The Switch launch game set a new standard for the Zelda series by bucking decades of conventions.
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The Nintendo Switch is celebrating its third birthday this month, which means it's also the third anniversary of the system's marquee launch game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild--an exquisite open-world adventure that remains, arguably, the best title in the console's library. Much of Switch's early success can be attributed to Breath of the Wild, as it gave the unorthodox system an enticing must-have experience from the outset, but perhaps even more importantly, the game was responsible for breathing new life into the beloved-but-aging Zelda series.
Before Breath of the Wild arrived, the Zelda franchise was in something of a rut. The series had spent the past two decades struggling to step out of the monolithic shadow cast by Ocarina of Time, which is still widely regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made. Ocarina's influence on the medium cannot be overstated. In the burgeoning days of 3D gaming, when many developers were struggling to bring their franchises into the third dimension, Ocarina was a landmark title--a sprawling adventure that seamlessly reimagined the world of Hyrule and set the standard for all action-adventure games that would follow.
Since then, the specter of Ocarina of Time has loomed inescapably over the Zelda series. Producer Eiji Aonuma often expressed an Ahab-like fixation on surpassing the game. "[The goal of] every title I have worked on...is to go beyond Ocarina of Time and create something greater than that," he said back in 2010. Two years prior, he told Nintendo Power:
"I'm happy that a title I worked on some time ago [Ocarina of Time] remains highly praised to this day, but that also shows how none of the subsequent games in the series have surpassed it. As someone who is still working on the series, I have mixed feelings about that. Because I haven't yet surpassed it, I can't quit."
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And yet, Nintendo's attempts at surpassing Ocarina of Time often amounted to simply replicating it. Every 3D Zelda game that would follow (with the exception of Majora's Mask) used the same rough template as Ocarina. Link begins his adventure in a sleepy village in some remote corner of the world, retrieves three ancient relics from elementally themed dungeons, acquires the Master Sword, and plumbs another handful of dungeons before finally confronting the evil antagonist (usually Ganon). Each game mixed up the formula slightly by introducing a unique gameplay wrinkle (motion controls, sailing, lycanthropy), but the underlying structure remained essentially unchanged for more than 20 years.
With Breath of the Wild, however, the developers no longer concerned themselves with replicating Ocarina of Time. This liberated their creativity from the bounds of convention, and empowered them to explore new ideas and discard old ones, no matter how entrenched they had become in the series by that point. No convention was sacrosanct. Ideas that had seemed inconceivable for a Zelda game (such as Link jumping freely without the aid of an item, or degradable weapons) became core components of the gameplay, while long-standing elements were tweaked or outright jettisoned. The result was not only the freshest Zelda game since Ocarina, but one of the boldest and most ambitious titles Nintendo has ever produced. There's a good reason Breath of the Wild is one of the few games to earn a rare 10/10 from GameSpot.
Another notable aspect about Breath of the Wild is that it will be one of the few Zelda games to receive a direct sequel starring the same Link. We don't yet know when that title will arrive or even how it'll continue the story, but that Nintendo decided to follow Breath of the Wild up with a sequel rather than an entirely new, unrelated installment, as it traditionally does, is further proof of how pivotal the game was for the series. It may have taken nearly 20 years, but Zelda has finally set a new benchmark to surpass.