While it seems like an absurd, high-risk approach, Nintendo’s entire E3 2016 presentation came down to the performance of one game in the eyes of its adoring fans – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The company had originally planned for the newest Legend of Zelda game to be its only showing, and although a long, drawn-out, and (in this writer’s opinion) cringe-worthy let’s play of Pokemon Sun and Moon was also put up on stream, Breath of the Wild was tasked with generating all of the hype for Nintendo’s next year in video games.
A lesser title might have buckled under the weight of all that expectation, but somehow The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild held strong. In fact, despite the earlier discussion of an open-world Legend of Zelda game from E3 2015 generating a fair amount of hype in its own right, Breath of the Wild managed to exceed expectations for a lot of gamers who were expecting a bit of a let down. After all, Nintendo arrived at E3 2016 with a very sparse schedule that caused some worry for longtime fans of the company, and a three-hour long presentation based around one unfinished game has the potential to crash and burn.
Luckily for gamers everywhere, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t like any other Legend of Zelda title before it. Whereas hours of gameplay demonstrations from a previous iteration in the series might have unveiled a number of plot points, boss fights, and puzzle solutions, Breath of the Wild simply managed to show enough to make fans crave more. Breath of the Wild‘s open-world, nonlinear gameplay felt like a perfect fit for Link at E3 2016, and it’s no surprise in retrospect that Nintendo was so confident about bringing only one game to the most important week in gaming.
It’s a remarkable difference in game design philosophy, too – previous Legend of Zelda games have doubled down on giant, puzzle and monster-infested temples to create the bulk of the challenges throughout gameplay, while Breath of the Wild will feature a hundred different mini-shrines on top of them. Whereas absolute classics like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask relied on slow character progression that was characterized by gradually allowing players access to increasingly more powerful weapons and items, Breath of the Wild features RPG elements like looting weapons from enemies and cooking meals to vary the way each gamer chooses to approach the new title.
Link, too, appears to have changed in a number of subtle ways. While the jury is still out on whether he’s an amnesiac again like he is in so many of the other Legend of Zelda instalments that have jumpstarted their narratives with the gaming trope, he at least appears to be competent from the very beginning. In the gameplay demos, Link is able to glide, chop down trees, cook, and fight enemies without needing his hand held by a fairy or told which end of the sword to stick into a monster by a kindly old stranger.
In Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the character design has grown up just a bit, but enough to make the game feel different enough that setting Link out into an open world doesn’t feel like leaving a child to wander into the woods at night. He’s self-sufficient and he can take care of himself in ways that it felt like other incarnations of Link couldn’t – and that’s not a knock on the average age of Link as he starts these games, as a very young Link in The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker was essentially a seasoned sailor. It’s just another element that makes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild appear to be a very different spin on the expect Legend of Zelda formula.
All of these elements combined, however, pose an interesting question: is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild simply the evolution of the series as Nintendo’s consoles get progressively more powerful, or is it secretly one of the most famous series reboots in the history of gaming, flying under the radar because it keeps to the basic premise of all the past games? It would certainly explain Shigeru Miyamoto’s reluctance to make Linkle a playable character – restarting the franchise without a clear cut protagonist would be problematic, even if the narrative is constructed in such a way that playing as male or female doesn’t change it in any significant way.
Beyond the controversy surrounding Linkle in Breath of the Wild, however, the rest of the game is also a totally different approach to the world of Legend of Zelda. Players are given free rein over where they explore and when they encounter enemies on the world map, and they can carefully bake apples for sustenance or cause forest fires depending on their mood. Link isn’t just a character that players inhabit on the rails of a fairly rigid narrative anymore – Link can be varying levels of good in the newest Breath of the Wild, and that’s a very interesting nuance for a series that has always had a straight-laced, good-to-the-bone protagonist.
After all, one person might play Link as the stereotypical Nintendo fantasy hero, silently rescuing NPCs in distress without ever endangering another soul. Others, however, might set trees on fire and drop them into dry grass to attempt to set their enemies ablaze from a distance, a dangerous but effective tactic that could have long-term consequences.
These choices might not seem like a big deal, but they simply didn’t exist prior to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The hundred small shrines complimenting the bigger handfuls of temples in earlier titles speaks to this same philosophy. Indeed, moving forward, it looks like The Legend of Zelda wants to be closer in line with other massive titles like Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 in the depth and variety of the options it offers players. Those comparisons might not be apt, but they’ll have to do, because the gaming world really hasn’t seen a game like Breath of the Wild before.
And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Breath of the Wild looks new from top-to-bottom, and is different enough from other iterations of Link’s adventures that it’s worth considering whether or not it means a series that, moving forward, might use Breath of the Wild as the foundation for its story-telling and gameplay devices rather than earlier games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Is that a reboot? That depends on one’s definition of the term. But given the innovation being brought to the series and what appears to be some significant changes to the philosophy of the design team in regards to what makes a Legend of Zelda game worthy of the name, it isn’t a stretch to believe that Breath of the Wild is the beginning of something new and beautiful from Nintendo.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will release in 2017 for Nintendo Wii U and NX.