So far, 2019 has been a good year for video games. There’s no shortage of amazing new games to play – but try as best I can, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is always that one. Every time I think I’m free, it brings me back inside.
It almost seems silly to continue playing Zelda’s latest adventure two years later when new things like Resident Evil 2, Sekiro, Metro Exodus, and even Tropico 6 vie for my attention. I’ve also played many of these games and other new releases, but when the dust settles I always pick up my Switch and head back to Hyrule. It’s become my gaming equivalent of comfort food.
It’s also no knock against those other games. All of the games I’ve listed here are absolutely amazing – genre-defining, experimental, tech-pushing, and insanely addictive respectively – but none of them are quite what Breath of the Wild is. Something about this game goes beyond that: the open design and responsive world not only reveal amazing gameplay opportunities, but also make coming back effortless.
In a way, I feel sorry for the people who couldn’t walk away from Breath of the Wild for a while after its initial release. If you managed to complete 100% in a month or two, I can’t help but feel that the game was experienced a bit suboptimally. I played the game for many, many hours before my exam, completing a variety of shrines, the four main dungeons, and finally defeating Ganon. I continued to play for some time after that, including sporadic visits to check out the DLC, but much of the game went undiscovered. I had dug up less than 90 of the game’s 120 shrines and left behind hundreds of Korok Seeds. Much remained to be done. I left fully satisfied, but accidentally left this version of Hyrule ready to revisit.
As mentioned earlier, the fully open-ended nature of the game means rebooting into Breath of the Wild after almost a year away doesn’t feel like it if you return in a Horizon Zero Dawn or Spider-Man. . There’s no mission structure to tweak, no plot to master. You just come up and mess around. When you do, it’s often with mechanics, like reactive elements of the world or enemy AI – and it enhances simple grunt encounters that, at this point in other games, would be considered work. boring and busy. Tasks that I used to find too mundane like farming materials from certain enemies or the mysterious dragons that roam Hyrule suddenly interest me; now separated from the main story having already seen its conclusion, it becomes a game all about the leisurely exploration of a complexly structured world.
It’s easy to see how this Zelda starter was able to achieve comfort food status, then: while it’s a sprawling experience, it’s the very definition of bite-sized. Although it was first designed for the Wii U, it is also perfect for Switch. Relax for fifteen minutes before bed? Why not pop over to Hyrule and see what you can find?
Playing the game casually also allows me to let go of some of my own quirks. Surfing the sides of mountains on my shield was something I never really did in my first playthrough, as my stomach ached at the thought of wearing down the durability of good shields with the technique. Now I do – and so I am having fun rediscovering this fun mode of traversal.
Small discoveries like this motivate my return to this game. There’s something nebulously brilliant about the structure and design here where no individual element feels out of place; one part of this Zelda flows to another without disconnecting, but the design is also such that on a first read it would be easy to skip some features entirely. That’s okay, because the design also allows you to simply find them later. How many other games allow you to approach the discovery and use of mechanics in such an open way? You couldn’t discover the usefulness of stealth until your 70th hour in Breath of the Wild, and that’s fine.
This all stems of course from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s key design philosophy – the concept of exploration as more than a means to an end. The exploration and the curiosity it arouses is in fact the end itself. That’s the point. It’s thanks to this that Breath of the Wild doesn’t feel dated even when played two years and several big budget rivals later. The game often moves fast and leaves even the best behind quickly – but somehow this game feels immune. If anything, it seems to happily open up another layer of brilliance to explore, exploit, and experience every time you return – or at least that’s been true so far every time I’ve returned to Hyrule after years. months away.
In a few weeks, Breath of the Wild will get the VR treatment via a patch that will make it compatible with Nintendo Labo VR. Given that I’m already back in the game, I’m obviously curious – but with or without a cardboard helmet strapped to your face, Breath of the Wild’s ruined Hyrule is well worth returning to. You might find, as I did, that nothing released since has quite managed to touch it.