At last, the winds of modern gaming have turned Nintendo’s sails, and tipped its fantasy-action flagship on its side. With The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild, the trendsetter has become the trend follower, and though this could be viewed as a sad capitulation, I prefer to think of it as an overdue adaptation.
Most gamers revere the Zelda series as a standard-bearer for action-adventure video games. The original NES game mixed fast-paced action with a relatively large world full of secrets of surprises, and then made it all easy to learn and play. A Link to the Past took this formula and structured it to align with a simple but dramatic plot. Then The Ocarina of Time transplanted the whole thing into a beautiful production that didn’t just look like a dream, but felt like one. The controls in Ocarina of Time were genius in their elegance, employing lock-on targeting and adjustable viewpoints. Its presentation rivaled anything seen on the PlayStation. The game wasn’t as challenging as previous entries in the series, and the game featured extensive tutorials to ease players into its features, but the graduation to 3D was so impressive that this didn’t matter. All the familiar elements of Zelda were present, but they were grander and more impressive than ever before. Ocarina was everything that Zelda fans had hoped it would be: a glorious jump into a new generation, and a literal game-changer.
Ocarina was such a success, in fact, that Nintendo itself became fearful of it. Its lengthy development had demanded a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of risk, and Nintendo didn’t want to mess with it. Aside from the polarizing Majora’s Mask, future titles were pretty safe in their design. There were gimmicks here and there, from Wind Waker’s sailing and toon graphics, to Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but the overall flow is the same: you explore a fantasy world, delve into a series of caves, castles, and dungeons, find special tools that aid your navigation, and then use those tools to advance to other caves, castles, and dungeons. Even the minute-to-minute action went untouched. Each game had its own unique monsters and puzzles, but they were conquered with the same backflipping and block-pushing we saw in 1998. Worst of all, the constant hand-holding only grew with each release. The language of 3D Zelda became static, and then stagnant.
Then the gameplay videos of a new, “open-world” Zelda trickled out of E3 2016, and everything changed.
The first surprise was that these videos were hours long. We weren’t looking at bite-sized, self-contained samples with trite “Thank you for playing!” messages at their ends; this was the full game, and Nintendo was just setting people loose on it. They knew that even with the unprecedented access they were allowing, players would make meager progress, if any.
The reason for this was that the players didn’t want to make progress. They were too busy bounding across grassy hills, leaping streams and scaling cliffs. They were marveling at endless, gorgeous landscapes and devising clever methods for taking out monsters. They were chasing every distraction, and not once did a fairy or a lion or some glowing, talking sword interrupt or redirect them. The world was theirs to enjoy, and on their own terms. This was Zelda as I remembered it from the good old NES days: unbound, untethered, free, wild.
With their well-advised Let’s Play approach, Nintendo conveyed a significant message: they’d recognized the rut they’d been in, they’d acknowledged the concerns of the fans, and most importantly, they’d paid attention to the market. They hadn’t overlooked the rise of Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Minecraft. They were going to take those upstarts on, and show that they still had the magic.
Breath of the Wild was Game of the Show. It will likely be Game of the Year. It sold a million Nintendo Switches. It sold me a Wii U. I don’t regret the purchase.
I won’t go over the premise or details of the game, as many other reviews have already done so, and any attempt of mine would be mere parroting. Instead, I’d like to describe what I find so confounding about the game: its unoriginality.
That’s right: Breath of the Wild doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen in video games before, and yet it somehow comes off as groundbreaking and magical. In taking familiar concepts and spinning them into Zelda’s universe, Nintendo makes the old appealing.
Why does this work? I think it’s because Zelda fans — and by extension, Nintendo fans — have been frustrated at Nintendo’s sideline strategies as of late: aiming for a theoretical market outside of the established hardcore where Sony and Microsoft hold court. Those who grew up with the genre-defining Nintendo have been holding their breaths, waiting for the emergence of their beloved franchise into the crafting-heavy, DLC-laden, micro-transaction world that gaming has become. They have accepted that Nintendo is no longer dominant; they hope for it at least to remain relevant.
By all measures, Nintendo has done this.
Gone is the formula of “find dungeon, clear dungeon.” Breath of the Wild still has its dungeons, but they needn’t be cleared or found in order to complete the game. The overarching goal is presented right at the beginning, and all else is optional. The real focus is on the world and how the player chooses to take it in.
There are familiar concepts at work to facilitate this. You’ve got towers, a la Far Cry, that Link can climb in order to reveal portions of the world map. There are Shrines where Link must solve a Portal-sized puzzle or two so he can claim a health enhancement. There are wild horses to tame as in Red Dead Redemption, and stables where he can board or take them out, like the garages in Grand Theft Auto V.
There’s also a crafting element, in the form of cooking. It’s very much derived from alchemy in Skyrim, right down to the principles. You gather ingredients by hunting animals, picking flowers, or catching insects. You throw these ingredients in an established crafting pot and you get a healing/buffing food item. Mix two or more ingredients with similar properties, and you get an improved version of that property. Nothing new, right?
There are tweaks, though. You’re not restricted like you are in Skyrim. You don’t need to taste items and ensure that their properties match before combining them. You can experiment with multiple ingredients from the start and end up with satisfying results. Different categories of ingredients affect healing value, buff type, and buff duration. There are elaborate recipes like tarts, pies, and sushi that actually look kinda tasty. Plus, there’s a cute little animation that plays when you cook, in which all the little apples, herbs, and hunks of meat hop around to a tune.
Then there are the environmental hazards. Link has to deal with rain, snow, extreme heat, and even thunderstorms. Some of this stuff is just annoying: rain will make climbing any surface nigh impossible, while snow and sand slow Link’s movement. Others are dangerous, and even deadly, but a smart player can use them to his or her advantage. Setting a metal weapon in an enemy camp during a thunderstorm can bring about a wrathful Zeus-blast that spares Link a risky fight. Dropping fruit and meat in a volcanic area will result in instantly roasted meals with added healing potential. Toss food in icy water, and they’ll freeze over, gaining a heat-resistance buff. There’s a natural logic happening here that’s reminiscent of Minecraft, and if you ever catch yourself wondering if something will work, odds are that it will. It’s a wondrous feeling. The last time my experimentation was rewarded in a Zelda game was way back on the original NES, when I first tried burning a bush with a candle and found a hidden passage beneath it. The guy inside stole my money, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had a funny idea, tried it out, and found something I didn’t expect.
Another significant change from previous Zelda games is that Link has learned how to climb like Altair in Assassin’s Creed, or Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Link can climb almost anything now, and that means that there are no real barriers in Hyrule, other than its furthest borders, of course. Link still has to manage his stamina as he climbs, or he’ll lose his grip and fall, possibly to his death (sorry, you can’t roll when you fall from a high place anymore). Even with this smart limitation, climbing allows a tremendous amount of freedom, and different players will approach their exploration in different ways. An anal player will likely seek out every possible path around a mountain, while an impatient one will simply climb over it.
The greatest change — and to me, the most important — is the dramatic increase in difficulty. It’s very easy to die in Breath of the Wild, especially since the game doesn’t warn you of its many lethal threats. Monsters can hack off as many as ten hearts with a single blow, so it’s easy to charge into a fight completely unprepared. When Link collapses from an unexpectedly powerful attack, and that red “GAME OVER” wafts onto the screen, I’m sure that Dark Souls fans will have some unpleasant flashbacks. Beating the challenges of Breath of the Wild requires harsh learning, and perhaps the occasional face-plant.
This is critical to me because I feel the Zelda series has become far too easy for its own good. Monsters in past 3D Zeldas have been typified by their slow, lumbering movements, but here, they hop about madly, make lengthy combination attacks, and are happy to gang up on Link for unfair fights. Link still has his backflip and side dodges, but he can also parry attacks with his shield and respond with mighty counterattacks. There are satisfying callouts for these special defenses, and it’s all very Dark Souls. The toughness of the monsters demands skillful play, and I find this invigorating and refreshing. Again, I think the thrill is amplified simply because it’s unexpected from this series. I’m just so happy that Zelda is difficult again! It’s a fanboy thrill, but I’ll take it anyway.
There’s something more, though. Something greater. It’s the mixture of these many systems with this beautiful, expansive world that makes Breath of the Wild irresistible. The possibilities presented by the game’s physics, logic, and move-sets are almost limitless, and enterprising players can create action sequences far more memorable than any scripted Call of Duty set-piece:
THIS is the success of Breath of the Wild: its steadfast faith in the talents of the player. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will play this game in a predictable and conservative manner, but the option for experimentation is there, and that alone makes me very happy. For once, Zelda isn’t about searching for Hookshot targets, it’s about making your own way through, and if we’re going to get anywhere with Nintendo, we must praise them for respecting our intelligence.
Now that I’ve gushed, it’s time for the negatives. I realize that to complain about anything in such a generous feast of a game would come off as exceedingly ungrateful, but I’m compelled by honesty to mention the few minor issues I had with it. Bear with me.
First, the game chugs, and unnervingly so at times. In grassy areas with lots of monsters, the frame rate drops into the teens. It didn’t affect my fighting, but it was frustrating to see. There were also a few occasions — usually upon slaying a Moblin — when the game froze completely. Several anxious seconds passed before it snapped back into action, just an instant before I made to reset my console. Nintendo has released a patch that’s mollified the problem, but hasn’t rectified it.
Second, I wish there was greater variety in the monster types. There’s an impressive panoply of baddies in the game, and they increase in strength as Link does, but there are really only three major types you’ll deal with during your travels. As I wandered the game’s diverse environments, I hoped to encounter all kinds of monsters to match them, like nests of Skulltulas, rock-hopping Tektites, or burrowing Leevers. I soon learned, however, that Bokoblins, Moblins, and Lizalfos were the meat of the enemy army, and that was disappointing.
Finally, some of the game’s quests are bummers. Most of the side quests are quite interesting and involving, particularly the ones regarding Shrines. There are others, though, that slip into typical RPG tedium, and make me wish that Hyrule was even less populous than it already is. Bring me fifty bundles of wood. Show me a Moblin Club. Can I have ten luminous stones or restless crickets? There’s some cute and charming dressing to it, but it’s still just filler.
Still, Breath of the Wild is so engrossing that I performed every task it assigned to me. Then, as my quest list shrank and I struggled to refill it, I realized that it was time to stop screwing around and make for the final goal. That was when I stopped playing for a few days, and became hesitant, uncomfortable about returning to it.
The reason was simple, and yet oh-so-rare: I didn’t want it to be over. That may be the kindest, most recommending thing to be said about a piece of entertainment, and Breath of the Wild is one of those precious few pieces that earns it. I can’t say that this is my favorite Zelda game; that title remains with the very first Zelda on the NES, which is short, so I can play through it every week if I want to. Breath of the Wild is like an epic novel that one reads once every few years. You’ll never forget it, though. Once you’ve played it, it will always be a part of you.
Controller1.com rating: 3/3