Simply put, ‘Breath of the Wild’ is the best entry in Zelda, the greatest video game franchise of all time.
Once more, the newest entry in the Zelda series plays vastly different than every game that came before it. Breath of the Wild reinvents the series, bringing the classic formula into the modern era of video games. That’s not to say there needed to be a shake-up, but that’s what Nintendo has given us, breathing life into its most recognizable intellectual property besides Super Mario. Breath of the Wild is a master class of what an open-world video game can be. That’s impressive in and of itself, because Nintendo hasn’t dabbled in the genre up until this point. The risk of taking the plunge with Zelda has paid off, and then some.
On Metacritic, the review aggregator that in some ways defines a game’s legacy, Breath of the Wild has a resounding 97/100 at the time of this writing. Only one game stands above it: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But to be fair, Ocarina of Time’s 99/100 is averaged from only about one-fourth of the reviews Breath of the Wild has already received.
That’s great and all, but why is any of this significant? Breath of the Wild is just another great game in one of the most consistently great video game franchises ever, right? Well, yes, but there’s more to it. Breath of the Wild paves a path forward for the franchise, and that road looks quite different than it did prior to Link’s latest adventure. Now that Nintendo has unleashed Link in a completely free and open world, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they may never go back to the traditional Zelda formula. Many gamers enjoying Breath of the Wild today started playing Zelda as kids on the NES and grew up with only slight variations of the Zelda formula over the past 30 years. Kids introduced to Zelda today through Breath of the Wild may very well see this vastly different experience as the definition of Zelda.
It’s the dawn of a new era, but before we fully usher it in, let’s take a look at the defining mainline games across Zelda’s rich 30-year history, as there may be no turning back after Link takes his first steps into the Wild.
When The Legend of Zelda released in 1986 for the NES, many thought the main character was, in fact, Zelda. Perhaps even now, those unfamiliar with the franchise would understandably think that. While Princess Zelda has an indispensable role in nearly all the games, it’s Link, a Hylian adventurer, who’s served as the protagonist since the very beginning. On many occasions, Link’s task is to gather fragments of the Triforce of Power to give him the knowledge and strength to thwart the game’s principle villain, Ganon, from reigning supreme over Hyrule.
At the outset, Link enters a cave and receives a wooden sword from a nameless man. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” the man says. To this day, that piece of opening dialogue is one of the most famous lines in video games. Link’s first adventure laid the framework for nearly every Zelda game that followed. The overworld map of Hyrule is its own unique biome, each disparate region housing a dungeon. The progression of a typical Zelda title, started by The Legend of Zelda, sees Link traveling from dungeon to dungeon. He solves puzzles, acquires a new item in each one, and defeats a dungeon boss as he moves closer to saving Hyrule from peril.
In the original, there were nine dungeons. Due to the limitations of the NES — an 8-bit processor — Nintendo implemented a clever grid system to design each dungeon. With each room acting as one brick in the overall grid, the multicolored tiles were swapped from dungeon to dungeon to create a fresh experience all the way through. The hardware limitations were maybe even a blessing, though, as dungeon design throughout the series retained the grid-based layout, albeit with some larger bricks.
As standard as it may sound, the Zelda franchise holds a certain charm that’s incredibly scarce in games. Its senses of adventure and discovery are arguably unparalleled, beginning with the maiden voyage, a remarkable feat, especially at the time. Nintendo has famously never allowed Link a line of dialogue in the games, but somehow their hero captured the hearts and minds of gamers nonetheless. In the 2011 book Hyrule Historia, Shigeru Myamoto says, “We named the protagonist Link because he connects people together.” That connection would only deepen as the series moved forward.
In 1992, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past arrived on the Super Nintendo. Thanks to the 16-bit processor, Hyrule became more vibrant, and the gameplay more refined. Hyrule was noticeably larger this time around, but it kept the same basic progression as The Legend of Zelda, then six years old.
Instead of nine dungeons, there are 13. The first five take place in the Light World — normal Hyrule — while the latter eight unfold in the Dark World, where Princess Zelda is being held prisoner. Link still retrieves a new item in each dungeon, and all of them end in a boss battle. The SNES classic introduced the Master Sword, a powerful weapon capable of slaying Ganon, and Heart Pieces, collectable shards that permanently raise Link’s health after he amasses four.
The Legend of Zelda set the groundwork for A Link to the Past, and together they completed the foundation for Link’s leap from a 2D top-down perspective to a lavish 3D world in 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64.
Ocarina of Time faithfully held onto the mechanics of A Link to the Past while growing in size and scope. Although not technically called the Light/Dark Worlds, the first three dungeons are scattered throughout a vibrant, almost cheerful land and revolve around a boyhood Link. But when Link removes the Master Sword from the Temple of Time, he becomes an adult and Hyrule has grown grim and sinister. The remaining seven dungeons are much more elaborate than the first three.
Despite the many refinements, including the ability for Link to ride his trusty steed, Epona, Ocarina of Time, for all intents and purposes, remained on the straight and narrow in terms of design. If you were to imagine A Link to the Past or even The Legend of Zelda in 3D, it would be startlingly similar to Ocarina of Time, which mainly added more space in between conventional Zelda trappings.
In 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask took the stage as the biggest delineation from the series at that time. Link is dropped into Termina, a parallel world of Hyrule. And because Link isn’t in Hyrule anymore, Ganon isn’t present and our hero isn’t on a quest to save Zelda. Link’s task is to retrieve Majora’s Mask, an ancient artifact stolen by Skull Kid, in order to stop the moon from crashing down and destroying the world. The game takes place in a three-day loop, with each loop intended to bring Link closer to his goal. Throughout the game, Link acquires masks that shift him into different species — Zora, Goron and Deku Scrub. Still, even with the vastly different plot, the central elements of the franchise — dungeons, heart pieces, item acquisition, guided discovery — hark back to its predecessors. And as with the games before it, the story follows set beats that guide the player through the adventure.
In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Nintendo ditched the realism of the first two 3D entries and replaced it will cel-shaded, cartoony graphics. The Wind Waker takes place across the Great Sea 100 years after the events of Ocarina of Time, and this time Link needs to save his sister and the world from Ganon. The Wind Waker has a fairly substantial scope, especially considering it released on Nintendo GameCube in 2002. Link’s main form of travel is by sailboat, skirting from island to island, working his way through six dungeons with the help of Tetra, the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, en route to Ganon’s Tower.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was a launch title for Nintendo Wii in 2006. It’s closely related to Ocarina of Time in that it occurs directly after Link’s childhood portion of the N64 classic. Zelda sends him back to rewrite history and stop Ganon from taking power. Link is accompanied by a new helper named Midna, and throughout Link travels between Hyrule and the Twilight Realm. While in the Twilight Realm, Link is playable as a wolf. There are nine main dungeons, many of which borrow themes from Ocarina of Time’s dungeons.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword arrived five years later in 2011, acting as an origin story for the kingdom of Hyrule and the Master Sword. Prior to the events of the game, the Goddess Hylia saves her people by moving them to Skyloft, a city located far above what would become Hyrule. That is, until evil returns and snatches Princess Zelda, bringing her back to the ground. The action leads Link to head down to the surface and work his way through seven dungeons to rescue her from Lord Ghirahim, a precursor to Ganon.
Now, there are more Zelda games than just those seven. There’s Zelda II, Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages/Seasons, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, A Link Between Worlds and several spin-offs, but in most respects all of them hark back to the formula brewed all the way back in 1986.
Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, almost completely breaks away with the mantra. Yes, Link still needs to save Hyrule from Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda from her castle, but how you get there and the means by which you accomplish this are utterly different.
The Hyrule depicted in Breath of the Wild is so expansive that every single Zelda game before it could fit inside the world — and then some. Zelda biomes have never been this alive. From lush green fields to daunting mountaintops to crystal blue waters, every inch of Hyrule is lovingly rendered and full of possibility. Dungeons have been replaced with 120 shrines, small-scale expertly crafted puzzles that test wit and, infrequently, combat. There are five larger “dungeons” but these two don’t resemble the grid-like pattern of those in past Zelda games. Weapons are now degradable, meaning you frequently have to find and equip new ones. You have to cook food and elixirs to stay alive, and the enemies you do come across are much stronger than ever before.
On top of all that, there’s no set order by which you have to complete quests. In fact, if you’re bold enough, you can seek out Ganon almost immediately after Link awakens from his 100-year slumber — although that wouldn’t be wise.
The Zelda franchise has always been about discovery and the thrill of adventure. With Breath of the Wild, you’re in charge of finding your own adventures much of the time. What you discover and when are accomplished not by Nintendo holding your hand but by your own will and perseverance. In previous Zelda games, all the important moments were unmissable, but here if you don’t take the time to really explore Hyrule, chances are you will miss out on much of what the game has to offer. It’s a risk Nintendo was able to take only because the Zelda name carries so much weight.
To say Breath of the Wild is an evolution of the franchise would be an understatement. The only aspects of the game that distinguish it as a Zelda game — besides the characters and the named setting — are the indescribable sense of wonder and the charm that have held steady since Link received his first sword.
Breath of the Wild succeeds because it’s a choose your own adventure set in one of the most memorable landscapes in all of video games. It’s The Legend of Zelda reborn, and while we didn’t ask for it, the future of Zelda has never been less restricted by its identity than it is now. We’re truly in the wild now. Nintendo has given us the reins, knowing our connection with Link has transcended the original formula. Now you’re the adventurer, free to explore Hyrule in all its glory.