The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular and highly acclaimed video game franchises of all time. Since the first game released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, the series has captivated generations of gamers with its immersive worlds, intricate puzzles, memorable characters and thrilling adventures. But with nearly 20 core games in the series plus various remakes, spinoffs and remasters, how can you access and play these classic Zelda titles on Nintendo platforms? Are there ways to enjoy these iconic games for free?
This in-depth guide will cover the different methods for experiencing the Legend of Zelda series on Nintendo consoles over the years. We‘ll break down your options for playing Zelda games ranging from the NES original to recent entries like Breath of the Wild, including both paid and free avenues.
Overview of The Legend of Zelda Franchise
Let‘s start with a quick history of the Legend of Zelda series and why it remains so popular today:
- Debuted on the NES in 1986 with The Legend of Zelda
- Created by legendary Nintendo developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka
- Inspired by Miyamoto‘s childhood exploring woods and caves
- Blends action, adventure, puzzles, exploration and storytelling
- Link is the eternal hero who battles Ganon to rescue Princess Zelda
- More than 107 million Zelda games sold worldwide as of 2021
- Breath of the Wild (2017) is one of the best-reviewed games ever made
Key elements that define the Zelda experience:
- Exploring expansive overworlds and dungeons
- Using items like bombs, boomerangs, bow and arrow, hookshot
- Solving puzzles and finding hidden secrets
- Iconic musical themes and sound design
- Engaging boss battles
- Finding heart containers to extend health
- Saving progress at bird statues or sleeping in beds
For many gamers, the Legend of Zelda represents the pinnacle of adventure and discovery in video games. The freedom to explore the world at your own pace, gradually unlocking its secrets, is incredibly rewarding. This explains why Zelda games continue to resonate with both long-time fans and new generations of players.
But purchasing every new Zelda game at full retail price can get expensive. Let‘s look at ways you can get your Zelda fix without breaking the bank.
Purchasing Physical Cartridges
From the NES to the Switch, the primary way to play Legend of Zelda games over the decades was to buy physical cartridges at launch. This remains an option today, though digital purchasing is now more prominent.
Here is the typical cost for Zelda games at launch on each Nintendo platform:
|Game Boy Advance
As you can see, the standard price for new Zelda releases has hovered around $50-$60 for over 30 years. Of course, Nintendo rarely discounts first-party games, so prices can remain high for years after launch.
However, there are ways to pay less than full price for physical Zelda games:
- Buy used copies: check used game stores, eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace
- Buy Greatest Hits/Selects versions: re-releases at lower price
- Find sales/deals: watch for retailer sales around holidays
- Buy pre-owned console bundles: may come with game included
For older and rarer Zelda titles, physical copies can end up costing well over original MSRP. But for newer games, going the used route is a good way to save some money.
Digital Purchases on Nintendo eShop
With the rise of digital game delivery, many Zelda fans opt to buy titles directly from the Nintendo eShop instead of tracking down physical copies.
The eShop provides a single place to purchase digital versions of Zelda games old and new across various Nintendo platforms. This offers convenience, immediate access, and eliminates cartridge swapping.
However, MSRP pricing still applies: new releases cost $59.99, while older games hover around $39.99 to $49.99. Rarely do first-party Nintendo games see major eShop discounts.
Here are tips for saving on eShop purchases:
- Wishlist titles & monitor sales: Nintendo does run eShop promotions a few times per year
- Buy gift cards on sale: stock up when you find discounts on eShop cards
- Use eShop coupon codes: periodically available, especially around holidays
- Redeem Nintendo gold points: from physical/digital game purchases and can be used on eShop
The legendary 35th anniversary Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection for Switch provides a good case study. It was full price at launch but eventually saw discounts during eShop sales, allowing savvy buyers to get it $10-$20 cheaper.
While often more expensive upfront, going digital does provide some advantages:
- Convenience: download directly to device memory without changing carts
- Cloud save backups: automatically store save files in the cloud
- Sharing: some games allow sharing digital copies across family accounts
- Portability: your games library travels with you on Switch without carts
Certain Zelda collectors will still prefer physical copies, but digital works well for players who value convenience. And over time, diligent sale watching can pay off on the eShop.
Virtual Console (NES to Wii U)
For many years, Nintendo offered a digital platform called Virtual Console that allowed players to purchase and download classic games from past systems. This provided official emulated versions of vintage Zelda titles.
Here were the details on Virtual Console:
- Available on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS systems
- Offered NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy, and other retro games
- Zelda titles ranged from original LoZ to Majora‘s Mask
- Typically cost $4.99 to $9.99 depending on platform
- Provided modern features like save states, video filters, controller customization
Virtual Console served as an affordable way for Nintendo fans to build a digital library of classic Zelda and other Nintendo IP games. However, Virtual Console was discontinued and these legacy titles aren‘t currently offered on the Switch eShop.
Nintendo Switch Online
Nintendo‘s newer subscription service, Switch Online, offers an alternative method to access select retro Zelda titles on the Nintendo Switch.
For the standard $3.99 monthly or $19.99 yearly subscription fee, you gain access to a library of NES and SNES games, including:
- The Legend of Zelda
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
So for under $20/year, you can play some of the best 8-bit and 16-bit Zelda adventures on your Switch. Nintendo continues adding new N64 and Genesis games too.
However, the Switch Online retro library is still limited compared to Virtual Console. Many fan favorites like Ocarina of Time or Majora‘s Mask are currently missing. But it provides a taste of classic Zelda for a low monthly cost.
Limited Free-to-Start Options
Nintendo rarely makes its core intellectual properties completely free-to-play. However, there are a couple exceptions that have brought free versions of Zelda to certain platforms.
On Wii U, Nintendo released a demo called The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD – Trial By Wind. This offered the complete start of Wind Waker with a 1 hour time limit. Players could replay the opening repeatedly for free.
More recently on Switch, Nintendo partnered with independent studio Brace Yourself Games to release Cadence of Hyrule. This crossover with the Crypt of the Necrodancer series brings roguelike rhythmic gameplay to the world of Zelda. The core Cadence experience is available free, with a $24.99 paid expansion adding story content.
While limited, these official free Zelda game options let Nintendo give fans free trials without undercutting full game sales.
Fan-Made and Emulated Zelda Experiences
Beyond official Nintendo releases, there are unofficial ways to access Zelda games for free through emulation and fan projects. These legally grey areas comes with risks, but provide options for players looking to revisit old Zelda adventures.
- Web emulators: sites host NES/SNES emulators with ROM libraries
- ROM downloads: Zelda ROMs available from various sites of questionable legality
- Fan games: enthusiasts have created full Zelda-like experiences in various engines
- ROM hacks: mods transform existing Zelda ROMs into new experiences
Nintendo actively protects its IP and issues take down notices against copyright violating emulators and ROMs. But the underground Zelda emulation scene persists regardless.
While possible to access for free, emulation requires legal caution and technical skills. Stick to official routes when possible to support Nintendo‘s great work with the Zelda series over the decades.
Ways to Play Zelda Games on Each Nintendo System
To summarize, here are quick overviews of how you can experience both new and classic Zelda games on each major Nintendo platform:
- Breath of the Wild, Link‘s Awakening, Skyward Sword HD: eShop digital purchase
- NES/SNES: Included with Nintendo Switch Online
- Limited Options: No Virtual Console, few sales on first-party games
- Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD: eShop digital purchase
- Virtual Console: NES, SNES, Game Boy Zelda games
- Free Demo: Wind Waker HD trial
- Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora‘s Mask 3D, A Link Between Worlds: eShop purchase
- Virtual Console: Games like Link‘s Awakening DX, Minish Cap
- Pre-installed: Zelda NES on some models
- Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword: Physical discs
- Virtual Console: Extensive retro Zelda library
- Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Four Swords Adventures: Physical discs
- Game Boy Player: Play handheld Zelda games on TV
- Ocarina of Time, Majora‘s Mask: Physical cartridges
- A Link to the Past: Physical cartridge
- BS Zelda games: Satellaview downloads, now lost
- The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: Physical cartridges
As you can see, a mix of physical media, digital purchases, retro game streaming, and the occasional free demo provides ways for Zelda fans to enjoy their favorite adventures on Nintendo hardware old and new.
Part of the magic of the Zelda series is taking iconic characters like Link and Zelda on new quests through the years via groundbreaking Nintendo systems. Luckily, savvy Nintendo fans have a variety of avenues to revisit classic Zelda adventures or play recent series entries on the platform of their choice. While most Zelda games require purchase at standard console game pricing, discounts, used physical media, Virtual Console, and Nintendo Switch Online provide more affordable ways to access the games you want. And thanks to the popularity and influence of the franchise, unofficial emulation ensures the original Zelda experience will be preserved for generations to come.