I’ve played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I absolutely loved it. But does it deserve to be given the crown of “best game of all time”? I’m not so sure.
In our review of Breath of the Wild, we gave it a 10. I won’t contest that score. I wholeheartedly agree; after finishing the game and reminiscing over the fantastic 30 or so hours I’ve had from the game, it certainly deserves a 10. As for the statements floating around that Breath of the Wild is one of the best games of all time, however? That’s where my thoughts begin to differ.
Imagine if you were walking through a desert for a couple of days without food or water. Assuming you survive your journey and reach your destination, someone gives you a regular bottle of water, and you swear it’s the best thing you’ve ever had in your life right?
That’s the kind of effect I think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has had on us as a gaming community. We’ve gone so long without any true innovation in popular genre types that when something like Dark Souls or Rainbow Six comes along to do something truly different, we come to appreciate it all the more. As excellent as Breath of the Wild is, I do not think that it deserves to be called one of the best games of all time.
Like many, I bought a Switch on launch day purely because of Zelda. Do I regret buying a console mainly for one game? No. I’m happy with the Switch and it’s also been a good excuse for me to finally play I Am Setsuna. I’m also looking forward to what the Switch has to offer down the line. With Breath of the Wild however, I feel I’ve been witness to a great game that truly revolutionises aspects of a genre that was seen before as being one massive time-sink of a collectathon, and has had life injected back into it.
Before games like Dark Souls and Breath of the Wild came along and showed us how good open-world exploration could be, I would usually use the term “open world” quite coyly, and with a heavy sigh. I don’t know about you, but open world to me before Breath of the Wild translated to “collect 200 feathers”, or “here’s a big empty space with clusters of detail in-between”. Space for the sake of aimlessly and randomly filling it up with little purpose, and scale for the sake of trying to awe players in spectacle. Nothing about modern open-world games was engaging; they’d become little more than a checklist of items and missions to complete one-by-one.
Breath of the Wild has a radar, but if you switch to Pro mode – which removes your minimap – it really encourages you to get lost in the world, using only landmarks and unique environmental cues to figure your way around. If you do get lost, it won’t be long until you bump into something interesting. We aren’t talking about the twentieth “fix my car” optional quest or “I’ve lost this thing, help me find it!” gig, either; we’re talking about unique puzzles and characters, all with interesting and specific designs of themselves. The only two characters alike will be shopkeepers in terms of their function, but even they have unique personalities and quirks of their own, with one clothes seller hiding in the corner too nervous to serve her customers or engage with them.
The world is cluttered with unique things to discover, and this is half the fun of Breath of the Wild; getting lost and finding new things. Because the objective of “Defeat Ganon” is given to you so early on, some players might be foolish enough to try completing that objective before anything else. The entire game is optional – you can apparently beat the final boss without setting foot anywhere else (I have not tried it myself, but there’s plenty of speedruns documenting it). I wouldn’t like to face off Calamity Ganon with three hearts and wooden spears and shields, but if you want to slowly chop away at his health with infinite bombs and dodging worthy of a Dark Souls player, then be my guest!
That makes exploration and navigation of the world not a necessity, but a choice made by you as the player. Since nothing is ever stopping you completing the game – besides your lack of skill and having to rely on better equipment – the choice to wander off and complete other quests is purely down to you. Part of the problem with open-world games is obligation. You’re obligated to complete the story in a sequence of linear missions that completely de-emphasise the freedom of exploration off the displayed path. They neglect any signs or postmarking of the world through its design and unique landmarks. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, has a series of landmarks – a huge Volcano, the Castle itself, Icy Mountain Regions – all serving as unique points for you to reference whilst running around the world. All or most are always visible.
The destruction of weapons early on forces you to learn and adapt to whatever fighting style happens to be within arm’s reach at the time. Without being able to rely on one overpowered weapon, you’re forced to scavenge, further encouraging exploration for newer and more durable weapons. The entire design philosophy of the game is built around exploration. The King does very little to guide you on that quest of acquisition other than pointing out into the world and telling you to “Trust yourself” a little and go explore!
With so many other gameplay systems like shield surfing, rolling boulders in a bowling mini-game, catching fish, and how all of the elements and systems interact with each other in physical ways, Breath of the Wild is a very believable and focused experience that refuses to let go of your immersion. You are always ever-present in the world, through its encouragement of physically interacting systems: climbing, the paraglider, horses and other mounts, dozens of dungeons, Korok seeds, logical puzzles, and so much more. Breath of the Wild has reinvigorated the open-world genre with countless examples of how to get your players navigating a world on foot, and not get bored or feel tedium.
However, I still don’t feel thats it’s one of the best games ever made.
I don’t think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild quite qualifies as a classic. Take me to a banquet where everyone is eating sludge and offer me a burnt piece of toast, and I’ll gladly give the toast a 10/10. I won’t claim however, that it’s the best piece of food or toast I’ve ever had in my life. Whilst I agree that Breath of the Wild is exceptionally good and deserves its praise, I don’t think it’s Hall of Fame stuff. After finishing the game, I realised how easy the boss fight had become, with the four guardians collected and having a robust arsenal of strong weapons. I could have taken him on after my first decent set of armour, and built up a good collection of medium-tier swords that could last the fight – nothing I didn’t have after 10 hours of playing. Yes, I would have had to dodge effectively, and I would have to cook a lot of food to prepare myself for the fight, but once you learn his patterns, Ganon becomes just another Dark Souls boss.
That’s what got me writing this article. Realising how short the final hours of the game were (from the castle onwards, it went really fast…) and how much of the game was actually optional, I saw the game as a whole and rejected the idea going around of “Oh my god, this is the best game ever!”. Best Zelda game ever? Perhaps. I still think the genius of Majora’s Mask stands up well even today, despite having Ocarina of Time as my personal favourite. While Breath of the Wild is a fantastic an open-world game, it doesn’t hold the narrative I would expect from a great Zelda game.
While Breath of the Wild‘s dialogue and story is above par, it isn’t on the same levels as the rest of the experience. It’s above serviceable, but it’s generic by other Zelda titles’ standards. Link put asleep for 100 years; a post-apocalyptic world; ancient guardian technology that failed our heroes on their first attempt? Not the most awe-inspiring story, but I can go with it. Rather than have a strong narrative, Breath of the Wild builds its story through emergent-storytelling. It’s a story that emerges out from the gameplay session of the player. In the same way GTA V inspires gamers with hundreds of stories to tell their friends after each play-session, the reason those stories are so unique is because of the complexity of the interactions possible from the game’s system, and how those things can only happen to a handful of players at any given time. This makes them personal, and players grow attached to them and enjoy them more than cookie-cutter experiences weaved into the narrative via cutscenes or main missions.
I have tons of stories to tell about my journey to defeating Ganon, and no-one else will have experienced the same story as me – or at least not in the same way. My ordering of missions was different, my struggles were different, my glories will be unique to me. That’s what a good open-world game does; it allows the player to freely explore the world and develop their own story of events. I can’t even remember the amount of times the game removed control from me for a cutscene or plot, as it happened so infrequently and were aways short in length. The King’s brief introduction at the start of the game; an Old Lady telling me about some ancient stuff and a bit of what happened 100 years ago; and the end of the game. That’s all I remember. The rest was all me. What I did, where I went, who I spoke to, who I helped, what I found, enemies I killed, items I collected, challenges I overcame, mistakes I made, Koroks I liberated. They’re all unique in those styles and orders to me.
That’s where I think everyone has gone a little overboard and excited with heralding Breath of the Wild as the best game ever. They’ve forgotten what it felt like when games were simpler and held hands less. The days of the original Legend of Zelda, where you were just thrown into the world and had to find your own way of reaching the end; that was what people got to experience in a modern AAA title once again. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Dark Souls did it first, well before Breath of the Wild came along – and in some ways, Breath of the Wild has taken inspiration from Dark Souls and other popular games of recent years. If we’re going to be talking about the best game ever that saved the open-world genre, we should be taking a good long, hard look at the Dark Souls series first before giving away that accolade. The meat of the experience in Breath of the Wild was my personal journey through it. Not the actual story of Zelda and Link vs Ganon, but rather my personal build-up towards that moment and everything that happened along the way due to my choices.
So yes, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is amazing. It’s a 10/10 game. But is it the best open-world adventure game of all time? No. Is it the best Zelda game at least then? Perhaps not. It’s a great game that came around when other open-world adventure games were mediocre at best – with a few exceptions like Dark Souls and Metal Gear Solid 5, which both had their own player-driven emergent narratives through interactions that were a result of the game system’s complex or gameplay-driven structures.
I loved it, I bought a console because of it. Top 10? Possibly. Top 5? No.