I'm not shy about it: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is my favorite Zelda game — which makes it my favorite game of all time. It's a bona fide masterpiece that checked off the big-ticket wishlist items I've been yearning for from the series since before Skyward Sword. Its massive overworld and inventive action-adventure-RPG "physics and chemistry" system offers exactly the kind of unparalleled player freedom that put the series on the map way back in the '80s.
It's a pity that's not true of its dungeons.
The dungeons in the NES Zeldas had a very strict purpose: to provide an intense challenge that tested the player's skills and navigation abilities. They were like a concentrated version of all the tricks and combat scenarios you'd find in the overworld, dialed up to 11. The designers weren't shy about physical challenges being the name of the game — dungeons in the early Zeldas generally sported tons of enemies you'd never see in the overworld. And the dungeons were sprawling and maze-like — they earned the now-iconic map and compass used to navigate them.
After the runaway success of Ocarina of Time, which leaned less on combat challenges and more on 3D puzzle solving, dungeons started to become more puzzle oriented as a rule. Gone were rooms full of Wizzrobes or Darknuts peppered throughout a tangled maze of enemy nests to battle through, replaced by a relatively straightforward, linear series of eye switches, hookshot targets, and other item-puzzle conceits.
Despite these two contradictory styles — combat maze vs. linear puzzle dungeon — one unifying design staple remained: dungeons had you work your way through a series of rooms and challenges until you found the boss at the heart of the level.
Breath of the Wild's dungeons do away with even this most basic of fundamentals. And, as a result, they aren't fun.
They aren't mazes in any sense of the word. They're centralized mechanical rooms that you manipulate to reach a series of checkpoints. Mazes are fun to navigate because it's fun to try out every route, or to find an optimal path on subsequent plays. In Breath of the Wild's dungeons, navigation isn't fun because the dungeon is effectively directed around a checkpoint fetch quest. "Go to the glowy spots on the map!"
The dungeons also don't have intense combat challenges. You will fight maybe one or two tiny Guardians per level, plus ridiculous flying skulls that are more annoying than even vaguely dangerous. Don't expect to see a varied cast of enemies that only turn up in dungeons, like you did in past games.
On their face, Breath of the Wild's dungeons are, at least, puzzle dungeons. But unlike their counterparts, the shrines, and certainly unlike past Zelda games, they rarely revolve around exploiting your items and powers to manipulate objects and obstacles to open the way through a series of rooms. Instead, they revolve around a weird, only-in-dungeons mechanic where you open your map and use the map interface itself to manipulate the dungeon and solve puzzles.
This idea works on a technical level, but it's so badly introduced — and the dungeon design that it wraps around is so bland and uninteresting — that it fails to deliver either a dungeon or a series of puzzles that ever feels natural.
Upon entering a dungeon, the action is halted by a disembodied voice telling you to get the map, the thing you need to actually get anywhere in the dungeon, and showing you where it is. This is a stunning reversal of all the rules that make Breath of the Wild's vision work so well. These events insert an excessive amount of player guidance before it's even been asked for, delivered through an awkward, unnecessary, and forced NPC conversation. But what makes matters even worse is that this is almost certainly by design — the dungeons simply can't work without the map-driven mechanics.
The other big problem is that, rather than wandering around the dungeon and interacting with things intuitively as you go to forge a path forward, you're constantly having to stop, open your map, and make some tweak to the dungeon configuration via a menu to make any progress. While this idea sounds kind of cool on paper and occasionally does produce a clever puzzle or two, it breaks another cardinal rule of Breath of the Wild: that free exploration is king, not going through the motions the way the designers require. It's jarring to play these segments in the middle of a game that otherwise adheres to this principle to a fault — and that even has a fantastic template for freeform puzzle solving: the shrines.
If I had to rate Breath of the Wild by its dungeons alone, it'd plummet from its perch as my favorite to the one I consider the worst.
Thankfully, Breath of the Wild's final dungeon manages to push in yet another direction. I won't spoil it, but its freeform design, focus on exploration and combat over puzzles, and top-notch map and secret design feel like the kind of dungeon evolution befitting of a masterpiece modern evolution of a 30-year-old open-world classic. It's a template that, if it had been applied to the rest of the dungeons, could have made Breath of the Wild's dungeons the most exciting evolution of the series' dungeon formula since Ocarina of Time, just like its open world was for the series' overworld.
Alas, that's an opportunity Nintendo will likely never get back.