“When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.“
That is a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto, the mind behind the creation of Nintendo characters such as Super Mario, speaking on the inspiration that went into creating The Legend of Zelda, the original classic video game for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console.
Commenting on the Zelda canon can be a daunting minefield of potential pathways. There are 30 years of history in place, along with a fanbase of millions. Can you bring fresh insights to the series, while still enjoying the payoff of knowing the strokes of story that have led us to this point?
If Breath of the Wild itself tells us anything, the answer is a resounding, authoritative “yes, you can,” or perhaps “yes, you can, and it’s frickin’ wonderful.”
Let us address the criticisms right away, in one fell swoop, so that we can approach this review the same way one should approach the game, with arms wide open for an opportunity at a joyful experience: No, it’s not perfect. I had a few frustrating moments of being befuddled with crafting quandaries and recipe management. You can hurl similar visual critiques as Skyward Sword received, akin to Nintendo having a beautiful presentation while managing to dodge an earnest attempt at modern graphics. I will not be the first to make a comparison to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as to how Breath of the Wild sets a new table while retreading a lot of familiar ground, with a barb on the treatment of female protagonists. There are some specific environment interactions that seem a little more buggy, out-of-place, or in need of refinement. You can definitely accuse the designers of purporting an open-world experience while, in actuality, just doing a sneakier job of disguising their pathway gatekeeping. You are going to hear hot takes on how, by doing a Zelda game in such a new way, Nintendo is actually alienating long-time fans. You will hear the wearisome criticisms of a writing that, yes, squeezes in a few meme-like lines here and there.
And if you had any hope of reading an ‘objective’ review in this space, toss that hope out the window right away.
Hours into Breath of the Wild, I found a cave. As I entered/Link entered/I watched Link enter the cave, I noticed a modest campfire. Sitting behind that fire, inside the cave, sat an old man.
I froze. I had a potent mix of feelings pass right through my body. I held my controller steady and just stared at my television screen. I looked at the fire, the way it moved, the way the lighting splashed and danced. I looked at the old man, the beard he had, the robe he wore, the colors and the sizing and the posture.
I felt a form of decades-long payoff that a non-fan simply could not have, and in that moment I knew I was a hopeless fanboy, but I was going to be okay with it and enjoy the ride.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild follows our hero, Link, who is awakened inside the Shrine of Resurrection, summoned forth to go about his heroic world-saving duties against the devious Ganon (Calamity Ganon, this round) once again. There is a play on light and dark, on vast firmanents of good and evil, on alternate worlds tinged with shadow. This is definitely one of those “it’s about the journey” experiences, seeing as how the actual plot can sound awfully cookie-cutter, and even for the canon itself spends chunks of time across a familiar motif. Enjoyably so, nonetheless (the first time I spotted an owl, I smiled, and definitely wanted a closer look).
Link is dropped into the middle of the Great Plateau, and from there is free to venture forth into a wide, wild adventure. He can climb anything, from landscape to enemies, and will engage in hobbies ranging from weapon-collecting to campfire recipes. Bits of amber and feather meet salvaged swords and bows to create new opportunities in enemy suppression. You want armor? Link gets armor. All of it has your requisite stats for comparison’s sake, and much of it has a dreadful knack for wearing out.
Across grassy plains, over rocky mountains, and through fiery deserts, Link will explore the land of Hyrule more thoroughly than ever. There are your traditional dungeons, yes, but there are also over 100 Shrine of Trials set pieces, where the player must use might and wits alike to recover a new prize, often a tidy artifact – and, importantly, runes that unlock new abilities altogether.
This is the first hint of how Nintendo has achieved an exquisite balance in Breath of the Wild’s gameplay: For people who love puzzles, there are puzzles, but they are neither bashed over your head nor are they dropped in the middle of your path with aggressive demands to be conquered before you can progress. If you enjoy things like deep-diving into every possible item combination, you can whittle away your evenings striving for the perfect steak recipe, but this is by no means a requirement. If you like optional sidequests, the Zen-state side of your soul may find solace in the fact that every rock face is asking to be climbed and you might be able to reach that snowy peak just over the horizon fairly soon if you can find a horse and start moving.
This is a spoiler-free zone, but I will say that, while newcomers to the series will encounter a fair share of memorable characterizations and intrigue, Nintendo has prepared a real treat for fans. I keep coming back to that theme, I know, but with the legacy at stake, it is a difficult one to peel away from. In any case, Link will progress through the plot through his discovery of villages and their histories, the hushed way their denizens speak of the Calamity, and the smiling optimism in the face of newfound friends.
One new aspect is the Sheikah Stone, Link’s “iPad-like” device that serves as Chekov’s MacGuffin for all manner of effects: Entering the shrines, freezing space-time in a stasis field, performing feats of teleportation and magnetic telekinesis, mark locations on your map, etc.
The earlier Shrines, by requiring the player to go through some basic exercises with new Sheikah Stone rune abilities without lengthy dialogue-bubble tutorials, actually call back to another original entry for a different Nintendo series: Super Mario Bros (NES), the original 8-bit platformer, often praised for how its first level explains to the player the limit of their movements without having to say a single word.
This design philosophy will be welcome by many. The rampant hand-holding in previous Zelda games and yelling-at-you endured from companions such as Navi and Fi? Gone. No more two-hour tutorials, no more “hey we know you need to progress in the plotline but first you have to win this weird arbitrary race,” etc.
But, gosh, if you’re willing to invest a little training, this game rewards you. Well-timed dodges in combat unlock a moment of slow motion called Flurry Rush, during which you can land deadly blows, and executing these moves well enough to kill a foe in a colorful explosion is quite a feat of visceral satisfaction.
However, those expecting to be able to slash-and-bash their way through Hyrule may be disappointed to find that mastery of the environment and even some stealthiness may be required as well. Or, at least, they will make your way a bit easier to survive – a survival dependent on weighing the risks of elements such as temperature and elevation as well.
The thing I may love most about this game, though, is how it rewards creativity. Do you want to snowboard on your shield down a snowy slope into a gathering of enemies, throw an old sword at them, then magnetically guide the sword into an explosive barrel to take out the whole lot? You can. But, even better, you might perform amazing feats accidentally. I remember laughing out loud when I accidentally back-flipped off a bridge, only to slow-mo arrow-headshot a different enemy below me anyway. It was glorious.
Part of what spurs this exponential growth in interactive possibility is an emphasis on the meld between magic and technology. Whereas some Zelda titles (or, heck, other games entirely) focus on more of the medieval fantasy feel, it turns out that the Sheikah have quite the tech at their disposal, and players might find themselves feeling a little bit like Tron Link is wielding a laser rifle in a techno cathedral by the quest’s latter chapters.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild fosters favorable comparisons to classic non-Nintendo games. Some will still prefer Skyrim, but at least the hardcore Big-N fans now have their own version. If you like Shadow of the Colossus-type battles, you will find some tasty morsels. Calling it Grand Theft Auto: Hyrule might be a bit much, but in its scale and sense of just being a good ol’ romp, it hits the mark.
And that is where I stand in conclusion – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is simply a lot of fun. In a big-picture way, it does represent some positive notes from Nintendo’s design brilliance and a refreshing reinvigoration for a fond franchise. There is going to be a lot of discussion around this title, likely deservedly so. But, really, at the end of the day, it serves as a delightful reminder of what video games can be at their best: A lot of immersive fun with a surprise around every corner.
On a personal note: I enjoyed Skyward Sword, but this is a greater experience, and I am glad to see more ambition from the Zelda camp. The fanboy in me was pleased, the gamer in me was pleased… the human in me was pleased. As someone whose favorite Zelda game is Majora’s Mask, I love the melancholic feel of castle ruins and a foreboding darkness we find in the Wild. Great game.
I like it. I would recommend it.