So You Want To Start Playing Zelda

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Every once in a while I see someone asking where to start on the Zelda games and how to proceed through the series, and to be honest I find that a very hard question to answer. The Legend of Zelda is definitely a favored franchise in video games with one of the highest standards in game design quality if you ask me, but it’s also a divisive series with a lot of variety. There’s really no linear scale of “this game is better than this one is better than this one,” or even a scale of how advanced each game is compared to others.

All the discussions I’ve seen over the series have taught me one main thing: nobody really agrees on what even makes ZeldaZelda. People love the games for a wide range of reasons which leads them to prefer some games over others. Almost all Zelda games fit into the same “genre” or “formula,” but they still manage to offer different things. People talk about how Dark Souls is a proper modern Zelda, but I don’t think they’re the same type of game at all. Others say God of War is better, but I don’t even understand how you could compare the games. At the same time I like comparing Zelda to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus which has gotten me odd stares.

I don’t think it makes sense at all to list specific games everyone should or shouldn’t play. Instead I’m going to try to go over what I think individual games and the series overall offer for different people who may want different things from video games.

TL,DR List of Suggested Zelda Games For Newcomers Based on Different Qualities
(Disclaimer: I haven’t played the Oracle games or Minish Cap)

Starter Games That Best Summarize Zelda:
A Link to the Past — Wii U Virtual Console
Link’s Awakening — 3DS Virtual Console
Twilight Princess — Gamecube

I Want Epic Exploration:
A Link to the Past — Wii U Virtual Console
Twilight Princess — Wii
Wind Waker — Wii U

I Want Puzzles/Good Level Design:
Just about all of them starting with A Link to the Past

I Want Challenging Combat:
The Legend of Zelda — Any Virtual Console
Zelda II — Any Virtual Console
A Link to the Past — Wii U Virtual Console
Link’s Awakening — 3DS Virtual Console

I Want An Open-Ended Systemic Game:
The Legend of Zelda — Any Virtual Console
A Link Between Worlds (Kinda) — 3DS

Odd Men Out:
Majora’s Mask — 3DS
Zelda II — Any Virtual Console
Phantom Hourglass — DS
Spirit Tracks — DS

My Favorite Games Like Zelda:
Okami (Epic exploration, atmosphere) — PS3 Digital
3D Dot Game Heroes (Challenging combat) — PS3
Mega Man Legends (Exploration, charm) — PS1/N64
Mega Man Legends 2 (Same as above) — PS1
Ico (Puzzles, level design, and atmosphere) — PS3
Shadow of the Colossus (Bosses and atmosphere) — PS3

Well for starters let’s tackle the argument that Zelda is mostly based on nostalgia or some kind of indoctrination Nintendo instilled in so many of its fans when they were kids. I probably can’t put that discussion to rest because I’m one of those indoctrinated, but I at least try to be aware of that. Yes, I do have a fondness for the places and characters that repeatedly appear in Zelda games. However, I mainly enjoy them because they’re better than most other games at offering certain feelings in their gameplay.

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My personal opinion is the best thing about the Zelda series is exploration. The main reason I play the games is to explore vast, mysterious environments. To me they’re basically a Bilbo Baggins fantasy. If you like exploration and tracking down secrets in video games, I believe a lot, or even most of the Zelda games, have something you will like. Some people compare the mystery in the environments of the Souls games to Zelda, and I guess it’s an apt comparison. In today’s era of games that hold your hand and tell you exactly where everything is, Zelda still leaves some things for you to figure out and find on your own, even if tutorial text can get a bit overbearing in more recent games.

The second thing I and probably a lot of others think Zelda excels in is level design. The world in each game is filled with dungeons that are basically giant puzzles where you have to find keys and paths while surviving enemies. This includes solving environmental puzzles, especially in the 3D games. Basically all the Zelda games these are terrifically complex, or at least well above average. This is where I like making Ico comparisons, and I guess some comparisons to God of War’s puzzles are valid. The Tomb Raider Legend trilogy feels similar in this aspect as well.

One thing I see people agonize over in Zelda discussions is the combat, and I agree intense combat should not be a main reason to get into the franchise. If you do want intense combat along with the aforementioned qualities, I suggest sticking to the 2D games, especially the older ones prior to Ocarina of Time. Even in those games combat isn’t extremely complex, but it is challenging. In the 3D games it’s almost a formality most of the time — something for you to swing your sword at, but the controls still feel pleasurably responsive. Bosses in the 3D Zelda games are basically puzzles.

The other thing I see much debate about in Zelda discussions is storytelling. I think this also shouldn’t be a main draw. Collectively the series has some interesting lore. The older games especially present their lore in a mysterious, almost archaeological fashion not that dissimilar from Souls. Make no mistake though, you will not find the pinnacle of cinematic narrative in Zelda. The most recent games have a lot of likable characters in my opinion, but they shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Nintendo is still a company that mostly cares about levels and interaction.

I guess if I really had to offer a place to start, the best might be A Link to the Past. It’s my favorite Zelda game, but not by a landslide. More importantly however, it basically became the template for almost all the later games and has aged splendidly over the last 23 years. Since this one, the overall quality of Zelda games hasn’t fluctuated wildly. Even today it offers an intricate, mysterious world to uncover, beautiful art direction, and suitably tough combat. Compared to later games its puzzles aren’t as complex, but Link’s Awakening which immediately follows it, makes up in that area while maintaining the other good elements. I guess Link’s Awakening isn’t a bad starting point either then. If you want more of exactly that, then just go through all the 2D (read: handheld) Zelda games: Oracle of AgesOracle of Seasons, Minish Cap, and especially A Link Between Worlds. The Nintendo DS games however are a different story. I like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, but a lot of people don’t, and I’ll explain further below.

Dropping straight into the 3D games in 2015 is a sligthly stickier situation. Ocarina is not only where 3D Zelda started, but became extremely influential for 3D console action adventure games in general. It blew minds in 1998 because, as the short YouTube series Sequilitis said “It was like watching a fish grow legs.” Ocarina was the evolution we all wanted to see at the time. Today however, it’s probably aged the worst of all Zelda games. Exploration that felt vast in 98 feels small in 2015, and I understand if new players don’t like the N64 graphics (the 3DS version smooths them out a little bit). The one thing I still think holds up in Ocarina though is its level design. I say play it after the other 3D Zeldas.

Y’know what? I think Twilight Princess might be a better place for newcomers to start with the 3D Zelda games. It faces criticism for being a sign of how formulaic the series has become, but does that really matter to someone who hasn’t played any of the games? I haven’t played Twilight Princess since 2006, but I think it might be the clearest 3D representation of “what Zelda is.” It’s essentially Ocarina 2. It contains basically all the components of what people think modern Zelda is. It also has some of the most polished level design in the entire series, and that’s saying something.

The other 3D games, specifically Wind Waker and Skyward Sword, are basically just additional worlds and level design to explore. Wind Waker stands out with its focus on naval exploration while Skyward Sword has its divisive motion control combat system, but both maintain a very high bar for exploration and level design. Majora’s Mask is the odd man out, and it’s gained a big fanbase for it. Majora also maintains the level design pedigree, but doesn’t focus on an epic quest of exploration, instead coming out of left field with a groundhog day time limit mechanic and an emphasis on side quests. It’s my least favorite Zelda game, but that’s because I prefer the ones with epic main quests and big worlds to explore. An optional entry if you ask me, or maybe a mandatory one just to see where you stand.

On the flipside, the Zelda games a lot of people don’t like but I love are the DS games Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. They use a completely alternative stylus-based system for movement and combat which I thought was genius. It completely altered how you use familiar mechanics. Both games, especially Spirit Tracks, design some great puzzles and mysteries around this system. I will admit however that the traversal and exploration mechanics in these games don’t feel that great, and Phantom Hourglass has an annoying central dungeon you have to repeat throughout the game. I pin these as optional entries.

Now I want to talk about the original Legend of Zelda. It stands out a lot today due to its era, and there are reasons some might want to go back to it. The original game is a skeleton frame of what became A Link to the Past. In 1986 Nintendo didn’t have the technology to give Zelda a whole lot of structure, and as a result it’s a more free-form, systemic experience, almost like a sandbox. If you want, you can skip getting the first sword at the beginning of the game and walk straight into what’s supposed to be the sixth dungeon. You’ll get your ass kicked, but the game will let you stumble around. It get’s a lot of comparisons to Dark Souls these days. Similarly, the original Zelda has a very NES-era difficulty. It’s brutal by today’s standards. If you like the kind of game that wants you to fumble around and write down what you figure out on pieces of paper, I’d say give the first Zelda game a shot.

Then you’ve got the other NES game — Zelda II. Mechanically, it’s not really a Zelda game. It’s much more similar to traditional action RPGs with a world map, battle transitions, towns, stuff like that. I actually like comparing its gameplay to Tales of Symphonia, but with NES-era difficulty.

Games that could be called “Zelda clones” are relatively rare, but they exist. I haven’t really played Darksiders but that’s a thing. My favorite Zelda-but-not-Zelda is Okami, which has nice exploration and wonderful atmosphere. It’s a bit thick in the story department though with a lot of text, and isn’t a difficult game at all. An oft forgotten recent Zelda clone is 3D Dot Game Heroes. It’s a very competent parody that structurally sort of feels like a bridge between the original Zelda and A Link to the Past.

To me, Ico and Colossus feel like the scaffolding of a Zelda game. Ico feels like a single massive Zelda dungeon. Colossus feels like a Zelda stripped all the way down to its open world and boss battles. Both trade very much on their mysterious, minimalist atmosphere.

Almost no one else has said it, but the Mega Man Legends games are basically Zelda-type games. They have the same general structure of exploring places and clearing dungeons. On top of that they have a very charming style and characters that still hold up today.

Come to think of it, I tried to find Zelda starter guides online before writing this and basically found none. People probably don’t think of it because the franchise is so ubiquitous. That’s partly why jumping into the franchise today is tricky — you’re missing about 30 years of what some would call shared indoctrination. Not only that, but this isn’t like Star Wars where you can watch movies in release order or like Halo where you just play a few main games or stick to the latest and most technically advanced ones. On one hand the Zelda games are fairly uniform in quality from all the way back in the early 90’s, but on the other hand they tend to be quite unique from one another. Final Fantasy has the same issue too, but I have much less experience with that franchise.

BULLETS:

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