Slight spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ahead. Please play through most of the game before reading. You will regret not playing the game whether you read this or not.
If you have been even remotely in tune with games media in the last month, you probably have seen a multitude of headlines regarding Nintendo’s latest entry in the acclaimed The Legend of Zelda series. Somehow, this series has become even more acclaimed with the latest entry, garnering the most perfect scores ever for a game on Metacritic and sitting comfortably at an average score of 97. The game features the same charm and adventure that have become attributable to the success of the series, but this game turns every staple of the series on its head while still revitalizing that feeling of wonder and excitement that made the original game on the NES so popular. However, when you look at it from the outside, Nintendo is simply years behind the industry in seeing that open-world games have value to them. So why is this game a critical success? No, it isn’t because the reviewers were paid. Zelda games clearly get a bit of a pass if we look at the scores for Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, but that’s a debate for a different day. Let’s talk about how Nintendo watched from the sidelines for years, tested the waters, and then stuck the landing on their first real open-world game, as well as why Breath of the Wild‘s Hyrule is the best open world that gaming has probably ever seen.
Nintendo, since the days of the N64, has been in a weird state between trying to catch up to other companies while also being far ahead of them in some regards. The company always pushes innovation in their hardware to try and spark creativity in developers to make unique experiences, like with motion controls in the Wii and a second screen on the DS. However, they also fall flat on practicality in this regard. For example, it took them two generations to make the complete jump to full discs. The company is also notorious for the lack of graphical power in their consoles compared to Microsoft and Sony. This idea of being stuck in between also extends to their software development. Games as brilliant and unique as Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime are sprinkled in between games like Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival. All of these games contain the charm and nostalgia associated with a Nintendo game, but the latter misread what consumers wanted and delivered underwhelming and disappointing experiences while the former pushed the industry forward. However, because of how high the highs of Nintendo reach, the company is able to maintain their fan base. Even in recent times, the company joined the competitive shooter craze later than people would have wanted, but still was able to pull a genuinely enjoyable IP out of it with Splatoon. The company has seen days on both sides of the spectrum.
In 2011, Nintendo released Skyward Sword to the usual critical acclaim the mainline series received, but this time, it was underwhelming. The game got high scores, but it was still torn apart by fans and critics for being too linear and failing to push the series to its limits. The game felt like a tech demo gone awry at times due to the motion controls, as well. These complaints seemed to have deeply affected Nintendo’s view on the series, as they completely reinvented their development philosophy while starting development for the Wii U’s swan song. However, while development started soon after Skyward Sword‘s release, Nintendo spent a lot of timing learning from the industry.
When going back to the series’ beginnings in Breath of the Wild, an open-world design made the most sense given where the games came from. However, the industry was becoming over-saturated with these types of games; games with this factor as the focus were failing to deliver truly compelling worlds while games that tacked it on made it feel like an afterthought that was pandering to the craze. Just 7 days before Skyward Sword‘s
launch, Bethesda had released a game that would raise the bar so high that it was impossible for others to reach it: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This was the new benchmark for open world games. The world was huge and extremely interactive, the stories being told were engaging, and players had the freedom to be whatever they wanted. With the success of Skyrim, open-world design became the industry standard, but most companies failed to deliver worlds worth creating. The Assassin’s Creed series is infamous for being bare-bones, needlessly large, and extremely repetitive. Nintendo took these years developing Breath of the Wild to see what worked in games like Skyrim and GTA V, and what didn’t work in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. This new game needed to feel jam-packed with content and adventure, tell a story well, and, above all, feel like a Zelda game at its core.
Before introducing the world to this new direction for the series outright, Nintendo decided to test the waters first. Aonuma introduced an idea from before Skyward Sword‘s development had finished, being Link merging into the wall, to a small team and pushed for its development into a sequel to A Link to the Past in 3D. This game would become A Link Between Worlds. Early on in development, the team decided they wanted to rethink the conventions of Zelda, as it had become tiresome and players could get stuck on a dungeon and not be able to progress. The series’ item system would have to be overhauled, which led to the renting system. Upon release, critics and fans alike praised the return to openness for the series that had been missed for so long. This gave Nintendo the courage to push forward with this design philosophy into Breath of the Wild.
The game spent 5 years in development, which was not that long compared to the 4 years between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, and the 5 years between that and Skyward Sword. However, it was time well spent on breathing new life into the series. Everything was rethought and replanned. The team wanted to create a world that fans of the original NES game could never have dreamed of while also making it compelling to newer players. The game was designed around systems that would allow players to mix and match certain actions to create unique playstyles and fun mechanics. The tail end of development was even devoted to iteration. The team would spend time between development sprints to sit down, play the game, and see how they could improve it. Not many companies have the time and money to do something like that, but it made the finished product infinitely more entertaining because of it.
So let’s finally talk about the game itself. Nintendo spent all of that time and energy developing their first real open world game. How did they nail it on their first try? Why did fans and critics start calling it one of the best games ever released? It comes down to the exact design philosophy the team had from the start: it needed to feel jam-packed with content and adventure, tell a story well, and, above all, feel like a Zelda game at its core.
Let’s start with the story. This is where a lot of open world games struggle to make the jump from good to great. A lot of times, these games will have genuinely engaging stories, but the way they are put into the game doesn’t mesh well with the very nature of being open world. The way most games do it is there is a big world, and the main story quest sends the player in a line across the world, telling the lore and narrative in a set way and encouraging them to break off to do a few side quests here and there but incentivizing them to not stray too far from the designated road for fear of losing track of the plot. Even such masterpieces as Horizon: Zero Dawn, released just a few days before Zelda, follow this formula. It’s probably the best algorithm for this type of game that wants to invest that much time into story. However, Nintendo wanted to find a better way to keep players invested in the main quest, even though they wanted the focus to remain on the adventure rather than the destination.
The way they managed this was actually very simple, but also makes a lot of sense within the context of the game. In the game’s tutorial area of The Great Plateau, the player is told exactly what they need to know before their quest: Ganon is at the castle, Zelda is in there, go out and find a way to stop him. The player is forced to see this part of the game through before being let loose. From that point on, the player can go straight to Ganon to fight him; they will be decimated pretty quickly, but they can definitely do it. The game wants the player to explore and find more and more ways to have a better chance at defeating Ganon, from gaining more hearts to obtaining better weapons and armor. The story of the game is entirely optional. It doesn’t stop there, though. Once the player gets a bit more context into what they can do to stop Ganon, they are given multiple objectives to complete in any order they wish. Each of these develops a very short subplot, but they are all individual and separate.
The main narrative, however, is told through flashbacks. Link’s memory has been wiped while asleep, but certain spots around the world trigger flashbacks of events that happened prior to the battle that put him into a 100-year-long slumber. Each of these flashbacks can be viewed independently and in any order, but they all give
context to the world, characters, and events of the game. This is brilliant for a few reasons. First, it takes the focus off of the narrative, while still allowing players interested in it to go and seek it out, similar to the audio logs in Bioshock. It allows the player to experience the story at their own pace. It does not sacrifice the gameplay in favor of story as past games have done. It also gives vignettes that add to the backstory and can stand on their own, but work best together. Finally, it gives the player incentive to explore the world. If players are given only a picture of a location to go to, they will scour Hyrule and jump from landmark to landmark, searching for the memories but experiencing new and exciting finds along the way.
Speaking of that, the main reason Breath of the Wild seems to triumph over other open world games is crafting of the world itself. The game first off has a good balance of hand-holding and freedom so as to avoid frustration or confusion, respectively. The first hour or two gives the player a bite sized chunk of what to expect in the game. This is done through straight tutorials with shrines, the map, and equipment, but also through the environment, such as forcing the player to shift the environment to move forward or to craft a food item that will let you withstand the cold. The player feels a bit guided, but for the most part they are pushed out of the gate with only their wits. From the moment you jump off the plateau, the only help the player will get will be through loading screen hints, specific pop-up hints that can be turned off, and talking to people across Hyrule. The player is reasonably expected to learn the mechanics and rules of the world and is given the tools needed to progress without help, but then are left to their own devices once they have been given ample time to learn.
After the initial learning, however, the game is free to wow you at every corner of the map. The genius of the game is that it has something exciting up its sleeves at all times. The player is constantly given points of intrigue, but is never forced to partake in these diversions until they choose to. This keeps the player from feeling too overwhelmed with things to do. The game is saying, “I know you’re on your way to that town, but there’s a Moblin camp right there if you want some loot. There’s also an island in the middle of that lake that could have a secret, but you’ll just have to check to find out. It’s up to you.” That’s basically the premise of the game: the player is free to do what they want when they want. The world naturally funnels them towards interesting things to do.
The game doesn’t have to funnel the player much, however, because the world is
populated with points of interest. On a macro level, searching for and climbing all of the towers allows better exploration of the world. From there, each stretch of land is plentiful with towns, mountains, lakes, and
fields to explore. Areas are dotted on a smaller level by shrines, enemy camps, and out-of-place landmarks. You can spend hours working to upgrade your inventory slots by collecting Korok seeds, or you can work on getting more hearts by finding shrines. You can follow that side quest or you can go climb that mountain in hopes of finding another memory. You’re never feeling like your time is wasted, but you’re also never feeling like there’s too much to do because everything helps you in some way.
In addition, you’re constantly collecting things, but nothing is wasted. There aren’t any plates to pick up just to sell. You’re constantly collecting weapons, food, Rupees, monster parts, Korok seeds, Spirit Orbs, memories, compendium entries, the list is too long to even attempt to remember. You never are going after one thing just by playing, and almost everything collected along the player’s journey encourages agency through their multiple uses. Spirit Orbs can be spent on Heart Containers or Stamina Vessels, for example. On an even smaller level, materials can be cooked to make food and elixirs, sold for Rupees, and even crafted into weapons, armor, and ability upgrades. It feels extremely gamified but, in a way, more alive than games like Skyrim that just put random useless objects around to make the location feel lived in. It’s a different type of feeling active, but one that meshes with a player experience better because true immersion is found within the gameplay rather than the game world.
The final criteria the game had to meet was feeling like a Zelda game. It’s pretty easy to see Breath of the Wild as a great game on its own, but tying such an esteemed name to it automatically sets it
up for comparison. On a fundamental level, Breath of the Wild embodies everything the series has been founded on: exploration, discovery, and adventure. In every game in the series, Nintendo has striven to make players feel powerful and excited by giving them the same feeling Shigeru Miyamoto felt while exploring the mountains of his hometown (a story told more often than I could try to count). If you look on the surface at the destructible weapons, lack of legendary items like the hookshot, and the diminished focus on dungeons, it’s easy to see the game as a black sheep for the series. The past 20 years of Zelda games have set up the structure of the series that has given it these many staples. However, these were not what Zelda was truly holding under the surface. Just because the games had some common ties did not make them defined by them, and it is bold for Nintendo to subvert these previously-held beliefs in order to create a game that truly pulls the series back to what it was created for: adventure.
Ultimately, the new Hyrule feels like the fully realized promises of the original NES game. This piece comes a bit after everyone has spoken on the matter, but the fact is that Breath of the Wild is truly unlike any game the market has seen. It’s easy to see the sides that say it isn’t groundbreaking or that the framerate dips and voice acting pull players out of the experience, but it is impossible to deny the amount of research and care that was put into the game. It feels like this is one of those games that you remember experiencing long after the credits roll, and it’s promising to see the series pull that feeling again 20 years after it did with Ocarina of Time.