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Best Of 2022: Which Zelda Game Should You Play First?

Best Zelda Games To Start With
Image: Nintendo Life

Over the holidays we’re republishing some choice features from the last 12 months. A mix of talking points, interviews, opinion pieces and more from NL staff and contributors, you’ll find our usual blend of thoughtfulness, expertise, frivolity, retro nostalgia, and — of course — enthusiasm for all things Nintendo. Happy holidays!


The announcement of a solid release date for BOTW2 The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom marked the beginning of a new, more intense phase of enthusiasm for one of the most anticipated sequels of the decade. Sure, a new Zelda game is always big news, but when it’s a follow-up to one of the most warmly-received video games of all time — and one that gave the Nintendo Switch a launch title to rival the likes of Super Mario 64 — excitement levels will be reaching fever pitch in the coming months as we approach its May 2023 launch.

While series devotees like us will be wondering how Eiji Aonuma and co. are going to build upon what we know from Breath of the Wild and also somehow surpass our skyward expectations, all this hubbub will no doubt be attracting the attention of players who have never before grabbed the Master Sword and given Ganon a sound thrashing. After over five years on the market, there are over 111 million Switches in the wild, and a good deal of them belong to people who may think Zelda is the pointy-eared chap in green (or blue). Among them will be people, possibly family and friends of yours, who want to know why everyone’s so worked up, and — with your help — we’re here to offer advice on how to hook them on the series.

Where to start with a big franchise like this is a dilemma we’ve discussed before, but today we thought we’d focus specifically on which Zelda would be best to onboard new players in the run-up to Tears of the Kingdom. We’ve got our individual thoughts on this one — which are surprisingly diverse! — but you’ll also find a poll at the bottom featuring every mainline game in the series.

So, let’s see what Team NL thinks is worth squeezing in in the *counts on fingers* seven-and-a-half months until TOTK descends on us. Plenty of time to get up to speed, right?

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo EAD

Release Date: 23rd Nov 1998 (USA) / 11th Dec 1998 (UK/EU)
Available On: NSO + Expansion Pack

Available on Switch? Yes, as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscription.

I am by no means suggesting that I have played the Zelda games in the perfect order, it just so happens that the game which I believe should be played first is the one that, coincidentally, I did play first. Ocarina of Time ignited my love for the franchise and I am near enough certain that it would do the same for anyone else who was coming to the games for the first time. The 3DS version is certainly the way to go if you wanted a slightly less frustrating time of it (we’re looking at you, Water Temple), but frustration is part and parcel of every great Zelda game and the original gives you it by the bucketload – with the added bonus of those nostalgic pointy N64 graphics!

On top of its sheer lovability lies the fact that the game incorporates everything that makes up a great Zelda title. It has open world exploration, a battle with the series’ main villain, seven clearly defined and unique temples and an all-powerful musical instrument. All of which combines to make one of the finest Zelda experiences, it is true, but also one of the most Zelda-y Zelda experiences. It is everything that is great about the franchise and then some – the perfect starting point. Jim Norman

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo EAD

Release Date: 13th Apr 1992 (USA) / 24th Sep 1992 (UK/EU)

Available on Switch? Yes, as part of the regular Nintendo Switch Online subscription.

In order for someone to get the “true” Legend of Zelda experience, it might be prudent to start with one of the 3D titles in the series, since the likelihood of Nintendo returning to the top-down 2D perspective anytime soon is, well, slim to say the least. Nevertheless, for the quintessential Zelda experience, look no further than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Released for the SNES back in 1991, A Link to the Past felt like utter perfection after the misfire from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It’s got everything you could possibly want from a Zelda game: exploration, tough dungeons, a cast of wonderfully well-realised characters, and the first appearance of what would become somewhat of a staple in the Zelda franchise, parallel worlds.

While there are many who believe that the best place to start with any franchise is right at the beginning, there’s no denying that the NES iterations of Zelda have aged considerably in the decades following their respective releases. A Link to the Past, meanwhile, is a game that still plays magnificently to this day, with visuals that pop whether you’re on the SNES itself, the GBA, or the Switch. Ollie Reynolds

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo SPD

Release Date: 3rd Mar 2017 (USA) / 3rd Mar 2017 (UK/EU)

Available on Switch? Yes, and Wii U. Stop laughing at the back.

Jumping into a huge, open world like the one you can find in Breath of the Wild might appear to be like diving into an ocean for the first time rather than dipping your toe in the Zelda pond. But, hear me out, the sheer amount of freedom and creativity makes it such a sandbox of ideas and inspiration that it feels like such a good place to jump in.

Not only does it let you do whatever the heck you want – whether that’s wandering around the map for hours, collecting Korok seeds, or just terrorise the local Bokoblins over and over – but it does give you the framework of a Zelda game, albeit in a different way. Sure, Shrines aren’t temples, but these (along with the four main dungeons) are a great way of showcasing the potential of Zelda dungeoneering, as well as Link’s abilities and combat prowess.

But really, Breath of the Wild’s magic comes from how it makes you feel like a kid going on an adventure. It’s like a mountain-sized “choose your own adventure” book, with an endless amount of layers to it. Players are still finding new things out about this stunning, desolate Hyrule. And we’ve got another chance to explore it in next year’s Tears of the Kingdom. If you have an insatiable appetite for exploration and a boatload of curiosity, Breath of the Wild is sure to get its hookshot in you and pull you into the series. Alana Hagues

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GCN)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GCN)

Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo EAD

Release Date: 24th Mar 2003 (USA) / 2nd May 2003 (UK/EU)

Available on Switch? Nope, despite the rumours, this is still only available on GameCube or Wii U (in its remastered HD form).

With such a wealth of Zelda action available on Switch, it feels churlish to recommend one that you can’t download and play on your current console. Awkwardness aside (and hey, all of the above options are perfectly fine and valid, too!), I’m going to go with Wind Waker. It’s a flawed –and some might say unfinished — game, for sure, but I’m banking on its timeless art style hooking new players while they get to grips with the basics.

Yes, the opening stealth section is atypical for the series, as is all the serene sailing. And the trip down to visit Hyrule beneath the waves would likely hit harder if you had some history with the series. But even with all those caveats, the look of the thing and the sheer beauty of the animation will surely capture a newb’s attention long enough for the Zelda template to sink its teeth in and claim another delighted victim. I’m putting all my chips on what I call The Cuphead Effect. And by setting expectations appropriately when it comes to Triforce shard hunting and 10-minute sea voyages (go make a nice cuppa and you’ll be there by the time you get back), there’s no reason this couldn’t make for the perfect introduction, teeing up the epic land-based quests of other entries.

Although it’s got too much bloom lighting for my taste, I’m not opposed to the tightened HD version, although it’s probably easier to track down a secondhand Wii and a GameCube disc than it is to pick up a Wii U these days. Either way, I’d argue that no other Zelda has this amount of surface-level charm; perfect for landing bites in a blue ocean of new fans. Gavin Lane


Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Getting ready for this — Image: Nintendo

It’s a tough one, that’s for sure. Think Skyward Sword is a better choice? Sacrilege to suggest anything but the original? Let us know if you agree with any of the above in the comments, and vote in the poll below to let us know where you’d recommend starting out on your Zelda adventure.

Note. For the most part, we’ve listed remakes and originals beside each other. We omitted a couple of ports, mainly because it’s unlikely that anyone would take, say, the GBA port of LttP over the SNES version — especially when the original is available via Nintendo Switch Online. We’ve also left out the multiplayer games.

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