Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild arrived at a tricky time for me.

It was the launch title for the new Nintendo Switch (though it was also simultaneously released on the Switch’s predecessor console, the Wii U), and it was unquestionably a system-seller. A new entry in the Zelda series is often a milestone in gaming, and Breath of the Wild — or BotW henceforth — has proved to be no exception. I’d diligently cleared my schedule, and was ready, months in advance, to take a three-day weekend of indulgence when both the Switch and the game were released.

Then we decided to get a puppy. We saw the ad, drove 45 minutes or so south to take a look at the litter of ten, and we immediately picked out our little guy. He was named Whisky then and there, and we arranged to return four weeks later (when he’d be eight weeks old, and ready to leave his mother) to collect him. It was only when I put the date into my calendar that I realised we’d be picking him up the day after Zelda came out. My little sister called the date Switchmas Day, and Whiskmas Eve.

As I write this, that was more than nine months ago. The little puppy who I carried in a pack on my chest has now turned into thirty kilograms of crazy labradoodle, who can easily leap my full height straight up in the air, and whom I could almost put a saddle on and ride through the park. Toilet training is long in the past. He sleeps through the night, every night. He’s great on long car journeys. He’s a huge enrichment to our lives, and very much a family member.

He also has a habit that he formed on day one in our home: when the Switch goes on, he curls up beside me to watch — at least for a while.

I’d read reviews of BotW before I played it. I knew that it was different to virtually every previous Zelda game. I knew that it played with the mechanics, and the patterns, and the hallmarks. I knew that it largely threw the formula out the window. I was nervous about that. But it was Zelda! One of Nintendo’s crown jewels. They couldn’t possibly mess it up. It would be great, and I’d grasp the wisdom of the changes straight away — especially as someone who’s played every previous game, on every platform, to death; a life-long fan. I’d get it, and I’d love it, because they knew what they were doing, but also because I wanted to. That’s what I told myself.

It was a real surprise to me when I actually hated a lot of it.

Limited stamina for running, and climbing, and gliding. Seriously limited, to begin with. Every weapon is breakable, including not just swords and spears and such, but also bows and shields. Weapons break in the middle of a fight, and enemies — quite understandably — don’t care about sportsmanship.

The weather works against you. Headwinds affect your paraglider, as do sidewinds. Sometimes it rains, making it impossible to climb. And then there are the thunderstorms, whereby any equipped metallic object — say armour, or a sword, or a shield — absolutely will be struck by lightning.

Cutting down long grass, or smashing pots, won’t yield any rupees (the in-game currency of the land of Hyrule), and nor will it yield any hearts to replenish your life force. Killing enemies won’t result in them dropping those things either. You have to find food to eat, and ingredients to cook into dishes, which you can then consume to refill your health. Cooking requires a cooking pot, with a lit fire beneath it, and a lack of active peril.

You’re also entirely free to run (by which I mean briefly run, then recover stamina, then briefly run again, and so on) straight into enemies that are nigh-impossible for you to kill in your initial state. The game is non-linear, with barely any framework of guidance beyond the starting area. After progressing through the first hour or two of the game and learning the ropes — almost entirely without help — you’re given a quest which amounts to “go and kill the final boss somehow, and good luck with that”. And you’re able to head off to try and do that very thing, without further preamble. You probably won’t get very far.

On paper, the whole thing is absurdly against you. It’s resolutely not Zelda. There is no hookshot. There are no seven magical seals, each snatched from the claws of a beast who resides in a dungeon elementally suited to itself, and vulnerable solely to a magical weapon kept in that very dungeon, in a highly questionable tactical move. A magical weapon that never fucking breaks, mind you. Those were the days. But there’s none of that to be found here.

And yet I kept playing. Not hate-playing, or misery-playing, or faith-playing. The hours just disappeared.

What’s over that hill? (Invariably a grand vista of unexplored terrain.)

Can I climb that? Can I get to there? (Yes. If you can see it, you can get there — as long as it’s on the same vast continent.)

I wonder if there’s anything interesting over here. (Yes. There always is. And it’ll have a name that’s distantly familiar, in a melancholy sort of way.)

Slowly, too, I started to understand.

The stamina wheel is actually two core game principles, wrapped up in an almost unrelated mechanic. First, in Breath of the Wild, you have to be paying attention. All the time. You have to be watching, and thinking ahead. You need to notice your radar, or Sheikah Sensor. You need to notice the temperature gauge. You need to notice the noise gauge. You need to know how far you’ve yet to climb before you can rest on a more-or-less level area. You need to use the camera stick. You need to know how far you’ve yet to glide. You need to measure your running periods against how much of your wheel is left. You need to be present. That’s what the stamina gauge is really about.

It’s a way for the game, right from the start, to throw something at you that you can’t plausibly ignore, and to say: this is how we do things now. We monitor and respond. Plan and execute. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre. We do not just drive — because this world will kill you.

The other thing the stamina gauge exemplifies is the game world’s underlying ethos: when everything is reachable from the start, and thus reachability is no accomplishment, traversal is the reward. You will eventually be able to run for longer. Climb farther and faster. Swim quicker. You’ll get a horse, then a faster horse. The horse itself will have more stamina. You’ll uncover fast-travel points, and some of them will be high enough up that you can glide a long distance from them. Your map will open up. You’ll become equipped for harsher climatic conditions. You’ll gain elemental immunities.

You’ll still be able to go to all the same places — but the way you get there will be better.

It’s only one example of how BotW turns Zelda on its head. Grass and pots and enemies don’t drop rupees — but destructible ore deposits can be sold for a very high price. Enemies don’t drop hearts — but they do leave behind what creatures really would provide: their own weapons, and whatever of their bodily remains can be used to craft potions, or even act as improvised weapons themselves. Animals and plants provide food, or ingredients for meals.

Before, whenever enemy engagement was optional, the trade-off was clear: fighting could gain some currency or some hearts, but you also risked health in doing so. Now, it’s much more nuanced. You need new weapons regularly, because they break, but each fight will impact your current arsenal’s durability. You need ingredients, but you’ll risk health in the short term for the future prospect of replenishment. Scavenged materials can be sold at the next friendly location, but what might you encounter as you search for them?

In Breath of the Wild, you get out what you put in. Nothing is free anymore — and everything is subject to tactics.

Headwinds may hinder, but tailwinds help, as do updrafts — especially when you create them yourself. Rain makes climbing impossible, but the ambient sound also masks your approach. And lightning only cares that its strike point is conductive — and you have the ability to levitate metallic objects anywhere you choose, including towards camps full of enemies.

There are “only” four dungeons (expansion content notwithstanding), but what’s really happened is that there are over a hundred and twenty fragments of dungeons — shrines — spread throughout the land. They’re all classic Zelda-style puzzles in spirit, and they all bestow the chance to boost your health or stamina, gain weapons or other useful objects, and open up a new fast-travel point. That’s probably more dungeon content than in most previous games.

In order to see what Breath of the Wild is about, you just have to look at it differently.

The game offers you a simple proposition: you can have as much of this as you want — and if you want a lot, you’ll find it. It pulls you into its new way of seeing what the game series is about, and after a while you come to realise that it is classic Zelda. It’s absolutely what we’ve come to love; it’s just a new, and probably purer, expression of it. I think it’s the Zelda that they wanted Ocarina of Time to be. It’s maybe even the Zelda that they wanted The Legend of Zelda to be.

It’s non-linear, because worlds are, but you can play it linearly if you like. It gives you choices, but by making them, you’re bound to obey the game’s cardinal rule: you must participate fully. You must plan, and strategise, and learn how to move, and how to parry, and how to strike, and how to pick your weapon or sacrifice it, and how to watch the way your foe moves — and how to notice as the weather changes above you, even while your sword is still drawn.

If you play this game for any length of time, it says, you’ll come to grasp its essence. That’s a remarkable thing.

It has the sense of a formula perfected, and of that quintessentially Nintendo-esque phenomenon of changing all the rules but still making you feel like you’ve returned to a place where everything is viscerally familiar. Did it ever work differently than this, you wonder? But the answer doesn’t seem to matter.

From the first reveal, long before release, I found the game’s title odd. I still found it odd when it was released. It’s not a particularly series-aligned name. It’s only now, much later, that it’s gained meaning for me — whether or not my own interpretation corresponds with the makers’ intentions or not.

When I first played the original Zelda game, and found that I could move up a screen, and left a screen, and up, and up, and right, and on and on, I felt transported to its world. When I first played Ocarina of Time, and got to the point when you first set foot upon Hyrule Field, I had a more intense version of that same thrill. With Breath of the Wild, I had that feeling virtually immediately.

The game is about the large forces of destiny and time, but at a human scale, where we’re dwarfed by responsibilities that initially feel unshoulderable. It’s about vulnerability and unpreparedness, and learning that the universe doesn’t care whether we survive. It’s about that sense of being thrown into a world that, by and large, isn’t waiting for your arrival; it’s already in progress, dangerous, and not built in your favour. And ultimately, it’s about mastery of your environment, and of course your fate, against the odds.

You step out of the starting chamber for the first time in a century, barely clad, defenceless, amnesiac, weakened, and lost. An entire continent stretches to the horizon in every direction. You feel a profound sense of wonder, and possibility — but also threat, and indifference to your presence. For me, that’s what the name means. That’s what this game is about, and indeed what The Legend of Zelda really is, at its core. It’s the same story.

This is just its newest retelling, in a form that we can finally understand.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also like to read my thoughts on the Nintendo Switch itself. If you’re a fellow Switch owner, my friend code is SW-7630-0338-5225, by the way. Add me.)