Why 'Breath of the Wild' is a Game Changer for 'Zelda'

Why 'Breath of the Wild' is a Game Changer for 'Zelda'

The 'Zelda' series' future has never looked brighter. Nintendo

In the Switch's history-making launch title, Link awakens to a whole new set of rules

In the Switch's history-making launch title, Link awakens to a whole new set of rules

Breath of the Wild begins with an all-black screen, foregoing the traditional cinematic intro and startup menu we've come to expect from the series. It offers only one instruction: press A to start. "Open your eyes," a voice calls to you. "Wake up." A burst of heavenly light fills the frame and ushers you into the game world. Our hero, Link, coming out of a hundred-year slumber, emerges from a tank of luminous blue liquid. This isn't the Legend of Zelda players have come to expect after three decades; this is something different, new, and strange.

It can't be an accident that the first person you meet in this installment is a bearded "Old Man" seated beside a campfire, same as the 1986 Legend of Zelda. Everyone knows the famous line: "It's dangerous to go alone!" The Old Man in Breath of the Wild is someone else entirely, but he fills a similar role in helping you get your bearings before setting off into the larger world of Hyrule. It's an exceedingly big Hyrule this time around, though, and that's where things get interesting. One might accuse Nintendo of arriving late to the open-world party, but few games are as unbelievably ambitious and well-executed as this one, so it's hard to fault them for waiting to get it right. The Wind Waker employed elements of an open world with fantastic results in 2002, of course, and that game remains a high point for the series – except that most of its surface area was water. Now, more than 14 years later, Hyrule has not only left its mark on the genre but also redefined it.

This title has in spades what far too many open-world games lack altogether: a sense of discovery. In something like Minecraft or No Man's Sky, the environment is procedurally generated, and therefore unknowable, fostering an experience based around exploration and resource gathering. In Breath of the Wild, it's all by design – a finely tuned clock that was four years in the making – but it never feels as though you're having the same experience as somebody else. The map is simply too vast, and your options too numerous, for the game to operate on the sort of invisible railway system that hinders so many of today's blockbuster games.

...there's a sublime, underlying sense of logic and consistency that permeates every corner of the game in a way past Zelda games have never attempted...

Take, for instance, Grand Theft Auto V and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Because the developers of those games are so dedicated to telling the particular story that they want to tell, from cutscenes to bits of spoken dialogue along the way, there's little breathing room for players to push beyond the narrow laundry list of tasks laid out for them and just take a moment to get lost in their virtual worlds. Lara Croft is a highly accomplished mountain climber, as we see time and again in various ludicrous set pieces, but try to climb someplace the game doesn't want you to and the only thing you'll manage to do is plummet several hundred feet to a messy and sudden death. Michael De Santa's a flawed audience surrogate whom we relate to as adults acting out violent, despicable fantasies in Rockstar's satirical Michael Mann playground, but he does pretty much exactly what the writers want him to every step of the way.

Breath of the Wild reinforces my belief that games benefit from a more leisurely pace – a pace set not by the game but by the player. (Bethesda's Fallout 4 and Skyrim set the standard for how to strike this balance; no doubt Nintendo took notes.) Imagine how much games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, or even 2016's Doom, would have benefitted from even occasional moment of stillness, where the threats are out there, but you're able to retreat and take a breath once in a while. You ought to be able to appreciate the beauty of play – of the sandbox experience and its characteristic sights and sounds – without having your fingers constantly on both triggers, heart rate elevated.

Granting players the freedom to control the flow and pace of the game is an enormously powerful way to create a sense of the intimate: this is my own personal experience in this iteration of Hyrule, and it'll be unique to me alone. Nobody else is seeing this precise version of the Legend. It's like the dynamic changes in a piece of music – lengthy songs with movements and variations are inherently more interesting, and often far more beautiful, than shorter songs with fewer changes and fewer distinct sections. This is especially true when that music is improvised.

Here's a game that's all about improvisation. Like Fallout 4 and No Man's Sky, it takes as many cues from the survival-game genre as it does from classic open worlds like those in Morrowind or Red Dead Redemption. As you move through this new Hyrule, you'll find yourself paying more and more attention to things like Link's body temperature, how much noise you're making, and whether or not you've got enough food and elixirs on hand to survive the hazards of the wilderness. You no longer collect little floating hearts to replenish your health; you'll have to forage for ingredients like mushrooms, raw meat, and spices, then find a fire to cook them. Cooking's a joyful minigame mechanic, and it becomes fairly intuitive after minimal trial and error, but you have to remember to do it.

Even getting from point A to point B on the map requires creativity and mindfulness; beyond the ones you set yourself, waypoints are scarce, when you're given them at all, and Hylians don't have the luxury of GPS to guide their every step. Each new objective is a learning experience, and each expedition forces you to make efficient use of the knowledge you've gained in your travels. When you explore a Shrine or take on the challenge of recovering one of the Divine Beasts (this game's twist on the more traditional Zelda dungeons and temples), you can't afford to forget the various "Sheikah Runes" or other abilities you've learned thus far. The puzzle design simply won't hold your hand.

And let's not pretend like the controls don't become maddeningly overcomplicated when you remove them from the overworld context and put them into a boss fight. Trying to manage Rune abilities, archery, and sword-and-shield tactics against one of Ganon's deadly blight monstrosities can be an overwhelming juggling act, and you might find yourself momentarily hating the game for making you feel so frustrated in what is otherwise a perfectly devised, wholly original dungeon.

Thankfully, there's a sublime, underlying sense of logic and consistency that permeates every corner of the game in a way past Zelda games have never attempted, and that's where the magic truly lies. Everything you've done informs your sense of what might come next, and you can always bet on using an item or skill again and again; this isn't Ocarina of Time, where you use a special tool throughout a given dungeon and then throw it in your inventory, never to be used again. But it's your own mistakes and successes that become your greatest resource. Who needs Navi or Midna to tell you what a screw-up you are? You won't soon forget the 15 minutes you spent scaling a mountain just to be felled with a single arrow upon reaching the summit. You'll be sure to try something else next time.

It's in these moments – failing to cut down a tree to form a bridge across a frozen canyon and realizing you can still rock-climb your way to the destination from another path – where the game lets you feel like Princess Zelda's faith in you might not be misplaced after all. "You are the light – our light," she tells you as your adventure begins, "that must shine upon Hyrule once again."

The kingdom's future has never looked brighter.