Can Breath of the Wild's Return to Zelda's Roots Bring Wonder Back to The Series?

Can Breath of the Wild's Return to Zelda's Roots Bring Wonder Back to The Series?

Once the name The Legend of Zelda stood for epic, inventive adventure.

Every Zelda game was someone's first, and a person's introduction to the series almost invariably seems to establish their expectations and interests when it comes to future Zelda entries.

Those who fell into the series with A Link to the Past compare every other Zelda to that masterpiece. Fans who came along later and discovered Zelda through Ocarina of Time tend to want sequels to hold to that game's standard. And so on.

My own first Zelda experience came in the form of the the first Zelda: The original NES game that started it all, 30 years ago. And while I've enjoyed (loved!) many Zelda sequels since then, a part of me has always carried some disappointment that the franchise has never truly gone back to attempt to recapture the specific parts of that long-ago quest that I found so enrapturing. A Link to the Past initially seemed like it would do the trick, reverting from Zelda II's 2D platforming action to a slower, top-down perspective, but ultimately that game struck out in its own direction. The result was nothing short of a masterpiece, but one that excelled through tight, structured progression and inventive dungeon design that simply didn't exist in its NES forebear.

Perhaps counterintuitively, though, that looseness and lack of direction was precisely what I loved about the original Zelda. You have to understand that game in the context of its era to properly appreciate it; in hindsight, yes, it can feel aimless and unfriendly and often needlessly harsh. Yet it was those very elements that made the game such a revelation back in its time. It presented an enormous freeform quest in a medium that until then had largely centered on quick, decisive action games. Zelda featured a battery save that allowed you to record your progress and jump back immediately into your quest days or even weeks later. It granted its protagonist Link an inventory of tools and weapons nearly as sprawling as the land of Hyrule itself. Seemingly every screen of the enormous overworld map contained a secret, and the nine dungeons that dotted the landscape contained dozens of challenges and secrets all their own. And it all played out with tight controls and thoughtful play balancing, something distinctly absent in contemporary attempts by other develoeprs to travel similar ground to Zelda's.

I' love've cherished the few glimpses I've seen of that wide-eyed wonder in subsequent chapters of the series. Stepping into Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. Breaking the proper dungeon sequence in Oracle of Seasons. Sailing the vast and empty ocean in Wind Waker. Galloping through the central countryside of Twilight Princess. Still, these were merely moments of games rather than representative of the whole, and Nintendo has yet to deliver a Zelda that truly recaptures the sense of wonder and freedom that first game enkindled.

It's taken three decades, but I genuinely believe Breath of the Wild has the potential to deliver on this front. I spent about half an hour with the game's E3 demo a few weeks ago, and I'm positive I didn't see everything it had to offer in that time. (I know this for a fact, because several Nintendo representatives were standing around my kiosk taunting me about the cool things I was just about to uncover when the demo automatically ended.) Open-world role-playing odysseys have grown stale over the past five years, and yet there was something about Breath of the Wild that got under my skin the way the original Zelda did; two weeks after my brief demo, I'm still thinking about it.

I'm not so naïve that I don't realize the impact the original Zelda had on me owed much to its newness. Not just its newness as a game concept, but as a game experience for me, specifically. That golden cartridge presented my introduction not only to the series, but to an entirely new concept in video games. Naturally, I've been drawn to both the series and a genre because of my love for that first Zelda, but of course everything since has been derivative. Zelda can't give me as profound a sensation of newness as a game did more than 25 years ago, not without radically reinventing itself into something that probably doesn't resemble Zelda at all.

That's OK. I don't need a totally new sensation. Rather, the one thing I truly want from a new Zelda game is a chance to recapture the sense of grandeur and enigma that the NES game instilled. The last time I truly experienced that in Zelda was when I set out on Wind Waker's vast sea aboard a tiny boat in search of scattered islands containing adventure — a feeling that gradually subsided once I realized there would only be a single island per map sector, and that few of the islands really had anything interesting to offer. I still loved Wind Waker, and I've loved several entries in the series since, but at the same time I find myself disappointed by the nagging sensation that the Zelda franchise has fallen into a formulaic rut. It's a great formula, but it still feels far too familiar at times.

I don't know if Breath of the Wild will jump from that well-worn game design groove, but the E3 demo left me optimistic for the first time in more than a decade. The upcoming game still feels, unquestionably, like The Legend of Zelda: You control an elfin teen named Link, who commands a sword and a bow and fights bokoblins and immediately learns of a mysterious threat called the Calamity Ganon. Crumbling ancient ruins appear to be a mixture of rough-hewn medieval stone and unknowable high technology. And off in the distance, you can see Hyrule Castle trapped within a mystic force of some sort.

Where the game differs, however, appears to be in how the little details play out. Nintendo has rethought some of the simplest, most fundamental mechanics of the franchise this time out, things that haven't changed since A Link to the Past. For instance, for the first time since (I believe) Zelda II on NES, Link doesn't recover health by collecting heart icons from smitten foes; instead, he has to craft his own healing items by gathering food and preparing it at camp fires.

People like me have been waiting a long time for Nintendo to take Zelda into a more open-world format again — it came up as a common question to producer Eiji Aonuma five years ago when Skyward Sword launched alongside the similarly titled Skyrim — and Breath of the Wild's cooking mechanic makes clear why it's taken so long. Of all the developers in the business, Nintendo is the least haphazard, the most considered in its actions. Nintendo isn't averse to making a significant shift in the design of its core properties, or even in following in the footsteps of other studios, but the company never seems to do so unless that move is backed by creative confidence. Nintendo didn't want to make the move into modern open-world design until it could do it right and bring something new to the genre.

We're living in the year 2016, and open-world action adventures with RPG hooks and item crafting have become as trite and common as first-person shooters were 15 years ago. Breath of the Wild, which won't even arrive until next year, makes the Zelda series decidedly late to the party. That tardiness appears more than justified, though: Even the E3 demo (a narrow, tightly defined slice of the game's opening hour or two) demonstrates quite clearly that Nintendo hasn't just dropped the workings of Zelda into a massive open space and said, "Eh, good enough." Aonuma's team has obviously stepped back and asked not only how Zelda as a franchise could work on the scale of a game like Skyrim, but how to avoid the pitfalls that seemingly every other developer falls afoul of when working in the open-world style.

And here we get to the part of Breath of the Wild that has caused it to remain under my skin these past few weeks: The game's sense of purpose. It's been a long, long time since I played an open-world adventure that didn't immediately feel like a much smaller game padded out with meaningless chores and a general sensation of bloat. Ubisoft gets the majority of critical flack for its formulaic approach to sandbox worlds, best symbolized by the Assassin's Creed ritual: Find a control point, reveal a portion of the map and the time-wasting checkpoint objectives within, repeat. Yet they're hardly the only studio guilty of those charges; outside of survival horror games like Day Z, nearly every open-world game loads players down with filler material.

Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, at least manages to give the impression that it will offer both freedom of play and a sense of purpose to its world — a true video game unicorn. In recent memory, only Metal Gear Solid V has come close to achieving that seemingly impossible task... though unlike MGSV, something tells me Zelda will actually ship as a completed product. I suspect the game's E3 demo compacted the general game experience; will we really be granted the power to levitate objects with the power of magnetism right from the outset? Maybe, maybe not. And the second section of the demo provides you with a decent sword and a bow immediately, without any indication of how you acquire those items. Nevertheless, the nature of the shortcuts the game's designers may have built into the demo doesn't matter nearly so much as what players will actually be doing throughout the course of Link's next adventure… which, it appears, will consist largely of solving environmental puzzles and foraging for essential goods.

Open-world games and foraging typically go hand-in-hand, but it's always a compulsive behavior rather than a meaningful venture. Do you really need to collect food in Skyrim? No, because food has pitiful curative properties and it's much easier to simply take a few levels to learn healing spells or potion-making. In Breath of the Wild, though, food appears to be the only way for Link to recover health; there's no magic, no heart drops, no stamina regeneration. Those mushrooms and bits of meat I collected in the demo were my only lifeline when I entered combat, and they didn't go far; their scarcity demanded more cautious play than I typically associate with either Zelda or open-world games. Fights became tense, felt meaningful... especially since I also had to craft my own arrows rather than simply picking them up by hacking grass. The game doesn't appear to have any sort of skill tree or experience system, so as per the franchise's fundamental rules, Link's growth will likely depend on the player's skills and whatever tools he incorporates into his arsenal.

Of course, there's the question of whether the game has maintain this sense of tension and scarcity over the course of dozens of hours. That's a tall order. Far Cry Primal initially seemed to be a tense, harsh, demanding adventure in which your lone caveman didn't really stand a chance against the prehistoric wilderness... but after a few hours, you began to acquire abilities that made you a more or less indomitable force. By the end of the game, you didn't really need to worry about enemies, hostile animals, or scarcity. Zelda has not traditionally been particularly good about maintaining tension toward its endgame sequences, either; Skyward Sword, for example, eventually gave players so much cash and so little to spend it on that the devs had to create a special suit of armor that would empower Link by burning his money... not really the most elegant solution.

But what we've seen of Breath of the Wild so far has at least presented us with a promising start. Everywhere I turned in the game, I found some new detail or something different to do. Everyone I've compared notes about the game with took a separate approach to the demo and discovered all sorts of details I never came across. Maintaining that sense of discovery for countless hours will be no small task... but the Zelda games have done it before, and Breath of the Wild's methodical return to the series' early days of vast spaces and little handholding holds tremendous promise for the game's ultimate outcome. Finally, after all these years: A Zelda game that (despite its fundamental familiarity) looks quite unlike anything else I've ever played.

Got questions about Link's first adventure for the Nintendo Switch? We have answers. Check out all our guides, tips, and articles about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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