Putting the Legend back in Zelda
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might just be one of the best games Nintendo has ever made. Ever. Is that too hyperbolic? Should I reign it in a little?
So where does that put us? The Nintendo game I hold in the highest regard is Super Mario 64, which on top of just being a really good game, basically defined 3D character movement for the entire game industry. Everything from Uncharted to Grand Theft Auto and NieR Automata owes something to Super Mario 64 for establishing how to use an analog stick to control the action on screen. It was a revolution.
Breath of the Wild isn’t a revolution. This is a game cut from the same cloth as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 — an open-world fantasy game, with towns full of people and quest logs designed to distract. You’ve technically seen this game before, or at least parts of it, and on the surface it can be easy to brush it off as nothing more than a thinly veiled “me too” clone by way of The Legend of Zelda.
But here’s the deal: you’ve never played Nintendo’s version of this. Those other games I mentioned often prioritize production quality and narrative depth. A quest’s story in my examples is often more important than what you actually have to do in it, with the worst example being multiple quests in Skyrim that send you from one edge of the map miles away to the other edge just to kill a single enemy and then hike the entire distance back for your reward. Even on horseback, a quest like that would take hours of mind-numbing transit. The obvious (and likely intended) solution is to use the game’s fast travel system to teleport to the destination, complete the objective, and then teleport back, turning an all-day gameplay excursion into a something that takes less than 15 minutes. The problem is that this creates a disconnect where everything stops feeling real, because there’s no reaffirmation that these are places that exist. You come to view the world as nothing more than a piece of software that lets you materialize at your destination. There’s no sense of distance, no journey.
That’s simply not true with Breath of the Wild, which goes out of its way to make you feel like a part of the land of Hyrule. Not only does it feel like a real, lived-in space, it feels like one with thousands of years of tangible history. Ruins of what used to be litter the land, some more recent than others, but all purpose-built with a legacy of their own. The environment of Hyrule is as much a character here as anyone else, and its battle-scarred vistas tell a lonely, somber tale.
Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most narrative-rich franchises, which allows it to slip into Skyrim’s skin with ease. Just the same, Breath of the Wild is a game about journeys. It’s a game where you look over your shoulder and think: an hour ago, I was on top of that mountain. I have come so far, done so much, and seen so many things. Yes, it has fast travel and horse riding if you really need to get somewhere quickly. But why would you? Breath of the Wild is a game where there’s always something on the horizon calling out to you. Horses and fast travel might get you in the general vicinity of where you want to go, but never close enough. Eventually you have to take matters into your own hands (often literally) and venture forth by yourself to discover Hyrule’s mysteries, one cliff face at a time. Literally the entire point of this game is to meticulously sift through the world inch by inch, and it manages to feel like magic basically the entire time.
You also connect to this world in other ways. Breath of the Wild features surprisingly robust artificial intelligence and physics systems, and you’re given tools perfect for playing around in this space. Rather than acquire a stable of items from dungeons (as in past Zelda games), Breath of the Wild gives you five core abilities during its tutorial and then turns you loose on the world to use them as you please. Unlike, say, Ocarina of Time’s hookshot, which could only be used on specific hookshot targets, these five abilities are far more utilitarian in their approach. They allow you to interact with the environment in ways most open world games shy away from, like picking up physics objects or generating platforms over tricky terrain. In addition to helping you solve puzzles and navigate the world, many of these abilities have combat applications, leading to fun games of cat and mouse with Ganon’s minions.
In one particular example, I came upon a camp of pig-like Bokoblins that had set up inside the ruins of an old building. I had mostly cleared the place out, but there was still one lone Boko on patrol outside completely unaware of what had happened to the rest of the camp. From the door, he peered inside. Bokoblins don’t have great eyesight, so from the distance he was at, he didn’t really have a chance to identify me before I darted out of sight. He obviously knew he saw something suspicious, so he walked over, grabbed a club from the camp’s weapons pile outside, and then headed inside the ruins to investigate. By this point, I’d climbed on top of the ruins and was watching him from what would be the roof, if this building had one (it did not). He headed to the last place he saw me and sniffed around, hoping to figure out what he’d seen. By now his back was turned to me, so I jumped from my vantage point above him and came down on his head with my spear for a quick kill. This kind of emergent gameplay is a first for The Legend of Zelda, and it makes every combat encounter feel unique.
Perhaps Breath of the Wild’s greatest strength is its willingness to embrace this kind of emergent player expression. Nintendo could have very easily locked a lot of its puzzles and encounters down, discouraging all but the one “true” solution, but they didn’t. It brings to mind the elements that made a game like Minecraft so captivating; the only thing stopping you from getting somewhere or doing something is your own ingenuity. Nothing in the game ever has just one solution, and it fully embraces whatever ways you can find to bend its rules. Previous Zeldas were full of jigsaw puzzles that had to be assembled in the same way every single time. Breath of the Wild is more of an actual test of problem solving skills, and one where my answer might be different from your answer and neither one of us is wrong.
Of course, even the best games have their flaws, and Breath of the Wild is definitely not a perfect game. In particular is the game’s performance — I played on the Wii U, and there, Breath of the Wild suffers occasional choppy framerates and sometimes more significant stuttering. Knocking down a Moblin can sometimes make the whole game freeze for up to two full seconds. Zelda is undoubtedly simulating a lot of stuff behind the scenes, between physics, climate systems, fire propagation, and artificial intelligence, so it’s understandable when the game threatens to buckle under it’s own weight, but it’s still a problem worth talking about. My understanding is that the Switch version is also affected by many of these technical issues, but with less severity. But, even on the Wii U, I found them to be momentary annoyances and not anything to really cast the game in a negative light. For 75% of my time in Hyrule, the game performed just fine (and it’s worth mentioning that during the process of writing this review, Nintendo published a patch for Zelda that optimizes the game just a little bit more to reduce framerate drops).
The other elephant in the room deals the game’s systems, particularly in weapon durability and weather. If you use a given weapon too much, it will eventually shatter. Often, I’d leave a combat encounter with fewer or worse weapons than when I started, but once I learned not to get too attached to any given sword, shield or bow, it ceased to be an issue. Breath of the Wild is a game about making do with what you’ve got and building an ever-changing strategy around that. Enemies also scale in strength over time, providing you with a drip feed of slightly more powerful gear as you play. That being said, the game definitely could have benefited from ways to repair fragile weapons, because just about everything breaks after only a few minutes of use.
Weather, on the other hand, was probably the single biggest point of frustration for me in Breath of the Wild. You’re given an on-screen weather forecast, presumably so you can plan accordingly should something like rain come up, but sometimes it can be unpredictable as you move through the world and suddenly shift into a new biome with different weather patterns. In one particularly ridiculous scenario, I found myself stranded on a rocky alcove because if I climbed up even ten feet it would trigger a biome change and begin raining, making it too slick to continue upwards. The moment I’d drop off the cliff (or more likely slip off), the rain would suddenly vanish. Sometimes, it doesn’t make any logical sense at all, such as the time I had to light fires as part of a quest and it began raining just long enough (about six seconds) to snuff out my flames and make me start over. Nothing in the forecast called for rain, nothing on my HUD changed, it just started pouring rain and then instantly stopped. You very quickly learn to dread rainstorms, because there’s not a lot you can do about them except wait for the weather to clear.
Regardless, these problems barely register as a blip on the game’s radar. I know it can be easy to sometimes get frustrated with Nintendo’s output and design philosophies, specifically with regards to past Zelda games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, but when this company pulls together and fires on all cylinders, the end result is something truly incredible to behold. Breath of the Wild is a tremendous game; even after finishing the game and putting in more than 140 hours, I wasn’t ready to leave Hyrule. I was still finding new discoveries. New places I hadn’t been to yet. No game that I can ever remember playing in the 30+ years since the NES has gotten its hooks into me this deep for this long. It may not be a revolution, but with Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has still run circles around the industry just the same. Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to miss this game.