As a child, Shigeru Miyamoto explored the fields, forests and caves around his Kyoto home. He's got close to 30 years on me, but while I grew up with indoor hobbies very much available, from video games to VHS marathons via action figure throw-downs, I pretty much did the same thing.
There were fewer caves where I spent my pre-teen years, in a semi-rural part of southern England. But there were dense woods very close by, stereotypically rolling fields too, and friends and I would claim parts of them as our own, making dens, building BMX tracks and generally mucking about outdoors on our school holidays. Tykes and bikes is what we were: when we left home we didn't always know where we'd end up, but that was fine so long as we could remember our way back again in time for tea. It's no wonder, really, that adventure games have long been a favorite of mine, and I'm sure many readers had similar experiences, growing up.
Miyamoto took his childhood experiences of exploration and discovery and turned them into the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda, a game that presents the player with its hero and, rather than demand you follow a predetermined path, instead invites you to go anywhere you like. To set out as he did, with no map or compass to begin with—to simply see what was over that hill because when you're a kid, it really could be anything.
There were some restrictions imposed in The Legend of Zelda, but they were gentle, selective, and much of the map was open at the outset. Any completely closed-off areas were sealed until certain abilities or items were unlocked, affording the player time to raise the physical strength of the game's protagonist, Link, and practice his offensive prowess against the many opponents of Hyrule. One path through the game was very likely vastly different to the next, but everyone ended up in the same place: Death Mountain, and a confrontation with the series' most-famous embodiment of evil, Ganon.
The Zelda series has branched in various directions since then, ultimately following three distinct chronologies that loosely tie together when you go back into its lore far enough. The last home console release, 2011's Wii-exclusive Skyward Sword, was criticized for never truly letting the player loose to wander as widely as they'd like. And that's something that longstanding series producer Eiji Aonuma acknowledged when the time came to develop the next installment: this year's Breath of the Wild, for Wii U and Switch.
"From the start of development [on Breath of the Wild], we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world," Aonuma told Waypoint earlier in 2017. "That comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. A lot of people wished they could have explored the areas between the game's strongholds. Taking that on board, we wanted a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you could freely explore, without barriers imposed."
And how. The first couple of hours of Breath of the Wild will be spent on a plateau, and any attempt to leave prior to completing a handful of introductory quests will result in death—the drop down to Hyrule Field is simply too great for Link's legs to take. But even at its earliest stage, this Zelda is, just as the very first game did, extending the invitation to go wherever your feet take you.
It's discovery like Zelda hasn't really been for a while, and on a scale that's only become possible as gaming hardware's caught up with the concept.
You'll be asked to locate items to satisfy the demands of the first non-player character you properly meet—apologies for the vagueness here but, you know, embargoes—but there's no time limit imposed, and no set order for completing these tasks. And the plateau, while tiny in comparison to Breath of the Wild's full world map, is nevertheless a wonderfully varied place environmentally, with forests and open spaces sitting in the shadow of towering mountains. Ruins of the society that once ruled are littered across the land, a constant reminder that something truly devastating happened here. Something, no doubt, caused by that same (but not) Ganon.
And everything's connected, extending beyond the consistency of the world's locations and how they work beside and within each other. There is brilliant cause and effect, astounding actions and reactions. I'm not totally sure what I can and can't say about the systems operating under the hood of this visually gorgeous game, so I'll be as opaque as possible prior to the reviews arriving at the Switch's launch.
If you do something here, it can have immediate repercussions of the kind I've not seen in a game before—at least, not that I can easily recall. An accident in combat can exaggerate an already alarming encounter in ways that surprise delightfully while also making the situation all the more deadly. You'll laugh, only to then have to leg it, as an already dangerous foe finds itself a new way to beat on you. (Side note: Arrive prepared to die a few times, as Breath of the Wild can throw some formidable, albeit optional enemies your way, early on.) I wish I could say more, right now, because there is so much to talk about. I can't wait to be able to do so—this is that kind of game.
Atop the instant adventuring, the go-anywhere-immediately approach to on ramping players, there's another callback to earlier Zelda games: the way that Link stirs from his slumber, to begin this journey. It'll be hours before he, and in turn the player really realizes what's at stake here; and many more before you'll truly become the hero this world needs (and find that you-know-what weapon that the Hero of Time so often wields). And, throughout, you'll hear a voice, calling out to you—the words of Princess Zelda, who needs your help. It mightn't be deliberate on Nintendo's part (although, come on, it probably is), but that is straight out of 1991's SNES entry, A Link to the Past.
Whether they're conscious or not from a design perspective, these connections to both the very first Zelda game, and what is probably the greatest top-down installment of the series to date, lend Breath of the Wild a similar feeling to those grand excursions into the unknown—and to the experiences that fed into them.
Breath of the Wild is the ever-smiling Captain Toad crying out, as is his wont, "ready for adventure," but muffled into an indecipherable mumble, as befits the mostly mute protagonist of this franchise. It's Miyamoto pushing into the extremities of his neighborhood, seeing what there was beyond his doorstep, street and parent-imposed "go no further than there" restrictions. It's me coming across a small clearing I'd never found before and just sitting there a while, bike dropped casually onto the dirt, watching the sunlight filter through leaves taking a turn for the autumnal, thinking: "I'm hungry, I should probably get going."
It's discovery like Zelda hasn't really been for a while, and on a scale that's only become possible as gaming hardware's caught up with the concept. And that perhaps makes it the greatest realizing yet of Miyamoto's foundational vision: a game in which you can, and so often will, stumble across amazing things without a map. But while 1986's The Legend of Zelda was considered a miniature garden for people to play within, Breath of the Wild really does feel like an entire world of possibility. I'm still inching my way into it, yet to strike a real narrative rhythm or reveal more than 20% of the map; but I've already witnessed astonishing sights, met such colorful characters, and discovered so many hidden places that I just want more, more, more. It's shaping up to be a beautiful adventure.
'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' is released for Nintendo Switch (tested) and Wii U on March 3rd. Expect more words on the game on Waypoint, soon!