How do you define The Legend of Zelda series? Sure, it has long been part of the action/adventure genre and you’re welcome to make a case it belongs in the RPG category as well. Certainly, a game like Zelda II literally supports that notion and the argument is furthered with Breath of the Wild. But that’s not really what defines the series, right? I mean, Call of Duty is a First Person Shooter. Splatoon is a Third Person Shooter. Mario is a platformer. But genres don’t really define a game right? If that’s the case, Mario and Donkey Kong are the same thing because they both are in the same genre.
So when we define a series as long standing as Zelda, we can’t simply look at a genre archetype and simply say that’s it. The Zelda series is arguably the most complex in Nintendo’s arsenal because it’s also had the most amount of variety. Is it a multiplayer, level based, game? Well, Tri Force Heroes supports that and to a degree, so does Four Sword Adventures. Is it based around pure exploration? Hello The Legend of Zelda (NES). Maybe it’s an epic dungeon crawler (hello, Twilight Princess). There are so many different ways to define the series based on what grouping of games you look at that it can be nearly impossible to peg down what the true definition of a Zelda game is. That whole “what makes a Zelda game… be a Zelda game” shtick.
I admit to being confused myself. I’ve covered the Zelda series extensively for 18 years, played it for 25, and I still struggled to define what a Zelda game is. Struggled, past tense. I know, I just said looking at any individual game or grouping of games is hard to define the whole series as, but in Breath of the Wild we have a special case here. It has more perfect scores than any game in history at the critical level. It is well on its way to being the best selling game in the series. The producers of the game keep acting as if this is what Zelda is going to be moving forward. That last point is important for this discussion.
Breath of the Wild, at least in my mind, now defines exactly what the Zelda series is and most likely always has been. While you can argue identity crisis with the series until the cows come home, certain elements have always been there: Combat, puzzle solving, dungeon crawling, exploration, and story. These are the ingredients under which Zelda games are built, but throwing all that out there could make this series sound like it’s Darksiders, The Elder Scrolls, or even World of Warcraft.
Rather, the Zelda series is now and always has been about pure exploration and adventure. Period. Some games have provided this through dungeons. Others in the thrill of uncovering the story. Some in figuring out how to work as a team. Others through boats on the open water. It took a game like Breath of the Wild to really bring this concept for circle.
There is plenty to criticize about the game, as our review notes. But if nothing else can be agreed upon by Zelda fans both new and old across the spectrum, Breath of the Wild does not have an identity crisis. It firmly knows what it is and embraces that fact from the first time you load up the game. Even if you prefer games that ultimately do this adventure making and exploration through sprawling dungeons, it’s hard to deny that at its core, Breath of the Wild may be the purest form of what a Zelda truly is since the series first game back in the 80s.
If Ocarina of Time (and technically A Link to the Past) setup the formula under which all Zelda games until Breath of the Wild built themselves, then it’s probably safe to say that Breath of the Wild is that new standard. You see, Ocarina of Time brought that A Link to the Past charm to the 3D realm. A Link to the Past brought the best elements of prior games together and gave it some structure. But in Breath of the Wild it finds its structure, its true nature, through chaos. Forget defined paths and clear paths, enter the purest form of exploration and adventure that can possibly exist. These two core elements are the only literal links between every Zelda game ever made (not counting recurring characters like… Link, of course).
Breath of the Wild is arguably the series 2nd open world game, but it doesn’t take an open world game to deliver a sense of exploration and adventure. However, more than any other archetype, embracing exploration and adventure should have naturally lead to an open world type experience as it did with the first Zelda. Remember, this series was inspired by Miyamoto exploring the countryside, finding caves, and hiking. Freely exploring a world in which he had never been before. That basis took 30 years, but we finally got revisit that core concept on a massive scale.
I know, some of you will think other Zelda games are better. They did things you prefer better. There is plenty to not like about Breath of the Wild. I don’t stand with folks that feel this way of course, but I can understand why. This is a series that has built itself a certain way that ended up culminating in Skyward Sword, one of the least “exploration” like games in the series… and I freaking love Skyward Sword. It’s in my top 5 Zelda games ever created. But Breath of the Wild isn’t Skyward Sword. It isn’t Twilight Princess. Heck it isn’t Ocarina of Time or even The Legend of Zelda (NES).
What it is, however, is the pure essence of Zelda. For every person that states “Breath of the Wild is an amazing game, but it doesn’t feel like a Zelda game” out there, I pose this big, important question to them: how do you define what a Zelda game is, and how is Breath of the Wild not part of that idea?
I encourage you to explore that thought process as deep as you can. Forget terms like open world and forget comaprisons to other video game franchises. Truly reflect on what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game, than try to convince me that Breath of the Wild isn’t one.
I think you may find it difficult to make that argument, because as you may discover, Breath of the Wild is the exact definition of what a Zelda game is… even if it doesn’t explore aspects of the series history you ultimately prefer more.