The Zelda franchise is one of the most beloved in video game history. During its thirty years it has enchanted players with its fantastical universe and action-adventure gameplay. The series does like to tread a well-trodden and predictable path though. Each installment requires Link, our protagonist, to systematically unlock new tools, solve puzzles and defeat enemies until he can finally reach the final area to defeat a great evil and thus save the world. He even wears the same green tunic in every game.
Ocarina of Time perfectly exemplified this tried and tested pattern of liner, story-based gameplay but before Ocarina the series focused less on epic storytelling and more on systemic gameplay. Less tell and more show. For example, in Ocarina, the Owl shows up and literally tells Link to “go to place X and defeat enemy Y, blah blah… ”. I love Ocarina of Time but it was an extremely linear game. In previous games such as Link’s Awakening, exploration with little guiding was encouraged. The game started with Link waking up after a shipwreck, with very little explanation of what happened or what he had to do. Even the NPCs were useless in telling you how to progress. You simply had to explore the island and work out what was going on. This added to the mystery and the world immersion of the game and allowed for the player to discover what was going on as opposed to just being told where to go.
With the success of Ocarina of Time Nintendo started to emulate its style at the expense of the previous games’ show-and-most-definitely-don’t-tell approach. They started making the games more approachable to newcomers which inevitably meant more hand holding. They also marketed them around one, single feature. For example, for Ocarina of Time it was the 3-D graphics, for Windwaker it was the boat mechanics and for Skyward Sword it was the Wii’s ability to wield a sword with the use of its motion controls. This potentially led designers to put more focus on these highlighted features, at the cost of others. For example, however cool the idea of Link sailing around was, it did get a little boring traversing Windwaker’s vast open space which was very sparsely populated. Nintendo even tried to rectify this by introducing a sail that didn’t rely on the wind in the reboot on the Wii U.
All of this has surprisingly changed with the recently announced episode; Breath of the Wild and its many new features, the most important one, a true open world (I don’t think Windwaker’s really counted). Although Link still has to cast evil out of Hyrule, he can now attempt to do this pretty much from the get go. No dungeon crawling, no hunting for items to unlock the next area and little to no story, something that has been standard to the series for a long while. Now obviously to complete the game like this would be incredibly difficult, potentially unrewarding and not what Nintendo have in mind for the average player but the most revealing aspect about this decision is that the option exists in the first place.
Not only is Zelda calling back to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening by encouraging more immersive gameplay and less steering of the player, it is promoting the choice to approach the game however the player wants. We saw a tentative step towards this in the recent adaptation, A Link Between Worlds (a semi re-release of A Link to the Past) which allowed players to complete the game’s dungeons in which ever order they pleased. Breath of the Wild takes this a few steps further by including a plethora of new systems all of which can be used on top of each other with a variety of results.
Link no longer has an indestructible sword. He now must find or steal weapons from enemies, all of which degrade with use. These weapons come in a wide variety of flavours, they all handle differently as well as deal damage differently. There is a cooking system that uses scavenged food and hunted meat. Link can actually climb now as there is a jump button! This is such an insane concept for a Zelda game. As someone who has played the vast majority of them, the fact ingrained into my Zelda playing psyche is that Link jumps off a ledge when you move him off it, not with a button. When all of these new systems combine you see a strange, new way of playing Zelda. For example, if the player is confronted with a camp of enemies, in the previous games your only option would be simply move into it and kill them. But now you can sneak around them, find a ledge and climb up it and attack from above, or find some food, cook it in order to gain more health and then run in all bows blazing.
What is stranger still is that Nintendo seem to be borrowing many of these systems from more modern, western games. We see the popular Ubisoft map revealing technique of tower climbing made famous by Assassins Creed. The crafting system seems to be reminiscent of Minecraft and the millions of games that have used it since. Survival games have even influenced Zelda; cold environments see Link shiver and affect his combat abilities and fires can be started by striking a sword onto metal.
Now for those who have never played a Zelda game all these changes might not sound so ground breaking. Games have been copying each other for decades. However, the inclusion of all these new gameplay systems puts me both in a state of fear and excitement. The excitement comes from Nintendo trying new things and evolving the series. No longer is a new game based around something like swinging a Wii remote (cough Skyward Sword). The fear comes from what that will do to the essence of Zelda. I truly hope that Nintendo hasn’t simply looked at what’s been popular in recent games and shoved it into the new Zelda in a vague hope that it will reconnect with a more modern audience.
With what we’ve seen so far from Breath of the Wild, it looks as if Nintendo will plant a new, badly needed milestone for the series. By looking back at what made the series so popular in the first place and by looking forward at what it takes to stand out in the modern world of videogames. I hope Zelda and Nintendo can make this milestone prominent and game changing in the same way that the Doom reboot recently did this year. In the meantime, if you want to scratch your Zelda itch, have a go at some of the aforementioned titles in the series, especially if you want to experience the type of gameplay that Breath of the Wild is sure to serve up.