30 years (!) have passed now since the release of the very first The Legend of Zelda game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over those long years, the series has done something quite remarkable; it has remained at the top of the gaming world. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of video game series have come and gone while Zelda continues to innovate and inspire. That’s just…impossible. Even Nintendo’s other excellent flagship franchises, such as Metroid, fell prey to mediocre titles that sullied their once pristine shine. Or in the case of Mario, pumped out so many games that mediocrity was inevitable from time to time.
Yet Zelda has stayed strong. From 2D to 3D, the series has proven an innovator when it comes to design, graphics, and gameplay. New ideas are brought forth with every title and while they don’t always work fantastically, they are remain effective enough. Trust someone who has played a lot of Wii games: no one managed to make the use of the motion tracking controller like Skyward Sword did. I wish I understood how the Zelda team manages to keep making such excellent games after so many years. There is no questioning its prestige in the gaming world.
So my saying that Breath of the Wild will likely be the best Zelda game yet probably sounds impossible, too. How could Nintendo still top itself? And some of you may be wondering what could possibly be so exciting and new about this new Zelda that wasn’t in the others?
Well, I’m going to tell you.
1) The series is innovating by going back to its roots.
Kind of a weird, contradictory first point, huh? Let me explain. One criticism leveled at the series is the increasing linearity over the years. The original Legend of Zelda dropped players into the world with little hint or direction and trusted them to figure things out. A Link to the Past was still quite open, but not as much so. Then Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask provided even less of an open world despite the freedom of approach available. By the time the series reached Skyward Sword (which I absolutely love, don’t get me wrong), players found themselves restricted to single areas at a time that functioned almost as complicated hallways to traverse.
Such criticism makes it obvious why Breath of the Wild’s large world and freedom of approach was such a heavy focus at E3. The Great Plateau area shown makes up 1% of the total game area. The new jumping and climbing allows Link to navigate the environment in ways unheard of in the series. Trees can be felled to form bridges anywhere. During E3 there were glimpses of environmental manipulation such as cutting trees or using fire and wind that teased a variety of possibilities for traversing this new open world. Just look at this:
You can light such fires in many, many areas. Can you imagine the secrets hidden throughout this world that might only be reached by gliding over fires of the right size and placement? Such possibilities create that feeling gamers once had booting up the original Legend of Zelda game, but in brand new ways that show off the ways in which the series and the gaming world as a whole have advanced. Rather than finding single solutions to advance through the world, a variety are available.
And Nintendo is claiming you don’t have to do any of this at all. Breath of the Wild is said to be truly open in every way, with the player able to explore however they find themselves capable and complete whatever they want to complete. The final boss can be fought and beaten right at the beginning (a speed runner dream for a series that loves its speed runners).
That’s right, you can finish the game without ever finishing the story, if you’re good enough.
2) Breath of the Wild is also shaking up the series’ conventions with modern ideas.
For all the series’ innovation, the Zelda series has always had one failing that plagues many iconic Nintendo franchises; it has somewhat been afraid to catch up with modern gaming, and even more afraid to tamper too greatly with the series formula. And I can’t blame them for that. Just look at what happened with Metroid: Other M. The only true shakeups to the series since the original came along were the controversial side-scrolling sequel and the legendary Ocarina of Time, which helped introduce 3D gaming to millions.
Zelda has always followed a very safe formula. You’re Link, you gather new items, you conquer dungeons, and you defeat Ganon. Sometimes there is a different final boss instead of Ganon or you’re not in Hyrule. You cut grass and break things to find rupees to buy things with and hearts to heal. Most of the games feature the same villages and locations; Hyrule Castle, Kakariko, Lost Woods, Lake Hylia, Death Mountain, etc.
And while Breath of the Wild won’t eliminate these conventions entirely, the glimpses so far show a game that is taking more chances with the series than any game since Majora’s Mask, and arguably even Ocarina before it.
Some of these changes involve mechanics seen in other games for years now. There is a jump button! Voice acting! Weapons can be looted off enemies carrying them, all weapons and shields have durability stats and can break (though the glimpsed Master Sword may be unbreakable), different armors have different benefits beyond the more simple differences in other Zelda games, and a greater crafting system allows for cooking food. Link can now sneak up on enemies for one-hit stealth kills. Fast travel is now possible. There is a dialogue tree.
A lot of this is standard in many video games these days, but all together (and with the trademark Zelda polish), it is really exciting to see. The stubborn refusal to adapt to some of these modern conventions is one of my few big complaints about the series. Just including these elements is not the big deal, either. After all, Zelda did not become a gaming titan just for trying new things. It was because it did so many things so exceptionally. That looks to be the case here, too. Each of these new gameplay mechanics appears to be executed brilliantly and all of them look fun. Link wields spears and clubs just as effectively as a sword. The cooking system allows for food with a variety of benefits (and even gross mistakes that cannot be eaten). Enemies are smart, adaptable, and resilient.
It’s all very promising.
One of the more interesting items shown in the game was the Sheikah Slate. This device is procured early in the game and serves as the map, key to Shrines, enemy analyzer, and allows for the use of runes to give Link numerous abilities. Among those shown in the demo are runes that turn the Slate into a magnet to move various items (including chests), allow Link to use bombs, freeze time, and produce pillars of ice Link can climb or jump on to reach higher areas. The runes which you use are apparently acquired from the Shrines, and these were a small example of them.
3) There’s a true open world, and it’s AMAZING.
Okay, so the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto doesn’t want to call this game open world, instead preferring the term “open air”, but for the sake of the conversation we’ll stick with the term.
And wow, is this version of Hyrule alive in ways that seemingly put the other games in the series to shame. Frankly if its potential is lived up, it may even the open worlds in other games to shame as well. Enemies have camps that operate on day/night cycles, and will pick up their fallen comrades weapons if they are better than their current weapon. Rain will douse campfires and the many psychotic wildfires players will likely start. Ingredients for the cooking system are procured from wild animals, insects found in grass, and fruits found throughout the world. Different sets of clothing are necessary to survive in environments of extreme heat or cold. The Hylian script is fully translatable.
And this version of Hyrule just seems so…wild. It fits with the survival theme Nintendo seems to be pushing with the initial coverage of the game. Overgrown ruins dot the sprawling landscape. There are villages in the game, but they are unseen so far. Lost, futuristic secrets lay in wait. Food is the only way to recover health. Link can seemingly even break horses in. We know that the game takes place 100 years after the appearance of “Calamity Ganon,” who is said to be the villain Link sets out to defeat. The name alone suggests a great disaster which laid waste to Hyrule’s civilization. Many are predicting that the game takes place later in the Zelda timelines than any to date, though in which of the two timelines is unknown.
While atmosphere is important, ultimately this is a video game and this open world needs to have the content necessary to justify its size. I feel confident in saying Breath of the Wild will do just that.
Besides the typical story dungeons in every Zelda game, there are also the 100 Shrines which serve as mini-dungeons scattered throughout the world. Powerful mini-boss enemies scattered throughout the world provide Link a real challenge. The most commonly fought boss from E3 can kill players in one blow. As usual with Zelda games there are collectibles, including having to find adorable Koroks, returning from Wind Waker. Along with the truly living feel of the world, Breath of the Wild seems poised to achieve the type of open world excellence of games such as Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3. It looks like the typical excellent Zelda formula on a bigger stage.
Which brings me to my last point.
4) Everything looks to have the quality gamers have come to expect from this series.
I mean it, anyone who doubts this game need only watch the gameplay videos. Breath of the Wild looks and plays incredibly and it is at least a year from release. The graphics, the physics, the various gameplay systems, the hitboxes, the enemy AI, all of it is outstanding. Maybe the Zelda team focused on making the one playable area at E3 look presentable, but even then you know they are making everything about the game operate at a high level.
Just look at this hitbox awesomeness:
I’m tempted to not type another word and show nothing but .gifs like this from here on.
Stop it, Bo.
It all looks so wonderful. Every .gif and every video feels right. The tech is very impressive considering how far it is from release date. The demo struggled to maintain 30 frames-per-second, but this did not detract from most opinions, with the majority finding it impressive considering all the weather and time cycle features were operating. E3 showed that despite the increased scope, Breath of the Wild will not sacrifice the series’ typical polish.
Best of all, a sense of wonder and interest returns that I have not felt in a very long time. Breath of the Wild looks to reinvent in enough areas to truly push the series forward, but it also remains rooted in the ideas and conventions that maintain the loyalty of longtime fans. You are still Link. You still fight Ganon, open treasure chests, and fight goblins on a quest that ends in Hyrule Castle. Now you are doing all these things in a new, exciting way.
Breath of the Wild is going to be incredible. It is going to be the best Zelda game yet. And for those of you yet unconvinced, find an hour and a half (dispersed over however much time you need) to watch this video. I really can’t think of a better way to show just how special this game is shaping up to be.
Images courtesy of Nintendo and IGN.com