Back in March 2017, Nintendo launched its mega-popular hybrid handheld console, the Switch, to strong sales performance and critical adoration. The system had very few launch titles available during its release month, but one stood out above the pack and helped catapult the system into the stratosphere.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a landmark game. Fans had eagerly awaited the title since it was announced in 2014 as a Wii U exclusive. And, to Nintendo’s credit, BotW did see a Wii U release the same day it hit the Switch. It was both the final game for the ill-fated Wii U and the first Nintendo-developed game for the exciting new Switch system.
For a brief time, when it was tough to find new Switch systems around the console’s release, Breath of the Wild actually outsold the Switch. It was one of the first video games to have an over 100 percent install base. What made the new Zelda title so overwhelmingly successful? Why were fans so eager to buy a brand-new Nintendo system just to play one game? Well, it turns out Breath of the Wild was something truly special.
Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is an open-world action RPG set in the Kingdom of Hyrule and functions as a sequel to the Legend of Zelda series. Its storyline takes place long after the events of even the most “recent” setting in the Zelda franchise, Link’s Adventure. It’s a sprawling game that features numerous distinct biomes and allows players to explore wherever they can see.
One of the game’s central mechanics is the ability to climb nearly any surface. This revolutionary exploration mechanic makes everything in sight a jungle gym. Link can climb up, get a good look at his surroundings, and then strike out in a new direction. The addition of a glider that you can use to travel vast distances after jumping from a tall tower is also quite welcome a few hours into the game.
The game’s completely hands-off approach to storytelling and progression is also refreshing in the context of the long-formulaic Zelda series. Rather than encouraging you to go to the next waypoint, BotW sets the player loose in a massive, ruined world and allows them to choose where they want the adventure to take them.
Go Where You Want
The central premise of the Nintendo Switch system is that it lets you take your games wherever you want. The core of Breath of the Wild is that you can go wherever your want, exploring the vast Kingdom of Hyrule at your own pace. These two design philosophies worked well together, as fans were eager to snap up Switch systems to take the newest, massive Zelda adventure onto planes and trains with them.
When Breath of the Wild opens, it gives Link a breathtaking view of the ruined kingdom. Crumbling ruins dot the landscape, and the imposing figure of Hyrule Castle is always visible behind the swirling mists caused by the villain, Ganon. Returning players will realize that this game isn’t like its predecessors: rather than leading you along a linear, formulaic path through various dungeons, it allows you to tackle the villain however you want.
If you want to rush straight into Hyrule Castle and battle Ganon, you can do that. Nothing is stopping you. Except, well, how hard that would be with no upgrades or support.
A Return to Basics
Breath of the Wild, for all of its innovations and genuinely fresh design beats, doesn’t come completely out of the blue, even within its own series. It’s largely a modernization of the gameplay loop first seen in the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. Like that game, BotW gives the player the freedom to tackle challenges in any order and allows them to get hopelessly lost in areas they’re not remotely ready for.
That wide-open design philosophy strips the Zelda franchise back to its basics. In the classic version of Zelda, the kind that’s been around since A Link to the Past, you could reliably tell if you were heading in the right direction by the presence of puzzles that made you use the items you found in dungeons. If you were stumped, it was usually because you didn’t have the right items yet and needed to progress further in the story.
In BotW, the game wastes no time unlocking all the powers you need to solve every puzzle you’ll encounter in the game. Rather than being items in a magically-massive inventory, these powers are “runes” on Link’s tablet-like Sheikah Slate. This opens the game up immediately, allowing players to tackle any puzzles they see with the confidence that they already have what they need.
Breath of the Wild is immediately gripping due in large part to how haunting its game world is. Hyrule is ruggedly beautiful, presenting a world of long-forgotten temples and overgrown ruins. Rusty war machines can be seen, half-sunken into the mud, eager to spring back to life and end your journey in a heartbeat. The sparse, lonely music accentuates the lonesome atmosphere and makes the game a meditative experience.
The game also offers a uniquely dark tale for a Zelda title. The narrative picks up a century after the forces of evil overwhelmed the defenders of Hyrule, wiped out most of the surface civilization, and dealt Link a lethal blow. Princess Zelda saved Link’s life by placing him into stasis. Link awakens from his slumber a century later to find the world irrevocably changed by Ganon’s war.
The few human settlements you find are a shadow of their former selves. Hyrule’s once-bustling Castle Town is now inhabited only by autonomous war machines. Civilization has retreated to the corners of the map, and people scrape by, unable to make a robust life for themselves as long as the threat of Ganon’s forces bears down on them.
The “outmatched” nature of the narrative is also reflected in the game’s combat. Link isn’t equipped with well-made swords and armor this time around. He starts the game wearing little more than rags and is equipped with any pointy stick he can find. BotW’s early going is defined by scrambling to pick up the wood-and-bone weapons of the low-level Moblin enemies, using them only briefly before their shoddy composition sees them crumble into dust.
Therein lies one of the few mechanics that serve as a sticking point for most of the game’s critics: the weapon durability system. As Link upgrades his arsenal and trades in wooden clubs for well-made swords and spears, he still has to worry about the weapons breaking. This design decision makes it important always to improvise and change your fighting style as your favorite weapons break, but it strikes some people as needlessly restrictive.
Still, there are plenty of ways to fight in BotW that don’t involve swinging a sword. You can roll a boulder down a hill to squash enemies at the bottom. You can start a wildfire to catch gunpowder kegs alight and blow an enemy encampment into smithereens. That open-ended design makes each encounter in BotW play out in a unique way.
Making Your Own Fun
The name of the game with Breath of the Wild is self-determination. It’s up to the player to make their own fun in the vast sandbox they’re given. Sure, there are structured side quests and an overt “main story” that will see you scaling four mechanical beasts to avenge the fallen comrades Link no longer remembers. But these are secondary concerns–exploration and discovery are the stars of the show here.
Like Minecraft, Terraria, and Stardew Valley before it, Breath of the Wild is a game that begs you to play it however you want. If you prefer to sneak around and avoid fights, you can do that. If you’d rather hook floating octopus creatures up to a raft and use a giant tree life to fly over an obstacle, well, have fun doing just that.
This open-ended ethos gives you the freedom to make the adventure your own. The stories that naturally emerge from a play session of Breath of the Wild would feel right at home in a Dungeons and Dragons game, and that’s the game’s biggest achievement.
A Lasting Legacy
The sequel to Breath of the Wild, titled Tears of the Kingdom, will finally expand upon the game’s story and setting when it lands on the Switch in May 2023. In the meantime, however, BotW’s spiritual successors are already everywhere. The popular free-to-play RPG Genshin Impact liberally borrows BotW’s mechanics and even lifts some of its aesthetics.
More recently, the beloved Elden Ring deftly married the brutal combat of Dark Souls to the wide-open exploration of Breath of the Wild in what many consider to be the best game of 2022. It’s hard to overstate how important BotW has been for the gaming landscape over the past six years. But, suffice it to say, without this landmark Switch launch title, gaming as an industry would be very different right now.