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Breath of the Wild concept art - image courtesy of Nintendo Village Breath of the Wild concept art - image courtesy of Nintendo Village

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The Mini-Map Doesn’t Matter: How Breath of the Wild Was Meant To Be Played

Breath of the Wild is a great game with or without the mini-map, but your experience will undeniably be richer, deeper, and more immersive in Pro Mode.

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Mini-maps have become an almost fundamental part of modern game design. The average mini-map nowadays shows you a detailed depiction of your surroundings, any interactable objects or landmarks, and a waypoint directing you towards your next destination. In an era where most gamers are playing with what limited time they have between work, mini-maps exist so as not to “waste” time — keeping gameplay’s pace ever-moving. But there comes a point where quality of life features start removing gameplay opportunities. From Ocarina of Time to Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda in particular has an interesting relationship with mini-maps that illustrates the medium’s growing reliance on the feature over time. 

Mini-maps as we know them were introduced to Zelda in 1998 through the series’ inaugural 3D title, Ocarina of Time. Given the depth and space a 3D environment occupies, it makes sense to give players a mini-map with which they can quickly orient where they are at a glance. The mini-map is tucked into the bottom right corner of the screen so as not to steal gameplay’s natural focus; is shaped like the overall area you are in; and is tinted in an inoffensive light teal. Link is identified by a yellow marker on the map, a red marker signifies where you entered the area from, and treasure chests will show up on the map if you have a dungeon’s Compass. Compare this to the original Zelda‘s approach to a mini-map: tucked into the upper-left corner, a single dot representing Link, and abstract enough where you’ll want to map out Hyrule yourself.

OoT’s mini-map tends to only steal focus in Hyrule Field and usually because the level design is flat enough where newcomers will need guidance. This is a problem the rest of OoT’s world and dungeon design avoids, using clear landmarks and visual cues to naturally guide Link. You can even disable it by clicking L anytime in-game. In many respects, Ocarina of Time got its mini-map just right on the first go: abstract enough not to spoil the level design and lacking in environmental details so your eyes stay where they belong. Majora’s Mask uses Ocarina of Time’s mini-map as is, making some minor improvements. Dungeons’ mini-map gameplay loop now applies to the overworld as regional maps must be purchased from Tingle and treasure chests are even marked outside of temples. 

Ocarina of Time and Majora's MAsk Mini-maps - image by Renan Fontes

One important distinction Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask have over later Zelda games is that the mini-map is completely unavailable inside of dungeons without the Dungeon Map. While a minor detail in the grand scheme of things, this gives the Dungeon Map greater in-game value. Likewise, Link isn’t represented on your map without a Compass. Fully unlocking your mini-map can be the turning point in a dungeon you keep getting turned around in. Likewise, locking the mini-map behind the Dungeon Map encourages players to familiarize themselves with the dungeon layout immediately. The mini-map only becomes a factor after getting a feel for the level design. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask recognize their mini-map not as quality of life, but as a viable gameplay tool. 

The Wind Waker’s mini-map undergoes a considerable amount of changes. Moved to the bottom left, the mini-map is now a square box depicting land in green and water in blue. The mini-map is disabled while sailing, but is no longer locked behind the Dungeon Map in dungeons. Finding a Dungeon Map simply shows you the rest of the dungeon. Otherwise, Link fills in the main map as he explores and you have access to the mini-map at all times. The fact the mini-map cannot be activated while sailing makes the Great Sea all the more immersive, but dungeons lose a unique element Ocarina of Time’s mini-map brought with it. The change seems to be purely quality of life driven, contributing nothing to gameplay other than added convenience.

Twilight Princess follows The Wind Waker’s easier design philosophy wholeheartedly, albeit tweaking its aesthetic to match Ocarina of Time. The mini-map is once again shaped like the area you are in, but now extremely detailed. Grass is colored in green, bodies of water in dark blue, and anything of note is in red. Like in TWW, Link is still depicted as a yellow arrow but leaves a teal marker instead of red where you entered an area from. Inside of dungeons, TP’s mini-map is depicted in a square box in the bottom-left. Outside, it sits center-left of the screen and has a bad habit of naturally attracting the eye away from gameplay. Like The Wind Waker’s mini-map, Twilight Princess’ gives away too much and offers little to make gameplay more compelling in return.  

Twilight Princess Wind Waker Skyward Sword Maps mini-map - image by Renan Fontes

Which is perhaps why Skyward Sword abandoned the mini-map altogether, relying solely on level geography and visual details to guide the player. Dowsing is technically supposed to direct you when lost or visiting a region for the first time, but the ability is completely optional in practice. More importantly, Skyward Sword’s level design is memorable enough where the mini-map is wholly unnecessary. Regions are carefully stitched together and dungeon-like in their progression. Puzzles, combat encounters, and an attention to worldbuilding make it very easy to explore Skyward Sword’s world without dowsing or a mini-map. Area maps are still available, but hiding them behind a menu encourages you to find your own path before consulting a map. 

While Skyward Sword’s level design is tight enough not to need a mini-map, it’s also worth keeping in mind that regions are relatively small in scope. Skyward Sword does not need a mini-map because the maps are not large enough to get lost in. Breath of the Wild’s massive depiction of Hyrule demands a mini-map by design, but Nintendo arguably went too far with quality of life features. BotW’s mini-map goes beyond offering mere help at a glance, detailed to a fault and potentially inferring gameplay more than environmental details. The only saving grace is that you need to actually earn each region’s mini-map by scaling their respective Sheikah Tower. 

Breath of the Wild’s mini-map is now a circle in the bottom right corner of the screen that doubles as a compass. Once the region’s tower has been activated, your mini-map shows you virtually everything in Link’s vicinity. Trees, roads, water, and geographical nuances are all depicted in a surprisingly amount of detail. Enter a town and your map will zoom in so you can see exactly where buildings or shops are located. Catch the attention of a Guardian and a red dot will pop up so you can keep track of them while hiding. Activate any quest and your map will trigger a golden waypoint for you to follow. There are also additional details tied to your mini-map — from time of day, to temperature, to the amount of noise Link is making, and a three-tier weather forecast. 

Breath of the Wild mini-map - image courtesy of Reddit

The lack of dungeons means no dungeon maps, but Breath of the Wild does have Shrines and Divine Beasts to fill the same functional role. The former removes the mini-map from the equation altogether (along with any Champion Abilities and Link’s climbing), while the latter opts for a redesign. Divine Beasts replace your mini-map with a fully rotatable 3D map shaped like the Divine Beast currently being explored. As far as Divine Beasts go, the mini-map actually feels warranted since puzzles all revolve around shifting the dungeon’s geometry to progress. On the other hand, BotW’s overworld mini-map offers too much ancillary information that could have been conveyed in abstractly or simply not at all. 

Mini-maps are not inherently bad, but they tend to obscure the best parts of their games: discovery and exploration. This can be seen occasionally throughout Twilight Princess. TP places its mini-map in a way where it naturally tries to guide you, stealing focus from the actual environment. All the information you need is a glance away, but convenience builds an overreliance. You no longer react to the elements as they happen, but prepare for them. Skyward Sword pivoted and avoided this fate, but Breath of the Wild embraces everything a mini-map can offer. There is little element of surprise to BotW’s world when your mini-map tells you everything you need to know from upcoming weather events to where you should go next. 

Breath of the Wild’s mini-map is undeniably convenient and makes exploring Hyrule a far smoother experience for those who need it, whether due to limited playtime or simply because the mini-map makes the game more fun for you. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask prove you can have a functional mini-map that isn’t aggressively loud with information. The more detailed a mini-map is, the more tempting it is to use it as your frame of reference — to watch the mini-map instead of the game. Hyrule as seen in BotW is denser than ever, but the mini-map actively fights for your attention and will teach you to rely on it if you let it. 

Zelda looking at Sheikah Slate mini-map - image courtesy of Zeldapedia

Nintendo seems to have understood how overbearing their new mini-map was on some level because Breath of the Wild features a Pro Mode feature that can be toggled on and off anytime. Turning on Pro Mode disables your mini-map, all of its associated information, and everything else on the HUD other than Link’s Hearts. Pro Mode helps you actually appreciate Hyrule’s level design and fundamentally changes how you go about exploring the overworld. Logic would dictate that an open world as massive as Breath of the Wild’s would demand a mini-map, but subtle direction guides you to key areas. You are never truly lost. 

Hyrule Castle in the distance marks the dead center of the map while Divine Beasts roughly sit in the country’s four corners (although not exactly). Tall Sheikah Towers draw you towards different regions, glowing bright orange and blue in the distance. Natural landmarks like mountains and waterfalls create memorable set-pieces when paired with the safe confines of a stable or dangerous enemy camp. The simple absence of the mini-map leaves you nothing else to take in but gameplay. You start noticing how different roads naturally lead you to civilization; how often Shrines are tucked away in their own little environments and not just randomly scattered; how the level design tries to funnel you from the Great Plateau to Kakariko, to Hateno, and then Vah Ruta as if BotW were any other Zelda game.

Pro Mode teaches you to pay attention to the world around you on a meaningful level. Before you know it, playing Breath of the Wild without a mini-map becomes second nature. Instead of relying on the mini-map, you are taught to rely on environment details or speak to NPCs for direction. You will be amazed at how often NPCs offer valuable information or simply keep their own sellable wares on hand. More importantly, NPC directions always take geography and travel logistics into consideration instead of just tossing a waypoint at you after some flavor text. Pro Mode prompts you to discover new things firsthand instead of letting you get lured by a mini-map.

Breath of the Wild Pro Mode - image courtesy of Tumgir

Unfortunately, playing without a mini-map highlights some flaws in Breath of the Wild’s design and the open-world genre as a concept. Towers make logical beacons for new regions, but their set-pieces are usually fairly easy to overcome and it’s easy to fall into the Ubisoft rhythm of just tracking down Towers to fill out the overworld. Hyrule’s natural level design almost feels at odds with how fragmented Sheikah Towers inherently are. An active effort is made to keep each Tower unique, but the gameplay loop becomes rote long before you activate each one. The fact you can go just about anywhere at once means the difficulty curve plummets after a few hours of exploration. Even without a mini-map, the convenience of fast travel is too tempting when you have over 120 different warp points to choose from. 

And by far the most damning fact, gameplay is simply more fun without the mini-map. Fully taking in your surroundings is possible when you aren’t compelled to glance at the bottom right of the screen every few seconds. Concentration goes unbroken without information overload. Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is deeply immersive to the point where every inch of the map has been given clear developmental purpose. Ride a horse and take in the sheer spectacle of each region as you hunt down your next destination on sight alone. Scale a mountain just to gain a vantage point and glide all the way down. Ignore all the data irrelevant to actually playing the game and just take in the breath of the wild. 

There’s no shame in wanting or relying on a mini-map. They became commonplace quality of life features for a reason. But not every game needs a mini-map and more developers should trust their level design. Nintendo did so with Skyward Sword only to backtrack with Breath of the Wild. Pro Mode definitively proves that Breath of the Wild does not need a mini-map. The convenience of the compass, weather gauge, and noise directionals are almost too nice to pass up, but this is all information that can be conveyed naturally in-game. Link will physically react if he is too hot or cold, stealth is not something that should be quantified through gameplay to begin with, and figuring out where North is requires you to do some mental mapping in relation to recognizable landmarks (of which there are actually many). Hell, turn the compass into an equipable item. 

Breath of the Wild Village - image courtesy of yamacparasutif

Mini-maps are a balancing act. The more detailed they are, the more tempting it is to stare at them for gameplay. Mini-maps are at their best when they live up to their namesake in the most literal terms. Ocarina of Time got it right immediately. Less is often more with game design. The oldest 3D Zelda games use the mini-map as a genuine gameplay tool, as if it were a real part of Link’s kit. With the exception of Skyward Sword, the newest downplay immersion and steal your focus. Breath of the Wild gets around its mini-map by including Pro Mode and featuring strong level design, but not every game shares this luxury. 

Breath of the Wild is a great game with or without the mini-map, but your experience will undeniably be richer, deeper, and more immersive in Pro Mode. It goes to show how something as simple as a quality of life feature can influence your relationship with a game’s world. Mini-maps can enhance exploration when used like a tool in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. BotW does gate mini-maps behind Towers to its credit, but the information offered is quite literally too good to ignore half the time. The mini-map stops being a tool and becomes a crutch to carry your gameplay. Few games commit to the sheer spirit of exploration as Breath of the Wild. Do yourself a favor and play BotW the way it was meant to be played: with Pro Mode enabled. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Vincent

    November 4, 2021 at 9:22 am

    Mini-maps are cancer

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