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9 March 2017

Breath of the Wild is a great game, but is it a great Zelda game?

Or: why my heart is no longer in smashing villagers’ pots.    

By Amelia Tait

I was thrilled when the chickens started to attack me. Hitting a Cucco until it glows red-hot with anger and then bands together with its brothers to peck me to death is one of my favourite things about The Legend of Zelda, and I was happy to see it was part of the series’ latest offering, Breath of the Wild. But I wasn’t just happy: I was also relieved.

I want to preface this by saying that I am in love with Breath of the Wild (henceforth BOTW). I have been playing it so much in the handheld mode of the Nintendo Switch that my hands have, on multiple evenings now, locked into painful claws. When I close my eyes, I see the game; when I talk to you, I am thinking about the game. I have also blown off every recent social event in order to go home and play (unless you are my friend and reading this, in which case the legitimate reason I gave for not meeting you was indeed legitimate).

Despite my love of the game, however, I can’t help but feel it is missing a few things. Let me add a caveat to this absolute nonsense statement by saying yes, the game’s open-world environment makes it the grandest and most spectacular Zelda game of all time. I do not think the game is missing anything big – what I miss are the little things.

I quickly realised there would be no hearts in the grass. I have no little green hat that bobs up and down in the wind. I’m not sure how many hours into the game I was before I picked up my first Rupee, but it was long enough that I thought “Huh, I’m [this] many hours into the game and I’ve just picked up my first Rupee!” (Don’t get me started on the shock I felt at getting my first key).

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This is why I felt relieved about my Cucco attack. Cucco attacks have been a staple of Zelda since the bird was introduced in the third game of the series, A Link to the Past. Yet one huge change in BOTW is that the protagonist, Link, can now cook and eat food, meaning any wild animals you pass on your travels are ripe for the murdering. I feared that Cuccos would now face the same fate. As such, when I slashed and stabbed the virtual chickens until they staged a coop coup and banded together for my blood, there was nothing I could feel but pleased.

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Though BOTW is loyal to this Zelda trope, it abandons many others. I understand the reason for some of these changes. If the game’s new cooking element is to work, it makes sense that hearts can no longer be found in the grass. This cooking element in turn allows the game’s monsters to be much tougher – and therefore more fun – than ever before. But why can’t I spin-attack some greenery to find some Ruppees within the blades?

I now have similar issues with my all-time favourite Zelda activity: smashing poor innocent villagers’ pots. Although you can still destroy crockery in BOTW, the rewards for doing so are so minimal (there are no hearts, and there are rarely Rupees, inside) that it simply isn’t as fun. Most importantly, no one has made me feel like a rapscallion for coming into their home and smashing up their stuff, like they used to. I want to watch villagers flinch. I want to be fined ten Rupees per pot to replace a rich man’s vases.

This makes me wonder: what makes Zelda, Zelda? Though comparisons to Skyrim abound, BOTW is undeniably a Zelda game – the lore, the locations, and the legends are the heart of both the franchise and the game – so much so it hardly matters that it has made big departures like replacing dungeons with shrines and making the weapons breakable. Still, to the little girl that first fell in love with Zelda by playing The Wind Waker for every (wind) waking hour of her summer holidays, I can’t deny that the little tropes mean a lot.

I really, for example, really, really miss rolling. I can’t see why it’s gone (except, I guess, that it is quite a childish activity in what is undeniably a more grown-up game). I understand that we had to make way for a jump button (I don’t mind this addition, though it took me embarrassingly long to figure out it was available) but I don’t see why I can’t roll headfirst into trees/steps/my grandma too.

As far as I can tell, Link has no instrument, no companion, and there is a distinct lack of music when you gallop across the fields of Hyrule. Some of the things I miss – Link’s traditional costume – seem to be available via amiibo (purchasable real-world figurines that let you unlock parts of a game), but I don’t really have the cash to spare. Other things I miss are perhaps necessary sacrifices in the cause of the game’s improvement. It was a thrill when I jumped off the first tower in the game and found myself dead, instead of casually rolling off my 100 metre drop. But some missing things just make me feel sad, such as duh-nuh-na-NA! – the sound that, to me, most epitomises Zelda.

Again, I absolutely must reiterate that none of this constitutes a criticism of the game. It feels petty to act as though these departures are huge, underlying flaws and many Zelda tropes that I love – tiny, annoying children; angry animals; exceptionally human side quests – remain. I am not a purist. I don’t mind, especially, that Link now talks. I am wary of acting like the anti-Wind Waker brigade initially did in assuming that there is only one way for a Zelda game to be made.

So Breath of the Wild is a great game, but is it a great Zelda game? The answer, undeniably, is yes. Much has been made of how it is the game truest to the original 1986 offering, and there is enough left in this game that is distinctly Zelda. More than this, there are new innovations that will hopefully become shorthand for “Zelda” –  that an entirely new generation can come to know and love.

So does the simultaneous removal of so many tropes makes this game lose its Zelda-ness? Probably not. All I’m saying here, really, is that I love smashing pots.