There have been, before Breath of the Wild, about fifteen Zelda games (depending on whether or not you count the “CD-i” abominations and so forth) released since the original launched in 1986. Some of those games have been controversial—like The Adventure of Link, with its side-scrolling and RPG mechanics—some have been criticized—like more recent games that were often attacked for being too safe—but of all the games in the series’ history there really have only been two franchise-defining titles…

A Link to the Past (SNES) stripped away the oddball additions to the franchise that were present in The Adventure of Link. It essentially perfected the gameplay style present in the original NES classic and became the definitive 2D Zelda experience that all others aspire to measure up to. There have been about seven 2D Zelda games released since ALTTP debuted in 1991, and all of them are instantly compared to it by fans and even designers. Link’s Awakening was great but was limited as a Gameboy game. The same could said of the Oracles twofer. The Minish Cap was fun but never offered anything for it to stand out and be remembered years later. The two DS games felt more like gimmicks with a Zelda skin than fully-realized LOZ games. The most recent adventure, A Link Between Worlds has come closest to matching the charm and breadth of ALTTP, but how much of that is due to great design and how much is attributed to its fully embracing itself as a updated version of the SNES original? Even in being great (and as of 2016 it was the best Zelda game since Majora’s Mask, in my opinion), it still held up the original as “the standard.”

Ocarina of Time (N64) moved the series into the third dimension and presented an entirely new way to experience the world of Hyrule. It’s amazing to think that this game was only the fifth title in the series and yet so early in its history (a decade, basically) the Zelda “style” was so ingrained in gamers, that playing OOT “felt” like Zelda, despite everything from the controls to the mechanics being entirely new. Before Breath of the Wild, only four Zelda adventures were released for home consoles (not counting remakes) after Ocarina of Time and all were weighed against that almost flawless game. Majoras Mask was practically perfect but still was a glorified side story that used all the design elements of the first N64 game as its skeleton. Wind Waker was stellar but felt rushed. Twilight Princess was great but felt padded. Skyward Sword was divisive, with some lauding it and others outright hating it. Another decade may be needed before a fair judgment can be passed (the same divisiveness was found with Wind Waker, after all, and it’s now almost-universally beloved). Either way, the only game to be ubiquitously adored has been OOT.

Two games, one from 1991 (26 years ago) and one from 1996 (21 years ago) remain the gold standard for the franchise. Finally, after decades of waiting and many attempts to reinvent the wheel came and went, Nintendo has finally delivered a game that not only measures up to the quality of the best games in the series, but blazes a trail so thoughtfully and so expertly, it manages to be franchise-defining. Just as we continue to talk about A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, we will talk about Breath of the Wild for generations to come.

So what’s so great?

THE NEW

Breath of the Wild introduces so many new elements to the series, at times it feels like a totally new franchise. And yet, these new elements are so smoothly integrated onto the familiar that you wonder how you ever got along without them in a Zelda title. Whereas Skyward Sword’s motion-control sword play and puzzle elements always stuck out like a sore thumb (you were always forced to be aware of your own input as a player, which hurt your ability to be immersed in the game), the new aspects of Breath of the Wild become, after only a few hours, as effortless and instinctive as writing your name or tying your shoes.

Low on health? Don’t look for hearts to drop from enemies anymore. Now you need to cook food that you’ve harvested or hunted-for in the wild. Looking to add some heart containers to your life? There are no pieces to be found in the world. Instead there are one-hundred and twenty “shrines” to discover and complete. Most of them contain a singular puzzle element that takes anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to solve. In the end you’ll be rewarded with a “spirit orb” that can be cashed-in at various goddess statues. Four makes a new heart container or upgrades your stamina wheel.

Speaking of, the stamina wheel is back from its debut in Skyward Sword. In that game you were able to obtain items to slow or temporarily halt your stamina’s depletion. You can cook things in BOTW to achieve a similar result, but in addition you can upgrade your stamina wheel to be three-times as effective. You’ll still catch yourself staring at that little green circle more than you will the vast landscapes around you, though, but its addition adds a new element of strategy to the game, as you have to plan ahead before attempting to scale a mountain or swim across a lake.

That’s the other big new thing in this game: It’s not just that the land in the game is big, it’s that the land is the game. In past Zelda games, the world map was just the hub to connect you to the primary areas of your adventure. Looking back, the Ocarina of Time world map was a little too compressed, but since there wasn’t much to do and half the game is spent traversing the land on foot, it’s not worth complaining about. Twilight Princess boasted a much larger world map, but it retained Ocarina’s “hub” mentality, which meant a lot of empty space needed to be crossed to get from one destination to another. Even with a horse, you’d spend far too long just…going…with little to do.  The same thing was true of Wind Waker, with its vast ocean and far-too-few islands to explore. Skyward Sword alleviated the problem by stripping the world map down to just three big areas and letting Link jump (fall) down to each one as needed. That seemed to go too far in the other direction, however, as fans weren’t just complaining about time wasted on an empty world map, but were also complaining about the empty world map itself.

Breath of the Wild opts for a whole new solution to the problem: It offers the biggest world map…ever…and loads it up with things to do. Sidequests featuring action, stealth, puzzle, fetching and more are everywhere. Scores of enemies can be found high up on the snowy mountains, or nestled in between the trees of a forest. Enemy camps line the beaches and pepper the desert. Bad guys are everywhere in this game, guarding treasure chests filled with new weapons (to replace the ones you broke or lost—another new feature) or valuable items you can sell in the shops or to the various fellow-travelers that populate the open roads. There’s never been a game so alive and so bursting with opportunities for adventure.

One side quest in particular involves you buying a house that is about to be demolished. That leads to you helping one of the builders start his own settlement halfway across the map. Along your adventure you’ll encounter people who are feeling restless, bored, or otherwise yearning for a fresh start, and your new little town will be the perfect place to send them. Characters you grow close to will start a new life and turn a once-barren plot of land into a thriving little town with shops, houses, even weddings! It’s the most satisfying side-quest I’ve ever experienced in a video game, displacing the Majora’s Mask quest that ruinted Kafei and Anju. I didn’t think that story could ever be topped, but BOTW has done it.

Many long-time Zelda fans have grumbled at the limited number of major dungeons in the game, as well as how quickly they can be completed and how they are—like the Shrines—mostly puzzle-oriented and lack a lot of enemies. In many ways these are fair complaints: There are only four dungeons (not counting Ganon’s at the end of the game) and the time to complete each one is on the short-side (average time for me was about half an hour). And it’s true that there aren’t that many enemies: You’ll find one or two mini-guardians (robotic, spider-like baddies that shoot freaking laser beams from their foreheads) in each one that are easily disposed of, and there’s usually some “pools of malice” (oozy black stuff that hurts to touch) that can be extinguished by shooting a creepy yellow eye that spits flying monster heads at you.

Ultimately there’s not much action to do in the dungeons, but that misses the point: In past Zelda games the world maps were bare but for a little action and some puzzles to solve, and the dungeons were teeming with both. In BOTW, the designers have turned that formula inside out; the maps are loaded with action and puzzles and the dungeons offer just a little. Really the dungeons are nothing more than interactive story elements, moving the plot forward in one-hour or so increments, while you spend dozens of hours in between each dungeon hunting, collecting, discovering and dying.

THE OLD

As much as has changed in Zelda, Breath of the Wild still holds to many of its established elements. Sound effects, enemies, death by a thousand cuccos; there’s a lot you’ll remember. Nintendo hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater here, they’ve just taken what you remember and refined it. That familiar little jingle when you come upon a green rupee is still there, but no more do you have to sit through a five-to-ten second demonstration of you opening a chest to earn a penny.  Moblins, bokoblins, octoroks, kees and more will all pop up to be killed, but now if you try to John Rambo your way into a stronghold, you’re going to get your teeth knocked out. Enemies will see you, they will sound the alarm, and they will swarm you.

At night, the skeletal stal monsters will rise from the ground just like in Ocarina of Time, only this time they will chase you and if your stamina is low, they will catch you. And just like in the old games, you can go all Lizzy Borden on the chickens, and yes they’ll beak you to death if you do…OR, you can pick one up and throw it at one of the world map’s many towering mini-bosses and let the birds do the work for you.

A lot is new, but the same old feeling of discovery and wonder is still there to be found. Only now it’s found in so many more places, through so many new methods. A lot is new, but it’s the same old Zelda in all the right places.

THE RETRO

Prepare to die.

Not since the NES games in the franchise has a Zelda title taken my life so frequently. It was only a few years ago that I began thinking I was getting too old for video games like this. I remember in Zelda Wind Waker being stabbed by a Moblin with a giant spear and only losing half a heart. Defeating that Moblin would result in four or five hearts raining from the sky for me to collect. I played and beat Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword without ever seeing the game-over screen. It was as though Nintendo decided that gamers would rebel against challenging games, so they dumbed everything down to where you’d have to try to die to actually make it happen. In the NES games, hearts would be taken from you before you could even react to what was happening. You’d die in one corner of the map and then start right back at the beginning of the game, having to make your journey all over again. That’s not just hard, that’s borderline unfair. But that was the era. Video games were born out of the Arcade Game mentality, where deaths meant “more quarters” were needed to continue. Games evolved away from that and some went too far.

Zelda returns here to its roots as a “hard” game, but it’s never unfair. Your deaths will be your own fault, the result of poor strategy or poor execution. And an auto-save feature (which lets you scroll back even hours to load at whatever point in your playtime that you want) means that, while deaths are frequent, they are never so frustrating and progress-erasing that you’ll want to quit.

Furthermore, the deeper into the game you’ll go, the better your weapons, armor and shields will become. You’ll start the game with nothing but a pair of boxer briefs to your name. In twenty hours, you’ll be rocking two-handed swords that can down a twenty-foot Hinnox in under a minute. You’ll still lose hearts and you’ll still die, but after just a dozen hours (a drop in the bucket for this game) you’ll have more than enough hearts to absorb the blows and reassess your strategy. At some point, later into your playing, you’ll realize that you’re not as scared of the enemies as you were in the beginning. The giant rock monsters whose massive fists could crush you to death are much easier once you acquire a strong rock hammer from the Gorons. The guardians that you’ll run for your life from early on can be one-shotted with a well-aimed “ancient” arrow. You’ll feel like The Terminator with all your armor and ammo…

Until you come upon this little island in the southeastern corner of the map…

FINAL THOUGHTS

Breath of the Wild hearkens back to the original NES classic in how it lays out its world to explore. The first Zelda offered almost the whole world to be seen, immediately; only a few places required items like the raft to access, the rest were open to you. Places the game didn’t think you were ready to experience weren’t walled-off, they were just packed with enough enemies that could kill you in a hot second if you tried to cross them. Before BOTW, 3D Zelda games relied on walls visible and invisible as well as other natural obstacles to prevent you from leaving the gameplay area. It restricted you, either until it was time for you to see it (by way of the story) or just as a way to prevent you from falling into the undeveloped, un-coded nothingness beyond the playing zone.

What’s great about BOTW, is how the game lets you play it at your own pace and doesn’t punish you or block you in any way from going about things as you see fit. Take, for example the two primary upgradables in the game (hearts and stamina). If you’re the type to just do what you have to, not chase rabbits or worry about too many side quests, then you would probably opt to upgrade your hearts, since you’ll be focusing on the big dungeons and bosses and you’ll need the extra defense.

On the other hand, if you’re the type to explore every nook and cranny, solve every puzzle and complete every quest, that means you’re going to be climbing a lot of mountains (Breath of the Wild has a lot of mountains). Climbing means stamina and you’ll learn very quickly that your initial stamina wheel is insufficient if you want to get anywhere easily.

But the game doesn’t punish you if you decide to be an explorer over an adventurer, or vice-versa. Play it your way: The game strips away so many things that you used to think were necessary in a 3D game, leaves you with just the bare essentials and keeps it simple for you so that you can choose what kind of player you want to be and what kind of game you want to play.

Is the game perfect? I mean, is it genuinely flawless? No, and we’ll have another article in a few months (once the hype has worn down) looking at some of the things that could be improved upon, but none of the flaws managed to diminish my pure enjoyment of the game. Breath of the Wild is the largest, deepest, most robust, tightly-put-together game experience I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across in thirty years of gaming. Just as A Link to the Past perfected the 2D Zelda formula, and just as Ocarina of Time established the 3D Zelda formula, Breath of the Wild has perfected the “open world” genre and established a new “standard” for Zelda games.

10/10 – Breath of the Wild is Switch’s first killer app and deserves to stand alongside the very very best in the series.

Buy it now and, if you can, look to the future and buy it on Switch.

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