It’s been months since I touched this article, having mentally divorced myself from Breath of the Wild and being unable to wrap up this series. That being said, for whatever reason I’ve stumbled upon a bout of motivation to complete it – perhaps due to the fact that I inadvertently wore my Breath of the Wild t-shirt today? Who knows! But here we are. This is a few months late and for that I do apologize. I hope part 4 lives up to the rest of the series!
If you haven’t reach the first three parts in my Breath of the Wild Critique, please read them first so you’re reading this in the right context:
I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on this series, and for the most part it’s been pointing out the flaws that I saw in Breath of the Wild. As one of the biggest Zelda fans probably in the known universe and most likely even beyond that, I am a harsh critic, but I consider myself a fair one.
In the months following the initial hype around Breath of the Wild, I’ve watched it all fizzle out to bearable levels, to a point where I feel like I can properly wrap up this seemingly endless discussion on it.
As an avid watcher of Let’s Plays on YouTube, I’ve enjoyed watching gameplay videos of some older Zelda games – Link to the Past especially, as well as the cousin, A Link Between Worlds. Games that I love to see if I can’t play them myself, or when I’m playing something else. Something about those games, all Zelda games to me, feel good to see happening before me.
I’ve read nostalgia-inducing pieces about Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. A few years ago when I live-streamed on Twitch with no shirt on for some reason, I made it my goal to beat every Zelda game on stream. I made it through all the games I had never started and/or finished, and had an absolute blast doing it. Those games are now some of my favorites, and I played them the most recently, so it’s not about rose-colored glasses from being a kid. They were all equally packed with that indescribable charm that makes Zelda what it is, and they stuck with me.
All of these games still ring a bell within me that take me right back to when I played them. It doesn’t matter if I was a kid at the time or if I last played them two years ago, like with Majora’s Mask 3D, or The Minish Cap. Nor does it matter when I think about them or hear a clip of the soundtrack. They all hold a special place in my heart, and I think about them often. Every other game I enjoy, I subconsciously compare to those experiences. Which is why it’s strange to me and nearly bothers me that Breath of the Wild doesn’t have that effect in the slightest. It all boils down to the game not feeling like a Zelda game, which was the main complaint I had in the first place.
In my previous three installments, I went pretty deep into the weaknesses of Breath of the Wild, criticizing the sheer scale of the map and how it removed all the rewards of a Zelda game and replaced it with “freedom.” I discussed my general game play loop, and how it got too repetitive after a while, even with all the things you can do in the land of Hyrule. Crushing enemies and beating shrines became routine, and watching the same boring cutscenes over and over to an uninspired copy and paste mini-dungeon with a simple puzzle could no longer hold my attention. I still look back and see these design choices as signs of a rushed deadline to meet the release of the Switch.
Of course, part of being a fair critic is pointing out the strengths in something, even if they’re scattered across a sea of weaknesses. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, after all. While the list of complaints I had may be large, I still have a deep respect and appreciation for what Breath of the Wild did right. Hopefully I can shine some light on those things, as a way to wrap up my critique in the most positive way possible.
A Change in Story Telling
I’ve made it no secret that I’m simply not a big fan of dialogue in video games. I’m a bit of a twitchy freak myself, and sitting idle for too long allows for the circus in my head to run wild and eventually take over my body, landing me in the hospital with something broken, or in the best case scenario, simply under arrest.
Breath of the Wild took the traditional method of storytelling that Zelda games employ and turned it upside down. Right off the bat, you are given the order to Destroy Ganon before he escapes Hyrule Castle in which he is confined and takes over the world. The typical slow-burn Zelda storytelling is absent, however, you can learn much about the history that led up to present day via collecting Captured Memories. This sort of “optional” storytelling is much appreciated and complements the style of the open world game. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the style of Metroid Prime, wherein scanning Chozo architecture would yield bits and pieces of history of the world around you.
There’s also the Champions themselves and learning of their plight. While these are, again, relatively optional in the sense that they aren’t needed to beat Ganon, it’s still a nice “light reading” chunk of storytelling goodness that fits the game beautifully. After all – if the player can run anywhere they want right off the bat?
The only required part of the story that is required to take in, is the Old Man, who turns out to be the spirit of the late King of Hyrule! Even visiting Impa and learning about the Champions and the Divine Beasts is technically optional story. Personally, I didn’t even visit Impa until I was a fair amount of hours into the game as I was having too much fun exploring the massive world.
Of course, if you read the first three parts of this series, you’ll know that this is where I ran into some snags. However, that’s not to say that I didn’t highly appreciate Nintendo’s attempt here – merely that I think better things could have been done with it to stay traditional to the franchise.
One Big, Open World
Considering the gaming industry had already beaten the open world horse to death even at the point of the initial reveal, taking a leap towards a full open world environment in a well-established franchise was a gamble for Nintendo. Following the earliest announcements of Breath of the Wild, that was the greatest fear amongst fans like myself: turning the beloved Zelda franchise into a mere clone of the dozens of other huge open world games with all flash and no substance. I think this is particularly true of the older “got stuff to do” crowd, as spending over 100 hours in one game is essentially a 4 to 5 month commitment, and with a brand new fancy console, surely there’d be more releases on the horizon. I won’t speak for everyone, but when it comes to committing to playing a gigantic game, I avoid commitment like an 18-year-old guy who broke it off with his highschool girlfriend and got accepted to a college with a 7-to-1 female-to-male ratio.
Still though – wanting to avoid seeing my favorite franchise mutate into what had seemingly overnight turned into my most loathed genre, I was nervous. But the game still looked interesting, the Switch groundbreaking, and I was getting it either way.
Nintendo knew what they were doing, and in the mind of series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, it was a backwards leap to the original Legend of Zelda formula: an attempt to go back to their roots. “Here’s the world, go have fun!” And for that I have a tremendous level of respect.
Let me be honest – there were many, many moments of early-game Breath of the Wild that took my breath away, cheesy idioms aside. Leaving the first shrine and wandering into the open world, that first view, doing a full 360 degree spin to see endless possibilities was as incredible a feeling as it was overwhelming.
Obtaining the paraglider was a feeling of victory that only a Zelda game could give me. The first time coasting thousands of meters only to end up in the middle of nowhere, excitedly asking myself “what next!?” is a blast and I probably thought those words thousands of times in my playthrough. This is an example of those victory moment of getting an item in a Zelda game that allow you to proceed. I’ll get more into that later.
The physics sandbox that Nintendo was able to develop was exactly what the players were promised, and they 100% delivered on that promise. No arguments here – the engine itself is very well built and I don’t think there’s a single thing about the physics that can be critiqued, except by maybe Sir Isaac Newton himself. I heard he’s a nerd for that kind of stuff. I don’t think you can whack a boulder four times with a sword and then send all the energy at once to blast it into the sky while you ride atop it. Although I haven’t tried, so what do I know?
The first time I lit a field on fire and deployed my paraglider to escape purely on instinct and muscle memory was one of the coolest feelings ever. Escaping from certain death by shield-surfing down a snowy mountain only to accidentally plummet 200 feet off a cliff and die immediately anyway had me in absolute stitches. When was the last time a game got you to excitedly yell at the TV in a moment of victory or failure? For me, it had been years, and following Breath of the Wild, it probably will be several more years!
The atmosphere of Breath of the Wild was never it’s shortcoming – in fact, nothing huge about the game is what I would consider a shortcoming, except for the hugeness itself. It always boiled down to a lot of small issues becoming a big one, but the world of Hyrule that Nintendo was able to create was so monstrous, so vast, that I can’t help but feel like they had only been held back by hardware limitations al these years. This – this – is the world they really wanted Link to wander around in all these years. And for that, I am grateful that they were finally able to accomplish that and make it work for them.
What’s Next for Link?
Like any huge developer, Nintendo re-uses their game engines quite frequently. Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks were built on the same engine. Both the original and the 3D remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are on the same engine. And of course, A Link Between Worlds and Triforce Heroes – yup, you guessed it. Same engine.
If I were a betting man, I’d say that given the massive development hell that Breath of the Wild went through, Nintendo won’t be straying too far from the open-world concept, but at the very least I think it’s safe to assume that it’ll be kept on the same engine. It would simply have been a bad investment not to do so, although I feel like the outcome has already paid for itself several times over.
What can we expect from the next game on Breath of the Wild‘s engine? Well for one, I’d like to see a departure from the open world formula. But hear me out for a second.
I believe that one of the core strengths of Zelda games is that it gives the illusion of a big open world in which to have an adventure, despite the fact that most of it is blocked off to the player. The difference is that it rewards the player with those “a-ha!” moments that allow them to press further on. So giving the player 10% of a world to play around in, no matter what the size of the whole world, is enough to whet the appetite of the player – to make them want to explore and earn the right to the next section.
I have always maintained that the Hookshot (or Clawshot, depending on the game) is the best item ever, in any Zelda game. Not only are the possibilities endless for such a practical tool, but still to this day I find myself walking around in real life, thinking, “man, if only I had a Hookshot, I could shoot up to the top of that building and look around.”
The things about Zelda games are that once you have played enough of them, minor inconveniences only serve to motivate you to explore – “oh, I’ll come back here when I get the Boomerang!” In the next Zelda game, one of the key changes that I hope Nintendo employs is the removal of the concept of receiving all of your tools up front that you will need to finish the game. To be honest, it simply didn’t feel as epic when you can take your three heart-having self and explore the whole world right from the start. I think it would have taken a lot of metaphorical wind out of the King of Red Lion’s sail had he known he didn’t have to cart you around everywhere when you had all the skills you needed all along.
And I know, I know – initially, you can only explore the Great Plateau, but I don’t think that really counts as a hard-set limit.
To this day, I believe Twilight Princess was one of the most perfectly designed Zelda games out there. I played it on GameCube only a few years ago, and it stands out as being a darker game, but the world always felt massive. Kakariko Village, Hyrule Field, flippin’ Lake Hylia that looked so absolutely gorgeous and was just crammed with things to do.
In my opinion, what Zelda games thrive on and what the next installment needs is the feeling of open world, while not being totally open world. Without those barriers and the adrenaline moments where you realize oh! I can get there now, Zelda games simply become a good adventure game with a guy in a green tunic.
And before you think that blocking off players isn’t the way to go, think about literally any Zelda game from A Link to the Past and onward: those built-in blockades are the major plot points that get the player curious and engaged. It requires you to think in ways that you may think in the real world. Take a look at some of these examples:
- In Ocarina of Time, you need to sneak into Zelda’s castle. Only you can’t get there because the old farm hand Talon has fallen asleep and is in the way. This sets off a whole chain of events to that ends with you obtaining and hatching a chicken.
- In Twilight Princess, Zora’s Domain is totally frozen over. You explore and eventually stumble upon a giant lava rock that needs to be teleported to melt it defrost all of the Zora people.
- In Link’s Awakening, you cannot reach a book in a library, and you need to obtain it to figure out how to enter the next Dungeon. Link needs to wear the Pegasus Boots and dash into the wall to knock it down.
If you’re a Zelda fan and you’ve played any combination of these games, I’m sure you remember these moments fairly well. That “gotcha!” moment is what defines Zelda games to me, and I think the small batches of them in Breath of the Wild found within the Shrines were highly ineffective. In my previous parts, I talked about lowering the number of Shrines but increasing the size and difficulty, fully exploring each mechanic as it is introduced. It’s been a few months, but I still think this is generally a good idea.
I’m excited to see where they take the franchise next. Truthfully, I’m hoping Nintendo pulls a Majora’s Mask and completely changes the theme and game style. The three-day cycle was a huge difference in the gameplay loop and it worked beautifully. Some kind of time manipulation would be very cool, but overall, I’d like to see a return to the classic Zelda formula that I know and love.
For this old head, I had my doubts from the beginning, and I’m overall proud to say that Nintendo proved me wrong. They successfully built an impossibly massive world from scratch and captivated millions of fans. While I thought the final product was ridden with signs of rushed development presumably to meet the Switch launch date, Nintendo’s laid the groundwork and done the heavy lifting for an incredible sequel some day down the line. I hope each and every person who bought it enjoyed it, because it was a valiant effort to get back in the good graces of the fans.
While you and the next person may want another open world, I’m personally hoping they tone down the scale a bit and go back to the slow-burn, story-centric Zelda formula that I know and love. The Zelda franchise has taught us that Time can be a very fluid concept, but in our world, only time can tell which direction they’ll take our Hero next.