Despite there now being at least 22 games in Nintendo’s long-running Zelda series (depending on your tolerance for allowing your count to include weird CD-only titles, crossbow training simulators, and *shudder* Tingle), it can often be a tricky thing to define what traits actually make a game Zelda-like. Is it the swords? The green tunics? The satisfying “duh-duh-duh-duhhhhhh” of a brand-new tool being lofted above a pointy-eared hero’s head? It’s a question that the series itself often makes tricky to answer, with genre-defying entries like platform-based RPG Zelda II, or the free-form exploration of 2017’s critically beloved Breath Of The Wild—to say nothing of Nintendo’s recent announcement of a sequel to Hyrule Warriors, a game that stretches the series’ iconography to its breaking point in the service of letting players mow down whole armies of Moblins at a time.
In order to explore this topic—and to note, before the year is out, the 10th anniversary of the first Darksiders, as unlikely and heavy-metal-infused a Zelda clone as has ever existed—we’ve assembled this chronological listing of legends of people other than Hyrule’s most consistently kidnapped princesses. In doing so, we were forced to trim the “Zelda-like” concept down to a few key but instructive rules. Most, if not all, of these games are about exploring hostile spaces—often with a sharp dividing line between an “overworld” and the puzzle-filled dungeons below. Most rely on a steady supply of new tools that expand the player’s ability to navigate and master their environment. And most, pointedly, do not involve the player getting stronger directly by killing things. (That last one might feel academic, but it’s the distinction between a game like, say, Secret Of Mana, where beating enemies levels up your stats, and one where beating a boss drops another precious heart container into your lap.)
To this pared-down list, we’ve applied a few simple questions. Who is this game the legend of? What’s it about? How much of that precious Zelda DNA does it carry? (Rated from one to four big friendly Zelda hearts.) And—most importantly—what, if anything, is its equivalent to the Hookshot, the prototype for all truly great Zelda tools? Decidedly non-comprehensive (but hopefully enlightening), we can only hope that this trip through all these other legends helps refine the idea of what makes The Legend Of Zelda one that’s been repeated so insistently across the last 34 years of gaming history.