The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda in years to see difficulty as part of the fun. Director Hidemaro Fujibayash attributes the difficulty as key to the game’s success. And he’s exactly right. Without the challenging difficulty, Breath of the Wild would not be the epic masterpiece that we have today.
Zelda fans have noticed the series generally had become easier and easier over the years. Breath of the Wild, however, dumps its players out into the wilderness with little more than underwear. Early game enemies can send Link’s to the Game Over screen with a single blow. And weapons shatter after a single skirmish. Experienced players can easily pass through Twilight Princess without a single death. They won’t pass through Breath of the Wild unscathed. This is a survival game as much as anything else.
Now, don't misread that as some miserable slog. All this brutality is fun because the difficulty isn't old-fashioned "get gud or go home" action. Nintendo isn't only out to appeal to gaming masochists. The higher difficulty is woven into the very nature of Breath of the Wild's personality. Failing is part of the pleasure of creating an individual experience in Hyrule.
Breaking the Trend
Though not universal, Nintendo has been known for making easier games than most of its competition. Mario games for years now have had cheats like Invincibility Leafs or Super Guides to give players ways to skip over really tough levels. Fire Emblem has been adding new simpler modes that remove permanent character death and weapon degradation. Breath of the Wild, however, added weapon degradation. It’s a full 180 from Nintendo’s trajectory and the Legend of Zelda series’ history.
The first Zelda has a similar opening to Breath of the Wild. You’re dumped in the field with nothing and must look in the first cave to even find a sword. You had no direction and had to survive on your wits. That was all lost by the release of Ocarina of Time when the franchise became more heavily structured and less challenging. Long gone were the days of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a real 8-bit meat grinder for the unprepared. In the last decade especially the series coddled their players with lengthy tutorials and abundant of healing items.
The reasons games have been getting easier is evident: accessibility. Nintendo aims to create experiences for people of all skill levels and don’t want to push away an audience. Nobody intends to begin a journey and not be able to finish it. Not everybody likes to fail. But Breath of the Wild does something incredible: it makes failure fun.
First off, Breath of the Wild incorporates the tutorial into the adventure. Where previous games like Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess infamously locked the heroes in the starting town, Breath of the Wild opens in the environment. Those older games forced you to go through every aspect of their gameplay in rigid segments before they let you out into their worlds. Twilight Princess’s way of teaching its players is like an extended three-hour lecture before the "game" begins.
Breath of the Wild instead is a Montessori game. You’re free to move around the first plateau right from the start. Every element from the exploration to the combat to crafting is there for you to touch, but not all of it is explained outright. There is no archery segment that sits you down and forces you to learn how to shoot an arrow. You just find a bow and arrow while fighting enemies and can then have that element as another toy in your playset. Players in Breath of the Wild essentially teach themselves how to play the game.
Along the way, of course, you’ll fail. You’re going to try to climb a cliff too high and fall. Or you’ll run into one of the Guardian enemies and discover how critical stealth can be. Or you’ll just pick a fight with too many Bokoblins and be defeated. Breath of the Wild needs its players to learn from their mistakes. And to learn from your mistakes, you have to make them first.
Creating Your Own Difficulty
Unlike most modern games, Breath of the Wild doesn't have a difficulty setting, but the challenge of the adventure is in large part up to the player. Hyrule Castle is available to attack right from the start, meaning that speed runs of the game are easily possible at under an hour. However, the road to Hyrule Castle is littered with incredibly tough enemies and brutal challenges. You're free to take this path - if you dare. Or you can follow the storyline and slowly gain strength to rescue Princess Zelda with reasonable difficulty.
This all feeds back into the key element of exploration. Breath of the Wild's map is blank, forcing you to fill it out yourself. It doesn't litter its landscape with icons and sidequests, that's all for you to discover organically.
Exploration is something of a gamble. You might find a very easy quest, or you might find an impossibly hard gauntlet of super monsters. It all depends on what's over the next hill.
A New Day for Zelda
Breath of the Wild is rewarding because you create your journey, hardships and all. Nintendo isn't a Parachute Parent this time; it's instead letting you grow into a hero at your pace. The game is asking you to choose between gentle slopes or vertical cliffs. You can follow the paths it lays out or climb straight through impossible odds. Players have incredible freedom of choice in this game. But choice is meaningless if there aren't mistakes.
Breath of the Wild is one of the best Zeldas in years not simply because it's hard, but because it's allowed to be hard. That is the essence of a great open world game.