past

The original Legend of Zelda may have been the first in the franchise, but The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past helped cement the series as the pop culture phenomenon we know it as today.

Taking place years after the first two Zelda games, A Link to the Past sees Link again battling series’ antagonist Ganon to save Hyrule, while also attempting to rescue the descendants of the Seven Stages (magical protectors meant to defend Hyrule).

Previously, Nintendo had implemented a sideways camera angle in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. With A Link to the Past, the game’s developers went back and improved the gameplay style of the original game, returning to the top-down perspective of 1986's The Legend of Zelda.

Rather than directly copying the original game's format, however, A Link to the Past vastly improves every aspect of the initial game, introducing well-known staples like the Master Sword and the idea of parallel worlds.

Released to overwhelming praise in 1991, it is now considered one of the greatest games ever, and one of the most noteworthy Nintendo games the studio has ever released. It has since been made playable on nearly every Nintendo system that followed the SNES, including the Wii, the Wii U, and the Switch.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

the legend of zelda links awakening

Like many Nintendo properties, the Zelda series has seen plenty of games released to handheld consoles like the Game Boy, DS, and Wii U. The first of these would come with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, originally released in 1993 to the Game Boy.

One of the few games to not feature Zelda herself or the land of Hyrule, in Link’s Awakening, players find themselves stranded on a magical island guarded by a sleeping whale-like creature known as the Wind Fish.

Battling various monsters, players control Link as he searches for eight musical instruments able to wake the Wind Fish and return him home.

Though made for the Game Boy, Link’s Awakening does not suffer from the usual complaints video game fans have when it comes to handheld console games (the main being it’s too short, poorly developed, and feels like an unnecessary cash-grab rather than an honest attempt to make an enjoyable game).

Instead, Link’s Awakening was specifically designed to stand on its own and justifiably compete with the other entries in the series.

With the high acclaim the game won upon release, it’s easy to see that Link’s Awakening was more than able to do just that, going on to be named one of the greatest video games of all time, and later being remade for the Switch.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

legend of zelda ocarina of time

Like A Link to the Past before it, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a game that greatly improved and developed the overall Zelda series, introducing popular new concepts praised by fans, most notably the use of third-person perspective, a targeting-lock system, and an open 3D world to explore.

In the fifth game in the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time finds Link on a quest traveling through time to stop the villainous Ganon from obtaining possession of the Triforce. Like the numerous other Zelda games on this list, Ocarina of Time was responsible for pushing the gaming world in new directions, introducing many elements that are now commonplace in the Zelda series and video games in general (including that influential targeting system and context-sensitive button controls).

A direct influence on everything from Grand Theft Auto III to The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Ocarina of Time set a high standard for video games that followed, helping keep the Zelda franchise relevant 12 years after the franchise officially began.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

legend of zelda majora mask

In 2000, Nintendo released a direct sequel to its earlier, incredibly popular Ocarina of Time in the form of Majora’s Mask. Set two months after the events of Ocarina of Time, Link finds himself in Termina, a parallel world facing potential annihilation with a nearby moon set to crash into the planet in three days’ time.

Relying on a time-sensitive element of the game (players have three days of in-game action to save the world, although they can travel back to day one using the Ocarina of Time), Majora’s Mask was a warmly received sequel to the earlier 1998 game.

Though little had changed in terms of gameplay from Ocarina of Time, the game made just enough innovations to differentiate itself from the previous entry to the franchise. These included the time-sensitivity aspect of the game, and several collectible masks that allowed Link to transform into different creatures.

While it performed only about half as well commercially as Ocarina of Time, it would earn incredibly positive reviews, and is now considered one of the most beloved video games of all time.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

the legend of zelda the wind waker

The tenth overall installment in the Zelda franchise came in 2002 with The Wind Waker, serving as yet another extremely popular and commercially viable release for Nintendo. Set on a group of islands in the middle of the sea rather than the series’ signature setting of Hyrule, The Wind Waker follows Link as he tries to save his sister from the clutches of Ganon.

Using a talking ship called the King of Red Lions, Link takes to the high seas, sailing from island to island using a magical conductor’s baton known as the Wind Waker to control the direction of the wind.

Abandoning the more realistic graphics of earlier games, The Wind Waker utilizes cartoon-like cel-shaded figures (a feature that looks visually spectacular to this day). However, the new artistic style divided hardcore fans of the series, opting Nintendo to revert back to the series/ more realistic presentation in Twilight Princess.

Despite mixed reception over the game’s graphics, The Wind Waker was universally praised for its gameplay, story, music, and addictively fun level design. Fortunately, fans seemed to have warmed to the design of the game since its release, with The Wind Waker now considered one of the finest Zelda games there is.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

legend of zelda minish cap

As mentioned under Link’s Awakening, there have been more than a few Nintendo releases exclusively made for the company’s handheld consoles, with the Zelda series releasing a total of nine games to said devices over the years.

Aside from Link’s Awakening, the most notable of these remains The Minish Cap, released to the Game Boy Advance in 2004. Acting as a prequel to the 2002’s Four Swords, the game begins when Zelda is turned into stone.

To save the princess, Link, with the help of a magical talking hat named Ezlo that can shrink Link to microscopic size, sets out to find the Minish, a small race of humans roughly the size of a thumb. The game utilizes many gameplay mechanics pioneered throughout the Zelda franchise, including the top-down perspective, and provides an origin story for the Four Swords’ creation.

The second entry in the Four Swords chronology, The Minish Cap won highly positive reviews upon release, going on to earn the GameSpot award for 2005 Game Boy Advance Game of the Year (it was released in the US a year after it hit stores in Japan and Europe).

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

legend of zelda twilight princess

The final Zelda of the GameCube and the first released on the Wii, Twilight Princess was meant to be a project that hearkened back to the tone and gameplay style of the earlier Zelda games after the somewhat radical departure of The Wind Waker.

Set centuries after Ocarina of Time and between the events of Majora’s Mask and Four Swords Adventures, in an alternate timeline to The Wind Waker (the Zelda chronology is pretty confusing), in this game, players again control Link, this time as he tries to save Hyrule from a dark parallel dimension known as the Twilight Realm.

Though Twilight Princess was able to revert back to the basic mechanics of the Zelda games prior to Wind Waker, it did little to improve or develop the gameplay style of the franchise any further. Much of the overall gameplay remains consistently similar to earlier Zelda games, with little room for innovation (aside from Link now able to take the form of a wolf).

Regardless, however, Twilight Princess would win extremely positive reviews from fans and critics, winning several awards for Game of the Year. It would remain the best-selling Zelda game for 12 long years, until it was overtaken by Breath of the Wild in 2018.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

the legend of zelda skyward sword

The sixteenth entry in the Zelda franchise, Skyward Sword is also the game that most cleverly relied on the Wii’s MotionPlus system, allowing players complete control over Link’s sword movements.

Perhaps the most unique game in the Zelda series for this reason alone, Skyward Sword was the perfect kind of game developed for the Wii, utilizing a highly innovative set of mechanics designed specifically for the Wii (similar to how Link’s Awakening was designed to take advantage of the Game Boy’s unique format).

Released in 2011 after five years of development, Skyward Sword finds Link in the floating city of Skyloft before he embarks on a journey to save Zelda from the Surface (the abandoned world under the clouds). Visually inspired by the artwork of Post-Impressionist painters like Cézanne, Skyward Sword notched another major success for Nintendo, resulting in high sales numbers, and the game itself remains one of the greatest achievements tied to the Wii.

The game’s popularity would later result in a remastered version, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, released for the Switch in July 2021.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

the legend of zelda breath of the wild

Breath of the Wild is one of the most popular and most positively received games in recent memory and it continues to be seen as the greatest game in Zelda’s canon. Universally loved by fans, it’s the series’ masterpiece, possessing virtually no flaws or weaknesses, and considered by many to be an almost perfect video game.

The nineteenth entry in the Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild takes place at the very end of the series’ timeline, with Link waking up after a century-long hibernation to once again battle Ganon and save Hyrule.

In many ways, Breath of the Wild feels like the most liberating installment in the Zelda series yet, with the game offering very little instruction or guide telling players what to do. Instead, you’re let loose to explore the world, collect various items, and complete the missions in any fashion you choose.

Introduced to the series are such new concepts as the idea of an expansive open world, a realistic physics engine, slo-mo combat mechanics, and extreme attention to detail when it comes to in-game settings. (If you wear metal during a thunderstorm, you’ll be electrocuted; if you don’t dress warm enough in a chilly location, you’ll suffer damage.)

Universally loved by both longtime fans of Zelda and video game critics, Breath of the Wild is easily the most innovative, fleshed-out, and enjoyable of the Zelda games. It’s a game that allows players to explore a fully mapped-out world at their disposal, and, much like the original ‘86 Legend of Zelda, set a new standard for all open-world video games that followed.

Image Credit: Nintendo. 

Final Thoughts

There’s a reason why the Zelda series remains just as relevant in the world today as it did in the mid-to-late 1980s. No matter the decade or gaming system, each new entry in the franchise continuously sets and then surpasses any preconceived expectations people have in regards to what’s possible in video games.

The Breath of Wild sequel may be a ways off, but we hope this list best represents every essential Zelda game for you to enjoy in the meantime.

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).