‘Breath of the Wild’ Isn’t Nintendo’s Crowning Achievement But a Gem in the Crown
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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is easily the best game to have come out so far in 2017, and will more than likely rightfully claim Game of the Year and similar accolades come award season at the end of the year pretty unanimously. While Breath of the Wild is the best game I’ve played in years, too many critics and fans have been over zealous when singing the game’s praises and lavishly raving about the title. That may sound insane coming from a self-proclaimed Zelda fanatic, and I’m not arguing that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t a near flawless, playable work of art or that a ‘ten out of ten’ is an unmerited score for the game. Calling the game a masterpiece is perfectly warranted and scoring the game anything below a ‘ten out of ten’ is stingy, uninformed, more than likely contrary for the sake of being contrarian, and in my humble (ie. correct) opinion, blatantly wrong. However, unlike many fans and reviewers, I would hesitate to call it the best game Nintendo has ever crafted or even the best Legend of Zelda game. Goomba Stomp’s own James Baker, in his phenomenally written review, called Breath of the Wild, “Nintendo’s greatest achievement,” and “the most beautiful game Nintendo has ever made, and quite frankly…the best game Nintendo has ever made,” and he’s far from alone in making such claims. While I wouldn’t refute the review as a whole, which you really should read, or really challenge anyone who wanted to make and support the argument that Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s best, a month after this masterpiece’s release I think it’s finally time to remind the world why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a sensational, instant, must-play classic in gaming history but not irrefutably Nintendo’s crowning achievement.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Back in 1986, The Legend of Zelda revolutionized gaming and is properly remembered as one of the most influential pillars of gaming history. A lot of comparisons can be drawn between the original Legend of Zelda and the latest in the franchise, The Legend of Zelda was this grand, open adventure and the Breath of the Wild of its day. The Legend of Zelda is truly a masterpiece, as fun now as it was in the bit era, and could be the first counter in the argument that Breath of the Wild is the best game Nintendo has ever made. However, I doubt anyone would really contest that in 1991 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past improved upon the foundation that The Legend of Zelda built in almost every capacity. A Link to the Past begins almost as immediately as the original, but the narrative Link is thrown into is one that’s far more cinematic, dire, and perfectly toned by the game’s incredibly crafted opening. After the game is masterfully staged by that introduction, the player is let loose on a high fantasy adventure of a scope and scale that was staggering in its day and as beautiful and immersive today as it was then. The game carefully maintains the impression of openness, not unlike Breath of the Wild or the original game, when in reality the player is being subtly guided in true Nintendo fashion through unobtrusive hints, clues, and visual indicators so that the player never once feels they aren’t the captain of this expedition. Consequently, players will rarely, if ever, get lost or be at a loss for what to do next.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past still boasts some of franchises best puzzles, many of which are oriented around the game’s iconic item list. Not only does A Link to the Past essentially have every item that the original does, it also introduced several series mainstays including the Hookshot and Mirror Shield while simultaneously featuring some truly brilliantly designed items unique to the title, like the Magic Cape. Graphically, the game was in a league of its own and, with its attractive character sprites, bright, vibrant colors, and lush scenery remains as iconic and visually appealing as it was at release. On top of that, A Link to the Past has an exceptionally designed map, a sensational multitude of dungeons, some brilliant plot twists, and one of the franchise’s best soundtracks and sound effects. Despite being A Link to the Past, the title refuses to be a relic of the past, and truly informed every Zelda title to follow, and is still one of the best games ever made.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
While many have grown tired of this game ceaselessly being labeled the best game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable games Nintendo has ever produced, influencing game after game for generations to follow, and should be remembered as a landmark in all of gaming history. While A Link to the Past took numerous strides forward for the franchise, it’s unlikely anything will ever match the leap Nintendo made with Ocarina of Time from bit graphics into the world of polygons and 3D visuals. Seamless doesn’t quite adequately convey how well Nintendo made the transition into a new era of gaming. Despite Zelda primarily being a top down series, its polygonal incarnation in 1998 miraculously felt simultaneously groundbreaking, bold, new and yet strikingly familiar. Ocarina was and still is emphatically The Legend of Zelda and would go on to shape what it meant to be not only a 3D Zelda title, but also embody everything an action/adventure title should be in the new millennium that would shortly follow. Today, despite how phenomenally it holds up, Ocarina of Time is sort of taken for granted. Perhaps it has been on a pedestal too long, people have gotten overly familiar with it. But really examining Ocarina reveals just how timeless it is, how revolutionary, sensational, well crafted, and brilliantly realized the game remains nearly twenty years later.
Quite obviously, Ocarina of Time adds another dimension to everything. Hyrule comes to life like never before, expansive yet full and with a day and night cycle. The new dimensionality and the bold art style make for some truly memorable dungeons, and the puzzles are unique and challenging in a way not possible with a 2D, top-down title. Ocarina‘s Water Temple is still one of the most notoriously challenging dungeons in Zelda history, not because it is overly demanding, but because it makes such excellent use of space and verticality. The game is also remarkable for its necessary and welcome new mechanics. Though perhaps not invented by Nintendo, Ocarina seemingly popularized the “Z-Targeting” system as it is often referred to. Thanks to that, the game’s thrilling combat is possible, replete with simple slashes, backwards flips away, and forward lunges with a press of the same button when locked on to an opponent. Epona, making her debut appearance, allows players to travel more conveniently and in style. And while many tools are familiar friends, they literally and figuratively have more depth on the N64 than in previous entries. Most tellingly, the game is still immensely enjoyable today regardless of the platform it’s played on and will continue to be one of the best video game experiences of all time.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
By 2002, Nintendo had realized not one but two 3D modeled Zelda games. 1998 saw the release of the seemingly unbeatable Ocarina of Time, and its truly black sheep brother took players from Hyrule to Termina in the delightfully twisted Majora’s Mask in 2000. Their next turn was not only into uncharted waters for the franchise, it was an unprecedented direction that had many fans on edge. Despite initial impressions, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the GameCube went on to become a fan favorite in the franchise and is widely remembered as one of the finest, most timeless Zelda entries to date. On the surface, The Wind Waker went in a more family-friendly direction, with Toon Link making his first appearance and the darker, more typical high fantasy fare art direction being dropped in favor of a cell-shaded, cartoony look. With the unexpected change in art direction, many fans feared Nintendo had gone adrift and that their favorite franchise was sunk. In reality, the art direction makes for a more expressive, relatable narrative and prevents the title from ever looking dated. While its immediate predecessors and successor looked good in their time, The Wind Waker, not unlike A Link to the Past, is an aesthetic high point (on the high seas) for the series. Equally as unprecedented, the world in which The Wind Waker is cast is one flooded with water, replacing fields with foam and a horse for a lion…boat. With fewer dungeons, The Wind Waker emphasizes exploration over repetition, a callback to the franchise’s roots. The game adds the element of water to the winning, fantasy adventure recipe, making for one of the most memorable, high-flying moments in time for Zelda and one of the best open worlds (on the open seas) for its time and perhaps to this day.
The GameCube era of Zelda refined the core mechanics introduced in the 64 era, ensuring that the game not only looks beautiful but plays equally as well. Combat is expanded upon, from some smaller, charming touches, like stealing items from enemies with the Grappling Hook, to some truly exciting additions, like the ability to disarm certain adversaries and wield their own, over-sized weapons against their owners. Perhaps most central to the updated combat is the Parry Attack, an evasive counterstrike induced by the player reacting to a prompt on screen. The narrative is also a central focus of The Wind Waker. Immediately more relatable, The Wind Waker begins not as a lofty quest to save the kingdom, though it does eventually head in that direction, but instead a tale about family and an older brother trying to protect his sister. The highly expressive toon characters and one of the most sensational video game soundtracks ever add another layer of emotional resonance far beyond what any Zelda title had attempted prior. The sense of adventure is spurred on by the act of sailing the sea and uncovering new islands, exciting new locales, and formidable, frequently charming foes. Engaging puzzles, adventures on the high seas, and charm in every inch make The Wind Waker an unforgettable voyage and a contender for the throne of best Legend of Zelda entry.
And Everything Else
Those are just three counters to the notion that Breath of the Wild is the best game Nintendo has ever made. Remarkably, it could just be the best game Nintendo could have possibly conceived in 2017, but in 1991, 1998, and 2002 Nintendo revolutionized the entire industry with the latest and greatest Legend of Zelda entry. And that’s just The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo is also responsible for a multitude of other masterpieces, from Super Metroid to Metroid Prime, from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Galaxy, or Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario 3D World. Nintendo’s history is literally littered with games that could easily claim the classification, “Best Game of All Time. Period. Forever. No Take Backsies.” In reality, it’s impossible to say what the best game of all time is, partially because that’s an opinion and therefore not provable, but more so because of how many masterclass titles Nintendo has produced over the years. It’s early, but I won’t shy away from the statement that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not only the best Nintendo game of the year but the best game of 2017 period. But let’s not forget the games that brought us to this point as we look forward to a bright future of video games. After all, if Breath of the Wild is truly the start of the next chapter for the franchise, the Legend of Zelda or Ocarina of Time of our day, that means what comes next (albeit, maybe after a weird, overzealous, Zelda II, self-discovery stage) could be utterly magnificent.