An Exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Part V: The Heroes’ Legacy

So Breath of the Wild is the apex of open-world design. It’s filled with secrets, and it makes exploration itself feel rewarding. Its narrative has depth and resonance, and its characters feel three-dimensional and relatably real. It takes the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction to a new level—depicting a world not irradiated and destroyed, but retaken by wilderness. And in a time-bending twist worthy of the Zelda canon, it presents you as a survivor (and, in some ways, a perpetrator) of that very apocalypse, returned to right a wrong, to succeed where you once failed. In terms of narrative and gameplay, it’s a masterwork.

But what about everything else?

To begin with, Breath of the Wild’s art design entralled me from the moment I watched its first trailer. It’s neither hyperrealistic nor overly cartoony; or, in other words, it finally resolves the old franchise split between the dark grittines of Twilight Princess and the cel-shaded flamboyance of Wind Waker. It feels like a true middle ground between those art styles, with Waker-esque highlights and detailing in a world more like a stylized version of our own. Every aspect of its physical environment overflows with not with the intense detail of hyperrealistic games but with motion—the grass sways in the wind, rafts bob in the water, horses graze and trot and monsters fidget and pace and grumble from their hiding places and encampments. Even the weather has character, ranging as it does from sun to clouds to drizzles to all-out thunderstorms. All of this—this confluence of realism and stylization—imbues Hyrule with an elevated sense of reality; it makes it seem not like you’re playing a game, but peering into a world different yet remarkably familiar.

And the world’s level of interactivity only enhances that sensation; its physics feel not just realistic but completely intuitive. I don’t believe the programmers coded a single planned interaction into the entirety of Breath of the Wild. Instead, they made one of the most extensive physics engines I’ve ever seen: one that accounts for every creative combination a player might come up with.

And then some you might not.

For instance, once when I was a bit underpowered for an area I’d wandered into, I decided to shoot a fire arrow at a Moblin, hoping it would do more damage. It did… but it also set the Moblin’s wooden club on fire, which it then used to pound me into a pulp.

Another time, I was hiding near a monster camp during a thunderstorm, trying to plan a course of action for a fight I had already lost several times. Then, I noticed the monsters’ weapons sparking—the same sparking Link’s will do if they’re about to attract a lightning strike. In the end, I didn’t have to clear that camp; the thunderstorm did it for me.

Ultimately, its physics engine is as core a component of Breath of the Wild as jumping is to platformers. And the interactions are so extensive that most puzzles can be solved in a variety of ways. In short, if you see something in Breath and expect it to interact in the way it would in the real world, it almost always will.

And then the music—one of those intangibles at which the Zelda franchise has always excelled. Breath of the Wild doesn’t use music as a mechanic, nor do its themes resemble a traditional, omnipresent, mood-setting videogame soundtrack. Instead, much of it behaves more like a film score—accompanying the sounds of adventuring, accenting and giving character to certain areas, and then emerging full-force in battles. Some of its best pieces are simple, five-second motifs: for instance, the sequence that plays after Link activates a Sheikah Tower, or the riff that plays after receiving a heart container.

But that’s not to say Breath of the Wild’s music doesn’t have a signature sound; in fact, it’s probably one of the most immediately recognizable styles in the series. Its core is always piano—not a traditional chiptune synthesizer but an actual, acoustic piano, an extremely rare instrument in a medium that seems innately tied to electronic music. Piano provides the backbone of its main theme and most of its area and battle music, to the point where even its absence (in standouts like Gerudo Town) can characterize an area. And as possibly the most versatile instrument in existence, it powers both driving tracks like the Vah Ruta battle and calmer, peaceful songs like the Rito Village theme (which itself is a remix of Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island).

And that brings me full circle, back to the storied series that forms the game’s powerful foundation. Breath of the Wild is in some ways a reimagining of Zelda, with crafting, survival aspects, weapon degradation, and a vast array of playstyles and gameplay mechanics. But it also incorporates pieces of everything that the franchise has gotten right over the past thirty years, culminating in something that feels not like a reinterpretation but a true evolution. Familiar locations—like Lake Hylia and Death Mountain—feel reborn, their scope expanded until they dwarf their earlier counterparts. Other places are simply named in reference—like the archipelago in the Lanayru Wetlands named after the islands from Phanton Hourglass or the aforementioned Link’s Awakening callbacks on Eventide Island. All of this grants this version of Hyrule a sense of history made possible by the games that came before it. Even the open-world design feels like the endpoint of the series’ more experimental entries, games like Majora’s Mask and A Link Between Worlds. And the series’ iconography—the Triforce, characters like Zelda and Impa, races like the Zora and Gerudo, even ever-returning elements like the Master Sword and the Hylian Shield—allows the developers to implicitly frame Breath’s narrative in relation to previous Zeldas. We know Zelda is the owner of the Triforce of Wisdom, so when she (spoilers ahead) goes to pray at the Spring of Wisdom, we expect her to succeed. And when she fails—when not wisdom but desperation and the need to protect a wounded, fading Link unlock her sealing power—the resulting narrative beat is absolutely enthralling.

But of course, there is one callback that rises above all the others, that the game could not exist without, that incorporates everything Breath of the Wild is and does into one final glorious tour de force: Hyrule Castle.

For the reimagining of the series like Breath of the Wild, having Hyrule Castle as the final level is a risky move; most of the series’ biggest games (A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, The Minish Cap, A Link Between Words…) use either the castle or some variant as their concluding stage. But instead of trying to transform that location into something new and different, Breath of the Wild embraces that history and spins it into one of the greatest final levels I’ve experienced not just in Zelda but in any videogame, period.

To begin with, there’s the music—a powerful, raging orchestral number that begins softly and escalates from drums to organ to horns, and then, somewhere around the one-minute mark, right as you’re really starting to enter the level, drops in something familiar.

A few more notes play, an upward escalation, a false stop, and then it happens—a fully orchestrated, booming rendition of Zelda’s most recognizable motif: the Overworld theme. Whether you recognize it from Zelda 1, A Link to the Past, or the many others that adapted it into their core sound design, it once again places Breath of the Wild as the series’ culmination: taking its most iconic melody and arranging it for its final level. It augments the sense that each individual Zelda led up to this moment, that you’re standing atop the series’ history, gazing at the world spread out below.

But Hyrule Castle also embodies everything that makes Breath of the Wild revelatory; while it has a front door and a clear path from entrance to the final Sanctum, there are a myriad of different entryways and points-of-access—whatever suits your style of choice. I glided down from the north, entirely bypassing the Guardian-strewn wreckage of Castle Town and climbed, swam, and soared my way upward, exploring each new passage I found for the one memory I was still missing, for the shreds of story still hidden behind false walls and secret chambers, for the Hylian Shield I’d heard was sequestered somewhere in its depths. In fact, I didn’t enter Hyrule Castle intending to finish it—only to find that last memory and make my way out. But I was so enthralled by its design—by the way it incorporated everything Breath of the Wild had taught me up to that point, every combat mechanic, every exploratory tactic, every physics puzzle and secret indicator—that I just kept delving deeper and deeper into its tunnels and towers, its heights and depths. It pulled me in like only the best levels can and epitomized the spirit of the game it represents; I could have easily rushed to the top, fought Ganon, beat the game, but instead I took my time. This was one last world to explore, with secrets hidden everywhere.

(end/post-game spoilers ahead—I’ll cue you when they’re finished)

And in the end, Breath of the Wild pulls that trick one more time; in usual Zelda fashion it places you against Ganon in two stages. In the first, he’s a spiderlike monstrosity straight out of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. And in the second, he’s his usual self—a colossal, boarlike monster of the same brackish goop that appears occasionally in Breath of the Wild’s overworld. In the first, your combat method is once again up to you—I just maxed out my Ancient armor set and hammered him with Ancient Arrows. In the second, Zelda—as is tradition—gives you the Light Arrows. And using Link’s mysterious ability to enter bullet-time whenever he’s falling through the air and aiming a bow, you bleed all the malice out.

Now, if you read Part I of this (thankfully, you’re probably thinking) soon-to-be-concluded series, you read how much I adore Breath of the Wild’s main theme. So imagine my feeling when, twenty seconds into that last fight—right in the center of Hyrule Field, another of the series’ most iconic locales—the starting piano riff transformed into a vibrant remix of that song’s strongest moments, with energetic piano harmonies, a quick slice of Wind Waker to lift it up, and Ocarina of Time’s organ as a beat drop. I was, quite literally, shaking. It’s the ultimate bookend to an incredible experience—a return to the moment I first watched the E3 trailer and fell in love with that two-minute track: a soaring combination of classic and new that reflects everything Breath of the Wild is and does.

In true Zelda fashion, music frames it all.

And then, far beyond that final battle, hidden behind the trials of 120 shrines is one final armor set, conferred to Link in the Forgotten Temple. The three pieces of the “armor of the wild” are nothing less than Link’s traditional clothes—his green-and-brown cap, tunic, and pants—this time not begun with but earned through hours of work and effort. And each piece comes with a similar description: “this armor was crafted for a hero who travels the wilds. Strangely enough, it’s just your size.”

In Breath of the Wild’s array of perfect callbacks, that final armor set is the capstone. The entire game—its post-apocalyptic themes, its plot of rebirth and fixing past failures, and its legends of forgotten heroes all lead to Link earning recognition not as just the game’s hero, but as a true incarnation of the Hero of Hyrule. It’s no coincidence that the game flashbacks and art all present Link in blue rather than green; ultimately, Breath depicts a Hyrule where the characters and triumphs from Ocarina of Time (always the center of the series’ lore) have become the stuff of legend, and it sets Link—uncoincidentally, the first Link whose name cannot be changed at the beginning of the game—as an inheritor unaware of the legacy he is meant to fulfill. It’s only when he finally finds the armor of the wild, that ancient set that fits him perfectly, that he experiences that history. It’s only then that all the pieces of past games scattered around the overworld—the crumbled, buried Arbiter’s Grounds, the Korok Forest with its Kokiri names, the snatches of the iconic Overworld theme in Hyrule Castle—finally slide into place.

At its core, Breath of the Wild is still unabashedly Zelda, but a Zelda far removed in time from its predecessors, in which the events of the rest of the series have survived only as names and myths. Link’s journey is a journey of restoration—of recovering that lost heritage, and of him, Zelda, and Ganon taking their places in the series’ signature triad. It’s no coincidence that the Triforce is only ever briefly seen indirectly mentioned—that Power, Wisdom, and Courage are said but not as parts of a greater whole. Though its power still exists, that age of overt mysticism has long been forgotten, and Link and Zelda’s struggles are effectively those of chosen heroes whose destinies have been lost to time. Instead of depending on those predetermined roles, they have to find their own way. It’s a uniquely Zelda take on the post-post-apocalypse—and though hidden, it’s executed perfectly.

(end spoilers)

Throughout this post, I’ve been searching for the phrase I needed to describe Hyrule Castle and the fight against Calamity Ganon—until now, it’s been dancing just out of reach. But I finally got it: in the end, Breath of the Wild’s final stage feels like the ultimate mic drop. It’s Eiji Aonuma and the rest of the Zelda team gathering up the best of their long and storied franchise and weaving it into the greatest game I’ve ever played, and then standing up, smiling at the crowd, and dropping the mic into a box of dynamite. Breath of the Wild isn’t just engaging—it’s enrapturing: an experience against which every game I ever play will be measured, every piece of art I view or read or interact with compared. It’s something that, like my other favorite games—or books, or films, or shows—feels like it’s once-in-a-lifetime. The emotion it’s conclusion gave me felt like the finale of Gravity Falls, or the ending of The Handmaiden, or the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

It is the absolute pinnacle of what great art can do.

And thus concludes my five-part exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve also read quite a few articles about this game over the course of my playthrough, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites:

Waypoint: Breath of the Wild is the Zelda Adventure I’ve Always Wanted

Forbes: Zelda: Breath of the Wild Has a Unique Post-Apocalyptic Twist

US|GAMER: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Based Around a Perfect Apocalypse

Culturess: The Best of Breath of the Wild’s Outstanding Original Soundtrack

Now get out there. You have worlds to explore.

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