Blog, Games

Innovation vs. tradition: With Zelda Breath of the Wild’s sequel announced, I reflect on one aspect of an otherwise perfect game that disappoints me terribly

[SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild yet, you may not want to read this post. Spoilers about the ending follow.]

I’m a latecomer to so many things (even my own maturity as a person) I make being late fashionable, instead of being fashionably late. Though in my TDY / Curra Mentoring philosophies I accept this as part of what makes each of us all unique, the feeling that I’m the opposite of those “I loved it before it was popular, honey” types still instills just a liiiiittle bit of annoyance at missing the party.

One of those instances is my getting into the world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – and the entire Zelda series in general. I bought, and began playing, it on 2 January 2018 – almost a full YEAR after it was originally released, and two months after the second DLC pack came out (yeah, I bought both too). Oh, and did I mention it was my first-ever Zelda game overall? I was weaned on mainly Mario and Pokémon, and my last – and only – home console before the Switch was the N64.

Now that a direct sequel has been announced, it brings BotW into perspective – and me to finally finish writing about the one thing that I hated about this otherwise perfect magnum opus.

It was finally a cool night in December 2018, after almost eleven months of dilly-dallying on the Great Plateau then sudden diving in into the various provinces of this incarnation of Hyrule (I initially treated the Blood Moons with dread and anxiety, because I saw some enemies annoying, rather than difficult, to kill thanks to the weapon durability system), and after breaking my Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!-only playing streak since it came out (Super Mario Party doesn’t count), I FINALLY summoned the courage and will to march straight into Hyrule Castle’s Sanctum and Destroy Ganon, as the objective puts it. Though I’d spent as much time poring over guides and maps as I’d been playing, and more than once revealed some spoilers to myself, the actual experience of seeing it right before my eyes is still different… and it was… (in my humble opinion)

A disappointing missed opportunity to fully realize innovative potential. (Say it in one breath, go.)

Now, don’t get me wrong; speaking as a newbie notwithstanding, BotW does deserve its many Ocarina of Time-esque accolades as one of the greatest Zelda – and overall – games of all time. Its open-world format allowing you to Destroy Ganon as early as leaving the Great Plateau (though hardly advisable) or fully traversing Hyrule however you want, and (for the most part) the lack of a fixed path of objectives, is a wonderful threesome of action-adventure, RPG, and sandbox. It has one of the most epic stories and premises I’ve come across in any game (21st century tech in equivalently 8,000 BC? A jumbo jet? An amphibious mobile palace? A camera tablet? Robot legions? WOW). And equally tragic (who would want to wake up amnesiac and weakened after a hundred years only to find that your homeland is on the brink of annihilation, your colleagues – among them one who loves you to the point of death – killed and spiritually-shackled to this world, and your lady love-cum-boss a self-imposed prisoner in her own home?). Its equipment system is groundbreaking, with 99.9% of all weapons, bows, and shields guaranteed to break sooner or later – a video game version of income and budgeting (ugh). Its attention to detail in graphics and physics is astounding and a gold standard for video games. Personally, it’s one of my favorites of all time too – and I’m a Pokémon boy before anything else, gamer-wise.

But this is where the culture of innovation stops, and the culture of tradition, well, kind of gets in the way.

My marketing professor once told us that the Japanese worldview embracing impermanence and imperfection – wabi-sabi (侘寂) – permeates in their mega-industries today, cars and video games among them. It’s a beautiful and poignant philosophy that reminds us not to be too worldly and to focus on what really matters, but in modern applications it can be a bit meh. Too often I have seen it in my Nintendo games, and never have I been fully satisfied. Some are okay, others are just… awful. And Zelda’s latest offering firmly is in the latter.

Let me explain. When I got all 120 Stars in Super Mario 64, it was quite a bit of a letdown to have the only reward being Yoshi’s cameo appearance and a congratulatory message. Defeating Bowser didn’t change anything; the save file resumed with Mario in the front yard as if I hadn’t defeated him yet. Super Mario Odyssey, however, changed things: The postgame story generously rewarded us for our efforts the entire game, with Bowser remaining vanquished and Peach travelling the world on her own terms. To compensate, the final fight with Bowser, and all other boss fights, can be replayed by entering paintings – a nice reference to how we entered worlds in 64. Yes, there was still some sort of deliberate incompleteness (I haven’t obtained all the Power Moons yet, so I haven’t reached that point yet, but you know what I’m referring to), but at least the game and story respected us for our efforts in defeating the final boss by actually acting as we had.

Breath of the Wild, unfortunately, follows Super Mario 64, and that’s the only letdown in what’s otherwise a masterpiece: When you defeat Ganon, the Destroy Ganon objective is (finally) marked as complete, and the cutscenes of Zelda being freed at last and she and Link setting off to rebuild Hyrule, the dialogue (monologue) mirroring an earlier one, play. Hyrule is seen growing back to its former glory, the Guardian pillars around the Castle now shining blue once more and the hitherto-rare Silent Princess flower now in abundance across its rolling hills. But after the cutscenes… nada. When you load your save file, you’re back right outside the Sanctum of Hyrule Castle (or wherever you saved before you entered it). The Destroy Ganon objective remains pending, though, in fairness, in Hero’s Path mode, your most recent fight with Ganon will be traced on the map.

Disappointingly, even in the ending and postgame, there is no permanence.

The only other differences are that: 1) there is now a star in the save file screen that indicates an otherwise unacknowledged success in taking down the main villain; and 2) you can now see your progress of completion (collected all Korok Seeds, visited all Shrines, etc.) as a percentage on the map screen. But story- and gameplay-wise, there are no other indications that you’ve just saved the world.

It’s really annoying. Kind of dismisses our efforts.

Apart from a star in your save file, a completion percentage rate, and the Hero’s Path, there isn’t anything to acknowledge you’ve beaten Ganon – not even the Destroy Ganon objective, which remains pending indefinitely.

If Super Mario Odyssey was able to work around it, so can Zelda. I can think of the ways to tie the narrative:

  • Princess Zelda stays in the now-cleansed Hyrule Castle to rebuild it, sometimes in the Sanctum, sometimes in her old rooms, with her loyal Sheikah subjects helping out, possibly during the daytime only (at night, they retire to Kakariko). Link can talk to her and choose what to talk about, especially with regards to the backstory. I’d even try to amuse myself trying to “find” Zelda in so big a castle.
Zelda could return to, and stay at, Hyrule Castle, slowly rebuilding it and the kingdom.
  • NPC conversations about saving Zelda and Ganon would be updated, for example, with gossip that *someone* or *something* had caused the four Divine Beasts to unleash their ultra-powerful beams on Hyrule Castle, and that Zelda is alive, well, and still young, how did that happen!? Spill the tea, people.
  • People return to the obliterated Hyrule Castle Town and start rebuilding it. Bolson could spearhead it, since upon completing the Link’s house and Tarrey Town sidequests, he’s just lounging by the fire outside Link’s house.
  • The final fight with Ganon can be revisited through Monk Maz Koshia’s Illusory Realm by visiting the Sanctum – the same mysterious force that lets him re-battle the Divine Beast blights in DLC 2. Like the Divine Beasts, the Illusory Realm Ganon fight can or can not restrict Link’s items – though with the Master Sword and Bow of Light, this might seem moot.
  • The Blood Moon not only revives enemies – and thus re-churns out weapons you can get – but also serves as a creative way of memory cache cleansing. Even with Ganon vanquished, the Blood Moon can still periodically reoccur as the “last vestiges” of Ganon’s power (“he was THAT evil!”). Or, as the sequel implies, is Ganon truly vanquished?
    • The Guardians, now freed from his corruption, can still serve their purpose as pseudo-enemies (and letting Link farm their parts) by acting like practice targets or obstacles programmed to challenge Link, like unpossessed Guardians in Shrines and the Trial of the Sword.
  • The interiors of the Divine Beasts can be revisited completely, with the Illusory Realm challenge option triggered instead by going to and activating the main terminals. (Even with the ending as it is, this could have been done. But anyway.)
The interiors of the Divine Beasts could be revisited completely, and the Illusory Realm challenges triggered by activating the terminals instead.
  • If Ganon had been defeated before any Divine Beasts were freed, the postgame could, instead of disabling the possessed Beasts to enter them, activate the terminals, and destroy the Blights to free the Champions, change the quest to simply board them and activate the terminals to reveal the Champions, who despite their mission being over would grant Link their abilities and reposition the Divine Beasts anyway as a matter of preparation for future threats.
  • Link’s first interactions with Sidon and King Dorephan, Yunobo and Bludo, Buliara and Riju, and Kaneli and Teba could still go on as usual, but with the requests for help correspondingly changed. Something like, “The Beasts are already back to normal, but we need your help to check on the Champions, who have never been heard of in 100 years and we don’t know what really happened to them or their spirits, can you check them out?”
Even defeating Ganon before freeing any Divine Beasts could still trigger a quest to actually activate the terminals, reveal the Champion, receive their powers, and have them pilot the Beasts.
  • If Ganon had been defeated before the events of either DLC were played, the narrative could slightly change from “Link being now strong enough to defeat Ganon” to simply “Link becoming a better and better Hero who is stronger than ever to defend Hyrule from evil”. Remember, he’s the fifth Champion, and the only surviving one.
  • The Yiga Clan’s goal to kill Link would remain unchanged, as it can now be a way to avenge Ganon – thereby rendering the Yiga Clan Hideout episodes still relevant.

Now that would be a perfect game and a way-beyond-satisfactory treatment of the ending, but I guess we can’t always get what we want. Still, I can’t help but be disappointed at how the current ending and post-game play out – and as I continue to work on getting my completion rate from the current 47% to 100%, this void only keeps reminding me during my playing time that, indeed, while we’ve come so far already, there’s still so much more that could have been.

Then again, maybe the Breath of the Wild sequel might change these perspectives eventually. Whatever happens, I’m excited for it, and you can bet I won’t be a latecomer anymore.

All images are screenshots of my own save file on Breath of the Wild from my Nintendo Switch. Apart from the gameplay progress, I do not own anything; that honor lies with Nintendo.

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