Back in the Day
It is 1988(ish) and I am a tiny, awkward tween. I’m in front of a boxy CRT television with a friend fretting over the blocky, imprecise contents of a single shiny golden cartridge. The game is The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before.
I understand the trappings of epic fantasy, compliments of the great J.R.R. Tolkien and his tales of hobbits and orcs, archers and swordsman. I grok the concept of roleplaying and the uncanny power that active decision-making plays in making any adventure your adventure thanks to countless second-hand AD&D sourcebooks and the Palladium games based on already beloved properties like Robotech and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But this? This is something different.
There is character development. There are various weapons and inventory items. There is a map that must be traversed. There are ample puzzles to be solved.
And I have no idea what I am doing.
The More Things Change
In this original scenario, I was eventually aided by schoolyard speculation and, ultimately, that childhood staple Nintendo Power magazine. These helped demystify the world of Hyrule—to an extent, at least.
This is oddly fitting, as Breath of the Wild, like the original LoZ before it, not to mention all its landmark incarnations—A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and, hell, even Twilight Princess—is surely somebody’s first Zelda. And if this game does serve as your on-ramp into the continuing adventures of Link? Then I envy you.
Same As it Ever Was
Breath of the Wild is, on one level, the consummate Legend of Zelda title. There is a Hero and a Princess, and, of course, (Calamity) Ganon sewing seeds of destruction. You’ll start as Link waking from his slumber to once again try and save his world from a growing army of evil.
As your journey continues, you’ll encounter the familiar faces of Sheikah, Zora, Gorons, and more. You’ll master the sword and the bow and the delicate art of gliding to safety. You’ll fight and you’ll fall and you’ll live and you’ll die, just like any Zelda game that came before.
Yet somehow, Breath of the Wild flips the proverbial script just enough to make it a whole new brand of adventure.
Variations on a Theme
While each Link is typically cast as the newest embodiment in a seemingly endless line of Heroes, Breath of the Wild takes great pains to remind you that, this time around, he’s not simply the latest flavor. Rather than a reincarnation of a former Hero, this Link is instead a returning combatant… and an unmitigated failure.
When he and the Princess were unable to defeat Calamity Ganon, Link was placed in a 100-year sleep to heal his wounds. Upon awakening, her voice and, on some level, the weight of his mistakes drive him ever forward. Using a Sheikah Slate—a nice in-game analog of the Switch itself—to both navigate and learn from the world around him, Breath of the Wild slowly unfurls before the player, reaffirming what you already know about the franchise while also tweaking it in new and meaningful ways.
It’s a frail world, with everything Link once knew (and can now barely remember) easily outmoded by a solid century. Old allies and locales are aged and weathered. Old technologies are decrepit and in disrepair–everything seems painfully fragile.
Weapons are temporary, breaking after too much use, and armor is augmented and swapped out as the environment demands. Goods are scavenged, and foodstuffs can be combined to supplement their core restorative properties as well as to provide helpful buffs.
And that world itself? It is massive—almost intimidatingly so. You can use your Sheikah Slate to warp to waypoints like the game’s 100 Shrines, but you’ll still be tasked with navigating much of this land on foot… at least until you learn the gentle art of taming the wild horses of the plains.
Even the game’s amiibo support is seemingly oversized, which 5 new figures and 5 classic designs each offering helpful bonuses.
As you power up your Slate, unlocking Runes that let you manipulate water and metal, freeze certain objects in time, and, yes, toss bombs, it will scratch that familiar puzzle-solving itch for old hands, but new players could be forgiven for overlooking this puzzling pedigree. What everyone will notice, though, is all the options.
Will your Link rely on stealth or brawn? Will he head immediately in the direction of the nearest Divine Beast, more remnants of the Sheikah’s once great technological empire, or will he explore his world to uncover more well-concealed secrets? Will he topple a tree to make a bridge or will he sail across the gap on his Paraglider?
It really is entirely up to you.
You Got Your Chocolate in My Peanut Butter
But Breath of the Wild isn’t always just a Legend of Zelda game. Sometimes it’s Skyrim, like when it sets you free on an enormous map, challenging you to scale that cliff or craft that satisfying, stat-boosting meal. Sometimes it’s Assassin’s Creed, like when you climb atop a looming spire to better survey the world around you. And sometimes it’s Dark Souls, like when the same encounter kills Link—over and over and over again.
Sure, that Great Fairy certainly looks familiar and navigating the interiors of the Divine Beasts definitely feels like solving the puzzles of a classic LoZ Temple, but even these are, more or less, Easter eggs for us oldsters.
From its open-world approach and frequent pitched battles to its sometimes punishing learning curve, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a young man’s game. It requires forethought and quick reflexes and, above all else, keen tenacity.
Yet here I sit—an old man with nary a Nintendo Power (or, for that matter, even a GameFAQs walkthrough) in sight!
Bottom Line: Buy It
This all brings me back to my original premise; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a new experience for a new generation of Nintendo gamers. Still, don’t let that turn you off if you too are a member of the old guard, because it’s also an absolute delight for those of us who’ve defended Hyrule for decades.
Perhaps most importantly, Breath of the Wild is the title that proves the Nintendo Switch really works. It makes the most of the system’s processing power with gorgeously stylized graphics, innovative—if occasionally frustrating—gameplay, and appropriately haunting audio.
And you can bring this breathtaking world of mystery and adventure, this distinctly console-quality experience, with you, even when you’re not at home on your couch. And believe me; you’ll certainly want to.
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America