Finding Zelda’s DNA within Breath of the Wild
It’s easy to look at Breath of the Wild as a game that is moving away from it’s Hyrulian lineage, and moving into the gaming landscape of 2017, full of games about survival, crafting and open world role-playing. And while this newest entry into the Zelda franchise does a lot to show that it can stand on its own two feet, hidden under that giant world map, temperature gauge and more hearts than ever seen before in the franchise is a game that takes some of the best bits and pieces of its predecessors to become something better.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
Truly Open World
The original Legend of Zelda’s treatment of an open world is something rarely seen in games today. When you start, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know what to do, and you’re not told much, both in terms of narrative and mechanics. All you’re really told are cryptic secrets (if you can find them), most of which don’t make any sense unless you write them down and keep them in mind wherever you go. You’re just a boy in the woods, surrounded by mystery and Octoroks.
While the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild acts as something of a linear(ish) tutorial area, the game then lets you loose on the other 95% of the map, giving you the tools to allow you to do anything that you put your mind to. This takes the openness of the first game and turns it up to 11, as the game allows you to complete most shrines, Divine Beasts, side quests or activities whenever you want, unlike the original game.
While it’s undeniable that a vast open world begging to be explored is a hallmark of the original, Breath of the Wild refines the way in which the world is delivered to you, allowing anyone to go anywhere they want and do whatever they want, right after the start.
In Skyward Sword, several new mechanics were introduced, the most fundamental being the Stamina Wheel. This allowed Link to sprint and climb small ledges, as well as giving him some limitations when hanging from ladders or vines, doing a spin attack or anything else particularly arduous. While this allowed players to move faster than Link’s leisurely stroll had ever allowed for since the franchise entered into 3D (who didn’t roll across Hyrule field in ’98?), it also felt prohibitive in terms of normal actions. The meter was never big enough to let you run around for a long period of time, meaning that players were left with a seemingly arbitrary limitation on a key part of the game.
With the series’ second attempt at the stamina wheel, Nintendo made sure that more fundamental actions were tied to this fundamental restriction, such as climbing any surface and hanging from the paraglider, as well as being able to sprint. This means that you’re juggling a resource used for numerous actions, as opposed to battling an arbitrary limit on sprinting. Making players constantly make the choice between conserving energy or dashing to the finish helps keep the moment-to-moment gameplay engaging and fun. Plus, being able to upgrade your stamina wheel gives you a real sense that you are becoming stronger as you progress through the world.
Items that degrade over time are nothing new, and have been used in RPG’s for a long time (the first time I saw it used was in Dark Cloud on PS2). This mechanic is a tricky one to nail in terms of balance. It can either discourage players from using their gear and hoarding it all, or it can encourage the player to treat items as disposable, making less interesting to use, find and collect. Finding the line between triviality and punishment is difficult for game designers.
Skyward Sword introduced item durability to the franchise, in the form of shield integrity. In terms of world building/realism, that makes perfect sense. Your shield is going to be copping a lot of flak from all of the enemies in this game, and some of them hit really hard, like this medieval General Grievous.
This new mechanic adds to your sense of progression by having more shields unlock throughout the game that are more durable, or work better against certain elemental attacks. However, similar to the Stamina Wheel, this is a system that’s only used in one small area of gameplay, making it seem almost trivial.
There isn’t really a consensus about if the durability mechanics in Breath of the Wild are an improvement or a misstep for the franchise, but one thing is for certain; Nintendo took it to the next level.
In BotW, your primary weapons take damage as well as your shields. Not only that, but your stuff breaks fast, and it breaks a lot. Nintendo tried to balance this out by making a very large selection of shields and weapons, meaning that it can almost be exciting to have an excuse to keep swapping out gear for something different. However, this comes dangerously close to trivialising the weapons and shields that you find, because whatever you’re holding now will break. It helps that so much of the equipment you find is very distinct, both mechanically and aesthetically, but only time will tell if this mechanic is used in future titles.
It just wouldn’t be a Zelda game without the key players. Link is back. Zelda is back. Ganon is back. Beedle is back. Even the Old Man is back! Starting the game in a cave, getting help from the Old Man, and being right next to the Temple of Time gives the game a good healthy shot of nostalgia right off the bat for those people familiar with the series.
Races from many different entries of the franchise are widely represented, including races not normally seen together. Koroks exist in the same world as Gorons, Rito in the same world as Zoras. Breath of the Wild’s expansive world is large enough to incorporate as much of the franchise’s lore as it would like, meaning that this game has the largest representation of Hyrulian Races in a Zelda game to date. While this may not affect gameplay much, if you’re a Zelda nerd like me, it’s pretty sweet.
There’s also some neat easter eggs throughout the world, such as the ruined Lon Lon Ranch mirroring the Lon Lon Ranch of Ocarina of Time fame, or the Tingle Islands on the Eastern edge of the world.
Zelda joined the resource harvesting craze begun by Minecraft with Skyward Sword. You would find some resources during your travels, local to the area you were in, and you would also collect them from defeated foes. These trinkets and knick-knacks were used to upgrade your items at the Gear Shop in the Skyloft Bazaar. As well as resources, you could use bugs that you collected to upgrade any potions that you bought. As most of these items were found in specific areas in a relatively linear game, if you were thorough in each area then you would almost always have enough resources to upgrade everything that was available to you at that point in the story.
In BotW, the sheer amount of ingredients and resources helps to mitigate the feeling that you’re always going to have what you need for the thing that you want as soon as it’s available. There are so many pieces of gear that can be upgraded, meaning the combinations of resources are so varied that it becomes a deliberate task to go find what you need. The same is true of recipes and food, as there are many different recipes that do many different things, meaning if you want the best food, you’re going to have to go out of your way to make it happen. This helps to give meaning to the places in the world, as well as providing players with things to do in the world outside of quest lines, which is important in a game as large as this one.
Nintendo’s treatment of this franchise has been seen as a re-invigoration for the series, prompting many to talk about the soft rebooting a franchise by directly referring to Breath of the Wild. We’ve seen this in critique of Mario Odyssey, with many describing that game as having received the Breath of the Wild treatment. Whether the Zelda franchise will receive a 2D installment, a direct BotW sequel or something else different entirely, Nintendo has redefined the series in a way that’s going to have everybody eagerly awaiting more news from the franchise for years to come.