Breath of the Wild
Three years. That’s how long the unparalleled masterpiece that is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has consumed me. Admittedly, 2017’s GOTY hasn’t entirely enraptured me for the entirety of those 1096 days, however it’s always been my go-to game when I can’t decide on what to play, or what to do in general – providing life throws me that most rare of commodities – free time. Unsurprisingly, the backlog has engorged enormously over the last three years. Sure, I’ll make time for Nintendo’s latest luminescent offering but I’m not ashamed to admit, I’ve slept on a ridiculous amount of indie titles and 3rd party offerings since its release on March 3rd 2017. I guess the adult in me should be grateful for this. Everyone tells you this but until you experience it you never realise just how expensive having children is. I went from a man of means, with disposable income every month to someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, scraping by some months by the skin of my teeth. I digress however, this isn’t a personal piece about the precarious perils of parenthood, rather, the point I’ve arrived at via a somewhat convoluted route is this – games are expensive, there are an absurd number of high quality titles on the Nintendo Switch, and to be frankly Frank with you, the choice is a little overwhelming, especially when time is even tighter than money.
You take my breath away
Back to the topic, and even after three years exploring the ultra dystopia that is Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, I’m still smitten. The organic game world that Nintendo have created is so far divided from anything else that they have ever attempted and the result is an eerie, beautiful collection of locales littered with poignancy, wonderment and natural beauty that often take your breath away. When the trailer first launched, and the title of the game was revealed, I was sceptical, but after no more than half an hour on the Great Plateau, I got it. Breath of the Wild was the perfect name for this version of the perpetual cycle of Link, Zelda and Ganon.
Speaking of the phenomenal trailer – all of which is footage captured in game by Eiji Aonuma – while it still to this day sends shivers down my spine watching it, it does somewhat falsify the experience. Breath of the Wild in its essence is all about the game world. Much like how Xenoblade Chronicles X went away from the story driven experience of Xenoblade Chronicles and created Mira, a world so full of life and personality, Hyrule is there for the taking, to be explored and it’s secrets discovered. Monolithsoft’s inimitable style is ingrained in this massive open world.
A cold wind blows
Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece, probably still the best game on the Nintendo Switch. It also wouldn’t make the list of top 5 Zelda games, perhaps not even the top 10. Of course, lists are subjective, but I’m speaking about the core mechanics of what makes a Zelda title so unique. The classic tropes of a linear story, a bustling world full of kooky NPC’s and adaptive dungeon design. As perfect as Breath of the Wild is, these aspects of the game remain lacking.
Before we continue, my personal top 10 Zelda titles, based on their merits as Zelda titles, not as video games in general:
1. A Link to the Past (SNES)
1. A Link to the Past (SNES)
2. Ocarina of Time (N64)
3. The Wind Waker (GC)
4. Majora’s Mask (N64)
5. Link’s Awakening (GB)
6. Skyward Sword (Wii)
7. Twilight Princess (GC/Wii)
8. Minish Cap (GBA)
9. A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
10. The Legend of Zelda (NES)
Returning to the point of what makes a classic Zelda title, here’s a little breakdown of the aspects of what is synonymous with a Zelda game.
Breathe with me
While they can all be justified in one way or another- the lack of a linear story needs no explanation in the context of Breath of the Wild’s USP.
The frugality of NPCs and therein bustling towns and villages could also be explained with in the context of the game’s desperate tone. Then we come to the dungeons. Unfortunately the divine beasts are incredibly simplistic in their execution and if you’ve already unlocked Revali’s Gale, become ever so slightly broken as you can just go to the entrance and fly up atop them, essentially cutting out a lot of the leg work. Nintendo acknowledged this shortly after the final DLC was released, as they listed a job posting for an experienced dungeon designer. They know that the divine beast, as cool as they were in concept, weren’t up to scratch.
Shrines offer a little more diversity, and the sheer amount of them – 120 in total – provide bite sized morsels of ingenuity along with even more license to experiment, as they usually have multiple ways to approach their puzzles.
Beyond these flaws there is another major oversight, one that fanmen such as myself take (for better or worse) incredibly seriously. Of course, I’m talking about the Zelda timeline, and more specifically Breath of the Wild’s placement on it.
Hero of Time
Shortly after the title reveal trailer at E3, we were treated to a plethora of Treehouse footage, and the first thing that stuck out for me was the inclusion of the Koroks. I immediately had concluded that Breath of the Wild must in fact take place after the events of the culmination of Wind Waker’s narrative, with Ganondorf smited (in the most horrific manner in any Zelda game ever I might add. Kid’s game? Pfft!!) and the world of Hyrule flooded in order to start again. To be more accurate, not just after Wind Waker, but also Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks too, right at the back end of the timeline. Within the confines of my over active imagination I envisioned a tale about how an ancient event had caused the lands to flood, with new civilisations and lore rising from the depths of the ocean, and that this version of Hyrule, this ‘wild’ land was the the raw unscrupulous, uncultured base of the next generation of Hyrule, the first instance of it starting anew proper.
Of course I was way off the mark, and as it transpired, the game was full of fan service – little Easter eggs referencing pivotal places from previous iterations of Hyrule. While this was, in the moment very cool, offering countless ‘oh wow’ moments as I explored the land, in retrospect it essentially muddied the waters and marred the experience as a ‘real’ Zelda title. Seeing the ruins of the exact Lon Lon ranch from Ocarina of Time was very special indeed, but didn’t confirm which one of Ocarina’s branching timelines that this was a continuation of. As a side note, I’m honestly surprised we didn’t see the Moon from Majora’s Mask crashed into an area somewhere. Sure, those events didn’t transpire in Hyrule, but an utterly obliterated Termina, resting infinitely under the Moon would have been an incredible thing. Just imagine seeing that sinister face peering up at you amidst a pile of rubble. Utterly terrifying!!
Experimentation of the Wild
What Breath of the Wild excels in, and what Nintendo was incredibly clever to allow happen – without issuing patches to nullify – is that it pushes you to experiment, as much as explore. When the game launched, I had regular conversations with fellow gamers who too were swept up in this behemoth, and the one constant would always be that whoever I talked to would have tackled a problem differently, would have taken down a Guardian in a completely different way to you. Only yesterday I was chased by a Guardian whilst traversing the fields of Hyrule on my motorcycle (it still feels weird to say/write this). I eventually led it to a river bed, where it stood on a large metal plate. This time, I decided to attack it in a brand new way. Instead of chopping off its legs and allowing him to simply roll down the bank into the water and its inevitable death, I instead used stasis on the metal it had mounted and aimed the trajectory of the plates flight parallel with the river. When the timer ended, my arachnid like friend simply flew a couple of hundred yards downstream, essentially abreast a hoverboard, before losing its footing and falling into the water, to its inevitable death. It was a sight to behold and the point is, due to my experimentation, I had a little fun, did something new in a game that I’ve pumped over 300 hours into, despite having completed nearly all of the ‘traditional’ side quests (damn dirty Koroks!!)
Open your eyes!!
Moving forward, and with a sequel well under way, I feel Nintendo will have to do something radical to recapture the magic of Breath of the Wild. The obvious approach would be to make a more linear, classic Zelda experience, set in this iteration of Hyrule. Would people accept that though, with so many gamers now seeing this as the norm? By the same token, would a retread of the open world experience be acceptable, or would people too see this as a cop out? Whatever Nintendo chooses to do, it will be hard for me to leave this world behind, something that the DLC made even harder – with it allowing you to power up the iconic Master Sword, essentially providing an endgame tier weapon in the process. It’s a shame that the story driven DLC content – the final part of the season pass felt so lacking, simply offering more of the same and not really providing what we all hoped for – being able to explore this Herculean Hyrule at its most opulent, 100 years before the Great Calamity. Someone remarked on Twitter that having instances in game that use the time shift stones from Skyward Sword would be a great way for Nintendo to implement this in the upcoming sequel, a great idea as we can assume that it will be set after the events of Breath of the Wild and would provide a fascinating insight into the world that we never knew, even in the most fleeting moments.
The direction of the sequel will dictate whether I’m still playing Breath of the Wild for another three years, if it’s a classic linear Zelda experience, the chances are I will. And you know what? That is fine by me.