clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Link, holding the master sword, battles an unseen enemy with a demonic red hand high above Hyrule. A Divine Beast can be seen in the background.

Filed under:

It’s finally time for me to beat Ganon in Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Now that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is almost here, it’s time to put its predecessor to rest... maybe

Image: Nintendo

Like many people I know, I have never actually finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. At least, I’ve never defeated Calamity Ganon, the game’s de facto final boss. My friends who have defeated the villain are often the same friends who have wrung the game dry: They’ve solved all 120 shrines, kitted themselves out with the best gear, and found all 900 godforsaken Korok seeds. For some, these are the two ideal states for a person’s relationship with Breath of the Wild: completely charted and familiar, or forever full of mystery.

In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

I left Breath of the Wild unfinished on purpose. Enamored with the game’s spare yet rewarding approach to the open-world genre, I decided I wouldn’t treat its painterly landscapes as a canvas for a campaign of rapid conquest, but instead a leisurely appreciation. The ruins of Hyrule would be a place of contemplation, something to come back to when the days became dreary and I needed that spark of discovery. As I understand it, this is a common feeling — Breath of the Wild is an extraordinary video game, one that few want to end once they start it.

But now that the sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, is inbound, it’s finally time to put this particular sentiment to rest. Over the last week, I’ve returned to Breath of the Wild with the goal of finally seeing its story through to the end, and facing Calamity Ganon. But first, I have some unfinished business. After five long years, I’m going to end this lovely journey, in a few simple steps.

Step 1: Divine feast

Completing my final Divine Beast was an easy enough task. Unlike some of the head-scratching stand-alone puzzles in some of Breath of the Wild’s many shrines, the four “traditional” dungeons that must be solved in the game’s main quest are relatively straightforward, and Vah Medoh is probably the simplest. It took me an hour. I’m very smart.

With the fourth and final Beast wrested away from Ganon’s control, I was able to take on the game’s final challenge — technically something that can be tackled almost immediately upon starting Breath of the Wild, but at the cost of missing out on the game’s few big story beats. And speaking of story beats…

It turned out I still needed to find six more of Link’s lost memories, the hidden cutscenes that give you precious insight into more of Breath of the Wild’s story. And I couldn’t possibly finish the game without doing that.

Step 2: Photo recall

The cool thing about the lost memories side quest in Breath of the Wild is that it’s basically a series of Google Maps puzzles. To find each memory, you get a photo of a landmark, taken from a certain perspective, and use a combination of map reading skills, information gathering, and a working knowledge of Hyrule’s climes to guesstimate the memory’s location. It’s the sort of puzzle that makes you feel like a genius when you solve it, even if the bulk of the work is done by the world’s immaculate design logic.

The other cool thing about this side quest is that it focuses the player’s gaze squarely on the world around them, which, as anyone who has played Breath of the Wild knows, means that they are guaranteed to find incredible shit they weren’t even looking for to begin with.

Zelda cries in the rain as Link looks on in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo

For example: One of Link’s memories is located at a place called the Sanidin Park Ruins, the remains of a once lovely fountain adorned with a sculpture of one of the horses that roamed the nearby plains. As the amnesiac Link regains his memory associated with the park, he flashes back to a conversation with Princess Zelda about her pending journey to Mount Lanayru on the opposite end of the map, to pray at the Spring of Wisdom.

There is no real reason to go to Mount Lanayru other than sheer curiosity. Most players will travel to nearby Hateno Village and discover a hostile, frozen peak without much to see. But Zelda said there was a spring there, and I believed her. So I made the climb — and sure enough, the spring was there. What Zelda didn’t mention was that it was also guarded by a massive corrupted dragon.

Dragons are one of the first big surprises a player will find in Breath of the Wild. They’re majestic, almost docile creatures that light up the sky and seem uninterested in picking a fight. This one is huge, and benevolent, once you take care of the corruption infecting him. It’s the sort of secret that Breath of the Wild deploys better than any other video game: a majestic sight that leads to a challenge that is more awe-inspiring than difficult — a reward for going somewhere just because you’d never been there before.

Link faces an enormous dragon in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo

Every hidden marvel in Breath of the Wild is draped against more colossal, obvious ones. These tend to double as signposts for where the player should go to complete the game’s main story: perhaps one of the Divine Beasts, or, Hyrule Castle, where Calamity Ganon lurks. Every diversion, like this magnificent-looking dragon, is juxtaposed against your ostensible goals. But it’s never a problem. I helped this dragon, and now I will confront Ganon. In good time.

Step 3: Gear up

People talk about Breath of the Wild almost exclusively in superlatives. Most, if not all, of these gushing terms are well deserved. The game is exceptional at just about everything it does.

It is also, in many ways, a regular-ass video game, with weapons and armor that have numbers attached. The higher the number, the better the gear. And if you want better gear? Go find some tchotchkes that can be used to make those numbers go up.

Link aiming an arrow in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo

What sets Breath of the Wild apart is that it doesn’t explicitly tell you how to do these very mundane things. It does, however, make the act of discovering these processes exciting as hell.

Again: People have known this about Breath of the Wild for six years now. I’m just telling you that it is, unfortunately for me, still true. Because I’m trying to fight Ganon, you know? And I want to make sure I have some cool threads and some decent weapons so I can put the hurt on him while also looking fresh. And finding all that stuff — well, that’s a whole other adventure.

Which brought me to a place I had forgotten about.

Step 4: Tarry at Tarrey Town

Kass, an anthropomorphic bird, plays accordion with Death Mountain in the background in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Image: Nintendo

Breath of the Wild gets a lot of mileage out of having a silent protagonist. Characters hit on Link, give him a good negging, and rope him into doing all sorts of weird tasks (like gathering crickets for a crush) and Link will do little more than shrug in response, the implication being: Of course I’ll help.

This is how, while on your way to do literally anything else, up to and including finishing the game, you can find yourself accidentally founding a city. I had, in a previous playthrough, met a guy named Hudson who wanted to start a new town he planned on dubbing Tarrey Town, which led to a long chain of requests to not just fetch him enormous amounts of resources to build the town, but also the people to help him improve it.

Consistent with a lot of other wonderfully absorbing Breath of the Wild activities, these requests required me to reconsider the world I’d been exploring for dozens of hours: to find a Gerudo woman who was good at tailoring, a Goron miner who could be swayed to entrepreneurship, a Rito carpenter, and so on. It was, in other words, an excuse to revisit all the places and characters I had gotten to know over the past six years, and do a little farewell tour before concluding things with Ganon.

Which I was absolutely going to do next.

Step 5: Hyrule Castle

Taking on Calamity Ganon is a two-part process. Fighting the guy? That’s just half of it. The first half involves finding your way to him to begin with.

Hyrule Castle is the only proper dungeon in Breath of the Wild, a gauntlet of combat challenges, stealth, and mild puzzle-solving that comprises one of the most thrilling areas to explore in the game. It is also absolutely lousy with great weapons, stuff with numbers so big you absolutely want to leave and wreck every goon who gave you a hard time in the last three hours. And because Breath of the Wild is so wonderfully open-ended, there was no reason to not do that.

Step 6: Vengeance

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful video game about starting anew and healing after catastrophic failure. It is also a great game for swinging a sword twice your body weight at giant troll monsters.

Step 7: More puzzles

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Link looking out at Hyrule Image: Nintendo via Polygon

You ever wonder why that rock formation is there? Or why, at the northeast edge of the Gerudo Desert, there are seven giant statues that look like the Argonath from Lord of the Rings? Or what’s going on in those skeletal remains of giant creatures that are now just obstacles to climb? There are rarely conclusive answers to these questions, but in Breath of the Wild, it’s always worthwhile to stop and wonder a little bit.

Step 8: The end

No one who falls in love with Breath of the Wild is really that eager to be done with it. Even with a sequel on the way, it still seems selfish to expect that the artists and programmers that made this game simply deliver us more of it to extend our journeys, instead of inviting us into something new to contemplate and puzzle over. Which means that, eventually, we might have to be done with Breath of the Wild.

Or maybe we don’t. A place doesn’t lose its magic simply because we know every inch of it. Instead, it gains a new kind, one tied to the person we were when we came to it, and the person we’ve become since first going there. Video games are an intensely personal medium. At their most intimate, they’re part novel and part journal, simultaneously a story told and a story written.

In Breath of the Wild, you can spend much of your time looking at a readily accessible map that is light on details until you’ve actually done the work of a cartographer. In one of the first updates to the game, the developers added a function called Hero’s Path, which allows you to push a button and see the path of your adventure traced out for you in miniature, your personal Legend of Zelda scrawled in green digital ink.

Image: Nintendo

As virtual works, the vistas and landscapes of video games do not degrade and wear the way they do in the real world. Breath of the Wild’s roads will never be more worn than they are now, its ruins will forever have their decay halted, and the story that the developers tell in it will always be frozen in amber. Instead, the player changes. My story, the erratic and haphazard one told by that green path cutting through the world, is also preserved there now, a record of the person I was these last six years and however many beyond I keep returning to the game. What kind of person was I when I took 20 minutes to do little else but climb a mountain, or get lost in a forest, or swim to an isle on the horizon, just because? What was I thinking of? Why did I go one direction and not another?

None of these questions really have anything to do with facing Calamity Ganon, I suppose. I could probably finish Breath of the Wild now, knowing that I’ll never finish Breath of the Wild.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon