Zelda: BOTW Portrait Mode

In this series of features Nintendo Life writers will share thoughts on their most memorable games of 2017. This first article by Dave Letcavage focuses on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on both Switch and Wii U. Later entries will also focus on lesser known games that have entertained and enthralled us this year.

Since Ocarina of Time, one could assert that The Legend of Zelda series has relied too heavily on tonal shifts and gameplay gimmicks – as opposed to genuine reinvention – to differentiate each instalment from its predecessor. But now, 19 long years later, Nintendo has finally flipped the script and redefined what it means to be a Zelda game. While the thought of such a monumental shakeup may sound scary, the reality is that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not just a great game; in my opinion, it’s arguably the most ambitious, innovative AAA Nintendo game since the original Metroid Prime.

Just taking in the scenery atop a snow-capped mountain

Providing players with the ability to climb and scale nearly every surface, structure and obstacle is a liberating approach to open-world design, not unlike swinging through the streets of NYC as Spider-Man or grinding/dashing about the world of the Xbox One's Sunset Overdrive. Climbing isn’t exactly as exhilarating as traversal in those games, but Link’s glider – which allows you to gracefully descend from dangerous heights and soar great distances – makes up for any sluggish bouts of climbing. Once Link’s back is to the tutorial area, the Great Plateau, it’s up to you to decide where you want to go next. Navigating the world is a puzzle in and of itself, one that stimulates and rewards for dozens and dozens of hours before it ever threatens to become stale.

That’s because Hyrule is such a vast, dynamic, multilayered place to explore, filled with deadly enemies, environmental hazards, organically-positioned secrets, and no shortage of brain teasers. What’s more, this is a world that reacts to your presence and instigation in innumerable ways, unlike any other open-world game before it. Link’s “utility belt” of tools, weapons, and abilities create many avenues to go about accomplishing whatever it is you aim to do. You can manipulate metallic objects, fool around with stasis, set flammable materials ablaze, and much, much more. Because of this, experimentation is encouraged, rewarded, and incredibly fulfilling.

You can ride bears... nothing more needs to be said

Meaningful discoveries and “ah-ha!” moments are in abundance, which makes thorough exploration an irresistible proposition; rarely will you travel to a specific destination without being led astray by your curiosities. While the idea of virtually endless distractions may not sound conducive to story progress, it’s in these impromptu deviations that the real magic occurs. Because you make the decision to investigate, or because you notice something suspicious within the environment, there’s a unique sense of ownership and accomplishment attached to your discoveries and the puzzles you solve. It’s a sensation that open-world games – and video games in general – rarely afford the player.

As I played through the game on the Switch, my wife played the Wii U version on the GamePad. We discussed our progress and revelations frequently, and very rarely did we know precisely what the other person was talking about. Even after I spent 80 hours in Hyrule, my wife was mentioning NPC encounters and world details that were alien to me. What’s more, in many cases we learned that we overcame challenges in completely different ways. And that’s really Breath of the Wild’s greatest achievement – it’s able to make chunks of your experience feel exclusive to you and you alone.

Proper attire for a hero approaching Death Mountain

While some players will lament the absence of traditional themed dungeons, most will find the 120 shrines (which are essentially bite-sized dungeons) and four primary dungeons (referred to as Divine Beasts) to be more-than-adequate replacements. These can be tackled in any order you desire on your journey to vanquish Ganon from Hyrule Castle, and you can do as many or as few as you want. You don’t level up attributes as you would in a traditional RPG, but through these efforts you will obtain more hearts, expand your stamina meter, gain new powers, and earn more resilient gear. It fits into the open-world, freedom-focused approach almost perfectly.

Many weapon and armor options allow you to be the Link you want to be

But Breath of the Wild isn’t fault-free. I like the fact that weapons break and inspire off-the-cuff battle strategies; I just wish they’d break a little less often. I like the fact that rain causes you to spontaneously reassess your agenda; I just wish rain would roll in with less frequency. I like that stamina factors into how and what you climb; I just wish it didn't have as much of an impact on running. These things can add up and will annoy on occasion, but thankfully they’re relatively minor and easy enough to brush off in the grand scheme of things.

While the usual Zelda formula has been upended, Breath of the Wild retains the essence of the series. This is how you revitalize a franchise. This is how you properly follow up Ocarina of Time (even if it’s 19 years and numerous instalments later). This is the new benchmark for open-world design. It’s by no means a perfect game, but it’s most definitely a masterpiece – as well as an assurance that Nintendo has plenty of creativity and ambition left in the tank to deliver experiences that can impress and stimulate our imaginations in a way few other publishers and developers can.

A breathtaking aerial view of Rito Village

Pardon such a cliched phrase, but it has to be said: What a breath of fresh air.