“The rising sun will eventually set.
A newborn’s life will fade.
From sun to moon, moon to sun…
Give peaceful rest to the living dead.”
-The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Royal Family’s Tomb Inscription
Defending the claim that The Legend of Zelda is the greatest video game franchise would be a waste of time. I know it. You know it. Deep down, we all know it.
So, let’s talk about South Park.
The controversial, vulgar TV show premiered in 1997, when co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were in their rebellious late 20’s. The show offered biting social commentary through the eyes of potty-mouthed third grader Stan Marsh, who was able to see through the older generation’s strange hypocrisy. By pushing buttons and appealing to a young, liberal demographic, the show soared to popularity.
In 2017, South Park is still going strong—the only thing that’s changed is that the old Christian housewives who used to be offended by the show have been replaced by Twitter-using millennial bloggers. Parker and Stone have mentioned on the show’s DVD commentary that, as they get older, they don’t relate to Stan anymore—nowadays, they have a lot more fun making episodes about his dad, Randy. While the show’s characters and setting have stayed the same, over the past two decades the show has grown with its audience, now empathizing with the adult characters and seeing the world through their eyes.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which released one year after South Park’s debut, was able to accomplish this exact same feat without having changed a bit.
How is this possible?
When Ocarina of Time came out, I was three years old. One of my earliest gaming memories is sitting on my dad’s lap watching him play the game. Being that toddlers are enthralled by pretty much everything, I was enthralled by it. Within that golden cartridge, there was an entire world waiting to be explored, teeming with sweeping landscapes, harrowing dungeons, and vicious monsters.
Ocarina of Time’s plot is simple. Link, a young Kokiri boy, is summoned to speak with the Great Deku Tree, who tells him that an evil man named Ganondorf is on the loose and only Link can stop him. “Young Kokiri boy” is a bit redundant, though—Kokiri, by definition, are children who never grow up. They live in their secret forest village forever, safe and sound from the outside world. Link’s adventure (closely mirroring Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey) begins with him breaching this safety by leaving the forest in search of Princess Zelda to put a stop to Ganondorf’s plan.
It’s a whimsical quest filled with goofy characters. As you pursue your main objective of collecting the three Spiritual Stones—which Princess Zelda says will allow you to unlock the door to the Sacred Realm, obtain the all-powerful Triforce, and defeat Ganondorf—there are a ton of fun side missions to take on as well. Whether you’re trading masks, making plans to marry a fish girl, or playing a few rounds of bomb bowling at the local gallery, Ocarina of Time never fails to put a smile on your face.
After celebrating your acquisition of the final Spiritual Stone, your quest comes to an end: you make your way back to Hyrule Castle to tell Zelda the good news, lay your hands on the Triforce, and end Ganondorf’s plot.
Before you can do that, though, Ganondorf attacks Hyrule Castle, kills the king, and forces Zelda into hiding.
Despite this, you push through, using your Spiritual Stones to unlock the door to the Sacred Realm, and…
…you wake up seven years later.
Its turns out children aren’t allowed to enter the Sacred Realm. Ganondorf knew this all along; he tricked you and Zelda into gathering the Spiritual Stones and unlocking the door for him so that he could nab the Triforce for himself and take over Hyrule. Meanwhile, you were being held in a comatose state until you were old enough to be a true hero.
You entered as a child, and in the blink of an eye, you left as an adult. And everything has changed.
The first thing you notice is the active volcano in the distance; its constant eruptions that traumatize the village below are the only sign of light in the heavy darkness that permeates through Hyrule. Castle Town is in ruins, littered with living corpses, with Ganondorf’s Tower penetrating the sky from where Hyrule Castle once stood.
This game is rated E, by the way.
The juxtaposition of morbid visuals and mature themes against the usual colorful cheeriness of Nintendo games is what gives Ocarina of Time its special kick. The entire childhood era of the game exists only to be subverted by the dark twist halfway through—that no one gets to stay young forever, and the world is more evil than you ever imagined.
It’s strange going back and playing the game now with an adult mindset having first experienced it as a child. I feel intense nostalgia when I hear Kokiri Forest’s background music, an innocent, playful woodwind composition. And yet, much like Link going back to visit his home as an adult, I feel that I’ve outgrown it. Ocarina of Time is a comfort game for me; I know its portrayal of Hyrule like the back of my hand and have mastered every one of its mechanics. I’ll defend the game as a masterpiece even by modern standards—but is there anything more I can truly get out of playing it?
The Legend of Zelda series has changed a lot in the past 30 years, but to me, the one reoccurring theme that serves as the background for the entire franchise is time. Time, and the growth, death, heartbreak, triumph, and sorrow that go with it. Ocarina of Time tells a story that becomes more poignant as the years go by since you first played it. Majora’s Mask asks how we choose to live our lives knowing that oblivion is right around the corner. Twilight Princess shows how even saving the world won’t prevent you from being forgotten.
And 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, copes with how anyone from my generation could ever hope to live up to the standards set by classic stories like those.
To really understand why Breath of the Wild is so good, you need to realize how polarizing the Zelda series has been since Ocarina of Time’s release. Majora’s Mask was polarizing because of its time limit, Wind Waker was polarizing because of its sailing, Twilight Princess was polarizing because of its slow start, and Skyward Sword… well, actually, everyone unanimously hates Skyward Sword. It focused on its mediocre anime plot rather than the quiet environmental storytelling that Zelda is known for, it was frustratingly linear to the point of having a tutorial character explain “puzzle” solutions to you, and its motion controls distracted from the few great gameplay ideas the game did have.
So the pressure was on for Nintendo to make a great follow-up. The Zelda series had lost its way; the once-beloved pinnacle of game design was crumbling, and its only hope of redemption was in the hands of a new, young development team.
Enter Breath of the Wild, a game about the crumbling kingdom of Hyrule’s only hope of redemption being in the hands of a new, young set of heroes.
The story is this: ten thousand years ago, the inhabitants of Hyrule realized, “Hey, this Ganon guy has ravaged our kingdom a couple dozen times now, and every time some dude dressed in a green tunic stops him alongside our princess who we always name Zelda. Maybe we should look out for some telltale signs of this happening again so that we can prevent it?” So they used their technological prowess to create an army of autonomous robots called Guardians and four giant mechs called Divine Beasts, which would be piloted by four Champions. Princess Zelda and a random dude who always dressed in green began training.
When Ganon showed up, they kicked his ass.
Flash forward to nine-thousand nine-hundred years later, the currently-somehow-less-technologically-advanced people of Hyrule start to expect that Ganon is coming back soon, so they dig up those old Guardians and Divine Beasts and start training once again. Except this time, it’s not enough: Zelda fails her legacy and isn’t able to awaken her powers before Ganon’s return. Making matters worse, over the course of the past ten millennia, Ganon stored up so much energy that he’s now able to possess the Guardians and Divine Beasts. His army kills the Champions and destroys everything in its path. The only hope of survival is in Link, who Zelda and her assistants preserve in the “Chamber of Resurrection” to regain his life over the course of the next 100 years. When he wakes up, it will be up to him to find four new Champions, free the Divine Beasts, and bring justice to the ruined kingdom of Hyrule.
…if this isn’t a metaphor for fixing the Zelda series’ fall from grace, I don’t know what is!
And man, what an accomplishment it is. If Skyward Sword’s approach to fanservice was to scream “ZELDA!!! REMEMBER ZELDA!?!?!?!” into your ear at the top of its lungs—with its constant references to old characters and insistence on being relevant to the series’ overarching timeline—then Breath of the Wild’s approach was a sensual whisper. Is that Ocarina of Time’s Lon Lon Ranch I see buried in those ruins? Is that A Link to the Past’s light world dungeon theme I hear buried in the ambient shrine music? The untrained eye won’t notice these bits of lore, but someone who’s been playing Zelda their entire life will feel like an archeologist peeling back layers upon layers of Hyrule’s history subtly hidden in plain sight (and sound). Ancient battles of past games have been long forgotten, washed away by the tides of time, but their consequences continue to reverberate through Breath of the Wild’s world.
This merging of old and new makes Breath of the Wild amazing not just from a narrative perspective, but from a gameplay perspective as well. Nintendo left no traditional mechanic unexamined when crafting this experience. On the micro level, we see this reflected in every little detail of the moment-to-moment game loop; bombs get to stay, but now you have an infinite number of them—no point in making the player grind for ammo in this case. What’s even more impressive is the macro level. The radical idea of making the entire world accessible from the beginning of the game and completely optional must be unthinkable to other open-world game studios, with their reliance on “serious” storytelling and HUDs filled with ten thousand pieces of text begging you to play the game The Way The Developers Intended.
But not in Zelda. Do you want to go fight the final boss immediately after completing the tutorial? You can. Do you want to experience the main questline but ignore the other 80% of the map? You can. Do you want to meticulously upgrade your armor to its maximum level and cook food items that make you essentially invincible because you’re just not that good at video games? You can.
Have you been conditioned through cluttered mini-maps and arbitrary achievement systems to feel an urge to collect every single one of the 900 Korok seeds strewn about Hyrule? You can, but Nintendo disapproves—your reward is literally a golden piece of shit.
Speaking of poop, let’s talk about South Park again.
Between its spot-on political satire and ability to perfectly emulate melodramatic film storytelling for comedic effect, South Park is one of my favorite TV shows. In 22 minutes, it can explore both sides of an issue (is photoshopping women harmful or empowering?), throw in an irreverent twist (Kim Kardashian has to photoshop herself—she’s secretly a hobbit), and then wrap things up and let you go on with your day.
I also like chess. Check it out if you’ve never heard of it.
So when I play South Park: The Fractured But Whole, and my tight 22 minute episode is stretched out to a twelve-hour long story interspliced with mediocre combat that doesn’t have anywhere near the strategic depth of chess, I wonder why this game had to exist. Instead of playing Uncharted, let me just watch Indiana Jones and play Gears of War. I don’t need a combination of the two that fails to reach the heights of either of its components.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t suffer from this problem because the story never stops happening. Climbing that mountain, cooking those bananas, fighting that Lynel, all of these minor actions are so fascinating from a gameplay perspective that they become the story. Yes, there are cutscenes, but they’re—to quote A.V. Club’s Clayton Purdom—“minor appendages on a 100-hour journey.” Breath of the Wild doesn’t just give the player freedom, it burns down the headquarters of authoritarian narrative designers who demand their story be experienced in the Correct, Virtuous Way. The Stanley Parable criticized branching paths in narrative games for only offering the illusion of choice; Breath of the Wild detonates a nuclear bomb and does away with the notion of “paths” in the first place.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the greatest game ever made. Not because it’s flawless—the English voice acting is grating, the ending is anticlimactic, and having a Shrine be the answer to every riddle makes the world a lot less mysterious—but because it’s so many leagues above and beyond every other game that has ever come before it. Like Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the 90’s, it shoves a middle finger in the game industry’s face, and like its legendary predecessors, it does so not through anger at how terrible everyone else is, but through quiet love of the video game medium. In twenty years, we’ll look back on it as the first big step into what games can be.
And in ten thousand years—it will be forgotten.
Washed away by the tides of time.