Hey, listen! “The Legend of Zelda” is an action-adventure video game series that has had a place in the hearts of many for over 25 years. Fans of the series know the games for their quirky characters, beautiful soundtracks, unique art styles and much, much more. The most recent entry of the series, “Breath of the Wild,” made a name for itself when it came out in early 2017 for breaking new ground by introducing open-world gameplay to the series and was received incredibly well by critics and fans alike. Indeed, “Breath of the Wild” touts an enormous world map filled with plenty to do and explore, as well as copious puzzles to solve and challenges to complete; however, while “Breath of the Wild” is spot-on in meeting what is required for your run-of-the-mill action-adventure, open-world game, it hugely misses the mark on meeting the criteria of a Zelda game.
Now wait, humor me for a second and put away the pitchforks. Let us take a walk down memory lane to distill the elements of Zelda games that make them great. For the sake of making a short article in The Lawrentian’s Op-Ed section, I am going to limit myself to just the 3D Zelda games, such as “Ocarina of Time,” “Wind Waker” and “Twilight Princess.” While the 2D Zelda games are certainly beloved classics that deserve recognition, most of the aspects of great 3D Zelda games will likely apply to their 2D counterparts as well.
We can start at the beginning with “Ocarina of Time,” which introduces an aspect of Zelda greatness in the title: music. The ocarina, a small wind instrument that the game is named for, is a source of 10 beautiful melodies that occur in many forms throughout the game. Play “Saria’s Song,” the “Song of Storms” or the “Song of Time” to anyone who played this game, and they will immediately begin to recount their memories of playing, guaranteed. Moreover, each area of the game also has a unique and unforgettable theme that plays over the action. To this day, I can still hum the melody to the Kakariko Village theme, and the Gerudo Valley theme is nothing less than a bop. Conversely, none of the tunes in “Breath of the Wild” have gained a foothold in my memory. This is not to say that the music is not good, because it is indeed well-composed and pleasant, but in the same way that elevator music might be. The music in “Breath of the Wild” does little more than fill the silence with music that fits the mood: calm, slow music for exploring and faster, energizing music for fighting. What makes this music so lackluster is its absence of character or identity. The music in “Wind Waker” had a peppy quality to it that matched the cartoonish aesthetic and childish characters, while music in “Twilight Princess” featured more somber melodies to match the serious tone of the game. The music of “Breath of the Wild” fails to say anything notable about itself, and thus is ultimately forgettable, which is a shame to the musical legacy that came before it.
Another key aspect of a great Zelda game is the story and lore. Each Zelda game has a common general plot — a young man in green garb (known always as Link, at least canonically) goes on a quest to save the Kingdom of Hyrule and sometimes Princess Zelda. This hero eventually comes to wield the Master Sword and the Hylian Shield, and bears some connection to the Triforce of Courage. Beyond this, the stories of various Zelda games vary greatly; in “Ocarina of Time,” Link travels between civilization and a sort-of apocalypse, in “Wind Waker,” Link sails the Great Sea — with pirates and a talking boat — in search of his kidnapped sister and in “Twilight Princess,” Link fights off the invasion of another dimension.
Now, “Breath of the Wild” carves its own niche in this sense, as the lore of the game introduces advanced technology into the Zelda series and a more abstract Ganon, Link’s main rival. However, much of the background story and character development is left for optional discovery, and most of the common lore present in other Zelda games is also optional. For instance, “memories” that explain the history of this particular version of Hyrule are scattered across the very large map and are not easily trackable. Even the Master Sword and Hylian Shield can be entirely missed in a complete story playthrough. Speaking of story, the game places little emphasis on completing the main plot, preferring that its players explore and experiment. While not inherently bad, when one does elect to progress through the story, it feels bland in comparison to the much richer ones preceding it, without strong main roles or plot devices to keep players hooked. Thus, while the story and lore of “Breath of the Wild” are not terrible on their own, they pale in comparison to other Zelda games.
There is much more I could say about how “Breath of the Wild” should have been a better Zelda game before being a great action-adventure game, but such a tangent shall be saved for another day. I look forward to hearing opinions from readers, both from those in agreement and those who are wrong. Until then, have a good rest of the term, everyone!