Playing Zelda on Nintendo Switch: Big world, small screen
The Nintendo Switch gets a solo masterpiece with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and its quiet grandeur feels like a Miyazaki film.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
I've played Zelda games on the Nintendo 3DS, and DS and Game Boy Advance. I've played Zelda games on the GameCube, Wii and Wii U. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild arrives as an unusual launch game for the Nintendo Switch, because the Switch isn't exactly a pure handheld or TV console. It's a tweener. As I played Breath of the Wild, I realized that changed the way I approach the game, too.
I've only played about 5 hours so far (which is all I'm allowed to talk about, anyway), but it's already gotten better at every step.
Breath of the Wild is a huge game, an open-world game. It feels oddly wide open compared with other Zelda experiences. I wake up, I wander around... and where do I go next? The landscape feels imposing, and I realize quickly I can go almost anywhere in it. Link can climb huge cliffs. Stamina becomes the major factor in how high you can climb, or how far you can swim.
The game also starts with a supreme sense of loneliness. It's me and nature. The sounds of Breath of the Wild come through strongly: birds and breezes, soft rustlings. I'm not great with open-world games and my sense of purpose. My colleague Jeff Bakalar played, too, and got further along than I did. My first 5 hours or so were spent wandering to far places, finding rivers, picking up things. I jumped off a cliff by accident and into a pool and found a weird forest spirit who gave me something.
Breath of the Wild is spiritually close to Sony's amazing Horizon: Zero Dawn, in a sense. Both involve reconnecting with nature, and long-lost decayed technologies and cultures. Both have wandering mechanical beasts. Both are about hunting and foraging and collecting. There's more crafting in this game than in any other Zelda. Berries and herbs and creatures can be combined and cooked at nearby campfires to make different elixirs. What works and what doesn't? It involves experimentation. My 8-year-old son looked on and said it reminded him of Minecraft. It reminds me of that too, in a way.
Play in handheld, or TV mode?
Playing on the Switch presents some challenges. In TV-docked mode, Breath of the Wild looks vivid and great, much like a top-notch Wii U game. But playing with the included Joy-Con wireless controllers, which slide off the Switch and can be held independently, takes getting used to. The Joy-Con controllers have tons of buttons, and Breath of the Wild makes use of every one of them. Sliding the Joy-Cons into the included hand grip to make them a single controller helps, but using them like two tiny Wii remotes can work too (wear the hand straps). Still, I'd prefer a larger controller. Nintendo's Pro option seems best, but that's another $70, £60 or AU$100.
In handheld mode, on the Switch's 6.2-inch screen, Breath of the Wild's details can be a little hard to make out. The game's design seems made for bigger-screen experiences, and handheld Zeldas don't tend to get this large-scale (Ocarina of Time on 3DS made it work very well, though). The game looks just as good on the Switch's screen as on the TV, to my eyes, but I couldn't see into the distance as well. The game involves tremendous maps and, sometimes, small things you need to spot from far distances.
There's a virtual tablet in the game, too: Link carries a "Sheikah Slate" that can held up like a tiny GPS navigator to show map info or scan for destinations. Points on the map can be tagged, and it's necessary. Link learns some skills that become like magic powers, but most items I equipped wore down over time or had to be found. Swords shattered. Shields burned. Resources have to be managed.
A magnificent game for playing alone
So far, this feels like a fantastic game, and it's growing on me the more I play. The recipe-gathering is driving me a little crazy, and I'm not always sure what to do next, but this is a great and challenging game to spend hours in. What also surprises me is how meditative and patient it is. An ambient soundtrack, subtle details, and a world full of surprises suggest a game that almost feels like animated art. Like that of Hayao Miyazaki, as a coworker said. The reflections on nature, ruin and rebirth remind me of Horizon: Zero Dawn, and of my favorite science fiction. This Zelda isn't just challenging; it's a game I want to follow for the story.
And, I think, to just meander in for a bit.
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