not zelda

Zelda. There’s a new one. I finished it.
Here is my surely unpopular opinion on the matter.
Breath of the Wild isn’t Zelda.
It’s Skyrim with much better weapons, movement, and navigation. It’s Horizon Zero Dawn minus badass enemies or a world dripping with history. It’s The Witcher with beautiful particle effects but god-awful voice acting and a terrible story.
In other words, it’s another open-world sandbox RPG. A lot of people wanted exactly that. I don’t begrudge that desire. It’s a perfectly fine game. But it’s not Zelda.
I have three reasons for saying this: music, themes, and dungeons.
Zelda is nothing without its music. This has been true for every worthy entry in the series. Breath of the Wild is silent. Barren. You roam across vast plains and climb tall mountains to the tune of absolutely nothing. You stroll through towns while a faint tune drifts in and out, devoid of any worthwhile melody. What little music does appear is yet another rehash of the same melodies from Ocarina of Time.
Then there is the total absence of any musical instrument as a usable item – a constant in nearly every Zelda ever made. In particular, for Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, music is itself a central mechanic in both games. You use the ocarina everywhere. To teleport. To trigger events and quests. To solve puzzles. It marks your progression through the game. By virtue of playing the tunes so frequently, you instinctively memorize them, searing them into your brain as an explicit part of the experience.
More importantly, music is just omnipresent in Zelda, constantly playing, setting the tone wherever you are. The melodies are strong, unique, and memorable. It is not part of the background or periphery, but front and center at all times. You walk into a shop and hear a cheery browsing tune. You step into Zora’s Domain and it just feels like you’re surrounded by water. The Song of Storms feels hypnotic and cyclical like the windmill you learn it in. Epona’s Song evokes the warmth and devotion of a loyal steed. These songs are iconic and unforgettable. Zelda completely relies on its music to build its themes.
Every Zelda has distinct themes. Complete, immersive concepts, either to the whole game, or in parts and pieces within the game. Windwaker is a flooded waterworld where you sail everywhere and use a conductor’s baton to control the wind. There’s the light and dark world of Link to the Past where every object in the game has a demented counterpart. Majora’s Mask is obsessed with time, and everything is in service to the manipulation of the days and understanding of schedules and routines. And of course, Ocarina of Time’s child/adult paradigm.
As an aside, my favorite interpretation of Ocarina of Time is that it’s actually a coming-of-age story where a young, naive child goes on an heartfelt adventure, only to wake up as an adult and realize the world is a terrifying and chaotic mess.
There are no discernable themes in Breath of the Wild. People keep describing it as post-apocalyptic, but this is simply not the case. It is a lush, bright world where once in a while you come across unexplained mossy rubble and the same damn model of broken-down machines over and over. The tiny populations of Hyrule are all quite happy in their lives and seem to be carrying on with relatively little worry or internal conflict. There are some drones and robot spiders with lasers but mostly it is goblins and lizards. Oh, and there are fugly animal gundams piloted by ghosts.
Which brings us to dungeons.
One of the strangest facts about Breath of the Wild is that there are no caves. Not a single one. Barely even a crevice inside of a mountain. Yet, the story goes that Shigeru Miyamoto’s inspiration for the first Zelda was his childhood exploration of forests and caves, diving deep into mysterious and unknown territory not knowing what he might find.
At its best, that is exactly what Zelda’s dungeons provide. This sense of delving further into a labyrinth, not knowing what lays around the next corner, the uncertainty of where to go next, forcing you to study the map to make sense of what you might have missed or which room holds the key you need to go further, the excitement of finding a brand new item that will change the way you traverse the environment around you and the world as a whole. All set within the theme of the dungeon, which itself is a piece of the world’s theme.
The shrines and divine beasts in Breath of the Wild evoke none of this. They are austere laboratories that rarely challenge the mind, that offer no sense of mystery or curiosity, rarely providing meaningful rewards. They are a shallow, hollow parody of Zelda’s oldest feature, lacking tension, joy, or personality.
It seems unfair to skewer Breath of the Wild for this, because I would hardly praise Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, or the Windwaker for the quality of their dungeons. They often relied on contrived mechanics and useless, even comically stupid single-purpose items. But at least they tried. They knew that this is what Zelda is about, that no other game has ever successfully replicated.
Breath of the Wild is not a bad game. It is a good game with many merits and many flaws. But it is not Zelda.