From its introduction in 1986, The Legend of Zelda has completely captivated us with its puzzles, its story and its characters. There’s a bit of Link in every player who ever picked up the Hero’s Sword, and we’ve compared every woman we’ve ever dated to Princess Zelda herself.
As Nintendo unleashes their new Switch console on the world, it’s bringing forth the next legend in the Zelda universe with Breath of the Wild, a game that rethinks and improves on every Zelda game that has come before. One that legitimately lays claim to being the best Zelda ever—and an early frontrunner for 2017's game of the year.
1. The World of Hyrule
It’s gorgeous, it’s enormous, it’s familiar and it’s fresh. Nintendo has somehow created an expansive world that is both daunting in size and unbelievable in density and variety. There are places that triggered a sense of deja vu. There are places we looked at with wide-eyed wonder. There were times when we simply couldn’t believe what had been tucked away at the foot of a mountain or in the distance beyond the shore. We’ve spent our fair share of time in the land of Hyrule over the years, but this version of it is bigger and better than any that have come before.
2. Real Good Looks
Ever watch Spirited Away or any other movie in the unique style of Studio Ghibli? There’s a reason those movies are regarded as art. The Breath of the Wild team seems to have channeled Miyazaki for this game, and it could not suit us more. If you glanced at someone playing Breath of the Wild, you may actually confuse it for one of those movies. It’s a major departure from previous Zelda games and an excellent stylistic choice that effectively nullifies the lower-resolution (720p) of the WiiU and Nintendo Switch.
3. Talk to Me
We never really minded the fact that every character who spoke in previous Zelda games sounded like an adult to Charlie Brown, but the charm of that marble-mouthing was fading hard by the last Zelda, Skyward Sword. We’ll admit that not every line in Breath of the Wild gets the full voice-acting treatment, but the cut-scenes, absolutely integral to the narrative, are voiced to perfection and lend a big helping hand to making Breath of the Wild lay claim to being the best Zelda ever. Wisely, despite all the new VO’d parts, Link remains a hero who subscribes to the strong and silent philosophy.
4. Get Crafty
Breath of the Wild’s extensive item list and huge inventory storage allow for an equally extensive amount of crafting to be done. That means mixing and matching meat from hunting or fishing with other potent items like shrooms (no joke) can make specific power-ups and elixirs that will help you with whatever quest you’re on at that moment. There’s even rewards if you cook up the right recipe for certain residents of Hyrule, especially if that recipe comes from a cookbook that was lost a century ago. (Hint, hint.)
5. Weapons Break
Well, most of them do. There’s an innovative approach to weaponry in Breath of the Wild that we loved, despite it being the source of some frustrating moments. We’ll chalk that up to the challenge of the game. As you progress through BoTW, you’ll find that there’s a right tool for every job, and it’ll be on you to manage your weapon inventory accordingly, even if that job is stabbing a skeleton in the face. It’s one more aspect of Breath of the Wild’s effort to modernize, update and deepen the Zelda experience and, like all the other efforts toward that end, it works admirably.
6. Fantasy Tech
Any Zelda game is going to have an overall Earthen feel to it—it’s fantasy, not sci-fi—but Breath of the Wild bucks that trend by introducing the all-important Sheikah-Slate, a tablet not unlike the Nintendo Switch itself, that will aid you in your quest. Besides organizing your inventory, housing your world map and acting as an all-around reference center for the quests you’re juggling and the monsters you encounter, the slate also has a camera in it so you can take a picture of an enemy or item that you need to find desperately—and play a sort of “hot or cold” game to help direct you to the nearest instance of the item you need.
7. Killer Abilities
Previous Zelda games have relied on power-ups and pick-ups to create the puzzles that were a hallmark of the series. Breath of the Wild immediately starts by imbuing Link with skills. Some are familiar, like remote bombs that you can explode at will, and some are brand new, like a Magneto-esque control of metal or a timestopper that can freeze items for a short while. Our favorite is definitely the ability to create huge pedestals of ice out of any surface with water. BoTW’s dungeons all feel fresh because of their reliance on Link’s new skills.
From its 2D origins to excellent 3D titles like Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword, our hero has never been able to do the one thing that made Mario so popular. Link can’t jump. Rather, Link couldn’t jump... until now. Make no mistake, he doesn’t have slam-dunk contest potential at all, but the hop Nintendo bestowed on Link in Breath of the Wild is a total gamechanger that forces you to rethink everything from puzzles to your brawls with the bosses.
9. Mini-Dungeons Galore
You’ll battle the biggest beasts and bosses throughout Breath of the Wild’s adventure, but some of its most puzzling moments are had in the mini-dungeon shrines peppered throughout the world. These are single-serving challenges that typically house either a single puzzle or mini-boss that, when overcome, reward you with a Spirit Orb. Collect four of those and you can exchange them for more stamina or another heart. Happening upon a new shrine also activates them as teleport points on the map.
We’ve relied heavily on our map throughout our time with Breath of the Wild, mainly because the world is enormous. Rather than abuse players’ thumbs by making them traverse the wide world of Hyrule, reaching certain areas (many of which are those mini-dungeons we just mentioned) will allow you to teleport back there in a matter of seconds. It’s a very welcome innovation for the series but one that we only used when specifically on-task since spending time just meandering around the world would still guarantee some sort of adventure.
Breath of the Wild’s map system is made much better thanks to Link’s ability to drop beacons from his scoped-in first-person view. The expansive landscape is dense with things to do, places to go and monsters to fight and the beacon system lets you pinpoint everything from a distance. Once marked by a beacon, the item will turn up on your map and also cast a colored spotlight upward so you can find it as you trek toward it.
Breath of the Wild has no shortage of legitimate boss bad guys, but it also has lots of enormous baddies lurking, wandering and even napping around its tremendous world. In that respect, it looks like the BoTW team took some cues from Team Ico, injecting enemies not unlike those from Shadow of the Colossus. At first, they’re best avoided but, if you’re looking for a challenge once you beef Link up, they’re a good place to cut your teeth without (too much) actual consequence.
13. Horse Stables
Playing for a while will open up plenty of teleport points, but we still found ourselves scouring the plains for a horse because taking in the world of Hyrule and stumbling on the unexpected along your way is one of Zelda’s most enjoyable elements. We’d just prefer not to do it on foot. In a bid at realism, Breath of the Wild has a stable system that lets you find and tame wild horses which can then be be named and boarded at a stable, ready to go at your whistle.