Since 1985, Nintendo has treated the world to almost 30 titles in what is one of the most beloved franchises in their arsenal, the Legend of Zelda. I, myself, have been a fan ever since I first got my hands on Ocarina of Time for the N64. Since then I’ve gone back and played every title I could find and I’m always in line on launch day when a new title makes its way to the masses. To be blunt, I f!@#ing love Zelda games.

What is it about Zelda games that keep me coming back for more? The story. I can’t get enough of the mytho-historical adventures in the Zelda series. Each game plays as its own (mostly) contained adventure as one of many legends passed down through time about the kingdom of Hyrule. “Whether skyward bound, flowing through time, or steeped in the embers of twilight…” there are a few constants throughout the series: the hero is always a boy or young man tasked with collecting various items or freeing some manner of magical beings in order to stop some great evil (usually with the help of a princess).

The latest main title in the series, 2017’s Breath of the Wild, follows that basic formula, but opens it up for near endless exploration. After three and a half years and two DLC packs, 2020 is giving us a prequel game in the form of a new Hyrule Warriors set during “the Age of Calamity.” The aforementioned age refers to when the hero, Link, was not able to stop the Calamity Ganon and was placed in a healing pod for 100 years to recover. Hyrule Castle was ransacked and Castle Town obliterated. Peoples were scattered across the vast kingdom to take refuge mostly at stables. Times were bleak. Morale was low.

Returning to Breath of the Wild

With the prequel nearly upon us, I thought it would be a good idea to refresh myself on the world of Breath of the Wild. Refamiliarize myself with its wide-open fields and endless mountain ranges. I’ve always enjoyed playing, but there has always been something about the game that doesn’t quite sit right with me. Maybe after all this time, I can find it.

Breath of the Wild immediately distinguishes itself amongst the franchises catalog by being the first completely open-world game in the series. Link has amazing new abilities like being able to freely jump and now he can climb anything but a smooth metal surface (or a wet one) too. Link can go just about anywhere with enough stamina (a returning mechanic from Skyward Sword). The game encourages you to explore right out of the gate with fun collectible items like the Korok Seeds as well as cooking ingredients, bugs, monster parts, and gems.

Link is also no longer beholden just to the sword. No, no, no. Now he can use any weapon he comes across, and you will come across quite a few (spears, hammers, clubs, big swords, small swords, boomerangs, and…leaves! Just to name a few). There is also a noted emphasis on Link’s archery over his other weapons, including but not limited to a new slow-motion mechanic when shooting things while he is in the air. In previous games, Link has his trusty sword and then he must find different items in dungeons in order to advance further. Now, its up to you to use anything and everything you can find to save the kingdom by any means necessary. Things are dire.

We’re first tasked with exploring the “Great Plateau,” and collecting four spirit orbs for a mysterious old hermit that seems to be the only other person on the raised plateau with you. Fans of previous games will recognize a familiar site almost immediately in the ruins of the Temple of Time which now serves as both our first thematic moment in the game as well as our introduction to the mechanic of praying at Goddess Statues.

As it turns out, the old hermit is actually the ghost of the late King Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule (which is the single best name in anything ever produced). The King explains that you’ve been asleep for 100 years, and things have really gone downhill. The princess, Zelda, is still alive and fighting back the Calamity Ganon with her powers inside Hyrule Castle and you must save her. But first, it would be wise to free the Divine Beasts. From there, the world is your oyster. You can venture forth in literally any direction you want. If you want to try your hand at killing Ganon right away, go for it. If you’d rather putz around Hyrule for a few months searching for shrines and soaking up Rito and Zora culture, go for it. There’s no wrong answer here.

Should you choose to follow the King’s advice (and you know I do on almost every playthrough) you’re led to Kakariko Village where the village elder, Impa, provides yet more exposition regarding your lost memories and your responsibility as the chosen hero. After meeting more figures from Link’s forgotten past, scientists Purrah and Robbie, Link returns and is given the meaty quest of the game: restore the four Divine Beasts to defeat Calamity Ganon. Depending on how you’ve played the game up to this point, this could be hour 2, or it could be hour 22 (if it happens at all).

The game opens up to you again at this point and you can go anywhere to try to restore the Divine Beasts in any order you choose. Each massive mechanical animal resides with one of the game’s different races: the Zora, the Gorons, the Rito, and the Gerudo. Each has its own specific theme to work with and yields its own varying rewards, revolving around the game’s elemental mechanic. The inclusion of electrical or “zap” items is another new feature to Link’s arsenal, but it is wholly welcome to the existing family of fire, ice, and bombs.

The stories of each race and their relationship to the mechanical monsters that now plague them are interesting. The changes in the environment after completing each behemoth are the most noticeable touch. It’s more than just seeing the clouds above Death Mountain change; you get a real sense that you’ve altered this environment in most cases. Zora’s Domain is no longer being flooded by continuous heavy rains. There are fewer massive sandstorms in the Gerudo Desert. You aren’t pelted by giant lava boulders as you explore Death Mountain. Not much happens to the Rito Village, but Revali is a jackass and I debate saving him.

(Spoiler Alert: his “superior” skills didn’t amount to s!@#)

After scouring Hyrule and freeing the Champions from enslavement inside the Divine Beasts, it’s finally time to confront Ganon. You’ve recovered all of the memories you can, you’ve completed all of the shrines and earned the Armor of the Wild. You’ve regained the Master Sword and rescued the Hylian Shield from the depths of the castle’s prison. You scale Hyrule Castle’s Guardian-laden walls and at long last you confront the Demon King. He is completely consumed at this point by Malice and is barely able to take physical form, but he constructs a shape from bits around him for this final confrontation.

Ganon himself is formidable, but with the help of the three Champions, and Revali, he is reduced to utter defeat. Finally, Zelda is freed and she is able to help you seal away the Calamity Ganon and restore peace to the kingdom. Huzzah! It could be 20 minutes since you started your playthrough or 200 hours in, but at last the threat is over and Hyrule is free from the endless monsters and threat of complete doom.

So why don’t I feel better about it? Zelda game endings are often bittersweet, but this one left me feeling like there was still more to come. Not in a cliffhanger ending kind of way, but more like I’ve had my appetizer and I’m patiently waiting for the main course. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story of Breath of the Wild as it played out before me, but I couldn’t help but feel like there was so much less of it than there should have been.

The Quest for Meaning

I often found myself chasing down the tiniest trails for more information that would add layers to the miles of landscapes from every corner of previous Zelda’s. It would be completely forgivable to not find King Rhoam or Zelda’s journals in the ruins of Hyrule Castle while being consumed with everything else. If you do though, you’re missing out on vital character development for multiple key figures in the story, including Link! Zelda’s diary details Link’s retreat inward emotionally and remarks on how the more his task weighs on him the less he is able to speak. She talks about the pressure from her father to develop her powers, and the anxiety that everything causes. King Rhoam explains why he’s so hard on her and even apologizes for it. He thinks the world of his daughter.

My question is, why did I have to hunt this out? I’m not saying it needed to be thrown in my face, but it shouldn’t be something I can just miss completely. Even if it’s not one of the few scenes with voice acting (another Zelda first) it would’ve been incredible to see some of this actually played out.

Thinking back to my first playthrough, the moment that connected me to the story the most came fairly late in my run. I was collecting the last of Link’s lost memories; one of which depicts Link’s fall in the battle 100 years ago. Link is brought down by a blast from one of the many mechanized Guardians now prowling Hyrule and drops the Master Sword. Zelda thinks he’s dead and that all hope is lost. That is until she hears a chime. This chime is the same that Fi makes in Skyward Sword when she appears to speak to you from your sword. Fi is calling out to Zelda imploring that she turn around and realize that Link is alive. And she does. It’s a very emotional scene that was made all the more emotional for me by the inclusion of a simple sound effect from another game set thousands of years prior.

Eneba Many GEOs

Moments like these are so few and far between in Breath of the Wild. There is simply so much to do that it’s easy to miss them entirely. That doesn’t sit right with me. The emotional connections that you form with a game and its characters should be celebrated, not hidden where they can be overlooked.

Link Can Use Every Weapon in the World…Except His Hands

I’ve already mentioned the vast new arsenal at Link’s disposal, but what I failed to mention are its two glaring omissions. Link in this game is a trained soldier. He knows how to fight and survive. Yet, somehow, he is completely unable to fight with his hands. When your weapons explode on impact with a moblin and you’re left unarmed, you truly are unarmed. Link’s hands are useless unless they’re holding a weapon. This is just silly. Link can pick up a tree branch off the ground or use the skeletal arm of a fallen foe, but he can’t just punch a guy.

Second, and quite possibly the most important of all, why does Link not have a rope? Simple and versatile, a rope would be the single most advantageous thing for Link to acquire in a game that demands you climb everywhere. Link has had some manner of grappling item in nearly every game, but in the game that would have benefited the most, it is strangely absent.

Do we need to have random hookshot/clawshot targets scattered all over creation? No, but would it have been a stretch to bring back the grappling hook from Wind Waker so I don’t fall all the way down a mountain every time it rains?

Hope is on the Horizon

After logging far too many new hours of gameplay over the last few weeks in preparation, I look to the upcoming Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. Its predecessor was met with mixed success, but this looks like it will be different. From everything we’ve seen so far, Age of Calamity appears to be everything I was missing from Breath of the Wild wrapped in a fast-paced Warriors game. Rather than being lucky to find some of these more tender moments of character development, they’ll be brought front and center.

This could be the exact shot in the arm that Breath of the Wild needs for me to really appreciate it as a Zelda game.

Looking further forward, there is also the previously announced Breath of the Wild sequel still to come. We know almost nothing definitive about this game other than Zelda has a new haircut, and there’s something under what used to be Hyrule Castle. At this point, I would be happy if they would just tell us what the name of the new game is. The trailer, not unlike the trailer for its predecessor, has left me needing to know more. Does Ganondorf return? Is it Vaati? Is the mysterious zombie creature something entirely new? I NEED TO KNOW!

Final Thoughts

Like I said before, I love Zelda games. They’re a keystone in my childhood like Digimon or Batman. I literally would not be who I am without them. This is why I hold Breath of the Wild to the incredibly high standards that I do. It had a lot to live up to, and in so many ways it exceeded the expectations I had for it. It is an amazingly fun game, and without doubt it deserves every compliment and award it received. Where I think it falls short is at being a ‘Zelda’ game. So much of what I love about Zelda is minimized or pushed into the background to make way for the massive amount of exploration and discovery to be had that I think it loses sight of itself a little bit.

I sincerely hope that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity infuses that bit of added characterization and depth that I’ve been left hoping for. By all accounts as of the date of this writing, it looks like it could. I’m also looking forward to seeing how Nintendo builds on this grand new world with the sequel. Maybe that extra ‘oomph’ is right around the corner.

It’s also entirely possible that I’m asking too much. Should I just sit back and enjoy what Zelda I can get, or should I continue to hold Zelda to the higher standard I’ve been accustomed to for more than 20 years of playing video games?

As a soft reboot of the Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild excels in everything it sets out to do. I just wish it had set out to tell a bigger and more immersive story set in this incredibly immersive world. Only time will tell what the future of Zelda holds, but I can definitely say this. I’ll be there on launch night, waiting to grab my copy of whatever new game there is so I can rush home to play it.

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