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We’ve covered the controversial origin of open-world games and how it has led to a majority demographic of hardcore gamers. Up until now open-world games have missed the mark for other gamers who are diverse in age, gender, and experience level.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Link climbing
Source: Gamepedia

But one new open-world game seems to be hitting the sweet spot for everyone. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has attracted not just people who don’t play Zelda games…

… but people who never play open-world games, as well.

It’s even drawing in people who have abandoned video gaming.

And let’s not forget the hardcore gamers who are fans of the open worlds with “mature” content.

What makes Zelda: Breath of the Wild the perfect game for everyone?

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a perfect-ten open-world game that casual gamers, young gamers, and even non-gamers have been looking for—all without losing the genre’s base of hardcore gamers.

A franchise for diehards and newbies alike

There’s comfort in the familiar, and one of the most familiar names in video game history is Zelda. The nostalgia connects across generations, from the “gold-plated” Legend of Zelda to the redefining Ocarina of Time and beyond.

Legend of Zelda NES cartridges
Source: Nate Duke

Zelda fans keep returning to the franchise, game after game: 75 percent of players think it has improved over time. But it’s not just the loyalists who are drawn to this new open-world version of Hyrule: over two-thirds of all Zelda players have been playing for less than than one year. (source)

Newcomers to the world of Zelda can be inspired to play Breath of the Wild despite not having much context going into it. “Breaking the conventions of the Zelda series was a goal from the very start of development, but with our focus on letting players explore a vast world, in a sense, we were also taking the series back to its roots,” said Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi.

Alluring art direction

A hallmark of open-world games has been their realism. Even “fantasy” open-world games such as Witcher III and Dragon Age: Inquisition have a dark edge to their visual design, their sharp relief suggesting mature plots and realistic combat.

Source: GameFAQs

Contrast that common open-world design with that of Breath of the Wild’s. Softer, “cartoonish” characters appeal to all ages without turning away the genre’s core players. The game’s realism is reflected in the stunning landscapes of Hyrule Kingdom and beyond—which are rendered even more realistic by contrast of its softly-stylized characters.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Lost Woods are super creepy
Source: Gamespot

Even still, some darker elements of the game’s design appeal to adults without crossing the line for children. Breath of the Wild has unsettling characters and locales conveyed subtly by its eerie soundtrack and art direction. It’s not a design decision that pummels you over the head with disturbing scenes but one that chills you with haunting whispers.

Fight or explore: it’s up to you

Some open-world gamers are drawn to immersive challenges. Others to deep stories. Still others prefer open mayhem or even action-packed narrative. (source)

Breath of the Wild players can make of it what they wish depending on their preferred play experience. Shortly after the opening scene, they have the option to explore the landscape or to pick a fight.

Combat is often not required but it’s rewarded with important power-ups that will help players win main quest battles. Its game designers also made combat more fun for those who enjoy strategic elements such as solving puzzles or tinkering with in-game physics.

Breath of the Wild creative battle on horseback
Source: Gematsu

“In Breath of the Wild, we designed fewer special attacks and a more immersive combat experience. The player is encouraged to experiment with the game’s resources to optimize successful battles,” said Technical Director Takuhiro Dohta.

One clever example is to use the updraft from a brushfire to propel our protagonist and his paraglider over an enemy, then drop over it with a devastating sword blow. These combinations make combat more fun and approachable for those who prefer problem solving to pickaxe wielding.

Endless exploration

Those who love exploring and suffer from combat anxiety can easily avoid battles by retreating to a nearby area or hiding from foes. (I don’t advise avoiding all combat, however: fighting advances your skills, weapons, and power-ups to use in plotline-dependent battles as the game progresses.)

There is no shortage of exploration throughout the world beyond Hyrule. Some estimated the map to be roughly 140 square miles! Others have revealed Breath of the Wild to be the largest open-world map to date—larger than Skyrim or Witcher III.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild relative map size
Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s map size relative to other Zelda and open-world games. Source: HylianWarrior

But can an open world be too large to be enjoyable? Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi mapped the game to Kyoto, a locale he knew intimately. He wanted to get a sense of how tired he’d be if he walked across the map, how much time it would take, and how quickly a horse could run the distance. “In the end, the world ended up being approximately twelve times the size of the world in Twilight Princess. Instead of comparing it to other Zelda games, we experimented to decide what would be fun to play.”

Exploring can be as lucrative as it is fun. In fact, a vast majority of Breath of the Wild’s playtime depends on exploration to discover new areas, plotline stories, and characters that help along the way. But explorers can’t get too lost or in over their heads: exploration is metered by skills and items acquired so players won’t get into unrecoverable situations.

A more forgiving world

Speaking of the game’s forgiveness, opportunities to make mistakes abound without feeling like Breath of the Wild is punishing the player.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild horseback ride along the beach
Source: The Verge

Ramp-up time between challenges allows players to build their cache of skills, weapons, and knowledge so that they’re ready to take on what comes next. Thanks to the aggressive saved-game mechanic, it’s easy to revert to the near past if a mistake is made or a player dies. And if a player feels stumped by a challenge, in-game hints are always within reach for the intrepid and the observant.

More to come from Nintendo

Breath of the Wild’s early success has proven that a carefully designed open world can be a game for everyone. In fact, the Zelda team is committed to keeping future games in the same format, though there is some concern from the production team that eventually the open-world format will come to be expected for the franchise and they will need to reinvent Zelda once again.

That reinvention is what Zelda producers have been committed to since the start, and that’s what will keep faithful fans and newcomers alike returning to Hyrule.

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