The Legend of Zelda’s title is a bit of a running gag. For a game named after one of its title characters, players rarely get to control the titular Princess Zelda. Usually, fans step into the boots of Link, and Zelda’s role is essentially that of a magical MacGuffin. But there are exceptions.
Mods notwithstanding, gamers get to play as Zelda in a few official titles. The most obvious example is, of course, Super Smash Bros. Zelda and her alter ego Sheik have been playable parts of the franchise ever since Melee, and many players love using them to dominate arenas (or knocking them out of bounds). But what Legend of Zelda games let players save Hyrule as Princess Zelda? There aren’t many, and they aren’t all great, but unless Tears of the Kingdom features a big playable surprise, these are the only official (and one unofficial) Zelda games that let you control the princess herself.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon
In 1991, Nintendo and Sony were supposed to partner up and produce a CD-powered Super Famicom, but the deal fell apart. Instead, Nintendo went with Philips to create the CD-i. Among other things, that decision resulted in some of the worst licensed Nintendo games ever, one of which actually lets you play as Zelda.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon is a 2D sidescroller, similar to Zelda II: Link’s Adventure. As the title suggests, The Wand of Gamelon takes place in the neighboring country of Gamelon which Ganon is attacking for…some reason. Players control Zelda after her father and Link go missing. Despite starring Zelda, The Wand of Gamelon is functionally identical to its Link-starring counterpart Link: The Faces of Evil.
The Wand of Gamelon and The Faces of Evil are widely regarded as the worst Zelda games of all time, as well as some of the worst video games of all time. The titles are notoriously difficult and unfair, thanks to their overreliance on one-use items such as rope and lamp oil. Moreover, despite featuring voice acting more than 20 years before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, fans have rightfully panned the cutscenes in The Wand of Gamelon as being laughably bad.
While Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil are deservedly infamous, they aren’t the only Legend of Zelda titles on the CD-i.
Zelda’s Adventure is another game that stars Zelda, but unlike the other CD-i Zelda titles, this one plays from a top-down perspective (just like the early franchise entries). The game also features a more classic Legend of Zelda inventory, but don’t assume that Zelda’s Adventure is an improvement over Wand of Gamelon.
Reviews at the time called Zelda’s Adventure practically unplayable. The game, which utilizes real actors digitized into sprites (the same technique used to create Mortal Kombat) crawls along at a snail’s pace, and transitioning between screens takes several seconds. Moreover, despite sporting voice acting, most of Zelda’s Adventure lacks any accompanying soundtrack. Thankfully, every Zelda game starring Zelda got better from here on out.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Ok, we’re cheating a bit here since you don’t play as Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks as much as you control an enemy possessed by Zelda. Sadly, this is still the closest we’ve ever come to playing as her in a mainline entry.
In Spirit Tracks, players mostly control Link as he explores a new land. The game takes place many generations after The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, and this game’s Zelda, a direct descendant of Tetra, has been spirited away by the evil Chancellor Cole. Well, Zelda’s body has, at least. Her actual spirit stuck around, which is where controlling her comes into play.
Spirit Tracks revolves around a central dungeon, the Tower of Spirits, which is inhabited by powerful warriors called Phantoms. Since Zelda is a disembodied spirit, she can possess them, and players can issue commands to her to help navigate the tower. Since Phantoms come in a variety of forms, Zelda can use different abilities depending on the one she possesses. Again, this isn’t quite the same as actually controlling Zelda, but it’s the best we’ve got so far.
Lately, Omega Force, the developers of Dynasty Warriors, have been killing it with their licensed titles. While the studio has been mixing its Warriors formula with other franchises since 2007, Omega Force didn’t quite nail things down until 2014’s Hyrule Warriors.
Mechanically and narratively, Hyrule Warriors doesn’t deviate much from the Dynasty Warriors standard. Gameplay is the same fun hack-and-slash affair we have come to expect from Omega Force, combined with Legend of Zelda items and one of the most metal soundtracks you’ve ever heard. As for the story, it’s little more than an excuse to get characters from disparate periods of Legend of Zelda chronology in one game world, combined with some unique takes on existing characters and new faces.
Hyrule Warriors stars a who’s who of Legend of Zelda characters, including Zelda and her alter ego, Sheik. Zelda can charge into battle with a rapier and baton (and the Dominion Rod if you buy the DLC), and she also has a mechanic where she can summon light orbs to increase her damage output. Meanwhile, Sheik wields daggers and a harp, and virtually every strong attack that uses this instrument references a song from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s far from a traditional Legend of Zelda title, but it’s the most action a fully-playable Zelda has seen in a good game up until this point.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
The narrative of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is split between two time periods. While many cutscenes unfold in whatever time period the game takes place (the official timeline is legendarily vague), others either allude to or are flashbacks to the time before Calamity Ganon emerged. The game leaves enough information for gamers to infer key events, but many details are left up in the air. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity fills in those gaps.
While Age of Calamity is a prequel to Breath of the Wild, it is also a spiritual successor to Hyrule Warriors. Much like the original Hyrule Warriors, Age of Calamity offers a hack-and-slash adventure across Hyrule, but this time almost every character hails from Breath of the Wild. Moreover, instead of wielding classic Legend of Zelda items, players get access to abilities such as Stasis.
As in Hyrule Warriors, players can play as Princess Zelda in most missions, but instead of a rapier and baton (and Dominion Rod as DLC), this Zelda wields a Sheikah Slate and bow (and Master Cycle as DLC). Furthermore, since the Zelda of Breath of the Wild doesn’t have a Sheikh alter ego, neither does the Zelda in Age of Calamity.
Cadence of Hyrule
Ever since the disastrous CD-i, Nintendo has kept its IPs close to its chest and let few outside studios touch them. On one hand, this behavior seems paranoid, but on the other hand, it has let the franchises flourish and achieve a level of quality most game series will never match. Nintendo only recently opened its library up to other developers, one of whom created a game that lets players control Zelda.
Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda (yes, that is its full title) is a spiritual successor to Crypt of the NecroDancer. Much like the first Crypt of the NecroDancer, Cadence of Hyrule is a rhythm roguelike where players delve into dungeons, collect weapons and items, and kill enemies to the beat. Since Cadence of Hyrule is a rhythm game, the title sports a killer soundtrack of remixed Zelda classics.
While every character in Cadence of Hyrule is subject to the same beat-driven gameplay, they all play differently. Princess Zelda has access to all of the weapons Link and Cadence use, but Zelda can also use spells such as Nayru’s Love and Din’s Fire. Dancing Zelda probably isn’t the playable Zelda you’re hoping for, but at least she gets to do some adventuring in this truly great game.
We tried to limit this breakdown to official Zelda titles, but as you can see the selection is…thin. However, there are some fan games that let you play as Zelda, and some of them actually do the character justice.
While Cadence of Hyrule is an officially licensed indie title produced with Nintendo’s blessing, the internet is full of fan projects based on the Legend of Zelda property. Most are just standard Zelda games with custom stories and dungeons (nothing wrong with that), which means they primarily star Link. in that sense, Hyrule Conquest sets itself apart.
Last year, I told you about Star Fox: Event Horizon, a game by Chasen “UndyingNephalim” Lindsey that asks “What if Star Fox featured far larger space battles and was available on PC?” Well, that isn’t UndyingNephalim’s only project. They are also developing a Zelda-themed RTS called Hyrule Conquest that translates many of the Legend of Zelda’s cultures and monsters into controllable armies. These include Zora, Gerudo, and of course Hylians.
While players technically command armies in Hyrule Conquest, Princess Zelda is a hero of the Kingdom of Hyrule faction. As a Tier 3 Hero, Zelda is one of the most powerful units available in that army. Because of how RTS games like Hyrule Conquest function, Zelda can die without producing a game over (unless a campaign mission requires her survival).
Like Star Fox: Event Horizon, Hyrule Conquest is an unofficial fan project that is neither officially recognized nor backed by Nintendo, but it is still a game that lets players command Princess Zelda. Plus, it’s probably the closest we will ever get to a Legend of Zelda RTS. Besides, if Nintendo doesn’t like it, then maybe they should finally give Zelda a proper adventure to truly call her own.