By Meghan Ellis
Nintendo games are often criticised for the slightest hint of nostalgia — after all, when it's making games this good there's precious little else to snark about. But maybe there's a point. I'm crying wolf on Breath of the Wild, and not just because of Wolf Link’s very welcome reappearance.
Breath of the Wild is everything a fond pastiche should be, from the sparing use of musical themes from games gone by to the role of Link as some classic chivalric knight — in fact, it takes these concepts and elevates them. Link is no longer the misunderstood forest boy, the carefree islander, the everyman thrust into a bad situation that the other entries in the series portray: he’s a trained knight born into the family of the royal guard, Champion of Champions and all-round badass. But because that wouldn’t be the best way to start an action-adventure game about growth, we’re shown the reawakening of the fallen soldier after the Calamity.
Link’s latest adventure doesn’t go the popular-but-cheap route of 'look at all these powers! Whoops they’re gone better get levelling' (I’m looking at you Darksiders). But in framing an adventure around reclaiming your strength and preparing for the final battle, it is taking inspiration from some of the greats of role-playing history like Chrono Trigger or the series' own Majora’s Mask.
Breath of the Wild is pretty unapologetic in its pursuit of the past, but there's something here that the western concept of nostalgia doesn't quite encapsulate. There's a Japanese concept called Furusato, a phrase which means “hometown” or “home”, but with a wider definition of looking back to the past, nostalgia yes, and a general sense of remembering everything good about something. And doesn’t it sound familiar, that a game about the past itself looks back to a nostalgic time when games were, we can all agree on this, better. It’s something I felt strongly when going through the story — to the point where I started to get paranoid my mum would appear and tell me it was too late for videogames and to get to bed. Soon enough, everywhere I looked in BotW, I started to see fragments of the past — and not just that of Zelda.
First off, that Furusato concept. It has its own popular children’s song in Japan, and the lyrics are basically all about how beautiful and picturesque the landscapes of one’s home are. And with people gushing left and right about just how bloody beautiful the world of BotW is, it’s definitely taking inspiration from that feeling of remembering the scenery of childhood. Only in this instance, it’s Link’s childhood home of Hyrule (a place fondly remembered by gamers globally) reimagined with the power of today’s technology using Nintendo’s own home of Kyoto as a baseline. Don't tell me you weren't excited to see the towering hills of Death Mountain or the crumbling spire of the Temple of Time when exiting that very scenically-placed cave.
Straight-up a combination of Pokemon Snap and the Picto Box torture from Windwaker, the Sheikah Slate’s camera function adds a layer of collectability to the game that departs from the physical collectables of today’s open-world games. Fill up your totally-not-a-Pokedex Hyrule Compendium with shots of critters, monsters, weaponry and treasure to reveal hints, locations and drops from the captured entries to help your discoveries go a little smoother. Or, like me, take pictures of enemies as they charge into your face and realise you’re fresh out of fairies mid-impact. Hey, at least I know where to find them again.
Minecraft and the much more enjoyable alternative Terraria have conquered the wilderness survival genre, and BotW isn’t shy about taking the best elements of those games and incorporating them into the Zelda universe. Being out at night has always been dangerous for the foolhardy Link, but worrying about the temperature, the weather conditions and even the phases of the moon adds a whole new layer to the lands of Hyrule. There were times I definitely went full Bear Grylls in Deep Akkala and the Gerudo Desert, spearing fish from streams and hunkering down next to a campfire in the cold desert nights. But proving that Nintendo still know how far to take a mechanic before it becomes a handicap, there’s no thirst or hunger measures, relying instead on the hunter-gather, crafting aspects of the survival genre to add depth to Link’s exploration.
The Open World
BotW lets you tackle the dungeons in any order, and these days it’s not that big a deal. Thinking back to the original Legend of Zelda we can see where BotW is taking its cues, that game having introduced a sprawling non-linear map to the action-RPG genre. The original Zelda was the first game to use an internal battery for multi-session gaming thanks to this, and the latest installment modernises this roaming epic with a world spanning thousands of digital acres. If you’ve ever dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons there’s the same feeling of exploratory glory present in BotW.
I’ll admit I’ve not played much of the Assassin’s Creed franchise but I’ve heard enough grumblings about Ubisoft’s hand-holding approach to blade-wielding adventurers that the idea of scaling tall things by pressing 'up' just, yeah, didn't do it for me. Inevitably I was pleasantly surprised by BotW's refinement of this mechanic, in which Link climbs to the top of a tower and can… see more of the scenery. That’s it. We’re not inundated with quest points or shop markers or treasure spots or anything we’ve come to expect from most modern open-world games. The Sheikah terminal at the top of the tower doesn’t really add anything other than the region names and general topographic information, leaving you to actually puzzle out where the best spots to head are and places to avoid (for now). Link is a pretty pioneering cartographer, running around the wilderness marking cooking spots and monster camps on his map: not to mention the endless star markers placed on unexplained points of interest across Hyrule.
Breath of the Wild manages to combine the softer, more colourful approach that more recent Zelda games have experimented with with the grand appeal of the pre-Gamecube era worlds, lending the game an air of majesty that was lacking from the likes of Windwaker, Skyward Sword and many of the handheld iterations. Not that I don’t love Toon Link’s expressiveness and ability to provide comic relief with a look, but there’s something about the venerable Legend of Zelda that commands a certain kind of majesty — something certainly felt in the presence of Calamity Ganon. Thankfully the game doesn’t take itself unbearably seriously: in the recent documentary about the game's making, the team mentioned Bokoblins have a special nose-picking sound effect. The noise was created by sticking a finger into a wet cloth and swishing it around, grossly and gloriously appropriate for a game that hopefully herald a new era of more intricate, detailed adventures.