But how does Breath of the Wild measure up, not just as a game, but as a Zelda game specifically?
How Zelda Works
I make no secret of my rejection of the officially endorsed timeline of Zeldas. Asking which Zelda happened before which other Zelda, and which possible future implied by Ocarina of Time results in Wind Waker or Link to the Past is to misunderstand, I hold, the basic point of a Zelda game.
These games are all LEGENDS of Zelda. It’s right there in the title.
Each game is the same basic plot–Ganon attacks Zelda, Link gets the Master Sword, Link saves Zelda, a Triforce is Involved In Some Way. Basic elements recur with different details but always the same relationships to eachother. If the game contains a Deku Tree, then he’s there to do roughly the same thing as other Deku Trees in other games. If there’s an Old Man, then he’s there to point out that it’s dangerous to go alone, and give you something useful. Kakariko village, a musical instrument you use, Epona, Navi/Tatl/Midna/Fi: the details are different each time they reappear, but the Essence–in the ‘Philosophy Class’ sense–is the same.
In the same way that every culture seems to have a version of cinderella, each Legend of Zelda game is the same story getting retold by a different teller to a different culture. So, the NES original would be some ur-myth that predates written history, Link to the Past is the fairy tale version, Ocarina of Time is that fairy tale when some professional folklorist like Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm sets down an ‘official’ version. Wind Waker is the version in a seafaring culture that lives on an archipelago. Twilight Princess is the eastern european, disenchanted, post-renaissance version. Skyward Sword is the mass-market animated movie that disappoints as an adaptation.
And then you have the outliers like Majora’s Mask and Spirit Tracks, where some particular version had its immediate audience demand a sequel. The kids were rowdy, Grampa was just trying to get them to go to bed, and they said they didn’t WANT to hear Ocarina of Time AGAIN, they wanted a NEW story but it had to have the same characters! And Grampa has to improvise.
So in order to be successful not just as a game, but as a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild needs to be a successful reinterpretation of what is recognizably the same Legend. It must both use classic Zelda elements, and also find a new angle from which to display them.
Power – Zelda Elements
So here, then, are Zelda elements, from Breath of the Wild, which appeared in other Zelda Games. I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list: Breath of the Wild is a really big game. This is just what I’ve seen.
The basic Zelda plot is there. Ganon attacks Zelda, Link fights Ganon, Link saves Zelda. The Triforce appears certainly, but it’s never mentioned by NAME. Nor does it appear to be an object, or something that someone could ‘get,’ it’s more a… power? Virtue? Metaphysical property? That Zelda just has. It’s not my favorite way of handling the Triforce, but Twilight Princess, Minish Cap, and Skyward Sword all handled it this way so it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent.
The world is clearly designed to be reminiscent of the original Zelda: that was an explicit selling point, that you can do the dungeons in any order. Most of the ‘dungeon,’ though, is not in the dungeons, it’s in the puzzle shrines, which themselves are more reminiscent of the little secret caves, where you would Play Money Making Game or get told that It’s A Secret To Everyone. It’s not an unwelcome way of doing things. Separate the boss fights and the puzzles, you can do as much of either as you want.
The races are all Zelda throwbacks, and I appreciate that they used ones that haven’t made an appearance since their first, like the Rito and Gerudo. The Gerudo, especially, have had a whole Robert Jordan novel’s worth of worldbuilding work put into them.
If you look at the map, you’ll see that nearly every location in the world is named after some character or place from a previous game. I don’t think there was a single game that didn’t have at least one place in Breath named for someone or something in it, except the terrible CDI ones. Even then, if someone tells me, no here, see? This tiny hill way the north, named Gamelon! Not only are the names a reference, the use of character names/place names in a different game is what was done way back in Adventure of Link/Ocarina of Time, thought the other way around. That wouldn’t surprise me. It’s debatable how much this affects the real experience of the game, as you only see these names when you use the map, but it’s certainly better than not naming the locations.
The music, which is the element that most Zelda games change the least, is here the one that changes the most. The score for this game is very strictly minimal, limited mostly to occasional atmospheric piano arpeggios. However, what there is, is beautifully recognizable. The horse riding music builds into a wonderfully subtle version of the classic overworld theme. The Great Fairy Fountains play a dreamy nostalgic rendition of the fairy fountain song. The Rito village has the music from Dragon Roost Island–which I love that they reused–redone as some kind of mournful and nostalgic Slavic waltz.
Wisdom – Notable Differences
And yet Gerudo Desert does not have the Gerudo desert theme? In heaven’s name why? The Gerudo revamp had by far the most effort put in, the Gerudo Valley music was one of the standout tracks from a Zelda already notable for the quality and memorability of its music. I was really looking forward to this, and really missed it.
A big departure is the voice acting, in that there is it. Zelda games just plain don’t have spoken lines, they have some non-verbal vocalizations that play accompanying lines of text at most. I wish I could say the voice acting worked. For one thing, the lines being spoken don’t sound like speech. That’s something that all Zelda’s have had, but it wasn’t a problem before, because before you weren’t hearing them, you were reading them. For another thing, only a few lines are voice acted. There’s maybe… 24? 25? Or so? Intermittent scenes with voiced lines, and most are immediately preceded by and followed with non-voiced dialog with that very same character. That’s just infrequent enough that the transition always catches you off-guard, but just frequent enough that you never fully recover your ability to overlook how awkward the dialog sounds.
Somewhat weirdly, there are very few enemy types. Bokoblins, Moblins, Lizalfos. Skeleton versions of those three. Hinox, aka the bomb-throwing guys from Link to the Past. Lynels, aka the Lion Centaur things from Original NES that I don’t recall having been in any game since. Keese. Octorocs. Guardians. And Wizrobes. And (I think) that’s it. Compare that to past Zeldas where each dungeon by itself might have that many types of enemies. While the enemy behavior is varied and surprising, and the specificity makes this Hyrule feel like a very definite place, distinct from other versions, it does feel like corners were cut here. ReDeads, for example, I think could have been very compelling in a Breath of the Wild form.
There’s no item collection. You don’t gain new weapons in each dungeon, as has been the pattern. Instead, you get all the abilities you’re going to get right in the tutorial, in the form of Sheikah runes, and then that’s all there is for the rest of the game. The ‘go into the dungeon, find that dungeon’s weapon/item, solve all the puzzles in that dungeon themed around using it, then fight the boss that’s weak against it’ pattern that’s been characteristic of Zelda games since Link to the Past is completely absent.
The theme of ancient technology is not something I would look for in Zelda, it would seem more at home in the likes of Final Fantasy. That said, it was very well handled. The ancient Sheikah tech is the place where the design philosophy of ‘make everything look like Studio Ghibli made it’ is most prominent, and where it pays off the heaviest.
And why the insistence on Link not wearing the familiar green?
Courage – The Intersection: Reinterpretation
This is where a Zelda game shines. Succeeding here is the difference between Zelda and Any Other Fantasy Action/RPG.
For me, it absolutely works. Breath of the Wild is clearly, consciously, trying to redo the same Zelda Monomyth, and it knows exactly what angle it wants to approach it from. The melancholy introspection, the lonely minimalist music, the Miyazaki-esque robots, the amnesia story angle: all of them are things that Zelda hasn’t done before, but here they are all being done ABOUT the Zelda Monomyth and made fully pieces of it.
One notable example is the Guardians. Functionally, these are Beamos, a familiar enemy type that does not appear under that name in Breath of the Wild, but that has appeared in nearly every Zelda since Link to the Past. The difference here is first how this time, they have gone from ‘minor annoyance’ to ‘one of the most dangerous things in the game.’ Second, they are functionally the same as Beamos only because most of them are broken due to the circumstances of the plot that are themselves unique to this Zelda game.
That’s what I mean by reinterpretation being the intersection between familiar Zelda elements and differences. They took a new enemy type, applied a new detail of the new version of Hyrule to it, and produced a familiar enemy type.
Breath of the Wild absolutely succeeds as a Zelda game. It’s a newer interpretation of the Legend, but it knows exactly what that Legend is and how to change the details without altering the Essence.
I’m not sure what kind of culture tells this version of Zelda. Perhaps this is the version that children born after a societal collapse hear, about a past golden age. It’s notable that most of the people you encounter seem to be nomadic: they have dress based on Mongolian and Siberian nomads, and the vast majority of Hyrule was clearly once inhabited but is so no longer. I’d hesitate to call this post-apocalyptic, but it’s the closest Zelda has ever come. So perhaps the culture that it’s told from is where the post-apocalyptic element comes from.
The bottom line is: yes, it is Zelda, and not just by being more of the same. This is absolutely a worthy addition to the series.