What Makes Breath of the Wild Amazing Isn’t Just Its Mechanics
The latest Zelda title, Breath of the Wild, has received widespread acclaim. Anyone who has seen any of its gameplay will know that it’s well-deserved. It’s a formative title that changes the series’ landscape and modernises the RPG’s structure for a new console. For all the success of the game’s core mechanics, these are not what makes Breath of the Wild amazing.
Breath of the Wild borrows tropes from all console Zelda titles. It is the embodiment of Nintendo’s marketing claims that the Switch includes parts of every other console. Some of these includes, such as those from Wind Waker, determine the design of the world. For example, the inclusion of the Rito and Korok.
Other games, however, contribute something less tangible. Majora’s Mask gives Breath of the Wild the greatest gift: it informs the narrative and tone.
If there is one element that needs applauding in the game it’s the Champions. The Champions are four warriors from each major race in Hyrule: the Zora, Gorons, Rito, and Gerudo.
Their role in the war was to pilot Divine Beasts – mechanical animals empowered to defeat Ganon. More so than Zelda, these Champions tie the game’s timeline together and engage the player at an emotional level.
Everyone Faces the Same Problem
For other console Zelda titles, the different tribes all face challenges that Link resolves by clearing a dungeon. Although they live in the same land, each tribe faces a unique challenge.
In Ocarina of Time, the Zora are troubled by Jabu Jabu’s unusual behaviour. The Gorons to the east are imprisoned by Volvagia in the Fire Temple. Even closer in proximity, the Kokiri are overrun by monsters from the Forest Temple. Sure, Ganondorf’s evil binds them together but these are very distinct problems.
The same is true for Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. Although in Majora’s Mask one could argue everyone is worried about the moon I’m taking the poisoned swamp or the perpetual winter as the primary issues.
Consider Breath of the Wild. Calamity Ganon and has impending return is everyone’s focus. The disruptions caused by the corrupted Divine Beasts (such as Vah Naboris’ sandstorms and Vah Ruta’s rain) are secondary.
The Zora king asks us to stop the rainfall, of course, but he understands that we need the Divine Beast more than we need the rainfall stopped. Each tribe is in tune with Link’s ultimate quest: defeating Ganon.
We See How Hyrule Has Evolved
The events of Breath of the Wild take place across 100 years. Various characters describe Link and Zelda’s defeat at the hands of Ganon 100 years ago and try to make sense of Link’s resurrection. Because the game takes place over such a long period of time, we can see how the events of the past are impacting the Hyrule of the present.
For example, the Zora’s loss of Mipha, their Champion, hangs in the air of Zora’s Domain. It builds distrust of Hylians among a section of the population. The king speaks with an air of sorrow masked by duty. The prince needs to prove himself to fill his sister’s place as his people’s defender. For the Rito, their warriors are prideful and determined. They reject outsider help to face the imposing Vah Medoh. There is a sentiment that they must train to honour their Champion, Revali.
Like we’ve seen before, the races tend to stay away from one another. We venture into the desert to see the Gerudo and the ridgelands to see the Rito. Sure there’s the odd Goron trader wandering about but, by and large, they stand apart. This is pretty ordinary for other Zelda games but Breath of the Wild changes one important piece. Each species is acutely aware of the happenings in greater Hyrule.
This awareness shows us that these tribes inhabit the same world. No longer do we pass through a loading screen to what could be a parallel universe. We know, because Impa tells us, that the five big societies in Hyrule cooperated 100 years ago. There was some degree of togetherness.
Combining this knowledge with their continued awareness of what’s going on outside their walls, we can easily see Ganon’s impact. His victory splintered the factions of Hyrule. It sewed discord among the ranks and split them up.
The four Champions are the focal point of these narrative changes. They are among the few characters with voiced lines. Each of them is a fully realised character. Memories that players find throughout their adventures detail the relationship between the four Champions, Link, and Zelda. Two of them in particular change the scope of Breath of the Wild’s narrative. They are the Zora Champion Mipha and the Gerudo Champion Urbosa.
Breath of the Wild achieves what Skyward Sword wanted to do. We fight Ganon because it’s the objective of the game. Urbosa and Mipha give us a reason to fight; they give us something worth fighting for.
Their presentation is the game is emotional and evocative. It’s poignant unlike other broad stroke attempts at emotional relevant (see: Saria in Ocarina). The voice acting is supremely well done. It’s touching. It gives the player a reason to care about characters outside of the big three.
The Champions and their relationship to the Ganon Blights transform the game’s defining narrative. It’s not a story about good vs. evil but a story about redemption. Especially for Urbosa, there are feelings of failure. As Champions, they should’ve been strong enough to stop the Great Calamity.
Link’s arrival signals a chance for them to atone for that failure. Setting the Champions free from the Ganon Blights lets them engage Ganon once more and complete their mission. It’s not their deaths that matter so much as what they need to achieve.
Nothing symbolises this point as much as their speeches atop the Divine Beasts in the cut-scene following the bosses.