Well, we asked for it. For years and years now, fans and critics alike have all but begged Nintendo to do something new and different with the “Zelda formula.” We, the loyal audience, corporately decided that while this is undoubtedly one of the greatest video game franchises of all time, it was in real and present danger of becoming tired and stale. Some would argue that it already reached this point some time ago. Whether it was this palpable outcry from gamers or some internal realization, Nintendo finally decided that the time was right for a major shakeup to the tropes that have come to define Zelda games over the past 20+ years.
So, now that we’ve had a chance to experience Hyrule in a brand new way after years of asking for it, is it everything we hoped for? Is Breath of the Wild the grand reinvention of Zelda that we envisioned, or is it something a little more bittersweet?
The early critical reception for Breath of the Wild paints a virtually unanimous picture of praise. Perfect score after perfect score, and phrases like “greatest Zelda game of all time” make it clear that this game is indeed something special. But I have to wonder: After some time has passed, and these reviewers have had a chance to iron out the wrinkled edges of the map by revisiting games like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past; will Link’s new adventure really be remembered as one of his most memorable? Or does Breath of the Wild’s real strength lie in its contributions to the modern open world game, and Nintendo’s ability to deliver a near-perfect specimen of the genre on its first try?
Let’s start with the bitter, then we’ll move on to the sweet.
Breath of the Wild is sorely lacking some of the things I’ve come to look forward to most in Zelda games. Sprawling, themed dungeons, dozens of unique monster encounters, memorable puzzles and truly interesting bosses are either incredibly sporadic or nowhere to be found. Granted, Breath of the Wild offers serviceable stand-ins for most of these elements, but generally speaking, they come nowhere close to the standards set by previous games in the series.
That’s not to say the random monster fights or puzzles in the game are bad. A battle with a group of Bokoblins can play out in countless ways depending on your arsenal or use of environmental elements. The same goes for basically every encounter in the game. Likewise, you’ll never be unable to progress because you’re stuck on a particular puzzle in the game; they can all be taken on at any time and in any order you choose. Or not at all. This broad and open-ended approach to some of the core tenets of Zelda design absolutely works in this new context; unfortunately, much of the deliberate feel of the game’s challenges is lost. When I think back to the best dungeons, encounters and puzzles in some of my favorite Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild has undoubtedly traded some of the handcrafted magic for scale and choice.
Enough about what’s missing though. What makes Breath of the Wild stand out in what is perhaps the most crowded genre in all of gaming right now: the open world?
An open world that stands out
First of all, it’s fun. You could design the largest, most beautiful video game world ever; yet if it isn’t fun and interesting to explore, all you’ve done is waste your time. It seems like too often developers spend more time thinking about scale and spectacle than they do about player enjoyment. This is something that Nintendo has never really struggled with. In true open world fashion, Breath of the Wild constantly pulls you in every direction with something to pick up, explore or witness. The impressive part is that rarely do you feel shortchanged when you arrive. The world is indeed massive, but Link is never far from something that’s worth his time and yours. 80 hours in, long after completing the game, I’m constantly finding new areas, quests, mechanics and equipment, which just keeps me wanting to come back and explore more.
For its next trick, Breath of the Wild manages to be full of things to do, yet it never feels overwhelming. I can’t count the number of open world games that I never completed because mechanic after mechanic was piled on, inventory and stat management became an Excel exercise, and I couldn’t see my mini-map through all of the tiny icons piled on it. Nintendo took a minimalist approach in most of these areas. Cooking is a great example of this; there isn’t a massive tome of recipes that you craft while staring at a menu, Link physically gathers ingredients and throws them into a wok to cook up his meals and potions. It’s a core game mechanic that requires very little explanation, yet offers near-limitless experimentation. Smart design choices like this across the board make for a uniquely intuitive and never burdensome open world experience.
Finally, and perhaps most impressively, this staggeringly huge open world that’s packed to the brim with diverse activities is virtually bug-free. I say this is the most impressive aspect because while other games have effectively tackled the issues above to varying degrees, creating something on this scale that always functions as intended is just about unprecedented. A fact that’s compounded by the robust physics simulation that overlays the entire game, allowing Link to do everything from rolling boulders down hills, to flattening his enemies, to attaching balloons to a raft for a makeshift airship. To spend close to 100 hours with a game of this scope and never encounter anything I would consider a bug was shocking. I would have expected Nintendo to have to compromise at least a little on its QA for a game so new and experimental for the company, but it seems that I underestimated it. It’s clear that Nintendo will never stop being an industry-leading developer, and that there will always be plenty that other developers can learn from its products.
So here’s where I’ve landed after considering both sides of this new take on Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not my favorite Zelda game, but it’s probably the best example of a modern open world game to date. As I was playing through it, I was a bit confounded by the critical reception and all of the perfect scores. But at a point I realized that scrutinizing this game based on its adherence to the series’ best moments and ideas was doing it a great disservice. If Nintendo weren’t bold enough to chart new territory with its IP, the magic would eventually dry up for even the most die hard fans. It’s hard for me to look past the expectations that my 30 year history with Zelda games has instilled in me; but when I do, I can see that Breath of the Wild is an absolute triumph on an entirely new set of merits.
Could this new formula have incorporated some of the elements from past Zelda games that I found myself pining for while playing through it? Sure, but when I force myself to look at it objectively, and consider all of the brilliant new ideas that have been passionately packed into Breath of the Wild, I can’t help but trust Nintendo completely to continue doing what it thinks is best for the Legend of Zelda.Leave a Comment