In 1998, when I first stepped from Kokiri Forest onto Ocarina of Time‘s 3D Hyrule Field, I froze in awe. Goosebumps spread across my body and a tightness gripped my chest. I had played games prior to Ocarina, but it was in that moment I became a gamer. It’s a feeling that I have long struggled to describe and one that has never truly been replicated, although some games have tried their hardest to come close. It was a feeling I never expected to feel again – I had long ago chalked it up to the marriage of new innovation in the industry and child-like wonder, and I had made peace with the fact that I would never feel that way about a video game again. Luckily, I was wrong. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the game, and even more, the feeling, that I have been waiting nearly 18 years for.
Nintendo took a big risk when it made the decision to dedicate its entire E3 booth to a single game – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. With great risk comes great reward, though. After seeing what an amazing physical atmosphere can be crafted with that focus, and the massive lines that never seemed to grow smaller, that space was well utilized. Nintendo’s biggest announcement at E3 2016 wasn’t spoken, but shown – quality over quantity. The booth itself was a breathtaking, massive love letter to Hyrule, and Nintendo spared no expense. Real grass was used to replicate the smell of the iconic field, with statues, trees, and monsters finishing off the floor. You probably didn’t click on this link to read about the booth, but it was such a masterful, loving spectacle, and presentation is important. But let’s talk about what everyone is wondering about: What is Breath of the Wild like?
Breath of the Wild is not what you’ve come to know from a Zelda title. There were two separate demos at the booth, delivering just a taste of the massive open world that will make up the entirety of the game when it releases in 2017. In fact, according to Nintendo, the area that I spent time in – and didn’t even come close to seeing all of – makes up just 1% of the game’s entire world. In the first demo, I was encouraged to simply explore. I was able to immediately locate a number of weapons and was introduced to some of the new elements that the upcoming title is adding to the Zelda franchise.
In the newest installment you have to take better care of your Link. A stamina meter has been introduced, which decreases as Link runs, climbs, and, well, does anything. If he climbs a mountain and the air is too cold, you have to warm him up, which can be achieved through a number of ways. The environment is constantly changing, and you have to make sure Link is adapting in order to survive it. You will constantly be collecting new outfits, weapons, and items, all of which are accompanied by their own unique stats. You can throw items at enemies – and you can also break your weapons during battle, making it necessary to find and maintain a healthy arsenal.
There were no hearts to collect or potions to purchase. Health restoration comes in the form of finding food, combining different food items in different ways to enhance their specific benefits and cooking, or brewing your own potions – after you catch a few insects, of course. There are different recipes to discover, which not only serve to increase your health but also stamina. There was hunting and gathering, with every step offering new possibilities.
The survival and RPG elements are a long way from the Zelda games many of us have come to know and love, and it was, admittedly, a massive concern for me walking into the demo. However, despite the massive overhaul to gameplay and progression, the game still feels like an authentic Zelda game, with the charm, mystery, and lore of the franchise prominently at the helm, driving every other feature forward under a single, cohesive umbrella. Survival in the game is more of a response than anything else. Link doesn’t have to eat or sleep to survive, rather these options are available for health replenishment and other stat boosts. There are survival elements without it being a survival game.
Enemies throughout the open world gather in camps, and you can either take them out or distract them (because you can throw things), sneak in, and steal their weapons. You can crouch, climb, and jump. Weather forces you to adapt your approach – fires that you start for cooking can be put out by rain, and heat and cold play a larger role in this game. But it all still feels appropriate as a Zelda title.
During the exploration demo there were some very familiar looking landmarks, both accessible during the demo, and off in the distance, teasing things to come. While I feel fairly comfortable with my guess that the ominous volcano in the distance is Death Mountain, Nintendo reps were unable to confirm that at this time, saying only that “much of this will look familiar.” Every speculation I had about what I was seeing and where I was going was met with a mischievous smile and a “you’ll learn soon enough.”
The story demo gave me a taste of the opening moments of the game – a voice encourages Link to open his eyes, and I soon learn that the Hero of – (Unfortunately, the Nintendo rep assisting me was also unable to confirm Link’s title in Breath of the Wild at this time, but patience is a virtue) has been asleep, in his boxers, in a strange chamber, with 100 years having passed. During his slumber, Hyrule has crumbled, and the voice tells him that he is “the light… our light… that must shine upon Hyrule once again.” There is also mention of Ganon, and while I was desperate to know more, Nintendo is staying relatively hush on the details of the story at this time.
Both the Hyrule you explore and the game itself are familiar, yet very different. It’s fascinating and curious, and I left the demo feeling both fulfilled and desperate for more. Breath of the Wild plays the dual role as swan song for the Wii U and flagship title for the mysterious new NX system – appropriate, as it does the same for the Zelda franchise. I want to know more about this Hyrule – what has come of it during my slumber. How it fell, how I can save it once more. The new features allow you to play around with the environment in ways that were never present before, and the ability to carefully select a healthy variety of weapons, craft different recipes, and face threats – both from enemies and the environment – makes this the most individualized The Legend of Zelda experience to date.