The following is the third entry in “Return to Nintendo”, a series of columns in which I return to Nintendo consoles via the Switch after a 5-year hiatus.
I love “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” as I’ve put countless hours into the game. I beat the main quest, and am at the point where I’m pretty much done exploring the world for now, knowing that Master mode, the DLC quests and a handful of shrines I’ve missed still await me if I choose to pick up the game later. But right now, I’ve had enough, and am currently playing “Pokemon Shield” and the remake of “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.”
But it’s at this point, where I’ve managed to put some distance between myself and the game, that I’ve been thinking a lot about Breath of the Wild’s main story, and how it measures up in relation to the rest of the 3D Zelda titles, and I can’t help but shake the feeling that, while it managed to refresh some core game mechanics and makes Zelda feel new, it tossed out a lot about what makes this series great.
I’m not alone in the notion that Breath of the Wild was a great game, but it wasn’t a perfect Zelda game, as this has become a fairly common take, especially among fans of the other 3D installments in the series, and I think there’s a few key factors that make people feel this way. The first is that Breath of the Wild’s main story is scattered via memories Link (the main protagonist) must collect, with it being possible to beat the game (though you won’t get the “true” ending) without fully experiencing the story, and while there are numerous side quests and side characters, only a handful are important to the story, with many feeling very copy + paste in terms of how you interact with them and how they fill out the world. In fact, a lot of Breath of the Wild’s world is copy + paste, as while it has a huge world you can explore, it is mostly empty, populated by hundreds of the same enemy types you’re going to have to fight over and over.
Breath of the Wild’s main issue is it chooses quantity over quality, though in brief bursts it feels like a traditional Zelda experience, and at times its story is as good as any 3D Zelda title. Traditional 3D Zelda titles usually are somewhat the opposite, as they are pretty linear tales with little room to stray off the beaten path, which has allowed Nintendo to really tailor the gameplay experience and polish them as much as it can, something it couldn’t do with Breath of the Wild because there are simply too many mechanics and ways to play the game, with experienced players able to effectively break the game by exploiting conflicting mechanics and technical glitches (i.e. using stasis and a combo of other moves to destroy enemies like Hinoxs and Calamity Ganon in under a minute; using bomb launches to rag doll over puzzles and hazards, etc.).
For me, despite the fact that it featured voice acting for the first time, Breath of the Wild is the perfect example of favoring gameplay over story, as the game has a story, but it affects how you play the game only in a very minor way. Arguably the most important thing in the game is how many hearts you have, what weapons you have, and how durable your equipment is; stats have taken over the game.
Comparing Breath of the Wild to earlier titles like Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, combat and puzzle solving are central to the game, but unlike other games, combat doesn’t come down to skill and mastering the game’s mechanics so much as it is about hoarding stats and powerful weapons. And when you analyze each of the game’s bosses, they’re not hard because they’re well-designed boss fights; they’re hard because if you try to face them too early, you can’t take many hits because you don’t have enough health, and because your weapons keep breaking.
In fact, the latter is the reason why, unlike some other Zelda games, you can’t beat the final boss with beginner’s gear no matter how good you are because weapon durability will foil you, like it did to this YouTuber, who basically had to stop because he ran out of weapons, which I definitely feel like is a cheap way to make the game difficult. On the other hand, if you accumulate enough weapons and health, most boss battles will be so easy that their mechanics become obsolete; which is exactly how I ended up beating two of the game’s hardest bosses, Thunderblight and Calamity Ganon.
That isn’t necessarily the case with past Zelda games. While it’s in your best interest to accrue as many heart containers (health) as you can, most 3D Zelda games are designed so that you can’t face a boss until you have a special item you need to defeat them, and you can’t defeat them until you master the mechanics around their boss fights, because no matter how good you are, your attacks won’t affect them. And as a result, when you die in those games, it feels like your fault; that you haven’t mastered what you were supposed to, not that you haven’t collected some arbitrary amount of hearts or collected powerful weapons.
It’s also worth noting that, in past Zelda games, solving puzzles are key to progressing through the story, whereas the main incentive to complete them in Breath of the Wild is to collect spirit orbs you can exchange for health and stamina, though most shrines — and the puzzles they contain — are ultimately optional.
I do appreciate the freedom Breath of the Wild gives you, and in the early game, I do appreciate how weapons durability encourages you to try out many different gameplay styles you might not have otherwise considered. But, as many others have noted, the game sorely needs to communicate weapon durability better, and it needs a way to repair broken weapons or weapons about to break, as in the later game, you will naturally gravitate towards your favorite ones, and re-acquiring them becomes an unnecessary chore. In fact, because of this, in the later game, I usually just bashed things with the Master Sword, as while it loses power for some time, it’s the only weapon that doesn’t fully break, after which, I sparingly used the weapons I liked, and I was always sure to keep a few weapons slots open for garbage weapons I didn’t care broke for random encounters when exploring the world of the game.
Breath of the Wild was a major departure from traditional 3D Zelda titles, and while it is a breath of fresh air in many ways and renewed interest in the series, I can’t help but notice that, in their excitement to innovate, Nintendo didn’t put as much care or attention into the game’s main story or the key fights that are important to them, with the four Blights being challenging at first, but overall uninspired, Calamity Ganon being quite a letdown, as it’s just a mindless beast that’s pretty easy to beat if you defeated the four blights first like you’re supposed to — far from the epic duels that Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker ended with — and the game really suffers from a lack of unique dungeons and puzzles, as while the shrines that replace traditional dungeons and house most of the game’s puzzles are fine, there isn’t much cohesion or uniqueness to them. You see one shrine, you’ve basically have seen them all.
It’s not that I don’t think the traditional Zelda experience won’t work in Breath of the Wild’s world, it’s just that I feel like the game’s developers didn’t put in as much time as they have in the past when developing the core Zelda elements of puzzles, narrative, and dungeon-crawling. In fact, it feels like the developers made conscious choices to reduce the role these three things played in the game, with most of Hyrule being dead — including the Divine Beast champions, four of the most important characters in the game — which gave them a reason to sparsely populate the game and shrines outright replaced dungeons.
Overall, I still love Breath of the Wild as a game and I have great memories playing it, but it does fall short especially in the boss battles, story, villain and dungeons departments when compared to previous entries in the series. And while it does introduce new things, it also loses a lot of core elements that make these games great.
It’s a great example of how there is always some give and take in game development, especially when you’re reinventing a beloved series. Breath of the Wild is the first open-world Zelda game, so it’s reasonable to assume it wouldn’t be perfect, and there would be areas the developers would have to improve upon in future open-world Zelda titles.
And it’s worth noting that Breath of the Wild does not slam the door on traditional, linear 3D Zelda games; Nintendo is free to return to that format whenever they want to, and it stands to reason, given their long history of success with that format, when they do, they’ll deliver a great game.
If anything, Breath of the Wild makes it more likely that we’ll see more Zelda games in all formats in general, as its success renewed interest in the franchise. Already, we’ve gotten a really good remake of Link’s Awakening since Breath of the Wild dropped, and we’re going to get an HD version of Skyward Sword for the Switch. Breath of the Wild’s open-world format is just one way to make a Zelda game, and I have no doubt Nintendo will tweak it to perfection with new games in the future.
The way I see it, Nintendo now has a triforce of proven ways to make a Zelda game: traditional 2D top-down, Linear 3D and Open World.
And technically, they have the option to make a sidescroller — and they have — but the last time they did this, “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link”, it didn’t exactly go so well.
Let’s just say that the sidescroller’s inclusion makes a tetraforce of Zelda game design no one talks about.
That’s my perspective on Breath of the Wild after being absent from Nintendo consoles for about five years, which is honestly hardly unique, as Nintendo loves to make fans wait 5+ years for a new 3D Zelda title. I expect Breath of the Wild 2 to be a little better, only because Nintendo has a little more grasp on this open world thing, but I’m not expecting a huge leap in direction like Majora’s Mask –> Wind Waker –> Twilight Princess –> Skyward Sword.