Sonobe, Japan, late 1950s and early 1960s: A young boy named Shigeru spends his free time exploring the wilderness around his rural Kyoto town. One day he discovers a cave and, after days of hesitation, the boy finally decides to steel himself and explore the dark depths.
Two decades later, Shigeru Miyamoto would call upon his experiences in adventuring to inspire The Legend of Zelda. The original NES classic was a masterpiece in game design. With little guidance given, the player is tasked with searching every nook and cranny of Hyrule in their quest to reassemble the Triforce and defeat Ganon. Nearly the entire world was open to the player from the moment they booted the game up. It was entirely possible to find yourself surrounded by Lynels with only three hearts and a wooden sword. Or perhaps you would find an old man in a cave at the top of a waterfall with a white sword that you were not yet strong enough to wield. This nonlinearity allowed every player to have an adventure all their own. It was magic.
After 30 years, I am thrilled to state that The Legend of Zelda has finally received a direct sequel in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That may be a strange statement considering the fact there have in fact been 15 sequels to the original Legend of Zelda which predate Breath of the Wild, but hear me out. While every Zelda sequel has had elements of the original’s focus on exploration, each one has had an increasing focus on plot, lore, and world building.
Traditionally, telling an effective story in a game has usually meant more linear gameplay. In Ocarina of Time for instance, each area of Hyrule is opened up for exploration in conjunction with the story. Now, in Ocarina of Time this made sense; it was the first 3D Zelda title, and while the Hyrule of 1998 is tiny by today’s standards, it was downright daunting to gamers who were still new to 3D gaming. This brand of guided exploration became the norm for Zelda games. While I have enjoyed every 3D Zelda title none of them has quite managed to recapture the magical feeling of exploration had in the original.
Just like the original, Breath of the Wild drops the player into the land of Hyrule with only the cryptic guidance of an old man to see them on their way. The moment I stepped from the darkness of the Shrine in which Link awakens into the light I was greeted by a cliff overlooking a truly massive, gorgeous Hyrule. I teared up at the beauty. That’s not hyperbole, I mean I literally got misty-eyed. There was such a special feeling; adventure was on the wind I could see moving through the grass. It was a magical feeling that I had not felt since I was a kid.
That feeling has remained subtly omnipresent through the roughly 30 hours I have spent piecing together Link’s fragmentary memories of a century ago to prepare to face Calamity Ganon, the main quest of the game. This main quest was revealed to me after about five or six hours of exploring Hyrule. In that time, I had climbed to the top of a snow-capped mountain, met a royal ghost, met my end at the hands of a giant Hinox, tamed a couple wild horses, found a dragon on the shores of a lake, met my end at the hands of a golem-like creature, found countless ruins, and somehow managed to get myself killed by a Lynel (like a centaur, but with the head of a lion).
That’s the beauty of Breath of the Wild; the adventure is yours to write. There is guidance, and a handy quest tracker/map for when I finally felt ready to engage the story, but there were no well-meaning but obnoxious fairies or sword ladies interrupting by reckless adventuring. It was true freedom.
The game really drives home a feeling of taking your own survival into your hands. Enemies no longer drop hearts. If you want to replenish your health you better be ready to prepare meals with the food you have either hunted or gathered. When the weather gets cold, you will need to either light a torch, drink an elixir, or put on some warmer clothing. Your weapons will break, forcing you to keep your eyes open for new weapons (mostly those your enemies are using) and adjust your fighting strategy accordingly. Fortunately weapons are plentiful enough I never found myself empty handed.
What’s truly remarkable about the story of Breath of the Wild is that, though I played through it in my own way, at my own pace, and in my own sequence, it still managed to feel cohesive and even powerful. Unlike so many other open world games which sacrifice story focus in favor of player freedom, Breath of the Wild’s main quest feels worthwhile and well-paced. When it came time for me to face Ganon I was pumped to do so. The story built up the final clash so effectively, it felt every bit as epic as the final showdown with Ganon in Ocarina of Time.
Related to the game’s story, is the series’ first utilization of full voice acting in select cut scenes. The acting quality ranged from passable to genuinely great. Overall I would say the game benefits from giving a voice to (almost) all the main characters. Rest assured Link remains silent and the series quirky written dialogue accompanied by sounds remains intact.
One of the most notable changes in Breath of the Wild are the dungeons. Or lack thereof. There are only four dungeons in the game (not counting the Ganon’s lair) and they lack any of the familiar conventions found in past games. Filling the void left by the lack of dungeons are the 120 shrines scattered through Hyrule. These act as micro dungeons—usually only taking 5-10 minutes to complete—which reward the player with Spirit Orbs that can be traded for Heart Containers or Stamina Vessels. The puzzles are fresh and genuinely had me scratching my head a few times. Many of them can be solved with different methods making each time I cracked one feel like a genuine accomplishment.
The new game structure works to really encourage exploration, and I have never enjoyed exploration in a game more. Hyrule is, simply put, magical. The little details, such as the wildlife, the sounds they make, the beautifully unobtrusive soundtrack, the wind, and the seemingly endless surprise discoveries work together to make a world that truly does feel alive. I’ve found myself riding my horse with no real aim, just enjoying the scenery (if you are on a road, the steed steers itself allowing the player to relax).
I can’t remember the last time a game world has been beautiful and vibrant enough to make me want to simply experience it. In that sense, Breath of the Wild managed to make me feel like a boy exploring the wildlands of Sonobe, Japan. That’s why I say it is The Legend of Zelda’s first direct sequel. It is the first game to fully recapture and elaborate on the feeling of exploration found in the original. It is a truly singular game, and I can say Nintendo has returned to their top form, a form they have not managed to reach for a few years. There are some nitpicks, such as the framerate, which sputters from time to time or some inventory management gripes, but they are so negligible they barely bear mentioning. Breath of the Wild is as close to perfection as gaming gets.
+Beautiful art design
+Vibrant, open world
+Incredible sound design
+Actual, honest to goodness, difficulty
-Occasional framerate sputter
-Inventory management system is slightly cumbersome
10 out 10
Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece. That is all.