Admittedly, as an old Nintendo fanatic, I was worried about E3 this year. I was worried that Nintendo would finally drop the cannonball on the hull of its own ship by delaying Zelda again and, instead, might present a Mario Snapchat filter or a Donkey Kong-themed phone book. Boy, was I terribly, terribly wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And we’ve gotten to see gameplay ALL WEEK. Here’s just a teensy, weensy peak at the game:
I’ll admit it. I’ve been staggering over this thing all day, wondering how to begin this article. I suppose I should start by saying this game looks AMAZING! ARE YOU SERIOUS?! WOW!! THE WORLD’S SO BIG, THE GAME LOOKS GREAT, MY BLOOD PRESSURE IS SO HIG-
Sorry about that, folks. The past few hours have been a doozy. In the middle of my previous sentence, I succumbed to a severe case of fangirl mania in which I got a Triforce tattoo on my forehead and have been speaking exclusively Hylian for the last six hours. Needless to say, I’m still very excited for this game, and that’s because it seems like Nintendo has finally learned its lesson, not only from its past successes and failures, but from the successes of others.
Previously thought of as isolated as a raisin on Mars, Nintendo often had an aloof nature about it as exemplified by the existence of the Nintendo Wii, the N64 controller, or the character Birdo. This off-the-wall approach to gaming is what made Nintendo great in the first place because it lent itself to a factory of unique and fresh ideas. Though the outsider disposition has led to some of the most original titles, it has drawbacks as well. Nintendo has always shown hesitance in approaching the mainstream, and I would argue that this hesitance is why they cannot compete with the PS4 and Xbox One. But I have watched a few hours of gameplay from Breath of the Wild now and I’ve come to the surreal conclusion that the new Zelda demonstrates not just an understanding of what Nintendo games are popular, but what kinds of games are popular in general lately. Nintendo has implemented numerous elements of extra-nintendular (it’s in the dictionary, I promise) game series and genres to make a lovely quilt of a game. Or Frankenstein’s monster. If you prefer that metaphor, it’s all yours. So here are six elements of mainstream games that you’ll find in Breath of the Wild.
1) BIG World
As Link climbs and jumps up steep mountains, the player can see for miles and miles around–223 square miles, actually. Just to give you some perspective, that’s approximately ten times the size of real life Manhattan. And the horizon never dissolves into a cutscene or stops to load a new area. It’s all one, seamless expanse of rolling planes, red canyons, blustery mountains, calm rivers, ancient ruins, and HUNDREDS of shrines (i.e. the new term used for dungeon in Breath of the Wild). Zelda games have always boasted a comparatively large size next to their counterparts, but this is a whole different ball game. It’s been estimated that Breath of the Wild is 12 times the size of Twilight Princes, and that was not a small game by any means. But what to do with all this space? Well, it implements…
2) OPEN WORLD
Now you may be thinking, “Hey, wait just a dern second… Zelda’s ALWAYS been open world! What a bunch’a baloney! Can’t pull the wool over my eyes, bucko!” You’re not wrong. I’d argue that The Legend of Zelda for the NES is one of the first (if not the first) game to really encourage exploration in an open world, but only to an extent. In the Zelda series, one can always revisit old locations and move at your leisure to the next objective with plenty of optional side quests to keep things interesting. However, at the same time, there always is a next objective. There always is a correct answer to a dungeon puzzle. There’s always a very clear weakness on a boss that must be exploited. But Breath of the Wild seems to take it even further.
Much like a Bethesda game, Breath of the Wild drops you in the middle of a vast world and the amount of exposition/guidance you are given is sparse because the world is really yours to explore. Much of the gameplay I saw consisted of combat, but the way in which you were to defeat an enemy is a little more open-ended than the typical Zelda (which will be discussed in more detail later). And though Nintendo released precious little information regarding the actual story of Breath of the Wild, it seems to me that it may be of a non-linear nature, simply because I watched the beginning of the game followed by several hours of gameplay and I know that there are numerous ways to start the game, let alone complete it.
Now back in my day, games just told you who you are, what you’re doing, and how to do it, and if you decided to stray off the beaten path and do your own thing, the game would kill you. For example, in Pac-Man, you’re gonna eat dots or die. But now, with games finally being large and advanced enough to have a game solely based on the concept of self-determination and exploration, these open-ended games have really struck a powerful cord with modern audiences. And Breath of the Wild, with its truly huge and truly open world, is plucking that cord exceptionally well.
3) RPG Palooza
The Zelda series has skirted around the edge of being an RPG (role-playing game) for decades now, like a metal-legged child next to the deep end of a swimming pool. It has always had items that make your character more powerful, but it never introduced stats or skill levels. It always had expansive, free-to-roam worlds, but, as stated previously, there was only one way to finish the game. Though you often needed a bit of strategy and puzzle-solving skills to beat a Zelda game, it’s primary focus was on action and combat. But it never went all the way, always stopping short of the RPG threshold. However, RPGs have become increasingly popular in recent years, partially because this gameplay format lends itself to massive maps. Though Skyward Sword flirted with RPG elements such as collecting resources to upgrade major items and A Link Between Worlds removed the need to kill a dungeon boss in order to get an important item, it seem that Breath of the Wild looks like it is fully jumping in to the RPG pool.
First of all, though it is not apparent whether or not Link has stats beyond health and stamina, his weapons and armor do. Not only do they boast attack/defense strength, but weapon durability, weight, and augments such as “cold resistance” for exploration in frigid areas. This is an important development because, in previous titles, Link could never choose whether to wield the Kokiri Sword rather than the Master Sword. Once you got an upgrade, you ditched the less relevant item that you could only earn by undergoing great peril in a dungeon. You had to choose weapons when fighting enemies, sure, but you were constricted to Link’s current arsenal without any hope of changing it. Now things are different. In the first hour or so of gameplay, I saw Link attain several different weapons, be they swords, sticks, spears, axes, or bombs. For the first time, Link’s weapon set and apparel seem to be fully customizable, presenting a completely new approach to items that have been a staple in the Zelda series.
More importantly, Breath of the Wild seems to extrapolate on the item-building mechanic presented in Skyward Sword. Like any RPG, one finds “loot” scattered around the world that can either be consumed, traded, or crafted into new items including health potions or weapons. Additionally, Zelda seems to be adopting more survival gameplay aspects replacing the series’ classic hearts with cookable food for Link to regain health. Zelda has never had a crafting system before, but this is an important step in what I think is the right direction. Now some diehard fans may argue that finding, say, the Hookshot in a dirty barrel might be a little upsetting, and they would be right. Earning your next cool item by defeating an intimidating mini-boss made you appreciate the item quite a bit more, but I believe that major, game-changing items will be earned through other means rather than just random exploration. For example, the hang-glider advertised in the trailer is unlocked by giving an NPC three items that only can be obtained by clearing a “Shrine,” which is basically one of hundreds of miniature dungeon areas scattered around the map. Though I’m sure the game will have both new items and classic Zelda items, the customizable weapons and armor that Link finds along the way will offer variation in the gameplay so that no two people will have the same experience in a playthrough of Breath of the Wild.
4) COMPLEX COMBAT
The Zelda series has always been on top of its combat game. If you have ever used a “lock-on” function on an enemy in a video game, you have Ocarina of Time to thank for that. The Zelda combat formula is almost functionally perfect with a nice combination of timed blocking, puzzling enemies that require strategic item selection, and some pretty cool sword attacks – like jumping 20 feet in the air and stabbing Ganandorf in the top of the head in Wind Waker (spoiler alert). Though I have no complaints for combat in the Zelda series, that doesn’t mean there’s room for innovation because, regardless of how good the combat is, the mechanics are fairly bareboned and simple.
While I did get the sense that Breath of the Wild is holding on to classically “Zeldaesque” combat, the game appears to introduce new facets of gameplay that make for a more dynamic experience. Among these include stealth, diversion tactics, parrying, and, as mentioned before, new weapon options. But most importantly, the game seems to have developed smarter enemies. Though recent Zelda games have excelled in many ways, they seem to have lagged behind in enemy AI. Most of the enemies in the series seem to exist only to be diced to pieces by Link, but Bokoblins seem to have their own agenda. They are standing around cooking and minding their own business, but they are easily distracted. For example, Link can throw a projectile at them creating a diversion so he sneak up behind, or knock down a beehive to torment them while he barges in from the brush. Again, this is a critical step in making Hyrule a truly open world. Games are simply more immersive when you can choose how to defeat an enemy rather than just knowing how to defeat an enemy.
To see some of these changes in action, check out the video below!
6) A TONE FOR ME
Though a certain “tone” might seem little too esoteric for a common element in mainstream games, most big budget games are not made for children but adults. In this way, I think that Breath of the Wild, more than past entries in the Zelda series, is very much made for adults. When I watched the trailer the thing that made me want to get the game as a Zelda fan more than anything else was its tone. The artistic choices in the world design make for a beautiful game, which is important because Zelda games have always looked beautiful. It captures the fun, artistic color palettes presented in Wind Waker but, at the same time, the trailer indicated that this game has a more realistic dark streak to it, similar to Twilight Princess, which, in my opinion, was completely lost on Skyward Sword, the last “big” Zelda console release. Just a reminder, at its darkest, Skyward Sword showed you this:
Which turned out to be this.
This isn’t so in Breath of the Wild. In one of the opening shots, a mountain range is shown with an enormous hulking skeleton patrolling a pathway. Though they never showed gameplay from this region, it did not look like a boss but merely a giant enemy you meet on the road. As far as RPG’s go, this is not so unusual. Skyrim had random dragon encounters and Dark Souls was just a constant stream of horrifying enemies, but, in Zelda, the giant Peahats in Hyrule rank as possibly the scariest random overworld enemy thus far.
Though the E3 preview was very conservative about we get to see, we were introduced to very intimidating enemies called Guardians. Check out the short video below:
These guys do a ton of damage and, as I watched players fight against them, I noticed that they were actually somewhat challenging. In a day and age where many Triple-A developers value playability over challenge, it comforts me that an overworld enemy would actually present a serious challenge to players in a Zelda game. Older games like the A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Majora’s Mask contained sections that are notoriously difficult, but newer Zelda games seem to have gotten easier over time. Though I’ve seen just a sample of Breath of the Wild, I do have hope that it will not only be a little more “grown-up” in tone but in difficulty as well.
I will admit that the preview of the game felt a little sterile due to the exclusion of villages and towns, but Nintendo claims that they excluded any of these to keep the story a mystery. I have no doubt that the supporting characters will add to the more charming and whimsical side of the Zelda series because they always do.
CONCLUSION: IT’S STILL ZELDA
Despite all its innovations, bells, and whistles, it’s still Zelda. You still have Link, Hyrule, the Master Sword, a pretty big emphasis on the Sheikah, and the spirit of Ganon if not Ganon himself. From the map so far, we’ve seen the Temple of Time, what looks like the Bridge of Eldin, Death Mountain, Castle Hyrule, and Lake Hylia. It has the same basic elements such as exploration, action, dungeon crawling, and puzzle solving. It has a mixture of the realistic world of Twilight Princess and the stylized world of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword. For many of us fans, Zelda has been with us in one way or another for our entire life or even the last 30 years for you more seasoned readers of Top Shelf Gaming, so I know that it can tough to adjust to big changes. When Ocarina of Time came out, the series took a lot of risks and a lot of deviations from its old formula and, as a result, it became one of the best games of all time. Truly great games never arise out of the status quo but, rather, must innovate to become classics.
I especially grumble about the video game industry and its tendency to mass produce crap, but when Triple-A titles really invest in a game and get it right, they really get it right. I assure you that newer, bigger video games are popular for a reason, and I think even a series as legendary as Zelda has a lot to learn from their success. And regardless of how many gameplay elements they “borrow” from other games or genres, though Nintendo is able to make a Zelda game that sucks, they’re not going to make a Zelda game that isn’t unique. So, in conclusion, I see Breath of the Wild as the perfect way for Nintendo to implement more modern gameplay into a game that only they could make. The Zelda community has been asking for a great classic for years now, so I say that if all the change is off putting to you, just give it a chance. Because it might just be the best game ever.