The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most prominent and successful franchises, with many of its entries considered to be among the greatest video games ever created. Having been birthed by iconic Japanese game designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the series’ legacy can be traced back to 1986, when The Legend of Zelda released for the Famicom in Japan, and later for the NES.
Since then, the series has maintained a consistent release cycle that’s covered every generation of Nintendo devices, with the most recent entry, Breath of the Wild, releasing in 2017 for the Nintendo Switch. Following an announcement that a sequel to BOTW was currently in production, we’ve created a release timeline to celebrate the series’ rich history. Bear in mind, this list only features mainline Zelda games, and does not include any spin-off titles.
The Legend of Zelda (Famicom, NES) – 1986
Released in Japan in 1986 for the Famicom, The Legend of Zelda introduced all of core elements we’ve come to expect from a Zelda title, marking the first appearance of the series’ three main characters as well as the Triforce and Hyrule. Played from a 2D overhead perspective, the game saw players controlling a young hero named Link as he attempted to save Princess Zelda and the kingdom of Hyrule from the Prince of Darkness, who would later be known as Ganon.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Famicom, NES) – 1987
Nintendo decided to take things in a different direction for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a follow-up to The Legend of Zelda that sees Link trying to save Princess Zelda yet again, only this time from a side-scrolling perspective. The game is a lot more action-orientated than the first, which focused on exploration, and features RPG elements not found in later games.
Among these is a leveling up system that allows Link to use experience points to upgrade his abilities; additionally, Link has the power to cast spells during battle. Considering Nintendo’s never released another Zelda game in this style, The Adventure of Link is often regarded as the black sheep of series.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) – 1991
Making its debut on the SNES, A Link to the Past is a prequel to the first two entries while marking a return to the original Zelda formula. The game’s design mirrored that of other Nintendo first-party sequels developed at the time by taking the structure of its NES predecessor and finding ways to build upon it using the hardware capabilities of the SNES. While it refines many of the mechanics and concepts of the first game, it also introduces some of its own, such as making arrows separate items.
Link was given the ability to walk diagonally and can even run after obtaining the Pegasus Boots; combat saw improvements as well, with Link being able to swing his sword sideways in addition to his default forward attack. A Link to the Past also introduced the concept of multiple dimensions within the Zelda universe and is partially responsible for the messiness of the series’ separate timelines. In 2002, the game would see a modified port release for the GBA which also included a new multiplayer-focused title called The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (GB) – 1993
Link’s Awakening is the first entry in the series to release on a handheld, one of the few Zelda games set outside of Hyrule, and does not feature Princess Zelda or the Triforce. The game takes place after the events of A Link to the Past and sees Link traveling by boat when a terrible storm leaves him shipwrecked on Koholint Island. In order to leave, Link is tasked with waking the island’s guardian by collecting the eight “Instruments of the Sirens”.
Link’s Awakening was later re-released as Link’s Awakening DX in 1998 for the Game Boy Color, where it would feature color graphics, compatibility with the Game Boy Printer, and an exclusive color-based dungeon. In February 2019, Nintendo announced a Link’s Awakening remake for the Switch featuring completely redone HD visuals. Scheduled to release on September 20, 2019, the remake will introduce new features such as the ability to create custom dungeons.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64) – 1998
The switch from 2D to 3D meant a lengthy gap between the release of Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time. This stemmed from the fact that game designers were still getting accustomed to the notion of a character having to navigate through a three-dimensional space, resulting in a lot of lackluster early 3D titles. However, Ocarina of Time was unlike any of those games, and invited players on a journey that would allow them to explore a much larger Hyrule kingdom in 3D.
The game is considered to be largely ambitious for its time and introduced new features that would later become staples of 3D Zelda games, including lock-on “Z-targeting” as well as Link’s horse Epona, which allowed him to quickly travel and fire arrows while riding. Nintendo later ported Ocarina of Time to its next console, the GameCube, as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. In June 2011, Nintendo released Ocarina of Time 3D, an enhanced port for the Nintendo 3DS.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64) – 2000
Much like the shift from the original Legend of Zelda to Zelda II, Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time that changes up the Zelda formula greatly. Though the two share the same visual style, Majora’s Mask replaces Hyrule with an alternate reality version called Termina. Here Link is forced to re-live the same three days over and over again, Groundhog Day style, in order to prevent a giant falling moon from destroying the land.
The game has a much smaller scope than Ocarina of Time and has been recognized for its darker themes and more mature undertones compared to other entries in the series. Nintendo later ported Majora’s Mask to its next console, the GameCube, as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. In February 2015, Nintendo released Majora’s Mask 3D, an enhanced port for the Nintendo 3DS.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages (GBC) – 2001
Although they’re two separate games set in different locations, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages tell one interconnected story that can only be understood by playing through both. After the player completed one game, they’d be given a password allowing them to access the other as a sequel. The idea for the structure of these games is based on the interconnectivity of different worlds within the Zelda universe.
Initially planned as a trilogy of games, the project was reduced to just two at Miyamoto’s suggestion following difficulties with the password system that linked all three. Oracle of Ages is a more puzzle-based title while Oracle of Seasons focuses more on action.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GC) – 2002
Debuting on the GameCube, The Wind Waker features a unique cel-shaded art style that sets it apart from its predecessors. The shift in visuals complemented the game’s world, which sees the kingdom of Hyrule buried at the bottom of the Great Sea. A majority of the game is spent sailing between islands on Link’s boat, the King of Red Lions, using a magical tool called the Wind Waker that granted the user control over the direction of the wind.
Although its cartoonish visuals would prove to be divisive for fans and critics, The Wind Waker is largely considered to be one of the best entries in the series along with Ocarina of Time. The game’s launch coincided with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition for GameCube, which included the original The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and a demo of The Wind Waker. In September 2013, Nintendo released The Wind Waker HD, an enhanced port for the Wii U.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (GC) – 2004
2004 would see the release of an expanded version of Four Swords, which debuted in the GBA port of A Link to the Past. The game maintains many of the mechanics and concepts of its GBA incarnation while taking advantage of the hardware capabilities of the GameCube by including enhanced atmospheric visual effects.
Four Swords Adventures sees Link attempting to restore peace to the kingdom of Hyrule following the creation of an evil copy of himself called Shadow Link. The game includes two game modes: Hyrulean Adventure, a cooperative story campaign where 1-4 players work together to defeat Shadow Link, and Shadow Battle, a competitive multiplayer battle mode.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA) – 2004
Whereas many Zelda games tend to focus on offering players a massive world to explore, The Minish Cap sets out to achieve the exact opposite. Released in 2004, the GBA title sees Link partnering with a magical talking hat named Ezlo who has the power to turn Link into a miniature version of himself.
After shrinking down in size, Link is able to explore a tiny world hidden within the Hyrule kingdom. This mechanic is exclusive to The Minish Cap and has not been incorporated in any later entries.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GC, Wii) – 2006
Contrasting with the bright and colorful visuals of The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess takes Link’s next adventure in a much darker direction. The game sees Link gaining the ability to turn into a wolf as a mysterious creature named Midna acts as a guide throughout his adventure. Additionally, Twilight Princess revisits the concept of multiple dimensions within the Zelda universe by introducing a parallel world called the Twilight Realm.
While the Wii version would be heavily criticized for its poor implementation of motions controls, the GameCube version offered players a more traditional Zelda experience using a gamepad. Regardless, Twilight Princess would go on to be critically acclaimed, receiving several Game of the Year awards, and regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) – 2007
Nintendo would soon revisit the cel-shaded visuals of The Wind Waker with a direct sequel for the Nintendo DS. Released in 2007, Phantom Hourglass returned to the top-down perspective of the original Zelda while introducing a new control scheme that allowed players to create a path for Link’s boat using the handheld’s stylus and touchscreen. The game’s story is a continuation of The Wind Waker’s, and sees Link on a quest to save his friend Tetra with help from Captain Linebeck and his ship.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS, Wii U) – 2009
Released two years later, Spirit Tracks uses a modified version of Phantom Hourglass’ engine to tell a new story in which “spirit tracks,” railroads imprisoning an ancient evil, have begun disappearing throughout Hyrule. Swapping out Phantom Hourglass’ boat for a train, the game sees Link and Zelda working together for the first time in the series in order to restore the spirit tracks and defeat the Demon King. In October 2016, Nintendo would re-release Spirit Tracks via the Wii U Virtual Console.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii, Wii U) – 2011
Nintendo would dive headfirst into supporting motion controls for the next Zelda game, designing Skyward Sword to fully utilize the Wii’s unique controller, despite the negative reception that followed the motion-based Wii version of Twilight Princess in 2006.To mitigate complaints from fans and critics, Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus, an improved WiiMote that offered greater accuracy. In September 2016, the game was made available worldwide via the Wii U eShop.
Despite being both a critical and commercial success, Skyward Sword received widespread criticism for the aforementioned motion control implementation as well as other aspects of its design. This would result in Nintendo rethinking many of its design principles for the franchise and influence the development of the next entry to appear on a home console, Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS) – 2013
Released in 2013 for the Nintendo 3DS, A Link Between Worlds is considered to be a spiritual successor to A Link to the Past, two decades after the original’s release for SNES. The game takes place in the same setting as A Link to the Past only further in the future, and introduced a new mechanic that turned Link into two-dimensional painting capable of sliding along walls. This mechanic led to more inventive puzzle-designs and offered players a new way to sneak past enemies.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS) – 2015
Tri Force Heroes marks a return to the cooperative-focused gameplay of Four Swords Adventures and sees up to three players working together to clear dungeons littered with a variety of puzzles. The game stands out for having additional customization options compared to previous entries, with players being able to collect certain items in order to craft different outfits that grant the player-character special abilities.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U, Switch) – 2017
Launching alongside the Nintendo Switch and going on to sell more copies than the console itself, Breath of the Wild is considered to be one of the best entries in the series and regarded by many as the best video game of all time. The game manages to capture the feeling of traditional Zelda while introducing new gameplay mechanics such as cooking and weapon durability. Additionally, BOTW features the largest, most detailed world of any other game in the series with tons of hidden secrets for players to discover.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Sequel (Switch) – TBA
During E3 2019, Nintendo announced that a sequel to BOTW was currently in production. The sequel appears to maintain the visuals of the 2017 game while taking on a much darker tone reminiscent of Majora’s Mask. While details are scarce at the moment, speculation points towards Princess Zelda and Link teaming up once again to defeat series’ antagonist Ganon.
Whether its PC or console, AAA or Indie, New-York born and raised Justin has a natural curiosity to seek out hidden gems and share them with other gamers. He also maintains his own YouTube channel in addition to writing and managing the social media profiles for GamingScan.