Can Nintendo’s new Zelda game save the massive flop that is Wii U?
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the newest instalment in Nintendo’s biggest franchise, is out next year on the Wii U and its still mysterious successor the NX console
In 2013, Nintendo teased the game which, everyone believed, would be the making of its Wii U console. It insisted that teaser was merely a tech-demo, but enraptured Nintendo fans paid little heed because it featured the character Link, which meant a new game in the Legend of Zelda series – Nintendo’s most revered franchise – was on the way. Three years on, at E3 2016, that tech-demo finally became reality: Nintendo devoted its entire booth to a single game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Never mind the fact that 2017, when Breath of the Wild arrives, is when Nintendo will cut its losses on the Wii U and release a new console, the ever-mysterious NX. The latest chapter of the Zelda franchise will run on both consoles, and at last is a reality. I have played it – luckily without having to endure the more than five-hour queue that E3 Show attendees had to negotiate. While I didn’t quite see enough to be able to assert categorically that it will be acclaimed as a classic like its predecessors, it certainly represents a considerable change-up, while oozing an irresistible level of charm.
The existence of two demos at Nintendo’s E3 booth reflected Breath of the Wild’s biggest innovation: it takes place in a huge, seamlessly traversable open world, which is a first for a Zelda game. Both demos, slightly frustratingly, were time-limited and took place in the same part of the game-world, which Nintendo says corresponds to about 1 per cent of the game’s entire surface area. One demo was focused on exploration, introducing a number of new game mechanics, while the other gave a glimpse of the early parts of Breath of the Wild’s storyline. Both revealed a gorgeous, stylised cel-shaded world – stalked by a teenage, rather than boyish, Link – in which it was possible to pick out wildly differing, but always easy-on-the-eye, environments.
It makes sense to start with the storyline demo, since it clearly marks the very beginning of the game. Link wakes up (wearing just shorts to hide his modesty) in the Shrine of Resurrection, where he acquires a tablet-like object called the Sheikah Slate. Exiting, he finds some clothes in chests, and a mysterious female voice lets him know that he is the last hope for saving the world of Hyrule (in fairly classic Zelda fashion). After encountering an old man – seemingly the only sympathetic character in a world whose buildings are all ruined and reclaimed by nature – the voice guides him to a pedestal into which he inserts the Sheikah Slate, raising a number of towers across the land.
The mysterious voice explains he has been asleep for a number of years, and that Hyrule is in the malevolent grip of a “beast”. This creature has only been contained by the magical properties of Hyrule Castle, which Link can see from the top of the nearest tower, but is on the brink of escaping and destroying Hyrule. The old man explains that the beast is called Calamity Ganon. Thus another epic world-saving quest begins.
In the storyline demo, to raise the towers, Link had to take out a number of Bokoblin enemies – at first with an axe, found embedded in a tree trunk, but soon with items such as a bow and arrows, and a basic sword, which they yielded. The exploration demo sees him already equipped with an inventory of such items, including a sword, a shield, a bow and arrows, plus bombs that can be thrown. I set about exploring and found some major changes to the long-established Zelda blueprint – although they all seem to make perfectly good sense.
This time around, for example, there are no health-restoring hearts to find. Instead, Link must find, cook and eat food to replenish health – I picked up apples and mushrooms and shot wild boar with arrows to yield meat. He can climb any surface too, although a stamina system means he is unlikely to make it to the top of a high cliff without slipping back down to earth. He can surf down inclines on his shield, as if it were a snowboard. He can climb trees or chop them down, and bash rocks with sword or axe, yielding resources – which, I was informed, can be combined using a crafting system. Combine rock salt and insects, for example, and you can make a health potion. Pressing the right stick equips his Sheikah Slate as binoculars.
Before getting hands on with Breath of the Wild, Nintendo showed an extended version of the trailer it has released for the game, which highlighted a number of other gameplay elements. For example, each item of Link’s clothing has different attributes, either offering more protection against incoming attacks or against the cold when he enters a snowy area. He has a backwards-somersault move called Flurry Rush, which takes him out of the range of attacks. He can also stagger enemies with a well-timed swing of his shield. Breath of the Wild also supports Nintendo’s Amiibo figurines: I was able to use one to summon a Wolf Link companion.
Strangely, given the impressionistic, Japanese woodblock-influenced art style, the game has noticeably plumped for a more true-to-life flavour of gameplay than its predecessors. For the first time, you have to use Hyrule’s resources to look after Link on a constant basis. Yet despite that, its controls feel comfortingly familiar to anyone who has ever played a Zelda game, and it has a Zen-like quality utterly in keeping with its visuals.
The two short demos of the game that Nintendo showcased left many questions unanswered. They didn’t, for example, contain any of the franchise’s famed puzzles, nor give any indication whether Link will encounter a significant number of allies, or populated villages and towns on his quest.
But it is clearly a very meaty game, which brings a more modern style of gameplay to the series, without sacrificing its core values – surely a recipe for great acclaim. Game director Eiji Aonuma is apparently an extreme perfectionist, and Nintendo fans will always feel a pang of regret that he wasn’t able to complete The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild faster, and thereby rescue the Wii U from an ignominious fate. On the other hand, it will give Nintendo’s NX console the best possible start in life.