Double Pick of the Week: Hyrule to High Intensity

As I explained in a post several years ago, I missed a long chunk of video gaming history, and never even owned a dedicated game console until 2013. Since then, though, ours has been a Nintendo household. The Wii U that served as our gateway to console gaming was never a great platform, but a few of the first-party games on it hinted at the Kyoto company’s potential for brilliance. Meanwhile, the other two console makers, Sony and Microsoft, both have histories of horrible antisocial behavior, so despite the Wii U’s limitations I was reluctant to switch brands. We enjoyed our Wii U for what it was, and hoped Nintendo would do better with their next console.

They sure did. The Nintendo Switch has been a massive success, selling so well the company has barely been able to keep up with demand. I waited briefly when the system came out in 2017, to read initial reviews and user impressions, and by the time I went to buy one of these innovative portable/dockable devices, there was only one store in the area that had them in stock.

I chose the bundle that came with a universally well-reviewed title called “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” the latest release in a decades-old franchise. The main Zelda games are Nintendo’s big action/role-playing style series, but because of my long hiatus from gaming I’d never played any of them. I went into the game with no expectations whatsoever.

Like nearly every game reviewer on the planet, I was blown away by “Breath of the Wild.” The first thing I noticed was the art style, cel-shaded animation built with a level of craftsmanship, attention to detail, and luminous beauty that’s rare even in the best animated motion pictures. It’s like being inside a Hayao Miyazaki film. Then there’s the environment, which in the early parts of the game is the deadliest enemy the player faces. There are cliffs to scale, thunderstorms to weather through, and snowscapes to trek across, all suffused with gorgeous lighting effects.

Amid this beauty, the developers have given the player a delightful mission: explore. Yes, there’s a story of sorts, and a primary quest, and a final boss fight, and other elements of standard action game design, but those feel secondary to the main attraction: the vast, fallen kingdom of Hyrule. When you get to a new region and acquire a local map, it often shows unlabeled features that beg to be investigated. Why is that mountain peak shaped that way? What’s that weird spiral sandbar about? Is there something special about that pond? Going to such places inevitably uncovers something interesting.

The gameplay was also a revelation. It’s an “open world” game in the truest sense. Not only can Link, the protagonist, move around in three dimensions, but the developers took an open approach to the game’s puzzles and challenges as well. You could charge into that enemy encampment with your sword swinging and try to defeat everyone, but you don’t have to. Why not scale the cliff next to it and roll a big boulder down on them instead? Or take the pure stealth approach and sneak around them, avoiding the fight altogether?

Environmental puzzles are similarly open-ended. Link gets a few magical powers early in the game that let him bend physics in specific, limited ways. Those abilities, plus the design of the game world and a few items scattered around it, provide a set of general-purpose tools that the player can use however they like. See that island offshore, too far away to swim to? You could use the raft on the nearby beach, or you could use your ice-generating power to build a bridge to it, or you could fly your paraglider to it from a nearby cliff, or you could cook a bunch of stamina-boosting foods that would let you swim the whole way. Since the game’s release, players have posted videos of especially bizarre solutions to various puzzles, approaches the developers certainly didn’t anticipate but that the game allows. It’s fair to say that “Breath of the Wild” has set a new standard for “open” in open world games.

Because it’s on the Switch, though, one of the best features of “Breath of the Wild” is portability. This is a game that takes 60-80 hours to play through, or a lot more if you want to complete all of the side quests. I’ve logged over 200 hours on it over the past few years, completing multiple play-throughs just because I love wandering around the stunning game world. My daughter has spent a similar amount of time in Hyrule. That would be a lot of hours to monopolize the living room TV. Instead, Sophie and I have played most of that time in portable mode, often while traveling. Now that I’ve experienced a big adventure game in this format, I don’t really want to play one that can’t be packed in my carry-on luggage. It’s lovely to play a well-made game on a big screen while sitting on a comfy couch, of course, and the Switch can do that, but it’s even lovelier to have a choice about where you play it.

The design of the Switch also allows some other nifty tricks, one of which makes it a lot easier to rationalize than other game consoles. Besides traditional games, we now use ours as a partial replacement for the pandemic-shuttered gym. We’re not alone. Indeed, “Ring Fit Adventure,” Nintendo’s brilliant workout title, has become so popular for at-home exercise that it was unobtainable for awhile, but it’s back in stock at many stores now.

“Ring Fit” uses the detachable motion-sensitive controllers from the Switch, plus a springy hoop with a flexible sensor, to translate a vigorous workout regimen into a fun video game. As it turns out, the same sorts of incremental rewards and amusing graphics that game designers use to make sedentary play so fun and addictive can also make exercise a lot more entertaining.

The gameplay itself won’t win any awards for innovation, and I find the voice options for the main supporting character somewhat grating, but the level design and challenges provide the perfect level of motivation to keep going through a high-intensity aerobic workout. A wide range of difficulty levels ensures that everyone from beginners to hardcore athletes can get a “Ring Fit” workout that suits them. Even Laura, who considers a mile-long ocean swim recreational and refuses to play action video games, has enjoyed spending some time with the Ring.

Of course there’s an entire library of Switch games besides these two, and I’ll occasionally be recommending some others on this blog. I hope you enjoy them. Just don’t turn into a couch potato.