The New Most Overrated Game Ever

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 gaming 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.

Storytelling

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?

Climbing

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.

Weapon Breaking

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.

Stamina

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.

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8 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. When seeing Ocarina of time on the top of every “best ever” list a decade ago, I was wondering why it was always everyone’s “best ever”. I understand many people like it, but is it really at the top of everyone’s list? Not to mention Breath of the Wild got its success from straying away from being like Ocarina.

    An honorable mention of “most overrated” would be Nintendo World Championships 1990. Not worth the price for a grey or gold cartridge. Hardly worth even the steep price of a reproduction cart. It’s as if three demos of games were put together and had a rudimentary scoring system tacked onto it.

    1. Let’s not forget that Skyward Sword was getting the royal treatment in reviews prior to the honeymoon being over and the backlash beginning. I figured it would start happening for Breath of the Wild, it was only a question of to what extent.

      1. While I think that this very often happens with The Legend of Zelda games, I will say that I think Breath of the Wild was more fun for me than Skyward Sword.

        I do think that feelings towards Breath of the Wild will cool down but I predict the reputation will remain largely more positive than Skyward Sword. It is after all sort of an anti-thesis to Skyward Sword.

        That being said, I think that people are feeling before thinking in terms of considering it the best game of all time. Not that we don’t see this happen every other year. The Witcher 3, Uncharted 4, The Last of Us; This happens all the time in this medium. 😛 People get really emotional about the games they like – including major publications.

  2. I agree that the praise the game has gotten is very emotionally driven. There isn’t much care put into the discussion of its flaws.

    However, I’d like to challenge some of your suggestions here as it only really approaches the game from a single psyche which leaves plenty room for discussion.

    Story-Telling:

    The engagement of emergent story-telling shouldn’t come from a place of comparison. If the game facilitates this emergent style of gameplay, then the stories are going to come naturally to any player who explores the full extent of the mechanics; better if the games in question like Minecraft, Scribblenauts and Breath of the Wild do encourage them. A game that succeeds at this better is likely to have more emergent stories for players to tell, however emergent storytelling being immediately satisfying should really be a given I think. Players like when their actions are recognized by the game in fun, even slight ways. Agency should be encouraged and in Breath of the Wild (like many games have emergent gameplay) it can be fun to see an action have unfolding consequences that lead to unexpected results. It’s fun to react with a game and have those actions acknowledged.

    As for the more linear story-telling. The game is weak in this regard, however it does avoid some of the separated and jarring dissonances that typically occur in video games that treat the minute-to-minute storytelling as a separate entity from the interactivity, like The Witcher 3 and even one of the best stories this year in games Nier: Automata are playgued with.

    Breath of the Wild’s story is flat but it’s canonical with its gameplay. Mostly everything you do in the game is work toward the linear narrative. Even when things gets contextually daft, Link is prized with something that is to help him in the fight at the end, and because this fight is forever impending without being enforced, the narrative and gameplay are never at war with one another.

    However, Nier Automata’s storytelling is still very much in the space of “games being sort of bad at telling linear narratives because they have to forget they are video games”. When Pascal says he needs to see you urgently but eh… that urgency is completely fictitious and you can spend all the time in the world engaging in side quests, fishing activities or any other number of distractions; we need to start addressing this as bad story-telling in this medium, because it is. It’s a falsehood of urgency in the story that isn’t at all believable or real. For all Breath of the Wild’s weak story, it still acknowledges that a game story needs to be told through the game and not as separate pieces stuck together.

    Climbing:

    I took this as a means to instill some form of choice progression in the game. The player can theoretically stock up on stamina potions and ignore this entirely, but even that requires some amount of exploration through the world to gather the resources necessary to climb a structure that the player may not be ready to strictly take on. It’s not all too effective though and it can make climbing a tedious task. However, it also reinforces the idea that environments aren’t meant to be passive here. Environments and traversal is part of the gameplay loop, not space between the gameplay loop. Whether that means BoTW’s loop is engaging or not is entirely subjective but I certainly got some kick out of figuring out the best way to climb a structure and manage my stamina resource. Also that last ditch effort to leap to a new safe space to replenish my meter can be quite a fun risk-reward system.

    Weapon Breaking:

    Annoying for most because it’s such a diversion from what we have learned from so many open world games who’s gameplay loops revolve around collecting loot such as Bethesda games and The Witcher 3; but Breath of the Wild’s weapons are less like exciting treasures and more like ammunition. At the very least, it gets you to use your inventory, though not in a way that Muramasa which is very clever. All the while, the game isn’t about filling your inventory, more filling your inventory with the best possible items. Opening a chest might not give you a shining, glistening and endearing reward (though, BoTW and Odyssey are quite similar in this regard. The ‘how’ is more engaging than the ‘why’) but it’s still useful to open a chest, junk your weakest weapon and replace for something better that you find.

    I would be interested to see how the value of item drops of The Witcher 3 compare in terms of stats to Breath of the Wild when you consider that you only ever really need to weapons in TW3. How often do you find something that is actually useful in The Witcher 3?

    Stamina:

    I don’t get why they connected stamina to running. It seems to only serve to slow down the game without providing anything in the way of challenge like climbing and swimming. The only use case I can think of escaping combat.It would have made way more sense if you actually lost stamina for fighting in combat though. At least then the resource would have some sort of cohesion.

    Nioh’s ki (stamina) and the use of ki pulse is something that all action games should look at and take notes from. It’s a genius idea. Also Nioh is such an excellent action game. That needs to be said.

    That aside, the stamina wheel is something that I quite like when it comes to exploration (outside of running). Climbing and swimming reassert BoTW as a game not about point ‘A’ and point ‘B’ but how one gets to these points. Whether or not this is enjoyable depends of course. Do I actually like exploration in The Witcher 3 or Nier: Automata? God No. While the latter has a far better kinetic tempo it also has bad level design but worst of all no purpose other than narrative beats in having space between its sidequests. You go from A to B in a fast footed flight but you just go through this static, unusable world.

    I don’t know if BoTW would be more enjoyable without its stamina progression. Certainly, you’d get around much faster but I like this idea that an open world game can be about the open world, not the tasks within it; For that, the environments may need to be more than set dressing.

    Do I think the praise BoTW is overblow? For sure but I do think there is plenty of discussion to be had about the game. I thought it was very fun. I get why people love it so much, or would consider it their favorite game this year. Personally, that answer isn’t so clear cut with how many fun games released this year. Certainly BoTW has one of the most engaging open worlds in a game I have played in quite some time. If TW3 and Nier are engaging for their stories (and maybe Nier for its combat tools), BoTW was fun because of its open world and exploration.

      1. Thanks for the detailed response! I appreciate an argument that confronts what’s being said. I’m about to start my family holiday break, so I can’t respond in full now, but I will consider your words. Have a great Christmas!

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