What was the first thing you thought about when you hauled yourself out of bed this morning?
Arsene Wenger's next move? Weetabix Crispy Minis? The fact that 16 of the songs in the nation's top 20 are by Ed Sheeran?
Not me. The first (and last) thing on my mind every day for the last week or so has been The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. "Remember that time a massive goblin threw a smaller goblin at my head?" I ask myself out loud as I rub my eyes and prepare to greet the day. A few minutes later and I'm in the shower, wondering how the hell I'm ever going to be good enough to take out the crazy, multiple blade-wielding robot that killed me in one hit the first time we clashed in an underground shrine. On the train I'm making a mental note of in-game recipe ideas I need to try. Why don't the guts of my fallen enemies mix well with baked apples? I can't stop thinking about it.
If you have even a passing interest in video games then you’ll no doubt have noticed that critics and punters alike have agreed that the latest entry into the long-running The Legend of Zelda series is a bit good.
The Nintendo Switch’s big-hitting launch title and swansong release for the much-maligned-but-actually-pretty-well-liked-by-people-who-had-one-so-there Wii U has a Metacritic score of a near-perfect 98. That makes it, according to the opinion aggregator, the fourth-best video game of all time (FYI, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 is hanging on in there at number two, a series you can read us gushing about here), which would appear to prove that Nintendo’s decision to modernise its beloved franchise was the correct one.
BoTW is in many ways a grand reinvention of the Zelda formula. The foundations for its freeform nature were actually set by 2013's magnificent A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS, but ask any gamer old enough to remember and they'll insist that it’s a spiritual successor to the 1986 original. In that game, pixelated protagonist Link was very politely asked to tackle eight hazardous dungeons before he could reach Princess Zelda. The order in which he hit each one was left largely up to the player, making it feel like an adventure personal to them.
Fast-forward just over 30 years and BoTW has a very similar mission statement, albeit on a much, much bigger scale. It will nudge you every now and again, always happy to recommend a course of action to the indecisive wanderers of Hyrule, but once you’ve completed an introductory section and collected your Sheika Slate – essentially an iPad that can bend time and launch wooden crates at unsuspecting goblins, both apps that would probably have trouble getting through Apple’s vetting process – the game turns around and says: “Off you go then. Try not to die.” You’re free to head out into the world in whatever direction you like, and what a majestic, unpredictable, all-consuming world those Nintendo wizards have created.
Before I go any further, you should know that this in no way a review of the game. I’ve spent a good 20+ hours with BoTW, but barely scratched the surface of the story. Not that talking about the merits of a Zelda game with confidence often involves narrative critique. BoTW’s remix of the familiar tale isn’t going to be gunning for any awards. Link, who has very inconveniently been asleep for 100 years, wakes up to learn that before his mammoth snooze he’d had a run-in with the hilariously-named Calamity Ganon. Hyrule’s chosen one failed on that occasion, and it’s up to him to find a way into the ominous-looking castle, where both Zelda and his ever-present pain-in-the-arse nemesis await.
I've tried really hard to adhere to the main quest. The intention is always to head for one of the Divine Beasts – giant mechanical creatures corrupted by Ganon that you need bring back on your side – but honestly, it is just too easy to get distracted in this game.
When playing BoTW it immediately becomes clear that a lot of what it does you've seen before. Climb a tower to reveal a new part of the map? How very Assassin's Creed. Stealthily pick off every enemy in a bandit encampment so you can walk away with their stash? It's Far Cry. Load up your side quest log with bizarre requests from babbling villagers? Every RPG ever.
But for some reason BoTW makes it all feel fresh. Perhaps part of that owes to the sheer novelty of a Zelda title giving you so much choice; it's 2017 and Link has only just realised that he's able to jump. But I think it's more down to the fact that Nintendo has taken what people like about all these me-too open-worlders, and sprinkled each feature with the creative fairy dust that only they (and perhaps Grand Theft Auto masterminds Rockstar) have in their locker.
Take the enemy hideouts, for example. You'll see them everywhere, and the further you venture out into the map, the tougher the goblin scum that inhabit them get. You can definitely surge in with your sword drawn – every weapon is finite now though, so unless you're prepared you may quickly find yourself 3-on-1 with only a tree branch in your arsenal – and slow-mo flurry rush your way to victory. Or, you can wait until it's night, sneak in undetected, steal all their weapons, and enjoy the confused terror when they wake up. Then aim a fire arrow at an explosive barrel and be on your merry way.
The game is full of hilarious moments like this, and to reveal many more would risk spoiling them. The more you explore, the more you think, "OK Nintendo, let's see what ridiculous surprise you've planted in this nondescript section of the vast Hyrule map,” the more you're going to realise that this Zelda is less concerned with telling you its own story than it is with you going out and finding your own.
The great fallacy of so many open-world games is that much of their marketing material will focus on assurances that you can ‘go anywhere!!!’, but rarely will they give you a substantive reason to want to do so. Dedicating that precious hour of gaming time you set aside each evening to an off-piste adventure of your own so often lacks a satisfying payoff.
But BoTW is at its best when you're aimlessly strolling. That's exactly what I was doing when I spotted a Hinox (the largest monster in all of Hyrule, my Sheika Slate promptly informed me), dozing in a cave just inland from the coast. I heard the faint sound of its snoring as I was heading for a shrine – self-contained mini dungeons of which there are 120 scattered across the world – and nervously gazed down through a hole in the cliff to see it lying there. I knew there was no way that I'd have a chance at taking him out with my current weapon arsenal, but knowing that at some point I’d definitely want to rob it blind I just popped a marker down to remind me to come back later. When I have a better sword. When I've cooked up a few more defence-boosting crabs.
Similarly, I was definitely doing nothing when I first witnessed a couple of Bokoblins staging their own deer hunt. I'd just slipped comically down a large portion of a steep cliff face – a reminder that a sudden downpour of rain (of which there are a lot) in this game has much the same effect that it would in our own, comparatively boring world – when the jumped-up dickheads galloped past me on the horses they'd presumably hijacked from a nearby field. Intent on wrecking their fun, I whipped out my bow (this one allowed me to zoom) and popped off a shot at the nearest monster's back. I missed, and within seconds of them noticing me crouched in the long grass I'd been jousted to my death. It was fucking great, and even though I know it's impossible, it didn't feel like an event predetermined by a line of code. More than almost any game of this nature that I've played before, BoTW feels like it exists when you're not there.
The cartoonish art direction, a high-res halfway house between the graphical styles of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword, means that Nintendo are under no pressure to compete with The Witcher 3s and, more recently, Horizon Zero Dawns of this world in terms of pure visual grunt. A few muddy textures do little to detract from the experience, and at full pelt (particularly in the Switch's crisp handheld mode) BoTW feels like a playable painting.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a generation of video game consoles that doesn't feature a Zelda game as one of its top-tier experiences, but since the dawn of 3D they've tended to settle into a familiar gameplay rhythm: head to dungeon, find cool thing, kill mad-looking boss with cool thing, rinse and repeat. In BoTW there is no waiting game; you're given a lot of the cool things straight away and the game lets you decide when you want to use them.
From the second you add a structurally-questionable paraglider to your inventory it's really up to you what you do next. Enter any village and you'll be inundated with tip-offs and fetch requests from locals. In one I visited early on a woman pointed me in the direction of three trees on a mountain in the distance, teasing an old folk legend about what might lie beyond them. I don't want to test the waiting Princess Zelda's patience but, come one – how can I, the famous Link, turn down such a vague riddle?
Set a marker at quite literally any point on the map and there will be something in its vicinity worth checking out. A weapon, a piece of armour, a gem you can flog – it's a game that hates wasting your time. BoTW is not revolutionary in the grand scheme of gaming, but in the context of Nintendo it feels like a conductor nonchalantly throwing his baton into the air just a few notes into a song and backflipping off-stage. I may have said this before, but I'm finding it difficult to stop thinking about it.
This is the Zelda game Nintendo probably needed to make, even if doing so risked alienating those who still like collecting floating hearts in the grass and can't get their nostalgia-clogged heads around the concept of Link taking an axe to a tree to cross a ravine, something that would have constituted a ten-minute puzzle in Zeldas of old. By cherry-picking established open-world tropes and putting their own twist on them, Nintendo has made a truly masterful video game with a sense of endless adventure that will hook you from moment it loads up. It's also a video game that, if you've picked up a Switch, you can take with you everywhere you go. A stop-start slog of a train journey through the Midlands has never sounded so appealing.