In taking two gameplay styles – open-world and Zelda – to their very apex by joining them, it earns the right to be called a classic
Nobody, even the most creative artists, lives inside a perfectly sealed bubble. Writers, oftentimes unconsciously, pick up cues and stylistic choices from the texts they read; filmmakers drink from numerous sources and sew them together to form their own unique movies; musicians learn chord changes from songs that have already been put onto records; and the same magical process of creation applies to painters, sculptors, architects, dancers, and performers that pour out their souls into their labor to transform the raw assets that nature has given us into the art that captures the heart of many.
Game designers, for that matter, are not different; after all, the gaming industry has moved forward and built its library of classics through a collaborative effort that has involved the plentiful borrowing of new successful gameplay mechanics and an equally large amount of blatant inspiration. For some time there, though, it seemed Nintendo was partially alien to that trading of ideas and concepts: while their titles were influential to many, the valuable pieces of the major works of those that did not reside within the company’s Kyoto headquarters were never utilized in any significant way to boost Nintendo’s own franchises.
On one hand, such a closed environment lent great idiosyncrasy to their franchises; when Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and numerous other properties were stellar, they existed and operated on a level of their own, standing far above and away from anything else that had ever been made. On the other hand, when those series reached their dullest and least inspired moments, they felt almost antiquate; as if they were the output of a stubborn artist that refuses to look outside their own mind for inspiration due to the false belief that their prowess is self-sufficient.
First and foremost, then, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – which works both as the swam song of the Wii U and as the fanfare that announces the arrival of the Nintendo Switch – is remarkable because it shows Nintendo stretching their necks above the walls surrounding their studio to see what is happening outside. More importantly, it captures the company jumping straight into the biggest fad of contemporary gaming – open-world gameplay – and using it to revitalize one of their greatest assets. However, even if it is following a trend instead of creating one, which is the opposite of what has been common throughout its history, Nintendo is able to turn their very first foray into the extensively explored landscape of open-world gaming into a glorious point of reference, not allowing it to become just another dot on an already overcrowded map.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild begins with a confused Link waking up from a lengthy slumber to the sound of a female voice urging him to move out of the dark chamber in which he finds himself. It takes approximately five minutes for players to free themselves from the shackles of that introductory portion and face the magnificence of Hyrule from the top of a hill. Aware that the greatest quality of this new adventure lies in the awe-inspiring world they have created, developers are quick to give players the freedom that is necessary for them to fully enjoy it. Therefore, Link is set loose into the wilderness of this kingdom armed with the branch of a tree, and with the knowledge that there is something terribly wrong and – for some reason – he is the one that needs to act upon it.
For a game whose stage calls for the use of all synonyms of the word “big” to try to do it justice, and for an overworld that is packed with so much detail it is fair to wonder how big of an army of developers Nintendo had to assemble in order to build it, Breath of the Wild is surprisingly minimalistic. In fact, minimalism might as well be its central theme. In storytelling, that means cutscenes, which include solid voice acting, are kept to brief durations and rare appearances. In the game’s opening hours, as players are trying to reach the four points on the map that mark the location of the challenges Link needs to clear to gain the abilities that will help him in his quest, Breath of the Wild reveals the bare minimum necessary to lure gamers into its world, and does a great job at that.
Through the remainder of the adventure, it is purely up to the player (as it is the case with pretty much everything about Breath of the Wild) to decide if they want to pursue the extra tidbits of information – in the form of lost memories of a distant past – that add a great deal of emotional value to that initial setup or not. Thanks to that proactive approach to storytelling and to a script that decorates, with some pretty intriguing details, the traditional battle against an enormous evil that had once been sealed, Breath of the Wild is powered by a simple yet highly engaging plot.
Minimalism is also vividly present in the game’s music. Embracing wilderness as its main building block, Breath of the Wild leans on the sounds of nature to form its soundtrack. It is a choice that is quite effective in terms of immersion, as Hyrule comes alive and invades players’ living rooms. However, it turns the high-quality compositions that have always accompanied the series into supporting actors; they do exist, and when they do show up results are invariably remarkable. Yet, their presence is secondary, and they are often composed to complement the sound effects that surround Link rather than to call attention upon themselves; a style that is quite new to the franchise and that might leave some fans underwhelmed.
Where minimalism really comes into play, though, is in Link’s quest itself. After the hero is done with his four initial challenges and has recovered his lost abilities, Breath of the Wild sends players out of the starting plateau – which is quite big on its own – and considerably opens up. From that point onwards, Nintendo – like a joyous kid with a brand new toy – has a blast merging the unmovable staples of the Zelda franchise, such as dungeons, with the thrilling freedom of open-world gameplay, which – in its state here – is brilliantly dressed up with survival elements that make the exploration of Hyrule a constant search for the vital assets that allow a hero, who was originally almost naked and totally inept, to become a real threat to an unspeakable evil.
Breath of the Wild does not hand anything to players for free. Rupees and health-recovering hearts, for example, are no longer dropped by defeated enemies. Likewise, there are no stores in the astounding expanse of Hyrule that sell shields, bows, and swords. Consequently, it is up to Link himself to track down these goods, which – in a world that is packed to the brim with all sorts of enemy camps, powerful mini-bosses, and foes that can kill an unprepared hero with one hit – are absolutely necessary for his survival. Thankfully, though, the wilderness of Hyrule is relatively generous, because it gives – with a certain level of abundance – what it asks for.
Rupees – which are used to purchase arrows, different kinds of armor, and more – are acquired by mining for ore and then selling it at nearby stores or to the dozens of traveling salespeople the game possesses. Shields, bows, and swords are either dropped by downed foes, found lying around their camps, or located inside chests that are simply well-hidden or locked up until all of Ganon’s servants are wiped out from a certain base; and the game forces players to always be on the lookout for arsenal pieces by implementing a weapon-degradation system that is quite aggressive, as all of these items break within a handful of combats. Finally, hearts can be recovered by gathering ingredients found in the wild – such as mushrooms, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and meat from prey that must be hunted – and cooking them by the fire to produce nutritious meals, which may (depending on the components employed in their preparation) even have secondary effects like increased defense, stealth, and others.
The utmost need for those assets and the laborious way with which they are acquired make the open-world component of Breath of the Wild incredibly strong. Link’s ultimate goal of visiting the land’s four races – the Goron, Zora, Gerudo, and Rito – and restoring the ancient artifacts they once used to help the legendary hero fight evil is, thereby, filled up with a world that is not there for the sake of forcing him to walk interminably through a vast emptiness, but for the sake of being thoroughly explored for reasons that are intimately connected with the title’s core gameplay.
Moreover, Link’s own stats need to be developed through exploration. As the game begins, his stamina bar (which is used for running, swimming, and, mainly, for climbing up walls and mountains) is small, severely limiting the places he can reach; the number of hearts he carries is laughable, making him an easy target to even the most insignificant enemies; and the slots for weapons in his inventory can be counted in one hand. Solving those issues, though, is quite simply a pleasure, as it involves going out of the beaten track that leads to the game’s main goals and falling victim to the embrace of the beauty that is Hyrule. Its mountains, rivers, lakes, deserts, glaciers, beaches, forests, canyons, villages and plains are appealing enough to lure players in visual terms alone, but the fact they hold dozens of sidequests with interesting stories and goals (a nice change of pace considering the emptiness of the two most recent 3-D Zelda games) and other uncountable secrets makes them downright irresistible.
Link’s stamina and hearts are increased by clearing shrines, mini-dungeons – which also serve as warping points – that center around puzzle-solving or combat. There are 120 of them in total, and even though Link’s arsenal of skills is shorthanded when compared to those of other Zelda games (he can only use bombs, employ magnetic powers to move metallic objects around, create ice pillars from water, and lock objects in place for a short while before they regain their movement), Nintendo was able to build plenty of clever and entertaining shrines, some of which whose challenge is not in their clearing, but in finding them or making them emerge through the solving of highly engaging environmental puzzles in the overworld itself.
Meanwhile, the slots in Link’s inventory are increased through Korok Seeds. They are awarded to the hero by the little creatures themselves whenever he is able to find their hiding spots, which can be anywhere from rocks lying around in suspicious places and trees that are arranged in odd patterns, to air balloons in the middle of nowhere. Found in the hundreds, the Korok Seeds are the most significant example of the exuberant amount of detail that was poured into Breath of the Wild’s world, from lightning that strikes grass and makes it catch fire to a weather system complex enough to allow players to witness rain falling in the distance, the game is an endless source of surprises, both little and delightful, and huge and overwhelming.
Walking through Hyrule is, invariably, an experience that involves noticing something curious on the horizon – be it a mighty tower that, if climbed, unveils a large portion of the map; or some intriguing ruins – and stopping whatever it is Link is up to in order to discover what is there to be found. Shockingly, there is just so much to do and to unearth that these detours will almost always yield some sort of productive result, even if it is just a picture of a never-seen-before animal or vegetable to be added to the Hyrule Compendium, an encyclopedia of sorts that can be filled up by dedicated players; a mushroom with heat-protection effects that will let the hero walk beside that lava river flowing down Death Mountain without burning; a mysterious salesperson with a weird fetish for monsters; or mythical creatures that add magic and awe to the greatest open-world ever conceived up-to-date.
Within the immensity of that open-world adventure lies a truly excellent The Legend of Zelda quest. In terms of sheer content, it is much closer to Majora’s Mask than it is to Twilight Princess or Ocarina of Time, meaning it contains a mere four dungeons, putting its focus – therefore – on the wonderful extra content. However, what little there is of a Zelda quest, which should last for around twenty hours, is very well-designed. Firstly, walking hand in hand with the game’s overwhelming freedom, Breath of the Wild borrows the original Zelda’s concept of allowing players to tackle the dungeons in whatever order they see fit and transports it to a 3-D environment. In fact, Breath of the Wild is so wide open that it is possible to ignore the dungeons and the races that are related to them altogether, and even leave the Master Sword in its resting place, and run straight into the final boss, even if such a decision will most likely lead to an embarrassing defeat due to a shamefully under-prepared hero.
The four pieces that make up the quest may be unique in how they can be tackled in any order, but their structure itself is pretty traditional: Link must solve a problem that is plaguing the race in question, either by finding important items, saving someone important, or sneaking into hideouts, only to then gain access to the dungeon. The main difference rests in the dungeons themselves, which instead of presenting an assortment of locked rooms that need to be cleared in a specific sequence are actually relatively wide open, as Link needs to figure out a way to get to five spots marked on the dungeons’ maps to activate special switches.
The approach works. Dungeons may be briefer and lighter, but they are challenging enough to cause sighs of amazement whenever their puzzles are solved, and also widely original in their design. In particular, their most impressive quirk is how the mazes are puzzles themselves, as Link must manipulate their structure from within – one dungeon, for example, can be tilted at will – to reveal hidden paths or to simply get a structural helping hand in getting somewhere. The only couple of disappointments regarding this particular aspect of The Legend of Zelda saga, which is greatly revitalized here, are how the bosses are a bit lackluster, given their design is slightly repetitive; and how the dungeons all look pretty much the same, offering neither unique visual cues nor mesmerizing architectural features.
In concept alone, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does for the franchise what only two other installments (The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past) had been able to do: it does not merely advance the saga, it dares to press the reset button on one of gaming’s greatest and most acclaimed properties in order to build it from scratch. In doing so, the game opts to retain many of the series’ vital staples – dungeons, tight controls, puzzles and thrilling combats – while also borrowing the open-world gameplay that has become one of the highlights of contemporary gaming. Not content with merely borrowing, though, Nintendo takes a hard look at the issues and qualities of that gameplay style and opts to get rid of the former by leaning on survival and sprinkling the map with mysteries and rewards, and keeping the latter – and augmenting it – by taking the freedom and the allure found in a well-constructed world to their very extreme.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, then, not a continuation, but a new and exciting beginning. From this point onwards, it becomes the guiding light that will illuminate the path of not only future Zelda installments but also of any open-world game. Surely, there is room for improvement, as the Zelda aspect of the game could have been a little bit meatier in order to offer a more significant counterbalance to its open-world tendencies, which can take gameplay time up to one hundred hours. However, the existence of such shortcomings does not – in the slightest – mean Breath of the Wild is disappointing; it actually makes anyone who goes through its adventure become thoroughly excited for the road that lies open up ahead. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may not be a pioneer, for it borrows more than it creates, but in taking two gameplay styles – open-world and Zelda – to their very apex by joining them, it earns the right to be called a classic and to become one of those tall poles that divide history into two parts: what came before it and what will come next.