Reviews - Updated on April 12, 2022

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Breath of the Wild has done something no other Zelda game has truly done: it has changed.

While the environment and visual style have changed in the past (this is especially evident in the case of Ocarina of Time with its successful transition to 3D), the fundamental nature of the gameplay in Zelda has remained unchanged for more than thirty years. Narrative plot (usually long); external world; underground; a growing set of tools given out for clearing dungeons in a strictly fixed order – these elements are in A Link to the Past, and in The Minish Cap, and in Wind Waker, although they all look and feel completely different.

And then you launch Breath of the Wild. Unlike the other titles in the series, this one takes you into modern day console generation Hyrule without a lengthy introduction. She generously opens the world before you, and does not give it away piece by piece: you cannot go to the lava dungeon without first going through the ice one!

Weapons are no longer rare artifacts that never change. It creaks, crackles and breaks like an ancient gearbox on a ’94 Honda Civic.

Ken Levine on Zelda
Underground adventures are intense, although they are completed in minutes. The world stretches for miles in all directions. At first you stick to the roads, but before you can blink, you find yourself in tall grass, then in the forest, and then you are racing a walrus through the desert in a desperate attempt to get away from a giant digging fish.

The pace is constantly changing, and the next step is not always obvious. You begin to believe that the essence of the whole adventure is not to do something, but to get lost. To forget about pressing matters and a few pleasant hours to do what you want.

Breath of the Wild combines Zelda’s timeless systems, combat mechanics, and incredible wanderlust. It mixes thirty years of design school with an advanced simulation engine to create a world where heat creates lift and chickens can fly. Clear, albeit rough, laws of physics allow you to solve puzzles and fight the way you want, and not as some game designer insists on it.

And all this, in my opinion, irreversibly changed Zelda.

Ken Levine on Zelda

Link fights a dragon in The Legend of Zelda (1986).

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo, or any of the other Zelda designers. But it seems to me that in creating this game, they, including Eiji Aonuma, not only gave a group of incredibly talented developers the keys to the thirty-year-old toy box, but also convinced the authors to break some of them.

I’ve never looked into the history behind The Legend of Zelda, but if it’s a game in 1985, it’s probably a bunch of young guys in some office park wanting to make something cool without a clue about how difficult it will be to make it all work.

A year ago, you were sitting in a room like that, exchanging ideas about a little elf with a bow, and then bam – after 365 days you give out the motherfucking “Zelda”!

Imagine what it’s like to watch Zelda grow into one of the most loved gaming franchises in the world. Now imagine someone saying, “Hey, let’s set fire to huge chunks of this venerable thirty-year-old design!”

Ken Levine on Zelda
I have no children. There are only games that I have worked on. They are strange offspring of love, created through the intellectual union of a specific group of people in a certain place. Looking Glass in 1997. Irrational Games in 2007. Ghost Story in 2017. Some people remember the first steps, the first words, the First Communion. I remember the stages of beta testing, recording sessions, studying bugs.

No one can look with peace of mind at how his offspring is in new hands and modified in a way that, perhaps, the author never intended. Why change it at all? Isn’t he perfect as well?!

The desire to return to past success beckons with terrible force. But the things we have created can sometimes become tombs in which we bury ourselves.

How not to be afraid that changes to a masterpiece will destroy its magic? And then an even worse fear whispers to you from the depths: “What if new people find a way to make the game better?”

It’s the fear of obsolescence. Because of him, we stop on the spot. And stagnation is the enemy of invention. And as long as there is a world where people have changed Zelda by adding or removing things to upset the alchemical balance of the series, I’m happy to report that development continues.

Ken Levine on Zelda
I can’t help but admire the people on the Breath of the Wild team. Not just their vision, but their willingness to experiment with a time-tested formula. It is easy to change just because change is necessary. It’s hard to do it right.

Breath of the Wild’s victory is multifaceted. She is visible in the verified direction. It can be heard in meticulous sound design, felt in perfectly tuned systems. But what makes it a masterpiece is that it is a link to our past, not a repetition of it.

Ken Levine is the creative director and co-owner of Ghost Story Games. He was the creative lead for BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and the lead designer for System Shock 2. His Twitter is @levine.

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