How do you know you are in the presence of greatness? This question is key in evaluating Nintendo’s 2017 hit Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Awards and accolades piled up fast and furious. No debate is necessary for if Zelda BotW is a good game. The only question now is if Zelda cracks the classic video game status. Usually the test of time is the final hurdle for a game to move beyond the hype and into the classic realm.
In recent months, several video game news outlets have released their opinion of the top video games of all time. Current consoles lack entries, largely because it is hard to separate hype and quality. The highest entries hail from the 90s and early 2000s.
Does Zelda: Breath of the Wild have what it takes to be one of the best, or is it largely Nintendo hype?
You awaken on in an unfamiliar place. Shaking off the cobwebs in the mind, you stumble outside of a mysterious cave. Only seconds have passed and game lets go of your hand. You are on your own. Shock and amazement rush over as I began wondering where the obnoxious tutorial character was to train me for hours on how to swing my sword or crawl. As I peered out upon the vast open world, I noticed an old man sitting by a fire. Figuring he might be that character, I cautiously approached him. Instead of detailed direction, he provides only a possible destination to explore.
Of course, my hubris took over and I ignored his direction. I began to explore and experiment. Thus began my failure. For most video games failure is punished. Death in games brings lost lives, progress, or even having to start the game over again. With no consequences, players are thought to recklessly throw lives at a problem. No skill is required and thus no challenge. Breath of the Wild embraces failure all while requiring skill to overcome intense challenges. How does it manage it?
My first moments of freedom ended by falling to my death. Noted, falling equals death. Lives 2, 3, 4, and 5 all ended in epic falls too. Damn reincarnation! Link must have thought he could fly from previous lives (games). Climbing down from a tower became an experiment. I tested strategy after strategy until I discovered a successful way to not fall. Each failure went largely unpunished and quickly returned Link to moments before the catastrophe. Failure was the tutorial. The best tutorial I have experienced.
With all the freedom comes some responsibility. Nintendo does not just let the player have access to everything right at the beginning. Link begins on the Great Plateau. There you have to complete four small dungeons, called shrines, before the player can escape the Plateau. This does not feel restrictive as the Plateau is huge and has many areas to explore. On a second play through, I found a mini boss on the Plateau that I completely missed the first time. I thought I had been thorough, but even then, I missed several areas. Once you complete the Plateau, you have complete freedom to pursue any goal or object on the horizon that you dream.
The story, like virtually everything in Breath of the Wild, is optional. The foundation of the story is laid out by the old man found on the Great Plateau. As he releases you into the vast wild, he shares the background of the battle you now undertake. The rest of the story is layered in photos, hidden destination points, and defeating the Great Beasts. The story is well done and gives context to the journey, but is not central to the quest.
Breath of the Wild boils down to two questions. How much do you want to explore and experience? How buffed up do you want to be before the final fight? The answer to these two questions will answer how much you explore within the game. With the necessary skills, players do not need to experience the entire map. Other players can spend well over 200 hours exploring every nook and cranny to find hidden items and Shrines.
Exploration and gameplay are the stars of Breath of the Wild. The map is large enough to take hours to traverse the entire field. Fast travel is possible instantly, but when skipping ahead gorgeous views are missed. Traveling on horseback is ideal and controls well. This balances the speed and exploration. Shield surfing is another slick way to quickly travel down any hill. My favorite form of travel was the para-glider. I would climb the tallest peak in the area and then leap off. Soaring over the landscape, I would survey the terrain to know where I wanted to stop and explore. I often warped simply to be high enough to leap into the wind.
Shrines are the dungeons of Breath of the Wild. Most are relatively short and focus on a single concept or challenge. Shrines fall into several categories. The first trains the player to use items in a new way. One ability is creating ice blocks in the water. Many shrines would use this mechanism and show the player new ways to incorporate this ability. For example, I did not realize ice blocks could be created in waterfalls until a shrine showed me that possibility. The second type of shrine pits Link vs a difficult enemy. In these shrines, the game is training the player in combat. The controlled single enemy environment aids in practicing dodging, jumping, and when to attack. The final type of shrines are “free” shrines that only have a chest inside. Many of these shrines are not free however as they come at the end of a quest or challenge. Pass through a difficult labyrinth and discover the “free” shrine at the center as your reward.
Each item and resource feels like it is multipurpose tool. Secondary functions only revealed when experimenting with in things like cooking. The inter-layered gameplay brings joy as players discover it. A prime example is hunting. As you roam the map, you will discover wild animals. These animals are not just beautiful to look at, but can be hunted and killed. When you have slayed the creature, meat will spawn in their place. This meat is consumed to earn back hearts. Scattered throughout the land are campfires with pots to cook in. Using the meat, and other items, players can cook up new and unique dishes. These dishes will often restore hearts, but can grant special abilities. One such dish will protect players from overheating. Other dishes protect from the cold. Many animals are not just to hunt, but can also be ridden. Grab on to a moose or elk and ride it like there is no tomorrow! Feeling especially adventurous, then hop on a bear for the Hummer of rides. These layered and multipurpose uses of game elements take Zelda to another level.
Epic boss battles have been a staple of Zelda over the years. Breath of the Wild continues this tradition in a unique way. The game contains five central boss fights. Four divine beasts and the final Boss. No boss fight was overly complicated or difficult. I beat each one in the first or second try. The battles may lack the challenge for players who have completed the majority of shrines and prepared food, they make up for it in their epic scale. Each battle felt incredible in scope and created a sense of awe.
For those glutton for punishment, Breath of the Wild supplies mini boss fights to challenge your skill. None is more intimidating than the Lynel with its incredible range and powerful attacks. And yes, you can mount them if you want to live dangerously. Other mini bosses can also present a challenge on a smaller scale. Hinox are large trolls that are relatively easy to avoid and hit from a distance. Stone Talus have a smaller target on their back that are vulnerable to bombs. Hitting that spot though is easier said than done.
The graphical style is a blend of the real and cartoon. Characters are often done in a detailed cell shaded style. The outlandish characters distract for a moment, but their personality fits well into the world. The overall art style should hold up well overtime as the character models should age better than a photo realistic look would have. The landscape on the other hand is a polished realistic landscape. I marveled at each vista’s beauty. Nintendo did a superb job to harness the graphical power of the Wii U and Switch with a perfect art style that rivals the most beautiful HD games today.
Rarely does a game come along that is so well polished that it becomes an instant classic. Zelda: Breath of the Wild manages to accomplish this feat through incredible gameplay and holding on to the heart of Zelda, exploration. Nintendo has managed to eliminate the bane of gamer existence, tutorials, all while training players in the necessary skills to complete the game. The astonishing vistas and majestic creatures inspire wonder in players as they seek to discover every mystery and secret held within the lands of Hyrule. This game truly is a masterpiece that serves as a seminal point for game design going forward. Play Breath of the Wild. If you have played it, go back and enjoy it again.