by Jed Pressgrove
The most overrated video game was once The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for a simple reason: so many called it the greatest achievement in game history without acknowledging its obvious flaws. The character of Navi, for instance, makes it almost impossible to take the game’s dramatic intentions seriously. Navi peppers the proceedings with unnecessary tutorial-like remarks, and her name, a condescending abbreviation of “Navigator,” symbolizes how many pop games since Ocarina of Time (released in 1998) have treated players like infants — a trend still going strong as we approach 2018.
For close to two decades, it seemed nothing could dethrone Ocarina of Time as the most overrated game of all time. Then the exaggerated hoopla over The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild happened this year. Within weeks of its release, many said Breath of the Wild had surpassed Ocarina of Time as the No. 1 game in history, and a segment of gamers expressed outrage when Breath of the Wild’s Metacritic score dropped one point, from 99 to 98, after all reviews were completed and tallied. During the summer, Edge revised its 100 greatest games list just so it could put Breath of the Wild at the top. I even saw more than one adult praise Breath of the Wild for having a jump button (did they really miss Zelda II: The Adventure of Link or any of the countless platformers out there?).
Why is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild considered so outstanding, especially when its flaws undercut the potential of its open world? I have identified four areas where the game either falters to a significant degree or is clearly outmatched by other titles.
Breath of the Wild has a huge map and flexible mechanics so that fans do the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling and so that Nintendo can get away with endless banalities. When people exchange tales about what they have done as players in a game, academics call it “emergent narrative.” Under this (snooze-inducing) framework, the variety of puzzle solutions and environmental factors in Breath of the Wild, for example, suggests the game allows the most potential for fun stories between audience members.
I’m not sure this is true. There are other games, such as Minecraft and Scribblenauts, that can lead to a wider variety of stories than Breath of the Wild. And is emergent narrative automatically compelling anyway? It might be neat that this guy uses Item A to alter Environmental Factor C to overcome Obstacle Z, but I doubt many of these anecdotes will stand the test of time, even as self-absorbed curiosities.
In any case, the greatest game of all time should not have a story as generic and monotonous as Breath of the Wild’s (see the seventh paragraph of my review here); its cast should not amount to little more than peddlers of Nintendo tradition and whimsy if the goal is indeed to depict an ostensibly living world. Just two years ago, critics and fans recognized The Witcher 3 for imbuing its many minor characters with unmistakable, striking humanity, yet Breath of the Wild gets a pass despite being filled with tired contrivances like superfluous side quests and throwaway caricatures of human beings.
The one-dimensional heroism of Breath of the Wild’s plot limits the philosophical possibilities of its world. Why does the press imply this game has the best open world when it completely lacks the morality variable that made Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and The Witcher 3 so vibrant and provocative? Is chopping down trees to create bridges and crush enemies that trailblazing in comparison to what these games did for storytelling?
At first glance, it does seem significant that you can climb, without equipment, mountains and towers in Breath of the Wild. You might even say this feature gives Breath of the Wild a distinct identity as an open-world game. But compared to Assassin’s Creed Origins (also released in 2017), which allows you to scale myriad awe-inspiring structures in ancient Egypt with no need to worry about a stamina bar, Breath of the Wild appears quaint, unimaginative, and plodding. What’s more, Twilight Princess still has the most exciting climbing sequences of any Zelda game with its double-clawshot mechanic, which requires you to use the camera while hanging to reach greater heights.
Because weapons break in Breath of the Wild about as often as an American politician says something stupid, out-of-reach treasure chests aren’t as tempting to pursue if you already have multiple arms in stock. If you know everything you find will soon disintegrate, why get excited about the prospect of new items? The weapon system, like the stamina system, doesn’t serve the exploratory focus of the game and points to a superficial kind of realism. Further, Muramasa: The Demon Blade’s weapon-breaking dynamic exposes Nintendo’s approach as amateurish. In Muramasa, swords temporarily break if you use them too much, forcing you to switch weaponry until the broken ones “heal.” This rule not only spices up the combo-heavy fights but also gives weight to the game’s conceit that swords are living beings. In contrast, Breath of the Wild seems to take place in a world where no one can make anything worth a damn, suggesting its weapon system is a parody at best.
Breath of the Wild has the most pointless stamina system in recent memory. The most appealing part of the game is its invitation to explore a world, yet the invitation holds contempt for those who just want to run at a decent clip without having to worry about an indicator. Perhaps this contradiction could be overlooked if the stamina system made sense. You lose stamina for running, climbing, and gliding but not for standard melee attacks or jumping. Say what you will about the frustration of your protagonist becoming exhausted in Dark Souls, but at least that game applies the concept in a consistent, fair, and understandable fashion. Breath of the Wild’s pretense of realism is merely half-assed.
This flaw is even more egregious in light of Nioh, which was released a month before Breath of the Wild. Nioh reinvents stamina management, wherein a timed button press can save endurance and open up a variety of strategic options, from dodging to jabbing. Whereas Breath of the Wild’s stamina system doesn’t improve anything about the game, Nioh’s unique take on energy conservation sets its combat apart from every release before it. That the gaming world didn’t explicitly acknowledge Nioh’s superiority in this regard speaks to an ignorance surrounding the accolades for Breath of the Wild.