Breath of the Wild: The Third Game
There are only three Zelda games. Thirty years and only three games have been released. Now that I’ve gotten your attention with a bold opening statement, allow me to try and save myself from the fury of the internet and better explain what I mean.
Despite all the innovations, creativity and breakthroughs seen and enjoyed throughout all the entries in the series, the Legend of Zelda plays it very safe on the larger scale. The design patterns of the majority of the games closely follow each other, often only adding elements to distinguish themselves from previous titles. Ocarina of Time to Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass to Spirit Tracks are two very obvious blatant examples of this. More subtle ones would be Ocarina of Time to Skyward Sword or A Link to the Past to Four Swords Adventure. The latter games follow so closely that they use the same assets as their predecessors, and become direct follow-ups in the series “narrative”. The former examples are less obvious, but the groundwork for games like Skyward Sword was clearly laid by Ocarina of Time.
What makes a Zelda game a truly “new” part of the series is when it changes or challenges the conventions of the games that preceded it. Such a game takes what the players have learned to be the series standards and basically toss them out the window. Maybe not always to an extreme degree, to be fair, but it will definitely be enough to throw you for a loop if you go into one game and expect to play through it the same way as one that came before it.
Some of these changes are easy to see at the outset of the game, such as changes to perspective, graphics, or controls. Others are more subtle and are typically not apparent right away. You start to piece things together as you progress.
As you play any game, you develop a thought process that you subconsciously follow. Patterns in the game’s design start to become predictable, and you begin to complete a task in the game more quickly and efficiently. One example any Zelda fan would understand is when you find a locked door but can’t find a chest with a key. The first time it may take you a moment to realize the key might be hidden in an unconventional location, like on an enemy’s person. It was something you didn’t think of because you had not seen it occur in the game yet. By the time you reach the end of the game, and even when playing other Zelda games after, you instinctively clear out all enemies in an area the second you find a locked door and no chest. It is something you have come to expect. What you come to expect, that’s the key(Pun partially intended).
Okay, so what are the three main games? It’s pretty apparent when you think about it. They are The Legend of Zelda, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These three games have shaped the series and set all the standards.
Now, before I go on, I guess I need to address that I am technically wrong about the number of games. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link does technically fall into this category since it changes the formula so drastically. But Zelda II was much more of experimentation, rather than a true advancement, and its influence on subsequent games has been minimal. It never became a template like the other three, which is why, while I do consider it to be unique like the other three games, it is not equal with them.
Let’s take a look at each game so we can understand what each of them has brought to the table. We’ll start with Legend of Zelda, since that only makes sense.
What do I really need to say about LoZ? This game started it all. It established the genre, the objectives, the tropes, the conventions, the narrative, the characters, etc. Everything that makes Zelda the franchise it is. Its influence will never fade.
From the very first screen, we are taught how to play the game and what to expect from it. Walk into a cave, get a sword, explore the surrounding areas, and enter a dungeon. Kill enemies, figure out the specific way to kill said enemies, solve puzzles, find items, unlock doors, kill a boss and clear the dungeon. Repeat the process a number of times, defeat Ganon at the end and save the princess. Lots of Zelda games try to mix it up a bit, but this pattern is still seen to this day.
All of the most iconic elements in the series can trace their origins back to this game as well, not just the gameplay. Link, Zelda, Ganon, the Triforce, the kingdom of Hyrule and all its friendly and non-friendly inhabitants come from this first game. Portrayals and visuals change of course, but they can still be identified as coming from this 8-bit classic.
Legend of Zelda is the most obvious game on this list. I don’t know what more to say about it. It is a genesis.
The next game is where things get interesting. It borrows heavily from the first game, as it should, but brings changes that have permanently changed how each subsequent game developed, presented and enjoyed. This game, of course, is the N64 masterpiece, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Let’s first get this out of the way: OoT is not overrated. It is just accurately rated. It is an amazing game, a true 10/10 game, and deserving of the praise it gets. Now, is it a perfect game? No, of course not. Is it the best game in the series, objectively? Again the answer is no. Now, is it one of the most important games in the series? Yes, tied with the first game in terms of overall significance. Is it one of the most important games in the history of the industry? Yes, definitely. In fact, I would consider it to be more important to the industry than even LoZ is.
LoZ was the high point of 2D adventure games, but other important and praised adventure games did come before it. It didn’t start anything, it just brought its genre into the mainstream and made it popular. OoT, however, was the first real step into 3D adventuring. Previous games were successful with 3D, such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, but those were level-based platformers, not true exploration-based adventures. OoT did it first, did it right, and showed everyone how it should be done. Every 3D game with an expansive world to explore at least somewhat owes its existence to OoT.
This transition to 3D and its heavy emphasis on narrative are what make OoT earn the second spot on this list. Until OoT’s release, the primary perspective used by Zelda games was the 2D, top-down view. After three games, we knew what to expect, and how proficiently explore with worlds presented in each game, sometimes before even exploring them. I know at least for me, by the time I had played Link’s Awakening, the third top-down game, I was prepared for what ways the game desired me to interact with its environment. OoT changed all that.
Now that we were in 3D, the perspective of course changed, and with it so did all preconceived notions. Sure, there were homages to the past, but the added depth meant players could no longer rely on knowledge from the older games. This is something gamers begin to understand the moment Link steps foot outside of his treehouse home.
You are met with a cutscene that shows a view of the Kokiri Village, followed by being greeted by Link’s friend, Saria. This is the start to game’s attempt to beat it into the player that this is an open 3D environment, and that much of the game is going to be cinematic and focused on the story. You step down a ladder, which is the first taste of depth as well as the game saying, “Hey look at that, you are moving up and down, in a Zelda game. No more single plane of existence.” You next talk to Saria, which serves three functions. First, it’s partly a tutorial, to make the player understand to follow directions as she tells them to go see the Great Deku Tree. Second, it keeps the player focused the narrative by Saria’s mentioning of Link’s newly-obtained fairy. Third, it subtly introduces the importance of Saria by making her the first person you meet, as well as establishing her as Link’s close friend.
Thirty seconds into the game and you already understand that you will be moving all around to explore your environment, there are directions you must follow to progress the story, and that story and characters themselves are not to be ignored, which pushes you to actually want to move forward with the main plot of the game. Previous Zelda games definitely did not need to introduce you to the concept of moving around, and they honestly did a poor job of trying to make one feel invested in the story(Aside for maybe Marin in Link’s Awakening, though that does take quite a while to develop). OoT makes it clear what the game is all about from the outset.
Like I said, this is only the first bit of the game. Once you get further in you begin to see everything else that has changed. The dungeons and puzzle solving can’t be ignored. Each dungeon’s rooms and open areas are linked together, even when they are technically different floors on a map. They don’t feel sectioned off like in the 2D games, where even if one can be directly accessed or interacted with from another floor, there is still a distinct disconnect. Each area of a dungeon in OoT has to be taken in, absorbed and remembered.
Puzzles are updated as well. Now you have to take on the challenges from multiple angles. Sure, there are still times when you only have to push blocks, but then other times require you to move the camera around, or even go into the first-person view, spot a switch on a wall and shoot it with your bow and arrow or slingshot. You have to think about what you’re doing, along with where everything is around you, even when you can’t see it.
These are of course only two small examples of the changes present in OoT. I could go on with many, many more, but I think that should probably be its own article some other day. Until then, it suffices to say that following up the 2D Zelda games with OoT was like finishing a puzzle and then moving onto a Rubik’s Cube.
Now for the third and most recent game. It was one of the most anticipated games for nearly three years before its release and was well worth the wait. You know I’m talking about Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game revolutionized its genre, evolved the Zelda series, catapulted the Nintendo Switch’s successful first year, and was 2017’s rightfully-so Game of the Year across the board. So it’s a good game if I haven’t made that clear to you yet.
The first and most obvious change found in BotW is the shift to a true open-world environment. Other games had large worlds to explore, but how you traversed them, where and when you could visit locations within, and how you interacted with what you saw what very limited and linear. In OoT, if you saw a massive mountain out in the distant background of Hyrule Field, that was just a nice visual detail. In BotW, a mountain like that could be reached, explored and scaled. You want to go explore something you see? Go ahead. Do you want to ignore the game’s suggested route and explore Hyrule in any way you see fit? I don’t see why not. There’s an enticing narrative to experience, but you want to collect a few hundred Korok seeds before tackling it? By all means, do as you wish. How you play the game and where you go is entirely up to you.
What else BotW does is try really, really hard to challenge the series’ conventions. Changing the format to open-world was a big part of this goal, but it was also a natural progression that was more than likely going to happen regardless. It’s just one of the major trends of modern gaming, and without the challenge of rethinking everything that goes into making a Zelda game, BotW would have just been a hollow, flashy update that doesn’t really help advance the franchise (*coughs* Call of Duty *coughs*).
Relying on past experiences from older games doesn’t really help that much in BotW. I learned that much about five minutes into playing the game for the first time when I fought my first batch of enemies. I approached the situation like I would in a game such as Wind Waker or Twilight Princess. I was stealthy in my approach, but once I was close I just started to hack and slash. I hit one enemy and continued to assault him as I thought, “Okay, I hit him. Now I can just keep him in hitstun until he—,” That’s when the Bokoblin reared up with its sword, hit me, and killed me. I was shocked, then embarrassed. I couldn’t understand what happened, and that is because I had assumed the game would behave like all the games that had come before it. You hit an enemy in OoT, then act hurt. If you hit an enemy in BotW, and your weapon is as measly as mine was, they just get mad.
There are so many examples of how the game has changed in BotW, I couldn’t possibly start to go over them all. I could go on about how most of the staple weapons, upgrades, and items from the older games are just absent, and how you realize they aren’t necessary inclusions in every game. Traditional dungeons are gone as well, but in their place are trials and Divine Beasts that deliver the same puzzle-solving thrills while at the same time avoiding many of the clichés and tropes repeated in the past. I could also talk about the long-awaited inclusion of full voice acting in the game’s narrative. BotW does a lot to make the genre that the Zelda series reinvigorated in the first place feel new again.
With each new advancement in the series, we see many changes and additions made to the gameplay and lore, but Zelda games still stay “Zelda” at their core. They are all about exploration, solving challenges, defeating obstacles, and Link and your growth through the adventure. The only thing that changes is how we reach and experience these objectives.
No one style is better than another. The games inspired by the formula OoT has laid down are not better than the 2D ones birthed from LoZ, and BotW has not made OoT conventions irrelevant. They work together, and Nintendo has proved this with continued use of older formulas, like with what we saw in A Link Between Worlds, which is inspired by A Link to the Past, which is a follow-up to LoZ. New games just create new options, and that leads to a new variety in future games. It guarantees a series as great as Zelda is not going to become tired and stale anytime soon.