'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' captures spirit of the best in series history
In the early days of Nintendo, each of its console launches was accompanied by a game that became an instant classic. “Super Mario Bros.” and its 16-bit brother “Super Mario World” helped cement Nintendo’s status as an entertainment juggernaut. Later, “Mario 64” helped sell more Nintendo 64 consoles than any other game.
More recently, Nintendo fans had been asked to be patient, to trust in the company to eventually deliver a game that justified the investment in a Wii or Wii U. The launch titles that accompanied both were, to say the least, less than stellar.
The Nintendo Switch, which launches worldwide this week, has regained some of the company’s old mojo, thanks to “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” a game that will, without a doubt, be regarded as an instant classic.
“Zelda” is, in many ways, the prototypical video game series. The classic formula of “slaying the beast to get the key that opens a treasure chest” has become the stereotype of how video games play out, thanks largely to the series’ popularity. That formula continues to be refined in “Breath of the Wild,” but the game also features a larger departure from franchise norms than any mainline title to date.
The most immediately recognizable departure from the basic “Zelda” formula is its large open world. Sure, “Ocarina of Time” and “Skyward Sword” flirted with open-world game design a bit, but there has never been a Hyrule as explorable as the one found in “Breath.”
While Hyrule is enormous, it’s not just the size that’s impressive about the world Nintendo has built. No, what makes it so appealing – besides the crisp, colorful visuals - is that exploring Hyrule’s nooks and crannies is always meaningful and engaging.
Link can climb just about any surface in the game. Todd Howard, while showing off “Skyrim,” famously proclaimed “See that mountain? You can climb it.” What that ended up meaning was that some mountains could be jumped around on. In “Breath of the Wild” if there is a mountain that can be reached, Link can climb it.
Early in the game, Link gets ahold of a glider that allows him to wing his way from place to place with ease. Both climbing and gliding distances depend on stamina, which decreases over time. Potions and food can replenish or even extend stamina, and orbs can be cashed in to extend it permanently.
This leads to some fantastic moments where you’ll find alternate ways to get to objectives, or ways to bypass dangerous encounters altogether. Your imagination and preparedness are the biggest limiters for exploration.
In fact, preparedness is the major key to success in “Breath of the Wild.”
Resources are scarce, and run-of-the-mill enemies are – perhaps for the first time in a “Zelda” game – deadly. Weapons and shields need replacing often and health is replenished by cooking ingredients harvested from wildlife and vanquished foes.
This combination of factors means exploration is necessary to survive. Woe be unto the adventurer who wanders into a dungeon without several backup weapons and plenty of food. Also, while dungeon bosses still drop life-extending heart containers, they can be more reliably gained by trading in orbs collected from the many mini-dungeons that dot the landscape.
As enemies are more than capable of demolishing even a fairly powered up Link, a combination of diligent exploration and careful resource management is vital. It’s a good thing, then, that the game’s many smaller mechanics keep the exploration from becoming “push the stick up and hold for 30 minutes.”
That being said, the constant need to explore can lead to weariness. Sometimes, you just want to head to the next dungeon without having to go on a hunting spree. Overall though, I much preferred this system to the boredom that quickly sets in while playing other open-world titles.
And it’s not as if “Breath of the Wild” is just a Zelda-themed “Skyrim” or “Grand Theft Auto: Hyrule.” The aspects of “Zelda” that generations of games fell in love with are still in place. Mind-bending puzzles, a deep lore, a colorful cast of characters are all major components of “Breath of the Wild.”
Fans worried that the open-world design would take away from the “Zelda” experience can stop fretting. From Octoroks to Gerudos, this is “Zelda.” In fact, in a lot of ways, “Breath of the Wild” captures the spirit of adventure in a way that others didn’t – or couldn’t due to technical limitations.
Now, when it rains, it makes surfaces slick and harder to climb. An errant fire arrow can set an entire field ablaze. Exploring in extreme cold or heat can quickly lead to death without the right set of clothing. Firing an arrow a long distance requires accounting for the arrow’s arc.
There are a lot of little touches like this that bring the game to life and make every play session memorable. I’ll never forget the first time I dropkicked a skeleton’s head into the ocean, or discovering that frogs make a great basis for a needed elixir.
Out of all gaming franchises, "Zelda” is the one that seems to stand the test of time the best, thanks to memory-making moments like those. “A Link to the Past” is still eminently playable more than a quarter century after its release, and “Ocarina of Time” remains a rite of passage for gamers of all ages.
Even with that pedigree, “Breath of the Wild” stands among the best the series has to offer. I wasn’t able to say this with “Skyward Sword” or “Twilight Princess,” but I can see a future in which this game sits alongside “Ocarina” and “A Link to the Past” as the most cherished “Zelda” titles.
Considering how deeply beloved the franchise is, that puts “Breath of the Wild” in rarified air indeed.
Grade: A+ Systems: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and Wii UA copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.