I'm a pretty big fan of the 3D Zelda games, but there's no denying that the last few entries have had major pacing issues. Twilight Princess boasted some of the best-in-class dungeon design and a beautiful overworld teeming with secrets, but its pacing was a disaster. Searching for evil bugs (or whatever) as Wolf Link for half an hour upon reaching a new area was always tedious, and the game's overlong tutorial (meant to teach players how to use the brand new—and sort of terrible—Wii motion controls) meant that it was hours before getting into the good stuff.
Skyward Sword, which also had brilliant dungeons and fantastic overworld interactions, was infamous for its slow opening hours and aggravating pop-ups with every collectable (even the hundredth time after you collect a cool beetle, you'll get the message). Even Wind Waker, my co-favorite 3D Zelda (along with Majora's Mask) has a rough start: your first time through the Forbidden Fortress absolutely sucks, and Dragon Roost Cavern (the first 'proper' dungeon) is about as close to a paint-by-the-numbers Zelda dungeon that there is.
But Breath of the Wild throws out all of the pacing issues that have plagued the otherwise brilliant series, by allowing the player to do everything at their own pace. You almost never have to be in one place, or doing one thing. Bored? Frustrated? Maybe you want to mess around? Feel free, my friend. Cut down that tree, and see what was jumping around at its base. Stumble upon a Korok puzzle or twelve. Count the ways you can kill moblins with a bomb and a well-placed boulder. You never want for fun and interesting things to do in this world.
And if you ever do feel roadblocked (certainly, there are some places where the right foods or gear will help you stay alive longer), it's ok to just run around and find something else.
It doesn't hurt that the onboarding is brilliant and subtly self-directed. Instead of forcing you to do menial tasks in a village for two hours before letting you start in a beginner dungeon, the game lets you do whatever you want in the Great Plateau. Learn to cook, climb some trees, fight some monsters, and tackle the four shrines (bite-sized puzzle dungeons) in any order you like. Then, you get the tool you need to go… almost anywhere in the world.
In previous Zelda games, you have a specific place to go—and other areas of the game are gated based on abilities or items you acquire in the main progression. This allowed the best parts of the best games to shine, putting the player in a beautiful flow state: solve this puzzle, kill this monster, get cool item, explore cool new area, rinse and repeat. But those high highs got bogged down with busywork and padding in between the good stuff. The lulls between the action got stale. Wind Waker mitigated this with its own open ocean and dozens of islands to explore, but Breath of the Wild expands tenfold (perhaps more?) on that scope.
Here, there are no bad choices. The overworld is an infinite story generator—a collection of systems and moments and beautifully designed geography that is always fun to get lost in. You can die in a million completely awesome ways. Instead of gating rad items in the late game, I had bomb arrows, ice arrows and fire arrows just by running around the world for a few hours. I climbed a mountain in a jungle and found mighty bananas and mighty durians, and cooked them into a way-past-my-level in the game dishes. In my dozen or so hours in the game, I've barely touched the main story content (though I like the memory-based approach), instead preferring to hunt down the shrines.
The shrines are the other half of the perfect pace equation. Instead of packing a dungeon full of puzzles and enemies (though the larger dungeons do exist, in limited quantity), shrines offer perfectly bite-sized dungeon puzzles. Some are combat-based, but most are full of the juicy core that I personally play Zelda games for: puzzles. They're never too hard, and often enough, they offer several solutions. Based on physics or 3D spatial reasoning or light platforming, or a smattering of all three, they are extremely fun to mess around with and figure out.
Even my girlfriend, who typically hates puzzles in games, is enjoying the shrines because they don't overstay their welcome. They introduce an idea: use magnetism to manipulate a giant glowing ball, hit switches in just the right order to travel to a faraway gate, etc., iterate on that idea once or twice and that's it! You get an orb and a pat on the back and you're on your way again in the bright, open world.
The overworld is an infinite story generator
No padding. No cruft. Just the best part (for me) of a style of game I enjoy, sprinkled liberally throughout a world that's actually fun to explore. There are apparently a hundred shrines in this world, and goddamn if I'm not going to try to find every last one.
Naturally, by making the game so digestible, I'm going to end up playing more hours of it than… well, than pretty much any other game of its scope this year. I'll bet a silver rupee on that.
Disclosure notice: the linked piece was written by my girlfriend, we are playing the game and dying in many spectacular ways together.