The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Wii U was a memorable highlight at E3 2015. I vaguely recall throwing around “mind-blowing” and something about Nintendo needing to pry the GamePad away from my jittery hands. In the daze of E3, it wasn’t mere hyperbole. Six months have passed, and I stand by everything I said after my first hands-on session with Breath of the Wild on Wii U. Now I’ve played the same demo (well half of it) on Nintendo Switch. It’s the killer title Switch needs for a strong launch – let’s face it, you’re not buying one on March 3 for any other game – but is it enough of a step up for existing Wii U owners counting their pennies before pre-ordering Switch?
The short answer is no, but it’s not that simple. Breath of the Wild is almost exactly the same played on Switch or Wii U; this isn’t a remaster or a definitive edition, like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s a straightforward cross-gen game. If you aren’t quite ready to make the switch, you won’t miss out playing The Breath of the Wild on Wii U. It’s visually almost exactly the same, with only a marginal performance increase on Switch.
The notable exception is frame rate. Breath of the Wild is clearly pushing Wii U to, perhaps beyond, its limitations. After 20 minutes gallivanting in the sand box demo, Breath of the Wild runs much smoother on Switch in both handheld and docked mode. Without a technical analysis, it appears to run close to a locked 30 frames-per-second when docked, and slightly below when handheld. Comparatively, there is some slowdown on Wii U. But not enough to call the Switch version the only way to play; it’s a minor advantage.
That’s all assuming playing on a TV screen. The difference is clear as night and day in their respective off-TV modes. Let’s overlook the obvious advantage of the Switch version being on a portable handheld. There is no contest between the two platforms’ in-built screens. Breath of the Wild looks stunning on the Switch’s 6.2” (15.7cm) 720p display. Its vibrantly stylised world comes to life in high definition in the palm of your hand, played with the added comfort of the ergonomically shaped Joy-Cons and form factor of Switch.
On the Wii U GamePad, Breath of the Wild is deeply inferior. In 2012 I proclaimed the equally sized 480p GamePad screen was adequate for off-TV play, because the size reduction mitigated much of the loss in resolution; not so in 2017. Once you’ve seen it running on Switch, it’s very hard to accept Breath of the Wild in blurry standard definition on Wii U GamePad. Considering the GamePad is less comfortable to hold and boasts a similar battery life (Nintendo estimates 3 hours battery playing Zelda on Switch), and as an off-TV game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is best on Switch.
Clearly there are some advantages to playing on Switch, but there is no definitive answer as to whether it’s enough to warrant an immediate upgrade — in essence, the setup cost is $80 versus $560 for existing Wii U owners. If all that matters is playing the latest Zelda game, Wii U will more than suffice, with an almost identical visual experience played on TV with a Pro Controller. It’s a little crisper on Switch, as you’d expect, with an improved frame rate and shorter loading times; but it doesn’t run poorly on Wii U. The gorgeous art style still falls victim to a few jagged edges on both platforms; although, these are much harder to spot when playing on Switch in handheld mode.
Nintendo is desperately hoping history repeats itself. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a strikingly similar case study as a launch title for Wii and swan song for GameCube in 2006. Aside from the Wii version being mirrored and controlled with some basic waggle, they were almost exactly the same, with minor visual disparity. Nevertheless, Twilight Princess was a hit launch title on Wii, far outselling the (still well performing) GameCube version.
On the gameplay front, there’s nothing to add since I last played Breath of the Wild — read all about it. Everything about it still has me craving more: the open world, the dungeon design, the suite of weapons and the array of new action-adventure (and RPG) elements that are nothing special in isolation, but collectively rejuvenate that ageing Zelda formula. Nintendo showcasing the same demo on both platforms has allowed an easy comparison, but I wish the publisher allowed me to explore a new section. I would pretend so I could offer a deeper insight into fresh content for you, dear reader; but really I just want to play more.
Nintendo Switch is probably where I will choose to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it’s barely the definitive version. It will be a quality launch title, potentially one of the best of all time (ask me again when I’ve played more than an hour), and I want to play it on a current-gen system. There’s something aggravating about playing the last-gen version of a game, even when you know its current-gen counterpart is almost identical. Breath of the Wild is destined to become a best-seller on Switch, but it’s impossible to ignore its cross-gen status. As with Twilight Princess between GameCube and Wii, you’re not missing out playing on the older hardware. For Wii U owners on the fence about Switch, its version of Breath of the Wild shouldn’t be what makes you take the plunge. It’s a matter of wanting to play new Zelda on the new system, with the benefit of portable play, rather than simply wanting to play new Zelda.