If you play the original Legend of Zelda today, you might be surprised how little guidance it provides. The 1986 classic has no drawn-out tutorials, no mini-map that shows you exactly where to go. You’re plopped in a strange, mysterious world and largely left to your own devices. You can wander off and get lost, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up getting killed by powerful monsters if you do. The structure makes the game feel like a true adventure, as if you’re charting your own course. Three decades after the original, I get the same playing while playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch — only on a much bigger scale.
Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s attempt to merge the iconic Zelda formula with more modern open-world adventures, like Skyrim or The Witcher. It still stars Link, a blonde boy out to find and destroy a powerful evil, and it still takes place in the picturesque green fields of Hyrule. There’s a princess named Zelda and a villain named Ganon. But Breath of the Wild also steps away from an often-rigid structure that has come to define the series.
From the start, you’re given some guidance from a helpful old man and a soft disembodied voice, but much of what you do is up to you. There are missions and sidequests, but I’ve spent a good portion of time wandering off on my own. With no typical tutorial in place, I’ve been learning about this new version of Hyrule through exploration and experimentation.
Take cooking, for instance. For the first time in a Zelda adventure, Link can gather resources, and then cook them to create health-replenishing food or potions with other beneficial qualities, like improved speed or stealth. But at no point did the game ever tell me how to do this, or even really explain that I could. Instead — with a bag full of mushrooms and apples — I stumbled across a lit stove at an abandoned enemy camp. I tossed a couple ingredients into the pot, and poof, I’d created my first vegetarian skewer. In no time, I was smitten with the process of finding new ingredients and trying new recipes of my own invention. I was pretty proud the first time I cooked up some mushroom rice balls and creamy vegetable soup — not so much when I stirred together a pot of inedible muck.
Learning by doing has been the common theme of my first five hours in Hyrule. I first discovered the lethal effects of cold temperatures after I climbed a high mountain and realized Link’s health was slowly depleting. I learned I could hunt wild animals for meat when I fought an especially angry mountain goat. I didn’t realize that weapons degraded over time until a rusty broadsword was destroyed while I battled with a moblin. I tamed and rode my first wild horse before a stable-owner explained how the process worked.
These concepts aren’t exactly new for games in general. Crafting, survival, and the like have become staples of open-world role-playing experiences for the better part of a decade. But they feel like a bold pivot within a Zelda game. As the series grew and its adventures became grander in scope, tutorials and dialogue behaved increasingly like a nagging parent. The opening of Twilight Princess felt like an hours long school lesson, while games like Skyward Sword had a frustrating tendency to hold players’ hands and explain every little thing deep into the story.
That’s not the case with Breath of the Wild. Its more open nature not only creates a sense that you’re really on a grand adventure, but also makes the world feel more dangerous and unpredictable. You aren’t told how the world works; you discover it. There’s a sense of dynamism that I haven’t experienced in a Zelda game before. While wandering the forest I’ve found myself rescuing travelers from monster attacks, and accidentally stumbling upon a crew of moblins hunting boar. I’ve accidentally sent a massive boulder rolling down a mountain, bashing against trees and critters on its way down. Though small, these moments provide a nice balance to a series that has for some time felt intensely scripted. The world feels alive, like it would continue with or without me.
This show-don’t-tell attitude is even prevalent in the storytelling. While there are a few exposition dumps early on, and lots of characters to talk to, I’ve learned more about this version of Hyrule simply from exploring. Breath of the Wild is set amidst the ruins of a once-great civilization. Without spoiling too much, the kingdom of Hyrule was beset by a great evil a century before the events of Breath of the Wild, and in the game the land exists in a state of beautiful decay. You’ll encounter ruins scattered across the land, and the remains of some kind of robotic guardian creatures. (The similarities to Horizon Zero Dawn, another recent open-world game, are noticeable.) Small villages have survived, but they’re few and far between. Early on, most of the details are unexplained, leaving you to piece together what Hyrule may have once looked like.
Breath of the Wild is a huge game, and ultimately five hours will be just a small chunk of my much bigger experience. But the intro makes a great first impression. It still feels like a Zelda game — swords, goblins, treasure chests, and quests — but it modernizes the adventure, and cuts out most of the tedious hand-holding that dragged down more recent Zelda adventures. And by moving forward with the series, Zelda gets back to the essence of its past.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launches March 3rd on Nintendo Switch and Wii U.