With the recent influx of Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games to Nintendo’s online subscription service, it’s easier than it’s ever been to play most of the mainline Zelda games. We here at Polygon have been blazing through the series’ classic catalog in the lead-up to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in May. It’s a joy to play the games back to back and watch the series evolve in microcosm between each subsequent entry.
In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.
But sometimes, it’s just as much fun, if not more so, to play the games that were inspired by Zelda — to see how different studios interpreted the pillars of Nintendo’s action-adventure franchise.
Because, really: What makes a Zelda game a Zelda game? Is it the characters? Is it the puzzle-based dungeons? Is it collection of cool new tools, which you’ll need to master in order to take down the next boss? For each new Zelda game that reinforced these pillars, just as many came along to refute them. (I myself am partial to Majora’s Mask, perhaps the most subversive chapter in the “let’s shake things up” line of thinking.) It’s this malleability that has led to such a diverse range of “Zelda-like” games.
So, if you, like us, are once again exhausting the number of Zelda games you have yet to replay in the lead-up to Breath of the Wild’s direct sequel, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite alternatives that embody the term “Zelda-like.” Some focus on puzzles; others embrace time manipulation; one gives us the strongest glimpse yet at a Zelda game entirely focused on combat. We kept the criteria vague because, well, the criteria were vague to begin with. And that’s why it’s so fun. —Mike Mahardy
Image: Pixpil/Chucklefish via Polygon
The Legend of Zelda’s influence on Eastward is clear the moment you load up the game; its gameplay and style oozes Zelda right down to the heart meter denoting your hit points. From Chinese developer Pixpil, Eastward is a 2021 role-playing game that takes the player, well, eastward into a mysterious post-apocalyptic world with a gruff guy named John and a magical kid named Sam. The world’s puzzles require the player to use both John and Sam in different ways; John’s got a frying pan good for whacking enemies, while Sam’s magical powers stun enemies. They’re controllable simultaneously, using a controller’s trigger to bring one or the other to the front. Part Earthbound and part Zelda, Eastward is a must-play for anyone interested in pixel-art RPGs. —Nicole Carpenter
Eastward is available on Mac, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Image: Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital
If Eastward is Earthbound meets The Legend of Zelda, then Death’s Door is a mixture of Dark Souls and Zelda. Death’s Door has the top-down exploration of many Zelda games, where players collect upgrades and tools while moving through puzzles and dungeons, but pairs that with a dark world and challenging boss battles more akin to Dark Souls. It’s about a crow, named Crow, who’s a reaper of souls — their journey takes them from the bureaucracy of the afterlife into the world where souls reside. It’s a simple game that does everything near perfectly, a kinder “hard” game with a difficulty level that ramps up as the game continues. —Nicole Carpenter
Death’s Door is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Image: Clover Studio/Capcom
Okami has become known for its ostensible similarity to Twilight Princess, the Zelda title that features Link in lupine form. But the similarities extend beyond this superficial character comparison — to the extent that fans consider it one of the best unofficial Zelda games. It’s speckled with puzzles, and clearing regions adds to the protagonist’s toolkit: a series of Celestial Brush powers that let you modify the environment around you. The game seems to have Zelda in its DNA, even in its smallest moments, which I’ve unpacked in another piece:
Like in Zelda games, dungeons had elemental themes: I used levers to lower the waterline in a cursed pirate ship, and fire powers in a lava-themed dungeon. Though Okami’s puzzles are less open-ended than those of Breath of the Wild — it’s pretty obvious which brushstrokes you use to solve things — I was still wowed by the powers I amassed, and how they let me modify the world.
Okami HD is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Nobody Saves the World
Image: Drinkbox Studios
Drinkbox Studios’ top-down dungeon crawler is Zelda for a new generation, from its zany overworld encounters to the procedurally generated grottoes underneath. Its mix-and-match progression allows players to veer off in the direction of their preferred play style while still holding out the option of seeing and unlocking everything. Most importantly, Nobody is set in a once-cheerful fairyland worth saving, whose kooky mission-giving NPCs always summon at least a dry chuckle. —Owen Good
Nobody Saves the World is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Image: Andrew Shouldice/Finji via Polygon
Tunic stars a tiny fox that wields a sword and a shield, clearly a nod to The Legend of Zelda’s hero Link — the fox even wears a green tunic. Full of puzzles and secrets, Tunic is a game that uses nostalgia for games and franchises like The Legend of Zelda, mostly through its essential manual, which is built right into the game. When Tunic begins, the manual is incomplete, which means there’s tons of information missing. The player has to navigate Tunic’s world using this incomplete information to find more pages, unlocking new ways to solve puzzles. It’s the secrets and mysteries of the world, which sometimes mean asking friends for help, that make Tunic special — the fighting itself isn’t the draw. It feels like playing a Zelda game as a kid, one where I could talk secrets and strategies with my friends. —Nicole Carpenter
Tunic is available on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Image: Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games
Unsighted takes a lot of classic Zelda elements and makes them new thanks to a unique (and honestly stressful) twist. You play as an automata that requires a gem substance to live. Unfortunately this substance is increasingly scarce — as such, everyone’s lives (including yours) are on the clock. When the clock runs out, you become unsighted, and liable to attack friends and lovers. The game wears its classic Zelda influences on its sleeve, with a full three layers of map bounded off by regions that require flexible and creative problem solving to beat. The protagonist’s kit grows after completing each region, with novel traversal tools and weapons that range from a giant top that allows you to travel over high wires to shuriken that set things on fire or turn water into ice. —Nicole Clark
Unsighted is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Image: Polytron Corporation/Trapdoor
If you’ve played Fez, or at least remember when it was announced, you know the feeling you had when the 2D landscape rotated and revealed the other side of the cliff or cave or platform for you to climb. First published in 2012 (most recently in 2021 for Nintendo Switch), Fez is worthy of the Zelda-like mantle in how the player discovers and changes the playing space and works to unlock the secrets inside. —OG
Fez is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
Image: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon
2021 may have been the year of time-loop video games, but none of them approached the brilliance of 2019’s Outer Wilds. Set in a miniature galaxy in a lonely neck of some forgotten universe, developer Mobius Digital’s puzzle- and exploration-based adventure game is as much about solving mysteries about specific characters as it is about understanding the intricacies of entire planets. The catch? The entire world ends every 22 minutes, sending you back to your home on Timber Hearth, armed only with the knowledge you gained during the previous loop. Outer Wilds is a true spiritual successor to Majora’s Mask, in which time is an intricate gameplay system, but also the specter looming over every character caught in its web. —Mike Mahardy
Outer Wilds is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Image: Greg Lobanov/Finji
In Chicory: A Colorful Tale you fill the world with color, one brush stroke at a time. You become a “wielder” by accident — the last wielder, Chicory, crumbled under pressure, locking herself in her room. It’s up to you to make the world beautiful once more. The game makes sharp commentary on artistic pressure, worthiness, and community support. It’s also an incredible Zelda-style top-down puzzle game, with the paintbrush enabling you to do outlandish things — like travel through vines and rivers or climb up walls. It was one of our game of the year contenders in 2021, and even now the game is a standout. —Nicole Clark
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is available on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.
Hyper Light Drifter
Image: Heart Machine
Another top-down adventure masterpiece, Hyper Light Drifter is an open-ended adventure that, like The Legend of Zelda, subtly directs the player to level up and become more powerful before taking on the next boss or the big bad. Heart Machine’s world, explicitly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, is worth the exploration, and the discovery that awaits will enthrall you. —OG
Hyper Light Drifter is available on iOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Image: FromSoftware via Polygon
What’s left to say about Elden Ring? Quite a lot, I think. It’s as wide as it is deep, as funny as it is melancholic, and as punishing as it is empowering. And with new DLC on the way, I suspect many of us will be making a return to The Lands Between, whenever that may be.
And while it’s easy enough to compare it to Breath of the Wild — or at least, developer FromSoftware’s take on Breath of the Wild — Elden Ring owes just as much to the Zelda game that started it all in 1986. Elden Ring’s creators refuse to hold your hand as you explore a foreboding, mysterious, often gorgeous wilderness, its dungeons, and a snaking underworld that lies beneath it. Boss fights are as intense as they are terrifying, and finding a boss’s weakness could mean venturing the other side of the map to find its Achilles’ heel. Like Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring may look new, but its ideas date back to a game about a young boy spelunking in the Japanese countryside. It just took us decades to catch up to that daydream. —Mike Mahardy
Elden Ring is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.