Top Five Zelda Combat Systems

KeatonFebruary 22nd, 2014 by Keaton

ALBW StalfosEveryone’s favorite swordsman, Link, has mastered many tricks over the years. From humble 2D beginnings and a strange side-scrolling sequel, the Zelda series has grown into the third dimension and, most recently, a portable homage to the past. As such, the combat has taken on several different forms, for better or worse. Nearly every time Link again wields the Blade of Evil’s Bane, it is in a decidedly different manner from the last. But which games did it best?

Take the jump to see which games made the cut!

5. Twilight Princess

Hidden SkillPersonally, I felt like Twilight Princess‘ Hidden Skills, taught by the Hero’s Shade, were a futile attempt to one-up The Wind Waker‘s parries. The Hidden Skills had more weight behind them, so they didn’t quite match the enthralling swiftness of the parries. However, they did bring some light strategy to the table, as many enemies were more vulnerable to certain combinations of Hidden Skills than others. The game’s heavily armored Darknuts were imposing foes that made great use of the system. Items didn’t add or detract much, though. Other than the Ball and Chain and Bomb Arrows, two especially devastating items, use of items in battle was fairly standard for a 3D Zelda game.

4. A Link to the Past

Link to the Past logoA Link to the Past still has one of the best collections of items and weapons of any Zelda game, ranging from series staples such as the Boomerang and Bombs to unique additions like the Magic Powder and Magic Cape. Each of them had unique properties and were fun to experiment with. Enemies were also quite varied, and to discover and exploit each of their weaknesses was greatly rewarding. A Link Between Worlds might make the controls look stiff and dated by comparison, but A Link to the Past is still perfectly playable. All in all, I believe the combat is an important part of why many Zelda fans still herald A Link to the Past as the king of 2D Zeldas, or even the entire series.

3. A Link Between Worlds

Shadow LinkBecause of the obvious influences from A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds already had a lot going for it before it released. The classic top-down control scheme was finally unfettered from the D-Pad for the first time since Four Swords Adventures, and a slick 60fps meant every action felt immediately responsive and fluid. All of this translated into the combat, which was easily the tightest of any top-down Zelda. But it was almost too smooth for its own good. Some enemies that were virtually identical to their original A Link to the Past designs were easier to dispatch thanks to the modern controls.

Just like A Link to the Past, the weapon variety was great. You could stun enemies with the Boomerang or Hookshot, pick off dangerous foes from a distance with the Bow, deal powerful blows with the Hammer, freeze baddies with the Ice Rod, melt others with the Fire Rod, and if you had one, unleash a golden bee. The new upgrades made each weapon even more versatile and fun to use. Dueling powerful Shadow Links in A Link Between Worlds‘ StreetPass feature proved to be a surprisingly challenging and entertaining way to test your skill as well.

2. Skyward Sword

Link against StalfosSkyward Sword may have dropped the more stylish combat elements of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess to make room for fully-integrated motion controls, but that was fine by me. Free movement of Link’s sword added a whole new dynamic to combat and was used in a lot of interesting ways. Enemy designs like the Lizalfos and Deku Babas were actually constructed specifically to make use of the new motion controls, keeping Skyward Sword from repeating the infamous waggle controls of Twilight Princess. And Spin-Attacks, modified to be quick and powerful strikes capable of inflicting large amounts of damage in a short span of time, were finally practical for more than cutting down grass. Lastly, the items weren’t very exceptional. The Bow’s motion controls in particular made it hard to justify use of the Bow in close-quarters combat.

1. The Wind Waker

Wind Waker LinkThe Wind Waker is arguably the least challenging game in the entire series. It’s even fair to say that the game’s unique parry system contributed to the sub-par difficulty by allowing most enemies to be defeated with nothing more than a few well-timed presses of the A-Button. But what The Wind Waker lacked in challenge, it made up for with the most thrilling and engaging combat of any Zelda to date.

The well-established Z-Targeting system made famous by Ocarina of Time showed no signs of age, and was complemented by the aforementioned parries and Link’s new ability to use enemy weapons as his own. Wielding enemy weapons was often humorous, as many of them were amusingly disproportionate to little Toon Link. And tossing a Darnut’s own sword into another Darknut’s face was always good fun. Link’s own items were implemented to great effect as well. Many of the items had their own unique abilities which weren’t always immediately apparent, like the Grappling Hook’s ability to snatch enemy loot. Most of them, especially the Bow and Boomerang, featured snappy, responsive controls that kept the quick-paced combat flowing naturally. However, parries were what best demonstrated The Wind Waker‘s combat excellence. When confronted with several enemies at once, parrying their attacks one by one created a natural rhythm, and each successful strike came with satisfying physicality. The joy of victory was downright infectious, and The Wind Waker still features many of my absolute favorite battles of the entire series.

Obviously my choices won’t slip by without controversy. It wouldn’t be a list without that, would it? Go ahead, bring on the comments!

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  • Steven Montalto

    I agree with the fact that A Link to the Past had the best variety of weapons. I played through the game again a few days ago, and I was thinking about how awesome all the weapons are while I was experimenting with them. I enjoyed the combat system of Skyward Sword too. I never had an issue with the motion controls not functioning, and I found enemies that require directional sword slashes, like Stalfos, to be a pretty fun challenge.

    • Nikki

      I haven’t played ALTTP, but I agree with the rest of your statement! (:

  • YoshiFan101

    I like the motion controls a lot, the only thing I didn’t like was the swimming, that was really annoying for me.

  • michkori

    Umm aren’t PH and ST top down Zeldas? They changed combat alot, tho at times their combat systems were annoying. And they didn’t rely on the D. Pad at all.

    • Arkanite Kae

      That’s a totally different type of control all together, so it doesn’t count in what he was talking about

      • michkori

        For the first tine since FSA the top down games were finally unfettered from the d-pad. PH and ST are top down, and didn’t use the d-pad for combat. He made a mistake.

  • Matthew

    The worst combat systems were ofcourse Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks……

  • VikzeLink

    Well, I think OOT and MM should be there, since OOT introduced the targeting system, and not only to Zelda, but to EVERYTHING!

  • VladNorris

    A Link to the Past was quite broken with the Medalions if you ask me.
    But yeah, Wind Waker achieved the best balance in the series.

    • Steven Montalto

      Yeah, the Medallions were something I never really used in combat because they take away from the challenge a bit.

      • Essence Of The Triforce

        Some of them could be life savers, just wiping out almost anything in the room.

        • Steven Montalto

          Yeah, I know. I did use them throughout my first few playthroughs, but to add a bit of challenge, I’ve decided not to use them during more recent playthroughs.

          • Essence Of The Triforce

            I just kinda forgot about them.

          • Dawson

            I only used them when I had to, or in Ganon’s Tower. They were life savers!

          • Essence Of The Triforce


        • Churze

          I always forgot they were there XD

          • Essence Of The Triforce

            Yeah, same with me.

    • David

      I freaking loved the medallions

    • MusubiKazesaru

      countering is broken

      • VladNorris

        Not in all circumstances. If you fight more than one Darknut at the same time, countering have it’s drawbacks.

        • Churze

          And how often did you fight 3-4 Darknuts?

    • Churze

      …WW achieved the best balance? That’s cute.
      I don’t really mind when people say WW combat was the best FOR THEM, but I can’t stand when people think they can justify WW combat.

      WW combat was pretty much divided into two sections.
      1. Painfully easy “puzzle enemies,” which lose their novelty after one battle
      2. Button mashing enemies, where you run up to enemy and mash B until it dies. The end.
      Now, people usually scream at me THE DARKNUTS THOUGH. Well…
      1) These fights were few and far between. The most common enemy in the game, the Bokoblin was a joke and a push over. The most fun I ever had fighting them was when they hung onto the bridge for dear life and begged for mercy from me. Other than that there fight were just boring.
      2) Darknut fights weren’t really challenging or strategic. Counter was very easy, and it was button mash from here on out.

      3) Yeah, fighting 4 darknuts at once was hard, but how many times did that happen.
      Sea combat wasn’t really impressive. It was slow and clunky. Compare that to the fluidity present in TP horseback. Also, the Boomerang was overpowered, as well as countering. True, SS did have an overpowered shield bash, but shields were completely optional in that game. I know countering is optional too, but just knowing you can’t use shield bash because you don’t have a shield is more satisfying. Great Spin was overpowered, put you don’t get that until the end of the game.

      • VladNorris

        “1. Painfully easy “puzzle enemies,” which lose their novelty after one battle

        2. Button mashing enemies, where you run up to enemy and mash B until it dies. The end.”

        Except there are enemies like the Moblins, who normally block and are aggressive, requiring more than just mashing B nor have a stupidly specific weaknesses, fight in groups, which makes speamming a bad idea, Stalfos who you can’t just mash because they have super armor in their attack animations. Plus, it’s not only how a single enemy behaves, is how they’re placed. You’ll have to strategize more than once because you’re dealing with enemies of different behaviors usually in the same room. And that’s not a one time thing either.

        “Sea combat wasn’t really impressive. It was slow and clunky. Compare that to the fluidity present in TP horseback.”

        That’s fun because Twilight Princess is easily the game with more abundance of button mashing, even in horseback.

        And what’s more, if we go to Skyward Sword, the supposed directional use of the sword gets trivialized. You can hit enemies by mindlessly slashing because they eventually open their guard. I slashed horizontally in front of a Lizalfos, and he kept dodging for a while, then he just opened his guard and got his ass kicked. I repeated the experiment, and worked every single time.

  • K2L

    As much as I like Twilight Princess, I have to agree that the Hidden Skills could have reached a greater level of usefulness, considering the potential. It wasn’t until the Darknut fight when the game’s combat system was finally reaching its fullest (though I give props for the two horsetrack melees. They were epic). Though Skyward Sword ditched several of the Hidden Skills, the combats were made more fun thanks to the swordplay. I gotta love the fights against Scervo, Koloktos and that miniboss rush in Sky Keep.

    I also liked the combats in Majora’s Mask, with the different transformations having their own fighting styles. And the sea battles in TWW are fun, if also quite tense (Seahats and Gyorgs, anyone?) XD

    • Steven Montalto

      I liked the different fighting styles in Majora’s Mask too, but the sea battles in Wind Waker, not so much. Every time a Gyorg would jump out of the water and come toward the boat or a Seahat would charge at me, I would certainly become tense, but they weren’t so fun for me. The battles with the Big Octos, however, I loved. They were quite epic, especially when I first played the game and didn’t expect it.

      • K2L

        Especially when encountering a Big Octo and not having the bombs yet (thank God there’s still the Boomerang!). In fact, if you want the double magic meter early, then it’ll be inevitable to fight the Big Octo in Two-Eye Reef without them!

      • Nadaph

        Big Octo + Epic Music = Awesome

  • UltimateTankOP

    I think TP’s hidden skills hold a lot of potential. They were just poorly utilised in the game itself, since virtually every enemy can be defeated just by mindlessly mashing b. The Darknuts and Dynalfos (yes, that’s how it’s spelt in TP) really show off what the skills could have been, but sadly rarely appear in-game. Learning each skill one-by-one is also a great way to show Link growing into the Hero he is destined to become.

    Just add more enemies that actually put up a fight, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing this system return.

  • MusubiKazesaru

    Twilight Princess > Wind Waker in combat

    • Churze

      Yup (although TP combat wasn’t that great either, Hidden Skills were just a huge deal). This is just another reason WW is painfully overrated these days. I like how everyone just seems to be admitting they preferred flash over substance with WW combat. TP is just that game that is cool to hate these days (I know it wasn’t hated here, but I hate to see so few people brand it as better than WW).

    • The Doctor

      Yeah, the Hidden Skills were a great addition. I’d love to see them applied in future Zelda games. Some were kind of over thought and crazy, like the jump strike, but most were really useful. I always felt so achieved after using the Mortal Draw.

      • MusubiKazesaru

        Yeah Twilight Princess made you feel like a badass, a similar combat system would be nice in the future as long as there’s a lot more difficult enemies that appear more frequently

  • EnaZeibekiko

    Wind Waker deserves to be up there, but it also should be condemned for making Link wait to strike an enemy again until it had fallen, lain flat, and risen to its feet.

  • Karlo Truta

    controls wind waker<skyward sword

  • aelic7

    I loved Wind Waker’s combat, but I still prefer Twilight Princess’ if only for the fact that you can actually finish off enemies while they’re on the ground. The hidden skills are fun, too, but Wind Waker definitely has the edge in the “screwing around” factor, with wielding the weapons and all.

  • StationaryBomb

    I loved being able to pick up weapons in WW, bad arse darknut sword, throw it at everybody :D, ONE HIT KO… Also I do like SS combat, I was such a noob at the game though, deku babas WTF WHY WONT U DIE I SLASH AT U BUT U DEFLECT!, Skultulas WTF TURN AROUND SO I CAN SLASH YOUR BELLY ALREADY! I died like 8 times from learning how to kill a Skultula because I didn’t want any help playing the game XD

    • Elliptical Catten

      I wholeheartedly agree with every word of that comment.

  • Erik I

    …I heavily disagree with this. TP’s combat is an improved version of Wind Waker’s and ALBW is unbelievably primitive. It doesn’t even have the “It was good for it’s age” argument going for it. Considering it’s been two decades since aLttP, this game’s combat is very underwhelming in terms of improvement.

    • Elliptical Catten

      ALBW’s is extremely fluid and items make up the experience more, so if you seldom used them you missed out on the entire thing.
      TP’s on the other hand, just B B shield wait BACK SLICE B dead.

      • Churze

        “TP’s on the other hand, just B B shield wait BACK SLICE B dead.”
        Let’s remember that this was EVERY 3D Zelda game. I was pretty disappointed that hack-n-slash was not eliminated from SS like the devs said it would.

    • Realm25

      It’s all about the items, not the swordplay. Modern Zelda these days is all about swordplay which is shallow compared to the item combat of previous Zelda games. How many items in SS were useful in combat? Or even TP? Not many beyond bow and arrows, bombs.

      • Erik I

        Items are largely irrelevant, especially in older titles where that damned magic bar made them near useless in combat.

        • Realm25

          Items were always largely relevant, especially when most of them were connected to a magic bar. Even more so in ALBW.

      • Churze

        To be fair, the iron boots were a weapon in TP O_o

  • Nadaph

    Nailed it in my opinion.

  • Speck

    TP was great. Even with the weird wave around the controller control scheme, I think the hidden skills were really kool. You didn’t even really need to use them that often, just using them made it much more fun. Same with the items in ALTTP. SS was great too, but I don’t think I want another game with those controls. You had to dedicate some time and effort to just play the game, instead on just lying down on the couch pressing B.

    ALBW totally should have had some strafing type thing in the game though…

    • Churze

      SS takes less effort the everyone seems to think. You can play that whole game by just flicking your wrist around. I can play it just as comfortably as any other Zelda game.

  • A Link to the Future

    I liked the combat in Skyward Sword the best. I seem to that one guy who likes motion controls and plays the 3DS only in 3D. (That being said, Rollgoal in TP is the hardest part in any Zelda game… Let’s just say I visited Gengle the cat on several occasions and Hena lost her voice from saying awwwww.)

    • Churze

      I think we all know endless cucco was the hardest part of any Zelda game…

      • A Link to the Future

        Yeah, that’s true lol. I still plan on reaching the master level by surviving 999.99 seconds one of these days!

        • Ghirahim

          I spent a week or so trying, got to 937.90, and then I quit.

      • Mister

        Closely followed by Octo Ball. Man, that was brutal!

    • The Doctor

      Skyward Sword, Heroes Mode, six heart run, Boss Run Challenge.

      Now THAT is the hardest part of any Zelda game.

      • UltimateTankOP

        Zelda II complete run without any extra life containers, optional spells (such as shield or life spells), and no levelling up.

        THAT’s the hardest part of any Zelda game.

        • The Doctor

          I’ve never played AoL

        • A Link to the Future

          Dang! You would think that would be impossible. I had trouble when I was perfect in everything. Fighting the Thunderbird and shadow link in that condition is insane!

        • Nadaph

          Just Zelda II Death Mountain

  • CrashLove37

    Finally someone else who likes Skyward Sword’s combat. I personally thought it was a lot of fun. The Skyward Strike took a while to get down, but everything else was spot on for me.

    • Kieroni

      Me too! It was a bit awkward since it was for rightys, but I’m a lefty, but other then that, it was amazing! 83

  • LordSlayaton

    Unrelated but I just adopted another cat today!

    • linkypete

      Just make sure it’s not a remlit…

    • Kieroni

      Yaaay! Cats! 8D

    • Ghirahim

      I like cats. What kind of cat is it?

      • LordSlayaton

        Tuxedo domestic shorthair. Adopted from a humane society rescue center.

  • Jeffers

    I always felt that TP was the easiest game of the series, although all of the bosses in WW right up until the end were much too easy.

  • Hero of Scotland

    Nintendoland should have been number 2.

  • Jaiden Edmonds

    Yeah, my first time completing the wind waker hd, I came to the conclusion that it had the best combat out of all the others I’ve played.

  • Link48

    My favorite controls have to be TP. I just love the secret abilitys to my favorite is the great spin. It just brings back memories of playing OOT.

  • Link58

    Unrelated the 48 in my name is sposed to be 58

  • Mister

    I think Zelda II should have taken the place of A Link to the Past. A Link to the Past was an improvement on the first game, but other games have improved even further on the traditional top-down perspective combat. Zelda II was not only different, but offered some great sword play for a side-scroller. A Link to the Past’s combat is just “meh” by today’s standards. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but in a list like this I don’t think it deserves a spot.

    • Philip Kunhardt

      Agreed. Zelda II had some of the richest swordfighting in the series, where striking location actually mattered. Skyward Sword was really the first game to bring back that innovation; while Wind Waker and Twilight Princess had times when you needed to jump around the back and attack from behind, they didn’t distinguish a low hit from a high hit. Of course, Twilight Princess brought back the famous downward thrust attack in the form of the Helmsplitter, but it’s lack of versatility compared to Zelda II’s is clear. No game has had a jump attack that literally thrusted like Zelda II’s, save the Smash Bros series, of course.

  • Linkfan99

    *Article about combat systems and swordplay*

    “Take the jump to see which games made the cut!”

    Well played…

  • hollander

    Twilight Princess is awesome with those hidden skills, real sword-fighting.

    • ZeldaFan70096


  • ZeldaFan70096

    My top 5:
    5. Skyward Sword
    4: A Link Between Worlds
    3. Spirit Tracks / Phantom Hourglass (since they both have the same controls)
    2. Twilight Princess
    1. The Adventure of Link

  • Wabber

    I loved phantom hourglass and sprit tracks

    • hollander

      So not anymore?

  • NightmareXIV

    YYYYEEEEESSSS! Wind waker shall reign supreme!

  • Farore’s Chosen

    what about being taught new moves by Minish Cap’s Legolas family with the Swiftblade Switcheroo style of teaching? (Yes I know that’s not their name but seriously they look like Legolas in one form or another) That shoulda taken place over SS’s crappy controls.

    • Philip Kunhardt

      That was basically a 2D proto-version of Twilight Princesses Hidden Skills.

  • Mask_of_Sense

    Skyward Sword is too low at no. 2 here. The motion controls were awesome, the enemy AI was challenging, and the boss fights were tense and rewarding – at least until you’d beaten them several times in the Lightning round. I’m loving WW HD at the moment, but the combat is nowhere near on the level of fighting, for example, a stalfos in SS. That said, WW arguably has a richer overworld – but for shear swashbuckling action Skyward Sword has to be pushing for top of the pile.

  • XTC

    Interesting article. I don’t think the hidden abilities in TP were a futile attempt at one-uping WW’s parrying system. I think it did what it set out to do very well. I very much agree with the rest of the article.

  • Nadaph

    If WW had more battles like the battle at Shark Island, more people would like the combat.

  • ahady

    My personal choices: 5. ocarina of time 4. link to the past 3. link between worlds 2. wind waker 1. majoras mask. simply because those games are the most enjoyable to play for me

  • Biggie

    Yeah, I agree. And Ganondorf from the Wind Waker is my favorite Zelda boss.

  • Sonic 2099 The Hedgehog


  • aquaisra

    I personally like Skyward Sword’s combat system the best, I felt like motion controls were perfectly integrated for pretty much all of the items as well as swordplay. Windwaker, however, was definitely the close runner up as well.

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