Breath of the Wild was Never Meant to be the Wii U's Swansong

By Julian Benson on at

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a superb launch title for Nintendo Switch, but it was never intended as such. For almost all of its development, Breath of the Wild was a Wii U game through and through. While much of today’s attention is understandably attracted to Nintendo’s new console and the Zelda game it launched with, I’ve been playing on Nintendo’s old console and the Zelda game it finished with.

Fundamentally, these two games are the same. Unlike Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, which launched on PlayStation 3 and 4 but omitted the campaign on the former, Breath of the Wild on Switch and Wii U includes the same content. Rich has been playing BotW on Switch so, through comparing our experiences, I’ve been working out what technical differences there are between the two versions. If you’ve been debating whether to get the game on Wii U, or using it to justify a Switch purchase, I’m going to detail how it plays on the older hardware it was made for, but also why I'm glad to be playing it on the Wii U instead of the Switch.

Since March 3rd I’ve played around 40 hours of the game, completing its main story and exploring a lot of the world. As a game it is everything Rich has been saying, a radical update to the series. Simply put, it is one of the best games I’ve ever played.

While the Switch version can be played with the Joy-Con controllers snapped to the side of the tablet, locked to a gamepad frame, or held separately, one half in each hand, it adds no functionality that you can’t find on the Wii U gamepad.

Some games make ample use of the Wii U gamepad’s second screen but, in Breath of the Wild, it’s rather bare. This is probably because the developers prioritised the transfer from television to gamepad, which obviously ties in very neatly with the Switch version, which is smooth and triggered by tapping the controller’s screen. The transfer is immediate and I’ve been making use of it more as my flatmates have grown steadily more frustrated at Link’s domination of the living room. It’s melancholy that, in this sleek transition, the older machine creates a little echo of Switch.

Throughout Breath of the Wild’s world you’ll encounter puzzles that make use of the gamepad’s gyroscope. In your hands the gamepad can become like a balance board, with one puzzle asking you to guide a marble through a maze, and you having to tip and tilt the controller like it was one of those throwaway toys you find in Christmas crackers. The motion detection isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough - the issue actually seems to be more to do with the camera angle, as Switch owners I’ve spoken to felt there was a slight funkiness to the motion detection here also.

One shortfall which seems much less frequent on Switch are the framerate drops. There’s been a lot of discussion of this online already, in the kind of grounded and reasonable language you might expect - as though this problem somehow makes the game impossible to play. For me, the framerate drops haven’t been a problem at all. They occur when I’m taking in either visually dense scenes or wide vistas. The camera feels like it is dragging as I turn to take in the view but soon after the drag appears it is gone again, as though the Wii U has caught up with itself. I’d love it if the drops weren’t there, but I wouldn’t want the world to be scaled back from the version I’ve seen if that were to get rid of them. The Switch version runs at a slightly higher resolution (720p on Wii U and Switch mobile, and 900p on the docked Switch) but Breath of the Wild is still a phenomenal sight on Wii U. From the fluttering bunting in Kakariko village to the view of Hyrule Castle from the peaks of death mountain, this world of diverse, arresting views has the kind of art direction that easily survives a small difference in resolution.

2017-03-14 15_13_00-The Legend of Zelda_ Breath of the Wild - Nintendo Switch Presentation 2017 Trai

If the thing holding you back from getting Breath of the Wild is that you’d have to get it for the Wii U, and you’re worried you’re getting a lesser game: reconsider. This is a phenomenal game whatever platform you play it on. It may look a tiny better on Switch, it may run a little more smoothly in isolated moments, but in the grand scheme of things those details are not impactful on the experience.

There is another reason why I’ve enjoyed playing the game on Wii U, which is nothing to do with the technicalities of how the game runs. For as long as there has been a Wii U, there has been the game that would become Breath of the Wild. In January 2013, just two months after the Wii U launched, Eiji Aunoma talked about the Zelda game his team was making for Nintendo’s new console. His mission for Zelda on the Wii U was, he said, “quite plainly to rethink the conventions of Zelda.”

In June 2014 Aunoma showed the game for the first time, a canned video of Zelda being chased through a luscious, sprawling Hyrule by an octopus-like machine. Six months later, in December, Aunoma and Miyamoto showed off footage from the game in which Link rides a horse and shoots arrows at horned monsters.

If you’ve been playing through Breath of the Wild you’ll recognise much from the videos. The geography of the Hyrule you can see in those teasers may have shifted but the look of the place is much the same. The machine we now know to be a guardian, one of many that roam the game’s world. The monsters are bokoblins, one of Breath of the Wild’s most common enemies. Even the tools are the same, with Link firing ancient arrows and flying over the landscape (though his sailcloth has been made into a more durable hang glider).

It wasn’t planned, at that time, for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to be the Wii U’s swansong. It was originally due for release in 2015 as a killer title. Strange that something in development since the console’s launch should, thanks to its own delays and that hardware’s shortened lifespan, emerge as a system-seller for its successor.

If you look closely you can still see the foundations, how this was a game originally planned for bespoke hardware. The first item you find in the game, the Sheikah Slate, is both key throughout the adventure and obviously an analogue for the Wii U gamepad. It’s the right size in Link’s hand, a chunky tablet with a screen and buttons in the same places, and using it to look around and manipulate the world in-game still has that slight frisson of connectivity.

You can easily imagine how, when designing Breath of the Wild’s puzzle shrines, the team were sat with a gamepad in front of them, picturing how a player could hold and manipulate that controller. The marble puzzle I described above is one example: another is a shrine where you tilt the gamepad to swing a large hammer that hangs from the chamber’s ceiling, like a golf club, to crack a ball towards a pocket. This puzzle would work with a traditional controller, but with the Wii U tablet in your hands becomes more playful in nature, more like a toy than a game.

While Breath of the Wild draws from other open-world RPGs, another series that kept coming to mind while I played was Media Molecule’s Tearaway. That team broke the fourth wall by bringing the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 controller into the game’s world: in the original Tearaway for Vita, you would use the touchscreen on the back of the handheld and see your fingers bursting through the ground of the game. If you looked at the sun in the sky, the game used the console’s front-facing camera to show you and the world around you. It broke down the divide between you and the game’s world, by bringing a little of both into each other. The way BotW uses the gamepad is Nintendo tiptoeing around that same feeling - not quite trying to shatter walls, as Media Molecule did, but certainly putting windows in them.

What is unfortunate is that some aspects of this heritage will forever remain unseen - what we see of the gamepad in Breath of the Wild is only the remnants of what was once there. In that video from The Video Game Awards back in 2014, we see Aunoma scoping out a tower in Hyrule, marking it with his beacon, and then seeing the marker appear in a world map that is displayed on the gamepad’s second screen. Back when Breath of the Wild was just for the Wii U, the game was tailored to such functionality in a way that a cross-platform development couldn’t be.

Speaking to IGN, Breath of the Wild’s director Hidemaro Fujibayashi says that "When we were developing the game for the Wii U, we had touch features implemented as you have seen. [But] once we began to develop the game in tandem for the Switch, we aimed to provide the same gameplay experience across both on Switch and Wii U." Those features were stripped-out. In that interview, Fujibayashi goes on to argue that "In doing our testing without the touch features we noticed looking back and forth between the Gamepad and the screen actually took a little something away from this type of Zelda game. [...] We realized that this is the best way to experience the game.”

Those comments make it sound like there was nothing gained in the features that are unique to the Wii U, but in an interview with Kotaku US, Fujibayashi admits that “We felt that the way the Sheikah Slate is represented in the game and how we use the GamePad in real life synced really well. So when we had to remove it, I did feel like, ‘Oh, it’s too bad we had to do that.’ And because it was so tied into the scenario, we did have to go back and redesign and rethink the scenario, which was a little bit [of] hard work.”

Fujibayashi explained that in distancing the slate somewhat from the Wii U gamepad the team had to overhaul parts of the story, allowing for the now non-specific nature of a multiplatform release.

You can see further hints of Breath of the Wild’s beginnings in the documentary series Nintendo released earlier today:

We’ll never see the Breath of the Wild that was exclusively made for the Wii U, because that development eventually became part of something greater - and, considering how good the game we got is, the iteration throughout development was clearly to the good. But it’s a sad thought regardless: the brilliant Zelda game intended to showcase the best aspects of Nintendo’s much-maligned Wii U, eventually released when the hardware itself has been replaced, and re-designed to suit its successor system.

Nintendo had to do it, of course, and you have to respect that the company delivered for Wii U owners - eventually. It’s not their fault that, in the time it took to make a game like this, the landscape had changed so dramatically. My reason for playing on Wii U has nothing to do with the technicalities, anyway, but saluting an old soldier. It was a joy to see out Nintendo’s hardware with the game that, for so long, was inextricable from it. You always suspected that BotW might be Wii U’s best game, the kind of thing that showed it really could take on the the big boys. It was a little too late in the end, but let that not detract from the fact that it was, and it did.