Exploring Memories of the Past
Cue the piano track of memories being rediscovered. Imagine a sweaty, tired version of me. It’s the middle of June 2016, it’s hot, and there’s a lot of people in this expo hall clamoring outside the Nintendo booth at E3 waiting to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time. It’s the only game that Nintendo brought out to show, and it was out in full force. There was only one entrance: the entry point was a tall, life-sized version of the Sheikah shrines scattered by the dozen in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That line was long, and admission only granted to those who had the lucky golden (literally!) tickets. That first day, the line shut down twenty minutes into the opening of the expo hall. It was heartbreaking. The line wrapped around the hall several times. I remember lamenting to my colleague about how it was going to be near impossible to get a chance to play the game. Somehow, though, at the end of that day, I happened to pass by the booth, and the Nintendo booth representative waved me in and handed me one of the tickets. It was the first step on the way to a wild journey.
From the moment I stepped into that shrine, there were fancy white cushions organized neatly in a dimly lit presentation room. As I sat in that chair, with many eager gamers, fans, and media, I remember getting a better look at the trailer that aired during the Nintendo E3 showcase earlier that morning. Like the magic of an amusement park ride, the screen lifted, and we all got our first personal look at the new incarnation of Hyrule. From the second I set foot in there, I remember the noises. The excitement, at the forefront of it all, was interspersed with noises of nature, of jingles that I would hear quite a bit in the final game. I didn’t get that much time to take a thorough look, since it was game time.
Slipping on a pair of headphones and holding the Wii U tablet in my hand, the game opened on the Great Plateau, and after meeting the old man that we later would understand to be the last King of Hyrule, King Rhoam, it was quite literally time to get down and dirty with this game, the first look at a game that would later come to become the Game of the Year in 2017 at The Game Awards. The Nintendo representative smiled wryly, saying that since we were the last group in the house, we would be able to get hands-on until security kicked us off the premises. You better believe your boy stayed there the entire time. By the time I left the show hall, I had several demos under my belt, and a heck of a lot of writing to get to. It was E3 week, and I was pretty much guaranteed to be sleepless with what I had to cover. Items, weapon mechanics, the open world, how big the map was, there was a lot of material I could start with.
Here was a game that had changed the conventions of what I had come to expect in open world games. I played The Witcher 3, and I didn’t exactly find a ton of enjoyment or immersion as I did in this short demo, which is nothing short of sacrilege to a lot of people. I get it, too, but I just couldn’t get that sense of attachment that others shared. It went the same way with Horizon Zero Dawn. I think the game looked fantastic, but there was something odd about the main character not being able to scale a mountain despite being this toned warrior. Breath of the Wild just dished out a craving within me, the immediate sense of “Oh god, I need to buy this immediately on the next generation console (The formal name of Nintendo Switch was still under wraps, with a code name of the NX).” In those four demos I played, not one of my game play runs was the same. One run would be me just running around the plateau and getting lost in cutting down trees, another would be tackling the shrine. Despite the great time I had playing the game and gawking at the Nintendo booth, there was this awful, sinking feeling that I would not get to play this for another nine months.
Fast forward to January 2017, to a somewhat cold hotel room in northwest Arkansas. I’m due for a business meeting in an hour and a half, and everything happens. The Switch is formally announced, Nintendo puts out another trailer, and announces that it’s going to be a launch title. The preorder goes live. I snag one for pickup on launch day. The big meeting was ahead, but all I could think about was the Switch and this game, even though it wasn’t even out.
Hyrule, in the Palm of My Hand
That fated launch day came by. Fresh out of a drug recall exam in pharmacy school, I remember this giddiness that I felt as my friend gave me a lift over to the local Best Buy to pick up the console. I laughed, realizing that I would spend much of the weekend on the game. I played that game, non-stop, for thirteen hours that day, extending into the early morning. It was worth the report I got from the administration folks for having a little too much fun. Here was a game that finally challenged convention, a game that did everything so differently, yet remained familiar. From the absence of Hyrule’s epic, bombastic themes, we get instead a very subdued track, with tinkling of the ivory that is the piano, the focus of the instrumental tracklist. The music also sounded familiar with some nice callbacks to earlier games; one specific example was the Zora Domain. While aquatic, it had undertones of the Zora theme from Ocarina of Time.
The focus for Breath of the Wild was to let the player explore freely, opening themselves up to this beautifully realized, incredibly detailed world. From the well-designed physics, to the incredible realism of getting blown up by a bolt of lightning in a rainstorm because I had something metal equipped, Breath of the Wild was not afraid to let the player know that they needed to work on their skills. Like a Pavlovian system, we were training ourselves by failure. Who is going to forget their first encounter with a Guardian, or running face first into a Lynel? Will you forget that time you wanted to try shield surfing but misplaced your jump, leading you to tumble off the mountain to your death? How will you forget that time when the enemy fought back for the first time, kicking your bomb back at you as you detonated it? To me, all of this was surreal because I could enjoy these experiences anywhere I wanted to: whether it was lying in bed, playing the game on the way to class, or with Joy Cons in hand at the dinner table. It’s what gives the Nintendo Switch such a degree of versatility and popularity with gamers.
Is Ignorance Better, In This Case?
You should sympathize for Link here. One of the major themes Breath of the Wild explores in its story is camaraderie, underscored by tragedy. From early in the game, we learn that Link got his ass kicked hard enough that he needed to sleep it off for a hundred years. The denizens of Hyrule and its various establishments don’t hesitate to remind him of this fact, either. That camaraderie is underscored by the feeling of loss, the loss of the four companions, his fellow Champions chosen by Zelda. It’s one of the harder aspects of the game to swallow from an emotional standpoint, because while the heroes weren’t as developed in the main story line, the addition of The Champion’s Ballad DLC shined a brighter light on their personalities. At the end of that great re-run through Hyrule, you obtain a nostalgic photo of the past, when things were better… only to realize that these good times are gone. Except, he’s probably forgotten all about it when he got his grubby little mitts on the Master Cycle Zero. I hope Nintendo releases some content in future to address this void, though, because it’d be really cool to see the world from a post-Ganon perspective, and see Link and Zelda rebuild the realm.
Memories and Bliss
Breath of the Wild is special. It won Game of the Year for reasons that it entirely deserves, and it’s one of the best games of all time, from critical perspective. It’s by far the biggest iteration where Nintendo just took their instruction manual and said forget it, let’s try something new. Much like how Link is piecing together his memories of his own past, we too are piecing together distant memories of enjoyment and remembering just what made The Legend of Zelda so special for us. It’s the best Zelda in recent memory, and it supplants everything that we’ve come to know about the series, but still maintains that familiarity to draw in its oldest fans that started the adventure 30 years ago. Zelda has finally grown up with its audience, and provided us with a real challenge.
For the first time in a long time, I found playing this game to be therapeutic, a word that has so many different meanings given my real-life practice as a student pharmacist. Playing games as a side career leaves little time to truly “relax” while playing a game through, given deadlines that need to be met. Breath of the Wild changed all of that. I’m sure that in the first twelve hours or so of the game, I spent about 80% of that climbing random mountains just because I could. From the beautiful vistas that the game presents, to the randomly quirky rewards of Korok seed hunting, Breath of the Wild allowed me to enjoy a game at its face value.
While there were indeed moments where I struggled to complete a puzzle, the overall feeling of accomplishment for completing it was always its own reward. Any direction I ran had several detours. If I was supposed to go to Hateno Village from the mountains to deliver a quest item to one of its inhabitants, I could be stopped along the way by many different things, leading to many different detours. Whether it’s a sneaky Yiga Clan merchant wanting to sell me bananas and then immediately trying to kill me, some falling star in the distance, a rare insect that I never added to my collection, or shooting at a passing dragon in the distance, Breath of the Wild never had a lack of things to do in this diverse and living world. Even in its postgame, where Ganon has been felled, and the shrines beaten, there are still seeds to collect, and fun ways to explore the world even after hundreds of hours of game time. More recently with The Champion’s Ballad, there’s still time records (self-made) to be beat in the trek across Hyrule on the Master Cycle Zero. There are still things to learn about this vast and surprisingly complex video game world. Who would have anticipated that bomb arrows would detonate on the Eldin Volcano? Even after months of absence, picking up where I left off was simple, with little to no loss of the sense of exuberance that I had nine months prior at launch, and no other game has ever felt this way before.
There’s Something for Everyone!
I was reading a piece from Polygon recently, in which one of their staff was talking about this game quite earnestly, as a part of their Game of the Year discussions. One of the points that I found noteworthy was about scale. This game scales for everyone, and could be anything. From building up Link through upgrades and armor, collecting, exploring this huge landmass, or relishing the delights of a combat system that fights back in ways that we’d never have thought, there’s something in this game that anyone can enjoy. There’s not a ton that we can hate unilaterally, either, except the rain. The rain jus ruins everything, but on another note, requires a bit more spontaneous thinking as it makes us change what we wanted to originally do.
Bringing the Package Together
Nintendo has really been trying hard to be a more modern gaming company in the past year. This approach has helped them tremendously, netting them an excellent lineup of games on their new Switch console with over 10 million console sales in the first nine months. Demand for their systems has never been stronger, and they needed it after the Wii U. As much as Breath of the Wild was a reinvention of The Legend of Zelda, it too was a reinvention for the company, a company that was always unafraid to do its own thing. From the Miyazaki-esque art style that the game brought in to the quiet music notes of Manaka Kataoka, it’s the ultimate package. With the introduction of the DLC expansion pass, Nintendo was putting their foot into these foreign waters to test this new system, to see if it would be successful. For the first time, this was one of the better DLC provisions that I’ve seen. I was already excited to jump back into Hyrule from the beginning, but Nintendo bringing it on with a set of complex puzzles and intense sequences was the cherry on top of the cake. The Champions were developed in their own ways, and although it wasn’t the perfect vision that we had in mind, it’s still a fine way to go about ending a title that already was very well-executed.
I’ve written a lot of things about games, and about Breath of the Wild in general. Thousands of words and many hours lost in the forests and plains of this post-apocalyptic Hyrule cannot come close to what this game brought out for me. It’s not a perfect game, as much as I struggle to admit. My fellow staff writers know just how much I love this game, and even as I gave the game a 9.5/10 it’s not a perfect title. There are facets that can be improved but as a sum of all its parts, errors included, the experience itself is significant and phenomenal in a way that’s difficult to describe.
2017 has been a phenomenal year, not just for Nintendo and the Zelda franchise, but for games in general. It’s been a year packed with an intense amount of high quality game releases: from NieR: Automata to Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Super Mario Odyssey, you name it, gaming has never been more accessible. Here is a tale, a legend, that has been reborn. I’m sure many feel the same way.