Ironic that right around the time of the series’ 30th anniversary in the West, the Legend of Zelda formula received its most dramatic shake-up in its history with Breath of the Wild. Eschewing many of the trademark staples of the series that fans had come to expect, Breath of the Wild was both the Nintendo Switch’s killer app at launch and a massive reset for the series. Rather than give players a curated set of dungeons and key items to collect along a predetermined path, Breath of the Wild embraces freedom. Not since the original Legend of Zelda had players experienced a world so full of wonder and potential.
The biggest difference between classic Zelda and the style of gameplay from BotW and its sequel Tears of the Kingdom is the aforementioned dungeons. The old-school Zelda methodology established in A Link to the Past has players complete an initial 3 dungeons, learning new mechanics and acquiring key items along the way. While there is some leeway in the order the dungeons are completed, some locations require Link to have earned a key item or ability from a previous dungeon.
Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are a massive departure from this formula, where players are presented with one overarching main quest and given total freedom to tackle it as they see fit. Players can ignore the main quest and simply immerse themselves in each game’s world. Additionally, both of the open-world Zelda titles feature a massive emphasis on crafting, something that was not present in the classic games. Considering that Breath of the Wild sold more copies than all other previous 3D Zelda games combined, it’s safe to say that the formula is here to stay.
Classic Zelda vs Open-World Zelda: Side-by-Side Comparison
The first thing that comes to mind when comparing classic Legend of Zelda games to the newer open-world ones is that there are simply more of them. Despite featuring generational innovations and improvements from entry to entry, the franchise as a whole has remained largely untouched for most of its existence. However, in a very short time, open-world Zelda has proven to be immediately successful among fans both new and old. Before getting into the specific features of each, let’s look at the breakdown of classic Zelda titles versus open-world adventures in Hyrule.
|Zelda Title||“Classic” Zelda||Open-World Zelda|
|The Legend of Zelda||✅|
|Zelda II: The Adventure of Link||✅|
|A Link to the Past||✅|
|Ocarina of Time||✅|
|Oracle of Ages/Seasons||✅|
|The Wind Waker||✅|
|Four Swords Adventures||✅|
|The Phantom Hourglass||✅|
|A Link Between Worlds||✅|
|Breath of the Wild||✅|
|Link’s Awakening (2019)||✅|
|Tears of the Kingdom||✅|
Open-world gameplay is, of course, new to the Zelda franchise, but it has already been established as the more successful framework in terms of game sales. Additionally, the aggregate scores of the open-world Zelda games place them as two of the best games in the series when using sites like Metacritic and OpenCritic as a gauge. Taking both sales and critical reception into account, comparing the two styles of Zelda becomes even more interesting.
|Zelda Title||Metacritic Score||Sales (Units)|
|The Legend of Zelda||84 (GBA Version)||7.29 million|
|Zelda II: The Adventure of Link||73 (GBA Version)||4.97 million|
|A Link to the Past||95 (GBA Version)||7.43 million|
|Link’s Awakening||Unavailable||6.05 million|
|Ocarina of Time||99||14.04 million|
|Majora’s Mask||95||6.82 million|
|Oracle of Ages/Seasons||Unavailable||3.99 million|
|The Wind Waker||96||6.8 million|
|Four Swords Adventures||86||0.758 million|
|The Phantom Hourglass||90||4.76 million|
|Twilight Princess||95||10.02 million|
|Spirit Tracks||87||2.96 million|
|Skyward Sword||93||7.82 million|
|A Link Between Worlds||91||4.26 million|
|Breath of the Wild||97||32.35 million|
|Link’s Awakening (2019)||87||6.46 million|
|Tears of the Kingdom||96||18.51 million|
Classic Zelda vs Open-World Zelda: 5 Must-Know Facts
Here are some of the must-know facts when comparing classic Zelda to newer, open-world Zelda:
- The highest-rated game in the series is, by far, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game notably takes the established formula from A Link to the Past and translates it into 3D. Every Zelda title that came after uses it as a template.
- Tears of the Kingdom is both the latest game in the series and the fastest selling by a large margin. Breath of the Wild moved 20 million units in roughly 2 years, which Tears of the Kingdom accomplished in 2 months. Together, both games account for roughly 50% of the entire series’ sales.
- Every mainline Zelda game on a home console has an aggregate score above 90%. Regardless of being classic or open-world Zelda, each game in the series is a landmark title.
- The title with the lowest score is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for NES. Interestingly, this was the series’ first attempt at a new gameplay style after the format established in the original.
- Most of what fans consider “classic” Zelda isn’t technically classic in that the formula originates with Ocarina of Time. This Nintendo 64 classic didn’t release until 1998, 11 years after the NES original arrived in North America.
Classic Zelda vs Open-World Zelda: Sorely Missed Features
Despite all the praise and success of the open-world Zelda titles, the new gameplay style comes at the cost of the loss of some classic Zelda gameplay features. The following are things that players would find in “classic” Zelda that are not present in Breath of the Wild or its sequel:
- Expansive dungeons with intricate puzzles, key items/treasure, and a trademark boss encounter
- Useful recurring tools like the Boomerang and Hookshot
- Permanent equipment and weapons
- Linear, curated adventures with clear progression paths
Classic Zelda vs Open-World Zelda: Curated Adventure or Limitless Freedom?
For fans of the series who have been playing since the NES original, the new Zelda titles represent a massive paradigm shift. Over 30 years ago, as players sat in front of their TVs and placed the iconic gold cartridge into their consoles for the first time, what awaited them was a game like nothing seen before. Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom make good on the original Legend of Zelda’s premise by reintroducing that same sense of wonder and adventure. Yes, with the implementation of crafting and vehicles, these titles continue to move away from the Ocarina of Time template. However, what is gained is a renewed sense of freedom and adventure that the series hasn’t had since its salad days.
Of course, some decry the loss of dungeons, which up until Skyward Sword kept improving with each entry. Skyward Sword represents the last of the mainline Zelda games to iterate on the formula established in Ocarina of Time. Not surprisingly, the game features some of the best dungeon and boss encounter designs across the entire series. While the older Zelda games were linear experiences, they were no less special or iconic. Without fail, each Zelda game has been an iconic release of its console generation and partially defined the gaming landscape.
Despite the many differences between what fans consider “classic” Zelda and the two newest games in the series, it’s hard to determine which one is superior. Ultimately, the question of one being “better” than the other is a moot point when you consider how every game in the series represents the pinnacle of game design at the time of its release. The Zelda series is, well, legendary for a reason. Series producer Eiji Aonuma has confirmed that open-world Zelda is here to stay, though it’s posisble fans may get the best of both worlds. As newer Zelda titles continue the format established in Breath of the Wild, perhaps Nintendo will continue making remakes of classic games in the series to keep their memory alive. That said, if relying strictly on raw data, open-world Zelda wins simply by sales and critic scores.