The original Legend of Zelda lives and dies on a degree of freedom that’s often missing from the rest of the franchise. Link doesn’t need to grab the Wooden Sword at the start of the game; almost any dungeon can be done in any order; and players are expected to chart out Hyrule themselves thanks to an overworld map that only shows your approximate location outside of dungeons. Zelda’s freedom goes beyond matters of linearity. Players are free to fail, whether that be by running out of bombs and needing to restock, or making it all the way to Ganon without ever finding the Silver Arrows – rendering the final battle unwinnable. The Legend of Zelda as it was prioritized player freedom above all else.
Zelda’s love affair with so much freedom wasn’t meant to be, however, and the series would only become restrictive with time. Zelda II forces Link to visit each Temple in a set order; neither A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time open up until their second half, & only minimally; and the likes of The Minish Cap, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword are almost entirely linear. This doesn’t make them bad games, but it does mean the rest of the series is profoundly different from its originator. Even A Link Between Worlds – a game quite literally designed around reinjecting freedom into The Legend of Zelda – doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the original.
More than anything, the first Zelda’s freedom is rooted in a lack of direction. All players have to rely on is a manual that explains how to play and offers some early guidance. No one tells you to go get the Wooden Sword, how to get to Level 1, or that you even need to do the Levels in any coherent order. The dungeon numbering convention might as well be aesthetic, but it helps audiences understand when they’re sequence breaking, which in itself adds a greater sense of scope to the gameplay. You may have found Level 5, but where was Level 4? Virtually everything in The Legend of Zelda is meant to be found organically, with only level design leading the way.
Freedom in video gaming is more than just having a virtual playground to play in, it’s being able to stray off the beaten path and stay off the beaten path. Both Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker feature a wide array of side content in the vein of the first Zelda’s passion for exploration, but their stories demand linear progression. Moments of actual freedom are a break from the norm. Well done, but not truly reflective of their games’ pacing or world design. It wouldn’t be until Breath of the Wild where The Legend of Zelda would return to its freeform roots, albeit at a price.
At the expense of freedom, Zelda grew in different ways before Breath of the Wild. Dungeon order hardly matters when puzzles are allowed to incorporate items from earlier dungeons, building on previously introduced concepts and mechanics. You always know where to go, but the story can build urgency while developing characters and themes naturally. Even if the world restricts what you can do at any given time, in-game pacing just becomes more focused as a result. The Legend of Zelda’s diminishing freedom isn’t a flaw so much as it is a change in style. The real problem lied in a mix of oversaturation and overreliance on A Link to the Past/Ocarina of Time.
By Skyward Sword, the series became so focused on its storytelling that the game world had no choice but to be restrictive. Link realistically can’t go anywhere when the plot always needs him somewhere specific, often sandwiched between cutscenes that contextually can’t happen anytime else. Even the level design is restrictive, with the Surface divided into three segmented stages instead of a proper overworld like the Hyrules of yore. Breath of the Wild exists almost in defiance to the design philosophies Zelda came to embody, freeing itself of any restrictions.
Freedom Through Level Design
Even the series’ most open overworlds have been restrictive to some degree. The original Zelda’s Hyrule features several dungeons that can’t be completed immediately, The Wind Waker carefully paces out how The Great Sea opens up, and A Link Between Worlds’ exploration lives & dies on the game’s Rupee economy. Outside of a short tutorial on the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild features no such overworld restrictions. Hyrule in its entirety is actually explorable once the game begins in earnest. Link is immediately directed towards Kakariko Village narratively, but there’s no actual obligation to head there and BotW makes no attempts at slowing down a player’s progress if they ignore Kakariko altogether.
Compare this to Ocarina of Time’s early game where Kaepora Gaebora would try to redirect Link if he went somewhere other than Hyrule Castle before meeting Princess Zelda, or Twilight Princess which outright forces you to visit regions in a set order. From the Great Plateau, you can head southwest to the Gerudo Desert, northwest to the snowy Hebra region, northeast to Death Mountain, southeast to Lake Hylia, or straight north into Hyrule Castle to confront Ganon less than an hour into the game. No one ever tells Link to turn around, every single dungeon (including the last) can be your first, and there are no magic barriers cutting off Hyrule’s 15 regions. If you hit a wall in Breath of the Wild, just climb up it.
Through Open-Air gameplay, Link has never been more agile. Along with now being able to jump, Link can pull out his Paraglider mid-fall to glide over long stretches of land or land safely. The copious mountains and towers across Hyrule play into level design that incentivizes perpetual exploration. There’s always some landmark in the distance or something to explore in your vicinity. Climbing and gliding drain Stamina, but never so much where smart players can’t reasonably explore whatever they want right out the gate. It’s easy to get lost in the flow of adventuring, seamlessly crossing into a new area as the scenery changes around you. Every region in Hyrule is visually distinct, complete with its own local flora and fauna. Faron is a dense forest filled with ancient ruins, Akkala is lush with a vibrant color palette, and Tabantha is a tundra rich with wildlife.
It helps that Breath of the Wild packs Hyrule with 120 Shrines to uncover – ostensibly bite-sized mini-dungeons that focus on specific puzzle motifs and designs to be finished in a few minutes. Completing a Shrine rewards Link with a Spirit Orb, BotW’s version of Heart Pieces. Four Spirit Orbs can be exchanged at Goddess Statues for either a new Heart Container or Stamina Wheel, making Shrines one of the most rewarding things to find in the wild. You can stock up on Spirit Orbs for a massive payout all at once, find a Statue every four Shrines, or just leave them completely untouched.
Notably, climbing has no role inside of Shrines. Shrines actually downplay Open-Air gameplay, placing emphasis on Link’s Runes. Runes replace Link’s traditional tool kit, with every puzzle in the game design around them. Remote Bombs come in two variations – round & square – and can be detonated from afar. There’s no Bomb Bag to account for, with the Runes recharging after use. Stasis can freeze objects, and later enemies when upgraded. When frozen, anything players attack will go flying after Stasis breaks. Cryonis creates pillars of ice in water that Link can hop on, and Magnesis lets you control any & all metal objects.
Since all the puzzle Runes are obtained on the Great Plateau, there’s never a case where you enter a Shrine and don’t have what you need. Some are naturally harder than others and Trials of Strength can be demanding early on, but the average Shrine isn’t meant to be particularly challenging. At most, they’re brain teasers that test how well you understand Breath of the Wild’s unique gameplay engine. In-game physics are more reactive than they’ve ever been in The Legend of Zelda, where any little action can have a chain reaction: burning grass spirals out of control while creating gusts of wind and bomb blasts send enemies flying, ragdolling their bodies if they fall downhill. Shrines offer controlled environments where creative Rune use is taught, rewarded, and can then be applied in the overworld.
It should be pointed out that Shrines do something very rare for The Legend of Zelda, as well: prioritize quantity over quality. It perhaps goes without saying, but BotW’s 120 Shrines aren’t all on even footing. The best will make you take a few minutes to examine your surroundings and figure out how to do what you need to do, but not a single Shrine matches the depth of an actual mini-dungeon. Puzzles are simply too short and rarely ever expanded upon due to the non-linear nature of the game. When every Shrine can be your first, none of them can build off each other.
On the flip side, you always know what you’re getting into and never liable to get stuck. Breath of the Wild keeps players moving at a steady pace. If you see a Shrine, you hop in for a few minutes and get a Spirit Orb for your trouble. If you see a Tower, you climb all the way up and gain a vantage point for where you want to go next. If you find a town or stable, you’ll bump into side quests that’ll have you running all over Hyrule. BotW knows how to direct its audience. It may be at the expense of overall Shrine quality, but no other Zelda boasts as tight pacing as Breath of the Wild.
Freedom Through Pacing
Breath of the Wild’s pace is player-driven above all else. As mentioned, Link is directed to Kakariko Village, but the game never railroads you there. In fact, it’s possible to complete every Divine Beast, pull the Master Sword, and kill Calamity Ganon without so much as meeting Impa – the character who contextualizes Link’s arc and BotW’s backstory. It’s up to you to get to Kakariko. There’s no reason not to explore every region in Hyrule, but Breath of the Wild’s strength is that it doesn’t force you to explore anything. There’s no Navi giving vague hints about Saria, Tatl pointing out which dungeon to tackle next, or Fi to comprehensively recap what you’ve done & need to do. Link is as free as he’s ever been.
This design philosophy applies to BotW’s version of dungeons, Divine Beasts. Each Divine Beast features five puzzles that can be completed in any order. Their dungeon layouts are entirely open as a result, with central hubs that aren’t shy about branching out. The few times a Divine Beast locks Link out a room, it’s usually tied to a puzzle. Each Beast’s gimmick also allows players to manipulate the dungeon layout, offering more dynamic progression than the average Zelda. While the Divine Beast interiors are aesthetically very similar, their outdoor settings help settle in the passage of time while showing off the sheer scope of Hyrule.
Divine Beasts don’t have dungeon items, but they don’t need them because of the Rune system. They’re also light on combat challenges, featuring minimal enemies and fairly easy boss fights. Dungeon focus is primarily on navigational puzzles that play into your understanding of each individual Rune. To their credit, Divine Beasts generally have more thought-provoking puzzles than Shrines and excel as their own vignettes in Breath of the Wild’s story. Since each Divine Beast is self-contained narratively, each one can be a player’s first dungeon without getting in the way of the game’s natural pacing.
The Legend of Zelda made a bad habit of railroading dungeon orders in games that didn’t need them. Great Bay Temple has to be done after Snowhead in Majora’s Mask with little justification; The Wind Waker gives the impression you can do the Earth and Wind Temples in any order, but Link’s forced into the former first: and there’s no good gameplay reason for the Snowpeak Ruins, Temple of Time, & City in the Sky Twilight Princess to be so linear. But this is what their stories demand in order to build drama. Breath of the Wild’s more experimental approach to storytelling allows the game to maintain a brisk pace without bogging the audience down in plot.
This isn’t to say Breath of the Wild is lacking narratively, however, just that it opts to tell its story differently. As Link has amnesia at the start of the game, he lacks proper context for what’s happening in Hyrule. The late King Rhoam explains to him the basics on the Great Plateau, leaving the rest up to Impa. Speaking to Impa gives Link the opportunity to recover some of his memories, slowly piecing together his relationship with Zelda 100 years ago, but – again – this is completely optional. If you never visit Kakariko Village, you’ll never recover Link’s personal memories. He’ll still remember bits and pieces during Divine Beast quests, but very few cutscenes are actually forced onto the audience.
Naturally, this means the story can’t play around with consistent character arcs or actively build up to a final confrontation. For all intents and purposes, Link is at the narrative endgame by the time he leaves the Great Plateau. All things related to the Divine Beasts and his personal memories serve mainly for context. Link’s memories do play into this, however, and there is value to how the backstory plays out. Link has to uncover all his memories individually, revisiting key locations from his past. Players need to examine the photos on their Sheikah Slate and recognize landmarks to track down each memory, rewarding anyone who takes the time to familiarize themselves with Hyrule.
The first memory Link reclaims will always be the same – setting up his strained relationship with Zelda while showing off the supporting cast – with the rest found in any order. While there is a chronological order to the memories, each player will form their own unique interpretation of the story depending on when they watch each memory. Some memories highlight the animosity Zelda feels towards Link, while others show how intimate their bond becomes. What a player sees first frames Link & Zelda’s relationship for the rest of the game, but that’s fitting considering how nuanced their dynamic is. More than just their relationship with each other, Link and Zelda are the victims of a lack of freedom.
The Price of Freedom
Metatextually, Breath of the Wild’s arcs for Link and Zelda are all about freedom. Link’s silence stems from the anxiety he feels as the wielder of the Master Sword and Zelda’s sworn knight. He carries the literal fate of the world on his shoulders but isn’t happy-go-lucky like some of his earlier iterations. Link gradually opens up to Zelda over the course of their relationship, but he remains profoundly stoic through it all. Zelda is far more expressive about her anxieties, vocalizing her feelings to Link in multiple memories. Zelda wants to be a researcher, but her role in the prophesied fight against Calamity Ganon keeps her from pursuing her passions.
Zelda is belittled by her father whenever she expresses interest in her passions, locked in a loop of insecurity because she isn’t free to be herself. Both Link and Zelda are weighed down by their inability to be free, ultimately becoming the first duo to outright fail in their fight against Ganon. Link dies without so much as fighting his arch-nemesis and Princess Zelda spends the next century keeping Ganon at bay (and only after just barely awakening her powers). Weaker than his past counterpart or not, it’s no wonder the amnesiac Link is the only one who can save Hyrule: he’s actually free.
The present-day Link is tasked with saving the kingdom but at his own pace. He’s not burdened by the Master Sword or a career soldier, but a man out in the wild. Link has his typical tendency to do good, but his dialogue options show a sense of humor that was masked in the backstory. Link hums a tune while he cooks food, blushes when he cross-dresses as a Gerudo, and has detailed expressions for hot & cold weather. The journal in the Japanese journal of Breath of the Wild is even written by Link, offering some insight into his personality as he starts to remember Zelda. Link goes from a stoic knight who hardly speaks to a romantic hero who closes out his journal by musing about how he wants to see Zelda smile again.
Link and Zelda’s arcs are a clever way for Breath of the Wild to comment on The Legend of Zelda’s relationship with freedom, but so much freedom might not have been the answer the series needed. Skyward Sword was as restrictive as it was slow-paced, but not unintelligently. SS was a change of pace for Zelda, but one that still embodied the series’ best qualities at the end of the day. In regards to gameplay, BotW feels like an overcorrection once the initial thrill of the open-world wears off. Hyrule is beautifully reimagined and a joy to explore, but puzzle, dungeon, & boss design all suffer as a consequence.
Shrines are a novel experiment that play off the Switch’s pick & play sensibilities, but they only get less stimulating the better you get with your Runes. Divine Beasts are shorter than most of the series’ start dungeons and cap off with bosses who can be massacred with a few Bomb Arrows to the face. What bosses there are on the overworld are reused ad nauseum, shining a spotlight on the game’s poor enemy variety. The pity is that Breath of the Wild arguably has the best combat in 3D Zelda with little else other than Lynels to offer a decent challenge.
The fragmented nature of the story also means that the supporting cast doesn’t develop half as well as Link or Zelda. While this is usually the case, BotW places so much emphasis on the Princess’ Champions that it’s jarring when they aren’t characterized beyond their archetypes. The only Champion who has anything resembling development is Revali, and that’s only because he goes through a generic rival arc where he begrudgingly comes to respect Link. The remaining three are otherwise one-dimensional. Mipha has romantic feelings for Link she never gets to share, Urbosa is a surrogate mother figure for Zelda, and Daruk is carefree Goron with a strong sense of loyalty.
To just sit down and play, Breath of the Wild is an incredible Zelda game. Hyrule is like a never-ending field where there’s always something interesting to find. Shrines aren’t thought-provoking, but they’re rewarding to find & complete. Divine Beasts might be a comparative let down, but the actual world is loaded with so many side quests and set pieces to explore that it hardly matters. Under scrutiny, it’s hard not to lament Breath of the Wild’s flaws. Shrines are rewarding to find & complete, but they aren’t thought-provoking. Breath of the Wild’s set pieces and side quests are dense, but there comes a point where Hyrule just starts blending together. And at the end of the day, there’s no replacing a Zelda dungeon.
Stopping to do everything can feel like an exercise in futility, but that’s where the beauty of Breath of the Wild shines: you don’t have to. Because Ganon can be fought as soon as Link leaves the Great Plateau, it’s up to you when your playthrough ends. Getting sick of Shrines because they’re too easy? Just stop doing them. Are Divine Beasts too unstimulating? Head straight to Hyrule Castle and play through a dungeon that actually lets Link climb while also featuring multiple floors, rooms, enemies, and puzzles that befit any great Zelda dungeon. Even if Link doesn’t recover all of his memories, the story ends on a satisfyingly emotional note where Zelda finally gains her freedom.
The price of freedom is steep and Breath of the Wild plays with fire as far as the concept goes. At its best, BotW is an addictive reimagining of Hyrule that’s bound to set precedents for the franchise moving forward. At its worst, BotW strays too far away from what makes The Legend of Zelda what it is in order to accommodate its change in design. At the same time, that’s exactly what a game should do in order to hone an identity. Breath of the Wild, like the first Zelda, is true to itself no matter the costs. If that means throwing away the baby with the bathwater, so be it. It’s a bold move on Nintendo’s part, but Zelda has always been at its best when brave enough to take risks.
A fully free Hyrule means 120 mini-dungeons of varying quality, four dungeons that pale in comparison to their predecessors, and bosses that take a laughable step back from Skyward Sword’s difficulty curve. So much freedom also means some of the best side quests in Zelda, pacing that bends to the will of the player in every sense, and arguably the best exploration in the series. The sheer scope of discovery in BotW goes beyond tangible rewards. Hyrule’s geography tells a story and the level design is surprisingly sophisticated for such a dense open world, featuring paths that naturally guide the player and several set pieces that are almost begging to have their own Shrines – but are all the more special because they don’t.
Like A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time before it, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will undeniably change the franchise. Open Air gameplay is an inspired way of tearing down the restrictive walls of level design while opening up a world of creativity. Shrines, while conceptually flawed, highlight the strength of Runes – a system that offers an intimate tool kit from the start of the game. Even Divine Beasts boast well for the series’ future. While there weren’t many and they were too short, Divine Beasts are open-ended dungeons that Zelda needs to keep experimenting with. Breath of the Wild does not compromise its identity, free to be the game it wants to be. For better or worse.