Most Nintendo franchises aren’t known for their difficulty curve these days, but the term “Nintendo Hard” exists for a reason. Games on the NES and SNES never shied away from embracing challenge, to the point where most games were designed with the explicit purpose of being difficult.
There was a time where the average Zelda game offered quite a challenge, but that seemed to change after the franchise transitioned into 3D. As The Legend of Zelda has only gotten easier with time, certain games have included hard modes to recapture the early days of Nintendo’s brutality. Not every game in the series humors the occasional Hero and Master Mode, but The Legend of Zelda is better off when it actually challenges its audience.
8 The Legend Of Zelda
Curiously, the first game in the Zelda series to feature a hard mode predates the actual need for one. The original Legend of Zelda on the NES is plenty difficult as is, but the 2nd Quest is a beast in and of itself. Not only are all the dungeons remixed, Hyrule layout has been slightly altered– secrets now amiss.
2nd Quest is a true challenge of one’s mastery over The Legend of Zelda, forcing players to think as outside of the box as humanly possible. Unlike the NES original, 2nd Quest does fallback on a number of obtuse puzzles which can make getting through the game without a guide extremely frustrating.
7 Ocarina Of Time
It took a long time for Ocarina of Time to get its hard mode, but it eventually came through the form of Master Quest. Developed for the Nintendo 64DD and originally released for the Nintendo GameCube, Master Quest remade every single dungeon in the game with harder action set pieces and more complex puzzles.
The dungeons themselves are debatably worse than the base game’s, but they’re not bad and do offer a genuine challenge. Master Quest was included in Ocarina of Time 3D as an unlockable where enemies now deal double damage. Complete with a flipped map, Master Quest 3D is the definitive way of experiencing Ocarina of Time’s hard mode.
6 Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword’s reputation with fans isn’t exactly stellar, but it’s a good game that did something very unique for 3D Zelda. Beyond the use of motion controls, Skyward Sword is actually challenging. The base game even begins with Link with six Hearts so players can adapt to the more demanding gameplay loop.
Upon completing the game once, players unlock Hero Mode. Not only do enemies deal far more damage, they no longer drop Hearts. Skyward Sword is a true test of your mastery of the game’s combat. For those who enjoy the title’s motion controls, it’s an excellent way of revisiting Skyward Sword.
5 The Wind Waker HD
The Wind Waker HD has its issues as a remake, but it has far and away the best implementation of Hero Mode in the franchise. It doesn’t need to be unlocked, it rebalances the game without reorienting the map, and it can actually be toggled on & off. The fact no other Hero Mode operates this way is criminal.
Considering how easy The Wind Waker is, Hero Mode really helps in rebalancing the combat. Enemies deal enough damage to actually be threatening now and the lack of dropped hearts means that players either need to fight well or stock up on potions.
4 A Link Between Worlds
Like Skyward Sword, A Link Between Worlds’ Hero Mode is only unlocked after completing the game once. It’s better the game have it than the game not having it at all, but The Wind Waker HD had set a precedent by this point and A Link Between Worlds arguably needed its Hero Mode available from the get go considering how easy the overall difficulty curve is.
As a successor to A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds’ difficulty is its only real setback. Thankfully, Hero Mode offers a playthrough even harder than A Link to the Past that really allows the game’s non-linearity to shine.
3 Twilight Princess HD
Twilight Princess HD doesn’t feature The Wind Waker’s interchangeable Hero Mode, but it does have a good excuse: Hero Mode mirrors the map to emulate Twilight Princess Wii release. While some might find it disappointing that Hero Mode now mirrors the map, there is a way to actually trigger an alternative hard mode for normal mode.
By using the Ganondorf Amiibo, Link will take double damage for the rest of the play session. Players do need to tap in Ganondorf every time they boot up the game, but it frankly just makes Twilight Princess a more rewarding experience. Pairing Ganondorf with Mirror mode might very well make TP the hardest 3D Zelda.
2 Breath Of The Wild
Breath of the Wild unfortunately didn’t launch with a hard mode, but Master Mode was released later on as DLC. Unlike Hero Mode, Master Mode is a bit more hands on as a hard mode. Every single enemy has been upgraded a tier– making the game harder from the get go– while they all regenerate health now, bosses included. This makes battles a war of attrition where durability can severely hinder a player.
Breath of the Wild’s Master Mode will only appeal to fans who have mastered the game’s combat as its oppressive difficulty can shine an uncomfortable light on durability’s mechanical drawbacks. Master Mode often feels punishing for the wrong reasons, but the tension added to moment to moment gameplay is undeniably a boon.
1 Link’s Awakening (2019)
Zelda remakes have been hit or miss, but Link’s Awakening (2019) recaptures that same frenzy Ocarina of Time 3D did for its source game. Both are fantastic reimaginings of wonderful games and Link’s Awakening (2019) arguably improves upon the original on every mechanical level. Beyond that, the addition of a hard mode out the gate was a step in the right direction.
Link’s Awakening (2019) might be the singlest hardest 2D Zelda all things considered. Its Hero Mode makes getting through the early game in one piece a massive challenge. Even by mid-game, Hero Mode will keep players on their toes as just about any hiccup can lead to death.