The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received staggering universal acclaim from critics and fans alike upon release, single-handedly representing the Switch’s first party launch lineup and securing a coveted 97 Metascore. Meanwhile, it placed behind only three other titles (all Nintendo, notably) on GameRankings all-time best aggregation. Surely an awesome, monumental, universally loved and seldom disdained juggernaut of a release could not possibly fall victim to the notorious Zelda Cycle… could it? Well, the symptoms aren’t as potent as usual, but there may not be such a thing as avoiding it entirely.
For those unfamiliar, the Zelda Cycle is a continuing phenomenon amongst the series’ wide and varied fanbase, wherein certain games become fashionable and widely loved, while others are rendered “black sheep” or “overrated” in a continuous, predictable cycle. TVTropes describes the process effectively as a part of the “Hype Backlash” trope.
This seems to be a driving factor behind the fan-defined "Zelda Cycle", where a game that was once universally acclaimed and considered the best game in the series suddenly falls out of favor and is deemed "overrated", while a game that was once criticized and deemed as "underrated" takes its place and is Vindicated by History.
Generally speaking, the way the aforementioned Cycle operates often follows Zelda release patterns. Traditionally, the newest game is regarded as poor or not as good as classic entries, while titles previously treated as such become the new classics, and are thus “vindicated by history,” as TVTropes so eloquently puts it. Because mainline Zelda games are released so infrequently, the effect is magnified, as children who adore the latest, supposedly lesser titles grow up, join message boards, and express their appreciation for said titles to save their reputation.
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see how Breath of the Wild attempts to break the cycle: it is near universally loved (at least so far), with the total number of disgruntled critics countable on one hand, and little if any fan dissent to speak of. Still, some players do feel the same as new-Zelda players traditionally have, as evidenced by a NeoGAF thread posted earlier today. The original poster “EhoaVash” expressed the following.
This individual’s experience is Zelda Cycle incarnate, and though it appears to not be the prevailing wisdom at the moment, I’ll admit I do agree on certain points. Personally, I’ve always considered the best thing about Zelda to be its affecting story moments; though a generally plot-simple series, it has also rendered me misty-eyed more often than any other franchise in gaming. Despite Breath of the Wild’s clear strengths in open-world design and a multitude of other areas (essentially modernizing Zelda across the spectrum), I agree with EhoaVash in that Breath of the Wild never moved me emotionally, not even once. Sure I had a blast, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something missing.
As such, my theory on the current state of the Zelda Cycle is, like Switch, something of a hybrid. I do feel that effectively preventing the squeaky wheel, vocal minority criticism and disdain usually accompanying the critical acclaim of most new Zelda titles is a monumental feat, likely not achieved since Ocarina of Time and probably about as close as a Zelda release can get to abolishing the Cycle completely. Even with Ocarina of Time, despite its groundbreaking nature, there were fans lamenting the loss of a top-down 2D perspective, already-perfected with A Link to The Past and reinforced by Link’s Awakening a year later. As such, the relative silence of any one disgruntled group or player-type regarding Breath of the Wild has probably not been accomplished before, and may never happen again.
Still, it’s important to note that Breath of the Wild is a lengthy game. I myself am far from finished content-wise at 115 total hours, while plenty of folks with careers and responsibilities unrelated to videogames have far more to go still. Most Zelda fans reserve final judgement until at least full story completion thanks to the series infamous, powerful end-sequences, and as such I posit that we simply haven’t heard from dissatisfied Breath of the Wild players yet. The Cycle has been delayed, not defeated, and even then, the type of player who nearly weeps at text-only plot dialogue in Skyward Sword or Wind Waker is hardly the sort to go aggressively complaining on message boards.
I put myself in that very category, but at the same time acknowledge Breath of the Wild as a needed step forward, a milestone open world title, and an astonishing feat when it comes to the craft of developing videogames. Still, it will be fascinating to see how Zelda’s infamous Cycle evolves in the coming weeks and months, as fans yearning for more sentimental heft in their action adventures find their way online and begin more vocally expressing their opinion.
To me, the lack of a green tunic for Breath of the Wild’s hero Link has always been a nod from Nintendo. As if to say, “yes we’re trying something new here, it may not be what you expect, and it may not be the perpetual, ageless tale of the Hero of Time. Still, we hope you like it.” As it turns out, everyone does, but for me the real magic will happen when Nintendo combines old and new, merging memorable story beats with Breath of the Wild’s cutting-edge, wide-open brand of modern Zelda. Of course, you can never please everyone - such a thing will surely set the Zelda Cycle in motion once more. As a longtime fan, I have absolutely no problem with that.