E3 has been and gone for 2016, the LA expo of everything big and shiny and most likely destined to go absolutely nowhere in the video gaming world having wrapped over a fortnight ago. But it was only yesterday, July the 5th, that the winners of the "Best of E3" awards were announced, nods of appreciation spread across several categories, voted for by a host of attending critics (myself amongst them). I don't know if anyone receives a physical something for coming out on top, but I do know that 2016's overall "best in show" game isn't one you'd necessarily have predicted before the show started.
Nintendo, accurately acknowledged to be trailing in a distant third place in this generation's games console race, commercially at least, with the company's Wii U system several million sales behind the units shifted by Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's market-leading PlayStation 4, took only one game to E3. While their hardware rivals had huge presences in the main halls, showing off a wealth of new games, both heavyweight triple-A affairs and smaller, independently made titles, Nintendo's booth was dedicated exclusively to the next Legend of Zelda entry, Breath of the Wild. It was a bold move. But it's this stunning-looking, open-world action RPG, featuring the series' trademark dungeons and obstacle-overcoming gadgets, that's taken the E3 critics' top prize of "best in show".
And as someone who was there for the three full days of E3, and every one of the lead-in conferences, I can totally understand how it's come out on top. The buzz for the game at the LA Convention Centre was palpable, and the queue to get your hands on it – in its Wii U guise, as it'll simultaneously be released on Nintendo's next-gen console, provisionally (at least) called the NX, next year – was incalculably epic (organisers had to close the line several times). If you were a critic without a prearranged appointment to see the game, you had to make do with fleeting glimpses of the inside of what was something of a Zelda-themed grotto, full of interactive elements and, naturally, many Wii U stations running a demo-style slice of the full game to come.
As well as the "best in show" award, Breath of the Wild also secured top place in the categories of "best console game" and "best action-adventure game" (but not "best RPG", which went to Square's September-due boyband roadtrippery of Final Fantasy XV). That's best console game, of any shown at E3, and there were hundreds of them on display. And Zelda's three wins makes it the most successful of any individual game at the expo, Nintendo tying with Sony for the most platform-exclusive awards, the latter seeing Horizon Zero Dawn win "best original game", God of War grab a special commendation for its visuals, and Batman: Arkham VR take the "best VR game" award.
While certain other long-running series fail to innovate from release to release, naming no names, this new Zelda is showing that one of the oldest digital dogs can indeed learn a few fresh moves. It might feel like a small point, but Breath of the Wild permits the player, as Link, to tackle its dungeons in any order they please, while the introduction of the "Sheikah Slate" – the tablet-like item that's hanging from his belt in promotional artwork – allows for the analysis of enemy information, the creation of maps and the ability to control both the movement of environmental assets and, ultimately, time itself. Link can climb vertical rock faces – there's no transitioning into them this time, as seen in the sublime A Link Between Worlds – and rather than collect hearts from overgrown grass and beneath gigantic clay pots to restore his health, this time out Link must gather food and cook himself a meal to top up said essential stats.
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I wonder if the Zelda series' habit of changing so much between instalments gets lost on those who don't play Nintendo games anymore, who perhaps never have given the company's slide from popularity since the Wii U's failure to come close to the Wii's 100-million-selling success. It's not like each game is a continuation of the one that came before it; each has its own quirks and progress-necessary systems to understand, and aesthetically they can differ wildly from one release to the next. During the Gamecube era, The Wind Waker's cel-shaded visuals weren't repeated for the next game for the same system, the notably grittier Twilight Princess.
And the games play incredibly differently from one another at that first level beneath the run-and-thwack-and-collect-stuff surface, too. The Wind Waker's flooded world requires a ship for travel and item retrieval – a sentient one at that, the King of Red Lions – and Link discovers a magical wand for controlling the direction of the wind, allowing him to fill the boat's sail however he pleases. In Twilight Princess, exploration is largely limited to two opposing realms, one dark and the other light, and on entering the corrupted, twilight version of Hyrule, Link becomes a wolf, leaving behind his tools of sword and shield for primal biting and clawing.
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Breath of the Wild's home console predecessor is 2011's Skyward Sword, a title built around the waft-it-about-the-room functionality of the Wii's MotionPlus controller. With the Wii U's native GamePad controller to consider, it's natural that the next Zelda's playing nothing like what came immediately before it; but by making the gameplay work equally well on a more traditional Pro Controller as it does the second-screen tablet-like lump that Nintendo itself has spectacularly failed to make the most of, it's clear that Breath of the Wild's development team has perhaps always earmarked this for a dual-platform release.
And Nintendo has also recognised something that no other console maker can ever feel assured of in 2016: everyone who owns a Wii U, around 13 million people worldwide, desperately wants this game. They did before its E3 showcase, and now they do more than ever. I mean, just look at it in motion. It's beautiful. The look of this game is something else, recalling the bright colours of Wind Waker but with a distant-horizons scope that's more in keeping with Skyrim, or The Witcher 3.
Watch 90 minutes of 'Breath of the Wild' gameplay, via IGN
And that it plays wonderfully too, evidenced by its E3 awards success, as good as seals the already-as-good-as-triple-signed deal. It might well be the last proverbial hurrah for a console that's struggled to impress its identity on a commercial-centre gaming audience that shies away from singular control schemes, and towards third-party-developed shooters and sports sims that Nintendo has largely failed to bring to the Wii U. But Breath of the Wild also looks like being an out-the-blocks killer app for the NX. It will be a system seller, a pre-order magnet.
And that's so needed, if Nintendo is to return to being a power-player in contemporary gaming. In terms of precedent for what could follow, the NX debuting with a terrific new Zelda game bundled beside it beats the shit out of the Wii U's coincided coupling with a tired-looking 2D-plane Mario outing, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved and Epic Mickey 2. Perhaps it's misty nostalgia swaying objective reason, but having grown up through the NES and SNES eras, and seen the N64 and Wii break new ground for how we interact with these creations, I'd hate for the coming generation of games enthusiasts to not have their own Nintendo moments. This is a company, an institution, so interwoven with the story of gaming's ever-shifting evolution that for today's kids to not have a connection with it, because their dads or older siblings, friends or relatives or whoever, considered the Wii U to be a piece of crap, would be tragic. The Wii U wasn't crap, not that it's gone yet, just poorly communicated; but that's beside the point now, as in sales terms it's flopped. But Breath of the Wild's critical approval and towering buzz stand as pronounced signs of a Nintendo comeback.
The console wars of right now might have beaten the House of Mario, but it's preparing for an almighty push come the ninth generation of games systems. If the NX has just a couple more big-hitters like Breath of the Wild when it reaches market, more third-party support (Ubisoft and EA appear to be on board) and its sales patter isn't as confusing as the Wii U's was – is this a new system, or something that simply plugs into what we already have, and so on – it'll be a serious contender beside Xbox's Project Scorpio and whatever Sony's Neo proves to be. We'll hopefully learn more about the NX when the Tokyo Game Show takes place in September. Until then, consider this critic suitably hyped for what could be Nintendo's return to console greatness.
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