If I were to pick a single mechanic that most impressed me over the past few years, it would be the Stamina Meter in Breath of the Wild. Though the concept of stamina in games is not a new one, showing up in games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Grand Theft Auto and even Fortnite, Zelda's take on the system seemed to take it a step further than simply controlling how long the player could sprint of climb.
At its core, Breath of the Wild is a game about exploration. Breaking from the more linear nature of previous Zelda games, players are encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of this incarnation of Hyrule. Driving a bulk of the player's ability to explore is the Stamina mechanic. At the most basic level, the stamina meter serves as a way to limit player progression without the use of invisible walls, or other artificial means. This empowers the player to explore the world at their own pace, limited only by their own "power". In Breath of the Wild, thanks to the stamina meter, the environment itself becomes a challenge to overcome, rather than simply being a backdrop for the challenges to take place upon.
Because the Stamina Meter serves to open up new areas in the game, it works incredibly well as a progression mechanic. As the player manage to increase their stamina, they gain access to new parts of the game that were previously out of reach. Each time the player would upgrade Link's Stamina, it would allow Link to climb higher, glide further, swim and sprint longer. After a few upgrades, the difference was tangible, as pieces of the environment which once felt daunting were now a breeze to bypass. All the while new and exciting places to explore seemed to ever loom upon the horizon, inviting you to explore them as well.
I have long believed that choice is one of the most powerful tools a game designer can put in the hands of the player. And through the upgrade system in Breath of the Wild, Zelda manages to do just that in a simple, yet elegant way. This is accomplished through the fact that upgrading the Stamina Meter is at all times in direct competition with the Health Meter. Each time a player would exchange their heart pieces for an upgrade, they would make a simple, yet meaningful, choice about how they intended to spend their next portion of gameplay. If they wanted to continue exploring Hyrule, the Stamina upgrade would benefit them most. However, if it was their intention to tackle one of the game’s dungeons, or try progressing through some of the narrative content, the health upgrade may be the best choice. This system was simple, but even with a binary decision, I found myself thinking long and hard about my own choices, which in turn would impact my gameplay experience significantly.
Furthermore, upgrading your stamina meter is not your only option. As the player gains access to new gear, or simply learns recipes that can replenish or temporarily increase their stamina, they could bypass the normal “stat checks” that the game would throw at them, allowing players to get creative and find ways to “outsmart” the game. As evidenced by Speed Runners and players who try their best to complete games without ever picking up upgrades, this problem solving is another huge motivator that Breath of the Wild nails. By rewarding the player for finding interesting ways to augment the systems presented to them, the world feels that much larger and immersive, playing directly into the core theme of exploration.
Beyond exploration, the stamina meter was expertly woven into other aspects of the game, including combat. the use of heavy attacks, such as Link’s signature spin attack all used the Stamina Meter. Though it was ever present, it never felt intrusive, or overbearing, only ever becoming a nuisance when trying to push Link further than he was ready to go, which in turn fed back into the basic need to seek out more Heart Containers to upgrade my stamina. Creating a positive feedback loop, for the more I explored, the more I was able to upgrade my Stamina, which allowed me to explore even more places with greater ease.
Ultimately, Breath of the Wild has taken a system that we have seen countless times in games and implemented it in a new and exciting way. It is a system so masterfully implemented alongside the level design that players may not even notice that they are being limited by the Stamina system at all. That is why it is so impressive to me.