The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild is a brilliant game. But is it a Zelda game? That seems like a dumb question: It’s a game starring Link. It’s from Nintendo. And Zelda‘s right there in the title. But in some important ways, Breath of the Wild isn’t a Zelda game. Or, at least, not one as we know it.
Every Legend of Zelda game has been an elaborate, nested lock you crawled around inside, picking tumblers as you went. They could be small tumblers, like cracks in walls you bomb to find new items. They could be locks in and of themselves, like the notorious Water Temple. But the basic structure has always been the same: Follow the order, knock over the tumbler, turn the cylinder and open the door.
That’s not Breath Of The Wild. In fact, that is the exact opposite of Breath Of The Wild. Make no mistake, it’s an excellent game. It looks good, it plays beautifully, and it’s filled with smart decisions that prove Nintendo’s philosophy of game design needs to be emulated more than it is. But at the same time, it falls prey to something a lot of open-world games struggle with and what Zelda games haven’t until now: A lack of structure.
There’s simply so much to do in Breath Of The Wild it rapidly gets ridiculous. The game has a huge open world that’s been absurdly well-curated so that everything feels fresh, not recycled, and meaningful. It’s a rich game world with its own history that slowly draws together as you explore, and the game very much wants you to poke around and find things: In fact, finding shrines, little fast travel points/dungeons, is key to upgrading Link and avoiding dying. This isn’t a complaint, really, but it does mean that unless you have a to-do list handy you’re going to lose track of what you intended to do quickly.
It also strains against the franchise it’s been slotted into. It’s hard to discuss too much of Breath Of The Wild‘s story without spoiling the game, to be honest, but right from the start, with Link waking up in a cryogenic pod, the series adds science fiction-esque trappings for the first time that feel uncomfortably at odds with the fantasy of the previous 18 games. It feels, quite a bit, like another game with the names found and replaced and some Zelda iconography worked in.
At the same time, there are parts that are very much Zelda. In some ways, solving the dungeon puzzles have simply migrated to the overworld, as you have to figure out how to traverse dangerous terrain, and you still need specific abilities to solve them. It’s just the game gives them to you early, and uses them in increasingly mind bending combinations for the puzzles. Amusingly, at least some of the time you can simply cut the knot in half: Breath Of The Wild encourages, in its own way, lateral thinking.
And therein lies the key difference. Zelda games have, to this point, generally been linear at root. Breath of The Wild is a game that just gives you a goal, the tools to achieve that goal, and then lets you figure out how you want to do it. That’s the core of any great open world game, of course, and Nintendo’s loving polish of every rock and sword swing only helps matters. But that arguably also makes it something different. Equally good, but different, and you’ll find yourself missing that structure, a little bit, even as you get lost in the wild. So is it a Zelda game? I’m still not sure. I suspect I’ll be chewing over that for a long, long time. But I know you shouldn’t miss it.