Master Mode Made Me Fall In Love With Breath Of The Wild AgainGames Features Breath of the Wild
For a long time, I admired The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild more than I liked it. The structure of open world games maybe wasn’t as tired in 2017 as it is now, but it was already thoroughly established. Breath blew through the space, making every other wide world feel tame and small in comparison. Nevertheless, it did not subvert that core structure, so much as remix it. Link still climbs towers, crafts items, and grabs loot at enemy encampments. Breath of the Wild’s setting was ultimately just another open world for another self-important protagonist to control.
The shrines were the personification of this. They’re places in the world that only Link can access, where bespoke physics puzzles, separate from the rest of the world, can implausibly exist. The shrines have some thematic absurdity too. All around Hyrule Link encounters adventurers, villagers, and even an avian bard that long to discover the secrets of the shines. None of them will discover them, but they might help Link on his (more important) journey. All these folk songs and legends were passed down from generation to generation so that one important twink could find the right key for a lock.
I don’t exactly disagree with my past self, but I think Breath of the Wild is a more surprising and strange game than I gave it credit for back then. I’ve been replaying it, ahead of the sequel’s release, on Master Mode, an extra difficulty added in its first expansion. Master Mode’s changes are pretty simple. Enemies have increased health and heal themselves if you don’t continually damage them. Enemy locations have also been rearranged, with tougher foes appearing everywhere. Floating wooden forts also glide next to bridges, waterfalls, and towers, stocked with yet more enemies and the treasure they guard. All of the game’s puzzles and dungeons are unchanged, outside of the aforementioned shifts.
These might not seem like significant changes, especially compared to the redesigned dungeons of something like Ocarina of Time‘s Master Quest, but the simple increase of difficulty brings out the game’s scrambling puzzle solving and encourages you to use all of its quirks and tricks. For example, in the game’s tutorial area The Great Plateau, enemies that were once pushovers can now kill in one or two hits. Before I could get any of the scant effective weapons on the plateau, or any of the game’s stock abilities, I had to rely on stealth, either to evade or surprise enemies. Then, each new ability transformed the way I could deal with encampments or even the way I could move in the world.
Before, I had an abstract appreciation of the way Breath of the Wild‘s flexible toolset let speedrunners break the game, but felt like they were playing something different. Now, I have nowhere near the tactical skill, but I can feel the possibilities of less conventional strategies. The constant breaking of weapons and the aggression of more powerful enemies ensures that I must engage with the game’s core set of ideas more often. I constantly note the positioning of foes, block and parry more frequently, look for big rocks to stasis or hunks of metal to magnetize. With a powerful weapon or two I might be able to scrape by, but to succeed I need to think more deeply (and cook multiple dishes beforehand).
All of Breath of the Wild‘s frictive systems feel more disruptive and thereby more fun. In Master Mode, breaking weapons doesn’t just scramble your strategy, it can entirely change the stakes of every fight. The increased difficulty adds a layer of “meta” consideration. You have to make sure you have enough firepower to get through potential encounters. You have to remember places where you can find weapons, learn each areas’ character, and make sure you are wearing the right clothes and eating the right food for the occasion. Those things did help in normal mode, but now engagement with those mechanics is more essential than just helpful.
It’s also just striking how much of the open world formula Breath of the Wild fixes and how little its best lessons have been carried forward since. Climbing towers in other open world games is at best a one note thrill, whereas every tower in Breath of the Wild is a distinct challenge. Uncovering the map provides vital information, rather than the mere satisfaction of filling in blanks. Sub-systems are intuitive and playful, rather than regimented or restricted. Every system has quirks and depth that experts will use, but will add texture for beginners.
Master Mode is far from a serious reworking of any of Breath of the Wild‘s systems, but the increase in difficulty brings the power of those systems out. Of course, I still wish the game went further. I wish it was more willing to trap and restrict you more often. I wish it was more about exploring and helping communities, rather than passing through them on a “more important” quest. But ultimately, smaller games like Sable will lead the charge on Breath of the Wild‘s emotive legacy. I’m content, for now, for a fantasy of control that pushes it out of reach, that forces me to improvise, and never gives me exactly what I want.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.