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A Link to the Past, and Present, and Future: Breath of the Wild

How Breath of the Wild went back to its roots in order to reinvent itself.


Since its release in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has stolen our hearts and comfortably established itself as a modern classic. It's one of the best Zelda games ever, and maybe one of the best games of our generation. In troubled times, Breath of the Wild's peaceful, albeit melancholy, atmosphere provides a welcome respite, or so I've heard. Two years on, players are still discovering secrets in its expansive world.

It's kind of a miracle that a new entry from one of gaming's oldest franchises could feel so fresh, especially after the disappointing run of Zelda games that preceded it. Somehow, Breath of the Wild manages to avoid the pitfalls of adaptation. Instead, it builds on and honors the legacy of Zelda games past, but isn't defined by them. It takes inspiration from other titles of the day, but doesn't follow trends. It's a bold, progressive take on the open world genre in its own right, but it nevertheless retains the classic adventure feel of the series' greatest entries. Essentially, Breath of the Wild's game design looks to the past, present, and future all at once.

And all of this is in service to one fundamental drive - to empower the player to make explore the world on their own terms. Every rock, tree, villager and Korok exists to help the player along a journey of their own making. This obsessive focus is what makes Breath of the Wild so endlessly playable.

To understand how all these links to the past, present and future converge, let's start with the past.

Old-Fashioned Adventure

Great design is timeless.

The very first Zelda game, 1986's The Legend of Zelda for the Famicom Disk System, makes this franchise about as old as the very first millennials (or so I've heard). Happily, great design is timeless, and even the original The Legend of Zelda game embodied a particular "hands off" approach to exploration, discovery, and adventure that would inspire legions of games to come.

The Legend of Zelda presented the player with an inscrutable world, one that refused to explain itself or hold the player's hand. Ignorance and overconfidence could lead to ruin, but knowledge of the world and its secrets would be rewarded. The player needed to be curious, inventive, and brave enough to take risks in order to progress through the unforgiving map of The Legend of Zelda.

For a thorough breakdown of Zelda 1's approach to design, check out this video from Mark Brown of Game Maker's Toolkit. Here, he beautifully illustrates the original Legend of Zelda's philosophy of open world adventure in anticipation of Breath of the Wild.

I'm going to reference this channel a lot.

More than thirty years after the original Legend of Zelda, the essential design philosophy behind the first entry is alive and well in Breath of the Wild. The player is given a sprawling world to explore, but very few clues as to how to navigate or survive it. The wilds are full of danger at every turn, but with a little knowledge and experience (not to mention dying a bunch of times), the player can overcome any challenge that comes their way.

This spartan approach to design is tricky to balance, and can be hard for some players to get into. However, those who take the plunge will feel a sense of satisfaction from each achievement that is hard to match in other games. Just look to the Souls series, or roguelikes, or even Metroidvania games to see this philosophy in action today.

Breath of the Wild is no different. It's one of the ways that the game borrows from the past.

Shoot for the Moon

Link is lost in the Water Temple

The original The Legend of Zelda is not the only Zelda game to inspire Breath of the Wild. The control scheme, for instance, hearkens back to the Zelda series' first foray into the third dimension, an ambitious Zelda game that made the most of the available technology to change action-adventure games forever. This is Ocarina of Time.

When it released in 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set a new standard for third-person action-adventure games. It featured an interconnected world for the player to explore, a time-bending storyline full of interesting characters, and revolutionary approach to combat controls. More than anything, Ocarina of Time embraced the then-new technology of the Nintendo 64 to deliver the first Zelda adventure to use 3D polygonal art instead of 2D sprites. It came to symbolize Nintendo at their most ambitious, and proved a hard act to follow in the coming years.

One of Ocarina of Time's most enduring legacies has to be its control scheme. Dubbed "Z-Targeting," after the button on the N64 controller, this control system allowed the player to focus the camera on one enemy at a time for precise combat, or take manual control of the camera when necessary. This allowed players to toggle between open-ended exploration and targeted combat with ease. The Z-Targeting system, or something like it, quickly established itself as a new standard in third-person action adventure games. It would go on to inspire the controls of future titles ranging from Okami to the The Witcher and of course, Dark Souls.

Z-Targeting in action

With Ocarina of Time, Nintendo proved that a Zelda game can use new technology to provide a classic adventure experience in a whole new way. Follow-up titles including Ocarina spin-off Majora's Mask and the aesthetically-bold Wind Waker were less ambitious, but great adventure games in their own right. The Nintendo 64 and GameCube console cycles were good to the Zelda franchise. The next two, not so much.

Unfortunately, the Wii and the Wii-U console cycles would usher in an disappointing era of 3D Zelda games. Whether it was due to gimmicky controls or the technical limitations of the platform, new Zelda games that weren't remakes or spin-offs always seemed to leave fans disappointed. Throughout the lifetime of the these motion-control-focused consoles, Nintendo was not quite able to deliver a 3D Zelda game that lived up to the standard for sweeping adventure they had met in the past.

This is in part what makes Breath of the Wild so special. It's an ambitious Zelda game for a new console, the Nintendo Switch, that tries makes the most of new technology. The size of the world, the crisp visual style, and even the controls - which feel remarkably similar to Ocarina of Time - symbolize Nintendo shooting for the moon once more. With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo went back to their roots, and married some of their oldest ideas with updated technology for a whole new experience.

Cues from Contemporaries, Or Not

In the years since Zelda 1 and Ocarina of Time, open-world games have become ubiquitous. It seems only fitting that the Zelda series, which had inspired a new generation of action-adventure games, would itself take notes from contemporary open-world and role-playing games. With features like the screenshot camera, the ability to map waypoints, and a robust crafting system, Breath of the Wild doesn't shy away from looking around for inspiration.

However, Breath of the Wild knows what NOT to borrow as well. While many open world games try to make navigation as user-friendly as possible, Breath of the Wild does the opposite. It dispenses with features like an in-game GPS for navigation (see yet another Mark Brown video for more on this). Instead, players in Breath of the Wild are encouraged to engage with the world, orient themselves within the landscape, and consider the riddles of the locals. Barring that, players can simply venture out in whatever direction they wish and see what happens. In Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it's easy to get lost, and that's the point.

Here's another video from Mark Brown of Game Maker's Toolkit, where he describes Zelda: Breath of the Wild's Open World Adventure. Last one, I promise.

This channel is too good.

With inspiration from the series's deepest roots, features borrowed from contemporary titles, and a healthy embrace of new technology, Breath of the Wild feels like a culmination of the past, present, and future - all in order to empower players to make the world their own.

After all, in Breath of the Wild, the world is yours!

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