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Memory Leaks: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

🐗 It's a wild, wild life...

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild simultaneously released for the Wii U and as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch on March 3, 2017. The game was a departure for the series, which had recently been telling linear stories rooted in the lore of the franchise. Breath of the Wild, by contrast, features very little lore, a fairly scant story, and a rich open world to explore with challenges that can be tackled in any order or skipped altogether. Link awakens in a post-apocalyptic land that has been devastated by Calamity Ganon, a magical maleficent force occupying Hyrule castle and locked in a century-long struggle with the Princess Zelda. But her power is failing, and she has called up on you to defeat Ganon and free Hyrule.

The game was a tremendous hit.

How I Remember It...

On March 3, 2017, I decided to get a Nintendo Switch. Well, I'd made this decision some weeks before, but I'd missed the preorders, so I decided to try to get one on launch day. I went to Target before they opened and was sixteenth in line for their twenty consoles (that were, mercifully, limited to one per customer). Of course, you can't just get a console, so I also got the big shiny deluxe edition of the most anticipated game for this new system. In addition to the game, it came with a CD of music from the soundtrack, a Switch carrying-case that looked like a Sheikah Slate, and a collectible coin. All told, I dropped like $400 on a system and one game. So when I got home and fired it up, did it come anywhere near meeting my expectations?

Reader, it did. I was a little trepidatious at first, because as a rule I don't like sandbox games. But it turns out I only thought that because I don't like Grand Theft Auto. The game is absolutely breath-taking. One of the first things it does is just show off the vistas, the sheer scope of the world. Which is freaking huge. Assuming Link is a normal-sized elfin human, Hyrle is approximately the size of Kyoto--which is insanely large in videogame scales. Instead of dungeons, the progression is built around four Divine Beasts at the corners of the map. These beasts--which, if we're being honest, are functionally indistinguishable from dungeons--are giant ancient robots that were intended to fight Calamity Ganon but have instead been corrupted by him and are terrorizing the local populations. Two of them are clearly visible from the opening tutorial area. One is hovering over the horizon to the northwest, and another is tromping around a volcano in the northeast. 

The thing that is absolutely bonkers about this game is that basically everything is optional. There are 120 shrines--mini-dungeons that you use to increase you health and stamina meters--900 hidden koroks, Four Divine beasts, something like 80 side-quests, fourteen towers that update your map, three dragons, three springs, a dozen hidden memories to uncover, plus an untold number of items and recipes to find. And you can skip almost all of it. You have to climb one tower and defeat four shrines in order to open up the map, and after that you are free to go straight to the final battle if you like. And, in fact, speed-runners will do just that.

I, however, am not a speed-runner. I want to explore every nook and cranny, and this game has sooooo many nooks. Sooooo many crannies. You turn a corner and discover seven immense statues standing in a circle (by "immense" I mean easily 20 times the height of your character). Glide along a canyon and find an entrance to a hidden temple. Ride along the beach and see islands in the distance. Climb a bluff and see a literal labyrinth for you to solve. Actually, that one happens twice. The game is just so full of stuff. My first play-through, I didn't uncover half of it before taking on the final boss. And it's not just the scope, but the scale. Everything feels big. The landscape is dotted with high places that you can easily spot from a distance. Once you climb to the top of them, you get the layout of the area around you and you can use your glider to descend into whatever section you want to explore. This combination of climbing and descending works really well to help you keep track of the geography while also selling you on the grandeur of the overall experience.

You wouldn't think a five year old game would have much of a legacy, but it's certainly had an outsized impact. We're at the leading edge of the inevitable glut of franchises reinventing themselves as open-world games. We just had Pokemon Legends: Arceus, and Sonic Rangers is due out soon. To say nothing of the as-yet-untitled sequel that was first announced in 2019 and is currently slated to come out next year. And while this game is a huge departure for the series, it feels closer to the ethos of the original NES title than any other since Link's Awakening. Here's your tutorial. Got it? Good. Now go explore! My oldest child has started playing and said at one point that he solved a puzzle in an unorthodox way and it felt like cheating. I assured him that the game wants him to be creative and find unorthodox approaches.

The sense of discovery is the point.


In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.

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