How ‘Breath of the Wild’ breathes new life into ‘Zelda’ franchise

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Isabelle Doerschlag /Staff

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I played my first “Legend of Zelda” game when I was 8, beginning with the Nintendo 64 classic “Ocarina of Time.” I was still a neophyte in the Nintendo world, let alone the gaming one; this was a simpler time, when I thought that Samus and Captain Falcon were siblings and truly believed that my exclusively grass-type Pokemon team could take on a flying-type gym with a cocktail of determination and the power of friendship.

“Ocarina of Time” was an abrupt departure from my realm of 8-bit feel-good games and the occasional “Super Smash Bros.” match. From the start, with a very polygonal 90’s graphics montage of flames and a nightmarish villain on a black horse that could be the steed of Death himself, with a dramatically grandiose symphony of synth that made up the score, my young self knew that, Toto, we’re not in Super Mario World anymore.

I think that I loved “OoT” so much because I got to be an intrepid 10-year-old boy hero instead of a nervous third-grader at a new school who was always the last one to finish assignments. I was deathly afraid of making friends, but I could shoot arrows into the vulnerable hands of a wicked behemoth without batting an eye. Dividing fractions might be “useful later on,” but what was useful now was getting a new sword when Link, the protagonist, unexpectedly aged seven years in an instant and his trusty old blade suddenly looked like a toy.

I’ve since played other games, but what I always chase is that feeling of immersion and importance that first foray into “Zelda” granted me. The aging fanbase, however, through our fondness, has since recognized the formulaic nature of every installment of the series: average guy is actually hero of legend, hero of legend meets Princess Zelda, Zelda tells hero of legend to defeat the forces of evil and save the world, hero of legend does so through sequential dungeons and temples in climatologically diverse regions of the game’s world.

The “Zelda” series’ newest member, “Breath of the Wild,” had been a long time in development, promising a new, open-world concept and vastly different gameplay from before. Already drawing comparisons to other successful open-world games such as “Skyrim” and “The Witcher 3,” let alone the inevitable comparisons to earlier Zelda games, “BotW” had a lot to live up to by the time it released March 3. Then, as quietly and quickly as it entered the public eye, it utterly surpassed everyone’s timid expectations.

“BotW” works because it immerses us all over again in a way that makes sense to a now diverse demographic of players. With an overworld map over 10 times the size of the previously largest game and a decidedly nonlinear storyline, different users’ save files could look like entirely different games. One file could be devoted to a straightforward runthrough of the main plotline, while another could be dedicated to wrangling horses and naming them after figures of classical mythology, and yet another could be invested wholly in inventing 100 different recipes using about as many different varieties of mushrooms. You can raid a bandit camp and protect a village if you want to, but you can also choose to venture by moonlight to a mountain peak to find a glittering spirit oasis.

I remember “OoT” sticking out to my young self because its intricate plotline and relatively frightening bosses gave me the feeling that I was risking life and limb myself. From my living room sofa, the stakes, for me, had never felt higher. Beginning any game or game genre, any sort of pastime really, everyone follows a trajectory from feeling lost up through a learning curve; what’s enjoyable is not only figuring out what you’re doing, but also being able to compare that sensation to your earlier inexperience. Inevitably, after playing enough, that first rush began to dim as the learning curve became flatter and flatter with experience.

“BotW” bucked that trend for me, placing me enjoyably back in the shoes of a clueless beginner as I’m sure it has done for many. The freedom in the map means that, at any point, you could be fighting an enemy or solving a puzzle that would have come much later in any other kind of game. I actually first fell in love with “BotW” while taking on one of the bosses, a spine-chillingly titanic mechanical elephant, almost comically early on in the game. I was completely out of my depth, getting knocked out before even landing a hit, but the fact that I could access it at all to discover this for myself made me realize that this game is on a whole new level from the previous titles and their comforting, hand-holding tutorials. The journey Link undertakes is also yours — nothing is predetermined.

In short, your “BotW” experience can be as idyllic or as grimly realistic as you want it to be; the sheer amount of detail in the game allows you to do both (or either). Younger players will enjoy meeting whimsical NPCs such as a researcher whose accident turned her from a droll old woman to a bubbly 6-year-old. Older players can appreciate the morally difficult seductions of the promise of power beyond belief from a violent cohort of the primary antagonist’s worshippers. Watching a lushly rendered sunset from a field of meticulously detailed wildflowers atop the back of a horse programmed to act like a real animal, both groups alike will know that the product in front of them is a work of art.

In allowing diametrically different people with diametrically different gaming approaches to experience their version of entertainment in one place, “Breath of the Wild” found a unique way to fill a breathtakingly diverse fanbase with the awe of an 8-year-old engrossed in her first action-adventure game.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].