When I selected The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as my Game of the Year for 2017, I talked about how individual parts of Link's latest adventure aren't perfect—but Breath of the Wild as an experience is incredible.
While the response to Breath of the Wild remains overwhelmingly positive, the deluge of end-of-the-year accolades (including some from us) brought the game under very close scrutiny and re-evaluation. People found cracks, and they didn't hesitate to jab at them while exclaiming 2017's Game of the Year honors were far more deserved by Nier: Automata / Horizon Zero Dawn / Super Mario Odyssey / literally any other game.
I still believe most of the popular criticisms for Breath of the Wild come down to opinion. You don't like the fact weapons wear down and break; I believe breaking weapons forces me to fight smarter (and the game indulges you by leaving all sorts of traps and goodies for you to exploit). You don't like how rain makes cliffs too slick to climb; I like how I'm forced to pay attention to the game's little "weather report" and equip myself accordingly before I go spelunking.
Even attacks on Breath of the Wild's status as a Zelda game are understandable, but maybe don't hold as much water as the detractors believe. 2006's The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess came under fire for failing to innovate very much over Ocarina of Time, and while 2011's Skyward Sword has some clever ideas and wonderful dungeons, it was criticized for its compact, rigid overworld.
Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma realized The Zelda games were in danger of growing stale and predictable. Aonuma was subsequently motivated to tear everything down and take the series back to its roots. Way back to 1986 when The Legend of Zelda series was newborn. Back when tutorials were restricted to instruction booklets, and every decision you made while exploring Zelda's sprawling overworld and dark dungeons was your responsibility.
When Breath of the Wild received its first big reveal at E3 2016, Nintendo made the original Zelda's influence clear from the start, and I still argue Breath of the Wild's kinship with its progenitor is its greatest strength. Wandering the game's overworld for weapons, supplies, and for the sheer fun of discovering new areas is what continues to draw me back to Breath of the Wild from time to time.
But Breath of the Wild's admiration for The Legend of Zelda comes with a consequence: Neither game has strong dungeons. Sure, we look back on The Legend of Zelda's dungeons with nostalgic fondness, but when I play the Father of all Zelda Games, I just dutifully cut down Keeses and Darknuts until I find the labyrinth's key item squirreled away in the cavern's dark halls. I don't navigate the reams of identical-looking rooms and bomb every inch of wall because it's my idea of a good time. I just want the Raft, or the Ladder, or whichever item helps me dive a little deeper into the game's cool overworld.
Breath of the Wild's dungeons aren't even that useful, and that's probably why the adventure's harshest critics challenge the notion of it being a "true" Zelda game. Everything you need to technically complete the game—namely, the Parasail and the Runes downloaded to your Sheikah slate—are given to you within the first hour of gameplay. Anything else you find when you leave the Great Plateau, anything you do, is simply an item or an exercise that makes it easier to defeat Calamity Ganon. Even the original Zelda game requires you fetch a few items from dungeons to finish the game, and, of course, you need to defeat each boss to nab the piece of the Triforce it's guarding. But if you don't want to take on the dungeons / Divine Beasts in Breath of the Wild, you only miss out on acquiring supplementary powers, a cache of the Champions' weapons, a bit of story exposition, and a leg-up on Calamity Ganon whenever you decide to take him down. All useful, but not vital.
In other words, you can tell Breath of the Wild's main story-based quest line to take a hike if you so desire. No dungeons? No problem. Breath of the Wild's overworld alone offers hundreds of hours of the game's strongest content. I especially adore the "Memories" sidequest that challenges you to recover Link's scattered memories using only small, sometimes blurry snapshots of landmarks as your guide. What a wonderful way to encourage you to just get on your horse and ride for ages. Oh, look! Here's a big hill! Maybe if you climb it, you'll get a better view of any special landforms in the area. Oh, look! Here's a long trench that stretches across a quarter of Hyrule! What's at the end? As Doc points out in his excellent breakdown of the game, nearly every distraction in Breath of the Wild is packed with meaning and discovery. For example, when I find Shrines on my travels, I invariably enter, see what's what, and earn rewards for my 15 minutes or so of effort.
But the Divine Beasts, each guarding its corner of the world, forever feel insignificant and far away unless I make a concentrated effort to travel straight to them. Frankly, the Beasts' existence feels almost antithetical in Breath of the Wild. This is a game about wandering, searching, and exploring. Having to put all that on hold and fast-travel to the Beast (because, let's face it, hoofing it to your destination puts you up against innumerable distractions) is like suddenly hitting the brakes on a smooth ride.
But when I say I prefer the Zelda series' overworld experience to its dungeon-exploring experience, I'm not saying I think Nintendo shouldn't bother making the dungeons for the next open-world Zelda game more interesting. Dungeons have come to define the series as much as the Master Sword, and their potential shouldn't be left to rot.
In fact, I believe Nintendo has a lot to gain if it bases its next open-world Zelda title on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds as much as it based Breath of the Wild on the first Zelda. A Link Between Worlds marries a somewhat-open overworld with imaginative dungeons and clever environmental puzzles that effortlessly bridge said dungeons with the game's fields, forests, and deserts. The next 3D Zelda game will benefit greatly if it, say, cuts back on Breath of the Wild's smaller shrines in favor of a few more large-scale dungeons with themes and puzzles relevant to whatever part of the world they occupy.
It's going to be some time before we hear about a new 3D Zelda title, though. For now, I'm just saying there's no shame in exploring Breath of the Wild's iteration of Hyrule without harboring any plans to save it. It's clearly what Nintendo wants you to do.
Don't even worry about the good people of Hyrule. They'll be all right.
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