The boy who handed me a random Game Boy cartridge wasn’t my friend. He also wasn’t a bully. He was more like the official class troublemaker, and so I should’ve stopped and asked him why he was giving me The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It wasn’t my birthday. It wasn’t some special class gift-exchange day. He had no good reason to do so.
But I was 11 years old. I wasn’t going to say no to a free game.
It took me a decade, but I finally pieced together that the boy had stolen the game out of the class assistant’s purse. She was the nicest lady, and I remember her liking me a lot. We even bonded over our love of the game when she saw me playing it once. She told me that she had to buy it again because her copy went missing. I don’t know if she ever suspected that I stole it. I hope not, and I wish I could find her now to tell her that I’m sorry that I didn’t realize what had happened sooner.
And yet, I’m glad that boy committed his tiny act of larceny and made me an accomplice, because Link’s Awakening is my favorite game. Figuring out that I was supposed to use the Power Bracelet to pick up the dungeon boss and hurl him against the wall to break his bottle was a long process for my child brain to tackle, but when that finally clicked after months of trying to figure it out, it was a powerful moment that unlocked my understanding of the series and video games as a medium.
It gives me a pang of anxiety to imagine a world where that boy didn’t try to pass the game off on me, because I don’t think I’d be the same person that I am today without it.
And then there’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is a masterpiece.
I have no reservations about making that claim. Its size is astounding, especially because every mountain peak, tree grove, and river valley has something special for you to discover. Its openness will shock you, because it doesn’t rely on artificial limitations to keep you inside of any predetermined safe space. Its story and characters are unforgettable, which is more impressive because they are now competing against emergent stories that you’ll come up with on your own.
But for me, the most powerful aspect of this new Zelda is the way its mechanics and systems create that sensation I got when I fought the second boss in Link’s Awakening. It is the first adventure game since that Game Boy Zelda to make me feel that overwhelming sense of revelation. And it isn’t a singular instance — it’s so organic that it is a series of moments where you try something, it works, and your brain clicks into place and races with new possibilities.
To start from the beginning, Breath of the Wild is the latest entry in the Zelda franchise. It has Link once again taking on the forces of evil led by Ganon, the series’ classic bad guy. Only this time, Nintendo has thrown out its well-worn, linear formula of gated areas that are only accessible after you get through certain dungeons and collect certain power-ups. In their place, the publisher has built a living, breathing world of interacting systems and mechanics that you are free to explore however you choose. Your only limitations are the number of hits you can take and the amount of stamina you have for swimming, climbing, sprinting, and your capability to withstand environmental changes. But you can augment all of these from the first moment, and you can even walk straight to the last boss in the first hour.
While Breath of the Wild is a massive departure, it is also more reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System than any other game in the series. Franchise creator Shigeru Miyamoto said that he came up with the idea for Zelda when he was exploring caves in Japan as a child. The series got away from that, but it has snapped back to this idea in a major way.
And the result is the best game Nintendo has ever made.
What you’ll like
A world of experiences that are both deep and wide
It isn’t enough to call Breath of the Wild a “large” video game. We’ve had big video games for a long time now, and I don’t want to simply imply that this game has a lot of story or that it’ll take you a long time to finish. It’s so much more than that.
Breath of the Wild’s mass comes both from a huge variety of activities and from the depth of those activities. At any moment, you could spend your time searching for challenge dungeons or running side quests for other characters. You could tame a horse or cook up special meals and elixirs. You could chase down the amnesiac Link’s memories, or you can just start running in a direction to see what you randomly stumble across.
But the point is that you could also do just one of those things. For example, I spent hours cooking foods and mixing up elixirs. I’d search out various ingredients just to see if I could make a cake or spicy chicken, and the system is so intricate and dynamic that it really is like learning a real-world skill.
Breath of the Wild reminds me of that old IBM video Powers of 10. In that short film, the camera pulls out on a couple having a picnic in Chicago at a multiple of 10 every 10 seconds until we are looking in from the edge of the universe, but then the camera zooms all the way back in on the couple and starts dividing by a factor of 10 until we are looking at existence on a sub-molecular level. That’s how I feel about the scale of Zelda. Yes, it expands endlessly in all directions, but each of its parts is also brimming with content.
As someone who has played a lot of open-world games at this point, Breath of the Wild’s density often baffles me. Everyone knows the old gaming industry line: “You see that mountain in the background? You can walk to it.” That scale was enough to excite me for a long time, but Zelda does something unexpected with its scope: It fills it with unique and interesting things to do.
Imagine Minecraft’s endless worlds, but instead of finding another cave or a procedurally generated town on the other side of the hill, you find an undiscovered monster to fight, a clever physics puzzle in a challenge dungeon, or a hidden secret to uncover. That’s the best way I can explain it. Instead of a Minecraft world, where you stumble across something that ended up in that position because of an algorithmic accident, Nintendo designers deliberately planned experiences for you over each one of Hyrule’s hills.
And I really do mean that I’m baffled. In a traditional Zelda town or dungeon, which are tiny spaces compared to the openness of Breath of the Wild, you’d often find forking paths. And you’d end up finding a reward if you did the work to explore all of your options thoroughly. Somehow, Nintendo has maintained that key characteristic of the Zelda franchise despite its vast open spaces.
If you’re running from one objective to another and you spot an outcropping, a lake, or a peculiar mountain peak, you should go explore it. Nothing’s stopping you, and chances are high that you’ll end up finding some special moment that Nintendo planned.
Other open-world game developers are going to play this and feel embarrassed. Bethesda, Ubisoft, and others have had us believing for so long that this kind of tight design experience wasn’t possible in a huge open space. You could have a game that frees up the player to interact with the world and is expansive in scale, but it might feel sloppy or like it was built in a cookie-cutter fashion on an assembly line.
But Nintendo is smashing that myth with Zelda, and it is a breathtaking thing to experience.
Lovable and loving characters
Do you spend any time on social media sites like Tumblr or Twitter? Well, prepare yourself for a flood of memes, cosplay, and fan art based on the Breath of the Wild’s cast.
Link still doesn’t talk, yet he has more personality than ever before thanks in large part to his extensive wardrobe and the capability to take selfies with control stick-activated emotes. Zelda also feels like a more active participant in the game than ever before. She is still often a damsel in distress, but she’s also the unchallenged leader of the fight against Ganon.
But Breath of the Wild’s roster goes well beyond Link and Zelda. A cast of supporting characters includes the handsome, flexing Zora prince Sidon and an accordion-playing anthropomorphic bird, Rito. You’ll get to learn how the Zora princess Lady Mipha and Link have a strong bond that upsets an older generation of the fish people. Even some lowly characters, like a girl named Paya in Kakariko Village, stands out as a memorable person.
Each of these characters shine because of strong writing, beautiful art design, and expressive animation, but Breath of the Wild is also not afraid to let love exist in its world. In one cutscene, you learn a lot about Mipha’s feelings. She even asks Link to go out on a date, and I like that Nintendo isn’t afraid to say that sometimes these characters have feelings that go beyond friendship. This makes uncovering their histories and their motivations more interesting and rewarding.
Incredible new dungeon structure that keeps a mean pace
Most Zeldas since the Super Nintendo have maintained a basic formula of navigating the main world to get to dungeons that contained the bulk of the action and puzzles. Breath of the Wild swerves away from that and instead focuses on offering more than a 100 smaller challenge dungeons. They are short bursts of gameplay and mechanics that often require you to learn a new concept similar to a level in something like Portal. You’re using a core set of magic spells that enable you manipulate magnetic objects, summon bombs, stop time for a target, and more in order to find clever solutions to brain teasers.
All of these challenges are fun and difficult, and they are hiding all over the world. And that means you’re never far from a quick hit of top-notch Nintendo level design. And since they are so short, you never get bogged down because you haven’t seen the sky in four hours. It keeps the pace of the game flowing, and that’s crucial, because the overworld has so much stuff to do and so much space to explore.
Now, this does still have traditional dungeons, but it has fewer of them, and they are more focused on core concepts than in past Zeldas. A dungeon in the Zora domain is about water puzzles with almost no combat. That’s different than the Zora dungeon in Ocarina of Time, which had you in combat, solving puzzles, and exploring.
This is the first Zelda that Nintendo built for high-definition televisions. And even though it’s on the underpowered hardware of the Switch and Wii U (I played the Switch version), Nintendo has delivered a stunning work of interactive visual art.
Breath of the Wild sits somewhere between Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time for its style, but it definitely leans closer to the latter. These living cartoons have striking, detailed faces that are bursting with character, and that is a big reason they are so memorable. But they also exist in a world that feels like it is breathing. Nintendo accomplishes that living quality by visually representing the various systems in a number of subtle ways. If you’re in a cold and fertile part of the world, you’ll see clouds of moisture rolling off the land. If you’re in desert, you’ll see the horizon shift and shimmer due to the heat. And no matter where you are, the land is always animated with blowing leaves, swaying grass, and animals going about their day.
Beyond the environmental effects, the design of areas like towns are also stunning. One particular village, a town that returns from previous games, establishes an entirely new identity that echoes a Japanese mountain community. Breath of the Wild’s many horse stables end up looking like Mongolian migrational communities. And by borrowing from these real-life counterparts, the game’s fantasy setting ends up feeling more convincing and intimately familiar than ever before.
Selfies, anime, and music
But then Breath of the Wild has a million other elements and quirks to love.
There’s the camera mechanic that you can use to scan objects in the environment like in Metroid Prime, but you can also use it to take selfies. I also think the music, which only comes in at certain moments, is beautiful. And like the rest of the game, the composer isn’t afraid to take risks with more electronica and other genres beyond the standard orchestral score.
There’s also the obvious anime influences that make the game feel young and fresh compared to the previous Zeldas that felt more like fairy tales or mythology. The anime-ification of Zelda is the reason that characters like Sidon have funny signature poses, and I think it’s also why we get one of the most incredible quests in the game where Link has to go the extra mile to sneak into a town that is hostile toward men.
Other things I adore about Breath of the Wild include its sense of fashion. Link gets some outrageous armor options, and I found myself wearing certain sets just because I liked the way they look. For example, whenever it was time to climb a mountain, I would wear the bandana and the climbing pants/shoes (all of which give a buff to climbing), but then I would unequip Link’s shirt. This would lower my overall defense rating, but I just thought Link looked right as a shirtless extreme-sports bro.
And finally, I love how Nintendo incorporates the narrative into Breath of the Wild. It’s almost all done through one mechanic, and you have to purposefully seek it out. The cutscenes look great, they present a story with likeable characters doing amazing things, and they don’t really ever overstay their welcome.
What you won’t like
It’s influenced by anime
I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but not everything is wonderful about the influences of anime on The Legend of Zelda, and it’s possible I’m even misattributing the blame. But I don’t like that Zelda and Mipha both sound so fragile when they speak. They come across as if everything is about to cause them to break down.
And then there are the multiple creepy dudes. At multiple points in the game, you’ll meet guys who admit that they are just staring at women or spying on them. In one instance, a man is trying to get into the Gerudo Town that is off limits to men, and he just stands outside of its gates and tries to say that he’s not spying. At that same entrance, another man is running back and forth in front of the village in an attempt to get women to notice that he’s wearing rare and expensive boots. He thinks that he can get their attention because he heard that they like shoes. When you first talk to him, he says, “Oh, it’s just a guy,” and then he complains that none of the women will talk to him. You even end up having to do a quest to help a creepy guy in one village hit on a girl while she is working. This dude sits around all day and says it’s his job to check out anyone who enters the town, but he slips up multiple times and says he’s checking out “beauties” instead of strangers.
Now, the writing typically plays these guys as chumps, but it also portrays them as harmless and silly, but if I think about it at all, it makes me uncomfortable to turn a dude stalking a woman at her work into a game. In real life, that’s almost never harmless, and I don’t like that the game is trying to pass that off as normal.
For me, these kinds of characters and the fragility of the women characters is reminiscent of some anime, but even if I am wrong about that influence, I still have problems with these aspects of Zelda.
Underwhelming and inconsistent voice acting
Breath of the Wild is still mostly unvoiced. Like in previous games, you’re going to end up reading the bulk of your conversations with characters. But Nintendo did include a few cutscenes with voice actors, and I don’t love it. It’s not terrible, but the characters come across as flat. And even if it were great, Nintendo doesn’t get a pass for having a few lines of spoken dialogue. Other games with larger scripts, like Mass Effect, have voice acting for every line, and Breath of the Wild should as well.
The interface could be more streamlined
I love cooking, combat, and everything else in Zelda, but selecting items from the menu or switching gear is a pain. If I go from using my stealth armor into a combat scenario, I have to pause the action to bring up the menu, and I need to manually select the headwear, the shirt, and the pants. And when I’m cooking, I can’t bring up a quick menu to throw ingredients into the pan. I have to hit the Plus button to bring up my inventory, I have to hold the ingredients, and then I have to go back to and set everything in manually. And I often cook 20 or 30 things at a time, and it takes too long to do that process over and over.
Zelda’s problems are tiny, and they look even smaller next to the its gigantic accomplishments. Nintendo has made a special video game in Breath of the Wild. As the name suggests, it is a breathing wilderness that Nintendo brought to life by abandoning the structured, predictable Zelda formula. At the same time, it feels like the ultimate culmination of the ideas we encountered in the first Zelda in 1987. And I think the result of all of its interlocking systems is a game that wants to slam you with moments of epiphanies. For me, my experience with Link’s Awakening was about getting that one major flash of insight and then using that to understand the rest of the game and then the rest of the Zelda series. For Breath of the Wild, Nintendo made a game that could replicate that moment over and over.
In his presentation at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Breath of the Wild technical director Takuhiro Dohta said, “We really want players to have these moments where they interact with the world and think, ‘Wow! I’m a genius!” And that was always the core of Zelda, Breath of the Wild found a way to build an entire game where those moments were no longer scripted and instead emerged naturally from the player interacting with the systems.
And while I don’t know if I ever felt like a genius while playing Breath of the Wild, I did feel like I was 11 years old and unlocking the magical secrets of Zelda all over again.
Nintendo provided a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to GamesBeat under embargo for the purposes of this review. It is out March 3 for $60.