Breath of the Wild, the latest installment in Nintendo’s beloved Legend of Zelda series, has received basically universal acclaim since its release back at the beginning of this month. If the still-early reception were to crystallize today, it would go down as one of the most widely and ecstatically praised video games of all time. It is groundbreaking. It is a masterpiece. It is a cultural moment. It’s also ... kind of tedious and boring?
I feel a strange but real impulse—as a nostalgic lover of the Legend of Zelda series (and, yeah, of Nintendo itself) whose heart swells at the sounds of the Hyrule Field theme from 1998's Ocarina of Time—to apologize for this take. Truth be told, I want Nintendo, with its love of bright colors and sweet characters and fun puzzles, to reign supreme over a video-game landscape presently overrun by grim-and-gritty slaughter-fests geared to the dismal tastes of the sorts of ghouls who thought Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a good movie. And I want the Legend of Zelda series to be its flagship. Ideologically, but much more importantly as somebody who just friggin’ likes Link to the Past a lot, I want to be able to say, sincerely, that Breath of the Wild rules and is the best game ever made.
I’m sorry! It’s just not doing anything for me at all. I have not had a spontaneous impulse to play it in over a week, and had not had a spontaneous impulse to play it in nearly a week before that. Which is disturbing, because I’m only a few hours into the thing: Down off the tutorial plateau, across the first patch of wild Hyrule, through the canyon between the twin pointy mountains, past the horse barn and all the way to Kakariko Village, but still essentially in the same place where I started out, relative to the game world’s massive sprawl. This should be the most inviting time to hop on the sticks—when, if nothing else, the sheer novelty of the setting or the gameplay mechanics or both would draw me in. When I could set off in literally any direction and, within mere moments, be somewhere I’ve never been before, trying out game actions I haven’t come close to mastering yet.
Instead, the thought process goes like this: Hmm, maybe I could play Breath of the Wild? Or, on the other hand, maybe I could not spend an hour hopscotching between same-y Bokoblin and Moblin encampments scattered across a rainy, uninviting world mostly rendered in dreary, washed-out pastels, breaking and collecting innumerable disposable tools in what at this point seems like it’s mostly a pursuit of new apps for Link to download to his smartphone. Actually I will do the latter.
I ... I really don’t like it! For one thing, as a Legend of Zelda game, it is depressingly un-Zelda. Its Hyrule is a ruined post-apocalyptic place with small, sleek, uniform, and vaguely alien “shrines” in place of the grand, mysterious, diverse dungeons and temples familiar to the series. It is dotted here and there with laser-shooting robots. Link carries what for all intents and purposes is a glowing iPhone. It even takes photos! Contrary to the title, the world of Breath of the Wild does not feel like wilderness, as the Hyrule of 1986's original game and 1991's Link to the Past did, but rather like a decayed civilization, and one that was not all that great or appealing in the first place. It could just as easily not be a Legend of Zelda game at all; the early portions would lose nothing if the developers spent 10 minutes changing the principals’ names and hairstyles and called it friggin’ Fantasy Blade or some shit.
Which, actually, could be fine (I’ll get into why it’s not in a second): Breath of the Wild is its own game, and owes nothing to what anybody expects of it based on previous entries in the Legend of Zelda series, and Nintendo’s wild experimentation is one of the things that has made the series so great in the first place. The bigger problem—or, no, actually, its un-Zelda-ness is a pretty big problem, so let’s just say the other problem—is that, leaving the burdens of the series aside, taken just as a fantasy-adventure game, it’s ... not fun? Like at all?
At least in the early going, the flimsy, constantly shattering weapons and countless same-y Bokoblin camps provide an overwhelming disincentive to explore and try stuff out: The sight of enemies in the distance evokes an Ah crap, not more of this shit feeling, rather than an excited Let’s do this. In a practical sense, this seems like a pretty bad game- and/or story-building failure: The heart of an adventure game or story, after all, is the impulse to get out into the wild unknown and see what there is to see—to have an adventure. Breath of the Wild’s opening hours seem perversely bent on punishing that impulse. Oh, wandered off toward the horizon, did you? Time to throw away all the weapons in your inventory dispatching the same three Bokoblins you fought 90 seconds ago at an identical campsite in a different spot. Your reward for this intrepid venture? A chest with a useless fucking opal in it and three shitty, disposable wooden clubs, all of which you will shatter at the next Bokoblin camp, 90 seconds later.
(Or maybe you will use the GPS on Link’s iPhone to find a shrine! The shrine will contain no enemies, a single puzzle which you will solve in under three minutes, and a wrinkled mummy who will reward you with an orb you can maybe cash in for more stamina later. It will look pretty much exactly like every other shrine you have come across.)
In older Zelda games (most especially Ocarina of Time, of course), when a random NPC gave you a side-quest to do, it was a thrill: Anything to prolong your engagement with the rich, fascinating, mysterious game-world, and to make things better for the sweet and charming characters who lived in it. In Breath of the Wild, when the (very cute!) villagers in Kakariko Village offer me shit to do, my reaction, in all cases, is exasperation. “Fuck off, asshole! I’m not throwing away all these bullshit flimsy weapons I’m lugging around just to find some ingredients for your dumb ass!” But, the thing is, I don’t want to do the main storyline, either: It’s out there, in the sad pastel post-Ganon Hyrule filled with half-broken robots, where I will destroy what passes for the cool shit I found and groan my way through innumerable too-cute-by-half puzzles. What I want to do, in Breath of the Wild, is not play Breath of the Wild. Thankfully it allows me to do that, owing to its compatibility with my Nintendo’s off button.
My friends and colleagues who are loving Breath of the Wild respond to these complaints (I’ve made them indulge my mewling and qualming and handwringing more than once, bless them) by saying Yes, sure, these are problems with the early game, but it improves as you play your way into it, and if you stick with it long enough it’s just as magical and thrilling as any other Legend of Zelda game, if not more so. I believe them. The mistake is thinking that this is a recommendation of the game, rather than a criticism of it. Why would I play the game long enough to reach the good parts, if the experience of doing so is not fun? It’s a game! Is there some good reason why its developers couldn’t making its opening stages enjoyable too?
The irony, here, is that a supposed—and extravagantly acclaimed—difference between Breath of the Wild and all previous Legend of Zelda games is that this one opens the entire world of Hyrule and all its contents to the player pretty much right away: You can go anywhere, climb anything, fight any boss, find any item, from the moment you escape that opening plateau. Great! Now, for the first time, a Zelda game that does not make you unlock any of its goodies ... except, uh, enjoyment. Link to the Past made you find, and fight to earn, the boomerang. Breath of the Wild makes you find, and fight to earn, a rewarding game-playing experience. That’s not better! Actually it’s worse.
But also, at least so far, the strongest motivator to make use of the game’s radical openness is the hope that I can escape the repetitive drudgery and bottomlessly boring inventory management of the early going. That escape will always be easier by just switching the game off and finding something else to do; the reason to stick with Breath of the Wild, then, is the accumulated goodwill built up by its forebears. That lasted for all of around four hours, and got me to Kakariko Village, where I fear my poor Link will spend the rest of eternity.
To a certain extent, what has happened is, my life has become incompatible with the way Breath of the Wild wants to dispense its pleasures. I’m older than hell now, and don’t have much time to spend playing video games; in the average week, I play maybe five or six hours, spaced across three or four nights, after the kids have gone to sleep. A game in which an hour worth of play means grimly enduring a half-dozen same-y Bokoblin fights and a couple of dreary, empty shrines, spread across a world I don’t like, rendered in colors that kind of gross me out, in pursuit of what promises—if I Trust The Process—to become a magical and rewarding experience at some unknown point in the future, is not how I am looking to spend my limited game-playing time. But also: Why would that ever have been an appealing prospect? Maybe I’m just less of a sucker now? Or maybe Breath of the Wild just isn’t all that good.
In any case this definitely is the most depressing blog post I have ever written. I’m gonna go play Ocarina of Time on my kid’s 3DS to feel better. It delivers that right away.