Oh My! What Have We Done: Thoughts so Far on The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild (w/VIDEO!!!)
I've never been enamored with a Zelda title. Truth be told, I've only ever owned five Nintendo devices: an original GameBoy, the Nintendo Wii, a DSi, a 3DS XL, and now the Switch. I tried to stick with Twilight Princess, but after some time in it, I decided that it represented everything I did not like about the Zelda franchise, and, Wii or no, I gave it up. I bought the Breath of the Wild (BotW) under similar pretense as Twilight Princess; that if I was going to go in on a Nintendo platform, then I had to give its premiere title an honest effort. I wasn't supposed to like this game. But after a short time with the title, I got the sense that things would be different this time.
If indications from the Switch, the Switch launch, and the design of BotW are taken at their face value, it is highly likely that we are observing a transformational change within that corporation. In the design of the Switch, Nintendo appears to be embracing engineering and design ideas that are not entirely their own. A willingness to collaborate and mindshare contributions to the Switch's DNA is a new turn for the Japanese company. They are embracing the most robust offerings in an online strategy that they have undertaken in three consoles with a true online subsystem. And in Zelda, Nintendo has incorporated elements persistent in the Western RPG design language for many years. In making a game that is not exclusively of Japanese RPG (JRPG) design language, or even just solely Nintendo corporate design language, I get the sense that the culture within Nintendo has taken a major swerve since they have had to live within the world that has been the nightmare life-cycle of the WiiU. And for that recognition, for understanding that they can do things that are not solely whatever quirky game design element of the week Nintendo decides on, I applaud them.
Zelda does a few things that appeal to me right off the bat that I feel like have not been the normal design pattern for a Zelda game. One of those is that Zelda gets you right into the action. Within the first 15 minutes I would say I was having my first combat experience. And it was not some BS combat like swatting flies or bats or something. You pretty quickly encounter enemies that can cause significant damage, that can take more of a beating than you can, and will return punishing blows should you err and your strike or aim be off. Lastly, and most importantly, BotW allows you to climb pretty much anything. Boulders. Cliff walls. Sides of buildings. In the first campaign area, I immediately went after scaling an old church from the ground level all the way to the belfry. I did it on a whim, and at the top there was a weapons cache with an upgraded bow. It was both exciting and rewarding, which are the exact two things that games should do.
BotW has its warts, too. While it is nice to be able to climb anything, BotW sometimes uses that against you by forcing you to climb some lengthy structures via a mission objective. In one case today, I was told to climb a tower that I had already been on. It was a long climb and I felt like the whole sequence was just a big pile of administrivia that was unnecessary and did not add anything to the game.
I am maybe a few hours in and the game feels great, to me. And that is coming from someone who has not been a lifelong Zelda fan. Without all of the excess baggage of the past versions' history, Breath of the Wild feels spot-on to me. Right as rain. The notion that I could easily take this with me on travel and play it en route or just when I get to the other side? Priceless. BoTW seems like a gem. An amazing perspective on what can happen when you open your dev team up to considering design patterns from sources outside of you corporation. I hope I am right. As significant as Zelda itself is, I have higher hopes that the game will incentivize other developers working on Switch content to look around and consider incorporating things into their design that may just be derivative from previously deployed games. If Nintendo can manage to lead other developers by its own example, and we wind up with a Switch library that is nothing like previous Nintendo platforms, then all of this might just be worth it.