Let me be your video game shrink for a second here. Close your eyes. No really. Close them. Wait. How are you going to read this if you close your… Goddammit OPEN YOUR EYES.
Okay, let’s start over.
When I say Legend of Zelda, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it dungeons with mind-wracking puzzles? A utility belt with unique and interesting items for every occasion? Or how about the iconic boss fights that…let’s not kid ourselves here. Zelda isn’t known for its boss fights. But ultimately I think we can agree that the Zelda games have very similar characteristics. I would go so far as to say that the most recent ones follow a pretty simple formula. Enter a dungeon. Get an item. Use items to beat the boss. Repeat until Ganon. While some may say that’s missing the forest for the trees, it certainly doesn’t make it any less true.
From Nintendo’s perspective, it’s hard to argue with a formula that has proven to work. Skyward Sword, the most recent title to follow this formula, sold almost 4 million copies and was critically acclaimed (93 on Metacritic). It’s even harder considering that millions of dollars and the reputation of a beloved franchise is on the line. Yet Nintendo took that risk and with Breath of the Wild departed from the formula, producing the rawest Zelda experience imaginable.
In Breath of the Wild, you have complete control over every aspect of your playthrough. What direction to go, what weapons to use… You even get to choose which temples (if any) to complete. That’s right. You can beat the game without ever stepping foot inside of a Divine Beast (this game’s version of the temples of old). Not that I recommend that, though. The Divine Beasts offer a truly unique puzzle experience in which you can manipulate entire aspects of the dungeon to reach certain areas.
For example, in the Elephant Divine Beast, you can manipulate the angle of its trunk. This not only creates different bridges that access different parts of the dungeon, but it also alters the direction of water pouring out of its trunk, which is used in multiple puzzles throughout. At the end of each Divine Beast, there is a boss, which, depending on your progress in the game, is merciless and will likely one-shot you. These bosses are unlike any Zelda boss in the past. Instead of the routine use item, whack 3 times, repeat, each boss can be approached in multiple ways and requires quick thinking and even quicker reflexes to defeat.
Even normal, open-world combat gives players an array of choices. Every Moblin camp comes with its own unique sub-game of analyzing the environment for exploding barrels, metal boxes, and other hazards that can be used to your advantage–and even all of that is optional! If you are more of the fight first/ask questions later kinda gamer, you can just run in and whack them with your weapon of choice if you want. Most camps provide players with a reward for defeating them and grant access to a fire pit, a necessity for cooking meals and keeping warm in the frigid mountains.
This brings us to another cool aspect of this game: survival. Players need to hunt animals, forage for mushrooms, and combine them to make food that increases hearts, stamina, speed, and weather resistance. Certain zones of this world have harsh environments that will test your resourcefulness and your ability to survive. Getting to Death Mountain was especially grueling. With its extremely high temperatures, all of your wooden gear begins to burst into flames, and the closer you get to the mountain’s summit, eventually you do, too.
Something that aids in these arduous journeys is the introduction of a fast travel mechanic. Rather than just give players fast travel to all locations they visit, BotW makes players earn the right to fast travel by finding a shrine. Shrines are mini-puzzles that are first introduced in the tutorial and are scattered throughout Hyrule. Each shrine can take 2-5 minutes to solve and rewards the player with gear, money, and spirit orbs (the game’s currency for stamina or heart containers). These shrines keep exploration from getting stale by breaking up the monotony of running/climbing for long periods of time.
What is incredible about BotW is just how much stuff there is to do in this game. Normally, I am not the kind of gamer who travels off the beaten path. My time is precious to me, and wasting it on side quests or hunting for Easter eggs just isn’t my thing. But there is something about this game that fills you with a sense of wonder and intrigue. I found myself spending hours climbing mountains and towers for nothing more than just to see what was atop them. I spent a full hour of game time exploring a giant maze just because I wanted to see what was at the center. There was no plot-related reason to be there, no evil to be vanquished. Just pure adventure. And I loved every minute of it.
If my opinion on this game isn’t clear yet, let it be: this game is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only is this the best Zelda game of all time, but it might also be the best video game ever created. If that sounds like hyperbole, I don’t blame you. I went into this game not buying the hype. But I remember the exact moment this game solidified itself in my mind as the GOAT.
After the tutorial, you are given your first quest, a new mechanic in this Zelda game but certainly nothing groundbreaking. It simply reads “Destroy Ganon.” That’s it. That is your first quest. A yellow ping shows up on your map at Hyrule Castle, the final area in the game, and it stays there the entire time. A constant reminder of what is waiting for you and why you are here in the first place. The quest giver recommends rescuing the four divine beasts before trying your hand at Ganon and also marking them on your map.
My first thought was, “I wonder if I can just go straight to Ganon right now.” So with no gear and 3 hearts to my name, I set off to face the ultimate evil only to find Hyrule Castle surrounded by mechanical spiders with laser cannons. Not only are these things strong (certainly able to one-shot my 3-hearted Link), but they are incredibly fast, and I just didn’t have the stamina (wheel) to keep pace. This experience is what gave me my motivation for the rest of the game and put into perspective just how unprepared I was for fighting Ganon.
From this moment on, I was hooked. I knew exactly what I was up against and what I needed to succeed. My drive for completing quests, for exploring dungeons, for everything all came back to this moment. I was ready to do anything to become strong enough to defeat Ganon. Every now and then I would check back at Hyrule Castle to test my mettle against these mechanical beasts, and each time I would fail, leading me back to exploring more of the game’s world. BotW was able to immerse me right into this vast world using nothing more than a blip on a map and some soul-crushingly strong enemies.
This game is so good it subverts traditional grading scales. If Skyward Sword is a 94, Breath of the Wild should be in the 200s–that is how much better it is than its predecessors. Currently, it has a 98 on Metacritic. 48 of its 75 reviews are perfect scores, the largest number of perfect scores for any game. This unprecedented acclaim is warranted, and I’m more than happy to add to it.