In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time crafted the template that Zelda games would follow for almost twenty years. Though each game in the series has had its own flair, such as Wind Waker’s high seas adventure or Skyward Sword’s more linear progression, the series has stayed true to the formula laid down by this classic. Until Breath of the Wild. The newest Zelda game represents the first true revision to the series’ formula since 1998, rearranging how the game treats previously key aspects like items, dungeons, and even the overworld. Breath of the Wild, much like Ocarina of Time, does not necessarily reinvent the franchise, but it does assert a new identity.
Although most Zelda games emphasize exploration in some kind of open world, the stories that unfold are always linear tales. Breath of the Wild changes this drastically as the main story is hardly present. After a few hours of introductory gameplay, players receive a goal that feels imperative, but after this moment the player is free to go anywhere and do anything in the world they want. Because the game is incredibly nonlinear, the events of the “main story” are arranged to accommodate this. As a result, the mainline narrative and side stories that players discover for themselves become intertwined in a way that they weren’t in past games. This gives an increased credence to “side” activities as they manage to feel genuinely important to the world at large. At the same time, the unfolding of events just isn’t as important in a narrative sense.
This design has some pros and cons. While the freedom to approach the world feels incredible, it does mean that moments that shock or move you don’t tend to have the same kind of impact. There is no moment like Ocarina of Time’s seven year time leap into a dark future. There is no character like Midna in Twilight Princess who you grow with and come to feel a deep connection for over the course of the journey. You get flashes of story through Link’s memories, but these feel like backstory rather than true narrative events.
The moment when you get a bow in a Zelda game is a big deal. Sure you’ve had a sword since the beginning and the slingshot or boomerang may be serviceable tools for long range combat, but there’s something about the bow that makes Link’s toolset feel complete. In Breath of the Wild you pick up a bow from the remains of an enemy bokoblin with next to no fanfare. This just goes to show that Breath of the Wild approaches items with a significantly different philosophy. While it is sad that there is no hookshot (why is that by the way?), and that boomerangs are more like a fragile melee tool than an ever present combat alternative, the result is a much more free-flowing system of combat and puzzle solving.
In previous games, items were generally treated as progression tools. You are unable to complete a certain task until you have the boomerang or the bombs. In order to facilitate Breath of the Wild’s freedom of exploration, the game presents you with all the tools you need within the first few hours. Physical items are replaced by the utility of the Sheikah Slate which can produce bombs, exert magnetic energies, create ice pillars out of water, or freeze items in stasis. This all but removes previous Zelda games’ notion of progression, and replaces it with a personal sense of gaining knowledge as you learn how to use these tools in new ways.
If you were to ask me what the core design element of a Zelda game was before Breath of the Wild I would have said the dungeons. In every game since A Link to the Past, these lairs have been the series’ true proving grounds. The atmosphere is heavy, enemies are tough, and puzzles designed around ingenious themes and concepts abound. Highlights like the utterly haunting Forest temple from Ocarina of Time or the mind-bending Sky Keep from Skyward Sword end up being the most memorable aspects of the franchise. Occupying these almost claustrophobic spaces for extended periods of time are essential to their mythos.
Breath of the Wild fundamentally alters the way dungeons play. The central conceit of the Zelda dungeon, a focused location for creative puzzle solving, is retained in the 120+ shrines scattered across Hyrule. Rather than being climactic, hours-long projects that the game builds up to however, these shrines are brief but satisfying exercises in logic puzzles or combat. While traditional dungeons tended to be built around manipulating a single concept in creative ways, like controlling water levels in a submerged temple, shrines test players on anything from the game’s physics engine, to manipulation of an exploration tool, to pure logic in a condensed time period.
While shrines provide the essence of a puzzle-solving atmosphere in brief stints, Breath of the Wild starts to approximate more traditional dungeon design with the four Divine Beasts. However, though these employ some interesting ideas, like the ability to twist the environment on its side (turning walls into ceilings and vice versa), they are still quite short. None of them took me much longer than a half hour to run through. You also aren’t exposed to any new gameplay ideas within each Divine Beast, just a slightly more intricate way of manipulating the game world. They feel like big shrines. As a result, they don’t feel like the centerpiece moments like the dungeons of old. While this is at first disappointing, it becomes clear that long dungeon sequences would detract from the pacing and focus of Breath of the Wild’s central aspect: exploring Hyrule.
So Breath of the Wild doesn’t use story, items, or dungeons in the traditional Zelda sense. What then does it capture that makes the game feel so quintessentially Zelda? It’s actually quite simple: the world. The game’s world isn’t just a great example of open world gaming, it’s a fantastic distillation of almost everything Zelda. More than anything, this franchise is about experiencing another world, about being fully immersed in the fantasy. Whether you’re sailing a vast ocean, soaring through the sky, or walking through an open field, the true connection between games has never been its mechanics or design, but the sense of adventure that is utterly undeniable.
Breath of the Wild doubles down on this essence by granting players total ownership of that adventure. The main story, while engaging at times, is less important than the smaller stories that you discover or create for yourself. Progression is less about finding a new item and more about learning new ways to approach scenarios. The dense atmosphere of extended dungeons is sacrificed so that the game’s brisk sense of exploration is never halted for too long. Each thing the game foregoes from Zelda tradition becomes a strength. It is a powerful statement about the essence of the franchise and its enduring appeal. Unhindered by the series’ past, Breath of the Wild looks to the fun, exciting, and magical future.