It's fair to say that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ranks as one of the finest video games of recent times, and is arguably the best title in the franchise so far. It has been showered with positive reviews and has contributed massively to the success of the Nintendo Switch launch; this is clearly a game which fans will be talking about, picking over and replaying for many years to come. It also presents something of a quandary for veteran Zelda fans, because it deviates so dramatically from the core template of the series that it's genuinely hard to see Nintendo ever returning to a "traditional" Zelda adventure.
Playing The Legend of Zelda and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past today, it's amazing how closely subsequent games have adhered to the same basic formula (Zelda 2 was an early anomaly which has never really been repeated). The dungeons, gear-gating and overworld elements have remained largely unchanged throughout the years, with only A Link Between Worlds daring to tinker with this setup; the way you acquired key items in that particular game was overhauled, yet almost everything else stuck to tradition.
When Breath of the Wild was first announced and Nintendo made bold claims regarding the size and scope of the adventure, I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical. I love Zelda games, but even with their emphasis on exploration, it often feels like you're being funnelled down a set path to push things forward - the sense of freedom is ultimately an illusion, albeit a convincing one. I assumed that behind the hyperbole, Breath of the Wild would be the same - until I got the chance to sit down and play it. As we all know now, this isn't the traditional Zelda game we've come to know and love over the past few decades; this expanded version of Hyrule is absolutely enormous and comes packed with so many secrets it's alarmingly easy to totally ignore the main quest and simply dash around acquiring gear, cooking up killer dishes and taking part in over 100 Shrine quests. Weapons shatter, the temperature changes constantly, weather has an impact on your movement and environmental elements - such as boulders and explosive barrels - can be used to trigger destructive chain-reactions which wipe out entire groups of enemies. Emergent gameplay - such as Cuccos attacking monsters and large beasts accidentally taking one another out - add to the spectacle, and consequently make this feel very different from the Zeldas of the past.
What's not included in Breath of the Wild is equally striking, especially for those who have followed this renowned series from day one. Core quest items such as the Hookshot, Iron Boots and Power Glove are totally absent, removing the famous gear-gating system on which almost every other Zelda game has relied upon to create a multi-layered challenge. Your powers are now confined to runes, but you receive all of these very early on in your adventure. That basically means that you can tackle things in any order; there's no longer a set pattern through the game which is dictated by what gear you currently have access to. The game's monstrous Divine Beasts - the closest thing Breath of the Wild has to old-fashioned Zelda dungeons - can be tackled in any order, and it's even possible to march right into Hyrule Castle at the start of the game and take on Calamity Ganon - although it's inadvisable, as you'll get utterly destroyed. When you consider the rather annoying hand-holding that took place during The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, it's amazing how much freedom you're afforded here; not just to play the game how you want to, but also the freedom to fail. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the "Game Over" screen, but judicious use of auto-saves means it's less of an annoyance than before. You learn from your mistakes and try something different; another amazing thing about the game is how there's often more than one way to solve a Shrine puzzle, or take on a particular enemy.
If you're currently playing and enjoying Breath of the Wild on your Switch or Wii U then I don't need to sell you on the many, many reasons why this game is a masterpiece, but ask yourself this: would you be happy if for the next Zelda adventure, Nintendo set aside the mechanics introduced in Breath of the Wild and went back to basics, bringing back traditional dungeons, a more linear quest, gear-gated gameplay and a smaller, more compact gameworld?
It might seem like an odd thing to ponder, but given how incredibly different Breath of the Wild is to pretty much every other Zelda game before it, it's a valid question; if Nintendo chooses to build on this latest outing, we could potentially see future instalments which are even more disconnected from the "classic" formula - not that that would necessarily be a bad thing, of course. Every franchise has to evolve in order to remain relevant, and some would argue that Zelda has taken longer than most to bring itself into the modern era. Whatever route Nintendo chooses to take with this, it's most influential franchise, the results should be interesting. With its gigantic overworld, plethora of items and refreshing insistence on giving the player as much agency as possible, Breath of the Wild surely ranks as one of the most dramatic reimaginations any Nintendo series has seen - and where it goes from here will be utterly fascinating to watch.