Breath of the Wild Has Affirmed the Definition of What a Zelda Game Is

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.

Darksiders 3 was announced, but not for Switch. Sad day, I know.

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).

An adventure of a lifetime awaits.

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.


Nathanial Rumphol-Janc

A veteran in the video game media sphere, Nathanial co-founded Gamnesia, founded, ran the news the segment on the Zelda Universe Podcast, found and ran Zelda Domain from 1998 to 2006, and built Zelda Informer as the Editor-in-Chief from 2008 to 2017. He now owns and operates Nintendo Prime. You can follow him on twitter @NateJanc, otherwise just stay tuned at Nintendo Prime for more of his work.

  • SirPrimalform

    Nah. Despite being a masterpiece, I would say it misses the essence of Zelda. For me, the essence of Zelda is the progression as you gradually acquire tools the allow you access to new places (and discover new things in places you’ve already been. In giving you all the runes at the beginning BotW all but drops what to me is a defining trait of the series.

    Again, it’s a masterpiece and I love it, it’s just not a very good Zelda game by my criteria.

    • I can’t disagree with your assessment more. What you’re describing is something that is very linear path focused and while Zelda has certainly explored these ideas many times over, it is not something that actually is present in every game. So if that is what defines Zelda, than that means the series is dismissing parts of itself and that’s not a good way to define it.

      Those are parts you obviously prefer – that sort of approach – but I don’t feel that is what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game.

      • SirPrimalform

        No, there’s nothing inherently linear about what I’m referring to, it’s how LoZ and LttP both worked and I’ve definitely completed the dungeons in both out of their numbered sequence and it’s a gameplay element present in every game but AoL (you know, the black sheep that is nothing like any other Zelda game).

        So yes, I would say BotW dismissed important parts of the Zelda series.
        Obviously I’m not trying to change your mind about BotW, but the gameplay I described is an important trait in virtually every Zelda game that is almost entirely absent from this one.

        Obviously we’ll have to agree to disagree, but my favourite aspect was just as universal to the series as yours – until now.

        • If TAoL is “nothing like the other Zelda games”, you’re sort of proving my point, no? If something you describe as the definition of a Zelda game doesn’t actually fit every Zelda game under it, that means one of two things:

          1. It’s not the definition since every game can’t fit under that ideal.
          2. It is the definition, thus certain games magically don’t count.

          So let’s say that you stick steadfast to your viewpoint. That means TAoL isn’t a Zelda game. That means BoTW isn’t a Zelda game. ALBw isn’t either, as you can literally get every single item the moment Ravio appears. So your profession in say, ALBw. Is tied to items… that you can have right away.

          I know what you mean. The reason I brought up linearity is because over the past 20 years, that’s what that profession system has created. A set path of profession to follow. It wasn’t always that way, no. But at the same time, I don’t really think it’s that way now, either. I.E., just because you get 4 base abilities right away doesn’t mean much because you can actually complete most of BoTW without ever using those abilities outside of set required puzzles. Most of the games profession is item and gear based. Of which you need to explore, battle, and discover.

          I appreciate your views on this. But I don’t think you can define a series by something that excludes parts of the series.

          Even then, what you describe for progression works inside what I said. A sense of discovery, that comes from exploration and adventure. How a game executed that sense of exploration and adventure can vary game to game. For some its item based. For others it’s pure exploration. Others, puzzle. Others, figuring out something together.

          See, when you immediately jump to a definition that excludes parts of the series, it just don’t seem to gel as a defining trait. More or less, it comes off as a preference in style.

          • SirPrimalform

            When it only excludes one game, and one that is widely recognised as not really feeling like a Zelda game then I think it proves my point rather than yours.

            To say that something can’t be a defining trait of a series because an entry widely regarded as not fitting into the series doesn’t have said trait… Seems kind of silly.

            The fact that a lot of the game can be played without using those runes is still an example of the lack of sense of progression.

            LBW suffered from the same feeling somewhat, somewhat alleviated by the fact that you can have any of the items from the start, but not all.

          • It doesn’t exclude one game. Now, you should know that (for context) my two favorite Zelda games of all time are BoTW and TAoL. Two games that don’t fit your definition of what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game. So it can be argued I prefer games that basically aren’t Zelda games. That argument can even be furthered when you realize my next favorite games are things like SS and MM, two other games that break with a lot of the established ways of doing things.

            Now, let’s dive a bit deeper. You’ve already called TAoL a “black sheep” and “widely regarded as not fitting into the series”. I wholeheartedly disagree. Now, obviously some concepts it attempted ended up not sticking. Sidescrolling combat/dungeons as an example. Gaining experience points is another.

            Other aspects did stick around however. Towns with interactive NPCs that give sidequests. Magic spells (sparingly admittedly, only a few games use spell like abilities). Dark Link’s importance… and until Skyward Sword, TAoL explained what the actual legend of Zelda is. This is just to name a few examples because we’re not here to really dive deep into all the intricacies, but to show that there are elements of that game that stuck with the series. It isn’t considered a black sheep because it’s “different”. That has never been the reasoning it got that reputation.

            It’s because the game is undoubtedly the most difficult game, combat wise, in the series. You are punished severely for dying (taking you back to the start), and even to this day most people can’t beat many of the enemies without finding a way to cheese the fights with crouching. Yes it had RPG elements unlike Zelda 1 and most Zelda games until SS and BoTW. Being different isn’t why it has a bad reputation though. Whenever people complain about the game, it’s about how hard it is. That’s it. If the first Zelda was just as hard, that would be a complaint (and still is for some) to this day.

            Zelda 2 was received very well critically, and it sold pretty well too boot. Even outselling a lot of Zelda games still to this day. Now, you can still feel it’s some sort of black sheep if you prefer. But it IS part of the Zelda series. It can’t just be dismissed because you (and some others) don’t like it.

            What determines if a Zelda game is a Zelda game isn’t about what the popular opinion is on how good the game is. It’s about the core elements that make up the game series. The point of the game’s existence, as it were. Breath of the Wild, as an example, has a pretty clear progression system in place. You talk about the 4 ruin abilities – but what about the 4 new abilities you get after each divine beast? What about Link the character gaining memories? What about Link getting literally stronger?

            All of that stuff is a type of progression for the player. Is it the same type as the one you prefer with items? No (well, the new abilities after beating the divine beasts is, but whatever). But it is progression.

            This is why I say what you feel defines the Zelda series really isn’t what defines it at all. It’s a gameplay element you just prefer greatly over what Zelda 2, BoTW, and even ALBW do. I prefer the motion control combat in SS over every other type of combat in the series, and if the next 15 Zelda games after SS used it I could probably argue that defines the series too. But it doesn’t. It’s a gameplay element, not a core element that makes Zelda be Zelda.

            Keep in mind, I’m not dismissing you here. I think you have every right to feel how you do. I just don’t view that as some essential element to the series, and I cannot ever agree that something like that is essentially that happens to not include even ONE canon game. (and your example excludes two games for sure, with ALBW being a close third).

          • SirPrimalform

            Wowee, replying to such a long post is hard on a phone when I can’t keep it on screen while typing.

            I’ve obviously touched a nerve regarding Zelda II. You’re clearly used to defending it and have perhaps jumped to the conclusion that I didn’t like it. I certainly didn’t intend to give that impression.
            I called it a black sheep because it obviously stands out. I disagree that it’s singled out primarily because of its difficulty. The reason it stands out is because it is a sidescrolling action game with a JRPG style overworld. Its simply a huge departure from the rest of the series and is widely recognised as being such. That’s in no way an opinion about whether it’s a good game or not.

            Good or bad, Zelda II is an anomaly that doesn’t fit the gameplay that has defined the series since. The essense you talk about in the article isn’t enough to make something a Zelda game by itself.

            Breath of the Wild is a fantastic game, it’s just not very good at being a Zelda game. Same with Zelda II.

          • And as I stated, I disagree wholeheartedly on them being good at being Zelda games. 😉 It’s not about if they are good to great games or not, more or less that they ARE Zelda games, undeniably. So they can’t be dismissed when talking about what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game. Just like Tri Force Heroes and other oddball entries can’t be dismissed.

            Hence my point that you can’t define the series by something that doesn’t actually apply to the whole series. You can’t just dismiss games that don’t fit. You need to consider the whole series when defining it. Otherwise, you’re just talking about elements you prefer, rather than setting something that connects all the games together, which is what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game.

            And yeah, replying to long comments on mobile always sucks. I use to write long comments via mobile… such a pain.

          • SirPrimalform

            They’re Zelda games because they’re called Zelda, but they are anomalies – they don’t fit the pattern.

          • But they do fit if you define the series differently than you do. 😉

            But hey, #opinions.

  • XNinja169

    All the elements are there in BotW except lack of big dungeons (divine beasts don’t count) and items that unlock more paths and secrets like the hookshot, lens of truth, magic hammer, iron boots and the boomerang. Biggest by far though is lack of big dungeons.

    • I mean, you say no big dungeons but then exclude the 4 big dungeons? :p dungeons that are actually bigger than in some previous Zelda games?

      And paths are unlocked with items. Your not going to survive long in the Goron area without crafting elixirs or gear, or reach mountain tops without again, elixirs or gear.

      I think we need to strip away personal preference for this conversation. Like, there are elements in other Zelda games I like way more than what BoTW does. But none of those elements actually define what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game.

      • SirPrimalform

        I’m pretty sure that the divine beasts are smaller than the average 3D Zelda dungeon. Maybe physically bigger, but fewer rooms and puzzles compared to OoT/MM/WW/TP/SS. I would love if the next Zelda game took the continuous map style of BotW and combined it with an appropriately large number of longer dungeons in which you got an item part way through. I’m all for there not being a specified order though.

        • XNinja169

          They are small. The bird and lizard, forgot the names, especially. Hell, only Naboris is “big.”

          • While true, they are larger than some of the 2D (top down) games. Size isn’t what matters. I know for many, they love those massive dungeons, but I don’t play Zelda games for dungeons.

            But too each their own. 🙂 Here, I am just talking about the core makeup. The elements that make you look at the game and go “yep, that’s a Zelda game”

      • XNinja169

        Divine beasts don’t really count imo. They’re too small to be real dungeons, their interior similar, they all have one main mechanism area and a few extentions, compartments. The exterior doesn’t account for much either.

        • To be fair, almost every dungeon in Zelda has been built around “one” element. 😛 As much as I loved the huge dungeons in TP, I did get bored after tackling the 15th room with the same type of puzzle I did 5 rooms back with the same item. I’d love to see bigger dungeons that take advantage of Link’s entire arsenal. I hate the one item dependence. I feel like it cramps creativity.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Breath of the Wild, but I thought the lack of true dungeons and the terrible frame rate brought the overall experience down a few notches. I thought that the Divine Beasts were cool, but were too visually and mechanically similar to one another; once I had completed one Divine Beast, I felt like I had completed them all. There was not enough variation between the four to make seeking them out enjoyable after the first one. They were boring and too easy. The Divine Beast bosses in particular were visually uninteresting as well, as they were too visually similar to one another and too boring as well.

    As for the frame rate, it really tanked in many areas, weighing down my experience along with it. Perhaps this has been, or can be, patched though.

    In short, I enjoyed Breath of the Wild, but do not consider it to be the best of the series. I would give it maybe a 7 or 8 out of 10. I expect Nintendo will improve upon this new formula moving forward.

  • XNinja169

    For me, game characters and side quests especially the shrine quests is what really reminded me BotW a real Zelda game. Main story too but not so much. It’s the life all around the game world that brought that Zelda feeling.

    Shrines themselves were just like caves with trials and didn’t fully give me that dungeon fix and neither the beasts, except for Naboris.

    • SirPrimalform

      Definitely, the NPC writing is definitely Zelda. Yeah, I view the shrines as an upgrade from the “grottos” you used to get in OoT, but where near a replacement for proper dungeons.

  • MightyNicM

    So, I think it is not so important what the exact definition of a Zelda game is. I think it is the wrong question to ask. Because even if an exact definition exists, it is always subject to change. So what gives?

    I think more in terms of principles that are more or less present in a Zelda game. And there is one aspect that in my opinion is missing in Breath of the Wild: Progressive puzzle design.
    In many past Zelda games, there were huge and ambitious dungeons, that introduced a unique idea or mechanic to the player (usually accompanied by some special item), who then had to apply it to increasingly complex puzzles that all leveraged the consequences of this idea and also combined them with already existing and learned mechanics. Furthermore, the best dungeons (imo) usually came with some sort of overall puzzle that incorporates the solutions of individual parts of the dungeon to form the ultimate solution that leads to the boss room. This always gave me an incredibly sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

    In Breath of the Wild, I only had a lesser version of this experience a few times in some of the shrines, because a puzzle was especially interesting. The guardian-dungeons are among the worst dungeons in any Zelda game, I have to be absolutely honest about this. So even though Breath of the Wild uses some smart mechanics, I think the game focuses too much on “you can mess around with your tools to produce all kinds of funny effects” and too less on actually interesting and thought-out puzzles that require some intelligence from the player to solve. But I see the developers’ choice here: They wanted to give players more freedom, and had to sacrifice interesting and well-thought-out challenges. So I cannot really blame them for doing a bad job, it’s just that they made something I personally don’t like that much.

    Nevertheless, the game has it’s strengths in various other areas, which still make it very enjoyable for me!