An Exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Part I: A Genealogy

Rarely, if ever, does a game like Breath of the Wild live up to its expectations.

I still remember the first time I watched the trailer for what was then known only as “the Wii U Zelda”—a mysterious, supposedly open-world title that Nintendo had spent almost three years developing for its flagging console. It starts with a black screen and a voiceover—the first voice acting to ever feature in a main series Zelda game—of the princess saying “Link, open your eyes!”

At that moment, a grassland comes into view.

To say that the trailer for Breath of the Wild made me excited is an understatement of cataclysmic proportions; those three minutes, filled with slices of an incredible world I’ve spent the last three weeks exploring, made me anticipate this game like I’d anticipated Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or the series finale of Gravity Falls. I watched it again and again just for the music—a main theme that builds, breaks, and soars in the very same way the game itself would prove to do nine months later. I still watch it, even now that I can just turn to my Switch and play the game itself, because that feeling has never gone away.

But, as the launch date came around, I got nervous. I was sure I’d overhyped it. There was no way this game—as amazingly as it had already been received—could live up to my expectations. But it did, and now that I’ve made my way through its gargantuan world, interacted with its characters, experienced its wonderfully postapocalyptic narrative (a genre that I have a particular affinity for), I can’t help but write about it. Several times.

That’s because to really write about Breath of the Wild, to truly set down everything I feel about this transcendent game, I have to write about Zelda as a franchise. Because while Breath of the Wild is in a sense a reinvention, with mechanics and elements pulled from everything from survival games and open-world sandboxes like Just CauseThe Elder Scrolls series, and GTA, it’s also a combination of everything its own franchise—quite possibly the most historically important franchise in gaming—has gotten right over the course of its previous eighteen entries.

First, though, I should back up that claim. Why is The Legend of Zelda the most important franchise in gaming history?

Because it invented saving, and, as a result, the very idea of videogame storytelling.

Before The Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, home consoles were still more or less an offshoot of arcade gaming. Games were meant to be played in a single sitting, more as a test of skill than a sustained experience, and as a result narratives had to be kept relatively simple. Space invaders attack the earth. Pac-Man eats his way through a maze. Mario saves Princess Peach.

Then, inside the cartridge for Zelda 1, Nintendo added a small RAM chip powered by an internal battery—a chip that would preserve your progress and allow you to pick up where you left off, and thus completely altered the way games could be played. Today’s art games and blockbusters—from BioShock to Battlefield to Undertale to Ori and the Blind Forest—would not exist without The Legend of Zelda.

So this is the legacy that Breath of the Wild carries, and while that may sound incredibly basic, one of the best, most challenging parts of this, the nineteenth Zelda, comes when the game takes away your ability to save—when it forces you to face a challenge like an arcade gamer, and thus makes that history felt.

But more on that in Part II. At least this one I’d like to keep spoiler-free.

In essence, Breath of the Wild succeeds because it takes the best elements from its storied franchise and combines them with the best of modern game design, crafting a world that feels open in a truly organic way, that has personality and atmosphere and character and heart, and that feels as alive and responsive as the reality outside my window. And in particular, it takes inspiration from two Zelda entries that I unabashedly love: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Majora’s Mask.

If you’re at all familiar with popular opinion on the Zelda franchise, that might seem like an odd statement. No one loves Zelda II—it’s a strange RPG-like with leveling, EXP, stats, sidescrolling, and clunky platformer combat. It’s the red-headed stepchild of the series, the one most gloss over as “the one before A Link to the Past.”

But Zelda II, for all its flaws, has some of the best art design and worldbuilding of the entire series. Now, that may seem ridiculous to say about an 8-bit NES game, but no overworld in the entire series has ever fully matched the epic feel of The Adventure of Link, few puzzles have ever equalled its knack for tricky, hidden secrets, and few bosses have ever rivaled the simple but memorable design of its best—monsters like Thunderbird, Carock, and Dark Link. That is, until now.

In truth, Zelda II was special because the mythology of the series hadn’t been developed yet; it was the only game truly free to do what it wanted without the need for continuity that defined later games. After A Link to the Past, every Zelda had a Master Sword (or some analog), a fight with Ganon (or some demon king), recurrent monsters, familiar items, and a focus on collecting various pieces of… something scattered around Hyrule. In Zelda II, you actually had to return things—namely, crystals—to the cores of each of the palaces (i.e. dungeons) you conquered. And since none of its bosses or monsters had to adhere to some expected design, they remain the series’ most imposing.

That is to say, when I first encountered a Stone Talus in Breath of the Wild—one of the overworld bosses that might rise unexpectedly out of an otherwise empty clearing to challenge you to an immensely satisfying fight—it felt like the ghost of Zelda II had risen from its grave. This was something new, something different: something massive and awe-inspiring that I hadn’t experienced in any other Zelda. That Nintendo had the nerve to put one on the Great Plateau—in every sense the game’s tutorial area—only enhanced that feeling. It was the first moment I really had any sense of how incredible Breath of the Wild would turn out to be.

But even more so than Zelda IIBreath of the Wild borrows liberally from Majora’s Mask—my all-time favorite game, the apocalyptic, horror-laden dark horse of the franchise, and, at least in my view, one of the pinnacles of videogame storytelling.

Majora’s Mask deserves its own post (and someday it will get one), but in short, it’s oriented around four regions and four dungeons, each infected by a monster whose essence is poisoning the surrounding area. You’re tasked with clearing each of those regions, with a catch; a moon with a terrifying face is slowly falling towards Termina. At the end of the third day, it crashes down to earth, obliterating the world in a fiery armageddon, and the only way to prevent that is to rewind time—and try again.

Breath of the Wild shares very little with that general structure, but it does share Majora’s Mask’s focus on sidequests—a focus that makes the world and characters of Majora’s Mask feel much more alive than that of most of its cousins. Moreover, many of Majora’s puzzles and mysteries involve its overworld—how to explore it, navigate it, make it work for you—and the very paths that take you to its four main dungeons. Breath of the Wild is the same way: the process of reaching the four “Divine Beasts”—mechanical dungeons whose mechanics and aesthetics seem heavily inspired by Majora’s Stone Tower Temple—is just as much a quest as their interiors. And just like the world of Termina, Breath’s iteration of Hyrule carries the remnants of lost technology and a history erased by time, as well as four gods (rather than three) that are called upon to help you save the world.

Moreover, Breath of the Wild shares the feel unique to Majora’s Mask out of all the Zelda titles—the sense that there is a greater world beyond you, that operates on its own time with its own rules and cycles. Breath is massive, so massive that Link truly seems dwarfed by the mountains he climbs, the oceans he crosses, and the canyons he explores, and few of the processes that govern that world seem to bow to you in the way those in A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword do. That’s what gives it a real, tangible sense of scale, and what makes exploring it so addictive.

So that’s the legacy behind Breath of the Wild—a genealogy, a map of its inspiration. And that’s where I’ll end this time. In Part II, I’ll talk about the world itself: it’s surprises and its challenges and its fuel for exploration. After that, I’ll write about its story (once I’ve actually finished it, as ~60 hours has only gotten me ~2/3rds of the way through). And then, who knows.

I have a feeling I’ll be writing about this game for a long, long time.

But in the meantime, give this a listen. You’ll see what I mean. Promise.

Breath of the Wild: Main Theme

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