The Legend of Zelda has been my favourite Nintendo franchise ever since I explored the world of Twilight Princess on my Nintendo Wii. The worlds, the stories, the dungeons… They all worked together and gripped my imagination. I used to spend lunch times at school with my friends looking over the Legend of Zelda Wikipedia, where we’d read about the history of each temple and boss. It’s a long, storied franchise with a stellar reputation that has completely earned its place in gaming’s pantheon. It is however, a franchise that takes long, long breaks between main entries. I fell in love with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in 2007, the game having been released in 2006, and then worked my way back through the franchise. Since then, only one other major console game was released – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in 2011. Then… Nothing. The Wii finished its run and gave place to the WiiU, and then, finally a new Zelda game was announced. And so, we waited. And waited. Finally, in 2017, after a number of delays, and a port to Nintendo’s new console, the Nintendo Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released to critical and commercial acclaim. This was the ultimate system-seller game – people who follow gaming sales might remember that for a while, there were more copies of Breath of the Wild sold than there were actual Switch consoles.
Breath of the Wild was something simultaneously fresh and retro for the franchise. While the games had been getting increasingly linear and story-based as the years went on, Breath of the Wild was a return to the original Zelda ethos – offering players the freedom to explore the world at their own pace, to go where they wanted and when they wanted. It had been a good while since we’d last had a Zelda in this style, and it captured the gaming zeitgeist perfectly – look at the number of YouTube videos, Twitch streams, screenshots floating around online. In a world where sharing gaming experiences was becoming more and more commonplace, Breath of the Wild‘s open sandbox allowed content creators a deep well to draw from. It’s no wonder that it became such a popular game, easily surpassing the sales of the franchise’s previous top-sellers (Twilight Princess had managed 8.8million copies, whereas Breath of the Wild managed to score a whopping 21.45million)!
But how was the game itself? I was extremely excited to play Breath of the Wild, and when I finally got my hands on it as a birthday present, I quickly plonked it into my brand new Switch. I liked it. But I didn’t love it. I felt a slight disconnect with the world – it felt jarringly different from the Zelda games I had come to know and love. I actually only played a little before putting it down for a while and only dipping in every now and again. However, a month or so later, I decided to give the game more of my time, to let it truly sink in.
I decided to attack it from a different angle. Whereas before, I had been playing it as a regular action-adventure game in the vein of previous 3D Zelda titles, this time I threw myself more fully into the world. Previously I had paid little attention to making potions that would help me survive the cold, to cooking up food, to being super wary of foes at this early stage in the game. This time would be different. In what I assume to be the way Nintendo very much intended, I had to think more about what I was trying to do, to stop and prepare. I had to look around at the world, find the place I wanted to be and then figure out how I was going to get there. Changing my approach to the game allowed me to unlock a whole new experience. This time, everything clicked, and I fell in love with this Hylian expanse.
Here’s where things get confusing regarding my views with Breath of the Wild – based solely on its inclusion in my Gold Collection, you can see this is a game I love – one that I think well-earned its reputation as one of the best games of all time. I don’t however, think it’s a great Zelda. For me, Zelda’s joys come from exploring dungeons, from unlocking new items that allow you to explore more of the world than before. I love that feeling of progression – I can feel myself moving through the story. Breath of the Wild feels more like a persistent existence in my Switch. This feels like a world crammed inside my console that I can dip in and out of, where things will carry on without me, where, yes, there is a story to be told, but it’s framed differently. In previous 3D Zeldas, it feels like the worlds are all designed around this story-based momentum. Those were worlds designed for their stories. Breath of the Wild feels like the reverse. This is a world in which a Zelda story just happens to take place. The world itself is the main feature.
I’m worried that this all sounds like a bit of a back-handed compliment. In a way, I guess it is. Underneath it all though, I have to acknowledge The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as the masterpiece that it is. This is my most played Switch game, and I don’t see any other overtaking it any time soon. Newcomers to the Zelda franchise will definitely love it, and even those who have been here for a while will love it when they put some of the lessons they learned from previous 3D games to the side. Breath of the Wild is a paradigm shift for the franchise – it’s hard to see Nintendo going back to the old style of 3D games after this, but then again, with the big N, nothing is ever for certain.