For seemingly the first time in Zelda history, the inventor and creator of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto, and current series producer, Eji Aonuma, are in agreement that a certain game is the pure essence of the Zelda series. That game is Breath of the Wild. While Breath of the Wild is certainly a game that seems to be garnering hype at nearly the same levels Twilight Princess did from 2004 through 2006 (when it released on Wii and GameCube), it’s also quite controversial for long time Zelda veterans. That’s because the game is seemingly breaking away from a majority of the series’ conventions, something Eiji Aonuma told us he was going to do as early as 2013, but no one really knew what that meant until recently. In fact, there is a thought process that exists that Breath of the Wild has so many changes done to the conventions of Zelda that it doesn’t really feel like a Zelda game anymore.
To understand this point, we have to look at what major changes have occurred that may be a cause for concern. Even if Link’s green tunic is available somewhere in Breath of the Wild, this does mark the first time it is not his primary attire. No matter how the series has changed over the years, this is the first time ever that this has happened. It’s a small thing in terms of gameplay and story, but it’s also something that signifies a larger shift in ideals overall.
Another staple of the series has been the cutting/burning of grass has seemingly always dropped something. Maybe it was rupees or a bomb. Maybe it was extra arrows or some magic refill containers. Either way, this has been around for a vast majority of the series, at least as long as there has been grass you could destroy. Breath of the Wild has the most grass we have ever seen. It can be trampled; it blows freely in the wind, burns appropriately with proper physics, and can naturally be cut. Yet, doing so provides no tangible benefit to the player in terms of getting something in return. No rupees, bombs, arrows, magic bottles, or anything else. Just the pure satisfaction of destroying grass.
Breakable items and weapons are not actually new to the Zelda series, even as Breath of the Wild bases its entire combat system around it. The Giants Knife breaks in Ocarina of Time, the Razor Sword is temporary with limited uses in Majora’s Mask, Deku Sticks and wooden shields have always gone up in flames, while every shield but the Hylian Shield in Skyward Sword was breakable (and even the unbreakable Hylian Shield was an optional upgrade you would get late in the game). Yet, despite all of this existing in the series history, the hero has never had his default weapon from the word go be something that is breakable.
Due to the Master Sword existing in Breath of the Wild, it’s highly likely that it will be an unbreakable default weapon at some point in Link’s adventure, but starting out you are not handed a weapon that is unbreakable. Rather, you have to work within the given breakable item system to get your hands on tons of various weapon types, replacing them as you go given the durability concerns. This is what makes the breakable weapon system feel completely different than the norm. It isn’t because the series hasn’t tried it before, but it’s never forced the player to deal with this system as a default for attacking enemies.
Gone seems to be the traditional “item collection” method (though, we can’t confirm this 100% just yet), and in its place is a ruin ability concept. We have seen four ruin abilities to this point, one of which does represent a typical Zelda item (bombs), but the rest feel like magic type abilities not seen in Zelda pretty much ever. This is a stark difference over gathering items traditionally, either through dungeons or the item rental system we saw in A Link Between Worlds.
Maybe one of the largest changes to date deals with recovery hearts. In the past we would cut grass, break pots, drink potions, or occasionally consume some sort of food item to replenish hearts. By default, we would naturally collect “hearts” from the environment. This system has been entirely replaced by hunting, gathering, and cooking. A system that has been in every Zelda game since the NES days has now been thrown out, even as the player still measures health with hearts. It is still unclear if heart container collecting still exists, or if hearts are expanded after defeating a dungeon boss, etc. So this may not be the end of the road for changes made to the heart system that goes in stark contrast to the rest of the series.
Link also has the ability to tame, build relationships with, and hold at a stable several wild horses. In the past if a horse was in the game, it was by default “Epona”. In fact, the primary travel method of Link in every game was always narrowed down to a singular method with no options. Epona is in Breath of the Wild is some way, but she is by no means the only way for Link to get around, let alone the only horse Link can tame and ride. Oh, did we mention horses can die in combat too? Yeah, that’s a thing. Can Epona, assuming you can ride her, also be killed? Again, more changes.
You can probably list off a half dozen more changes beyond all of this, though I’d argue most of those changes fall within the normal changes you see going from game to game regardless. At the end of the day, what I listed above are the general changes to the core traditions this series has always adhered too.
Because of these changes, many have proclaimed this game to be Skyrim light (something I went over in detail at Zelda Informer). Others yet call this game very un-Zelda like. More than that, there are many that feel with all the changes, this really isn’t a Zelda game at all. In fact, the changes bother them so much they may not even give the game a fair chance, refusing to buy it or play it in any capacity.
Now, the group that thinks this way is admittedly in the minority, but they do not shy away from being very outspoken on the issue. Yet, as they speak out, we have the two biggest minds in Zelda history completely disagreeing with them, saying this game is the essence of Zelda. That’s some pretty strong words from the series creators.
So with all these changes, how is this game the true essence of what Zelda is? While I have not yet played the finished version of the game, I have played enough of the demo I feel to formulate the ideology Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto are basing that proclamation on. Simply put, while those traditions and conventions are being thrown out the window or completely rethought, none of those really stand out as what makes a Zelda game be a Zelda game. They are gameplay gimmicks traditionally used and carried over across the whole series, but those gimmicks are not ultimately why we play Zelda games on the whole. When is the last time you were like “yeah I’m really excited for this game because Link wears green and cuts grass for rupees!”. Those words probably never were uttered, because they are mere side shows to the main attraction. Gameplay elements that, if we are moving things forward, need to be revisited in a fresh light to begin with.
If you think Breath of the Wild is doing something radical here, I can’t imagine what you folks think of The Adventure of Link. That game turned the series into an actual RPG, with a full level system, magical spells and abilities, character stats you can increase, and did not feature a heart system in the traditional sense at all, let alone burning grass for income. Heck, its combat was handled in a side scrolling fashion, vastly different than how any other title had ever managed that situation. Zelda 2, in earnest, breaks away from what the conventions of Zelda are known as just as much as Breath of the Wild does. Are you going to try to look at me with a straight face and tell me that’s not a Zelda game too?
The essence of Zelda isn’t in traditional gameplay gimmicks that are always there in the background as the meat of the game drives the player’s interest. Instead, it’s in the feeling of adventure that is invoked in the player while going on this quest vicariously through Link’s own eyes. A sense of adventure that Breath of the Wild delivers in spades.
See, I’ve spent around 3 hours playing the Breath of the Wild demo on Wii U. While that mostly means I have only mastered the opening area and not much else, reality is that within mere minutes, it became abundantly clear how much this feels exactly like a Zelda game despite all the changes. That’s because the changes ultimately make sense in the context of the gameplay, and the gameplay itself feels distinctly like Zelda. From the free roaming exploration (something explored upon in the series past) to the actual combat, something that does feel distinctly Zelda-like, to the way the story is approached early on in the game… to how the world is built and how everything feels.
The essence of Zelda exists in a feeling that is invoked in the players. As I approached the demo with an open mind and plenty of skepticism, I came away fully understanding what really matters to make a Zelda game be… a Zelda game. It’s not the traditions and gameplay quirks behind them. It’s a feeling, and as such, it’s nearly impossible to explain. It’s a feeling that needs to be experienced.
So if you’re on the fence, worried that this game doesn’t feel like a Zelda title to you, I certainly can’t change your mentality. All I can say is to trust the man who literally created this series we all love so much, Shigeru Miyamoto, and to trust the current producer Eiji Aonuma, who likely spearheaded some of your favorite Zelda games. When they are in unison agreement that Breath of the Wild is literally the core of what makes Zelda game be a Zelda game, you should probably trust that they know what makes up the essence of Zelda more than anyone else does.