There is a certain magic that comes with playing a launch game on new hardware. Being part of the zeitgeist of gamers who got in early, to see what the new generation of games hardware is capable of. To be one of the first to know what the next few years could possibly bring, whether it be cutting edge graphics or new ways to play. Duck Hunt on the NES, Ridge Racer on PS1, Super Mario 64, Soulcalibur on Dreamcast, Wii Sports, Killzone Shadow Fall... ok, maybe not the last one.
I feel with the launch of the Switch we were denied that moment. Nintendo's flagship game for the new machine, Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been discussed as a Wii U game since 2013 and knowing that the game is pretty much the same on that system took away from the "launch day magic" somewhat. However, Zelda had something else going for it. Let's discuss those review scores for just a moment. Perfect 10 after perfect 10, the game quickly became the Tye Dillinger of video games (sorry!). If you have been a gamer on the outside of the Nintendo bubble looking in, the media response took the game from a curiosity to a must-play game for many. I don't think it would be too bold a statement if I said Zelda single-handedly contributed to the huge surge in Nintendo hardware sales in the past few months.
In the weeks after the launch of Zelda, there were as many articles talking about the reviews for the game as the game itself. Is it the greatest game of all time? Is it overrated? Was Jim Sterling's contradiction of this tidal wave of positivity merely clickbait trolling? I can't let that last one hang there - although Jim's review doesn't align with my own opinion of the game, I enjoyed reading it and felt it was actually a needed contribution to the overall, rose-tinted coverage the game was receiving. The reviews that surprised me the most were ones that confidently gave the game the highest honours, while appearing to not have actually played a significant amount of the game, or finished the game, in order to meet a deadline. Some major sites even admitted to it in the review itself.
Well, I've finished Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Perhaps I should be more specific, as technically, you can go for the end boss whenever you want. I've played just under 80 hours of Zelda and I've defeated Calamity Ganon. I loved it. I loved it a lot. In fact, I'm still loving it as I still feel compelled to hunt down all the remaining shrines and generally run around the world and kill things, now that I actually feel powerful enough to do so. The contrast of romping around Hyrule as a powerful, well-armed Link compared to the wide-eyed pushover at the start of the game, makes me want to go for dozens of hours more and I probably will. But, the game wasn't perfect.
I should briefly give a little history of my relationship with The Legend of Zelda franchise. My introduction to the game was the superb Ocarina of Time on the N64, which I bought launch day due to the hysteria surrounding the game's launch. Not unlike BotW. I then played and enjoyed the original Zelda on the Wii Virtual Console, to see where it all began. That's it. Perhaps as more of a sci-fi fan, the series never captured my heart the way it did with others, but the games I have played, I enjoyed, even though I think I played them more because I felt I should play them, rather than wanted to.
I'm also not a huge fan of "open world" games. I find The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher daunting prospects and I thought I would crave the direction and linearity of games such as Grand Theft Auto or Yakuza. But BoTW is more than just an open world game, it is an open choice game. The entire world is open to you to explore, however more importantly, whenever you wish. That includes skipping large parts of the game altogether if they don't take your fancy. The same goes for missions that can be picked up by NPCs littered around the world and in towns. You are not punished for playing the game the way you want to play it, in fact, you are rewarded - in that whatever you want to do in a certain play session, is available to you right now.
I'll give a practical example. It will become apparent early in the game that weapons have a finite amount of durability. This was actually a major crux in Jim Sterling's criticism of the game, the fact that finding and using weapons becomes less of a reward, considering the fact that they break so easily and are lost forever. I didn't find it as much of an issue as he did, but I did reach a point where I wanted to find a solution. So I did. One night I made it my mission to gain possession of an unbreakable weapon and achieved just that. The game did not prompt me to do so, it was my decision to discover if it was possible and achieving that goal was actually more satisfying than any recent scripted mission or Trophy in recent memory.
Some nights I would just set myself the goal of walking north as far as I can go. Over mountains, through snow, through fire - nothing would stop me in my goal. The discoveries I found along the way, both in the form of treasure or giant boss enemies were some of the most exciting unplanned encounters I've had since World of Warcraft.
Interestingly, when the game does take your hand, this is where it is at its worst. If you want to see an end screen at some point (I delayed this for as long as I could, as I was enjoying the game too much!), you will eventually need to gain control of four Divine Beasts and then raid Hyrule Castle to defeat Calamity Ganon. These, for me, were the least enjoyable parts of the game. The Beasts are essentially BotW's dungeons, but I found them far departed from Ocarina's tightly designed masterpieces. The 3D wireframe map and world-rotating puzzles were difficult to navigate and slowed the pace of the game too much for me. The bosses within these Beasts and the end fight with Calamity Ganon also failed to inspire me, with them being over too quickly to be able to appreciate how their attack routines are put together. They mostly end up being a trial-and-error of "which attack hurts the most" and repeating until they fall over.
Beating these bosses is worthwhile, however, as you are presented with a power that benefits you in the wild, which is where the bulk of the game is. Being able to be more durable in combat, or capable of scaling higher areas, makes it well worth the effort and the feeling of newfound empowerment is thrilling. Being able to face screen-filling giants that used to offer you only the choice of running away, turns the game on its head. What starts out as a game where you are scratching together food scraps to make meals and finding basic equipment to survive, slowly transforms into a superhero game where you can bend the world to your will.
I don't like applying a score to a game. Arguing if a game is "perfect" or not seems like a hollow discussion to have and with the expanding complexity of AAA games in general, with huge worlds, hundreds of hours of gameplay and human performances, such a goal is less attainable than ever. What I can say, however, is that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an incredible gaming experience that absolutely everyone should try in their lifetime. An undeniable masterpiece in terms of world design and exploration mechanics, it will be used as a benchmark for many years to come. No, it isn't perfect, but it is important. You certainly won't walk away without having a strong opinion about it.