I didn't know what to make of Breath of the Wild the first time I played it at E3 2016.
It was jarringly different from anything that had come before—an open world game with almost too much freedom. I was encouraged by the PR team to wander around and try some things.
It reminded me uncomfortably of Xenoblade Chronicles X, a featureless open-world RPG defined by fetch quests and some of the most boring open-world exploration I've ever encounted. If that was the future of Zelda, then I wanted no part of it.
Thankfully, Breath of the Wild proved to be the best of both worlds: a subtly guided experience that also felt almost endlessly open. The core of its exploration was revelatory in an age where so many open-world RPGs are inclined to hold your hand. It was a throwback to the days of the original Legend of Zelda, when Hyrule was a huge and forbidding place, full of mysteries and secrets.
Our freelance contributor Doc Burford did a great job of capturing what separates Breath of the Wild from other open-world games in his piece "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Shouldn't Be This Good."
The big problem with open world games is how they drown you in information. Remember the complaints about Assassin’s Creed Unity’s map? The game itself was surprisingly fun after the performance patches, but the map was a nightmarish stew of icons. Unity had hundreds of icons dotting its map, all demanding your attention, but it was far from alone. Comparatively Sunset Overdrive, one of my favorite games, has a huge number of collectibles that all look different but are obtained in more or less the same exact way.
Breath of the Wild’s map is refreshingly empty. Much like Skyrim, you discover items in the world through proximity. Most open worlds give players a gigantic checklist to complete, but Breath of the Wild lets players discover its 900 korok seeds. Spot an interesting rock formation? Get curious. Try to figure out what makes it so special. You’ll almost certainly be rewarded.
That's the difference between Breath of the Wild and Xenoblade Chronicles X, I think: In Zelda, there's always something interesting to be found. In Xenoblade Chronicles X, you're meant to admire the terrain.
As Doc writes in his piece, Breath of the Wild certainly has some decisions worth debating. Old-school Zelda fans (and Caty) aren't too big on its samey dungeons. The weapon degradation system is certainly a point of contention.
But it's not often you see a game this widely popular, and this widely loved. Moreso even than most Zelda games, Breath of the Wild really caught on with the general public. In the weeks and months following its release, it was a popular topic on social media, with players sharing crazy gifs of shield surfing or just random oddities. Earlier today I was laughing at this. Also this. Breath of the Wild is an endless font of amazing images like these.
But look beyond all the funny gifs, and you see all the ways in which Breath of the Wild gives you the freedom to solve your own problems, and it almost never feels broken or contrived.
I think Doc put it best when he wrote:
Breath of the Wild captures that intuition; things happen because it makes sense that they would happen. Of course carrying a spear is almost certain to attract lighting! Yes, if there’s a cliff and you've got a nearby tree that’s long enough, you can chop it down and use it as a makeshift bridge. Rather than rely on dull, predictable game logic of “find the key to get through the lock," a series staple that can be unfathomable to non-gamers, Breath of the Wild teaches you a new way to think. Yet this wouldn’t work without simplicity.
I think Breath of the Wild will be one of those games that we'll still be talking about in five years, as we still do with Dark Souls and The Witcher 3. It's not easy for single-player games to transcend their release windows these days, but Breath of the Wild feels significant in a way that many games do not. Crazy as it is to say, the Nintendo Switch may already have its defining game.
In setting out to freshen up a franchise that was in danger of becoming stale, Nintendo accomplished much more: they not only redefined Zelda, but open-world games at large. And in so doing, they put the Switch on a fast track to success not seen since the release of the Wii more than a decade ago.
In a year filled with incredibly worthy games, that makes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild USgamer's Game of the Year for 2017.