Nintendo blast open-world gaming’s eardrums with a double-necked Flying V

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Legend of Zelda, The: Breath of the Wild (2017)

Can a man get away with crying? Especially in front of his girlfriend. Men are often being told they should feel able to open up about their emotions, but I wonder. Am I now emasculated for life? Forever to be dismissed as a blubbing wreck with no bottle? Will even the children point and laugh at me? I’ll have to buy a muscle-suit and wear it at all times just to counteract that event, maybe with three smokes in my mouth too.

Well, I happen to think I was perfectly entitled to let my eyes start leaking. The occasion was the Symphony of the Goddesses, the travelling concert of Zelda tunes played out by a full orchestra in several cities around the globe. Things as juicy as that don’t hit Dublin all that often, so when the missus surprised me with tickets, I was chuffed to buggery. I tell you, I was cock-a-hoop.

Best of all, it featured plenty of numbers from the latest Zelda game at the time, Breath of the Wild. Foolishly I hadn’t picked up a Switch along with the game – in keeping with my excellent knack for picking winners at the bookies, I had the Switch down as a failure. In fairness to me, after Zelda, there wasn’t a whole lot to shout about on the Switch from day one. But in unfairness to me, Breath of the Wild was such a magisterial game that it made the purchase of the plucky little tablet worthwhile, all by itself.

So instead I stuck with the Wii U – a big mistake, really, since I needed four whole plug sockets just to get the game going. One to power the console, one as a life-support machine for the obese controller, one for my knackered Lidl hard-drive to compensate for the Wii U’s forgetfulness and finally, for the best experience, one for the TV. Using the Switch could have brought me down to zero plugs, or one for the frequent charges. That must be an irony of some kind, mustn’t it? There’s Link trying to survive in the wilderness, and I’m guzzling as much electricity as possible to help him do so.  

The version on the Wii U, though it loses quite a lot of graphical fidelity in off-TV play, is otherwise the same as the Switch version, almost making the Wii U console worth it. Net result, I was sacrificing sleep in a way that I hadn’t done for a game in a very long time, and built up over 120 hours played in such a short space of time that you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. It meant that, by the time I attended the Symphony of the Goddesses concert in late 2017, Breath of the Wild was more familiar to me than sleeping or breathing or kissing or any of these other frivolous, non-Zelda activities.

So on that night, and after we got moved to seats even closer to the front, I was jazzed. Even the missus got something out of it, though she was asking plenty of questions of the accompanying game footage. She was wondering why had Link turned into a plant, and why did that man have his underpants on outside his trousers. Obviously I’d have shaken my head and sighed, but she’d done me a great turn in getting me the tickets, so I held my tongue. It was also a great thrill to see the conductor, a sort of jack-the-lad baldy guy, conduct the Dragon Roost medley with the Wind Waker baton. You’d better believe it led to me paying over the odds for a replica Wind Waker of my own.

But better than that was when I noticed that one part of the strings section fell a teensy bit out of time on one of the bars. I only noticed this because I know the Zelda soundtracks forwards, backwards, upwards and Squidwards. But the conductor clocked it immediately as well, and gave a threatening whap-whap of the baton towards the offending party. So there you go, that’s what a conductor does. He does wave his stick, that’s the part most people get right. But he also does it in a menacing way when he needs to sort people out.

You won’t get a conductor in Breath of the Wild – you’ll hardly get any help at all. A game five years plus in the making, BOTW is Nintendo’s first true attempt at an open-world game. And they’ve gone some length towards blowing away the rest of the competition with one simple convention: assuming he has enough stamina in reserve, Link can climb just about any surface in the game.

We’re all bored to death of purported open-world games that say you can go anywhere but then bait-and-switch you by imposing level gates and broken bridges to restrict you. Here, you really can go anywhere. I know you can do likewise in Grand Theft Auto and probably Red Dead. But do either of those games let you run around naked with a pitchfork, before settling down to chop some wood and light up a fire to cook apples on? It’s a lot better than I make it sound, trust me.

There’s a bit of an interesting story, with Link waking up after a hundred year sleep. I do love a big sleep at the weekend, but I reckon Link’s taking the mickey with that one. Anyway, 100 years previously, the malevolent force known as Calamity Ganon succeeded in taking over Hyrule Castle and unleashing hell on the entirety of Hyrule. He even took the Hyrule Royal Family’s terrifying robotic guards, the Guardians, and reprogrammed them somehow.

Let me tell you, there ain’t been a Zelda game yet, or any game for that matter, where a robotic spider has hunted you down relentlessly and roasted you with lasers. Okay, there was that bit at the start of Final Fantasy VIII, but the graphics in Breath of the Wild are a good few furlongs ahead of the PS1 so I’m not sure there can be a comparison here.

At the time that Calamity Ganon rose, Link, Zelda and four appointed Champions from the four races of Hyrule (Goron, Zora, Gerudo and Rito) attempted to use four hulking automatons to quell Ganon’s influence. You might know that the number four is often considered to be the number of death, and lo and behold the Champions failed and they all died, so all you see of them is flashbacks of their doomed adventure. Ah well.

Oh, and there’s even voice-acting for the first time. Link doesn’t get to show off his vocal range here either, which is probably for the best, but you’ll get Princess Zelda with a Tabitha-esque posh English accent. The voice-acting is actually OK all round – only the Goron champion is a bit shaky.

What the game does lack is proper dungeons, and I daresay that there could be more variety in the enemy monsters. You might even start avoiding the enemy hordes, because your weapons have pretty low durability and they’ll break all the time, which can get annoying early doors. Even that old blade of evil’s bane, the Master Sword, gets tired and has a cooldown period. It’s understandable, I suppose, not many fine weaponmakers in post-apocalypse Hyrule. But you’d better get used to being told that your precious Lynel Sword is about to cark it.

Still, you’ll get 120 Shrines to track down and beat, which you can think of as mini-dungeons with plenty of puzzles that’ll make you think hard about how to make use of the game’s incredibly fun physics. Outside of the shrines, the world is like the Great Fairies you sometimes find, enormous and gorgeous. And you’ve got 900 (pretty useless) other collectible seeds to pick up as well, if you’re interested.

This really is the adventure of a generation, all set against a minimalist soundtrack that works beautifully. And in the end, I should tell you, it wasn’t any of the Breath of the Wild songs that caused me to start whinging. Not even their goosebump-inducing rendition of Mount Hylia managed it. No, it was the Ballad of the Windfish from Link’s Awakening that got me – just when you thought the whole thing was winding up and its head of steam was dissipating, out they came with that.

And so it was the same for Breath of the Wild – a poor Skyward Sword was followed by a pretty good Link Between Worlds, but all eyes were on BOTW to see where Zelda could go, whether it could still compete. Well, this game is a premium concerto from the best orchestra in the business, Nintendo nailing an open-worlder their first time out. And now there’s going to be a direct sequel? Let me tell you, fellow flautists, that’s music to my ears.

24 July 2020

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