October 21, 2017
A few weeks ago one of our writers, Nate Merritt, made a compelling case for why the latest title, Breath of the Wild, does not feel like a “real” Zelda game. You can read his article here. His points were well thought out, and his argument was overall very sound, but people from other walks of life may look at it differently. I personally consider Breath of the Wild to be among the most definitively Zelda-like experiences. Remember, these are all my opinions, so if you disagree, that’s okay. That’s kind of the point, even; I disagree with Nate but respect his opinion, so here we have this article as a springboard allowing more readers to join the conversation so we can explore the topic together.
To begin, I will detail what defines the series to me. From the first time I played Zelda back in the days of Link’s Awakening, I have associated it first and foremost with exploration, followed by unique puzzle-based combat and dungeon scenarios. The latter is comprised of two parts; the actual combat mechanics, and item integration. I believe not only that each of these elements is present in Breath of the Wild, but that they were presented in a new and unique way that enhanced the overall Zelda-ness of the game.
To say Breath of the Wild has a big world is an understatement, but does a big world really make it a better explorative experience? It can, depending on the method of presentation. Strictly speaking, the world of Twilight Princess has more land mass than that of Wind Waker, but to me, it did not feel as free. Close to the start of Wind Waker, you are given the ability to sail across literally the whole world. You cannot solve many puzzles or gain much until you pass certain milestones like acquiring new items, but you can totally walk around nearly every island just to see the scenery. Even along the main quest string, moving from island to island you may find pirates, sharks, an island full of treasure, and each little discovery adds to the overall Zelda factor.
Breath of the Wild is like if you took the Great Sea and filled it up with a complex landscape. The major landmarks are just about as far away, but walking there and seeing all the little details in between makes the journey worth it. Be it discovering a Korok Seed, being ambushed by an assassin in disguise, coming across an overworld boss like a Talus or Hinox, or small things from finding a good place to farm hearty durians to hearing a Bokoblin pick its nose, there is always something to notice on your way from point A to point B.
Beyond being chock full of interesting content to discover, Breath of the Wild rewards exploration in a way no other title in the series has. With so many collectible materials to upgrade your equipment, new foods and potion ingredients to experiment with, and an ongoing cycle of weapon replacement, every time you find anything, it feels like it was worth it.
Any good Zelda must compliment its overworld with deep and immersive dungeons. That is the point where many argue this game is lacking, but I disagree. The four Divine Beasts were not the most complex dungeons in the series, and by no small margin, but they did keep the game interesting with very unique physics-based puzzles. I find the problem people have with this game is that they seem to think of these as the only dungeons, but that leaves one hundred twenty-one other dungeons completely out of the picture. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “Can you really call each shrine its own dungeon?” Personally I do not consider them each a dungeon, but they do add to the overall dungeon-crawler feeling that Zelda has been famous for since day one. Obviously this takes the dungeon mechanic in a different direction, but the core experience is no different. By the end of the game, even if you only complete half of the shrines, you have probably completed at least as much dungeon content as the average Zelda game. You just did it interspersed with overworld exploration and story content in bite-sized pieces, so it does not necessarily feel like quite as much.
Of course, even counting the shrines and divine beasts, we are still discounting the best dungeon in the game, one that few would argue is not a true blue Zelda dungeon. Hyrule Castle is immense, riddled with enemies, puzzles and traps, and is the most explorable dungeon in the series. Sure, it is not the biggest, but it does exploration right by putting it in the players’ hands. You get to choose your route through this labyrinthine colossus, whether that means sneaking in through the docks, climbing up the towers while fighting off flying Guardians, or just running in the front door to tell Ganon he’s toast, each player will find a different experience. I have invaded the castle several different ways on two playthroughs, from walking in the door naked with three hearts to crawling through every space I notice to discover what immense treasure there is, and each has been memorable for a different reason.
Even with these multiple experiences, I have yet to fully explore the castle. Within the castle is hidden a shrine, twenty-six Korok seeds, innumerable excellent weapons, and the iconic Hylian Shield, guarded by one of multiple overworld bosses. I have not found half of that, but I have still managed to find a wondrous experience exploring the corridors of one of the best dungeons in the series. I wouldn’t even have known there were two Lynels in there if not for the internet.
Throughout the world of Hyrule and the dungeons to a lesser extent, countless thousands of foes lie waiting to face Link. Zelda sets apart from other games because these enemies often have a puzzle behind defeating them, creating a cyclical combat style where generally you stun, stab, and repeat. In Breath of the Wild, you usually do not need to stun enemies, you can just wail on them with a claymore until they are dead. This is usually the least effective strategy, but it works. What is unique about Breath of the Wild is it offers many ways to stun enemies if you so desire, and encourages tactics to take out large groups. If you just run into a group of seven Moblins and three Lizalfos hacking and slashing, you probably will not escape with your life. The game gives you a lot of ways to go about things. Again, this is a theme with Breath of the Wild. Depending how the scenario is set up, you can drop a boulder on them from above, taking out some instantly, you may be able to inflict a large amount of damage by detonating their own bomb-barrels, or you could shoot the electric Lizalfos’s horn to shock them all.
Is this really like any Zelda game, though? Did not most previous titles give you a massive array of weapons to use in combat? Yeah, but so did Breath of the Wild. Sometimes you have to get creative with them, but almost every rune in your Shiekah Slate can be used to fight. The bomb runes obviously deal damage when they explode, although minimal. Personally I used their knockback effect to scatter enemies constantly so that I could focus on one for a moment, and sometimes I positioned the bomb to knock foes down a cliff or into a water source, dispatching them instantly. Thinking tactically, it was an invaluable tool. The Stasis rune can not only be used on enemies for a short stun, but on objects nearby. When you freeze a boulder in time and start wailing on it, the kinetic energy forces it away from you at ridiculous speeds, and with a good aim, you can one-shot pretty close to anything. Sure, I want a Hookshot too, but every game in the series has done something new and unique with combat based around the items, and this is no different. Again it did the same thing but presented it differently.
Combat evolved in other ways as well. Like I keep saying, the amount of different ways to do things astounds me, and the combat is the crux of this argument. The biggest way this was implemented was with overworld bosses; Hinox, Talus, and the dreaded Lynel. Against each, there are multiple ways to go about killing them, and the fact that they are scattered around the overworld so liberally allows me to forgive the fact that there are very few sub-bosses in the actual dungeons.
Finally, to link (heh) together all of these elements which comprise a Zelda game. This really comes down to the first item on my list, and the most important to me, exploration. Exploration is rewarded by every element of the game. When you explore, you get treasure. When you explore, you get dungeons. When you explore, you get unique combat experiences. This game rewards exploration with the entirety of the game itself. Not just what I have listed here, but every other element that could possibly go into a game is the reward for exploration. The only way to complete the game’s full story is to explore until you find each memory. To complete each side quest, you must explore. To find every collectible, you must explore. Explore, explore, explore. This has been the primary focus of the Zelda series since it began on the NES, and this game is absolutely no different. It presented many things differently than past titles, but every element remains intact.
What do you think? Now that Nate and I have had our say, why don’t you sound off in the comments and on Twitter? We would love to hear your opinions to keep the conversation swimming.