In the late 1980s, a bizarre video game from Japan arrived in the United States and became a near-instant classic.
It starred a boy named Link, on a quest to save a princess named Zelda, in a mysterious, massive open world called Hyrule.
“The Legend of Zelda” for the Nintendo Entertainment System is now regarded as one of the best games of all time — a masterpiece work from Nintendo. What “Cinderella” is to Disney, “The Legend of Zelda” is to Nintendo.
And it looks like Nintendo — long-regarded as the Disney of video games — just topped that original accomplishment with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”
The game just launched on Nintendo’s new Switch console, as well as the Wii U, and it’s receiving near-universal praise from critics and fans alike. There’s good reason for that — it’s an incredible, memorable game that everyone should play.
Hyrule is an inhospitable place early on in 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.' There are monsters everywhere, you've got very little health, and the weapons keep breaking. You can die from being in too cold of an area, or from drowning.
From these early encounters, you'll learn which enemies are strongest and how to defeat them. You'll learn how to extend your meager health with food and armour. You'll learn how to most effectively use the weapons at hand, in whatever circumstance. And, most crucially, you'll learn how to survive in extreme temperatures.
All of these early lessons are taught through trial-and-error, and the solutions are often completely logical. That cycle is repeated throughout 'Breath of the Wild,' and it's part of what makes the game so magical. It's the same sense of mystery, followed by discovery, that brought millions of people to the original 'Legend of Zelda' so many years ago.
Though clearly not the case, 'Breath of the Wild' gives you a sense of being the first person to discover its treasures. It's a world full of puzzles hand-crafted to make you feel smart.
There are few limitations in 'Breath of the Wild,' but they're severe in nature -- they often result in death (which isn't as bad as it sounds). Perhaps an area is filled with powerful enemies; perhaps the climate is extreme. There are millions of different ways to die in Hyrule.
More often than not, you will survive. Rather, you'll find a way to survive.
Maybe you'll distract those enemies, or you'll sneak past them. Or you'll figure out a way to get to the top of that mountain peak. And, without fail -- time and time again -- 'Breath of the Wild' rewards that tenacity. In those moments of triumph, the game's designers are nodding at the player -- as if to say, 'We see you! Thank you for caring enough to go through with that! Here is your reward!'
And, every time, it's a delight.
After an initial starting area, where Link is equipped with several tools ('runes') that serve as the base for much of the game's puzzle solving, you're free to go wherever you want. Think you're tough enough to take on the game's final boss, Ganon? Go right for him. He's in Hyrule Castle, which you can get to immediately -- if you survive the walk there. Or perhaps you'd like to take a break from the game's many quests to just explore the massive world of Hyrule? Go for it! There's a ton of stuff to see and do. This is a game that rewards exploration of its massive world.
Much like 'Breath of the Wild' encourages exploration and discovery, it rewards your interest in its characters. Towns full of people dot the landscape, each citizen ready to chat. Some have missions, but many just have a silly story to tell or a song to sing. It's a classic trope in Legend of Zelda games, but it's got new levels of polish in 'Breath of the Wild.'
Beyond just reacting to what you say, what time of day it is, and your previous actions in the game, Hyrule's many characters also notice if you're walking around in your underwear. It's a silly touch, no doubt, but it's another testament to Nintendo's attention to detail with 'Breath of the Wild.'
Of note: You don't have to be a longtime fan to play 'Breath of the Wild,' though there are plenty of nods to previous games that fans (like myself) will appreciate.
There is no 'standard path' in 'Breath of the Wild,' no 'right' way to go.
One of the best things about playing 'Breath of the Wild' right now is the conversations I'm having with other players. The way I approached the entire game is different from each person I speak to, and it fragments even further when we start digging in to specific quests or puzzle solutions.
And that's because of the structure of the game: It's not just an open world, but also a living world. Since that living world responds to many different inputs, there are many different ways to accomplish the same objective. That's part of why solving puzzles, or completing missions, or even defeating enemies (including bosses!) is so rewarding in 'Breath of the Wild' -- the way you overcome that challenge feels unique to you.
Those conversations with other players often turn into new discoveries about what you can do in 'Breath of the Wild.' I've spent dozens of hours in Hyrule, and I'm still learning about 'this place you have to go!' or a character that I can't miss. It's the kind of conversations I remember having as a 10-year-old playing 'The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past' for the first time.
What makes a great game a classic -- from the original 'Super Mario Bros.' straight through to 'Portal' -- is its ability to take the existing standards of the medium and subvert them.
- 'Super Mario Bros.' allowed players to break out of a single screen and run to the right.
- 'Portal' threw away the level structure of games and made players re-examine their role as the player.
This is game design as a critique, intentional or not. The end result is a new standard by which games are measured. That's the kind of impact 'Breath of the Wild' deserves to have, though it may be a while before the effects take hold.
If you play a lot of games, you'll be delighted by how often 'Breath of the Wild' subverts your expectations. If you don't, you'll find much of 'Breath of the Wild' to be free of seemingly arbitrary video game stuff. Fire burns wood; water conducts electricity, as does metal; gravity exists. More often than not, a puzzle's solution is something entirely logical -- no need for 'video game logic,' just traditional logic.
'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' is a challenging game, no doubt, but it's also surprisingly accessible to folks who don't play many games. All you need is a little persistence and curiosity.