23. Is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild the Perfect Zelda Game?
I’m going to take a short break from blogging about coding and writing today. Instead, I want to talk a bit about video games, both for people who like them and for people who don’t (and eventually get to the topic of the latest Zelda game).
I first played a video game when I was about seven years old. Some of the other neighborhood kids I knew had Game Boy Colors (this was the late 1990's), which introduced me to the existence of these devices that could play pretty complex games on little cartridges you could buy from your local retail store. As it turned out, my dad already owned a Game Boy (the original, big gray brick variety), which he had used to kill time, apparently, while serving in the Gulf War. He had Super Mario Land, Wheel of Fortune, Tetris, and Double Dragon for me to try out when I caught sight of it tucked away in his desk drawer, so for the steep price of $0, I got in on this new world of video games.
Back in my day, young whippersnappers, the gaming screens were black and green!
Since Game Boy was the first gaming device I could ever call my own, and I liked it a lot, I was naturally inclined toward Nintendo games (this is often how I make decisions: if I get a company’s product and like it, I keep buying from that company in future; if I get a product and don’t like it, I don’t buy from that company again. Hasn’t led me wrong yet). One thing led to another, and I became a fan of game series like Pokemon, Mario, Metroid, Super Smash Bros., and my very favorite, The Legend of Zelda.
I’ve owned some PlayStations, mainly to play Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, Infamous, Uncharted, and Metal Gear Solid. I’ve played some Xbox games with friends. But to this day, I always feel like I have more fun with Nintendo games, the very best of which, in my opinion, seem to have the most polished and immersive gameplay in the world. They’re often light on story, but in video games, a simple, mostly-visual story is often the most effective kind.
The Super Mario Galaxy games told a compelling story in very few words.
I sometimes convince myself that I’m going to outgrow video games, probably because old people like to tell young people that video games are for children and I sometimes take that advice (almost) to heart. It’s resulted in me making some stupid decisions, like selling my game consoles that I end up wanting back later.
But here’s the deal: I don’t think video games, as a mode of entertainment, are “for” any one particular age or “just for kids” any more than Disney movies are “just for kids” or literary books are “just for old people.” Yes, childish people yelling at their Call of Duty game gives video gaming as a whole a bad name. But then again, one could argue that reading trashy romance novels gives reading a bad name, or watching Transformers gives watching film a bad name. And yes, there are many examples of people who are too addicted to video games for their own good. But again, this phenomenon is not exclusive to video games; Netflix binge-watchers (and the very fact that you know what that is) are a prime example of how people can get addicted to all sorts of entertainment forms.
This is a stereotype, but like all stereotypes, they have to come from somewhere.
The difference is that video games are still a very new medium (home consoles have only existed for 30–40 years or so, and if that doesn’t sound young, think about what films were like 30–40 years into their existence). This presents two problems: one on the part of the consumer and their misconceptions, and one on the part of the industry and how it presents itself. The issue underneath the two is that both problems must change to make video games appeal to everyone.
Because video games are new media, old people don’t understand it, don’t care to try to understand it, and therefore don’t like it, the inverse of young people. Social media, rock music, rap music, home television, and movie theaters have all followed similar trajectories. New media often pushes boundaries because artists like pushing boundaries, but whether it’s goofy Snapchat filters, Grand Theft Auto telling a story that’s some hybrid of Breaking Bad, The Godfather, and Scarface through a video game you control, AC/DC singing about sex, or Elvis hip-thrusting on TV, the problem is not that the new media will “corrupt our youth”; the problem is that people think it’s corrupting the youth.
On the flip side, the video game industry (particularly when it comes to home console makers as opposed to mobile/handheld devices) has had the most success selling to males in their teens and twenties, so it continues to present itself as a form of entertainment designed for that niche. There are probably a dozen first-person-shooters or more released every year, most of which are sequels because those are safer to make, the same way that every movie gets a sequel now whether it’s good or not, like Man of Steel. And as long as the industry thinks that that’s the most important market to sell to, the perception will persist.
The good news is that there have been huge strides forward in this area recently. Nintendo is often a pioneer in this area, for example; games like Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, and Wii Sports do anything but cater to the stereotypical young male gamer. Even their two most popular shooting-based game series buck the violently-kill-everyone-you-see trends found in Call of Duty, Halo, Killzone, Resistance, and Gears of War, one by being bright and colorful and family-friendly (Splatoon), the other by focusing on single-player exploration, building a compelling atmosphere, and fighting hordes of monsters rather than other people (Metroid Prime).
Metroid Prime is all about exploration and atmosphere, not about how many kills you can rack up online. Better yet, you can get all three games in the Metroid Prime Trilogy, with revamped Wii motion controls, for $20 (not per game, total) on the Wii U eShop.
The other big shift in the industry, of course, is mobile gaming on phones and tablets. “Hardcore” gamers, as they call themselves, are often condescending about this area of the market, because it offers an “inferior” (re: different) experience from the gaming experience found on a home console. But between pick-up-and-play titles like Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, Words With Friends, and Jetpack Joyride, story-focused games like Old Man’s Journey and Broken Age, and more intensive games like Clash of Clans, Infinity Blade, The World Ends With You, and Fire Emblem, it’s clear that while mobile games must be controlled differently than console games to be effective, they are by no means a niche.
So what does all this have to do with my love of The Legend of Zelda and the latest title in the series, Breath of the Wild?
Breath of the Wild is f***ing awesome, that’s what.
My theory is that more people would enjoy and appreciate video games for their puzzle-solving, the skill required to master many of them, and, believe it or not, the cost per hour of entertainment they offer (relative to going to the movies or paying for cable) if they were 1. eased into the complexity of how the controls work in modern games, and 2. experienced more games that were not designed solely for young men. Nintendo attempted this with Wii Sports, and was hugely successful, at least when it came to actually selling the console (they sold over 100 million units, making the Wii Nintendo’s bestselling home console ever). The problem is that they failed to bridge the gap between Wii Sports players and the more experienced gamers who got a Wii for Zelda and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, meaning many people who bought the Wii didn’t actually buy any games for it since Wii Sports came in the box.
Of course, Wii Sports is roughly as simple to play as your average mobile game. You tell the game you’re actually throwing a bowling ball or swinging a golf club with a button or two, but otherwise the controls are based entirely on gestures. Mobile games, similarly, rely exclusively on swipes, taps, and presses to be controlled.
So how do you transition from there to the more complex games? In the case of Nintendo games, I think the solution lies in the past, and the mobile games I mentioned before.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, to a longtime fan, a hardcore gamer, or both, is an absolute masterpiece of a game in every sense. Don’t let the people complaining that they don’t own a Wii U or a Nintendo Switch distract you (because game consoles are generally a better value after a few years of building up their library, I have the Wii U version and don’t yet own a Switch). Don’t let people who haven’t played the game deter you by pointing out that every weapon in the game except the Master Sword breaks quickly (you get so many, and can stockpile so many, that I never ran out of things to hit people with between the beginning and end of the game simply by exploring, and while I did sometimes wish the game was more forgiving about repairing broken weapons, it made the gameplay challenging in a fair, interesting way). It combines many disparate elements from past games (the sprinting, jumping, and platforming is from Skyward Sword; the ability to use enemy weapons is from Wind Waker; the truly open-world, go-wherever-you-please approach, and the old man giving you guidance, is from the original Zelda, and more recently A Link Between Worlds; and the horse-riding is most similar to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess). It also improves on each of these things. It takes some inspiration from other big adventure games, like The Elder Scrolls and Fable, but maintains (and even improves upon) the simple love of exploration Zelda games of the past have often engendered, which can sometimes get drowned in dialogue-heavy narrative. It has a great video game story, which is to say it’s more compelling because it says little. Honestly, if I were to recommend any one video game, of any kind, to anyone, it would be this game. Playing it absolutely blew me away, and while I’m a huge nerd playing through the whole darn Zelda series right now (I’m working on The Minish Cap, which so far has been a lot more fun to replay than Skyward Sword), I’m certain I’ll love playing through it a second time.
None of that matters, however, if you look at Breath of the Wild and see a game that’s way too complicated for you to understand. What you need to recognize is that video games got to where they are now–controlling your character with one control stick, controlling the camera with another, controlling camera lock-ons and weapons that shoot people with trigger buttons, and controlling jumping, talking to other characters, and weapons that slice people with the buttons on the face of the controller–through a ton of trial and error over several decades of development. The jump to 3D environments made games significantly more complicated.
Therefore, my proposition to people who are interested in getting into more complex games but feel a bit overwhelmed by them is to play them after playing an older or more traditional game in the series. Breath of the Wild is a hardcore game, both in how it controls and how difficult it is. A better starting place, therefore, is one of these three titles: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Minish Cap, or A Link Between Worlds (A Link to the Past, a great classic game but probably the hardest of the three, is an $8 download for the Wii U or 3DS; Minish Cap is $8 for Wii U, and probably the best if you own a Wii U but not a 3DS; and A Link Between Worlds, which is maybe the best option because it’s the newest, is $40 on 3DS).
I mention these because they’re all two-dimensional games, meaning the camera is always fixed overhead rather than being manipulated by the player, taking half the difficulty away right off the bat. Additionally, they all have reasonably steady learning curves, teaching the player how to play while they play. Lastly, they are all super fun!
From there, I would probably advise trying Ocarina of Time in its 3DS remake incarnation, or Wind Waker or Twilight Princess in their Wii U incarnations, because all three are easier games (they get tough toward the end, but have very gentle learning curves). From there, you’d probably be ready to play Breath of the Wild–and appreciate it more because you’ve seen a bit of what came before it.
Why am I even writing this? I suppose because I had an amazing experience with Breath of the Wild, the sort of experience people love to tell other people about (like when you saw The Dark Knight or the last season of Breaking Bad). But I recognize that to appreciate the game the same way I do, it is probably advisable to get a feel for Zelda as a series and get your feet wet in video games. Many people who will enjoy, or already have enjoyed, Breath of the Wild already have this experience, of course. But that feeling of sheer, unlimited, open adventure and exploration and fun that this game brings… I would encourage anyone interested to give it a try.
Originally published at www.danrice.me.