Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 1, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Seems fitting to climb all the way to the top of a mountain and find Breath of the Wild sitting there, doesn't it?
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
I’m going to be honest with all of you. For months, I fought against Breath of the Wild as the choice for number one in these rankings. Not just Breath of the Wild, no: I tackled every potential number one like that, trying to come at them with a level of scrutiny that looked not just at why they should sit at the top of the extremely tall Nintendo mountain, but why they should not, as well. But Breath of the Wild got the most scrutiny, for a couple of reasons: the first is that, in some ways, it just seemed too obvious of a choice, with it being the most recent of Nintendo’s critically acclaimed darlings that went a step above the usual praise. The other reason is that, of all of the potential choices for number one, Breath of the Wild spent the most time sitting at that ranking in my list drafts: it was the only one I couldn’t talk myself out of somehow, and as far as qualifications go, you can’t do much better than that.
My favorite Legend of Zelda game, since its release in 2000, has been Majora’s Mask (number 4). It’s still my favorite, really, the one I feel most fondly about and for, but this list was never supposed to just be about my feelings for a game or my history with it so much as an attempt to create an informed, as-objective-as-possible ranking that didn’t rely on historical importance or nostalgia to boost where a game appeared on a list. Breath of the Wild was the first time since Majora’s Mask that a Zelda game challenged my belief that Majora’s Mask was the high point of the series: that’s 17 years of a Nintendo 64 game sitting on Hyrule’s throne. It’s now 2021, and Breath of the Wild has been out for over five years. After spending around 300 hours with it across three playthroughs — yes, I’ve played this game three times in five years despite its length — I can comfortably admit that it’s a better game than Majora’s Mask. And, uh, everything else Nintendo has ever made.
Cooking in Breath of the Wild is more than just a way to create health items and buffs. It is, at its heart, what the game is all about. You don’t find very many recipes out there in Breath of the Wild’s version of Hyrule. They exist, but this is a dying world, one with few residents, and even less civilization. There is little commerce to speak of, little in the way of ingredients from one region of the world making it to other corners of it: you have some regional dishes to discover, some small pieces of humanity that you can pick up and carry with you on your travels, but for the most part, you are on your own figuring out what you’re doing when you stand in front of a fire to cook.
Experimentation. That’s how you learn to cook in Breath of the Wild. You acquire some new ingredient, whether through trade, through foraging, through battle, through hunting, and you set about figuring out what to do with it. You’ll start small: some apples and mushrooms on a skewer, perhaps, to recover a few hearts, or maybe you got your hands on a fish or cut of beef, and can dress up your dish a little bit more, increasing its power. What you do is up to you: you can be a successful cook in Breath of the Wild without ever actually making a single “named” dish, like an egg tart or stuffed rice balls, and that’s thanks to how much freedom you have within this system. Throw together what you have, and it should mostly work out: just make sure everything you put in there is edible, that you’re following at least some kind of inherent cooking logic, and Link will be well-fed, his hearts kept as full as his stomach.
Cooking is also about more than healing. It is also yet another path through which you can play Breath of the Wild at your own pace. Nowhere in this version of Hyrule is actually shut off from you, outside of the extremely brief opening sequence which serves as an introduction to the game’s mechanics and backstory, where Link will acquire all of the abilities he will actually need throughout the game in order to complete it. By cooking meals that provide extra defense, attack power, stealth, resistance against heat, fire, or cold, meals that provide stamina replenishment or boosts to that or even your maximum life total, Link can equip himself to handle any situation, anywhere in Hyrule, at any time. You can wait until you have the rupees to buy the appropriate gear that lets you traverse snow-capped, freezing mountains, or, you can throw some spicy peppers in a dish, take a deep breath, and explore for eight minutes without worrying about freezing to death at altitude. Then just pop another spicy meal in Link’s mouth, and explore some more.
Experiment with your cooking, and you can explore anywhere in the game world at any time. And that’s what Breath of the Wild is all about: experimentation and exploration. The whole world is open to you, and you will find the allure of that inescapable. This isn’t open-world games as we knew them before 2017, where the game world is “open” but not really, for one reason or another. Sure, you can travel anywhere in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or its predecessor, Origins, which Breath of the Wild’s release was sandwiched in between. But you can’t actually embrace this openness, since those games involve a leveling system and incessant gear upgrades that both make the difference between being able to progress through the next region or dying again and again at the hands of more difficult combatants. Breath of the Wild is structured and paced differently: yes, it’s far more dangerous to travel in areas with tougher foes than in some of the places the game expects you to spend your time in earlier in the game, but the difference between Odyssey, Origins, and really, all massive open-world games that existed prior to Breath of the Wild, is that you still can go to those places, and still make progress, even if you aren’t “ready” to.
Boost your health or your defense or your attack power, and you can survive against some of the game’s tougher foes even with minimal health. You’ll have to successfully dodge their attacks to truly make it work, but the point is, you can do it. The Guardians, mechanical creatures equipped with environment-burning lasers that are also possessed by Ganon’s power, are some of the fiercest foes going regardless of where you are with your own health and power. You can take them out with the minimum hearts and awful equipment, however, if you learn how to deflect their lasers by parrying them with your shield: you don’t need powerful weaponry when you can just send a beam capable of frying you in one hit back from whence it came, because the Guardians are not immune to their own firepower. These are meant to be the gatekeepers of the world, but maybe it’s more accurate to say they are the gates themselves. Gates can be opened, but they can also be slipped by. And you don’t need to wait until you’ve amassed dozens of heart containers and the most powerful gear to get by them.
One of Breath of the Wild’s finest moments, and one of my favorite in video games in general, is what storming Hyrule Castle is like before you’re anywhere close to ready to take on Ganon. This is a move that requires stealth, or a whole lot of expertise in deflecting Guardian lasers, or meals and elixirs that will boost your attack and defense. Or, more honestly, all of those things. It is exhilarating, to attempt to find a backdoor way into Hyrule Castle, one with fewer Guardians ready to finish the job they couldn’t 100 years prior, when you are not actually ready to do so. However, there are reasons to do so, even outside of just your own curiosity at the state of this former seat of power. There are old recipes there that someone asks you to retrieve — no small thing, as we’ve discussed already — and one of your unlockable memories of Princess Zelda and Link’s time in Hyrule before his near-death experience exists there, too.
To find out more about Link’s past, he is going to have to take risks, like storming Hyrule Castle well before he is up to the task. Since the castle and grounds are as open as the rest of the world — you do not follow a set path like every other Hyrule Castle experience you’ve ever had, but can instead scale walls and cliff faces, ride up waterfalls in your Zora gear, build a giant fire to create wind drafts to launch you upward, or just take a main path — you can approach this in whatever way makes the most sense for your playstyle and arsenal. And it is a tremendous feeling to do so.
The game is not just open in terms of being able to go anywhere at any time, but also in how you approach everything within the world itself. The most succinct explanation of Breath of the Wild I have ever seen came by way of a tweet with an embedded TikTok video:
There is no “correct” solution to any of Breath of the Wild’s various puzzles and challenges: there is simply the one you utilized that worked. You don’t pick up new, unique gear in a variety of temples and dungeons, then utilizing that gear to not just solve the location’s puzzles and traps but also to defeat its boss. That’s not how Breath of the Wild works. On the initial plateau where Link awakens and learns the game’s mechanics, you discover a Sheikah Slate that will serve as your map as well as the source of Link’s abilities: two kinds of bombs (a round one that will roll and a cube that sits flat), a stasis ability to temporarily freezing objects and, eventually, enemies, too, and magnesis. You will eventually get a camera tool, too, but that’s it. Those are the tools at your disposal, and what you do with them is up to you.
There are 120 shrines in Breath of the Wild, which serve as mini dungeons. They were left behind by the Sheikah to train the inheritor of the Triforce of Courage for the battle against Ganon, and for the player, they train you in how to think about Breath of the Wild’s in-game logic. There is one shrine where you are tasked with carrying a ball across a narrow conveyor belt, where the conveyor belt is flanked by lasers. You can approach this in a number of ways: maybe you run in place on the conveyor belt while carrying the ball, waiting for a box on the platform running parallel to yours to block the lasers, or maybe you use stasis to temporarily freeze the laser on your side that a box cannot block. Or, maybe you imbue the ball itself with the power of stasis, then hit it repeatedly with whatever weapon you have equipped, to ensure it will take all of that kinetic energy upon unfreezing and launch itself across the gap, leaving you to navigate the lasers and conveyor belt without having to worry about getting knocked over and losing the ball to the abyss in the process.
Whatever works for you probably works for the game, too, to the point that there are puzzles that seem to require you use the gyroscopic motion controls of the Switch and its controllers since they give you an entirely different overhead view of puzzle areas Link can’t set foot in, but you can figure out how to complete them without actually doing that. Yes, even stuff where Nintendo implies there is just the one way to solve the puzzle has multiple paths to the solution. The game’s four more traditional dungeons — the Divine Beasts — are a little more strict in their requirements than some of the shrines and the world of Hyrule itself, but in comparison to Zelda’s pre-BotW past, they are basically lawless.
It is not just the shrines or how to scale a mountain in the rain that are problems to be solved however you see fit. Fighting itself is full of variety and choices and preferences. A scenario: it is night, and you come upon a camp full of Bokoblins. Among your options is a choice to equip yourself with stealth armor, or drink a stealth elixir, and creep up to each and every one of them individually to end them with a stealth strike before any can awake. Or, you can sneak around and dispose of all of their weapons, so that when you decide to make a sound and bring them all awake in a panic, they have no weapons with which to attack you. Or, maybe you notice there is a boulder atop a nearby hill, one that, if you rolled it down into the camp, would take care of your Bokoblin problem for you. Maybe you want to setup an elaborate trap with bombs and magnesis, to surprise them all awake with a series of bangs. Or you can just storm into camp, proverbial guns blazing, and take care of the enemies that way.
Or! You can just walk on by, because you found the camp in the first place while you were busy walking in the direction of something intriguing you saw while paragliding or atop a nearby peak, and you don’t have time to deal with those fiends right now. Not when there is an object that fell from the sky to collect, or a ruin you feel compelled to explore, a tower to climb that will fill out your map, or a dragon off in the distance you need to catch up to if you have any chance of collecting one of its scales for an armor upgrade. Breath of the Wild is a constant series of seeing something off in the distance and deciding you need to go to it. The payoff is not in popping an achievement or a trophy, or even in a mission complete transition screen, but in deciding on a task, and then seeing what it brought you, whether the reward is a new weapon, an answer to your question about what that shiny light actually is, or just a gorgeous view of the ocean and the sun setting into it. This game design infects me with the same “just one more turn” disease that Civilization games do, except instead of another “turn,” it’s “alright, let’s see what’s over this hill, then call it a day.” An hour later, two hours later, three hours later, I have seen what is over more than just one more hill.
You can feel the game design of Monolith Software the most in these moments, where you are compelled to look and explore and search and just exist within these landscapes: Monolith develops the Xenoblade games, which contain the largest, most wonderfully designed open-world landscapes Nintendo had prior to Breath of the Wild (and all three of which made this list), so they were tasked with designing Hyrule’s own open-world alongside the primary devs, Nintendo EPD. Considering that Monolith is a development studio that grants massive bonus experience to your party simply for finding an out-of-the-way gorgeous view in their game worlds, that has spent who knows how long perfecting the view from a mountaintop that many players might not even see, an entire game built around that concept being better for their assistance is no surprise. Why let Nintendo EPD reinvent the wheel when a subsidiary was already close to perfecting the thing?
There is no massive open-world game more truly open than Breath of the Wild. The Playstation 4’s Horizon: Zero Dawn came out the same week as BotW and the Nintendo Switch, and you could argue that it is the peak of the old way of making open-world games, releasing to the world at the same time that the new way did. It was quite the handoff — Zero Dawn is a tremendous effort, one of the previous generation’s absolute best titles — but it is not Breath of the Wild. What is, besides Breath of the Wild itself? Its pacing is, unquestionably, the greatest of any open-world game at the kind of scale we see these days. This pacing is one of the reasons why I’ve returned to Breath of the Wild three times already in five years, when, as much as I loved Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey at the time, as many times as I’ve replayed the series’ Ezio trilogy again and again and again, I cannot tell you if I’ll ever end up returning to Ubisoft’s rendition of ancient Greece. There just is no comparison between the way Breath of the Wild is paced, what it allows, and what games like Odyssey and its fellow open-world games hanging on to more of the past than Zelda, at this point, do.
Polygon’s Chelsea Stark, two years ago, wrote about how Breath of the Wild might be the most impactful game of the next decade. With how long development cycles are for major releases these days, there hasn’t been the same kind of comparatively instant turnaround in industry-wide game design since Breath of the Wild’s release that there was for, say, Ocarina of Time’s, or Super Mario 64’s. We’ll eventually look back on Breath of the Wild as that kind of game, though, one that changed the course of what kinds of experiences developers even attempted to achieve in their game design. Breath of the Wild does not get extra credit in these rankings for that hypothetical future, just like Ocarina of Time didn’t get extra credit for its own impact in its own time. Breath of the Wild, though, does benefit from its general uniqueness: the industry has not caught up to it yet, with other open-world games that have released since, generally, doubling down on some of the kind of bloat and rote that Zelda itself escaped in Nintendo’s transition from the dead end of the Skyward Sword model to what we got out of Breath of the Wild.
There were some great ideas in Skyward Sword, don’t get me wrong, and it is a good game in a vacuum. It was also a struggle between the future of Zelda and its past, with Nintendo unsure of exactly how to change the experience in ways that only served to make it feel more restrictive than ever, while they simultaneously discovered new mechanics and design philosophies that would serve them well in the next mainline Zelda title. The industry at large is still trying to move past its own Skyward Sword phase in many ways, but when it eventually does, and the design philosophy of Breath of the Wild is more prevalent, we’re all in for a treat.
Breath of the Wild did not simply arise from nothingness: it borrowed from Skyward Sword (stamina, glider, ingredients), it took from Majora’s Mask (the use of a repeating day/night loop that forces you to familiarize yourself with the world, since certain events occur only at certain times in certain places), and the sense of openness and exploration present in Wind Waker, only dialed up a few notches.
What’s funny about all of this, of course, is that Breath of the Wild’s most significant influence within the Zelda universe isn’t from any of the larger 3D games, but from the original, top-down Legend of Zelda, released on the NES and Famicom. That game, too, was open-world, with no restrictions on where you could go: you just had to figure out how to make it work when you were skipping steps, and to do so, you had to spend a considerable amount of time exploring another dying world on the brink of its end, experimenting with the tools at your disposal on the world around you. Breath of the Wild is, in many ways, the dream of the original Legend of Zelda fully realized, with technology finally up to the task of matching the imagination of some of Nintendo’s brightest
You are alone for so much of Breath of the Wild. Alone to figure out what is next, to figure out how to approach your next challenge, be it a particularly nasty looking foe, or a river crossing, or a mountain that looks like it will be difficult to scale for one reason or another. There is always another hill to crest, another landscape to view and find something interesting within that you should approach, and you do all of this by your lonesome. You do not have a fairy in your ear, nor a companion like Midna. Zelda occasionally chimes in telepathically, but over the course of a game that takes around 100 hours or more to complete, you forget that she even does that, given how infrequent these moments are. Link is alone, stripped of his memories, in a world he does not recognize but he knows is no longer his.
The more Link learns of this place he once lived within 100 years before his initial defeat at the hands of Ganon’s attack on Hyrule, before he was sealed away to recover from those grievous wounds and return once more, the lonelier he feels. Most of the story is wrapped up in Link discovering that the few people he knew in the past who still live are ancient themselves, while Link remains a young man thanks to the stasis he spent the last century in. His memories, as they return to him through story segments as well as your own optional exploration of the game’s many landscapes, mostly serve to remind Link that most of the people he was closest to died in the attack he somehow survived. Link never, on his own, expresses any of this, but the story is told in such a way that you cannot help but infer that this is what is going on, and the game’s themes are apparent in their goals, too, reinforcing this loneliness, this isolation, this required saving of a world on the brink of death that is not Link’s world. But he’ll do what he must to save it, as that is his task, the one he was built for, the one he was saved for, and in his loneliness knows he’s the only one who can still manage what’s necessary. It is an extremely melancholy game, one the low-key, often piano-driven soundtrack that makes itself heard only when necessary, emphasizes the feeling of further.
One of my favorite pieces of writing on Breath of the Wild comes by way of Fanbyte, in a love letter to the Zora’s Prince Sidon. This piece isn’t just about Sidon, but about the general loneliness of Link in Hyrule, and of Hyrule itself, as well as in the power granted to the player to project feelings onto and imagine a future for not just Hyrule, but for Link himself. This floored me too, once I was brought to this realization, and now I can’t imagine playing without considering it, (emphasis my own): “Even though Link has to face the interior of the Divine Beast alone, Sidon swimming him over on his own back and launching Link into its streams of water made it feel like we were attacking the problem together. And more than that, the physical contact between the two characters is the first non-hostile touch between Link and another character.”
The piece concludes with a beautiful thought that perfectly fits the world it inhabits:
With each Divine Beast, Link resolves another relationship arc, forging bond after bond with characters who have no futures. Just like the expository NPCs standing in ruined Hyrule Field tell Link about what used to be there, the story progresses to make me long for things I can’t get back. Link doesn’t have very much to look forward to. He has no life he’s lived that hasn’t been to serve this one purpose.
But Sidon is still alive. Sidon wants Link around, and not just out of gratitude or to fix his problems. Sidon liked Link immediately, and what’s more important, I liked Sidon. The only way I could make myself care enough about Hyrule to make my way into the very goopy and very stressful castle was the knowledge that Sidon would still be there. I mean, it was clear to me once I’d stopped being dramatic about it that his invitation to return was obviously supposed to be after finishing my quest.
Once that happens, the returned Princess Zelda tells Link that there’s more work to be done. Her first planned stop is Zora’s Domain. And even if I won’t be there for it, Link will — and I can put my game down content that I’ve left him with something to look forward to.
Hyrule is no longer Link’s, or at least, not the one he knew. There is hope to be found among the wreckage, though: he can make new friends, like Sidon. He can work alongside Zelda and restore both their relationship and the world they saved together. He helps to build a new village, the first such place in a world more full of ruins than life, in a region that is astoundingly beautiful and lush, but also dangerous and in need of rescuing from the evils within it: he can do so again, elsewhere in the expanse of Hyrule. I have, three times now, made sure to complete the entirety of the game-spanning quest where Link purchases a house that is set to be demolished — it is subtly hinted at that it is even his house, that has now sat untouched for 100 years and so is set to be leveled — and then furnishes and upgrades it.
This house is more than just a bed for Link to sleep in for free. It is a place he can call his own, in a world that has nearly moved on from him entirely, in a world that mostly refuses to believe he is who he is, even when they recognize him or the Master Sword he carries on his back. The game’s themes work so well, are delivered right to the emotional center of my brain so potently, that buying and preparing this house for Link’s post-Ganon life has become important to me each time I play Breath of the Wild. This house is his, and he deserves to have a place, an anything, he can call his own. I owe that to him in a game that repeatedly tells Link it owes him nothing, that often treats him like a ghost or even a tool who has not yet finished the job it was meant to.
There are some complaints that have been tossed at Breath of the Wild, and I’ve considered them all throughout the planning, researching, playing of games, and now the actual writing portion of this project. I, genuinely, cannot put myself in a place where these complaints bother me, or even make sense to me. "It doesn’t feel like Zelda” is one such complaint, which, read back to where I mentioned all of the other Zelda games it borrowed from and evolved from to get to this exact point, never mind how deeply embedded in the entire universe of Zelda the game finds itself. Nintendo went through all of the trouble of releasing a timeline of Zelda games so that diverging scenarios and worlds that couldn’t possibly coexist on one plane of existence all made sense canonically, and then they essentially blended them all together for Breath of the Wild’s far, far future version of Hyrule. All this game is, at all times, is Zelda: it’s just the next step in it, like Ocarina once was.
The other is on weapon durability, which honestly confounds me. The battle system is improved because of the limited weapon durability. Weapons are a resource, and your actions must be considered within that context. Breath of the Wild is not the first game to have weapon durability play a central role in combat, by any means, but it is maybe one of the most dynamic games with that concept. When a weapon breaks, its final blow will be a critical one: this is a point of strategy. Weapons can also be hurled directly at enemies, and will then break after a critical hit: this is also a point of strategy. Different weapons mean Link is doing more than just swinging a sword around: you must become an expert with axes, lances, short swords, long swords, claymores, ancient weaponry, advanced weaponry, magic rods, the weapons of monsters dropped mid-battle. Each has its place against certain enemy types, and while not required to dispose of foes — the game is too open for that — the options and strategies you can build from those facts broadens the scope and enjoyment of combat.
To me, a weapon breaking mid-battle and what your next move could be — do you bring out another weapon, or pick up one of your foes’ instead? — is no different than running out of ammo for a particular gun in a tense Gears of War firefight. You’ve got enemies to dispose of and options to do it with, just not the option you were just using. Figure it out, and fast. It adds a layer of complexity and danger to battle that’s been missing from Zelda for a while, and it’s highly welcome from where I’m sitting. As games critic Dia Lacina recently said to me on Twitter when discussing this subject, “When I run out of ammo in a shooter they don’t give me a skeleton arm to beat a mfer to death with, that’s for sure.” Breath of the Wild does, though. Breath of the Wild does.
What a truly incredible game, one that I somehow, despite having completed every shrine and dungeon multiple times now, despite visiting every region again and again, I feel like I have not quite discovered everything within just yet. It was only on this third playthrough, in preparation for this project, that I discovered the ruins of Lon Lon Ranch, and found some extremely challenging Lynels waiting to kill me in places I did not yet know Lynels were found. There is always something to discover in this world — just look at how many videos of people figuring out new things they can do in Breath of the Wild exist even now, five years after launch, for confirmation. It is the only Zelda that has matched and even exceeded the greatness, the ambition, of Majora’s Mask for me since that game launched over two decades ago. And the kind of ambition it takes to unseat a game like that, well, it’s also the kind that, when realized like Breath of the Wild’s is, gets you to the top of these rankings. I fought against it for some time, but there was no other choice for the number one Nintendo game ever. And if it takes another 20 years or so to unseat this selection, well, that’s worked out just fine for us all before already.
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