I love THE LEGEND OF ZELDA.

But then again, you’d be hard-pressed to find a gamer that doesn’t. The mysterious worlds, the charming characters, the satisfying gameplay—there’s a reason this is one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time. So it’s no surprise that when BREATH OF THE WILD was announced, the gaming world exploded with excitement, speculation, and a healthy dose of hype. However, as details began to surface it became clear that Link’s newest adventure would be far different from his last.

For those that don’t know, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA is a long-running series of action-adventure games that pits a boy named Link against monsters, wizards, dungeons, and mind-bending puzzles. The series has become an icon for gaming, an instantly recognizable symbol of the industry. Even people who’ve never played a game have probably seen this dude before:

[LEGEND OF ZELDA]: Either that, or they assume this is Peter Pan.
LEGEND OF ZELDA: Either that, or they assume this is Peter Pan.
The series has always been rooted in a few core mechanics and design philosophies, but within a day of Nintendo’s announcement, it seemed BREATH OF THE WILD was starting from scratch. If anything, the game seemed to have more in common with DARK SOULS or THE WITCHER than the classic series we’ve come to know. Normally, a sequel taking such a sudden departure from its predecessors would cause an uproar within the gaming community, but that didn’t seem to happen. Why?

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Where were the fanboys ranting about the death of the series? Where were the trolls and flamers blowing up forums across the internet? Why did the collective gaming community accept such a sudden, stark change in direction for the series?

Because deep down we knew the truth: BREATH OF THE WILD, despite its massive changes, is taking ZELDA back to its roots.

So how can BREATH OF THE WILD take the series back to its roots when it’s so different from its predecessors? What is THE LEGEND OF ZELDA really about? Why should we care? 

Well, let’s take a look!

First, what are ZELDA’s roots?

Created in 1986 by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezua, the original LEGEND OF ZELDA was a top-down adventure game that combined action, exploration, and puzzle-solving into a seamless package. The story was simple, telling the tale of a boy who has to save the princess from an evil wizard. The series is reminiscent of the games you’d play as a child when you’d go on “adventures” in your backyard, armed with nothing but your imagination.

Unsurprisingly, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA was inspired by Miyamoto’s own childhood. As a young boy in Sonobe, Japan, he spent much of his time exploring the forests, hillsides, and caverns that surrounded his rural home. One day, he discovered a particularly dark cave and after some hesitation, he built up his courage, grabbed a lantern, and went inside. This is what THE LEGEND OF ZELDA is all about: adventure, exploring massive worlds, and delving into dark places. It’s about that sense of wonder you had as a kid when everything was new, beautiful, and a bit scary. It’s about being dropped in a world you don’t quite understand and being given the freedom to explore and experiment.

[THE LEGEND OF ZELDA]: One of the earliest concepts from the original game. This is the dream. This is what it all comes back to.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: Artwork from the original game. This is the dream. This is what it all comes back to.
But has the series ever truly achieved this?

Sure, every game in the ZELDA series has kept these values in mind, creating an atmosphere that evokes grandeur, mystery, and wonder, but I think it’s fair to say that technology has been holding ZELDA back. Indeed, many of the features we’re used to in ZELDA games are the result of these limitations. Have you ever noticed how there’s usually only one way to solve a puzzle or progress to a new area? Or how each item has a very set, specific purpose? Or how in most games you can’t jump unless you’re on a ledge? Or how the environments very clearly dictate where you can and can’t go? Many fans find these features to be endearing, nostalgic, or “just the way ZELDA games are.” But the limitations of the gameplay go against the ideology of exploration and imagination.

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ZELDA games are well-oiled machines. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. I’ve been playing ZELDA games my whole life and I love the way they work. But it’s time for something new. They’re incredible, but they’re very organized, static experiences, especially when you compare them to other open-world games.

OCARINA OF TIME is often cited as one of the best games ever made. But did you know it was originally supposed to be bigger? More dynamic? More open-ended? Many of the original goals and ideas for the game are unrecognizable from what we got. But the technology just wasn’t there and much of what was planned for the game had to be scrapped, leaving us with a brilliant, yet unfinished, masterpiece.

From the beginning, Miyamoto wanted to take the idea of a “game world” further than it had ever gone before, to spark a sense of limitless wonder and exploration in the player. Quite frankly, ZELDA has slowly moved away from this ambitious dream, restricted by technology and the expectations of its audience. This is a series rooted in boundless ambition and its very concept was—and still is—ahead of its time. But the industry has lacked the technology to match that ambition.

Until now.

What is BREATH OF THE WILD doing differently?

BREATH OF THE WILD is the game ZELDA was always intended to be, returning to the ambitious goals that inspired its creation. Games like THE WITCHER, DARK SOULS, and THE ELDER SCROLLS were inspired by ZELDA, so it’s only natural for BREATH OF THE WILD to expand upon their ideas. Like DARK SOULS, the player is dropped into an open-world with little instruction or context, and much of the story is told through the atmosphere. Like THE WITCHER, the player is given numerous tools and powers to experiment with, many of which have multiple uses. A simple stick, for example, can be used as a weapon, or it can be lit on fire and used as a torch, or it can be used to start wildfires across the landscape. And like THE ELDER SCROLLS, the focus is on the massive, detailed overworld, full of secrets and intrigue.

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But BREATH OF THE WILD isn’t just copying the features of its predecessors—it’s enhancing them. Puzzles are open-ended and based more on creative thought than linear problem solving. Link’s classic green tunic is taking a backseat to a fully fleshed out armor system. The environments are more open than ever before, and the player is given the ability to climb, hang-glide, and even use their shield as a snowboard to traverse the terrain. You can cook food and brew potions with a variety of effects. The world is dynamic and systems-driven with time, weather, and temperature affecting the way you approach obstacles. Once again, ZELDA is leading the charge for open-world adventure games. No longer is it a controlled, developer-dictated experience. It’s a sandbox for the player to explore, free from the restrictions of its predecessors.

[BREATH OF THE WILD]: This is the dream. This is what it all comes back to.
BREATH OF THE WILD: This is the dream. This is what it all comes back to.
Nintendo’s newfound freedom has inspired them to take the setting in some new directions. BREATH OF THE WILD features some heavy sci-fi elements, with environments that would feel right at home in a STAR WARS film. The first moments of the game feature Link emerging from some sort of cryogenic pod and interacting with bizarre machines. The dungeons we’ve seen so far feature sleek surfaces, force-fields, and robots. Hell, they even gave Link his own tablet.

[BREATH OF THE WILD]: When can I buy one of these?
BREATH OF THE WILD: When can I buy one of these?
This all may seem out of place for a ZELDA game, but Miyamoto wanted the series to include sci-fi elements from the beginning. The triforce was originally composed of computer chips and the player would travel between medieval and futuristic landscapes. But the idea was scrapped and over time players became used to the fantasy setting. With BREATH OF THE WILD, we’re witnessing a series break free of its bonds, both technologically and thematically, and a return to the innovative roots that started it all.

The Point

BREATH OF THE WILD reminds me why I love video games. Sure, it’s not out yet and sure, it could end up a disaster. But Nintendo’s ambition, scope, and willingness to change is an example of everything good about this industry. In a market so afraid to innovate, so afraid of its own fans, so afraid of its own investors, it’s refreshing to see a classic series try something new.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA was built on ambitious dreams, on ideas ahead of their time, on pushing the boundaries of what a game can do. I hope BREATH OF THE WILD is a success, and I hope it inspires the industry to get out of its comfort zone and give us something fresh and creative.

One Comment

  1. ThatGuy

    March 6, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Interesting article looking at how we got here.. or rather, finally got back to where we left off.

    Pretty great observations, but heres some info for you to chew on, should sheds some light on what you’ve noticed here:

    “Have you ever noticed how there’s usually only one way to solve a puzzle or progress to a new area? Or how each item has a very set, specific purpose? Or how in most games you can’t jump unless you’re on a ledge? Or how the environments very clearly dictate where you can and can’t go? Many fans find these features to be endearing, nostalgic, or “just the way ZELDA games are.” But the limitations of the gameplay go against the ideology of exploration and imagination.”

    Its not technology that has been holding this back, but Nintendo’s own design philosophy, that either changed since groundbreaking titles like metroid or zelda, or wasn’t able to impose its will at that time due to inexperience.

    Nintendo has been very PURPOSEFULLY forcing those aspects into the game, as in they REDUCE interactivity until you can only interact with the specified solution, and any other solutions found during qa are removed as glitches, and its not just Zelda that has suffered from this extrinsic design philosophy for what was supposed to be an intrinsically designed game, but metroid was devastated by this. It started as far back as super metroid, where the pal version was neutred and all the tricks and techniques sequence breakers of the jap/na players enjoyed were removed for the localization (This is why super metroid rom mods only work with NA/JAP roms… The moves and techniques they design their mods around dont exist in the pal version). The same thing happened to metroid prime. But by the time the second and third games came around, like the 2d counterparts fusion and zero mission, they had enough experience to remove it from the game before shipping, just like Zelda.

    Aunoma finally outright admitted this practice in a review for breath of the wild. “When we saw that players were coming up with solutions the designers didn’t intend, we considered them a glitch, and removed them”. This is why Zelda was so strict, not because of technological limitations, but purposeful design decisions to remove intrinsic gameplay… The very aspect that put Zelda and metroid on the map. It was the new kids at monolithsoft who brought this too his attention, and got him to go back and review all the strict traditions they followed, pick out which ones werent really necessary, and, in his words, “Burn them”.

    So, Finally, Nintendo went back to basics with Zelda, and stopped removing everything older fans used to play the series for, and the result, is exactly what we always said it would be.

    Now the question is whether Nintendo will look at the critical acclaim garnered buy the title, and use intrinsic design as the cornerstone of their design philosophy again, or if it will be a flash in the pan once and again left to the way side.

    Reply

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