It’s been six years since Breath of the Wild was released, and as a longtime Zelda fan, I remember how excited I was to finally play it. During a long weekend, a friend generously loaned me the game, and for three consecutive days, I sacrificed sleep trying to go the farthest I could in the world of Hyrule. This journey led to probably my favorite experience—an unexpected encounter with a huge, sick-looking dragon atop an icy mountain. What followed was an impromptu aerial battle where I hit the poor guy senselessly to better his health. After the battle, the dragon rewarded me with one of its scales, which, when dropped into a puddle, opened a secret door. It was epic.
Moments like these are what have made me love the Zelda franchise for so many years. While the series may not prioritize storytelling, its details both big and small bring a unique experience to its adventures. Whether it’s stumbling upon a dying soldier in a back alley to listen to his last words, playing matchmaker between two communities in a world full of trains, rocking out in a milk-serving bar late into the night, or going all the way up a mountain just to be transformed into a pink bunny, Zelda’s attention to detail fleshes out its world and makes it feel alive.
It’s these very moments that make Zelda for me—not the dungeon design, the lore, or even Link’s impeccably styled hair that seems to withstand any battle. (Seriously, Hyrulian hairspray must be next-level.) It’s this collection of little findings, these fleeting instances that make you feel like you are on an adventure discovering unique things in a whole new world. Those first hours of playing Breath of the Wild were glorious because you felt that same sense of discovery the franchise is so well known for. Yet, curiously, the more I played, the more I lost interest in the game. After exploring the map and defeating three of the four Divine Beasts, I just didn’t care to play anymore. Breath of the Wild left an odd taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite understand—that is, until recently.
Elden Ring: The Link to the Past
Remember the movie Ratatouille? There’s a memorable scene where the “villain,” Anton Ego, is about to taste the titular dish. With just one bite, the meal instantly transports him back to his childhood, evoking a genuine smile of pure enjoyment. Playing FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, I find myself reliving that scene over and over.
In Elden Ring, you go adventuring with a prancing horse around a big world, finding bridges with dragons, warzones with huge dogs, sounds of bells and terror, giant walking buildings, trebuchets that scare the bejesus out of you… it’s fascinating. However, it’s not Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, or even Breath of the Wild that the game reminds me of. Elden Ring takes me back to the days I played the original Legend of Zelda on my old Windows 98, back in the early 2000s when GamePro’s website unexpectedly offered an emulated version of the game.
For those who have not played The Legend of Zelda (1986), it’s a game that very much differs from the now-established Zelda formula. Like Breath of the Wild, you are dropped into a new world without much direction and are free to go and do as you please, even if it means missing the main weapon. And these similarities are not coincidental; with Breath of the Wild, Nintendo EPD wanted to once again capture that feeling of freedom, exploration, and discovery that series creator Shigeru Miyamoto described as inspiration for the entire series.
In a way, the team succeeded. This new “open-air design” creates an incredibly free game loop where you could go from walking to climbing and flying while doing whatever your heart desired. You have free range to mix items and tools to do anything you could think of, an aspect the game’s sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, seems to have expanded much further. However, the problem with Breath of the Wild is that while its gameplay does encourage freedom, exploration, and discovery, it fails to replicate this philosophy with its actual world. I never felt quite satisfied with my experience with Breath of the Wild, and it was because of this.
Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed the game (I put 120+ hours into it). However, Breath of the Wild was the first game in the series that I felt wasn’t made for my taste. This is not to say all entries in the franchise are great. Zelda II, Phantom Hourglass, and Skyward Sword are notably weak entries in the series, and even my favorite, Twilight Princess, has many flaws. Yet they all felt like true adventure games in a quasi-open-world, while Breath of the Wild seems more like a sandbox game a la Minecraft, No Man’s Sky, or Just Cause where the idea is simply to create your own fun.
When you look at what inspired Zelda, you really start to understand the dissonance between the previous approach of the series and this new direction. You see why some of us felt dissatisfied. And I don’t know how, but Elden Ring feels like the adventure game I expected Zelda to eventually become. The game honestly feels like the spiritual successor to the original Zelda, and by god, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
A Fellowship That’s Closer Than You Think
“Your first attempt at the Legend of Zelda and you’re probably thinking to yourself that it’s very hard!”The Legend of Zelda (1986) manual, page 40
I don’t know about you, but that excerpt from The Legend of Zelda’s game manual sounds like Nintendo’s equivalent of the unofficial Souls motto “Get good.” It really caught me off guard how similar the original Zelda is to Elden Ring; for those who haven’t played or beaten Zelda 1, you just have to look at the rest of the original booklet to see what I mean. (I know I keep showing my age, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that we need physical booklets for our games again—an incredible novelty that needs a comeback.)
The manual details strong enemies that require you to use different items to “hit upon the right combination” to defeat them. It hints about labyrinthine areas with large numbers of enemies, mazes full of faux walls, and hidden items you can only find through trial and error. Mind you, these walls aren’t the usual Zelda cracks you know hide something; they’re indistinguishable from regular ones. The manual also talks about merchants and “some good-natured people,” both hidden and in plain sight, that provide help in a direct or cryptic manner. It explains how there are secrets all over the map that can lead to unexpected places, and advises you to “look carefully.”
For those who have played Elden Ring, you may be thinking “Wait, that’s Zelda?” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. As the manual suggests, the game was designed to encourage interaction with other players to find the game’s secrets. However, in lieu of leaving messages for other players a la Souls, you instead had to go to the playground and discuss, grab a corded phone and “holla,” or in my case, after months of being stuck, suck it up and go into the early iterations of CheatCC.com (Cheat Code Central) to look for a guide. To add to this, both are open-world games where you start with a vague direction of where to go or what to do and are given total autonomy to explore as you like. The similarities are astounding.
Yes, there are a lot of things to find in Breath of the Wild, but most don’t carry that depth or attention to detail that Zelda 1 and the rest of the franchise brought to their games, and man does Elden Ring comply. The world is full of things to discover, from enemies and side dungeons to traps that take you to completely new places. There are dragon battles, impromptu encounters with giants, humongous castles full of secrets, characters with dubious intentions, tournaments with other players, labyrinths filled with treasure, awesome-looking weapons (with a decent amount of move-sets), underground worlds conspicuously placed in the most normal-looking forest… It’s insane. It’s the same feeling I got back in the day with Zelda—from burning a random bush to find a whole new dungeon, lifting a random rock to discover a heart piece, or bombing a wall to stumble upon a completely new experience. It’s that Anton Ego scene over and over.
One of my favorite experiences in Elden Ring was when I was unexpectedly transported into a new place with extremely strong enemies from opening a trap treasure chest (as I wondered, huh, why are the other player’s projections rolling away from the chest?). After the hundredth attempt at hauling ass, I finally made it out but still wanted to explore this whole new section of the map, even if I was extremely under-leveled. With my trusty horse, I jumped through the building roofs of a deceivingly empty-looking town (lies), evaded scary-looking crows in a sky full of red, and finally made it to a calmer section full of white-looking rocks. I explored for a bit and stumbled upon a big rock that I didn’t notice was moving until it was too late. The next thing I knew, the music got heavier and I was running like a madman from what turned out to be a huge freaking dragon that was chasing me. After running, I ended up in a section with an active war between huge dogs and humans which I tried to evade until I finally got to rest close to a bridge leading to a huge castle on top of a mountain that I know would be filled with new enemies, items, secrets to uncover, characters, story, and so much more.
I haven’t been to that section again because I keep finding more dungeons, labyrinths, characters, and new secrets, but by god do I want to go back! Yes, there are a lot of things to find in Breath of the Wild, and you can find yourself in fun situations—like ending up at the bottom of a lake with minimal resources and using your wits to get out. But it lacks that feeling of discovery, of finding something that opens the world up to more and more possibilities.
In Breath of the Wild, I always felt like the idea was there, but the depth wasn’t. A couple talking to you about a rare flower called the Silent Princess doesn’t lead you to an adventure to find its hidden location, a lake in the shape of a heart doesn’t provide a story of multiple steps where a cursed man searches for his stolen wedding mask, there’s no deep secrets of hidden characters or smaller moments that flesh out the world. There’s depth in its gameplay, but I don’t play Zelda for its mechanics; I play Zelda to use those mechanics to uncover a world I learn to love.
The Elephant in the Room: Difficulty
I have to be sincere here: I enjoy the challenge of Souls game. I played Demon Souls back on my PS3 and Bloodborne on my PS4 and loved those two games (never got into Dark Souls, though). Still, I know when we think of Zelda, especially the 3D ones, challenge is the farthest thing on our minds. I also know that when we play Zelda, we do so to get invested in the world, discover the game and its puzzles, and ultimately have fun.
If you fall into the “I don’t want to play a game that’s super difficult” camp, I hear you. However, there’s a solution: multiplayer. If you’re like me, you may have wondered what a true multiplayer Zelda game would look like. (Four Swords and Tri Force Heroes don’t really count.) If so, look no further. There aren’t many co-op action-adventure games out there, which has always surprised me. Yes, there’s stuff like Secret of Mana, Ys, and Baldur’s Gate, but I always wanted a Zelda or Witcher game where you could “sword and shield” with a friend. Well, here’s your chance.
In Elden Ring, you can play with up to two other people, and let me tell you, this lowers the difficulty a ton and offers a lot of collective fun, even within its somber and dread-filled atmosphere. Seeing a boss focus on your friend while you tell him to keep dodging so you can flank it is a delight. However, don’t let me fool you: The game is still a challenging experience. But with a friend, it’s like one of you is Link, the other is Zelda, the other is… Tingle, and you three are going about wrecking the land. The only downside is that your trusty Eponas are unavailable in multiplayer, but this is easily fixed by a PC mod which I absolutely recommend you install. Even as someone who learned this after the fact, the game is pretty walkable, and fast travel makes it easy to get around.
In short: Don’t let the difficulty get in the way of you enjoying a game like Elden Ring.
If you’re like me and felt that Breath of the Wild, while a great game, was missing something, but you didn’t quite know what it was, I urge you to get Elden Ring. The adventure, the depth of the world full of secrets, the items you get, the weapons, the jumping Epona, the freedom to go wherever you want, the chance to discover unique characters, enemies, and places that serve as keys to deeper adventures… it’s the meal I’ve been waiting for modern Zelda to be. If you love Zelda, you’ll adore the open-world medieval fantasy adventure known as Elden Ring.
(An aside: Candidly, I wasn’t excited for Tears of the Kingdom, but seeing all the recent footage has me wanting to play because it looks fun as hell. Nintendo seems to have improved all of the problems I had with BotW, and I’m actually looking forward to playing it. But, as a patient gamer, a cheap gamer, and a Zelda fan with a backlog that will probably get bigger with the Summer Steam Sale, I’ll stick to prancing my way around Limgrave and Liurnia on my way to the end of the world… or whatever the story in Elden Ring is—something to do with fingers? Palm reading?)
I’m invested in this world and characters like no game before, excited about what else is waiting for me out there, and as I type here I can’t think of anything else besides returning to The Lands Between. Like Anton at the end of Ratatouille, I look at the game that brought back those childhood memories, as it asks me what I want, and with a smile on my face, I can only utter, “Surprise me.”