One Year Ago, Zelda: Breath of the Wild Changed Game Design

A revolution not just for Zelda and Nintendo, Nintendo's newest Zelda raised the bar for freeform gameplay going forward.

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One of my experiments in games is to think of something I could do in the real world, and attempt to pull it off in the game I'm playing. The more absorbed I am by a game's world and systems, the more naturally I feel inclined to try this experiment.

In other words, I have to be so immersed by a game, effortlessly pulled in by intuitive controls and systems that gel together naturally, that I forget I'm playing a game.

When I heard sounds echoing up from a well in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I looked down, picked up a stone, walked over to the well, and dropped it. I stood still, listening, waiting for the clack of stone against stone, or a splash. I counted silently to myself: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand. I had no designs on hopping into the well. Amnesia's terrifying and tenebrous world felt so real that the experiment came naturally. It's what I would have done in the real world, and the game's systems made it possible.

If Amnesia let me pull off the odd experiment or three, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild cast me in the role of mad scientist. For the first 15 to 20 hours of the adventure, all I did was solve shrines. I don't gravitate toward puzzle games, but I do like puzzles within the context of exploration and adventuring. In other words, Zelda puzzles are kind of my thing.

Breath of the Wild's puzzles were different. The goal of each shrine is to decode the shrine's name, a hint at what you need to do to receive an orb you can put toward more heart containers or stamina vessels. That hint is just a suggestion. According to Breath of the Wild's directors, they designed each shrine so that it would have a solution, thereby preventing players from getting stuck. But their solution was envisioned as one of many. A suggestion, if you will.

In every shrine, I'd suss out what needed to be done. Then I'd do it my way. Oh, that crate is metal. I can pick it up and put it on that switch. Hey, since these two switches need an electrical charge, I bet I can place a line of metallic weapons between them to ad hoc a connection.

I didn't think about those experiments in the context of the game's controls. Breath of the Wild's physics and chemistry systems were deep yet accessible. Anything I wanted to do made sense within the context of Breath of the Wild's world.

That brand of experimentation formed the beating heart of Breath of the Wild's chemistry and physics systems, resulting in innumerable ways to make the world your own. You could paddle across that stream, or you could chop down a tree and walk across it like a bridge. You can go one-on-one with mobs of Bakoblins, or use Magnesis to drop metal crates on their heads. Or glide in from above and whip out your bow to rain arrows on them in slow motion. Or lure them away from their camp and steal the slab of boar meat roasting over an open flame. Or just hang back and watch them hunt wild game and chase it in circles.

Or, you know, just walk up and stab them with your sword, Master or otherwise. That's an option too. But it's one of many. It may be yours, but it's not mine. Others may be mine and not yours. And therein lies the fun.

When I tired of shrines, I turned my attention to towers. Climbing towers is fun… in Breath of the Wild. Nintendo took an open-world dead horse that Ubisoft beat to a fine paste and made it fun by making it an option. There's no indicator on my world map telling me to climb this or that tower to advance to the next area. If I want to climb a tower, I'll climb it. When I'm good and ready to battle another Divine Beast, taking me one step closer to Princess Zelda and the final battle against Ganon, I'll take it. Not a minute before.

Breath of the Wild runs just fine on Wii U, but for me, the game is inexorably tied—linked, one might say—to Switch. Like the game, Nintendo's console-portable hybrid can be played on my terms. It spends most of its time docked to my TV. When I head out for a weekend with family, I remove it from the dock, place it and the power cord into my carrying case, and off we go, to be played while waiting for a table or in the living room while my nieces and nephew chase each other in circles.

One year removed from its launch, Breath of the Wild still represents Nintendo at its most ambitious and creative. I'm one of those oddballs who wasn't enamored with Super Mario Odyssey. It's a good game, a refinement of Nintendo's best-selling 3D Mario formula, but it's still ultimately a refinement. Breath of the Wild is everything video games are and everything they can be. Bold. Experimental. Engaging. Imaginative. Open. Freeing. Colorful. Humorous.

Portable, and stationary, too.

Breath of the Wild isn't perfect. At its worst, it's the best menu sim I've ever played. I'd like a way to jump between categories in those menus rather than have to scroll through each page of each menu, especially as my ingredients tab spills over three, four, five pages. And it sure would be nice to drop or throw shields and bows to quickly and neatly jettison ones I don't want.

For me, though, those are quibbles, tantamount to a few grains of sand on the "cons" side of the pros/cons scale. On the "pros" side, Breath of the Wild's freeform design and the way it tacitly encourages me to seize control and play on my terms amount to a boulder the size of Death Mountain.

Shacknews CEO and editor-in-chief Asif Khan likes to poke fun at me for having yet to cross Breath of the Wild's finish line. It's true: I haven't seen the game's ending. I don't even know if it's got more than one. To me, Breath of the Wild isn't a game that needs to be beaten. Conventional video games are beaten. Breath of the Wild is a laboratory full of experiments I still want to conduct.

Contributing Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    March 3, 2018 7:30 AM

    David Craddock posted a new article, One Year Ago, Zelda: Breath of the Wild Changed Game Design

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      March 3, 2018 8:20 AM

      You captured my obsession with BOTW perfectly here. I completed the third Divine Beast last night but I'm enjoying the side quests and DLC enough to keep me exploring. I don't want this ride to end.

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      March 3, 2018 9:34 AM

      i put the game down for about a month until last night, and god damn i was so happy to be back in that world. i haven't beaten it yet either and am in absolutely no rush to do so

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        March 3, 2018 6:22 PM

        i've played it in a weird fashion. i'l get SUPER into it for a week or two, then put it down for a month. then when i return i'm immediately sucked back in for hours/days.

        still have the final beast (ready to attack, probably want a few more hearts before tackling the castle) but i feel like i've seen maybe a quarter of the content in the world.

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          March 3, 2018 8:03 PM

          I can’t imagine doing that. That thing is like a black hole and nothing escapes until I am finished. It’s like that with Mario too.

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      March 3, 2018 11:22 AM

      Great overview. Whenever I see some complaints (not the ones having to do with menus) I think, "you know, that person might have a point" and I fire the game up.

      Nope. Masterpiece.

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        March 3, 2018 5:46 PM

        It's the controls, IMO. They're just really good, and it kinda makes it apparent how many modern games don't have simple and fluid yet really expressive controls. Plenty of great design (and plenty to criticize as well) in BotW but I think it's a classic because doing literally anything with the controls is intuitive and fun.

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          March 3, 2018 5:50 PM

          Nintendo always nails control. Off the top of my head only company I’d put on their level is old school iD (maybe new iD after nuDoom?)

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            March 3, 2018 6:16 PM

            Not only Nintendo, but I feel like (this is just speculation) that they have higher standards for control / response / feedback on their platforms than other console makers. I rarely play a game, first or third party, on a Nintendo platform that has poor / sluggish / confusing controls. Like Celeste, so precise yet easy to move cancel and autocorrect mid-jump.

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              March 3, 2018 6:19 PM

              I’d definitely put Celeste on the developers. Towerfall Ascension has fantastic movement so Celeste was no surprise

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              March 3, 2018 7:51 PM

              They don’t do realism. Or perhaps they can’t.

              Saturday morning cartoons provide a lot more freedom. You may never play a Shadow of the Colossus, Tomb Raider, or Uncharted on a Nintendo platform, but that may be for better or worse.

              they gave up their exceptionally broad sports publishing once the cartoon jig was up for that genre. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark are long gone, but thankfully we’ll see Metroid...presuming it’s first person.

              But ya, if it can’t be something we saw while wearing PJs, they’re usually out. And I think Celeste is on every platform but I’m not 100%

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                March 3, 2018 8:11 PM

                Simplified shapes give a better idea of things like hitboxes, points of contact, etc. They serve an aesthetic purpose but they're also extremely functional. Games with very high visual fidelity like Uncharted or HZD trade function and mechanics for realistic aesthetics.

                Blizzard and Valve follow similar principles as Nintendo with games like Overwatch, TF2, and Dota. You also see it a lot with fighting games. Obviously its an approach that ages very well. Most of what seemed cutting edge in the early 2000s looks horribly dated while most first party GCN games still look great.

                I'll even extend that to iD vs Epic. The former had very simplified shapes and textures while Epic games were always super dense and had poor separation between the characters and their backgrounds.

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                  March 3, 2018 8:38 PM

                  I wonder if the approach is necessarily limiting them.

                  We see thread after thread begging for a new F-Zero and the occasional 1080 snowboarding and Wave Race (!!!). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same gen we last saw those games is also the last gen Nintendo bothered developing or publishing anything relating to serious action sports or racing (i.e., not counting Wii sports or Mario sports games, which if going by the last 3DS game, are not good).

                  It’s too bad bcs I’m having a blast with the new hot shots golf. Tons of depth there. Mario golf (3DS) just wasn’t very fun.

                  Control is, of course, king. I had patience for maybe one or two more colossi in me before I hard quit SOTC a few weeks ago. Thankfully 16 was it. That’s a three star game, at best, bcs of those horrible controls.

                  But my question is whether they even have that in their wheelhouse and if not, if it limits their development?

                  What if there is no new f-zero or wave race or 1080 bcs they can’t do it? Back in the day, the latter games made jet moto and cool borders look like shit. Maybe they’re like...ya, if it’s not pajama graphics, we’re out.

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                    March 3, 2018 9:35 PM

                    The F-Zero series stopped because the last one sold under half a million copies, its as simple as that. Its a similar reason why development on the Metroid series was put on ice for so long. Its not nearly as bad but note that Splatoon 1 and 2 will end up matching or outselling the entire Metroid series combined in a much shorter period of time.

                    Same goes for F-Zero versus Mario Kart, it makes more sense to put two (excellent) F-Zero courses and 200cc mode into Mario Kart 8 which is going to sell tens of millions of copies instead of putting resources into an F-Zero game that is only there to satisfy a hardcore niche.

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                      March 3, 2018 9:38 PM

                      Correction: F-Zero GX sold closer to 650k copies. Still, not great numbers when you compare it to Mario Kart where even the worst selling one moves multiple times that. Mario Kart 8 was on the flop Wii U and even that moved over 8 million copies (the DX version has already outdone that on Switch).

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                        March 3, 2018 9:50 PM

                        If you’re going to use Mario Kart as the metric then the list of games is basically Mario, GTA, and Call of Duty.

                        And while they may be similar in that there is a start and finish line, that’s about it. F-Zero shares fans and a genre with Wipeout. Mario Kart is about as pajama as gets.

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                          March 3, 2018 10:01 PM

                          Make game X that sells millions or game Y in the same genre that sells hundreds of thousands. The math is super easy. Again, putting F-Zero tracks and 200cc in MK8 is way more profitable.

                          And who knows, it might finally be the time to resurrect it. It will be on reputation alone since it never sold particularly well past the SNES game.

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                            March 3, 2018 10:03 PM

                            I’d argue that Smash has more to do with F-Zero’s popularity at this point than the game itself. Tens of millions have the game with Captain Falcon punching other dudes. Hundreds of thousands bought the game that he’s actually in.

                            I’m being totally serious, Smash related marketing popularized both the Fire Emblem and Xenoblade Chronicles series in the west

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                              March 3, 2018 10:16 PM

                              Sadly I’ve never gotten into those games but it’s always worth a good laugh bcs you think you know every Nintendo character and then you’re like...wait what?? Where did you come from???

                              Fucking Ice Climbers lol

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                            March 3, 2018 10:14 PM

                            I think I mentioned like 6-7 games spanning multiple platforms and generations as part of a broader question relating to entire genres. F-Zero was neither sufficient nor necessary to my point.

                            Perhaps they’re just not good at them. They tried, repeatedly, that’s for sure. And then they just kinda gave up. Actually even MSFT tried the be everything route in the beginning and then they stopped too. Sony tried the pajama thing with crash and wisely stopped since crash was garbage and that wasn’t a successful path anyway.

                            Prob Nintendo just trying things and outside a few core franchises, not really worth it. To this day BOTW being only the 3D Zelda second million-seller should be a national shame.

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                              March 3, 2018 10:57 PM

                              I honestly think there is a strong tie between aesthetics and strong mechanics simply because mechanics related elements like hitboxes and such are more easily telegraphed with simpler shapes and silhouettes. People slag on the 8-bit "indie" aesthetic but I think the look of games like Celeste are just as functional as they are aesthetic.

                              There is a very consistent set of limitations that happens between the environment and the characters the higher things push towards "realism". The more realistic a game looks the more specific the points of contact can be and the more limited it gets, just look at traversal in Uncharted, HZD, or AC.

                              There is also horsepower to consider. Nintendo aims at beautiful graphics that can be done on lower cost or portable hardware, because they know the market they are aiming at.

                              What they do is easily recognizable in the same way the silhouettes in a Disney or Pixar film are recognizable, can run on inexpensive and/or mobile hardware, and it lends itself better to movement and mechanics than something that is aiming at realism. There are numerous reasons for them not to go the other way.

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                                March 3, 2018 11:18 PM

                                A really good example of your point can be found in the genre I’ve brought up repeatedly: sports.

                                Play any of the most popular sports games most likely thrown on a hacked SNES Classic and the response time is almost instant. Tecmo Super Bowl, Griffey Baseball, NHL, etc etc. the question is whether devs can maintain that playability but with modern fidelity. I think they can, usually. And nevertheless they should try.

                                My favorite platform example was when Prince of Persia first came out on SNES. I remember reading EGM and the ilk about how realistic and amazing it was. When I finally rented it I was like...this sucks. Sure it looks cool but after 50 deaths due to its fluid animation, I was over it. Never played it again. Give me Mario any day. It even a discussion.

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                                  March 3, 2018 11:55 PM

                                  One of the things getting in the way of responsiveness may just be verisimilitude. It is believable when a cartoon representation of a hockey player can turn on a dime, its not as believable when a realistic human being does it. Its a similar reason why shooters slowed way the hell down (at least until Doom) as they got more and more realistic.

                                  I'm sure there are other technical factors like complex physics simulations, but making "believable" looking visuals even as it slows down or restricts gameplay is a very real thing. Its a very extreme example but Nathan Drake from Uncharted would look ridiculous traversing like Madeline from Celeste, you know?

                                  I'd be all for higher fidelity games functioning less realistically though. Realism runs counter to arcade style mechanics.

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                      March 3, 2018 9:43 PM

                      I was well aware of the sales of every game I mentioned.

                      Bayonetta says lol.

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                        March 3, 2018 9:59 PM

                        Bayonetta 2 was a million seller on Wii U, a critical hit, and all Nintendo has to do is publish it since Platinum handles production. It totally makes sense to continue

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                          March 3, 2018 10:44 PM

                          Where are you getting this number from?

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                            March 3, 2018 10:52 PM

                            Ya this was not true.

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                              March 3, 2018 11:00 PM

                              Checked another source and it was closer to 750k, which surprisingly isn't that far off from what the first game sold on 360.

                              In any case it will clear a million total very easily with the rerelease. Even before that its still more than the ~650k F-Zero GX sold on GCN, and it was on a flop system no less.

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                                March 3, 2018 11:10 PM

                                Approx half as well if you include PS3.

                                Since you have twice now provided incorrect numbers (!!!), you are morally obligated to take my bet that the re-release will not cross 1m sold world wide before 12/31/18. One Switch game of any value.

                                Are we on???

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                                  March 3, 2018 11:50 PM

                                  Ugh, it really sold on PS3? That was such a horribly shitty version, even worse than RDR.

                                  In any case I said that total Bayonetta 2 sales would cross 1M, not the Switch version alone. That's a super reasonable number that I don't think anyone would want to bet against.

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      March 3, 2018 1:15 PM

      Still enjoying my ride with BotW.

    • Zek
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      March 3, 2018 4:06 PM

      Remains to be seen, are there any games announced yet with clear BotW inspiration?

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        March 3, 2018 6:03 PM

        Not that I know of, however there has been a lot of devs talking about stealing bits and pieces of this game.

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          March 3, 2018 7:32 PM

          In the last few months I've spoken with two who are working on unannounced AAA games that shamelessly told me "yeah, we're totally taking that from Zelda"

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        March 3, 2018 10:49 PM

        Just read a Far Cry 5 article at Waypoint that says Ubi is taking an organic approach to open world now like BotW.

        It’s hard to overstate how important a change this is. Even though I explored a few major areas, I never felt overloaded by tasks. Plus, because each side activity you learn about can be tied to a specific point of origin, each one feels a little more meaningfully situated inside of the world. It also makes moving from mission to mission feel a little less like Assassin’s Creed or Horizon: Zero Dawn and (a little) more like the organic, curiosity driven exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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        March 3, 2018 11:22 PM

        Visually? rime. Mechanically? lol.

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      March 3, 2018 5:36 PM

      I like Zelder.

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      March 3, 2018 5:54 PM

      Oh god

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      March 3, 2018 7:35 PM

      I just finished BotW today at 115 hours. Some of that is idle time and my wife stealing my game to run around wrecking bokoblins and wildlife, but most of it is me loving the traversal and exploration.

      The game had its faults. The world and story were often sparse, but everything that was there was so incredibly polished, and I got deep into it like I would an elder scrolls game.

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      March 4, 2018 12:50 AM

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