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GOTY 2017: #1 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild is Polygon’s Game of the Year

In late February, I boarded a plane to New York thinking about how absurdly lucky I am.

“Imagine trying to explain to your 12-year-old self,” I thought, “that one day you’re going to fly to New York to play the new Zelda game on the new Nintendo console — before anyone can buy either of them.”

I was 12 when I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and it upended my understanding of what video games could be and do. It felt impossibly enormous, both in space and story. A Link to the Past taught me that video games could overtake me like a great book or movie where the distinction between me and what I’m consuming evaporates. It made me a lifelong Zelda fan, and no game in the franchise had ever eclipsed it.


For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #2 - PUBG

I landed at LaGuardia on a cold, late February afternoon. Throughout the remaining daylight, I played Breath of the Wild in the office. After sunset, I walked back under New York street lights to my hotel room. There, in a building that looked an awful lot like it belonged in BioShock, I played until I passed out. Then, for the next week, I woke up and did it all over again.

Over the next 10 months, I’d spend more than 200 hours with the game. I wrote and published tens of thousands of words about its thousands of secrets. My team of guide writers — including Jeff Parkin, Jeff Ramos and Jason Venter — probably wrote just as many to boot. It took multiple humans roughly a thousand hours to savor everything Zelda had to offer.

In 2017, I thought about, read about, wrote about and played more Breath of the Wild than any other game. It’s not even a contest. And here’s the wild part: I can’t wait to dive back in.


Breath of the Wild owes much to the games that preceded it, but it took a while for me to wrap my mind around how it fit into the Zelda pantheon.

As much as I enjoyed my first several hours on the Great Plateau — and as familiar as things like Bokoblin enemies and basic sword and shield gameplay were — it wasn’t until I walked into Kakariko Village that I got the old, familiar and unmistakable Zelda game tingling.

Nintendo’s been drawing a line of succession on consoles and handhelds since the mid-’80s. No matter how many bits, polygons or convoluted storylines, there have always been dungeons, puzzles, triforces and, of course, a boy named Link and a girl named Zelda. Breath of the Wild is still in some part a warm blanket of familiarity. That’s why the design of the small town — the wandering inhabitants, the lull of its music, the idiot who misplaced his cuckoos — said “this is The Legend of Zelda” to me in a way that some of the hours behind it hadn’t.


This paring of old and new is, to my mind, the most remarkable part about Breath of the Wild. Like tossing raw meat, spicy bass and Hyrule pepper in a cooking pot, the resulting dish is greater than its individual ingredients.

This is because, I think, there are two complementary strategies at work throughout Breath of the Wild: a respect for established conventions balanced with a desire to evolve. This seems to be a theme across Nintendo in 2017.

Reverence has always been part of the franchise. I can make a pretty good argument that The Legend of Zelda is an open-world game beholden to 8-bit technology. And what was A Link to the Past if not a 16-bit riff on the original formula? Though it follows in that tradition, Breath of the Wild adds so many new ideas to decades-old ideas — and strips away so many old ones — that it’s often unclear what’s old and what’s new.

Breath of the Wild is a revision and evolution all at once. Yes, it’s an open world. Yes, you play as Link. But there has never been meal cooking or 10 dozen puzzle dungeons or an unadulterated and indifferent open world. Its distinctively modern flourishes like weapon degradation establish new and complimentary conventions that push the franchise into uncharted territory.

The remarkable thing is that these complimentary strategies — reflection, progression — are everpresent. And I still don’t really know how something so new and something so old exist in perfect harmony.

Thousands of years ago, Theseus asked a question about whether a ship, replaced bit by bit until none of the original pieces remain, can be fundamentally the same thing it was when it started. His question still stands: At what point does change become replacement?

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild pushes the implications of this philosophical query to their logical limits. I know damn well that Breath of the Wild is a Legend of Zelda game. But I also know that it’s a bold and tectonic departure from its predecessors. It works impossibly well because it is both.



A couple of Sundays a month, my friends and I go to my brother’s house to watch WWE pay-per-views. Back in March, after I got home from New York, I brought the Switch with me to my brother’s house and handed it to my friend Kris, who has a love-hate relationship with Nintendo.

Like basically anyone who grew up in the ‘80s, Kris once saw Nintendo as synonymous with video games. But like a lot of people I know, Kris and Nintendo grew apart. As an adult, he gravitated to games and franchises like Halo and Destiny, so Nintendo games and hardware didn’t so much appeal to him.

I suspected that the combination of Breath of the Wild and the Switch would surprise him. He didn’t watch much of the PPV that night. He was lost in the game. His review, about as complimentary as I could have expected, was, “I can’t believe it. Now I have to buy a Nintendo console.”

This is Breath of the Wild’s other remarkable achievement. From diehard first-person shooter fans who’ve been gaming their whole lives to grade schoolers who only get a handful of games a year, Breath of the Wild found a staggeringly wide audience. It scales. It’s accessible. It has something for pretty much everyone.

If you like puzzles, there are more than 120 shrines to conquer. If you like combat, enemies are everywhere. If you like building a character, there are weapons and armor to collect and upgrade. If you like side quests, it has dozens of hours of them — including one where you straight up build a town. If you like story, Breath of the Wild imbues its characters with more life than any of its predecessors.

And if you don’t like some of these, you’re free to ignore them. If you want to collect cuckoos, knock yourself out. If you want to ignore them (or just whack them with a weapon until they lose their minds), that’s fine, too. Not only does Breath of the Wild present players with an enormous, believable world, but because it puts exploration in players’ hands, it offers an abundance of freedom.



I’ve said some version of this to anyone I’ve ever cornered to talk about Breath of the Wild: It’s the best open world I’ve ever played.

Plop me down on any square yard in Hyrule, and it won’t take 30 seconds to find something to do and give my next few minutes purpose. A wild animal in the middle distance beckons. A suspicious fire burns high up on a mountain. A character screams in the distance. Rocks glow, begging to be smashed.


But lovely landscape isn’t enough to make a great game. Breath of the Wild’s beckoning open world is essential to its largely self-directed experience. And because Link can basically climb anything — probably the single best decision Nintendo made to foster exploration — investigating every interesting part of Hyrule isn’t a chore. Given enough time and stamina, everything is available to everyone, and the game rewards explorers for our efforts.

Exploring, experimenting, finding better items and figuring out better strategies to mitigate the occasional annoyances made my journey feel more accomplished and dulled my memory of my younger, weaker days. Frankly, I’d take imperfect first attempts at radically new ways to play a Zelda game than a rehash of previous conventions any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Without them, Breath of the Wild wouldn’t be as interesting in the first or hundredth hour.

This was a great year for video games — way better than average. But for me, 2017 was a year that Hyrule defined. I thought that might be true even when I was in New York. I knew it was true not long after. I measured every game against it, and they all fell short. Side quests were duller. Item collection was more mundane. Puzzles were less lifelike. Shooting with a bow and arrow never felt as good.

Breath of the Wild did so much so improbably well that it became the new standard by which I measure success. Eventually, I had to admit it: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best game of 2017. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

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