I cracked the code for how I can make the most out of the wonders of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I play it like it's Animal Crossing. With monsters.
I was nervous about the prospect of a 3-d Zelda set in an open world. I have a deep love of Zelda games and try them all, but I hadn't connected fully with a 3-d iteration since the cel-shaded loveliness of Windwaker. And even toon Link couldn't deliver the thrill of the old school top-down adventure, the joyful flutter in the pit of my fanboy stomach brought on by adventuring in A Link to the Past (and it's exceptional newer cousin, A Link Between Worlds). Breath of the Wild (BOTW) does, and it also brings me echoes of the joy of one of my favorite games, all while delivering on the promise of having fun in an open world.
In my own past, I've approached most open world games with optimism, only to have my dreams of glorious and carefree meandering crushed by ennui and button-mashing overload. Skyrim left me cold and reading disturbingly-well-put-together in-game novels. Grand Theft Auto left me feeling dirty and detached from the main quests (with the vague desire to commit atrocities in real life). In Assassin's Creed, I just wanted to climb on stuff. The Open World Disappointment List goes on, like an endless array of key-finding sidequests.
In the Nintendo classic, Animal Crossing, the open world and living in it is the goal itself, and I never got tired of it. You are a human-ish villager (inexplicably) living amongst little animal neighbors, and you do whatever your adorable heart desires. You get to know your neighbors. You have a little house, and maybe you decorate it. You catch bugs. Or fish. Or make outfits or buy neat stuff. Or not. Maybe you just wander the beach and take in the sights, take a ride on a boat to an island and go for a swim, chop down trees and forage for fruits. Wait for the weather to turn and you can play in the snow. Animal Crossing lends itself towards gentle expansion and collection, and that push occurs with a light touch. If you'd care to focus on your bug collection or designing your clothes at the expense of expanding your back room, the game passes no judgement. If you've been playing a lot of the new Zelda, these tasks and this sense may sound familiar.
In BOTW, I can engage in all of my Villager past-times, plus I can climb mountains (take that, Assassin's Creed!), paraglide, train ponies, and make delicious cakes. Naturally, I'm hooked. It's Zelda, so there's a bit more purpose and quite a few monsters and weapons, too. There's a Princess to help, better gear to find, walls to blow up, the standard Zelda stuff. But what beckons more than anything else is the world that you soar through, this beautiful and inviting iteration of Hyrule. And while the blood moon keeps rising and summoning dark beasts, and I occasionally hear Princess Zelda's urgent whispers on the wind, I have a feeling Ganon can wait.
Link's new quest is immediately both gratifying and familiar to seasoned Villagers, but it really clicked in for me when I found out I could buy a little house in prosperous and idyllic Hateno Village. I'd already been getting sidetracked like it was my day job, climbing any stray mountain I could find, making irrational omelettes, and naming angry ponies after prog rock legends. And then, for a sizeable pile of bells...I mean rupees...a dancing man offered me a house. Sorry, Princess Zelda, but my priorities just shifted. My realtor, the flamboyant Mr. Bolson, might as well be a raccoon named Nook. I spent my next three days hunting gems, chopping trees, and watching Bolson build and frolic.
But even in my strange pursuit of turning Hyrule into an adorable Animal Town, BOTW's magnificent design can't be denied or suppressed. While I'm out there compulsively smashing ore and snatching fishes and fireflies in order to get some trees and flowers planted on my lawn, I might as well take down that shrine over there, activate that Tower to the East. Hey big rock monster, don't mind if I do fight you, you're covered in valuable ore! I made progress in the game despite my off-topic goals, and that's yet another a testament to the excellent blueprint for this game.
For me, perhaps the biggest reason this formula works so well comes down to the hardware itself, where the comparison still holds true. In the past, versions of Animal Crossing have existed on Nintendo handhelds and consoles as independent releases in the series, allowing for a real comparison between the two experiences. Animal Crossing is always fun on the big screen, but best as a portable. In the console versions, I just never got as much done in my little town. The Switch's premise is that you can do both, and I do – both options are brought to the literal table or couch or train ride for Zelda. I can game in sips and quick fits, whenever I find a moment, or dig in on the big screen for a hardcore throwdown.
That flexibility suits the open world environment, and my lifestyle, more than I could have imagined, and I can check on my Zelda Village any time I'd like. An open-world game like Skyrim left me feeling like I needed to carve out four to fourteen hours in my day, building an odd resentment as I made sure I had the dedicated time in front of the television, and made sure I made the most of it, dammit. In Zelda, I pop over to see a new mountain range and stumble across a magical ice dragon while I wait for some coffee to brew, then kick the Switch over to sleep. The day wears forward and I step back from my work for a quick break, and the Switch's effective OS sends me slinging right back to the fjords and fields without missing a beat or subtle symphonic note. Next time I've got a real gaming session in me, I'll dig into that bigger Quest over yonder, and probably on the TV. For now, I try to ride a bear and paraglide at every given chance I can (because paragliding is the best damn thing ever).
So yes, I play Zelda like it's Animal Crossing. You can play it however you'd like. For me, Princess Zelda is going to have to wait until I can get a decent dining room table from that guy who wandered north. For you, you can run right to Ganon and fight, ride ponies all day, hunt beasts or just cook. Like any great day in my best Animal Crossing town, each new day in Hyrule is ripe with endless possibility.
My name is Marty, I'm a writer and an artist. This story originally appeared on my pop culture blog, Astronaut Island, but I cross-post to Medium, cuz I like it there, too. See more of my writing and art at martystuff.com. Twitter is @martystuff. Instagram, too. The short version is: I made up and sell the Sock Puppet Portraits, play in a band with monsters, and made a cartoon about vampires and dinosaurs. And I wrote some books. And make lots of sandwiches. Check my stuff out, maybe consider signing up for my monthly newsletter, etc and so forth.
Thanks for reading what I wrote.