When it comes to modern Nintendo there’s usually two schools of thought amongst discerning video game nerds: “Nintendo fucking sucks” or “Fuck you, Nintendo’s still great”. I’ll proudly place myself in the latter category, but even a shameless Nintendo apologist like myself can admit that the WiiU was kind of a fucking mess. Holding onto the mainstream baiting motion control junk that alienated self-proclaimed “hardcore gamers” (shudder) and compelled your Grandma to buy the original Wii while folding a low res screen with half assed touch capabilities into the unit’s unwieldy beast of a default controller left the WiiU a jack of all trades and master of none, and despite masterful installments of Nintendo mainstays like Smash Bros and Mario Kart, and even an outstanding and innovative new IP in Splatoon, video game buyers stayed away in droves, making the WiiU the Big N’s least successful home console ever.
Zelda was coming though, with an open world experience borrowing the best from games like Skyrim, Shadow of Mordor and Dark Souls and adding that Nintendo polish that’s still unparalleled, a WiiU exclusive to help justify the Nintendo faithful’s most questionable purchase yet. Until it wasn’t. Just as Nintendo did with Twilight Princess on the GameCube and Wii, the new Zelda, subtitled “Breath of the Wild”, would serve double duty as the swan song of the WiiU and the killer launch app of Nintendo’s new system, the Switch.
The Switch, to be honest… well… I’ll definitely buy one at some point, most likely when Super Mario Universe debuts (hopefully) later this year, but for Breath of the Wild I was happy to enjoy my hundred plus hours in Hyrule with the woefully under-appreciated and now sadly defunct WiiU. Having spent the bulk of its development time intended for the WiiU, the WiiU and Switch versions of BotW are near identical, and the game makes the best (and last) argument for the WiiU being an untapped processing powerhouse that no one besides Nintendo themselves ever took the time to truly harness the ability of.
Initially terrifying enemies like the game’s iconic Guardians become addictive and fun to hunt down for valuable crafting materials once you’ve gained the most powerful weapons and shields.
As advertised, Breath truly does feel epic, possibly the most sprawling video game open world I’ve ever had the privilege of exploring, while still not feeling “too big” (cough, Witcher 3, cough, cough MGSV) and largely barren, desolate and aimless. There’s always something to find, discover, explore, cook, eat, kill, or be killed by in every inch of BotW’s Hyrule, so much so that I probably spent about 80 hours just wandering around, climbing, swimming, running and fighting before I ever even attempted to tackle that game’s actual story objectives.
Those story objectives tie into the game’s post-apocalyptic and somewhat depressing plot. This is a Hyrule that has suffered under 100 years of Ganon’s monstrous tyranny, the “Calamity” having defeated Link and the rest of Hyrule’s champions a century ago, Ganon trapping the titular Princess Zelda herself in a nightmarish state of suspended animation in his twisted and deformed version of Hyrule Castle. Four divine beasts: enormous, beautifully designed steampunk megazords piloted by said champions, one of each prominent non-Hylian race: The Goron, Zora, Rito and Gerudo, are now just as possessed by Ganon’s evil as the lethal, be-tentacled Guardians that stalk the countryside, and must be re-conquered by Link and put back into service to join the fray before he faces off against the horrific Calamity itself.
Translation: there are technically only four dungeons in the game, which seems incredibly slight given the overall size of the world map, but without spoiling anything, I can safely say that the encounters are so grandiose, so well plotted and tremendously laid out that they almost feel like entire games unto themselves, not to mention the emotionally resonant character beats that come with reconnecting with the spirits of Hyrule’s long lost champions, fully voice acted (a rarity for Nintendo), except for Link himself, of course, their individual tragedies tug at the heartstrings and provide believable and solid motivation for the game’s colorful and endearing cast of heroic characters to carry on the good fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. Many have said that the game’s plot, story and dialogue are pointless and rote. Those people are entitled to their opinion despite the fact that they’re completely fucking wrong.
And if conquering those Divine Beasts isn’t enough for you there are over 150 Shrines hidden throughout the landscape. These involve small environmental puzzles and combat trials, utilizing Link’s newfound elemental powers of Cryonis, Stasis, Magnesis (which basically do what they say on the tin) and unlimited Bomb dropping (of both the round and square varieties) separately and in concert with each other to incrementally and eventually gain more health and stamina. In addition to finding increasingly stronger gear and weapons, these are basically the only ways to “level up” in the game, which is both unique and refreshing.
Hetsu: Best New Character of 2017.
Another gameplay innovation that some may call too lenient but thatvI found extremely freeing, especially given my recent experiences with the hardassed Dark Souls series and the like, is that there’s no worry about bulky armors weighing you down or having to reach a predetermined level before you can wield certain weapons. The flip side to this though is that all the weapons (except for one very important one) tend to break pretty easily, and though armor, clothing and various arrows can be bought from shops, weapons themselves have to either be found or harvested from slain enemies and there are no traditional blacksmith type vendors in the game that sell or repair weapons. It’s an odd choice that is, again, extremely anachronistic compared to the recent spate of popular Japanese action RPGs, but one that adds to the aura of mystery and discovery in the game’s harsh and dangerous environments, and the element of risk/reward involved in taking certain gear into certain hostile areas and enemy encounters (not to mention those extreme areas of the map that require protective hot or cold weather gear) adds yet another layer of depth and strategy into a game already brimming with a myriad of nuances both subtle and severe.
So while eschewing some of the traditional 3D Zelda tropes that have been in place since the N64 era (There’s a jump button!), caving into the peer pressure of popular contemporary open world action RPG mechanics (the positive influence of everything from the aforementioned Dark Souls and Shadow of Mordor to Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series is felt here) and re-introducing a freedom and encouragement of exploration and experimentation not felt since the wild and uncharted days of the NES original (forget tackling dungeons out of sequence, brave, perhaps foolhardy adventurers can go after Ganon fresh out of the game’s tutorial sequence), Nintendo have crafted an experience that feels absolutely fresh and vital while also remaining very much a part of well-established Zelda canon. For a game that served as both the WiiU’s Viking funeral and the broken champagne bottle on the maiden voyage of the Switch, Nintendo could’ve done a hell of a lot worse.
Breath of the Wild remains wholly engaging for literally hundreds of hours. Addictive combat and exploration with a heartrendingly resonant and satisfying tale to tell amongst its innovative sandbox of cataclysmic dark ages post apocalypse. Above all the adjectives and accolades I could heap upon this experience though, deep down this is a video game, and one that begs to be played, just like the perplexing gold cartridge that started not just the long lived Legend of Zelda series but a lifelong obsession with video games for so many of us. Having a game that bears the Zelda name be just as crucial and indispensable now as it was in the infancy of the game industry as we currently know it is a monumental accomplishment on Nintendo’s part that should not be taken lightly.