The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is more or less the game Nintendo fans have clamored over since 2011’s divisive series entry Skyward Sword. The new game looks incredible, and not just for a Zelda game. It has “Game of the Year” written all over it, with the potential to be an all-timer if executed correctly. The enormous open world, improved item mechanics, and return to roots should all be welcome elements to a franchise often accused of rehashing the same old ideas and clichés.
Still, as I watch video after video of the new Wii U/NX title, I couldn’t help but worry about the series I’ve grown to love so much. Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly going to buy and play the hell out of this title as soon as it launches. But how come I’m not more hyped for Breath of the Wild?
Watching the trailer brought me back to when I had reached peak hype for the first time in my gaming life exactly 10 years ago, when the Wii was unveiled and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was the long-awaited console Zelda we had all been waiting for.
I had never been more hyped for a game in my life as I was for Twilight Princess. That initial E3 trailer from 2004 had me begging for more information, as I clawed my way through the internet as a young teen hungry for more Zelda. When I saw the game in action at E3 2006, I was hooked right away. I saw the demo of Link (in the Wii version) traversing through the Goron Mines, one of the game’s better dungeons, and my only thought was, “This is what Zelda is supposed to look like.”
The game ended up meeting my expectations for the most part, as I thoroughly enjoyed it as my first Wii game and ended up buying the remastered version for the Wii U (review here), but it was by no means a perfect game. I put a standard on Twilight Princess that would otherwise be absurd for a game I never actually tested. For me, Twilight Princess could be nothing other than a masterful, tremendous work of art in the gaming universe, and that “pretty good” wasn’t going to cut it. The main reason why? It looked like the truest of Zelda games, with the green tunic, a lively Hyrule Castle town, Kakariko Village, Gorons, Zoras, and all the fixings of a quintessential Zelda experience. For a lifelong Legend of Zelda fan, Twilight Princess was a sure-fire win.
After seeing the new trailer and some gameplay videos for the upcoming Wii U and NX game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, my reaction was totally different. The series appears to be making some pretty sweeping changes to the formula, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, some parts seemed off-putting to me. From the footage I saw, Link hardly has any interactions with NPCs, visits relatively small shrines but no large dungeons, has to scavenge and cook to heal and survive, and needs to actually put thought into what weapons/clothes to equip. The game’s creators keep referring to the ways that Breath of the Wild harkens back to the original NES title’s exploration and lack of hand holding, and it truly seems to recapture the element of a true open world, one where the player feels truly alone and free to explore to his heart’s content. While the original Legend of Zelda was a trailblazer and one of the most influential games ever, the series has evolved into a completely different kind of game, so a return to roots could potentially mean the end of the transformations Zelda fans enjoyed the most. It could also signal a shift from the mechanics that make Zelda unique to bringing the series closer to contemporaries such as The Witcher, The Elder Scrolls, and Dark Souls.
At first sight, Breath of the Wild almost seems like a foreign concept. In the footage shown thus far, there are no towns, villagers, Gorons, Zoras, or really any groups of friendlies at all. The overworld has no theme, the Shrines aren’t really dungeons, and Link heals through eating food instead of gathering hearts. Link doesn’t even wear his signature green tunic; his main garb is blue in color, but the player can change into warmer clothes and even suits of armor, a rarity in the Zelda universe. From just the E3 footage alone, Breath of the Wild did not look like a Zelda game. At the same time, Nintendo has been stressing for months that the next iteration of the series aimed to shake things up, but to what extent?
At the company’s Treehouse event, Nintendo assured fans that there will be towns and places where Link can encounter NPCs, which is certainly comforting. Some of the franchise’s greatest experiences involving roaming around Clocktown in Majora’s Mask or Windfall Island in Wind Waker, or being able to talk to everyone in Zora’s domain just to get a feel for how they live relative to their Hylian neighbors. Still, the game stresses a sense of solitude in the wilderness, and the overworld looks so enormous that it might take a long time before the player actually finds one of these supposed towns, and it seems hard to believe that a game centered around the wild would have large, bustling villages out in the open.
The lack of music presented thus far is also somewhat troubling, as Zelda is a series famous for its incredible soundtracks. Many video games hope to be featured in Video Games Live!, but The Legend of Zelda has its own touring symphony. The music in the trailer for Breath of the Wild featured some excellent music, but the absence of environmental tunes and transition music (displayed so far) limits the joy of the experience a bit. Entering the Lost Woods for the first time in Ocarina of Time was so memorable because of the song associated with it, and the epic orchestral soundtrack when Link enters Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess makes the player truly feel like a hero. Breath of the Wild seems to eschew such experiences in order to underscore the loneliness and breadth of a seemingly endless overworld, and that might result in a more immersive but less memorable gaming experience.
That said, as I keep watching gameplay videos and the E3 trailer, I can’t look away. The graphics look beautiful, the new gameplay elements look incredible, and the freedom the world provides the player might just lead to the most immersive and epic experience the series has ever been able to offer. Zelda fans have grown comfortable and content in the recurring elements that have defined the series since A Link to the Past, so anything outside of those conventions might be daunting to some. On the other hand, Nintendo has often chosen artistry and innovation over safer routes, so Breath of the Wild really follows suit more than another Ocarina of Time retread. It might not look like a Zelda game, but that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like one.
Breath of the Wild looks to challenge all previous Zelda practices, but that doesn’t mean it’ll bereave the series of its spirit. The different races, heart drops, fairy fountains, and the random music instruments of significance? Those may have defined a handful of specific franchise entries, but they do not necessarily represent the core the 30-year old series. The essence of Zelda is exploration, wonder, adventure, and heroism. The upcoming Wii U and NX title may feature such elements in a different and unfamiliar manner, but it will feature them nonetheless, and longtime Zelda fans should embrace it no matter what. I know I will.