Nintendo turned an established genre on its head when it released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild earlier this year, proving that it’s still one of the most influential developers around. We may never be able to look at open-world games the same way again, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone will be able to match, let alone top, what is being hailed by many to be one of the greatest games ever made.
To many longtime Zelda fans, there are reasons to fight back against Breath of the Wild’s design because it veers hard and fast away from tradition. To them I say: “forget this is a Zelda game.” Breath of the Wild has Link, Zelda, and Ganon–the usual suspects–but Nintendo has an established history of putting familiar characters in unfamiliar scenarios to test out new gameplay concepts, and Breath of the Wild is no different; it’s just the first experimental Zelda game to veer this far off the deep-end. You can’t blame anyone for feeling caught off-guard.
On the other hand, the element of surprise is also a key reason why Breath of the Wild made the rest of us fall in love. There has never been a game so entrenched in exploration and open-ended problem solving, let alone one within the Zelda series. Many months after the game’s release, we are still seeing new solutions to old problems pop up on forums and social networks. Even the game’s developers are routinely surprised by what they’ve created.
This unusual reality stems from Breath of the Wild’s multiplicative gameplay model–a major factor in the game’s overall success. When in the past we’ve been accustomed to strict definitions of how and when two objects in a game can interact, Breath of the Wild employs something closer to laws of nature. Have an arrow slung in your bow? Walk up to a fire to light the end, shoot it at an enemy with a wooden shield and watch it and the grass around them catch fire. Of course, an enemy could come from behind and force you to run towards the flames (which are quickly spreading to nearby brush), but you can always jump and whip out your glider to soar out of harm’s way, using the hot air from the flames to create lift. Rather than an escape, this is a moment of opportunity, as you can trigger a slow-motion phase in mid air and square up a follow-up arrow pointed directly at your enemies forehead. This is but one of a seemingly endless number of possible scenarios, a reality that makes even an aimless trek through Hyrule feel like an adventure into the unknown, whether you’ve spent 10 or 100 hours in the game.
Of course, Link isn’t the only one capable of intelligent decision making. The enemies you face will surprise you with their adaptability and calculated reactions. They also scale with you over the course of the game, growing stronger and more capable over time. When faced with a powerful enemy, your reflexes and creativity become paramount. Part of this is because weapons have finite durability and cannot be repaired, meaning you need to rely on your wits just as often as your blades.
Destructible weapons have turned out to be a controversial design choice; no doubt because Zelda games traditionally make each and every piece of equipment you acquire feel special. You may find that you become attached to a particular weapon in Breath of the Wild, too, and you can, if you like, put it on a plaque in a house and leave it there to admire down the road. But weapons are meant to be used, and in the course of your journey you will go through hundreds of them. And yes, you will at times find yourself unarmed, but that rarely means defeat in the mind of a capable and confident player. Breath of the Wild loathes comfort. It wants you to struggle. And the things you learn as a matter of consequence instill you with a newfound confidence in what you–the player–bring to the table. Video games have trained us to rely on tools to solve problems, but by shattering these tools when you need them the most, Breath of the Wild reveals how limiting and primitive the old way of thinking actually is.
Likewise, so many games express a desire to give you something to do at all times, but Breath of the Wild rewards you in small but meaningful ways for simply taking part in an average moment. When immersed in the world after time spent exploring and battling enemies, “empty” scenes are markedly tranquil. So much effort is put into making you feel like a piece of a larger-than-life world, one that, like our own, is beyond total comprehension, that a simple scene like cresting a grassy hill to catch the sunrise just as a flock of herons takes flight is enough to make you take pause and appreciate the gravity and beauty of the world around you. And rather than fill your ears with complex orchestration, Breath of the Wild’s most poignant moments are smartly accentuated with a few well-timed piano plinks.
Even when nature is trying to kill you in Breath of the Wild, there are moments that make you appreciative of being able to take part in it at all. Link is an incredibly capable explorer and will climb almost anything you put in front of him. But when you find yourself slipping down a cliff during rainfall, you may need to take shelter on a nearby outcropping and wait out the rain. Too wet to start a fire and pass the time automatically, you have no choice but to reflect on the world around you. In a meditative moment, looking out on the vast and wild Hyrule kingdom, objectives fade as the memories of where you’ve been and dreams of what lays next enter your mind.
It’s a romantic take, but one that holds true if you open yourself up to it. Nintendo’s beautiful and challenging masterpiece deserves more words than we can commit to it here. Like the most meaningful and landmark games of the past, Breath of the Wild is a game that will be discussed and analyzed for years to come. Everyone agrees that 2017 was an amazing year for games, but none other than Breath of the Wild can be considered a milestone for the medium at large.