There are lots of things that Nintendo is good at. One in particular is to take established franchises and established genres and fuse them in ways you’d never expect to work.
The Legend of Zelda is a genre of its own. When you play a Zelda game, it’s undeniably what it is. They have an established rhythm all of their own and while they’ve always presented the illusion of an open world to explore, that’s never what they’ve been.
Zelda has always been a series of rooms that pretend to be an open world, but with Breath of the Wild; there is no pretending. It’s Nintendo doing open-world. As you’d expect that means that things aren’t exactly standard, but it’s a good thing.
Nintendo always has and always will do things its own way and creating an open-world Zelda is no exception. However playing Breath of the Wild is the first time that a Nintendo game felt, for lack of a better word, normal. The anti-Nintendo if you will.
The first 5-minutes where entirely Nintendo though, well except for the fully voice acted cutscenes. Link awakes, mute and shirtless and floating in a pool. Remnants of the Wii U version remain as he’s instructed to use his Shiekah Slate (Wii U GamePad) to activate some devices and get out of the cave he’s trapped in. Luckily, the Shiekah Slate also bears a resemblance to the Switch unit, so we’ll allow it.
Once the door is unlocked and Link is free to exit a few things jump out immediately as being utterly bizarre. The first is that Link has a dedicated jump button. Obviously this isn’t that strange in the overall context of video games, but in The Legend of Zelda, it’s about as normal non-homicidal chickens.
Pressing a button to make Link jump is very, very strange. At first. The same goes for climbing. Being able to scale any vertical surface and seeing a Stamina gauge is, at first, beyond weird. To Nintendo’s credit, it’s only a minute or so before you take it all in your stride and get onto the job at hand.
Once I’d made me way out of the cave, the world opened up before me. Link stood on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a gorgeously stylised Hyrule. The camera panned back to emphasise just how big this Hyrule was; Aonuma’s words echoing in my head, “wherever you can see you can go and beyond.” Seeing how big an area I was surrounded by was dizzying. As was standing atop a cliff.
After the game had stopped bombarding me with landscape porn, a short cutscene showing a grizzly bearded man, beckoning to Link was shown. Knowing that (a) the demo only ran for 20-minutes and (b) the man would likely be part of the main story, I opted to go off on my own. I expected that I wouldn’t be able to, that invisible walls would box me in and force me to talk to the man, but they didn’t. Nothing happened.
I was free to explore as I wished, where I wished and when I wished. It was true freedom and yet another thing that did not feel at all like Zelda. I keep mentioning how things don’t feel right, or feel like they don’t belong and it’s true, but even though all of these things feel strange, Breath of the Wild is still undeniably Zelda. It has that same feeling I mentioned earlier.
In order to avoid the old man desperate for my attention, I decided to climb down the cliff face. On my first try I got halfway down, before accidentally pressing jump and falling to my death. Two more times I fell to my death by being impatient before finally succeeding on try number four. Link can climb anything and his stamina is impressive, but his speed leaves something to be desired…He’s more Venom Snake than Nathan Drake.
Once I’d safely reached the bottom I was off and exploring. Running, jumping, opening chests, beating the crap out of Moblins and even once, killing a group of them with a boulder and a stockpile of explosives. Breath of the Wild seems like it’s going to lean heavily on emergent gameplay. Players will be given a wide range of toys and options and let loose in a massive fantasy sandbox.
I’ve often dreamt about a version of Zelda developed by From Software in the style of Dark Souls. This isn’t exactly that, but it’s as close as we’re ever going to get. It’s hard, it’s punishing and it asks you to learn for yourself. Breath of the Wild is about discovering what you can accomplish and how things work. It’s the antithesis of Nintendo’s Super-Guide mentality of recent years.
With only 20-minutes hands-on time, it’s impossible to fully form an idea about Breath of the Wild other than I desperately want to play more of it. I want to explore Hyrule at my own pace, going wherever I want.
I want to find Epona and the Master Sword. I want to pull my Switch out of the dock and go play Breath of the Wild while I sit in the sun in a field. I can tell that this is a game that’s going to eat an incredibly large amount of my time away and I can’t wait to let it.
If this is the shape of Nintendo for now and the future, then we are in for some tremendous games over the next few years. Regardless of whether the Switch is a success or not, Nintendo remains true masters of the art of video game design.
PowerUp! attended a Switch preview event in Melbourne as a guest of Nintendo Australia.