Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Zelda Games, Ranked

It's been over 12 years since I've started this blog and in all this time I've never really bothered with ranking all the Zelda games from best to worst. I've mentioned here and there what Zelda games are among my favorites and which ones I don't like as much, but I've never created an actual ranking. If some other Zelda fan were to write this blog, then he or she would have posted an update of such a list every other year, since it's an easy way to talk about the games. So, what happened here?

Well, one reason was that I never really had a clear favorite for the longest time. There were a bunch of Zelda games that I liked more than the rest, including the N64 games, Link's Awakening, as well A Link Between Worlds, but there was no satisfying resolution here.

But this has changed with the Nintendo Switch and its Zelda titles: the amazing Breath of the Wild, which pretty much became a tier of its own with its engaging, massive open world, as well as the remake of Link's Awakening, which quickly became my favorite top-down Zelda experience. So, if you have a Nintendo Switch, then you can consider yourself lucky and play what I consider to be the best of the best... (Together with the best Zelda spin-off title, Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition.)

Another reason was that I had trouble ranking certain Zelda games against each other, where some of it seems more like a blur. There were my favorites, there were my least favorites and then there was the entire rest in between. And this hasn't really changed, so instead of a pure ranking from best to worst, I will be working with several tiers instead, because this makes things a little bit easier for me.

So, without further ado, let's take a look at said tier list:

The Zelda games divided into 3D, 2D and four tiers

As you can see, there are four tiers in total: Goddess, Queen, Princess and Maiden. The naming of these tiers should give it away already, but I don't necessarily consider any Zelda game to be super bad or completely terrible. It's just that I've enjoyed some of the games less or more than others.

Likewise, I don't think that any Zelda game is perfect. No game ever is and they all have their ups and downs, their strengths and weaknesses, where naturally it all comes down to personal preference. While I try to look at the whole package objectively, which includes world design, dungeon design, enemy design, combat, items, side quests, story, graphics, music and everything, in the end it's really about the following two subjective questions:

  • How much did I enjoy playing this game for the first time?
  • How much do I enjoy replaying this game?

A good sense of discovery and a low level of linearity are arguably two of the biggest factors here, but it's not all there is to it, because otherwise the original The Legend of Zelda would probably rank higher. But the world design and some fun collectible side quest influence me more than the story or enemy design for example. And nostalgia is undeniably another factor, especially for the first question... Competing with those childhood memories is tough.

Other than splitting everything into the four tiers, the tier list also distinguishes between 3D and 2D Zelda games, where this is about the primary perspective (mainly third person view vs. top-down) and not the actual engine. Like with Mario or Metroid games, this tends to make a bigger difference.

2D Zelda games are much simpler, but also play faster, where they offer better replay-ability overall. Dungeon play and items are much more important here and can really make or break these games. The 3D Zeldas on the other hand are more the grand, epic adventures with a big budget and development cycle behind them. Here atmosphere and immersion play a big role and less so in the 2D Zelda games.

Comparing the two formats almost feels unfair, where each half probably should stand on its own, but generally the 3D Zelda games can be seen as slightly better than the 2D Zelda games on the same tier, which is why they got put at the front / left.

So, you can basically read this tier list from left to right and top to bottom. However, within the same block the games were ordered chronologically, at least for the most part, and are pretty much interchangeable. Still, in most cases this is how I feel about their individual ranking, where I would put The Wind Waker definitely above Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword for example, especially with its HD version.

Apropos, whenever there is a remaster or enhanced port, this tier list will go with the latest version, considering it as the "best", even though in some cases things might have been changed to the worse, like in Majora's Mask 3D. But the N64 version of Majora's Mask would still be in the same spot. The only game that got listed twice is Link's Awakening, because I feel like the remake improved things so much that the game was able to move up one tier.

Now, with all of this out of the way, let's talk a little bit about each individual tier...


Goddess Tier

 

Breath of the Wild is the most successful Zelda game to date and will certainly shape the series from now on, where it also lands on top of this list. Ever since the Nintendo 64 Zeldas, which were my favorite 3D Zelda games before Breath of the Wild, I've dreamed of a Zelda game on this scale with a huge, open world to explore and many different weapons to use, so in many ways this game was a dream finally coming true for me.
 
It's really a new milestone for the series and a tier of its own, where comparing it to the older 3D Zelda games would be like comparing an ocean to some lakes. It will have to measure itself against its successors, however, like the upcoming sequel.
 
Still, there is a thing or two that it could learn from older Zelda games, like when it comes to engaging side quests and more complex dungeon design. But overall it's just a whole other level of Zelda and without a doubt one of the best open world games ever made thanks to its addicting exploration loop and the Climb 'n' Glide gameplay.

Putting the remake of Link's Awakening right next to it might even seem controversial, since it's pretty much the polar opposite to Breath of the Wild in many ways. But it represents the best of traditional Zelda experience in a modern and charming way, where it's the perfect companion piece to the big, new flagship of the Zelda franchise. It's a short, but sweet experience.

Of course there is also a certain bias here, because the GameBoy original was my very first Zelda game, but exploring Koholint is still as much fun as it used to be over two decades years ago and also offers some of the best 2D dungeons in the series.


Queen Tier 


As already mentioned, these are the Zelda games that I've considered to be my favorites before the Nintendo Switch era. While these games all have their flaws, these flaws didn't leave a major impact on the enjoyment of these games for me personally.

Other than providing great childhood memories, Ocarina of Time has some of the best 3D dungeons in the series to offer, while Majora's Mask has one of the best 3D overworlds, where there's something find in every corner. Together these two games form one unforgettable experience, which shouldn't be missed by anybody.
 
Both of the N64 games also stand out with their amazing atmosphere, thanks to the great use of sounds and music, which is something that has been considerably strong with 3D games from that era. It's the sound that really makes these games so memorable despite their limitations in graphics.
 
This could also be called the nostalgia tier and we've already talked about Link's Awakening, where its GameBoy Color version also makes the list to emphasize that the remake is really that much better. The improved interface and controls, as well as the nice additions are certainly missed here, but it's still one of the best Zelda games overall.

A Link Between Worlds gets a placement in this section as a more fun version of A Link to the Past. While the whole concept of getting all the items at the start is questionable at best (Breath of the Wild has the same issue), the items are all very fun to use and the wall merge ability adds a whole new perspective to the top-down Zelda gameplay. If the dungeons were more challenging and the mini-games somewhat better, then this could give the Link's Awakening remake a run for its money.



Princess Tier


Now we're talking about the good middle. All of these titles offer a solid Zelda experience and might even be the eternal favorites of other Zelda fans. But for me they have at least one major flaw or even several flaws, which make me enjoy them less than the game in the upper tiers.

The Wind Waker is actually quite close to the Nintendo 64 Zelda games in terms of atmosphere, has a timeless appeal to it and offers various of the qualities that made Breath of the Wild so good. But the dungeons feel like a slog and there is too much repetition with things that aren't very fun to begin with. Plus, the course of the main game seems needlessly linear.

Apropos linear, this is one of the main reasons why Twilight Princess fell flat for me. The game is way too guided and restricted on every step of the way to be any real fun. And the wolf transformation feels quite underwhelming when compared to the excellent mask transformations from Majora's Mask.

Skyward Sword was a little bit better when it comes to exploration, but its focus on motion controls and its world design create other problems. And I doubt that an HD remaster of this game would change anything here on a meaningful level, especially when it comes to the world design.

A Link to the Past on the other hand offers that good dose of freedom and non-linearity that I'm looking for in a Zelda game and also has one of the best 2D overworlds in the series, where A Link Between Worlds was happy to recycle most of it. But unlike the 3DS successor, A Link to the Past doesn't offer that much in its second half, where you're basically just busy with dungeon crawling.

The Oracle games are like two sides of the same coin and it would never occur to me to view these games separately. But while they offered more of the Link's Awakening gameplay, these games never get as good as Link's Awakening. Plus, the password system is somewhat convoluted. Maybe a remake could move them up one tier, though...
 
The Minish Cap is one of the most charming top-down Zelda experiences, but similar to Twilight Princess it tends to be quite linear and restrictive. The grind to get all figurines can also be a pain for 100% players.

Last and surprisingly not least, there is also Phantom Hourglass on this tier, which many Zelda fans consider to be the worst Zelda game of all time. But when the game came out, I actually liked it enough to put it on par with A Link to the Past at the time and this still holds. This game has a very open second half, one of the best collectible quests in the series with the Spirit Gems and an interesting main dungeon, which was designed around speed-running. Even the whole touchscreen Nintendo DS gameplay worked quite well for me.
 
The normal dungeons can be somewhat simple, however, and the collecting all Ship Parts is also too much of a grind. But overall I like it more than its sequel, Spirit Tracks, which is part of the lowest tier...


Maiden Tier


I can only repeat myself here when I say that I don't view any of these games as failures, even of the risk of making me sound like a fanboy. But all of these titles are lacking something that I'd want out of a Zelda game.

With the three multiplayer titles this is quite obvious: they don't have a real overworld, where instead you play individual levels. You can't really fault these games for this, since they were designed around multiplayer and therefore are more or less a thing of their own. But in the grand picture of the Zelda series this is where they rest.

Overall the multiplayer games are also pretty much equal, where they all have their advantages and disadvantages. I liked Tri Force Heroes enough to play it for over 200 hours thanks to its online multiplayer, its Challenges and the outstanding outfits, but it also has the simplest level design and the worst singleplayer mode. Four Swords is very short, but also offers the best replay value thanks to its randomly generated areas and the best mix of cooperation and competition. Four Swords Adventures has the best story, level design and singleplayer mode, but is also the most static and can be somewhat boring to replay.

Now, with the NES Zelda games it's simply that A Link to the Past came up with many things that make a Zelda game feel like a Zelda game, like cutting grass or opening treasure chests. The NES Classics are somewhat bare-bones in comparison and can also be very brutal and unforgiving, almost archaic. They are good for a challenge, however, and the music is great.

Finally, Spirit Tracks is lacking a good pace, where everything in this game is just awfully slow. Getting anywhere in the game with the train is very slow. The whole Phantom puzzle mechanic is very slow. Even simple actions like crossing a gap is very slow. It's all slow and this makes it dull to replay. Say about Phantom Hourglass what you want, but at least that game doesn't needlessly test your patience on all ends. That the Spirit Flute is completely broken on newer systems doesn't really help either...



...

Of course all of this is subject to change and I might consider updating this list in the future, once more Zelda games have been released or remastered.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Amazon Lists Skyward Sword for Switch

 

 

Naturally, this has already been removed and it could have been a mistake, but Amazon UK briefly had "Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword (Switch)" available for pre-order (see here).

If you've followed this blog, then this shouldn't come as a huge surprise. We've discussed possible additions and improvements for a Skyward Sword HD remaster already in early 2018 and at the end of that year Eiji Aonuma teased us with the possibility of Skyward Sword on Switch at a concert in Japan, where I've been expecting this title ever since.

Of course, a standalone release will be more in line with Nintendo has been doing in terms of remakes, remasters and ports during the last years and will effectively remove this title from an "HD Collection", but such a collection could still become a thing with The Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD and maybe Link's Crossbow Training HD later on.

It's also interesting how this is just called "Skyward Sword" and not "Skyward Sword HD", similar to the remake of Link's Awakening. They might even change the logo of this release to the new flat design, so it's clearly distinguished from the Wii version. Or alternatively this could have been a mistake in a mistake from Amazon.

But it feels like there will be an announcement coming soon. Maybe we're even getting a Nintendo Direct this week, on August 20th, which would be great. And like for the past three years, I'm really hoping that this will finally come with a golden Nintendo Switch Bundle. This is the game that came with a golden Wiimote after all...

Skyward Sword Limited Edition for Wii

Golden Joy-cons would simply be the next evolution of this. Playing this game with motion controls will still be an important factor, so having shiny Joy-cons for the job would be nice to have.

As for the release date, it could already come this year, but all of the 3D Zelda remasters and remakes so far were released in Spring. If Skyward Sword on Switch gets released in early 2021, it would also follow the same cycle as Twilight Princess, where the HD version came out in early 2016, five years prior and nine and a half years after the original on Wii.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Small Battlefield Added

Small Battlfield


Wow, this came out of nowhere. Nintendo just dropped version 8.1.0 of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which comes with a few improvements for the game's online mode. And those are certainly needed in times of a pandemic, where people are primarily playing Smash online. Of course you shouldn't expect wonders here, since they won't magically add servers, but there are some adjustments to the netcode, match-making and getting into Elite Smash.

In addition, this updates comes with a new stage: Small Battlefield. It's basically just Battlefield without the top platform, which makes it similar to Pokémon Stadium 2 without stage hazards, which is a stage that frequently gets picked in tournaments. But it's smaller and therefore even better suited for 1on1s.

I've been playing Smash more competitively for a while now and I've kept thinking that it would be nice to have a two platform variant for all the stages, similar to the Battlefield and Omega variants. Sakurai even mentioned on Twitter that they were considering this, but they weren't able to do this (as translated by PushDustin).

We can only speculate why this is, because technically all they need to do is to remove the top platforms from the Battlefield variants and shift the other two platforms slightly. But maybe it's because these variants need to be saved separately, which would cause a larger update (though it shouldn't be that large, since assets like textures or meshes can be reused), or because this would require lots of testing for over 100 new stages. Or it's because they would need to get permissions for the 3rd party stages... We don't know, but hopefully they will implement this in the next Super Smash Bros. game, because it would be nice to have.

They've also added the option to choose from any music on the four Super Smash Bros. stages (Battlefield, Small Battlefield, Big Battlefield and Final Destination), which is great. But it also completely ignores your "My Music" selection for these stages, where instead it goes over all your "My Music" settings, which is not so great, if you want to play these stages with classic Smash Bros. music only. Hopefully the random music selection for these stages will get fixed later on.

Speaking of random, for some reason they have added random selection buttons for Battlefield and Omega stages, which seems rather redundant, because you could simply press X and use the old random selection button before. The main advantage is that it prevents you from accidentally going for the wrong version, but that's about it. And together with the new Small Battlefield stage, this takes half of the potential empty slots on the stage select screen:

stage select screen in version 8.1.0


So, if they are going to add more stages beyond the 2nd Fighters Pass, then there are only three spaces left on this screen and a "Stages Pass" seems out of the question now. And this also makes the stage select screen arrangements differ between the normal Smash mode, Training mode and the stage select in the rule sets, which might be annoying, because finding stages is already confusing as it is...

However, what I like about this new arrangement is how it sorts things by pushing the first stage of a certain Smash era to the front. The stages from Super Smash Bros. Brawl now start at the fourth line with Delfino Plaza and the stages for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U start at the eighth line with Mushroom Kingdom U. And the "DLC era" starts in line 10 with the Super Mario Maker stage. This should make things a little bit easier and intuitive to find than before, even though a "sort by franchise" option is still dearly missed.
 
(Maybe they will also add something to Training Mode later, so it has the exact same arrangement. There could be two new versions of the Training stage for example.)

And while they were busy with this change to the stage select screen, they still haven't bothered with implementing a quick stage hazard toggle on it, which would be far more valuable than these random buttons. How hard could it be...?

Also, ideally you would be able to choose which stages appear for the random Battlefield and Omega stages. This was a feature that Super Smash Bros. for Wii U had, but got axed in Ultimate for its convoluted rule sets. But sometimes when I play with competitive rule sets, I just want to go to a random Battlefield or Omega stage, but then it puts me on Battlefield Smashville or Omega Pokémon Stadium 2 all the time, because it takes the from the limited pool of allowed stages. And this makes these random options rather useless, because the main reason to play these altered stage variants is because you don't want to play the normal version of that stage anyway, where you likely will have it disabled in the rule set.

At least this free update makes me more hopeful that they are going to do a bunch of free Echo Fighters next, maybe even a couple more stages, either as standalone paid DLC (similar to the Super Mario Maker stage on the Wii U and 3DS) or as another free addition, where they could bring some of the missing stages back (though, this would mess with the new arrangement). And with only three more open slots, it now feels more likely that they actually might consider filling the entire stage select screen.

PS: It's telling when the most exciting thing that has happened lately is a "new" stage for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. We seriously need a Nintendo Direct...