One of the big development themes
Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma has touted for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is that it challenges the conventions of Zelda.
And that’s true—it does away with many ideas that have been associated with the series since its early installments. You no longer pick up recovery hearts from fallen enemies to restore your life, or cut grass to find dropped Rupees and ammunition. Items now come with numeric stats that are visible to the player. There’s a dedicated jump button for the first time apart from
But Nintendo’s also tried to pitch that
Breath of the Wild‘s biggest selling point—the vast, open world that players will be free to explore at their leisure—is a break from convention. In doing so, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to recognize that the concept of an open world is at the heart of Zelda‘s DNA, and that this new game is more of a homecoming for the series than a voyage into the unknown.
The Legend of Zelda was, in many ways, the original revolution in action-based open world gameplay. At the outset, you’re dropped into a vast world, with no directions other than to find the Triforce in the eight labyrinths scattered throughout the kingdom. You’re challenged to forge out on your own, using whatever tools you can find to survive the enemies, travel to the far corners of the world, and find the labyrinths so you can get what you need to save the kingdom.
This was the defining hallmark of the original Zelda game, and it carried over in some measure into its sequels. Zelda II was a little less open from a design perspective, but it still left players with little direction outside of a general endgame objective. A Link to the Past started off with a much tighter narrative and flow, but it let players off the leash once they made it to the Dark World. Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field generally didn’t keep players from checking out any area their curiosity might lead them to, and the adult portion of the game offered some freedom to tackle dungeons in different orders.
Freedom to move about the world as you please, even to tackle main game objectives outside of a specific story and gameplay sequence,
is one of the series’ founding conventions.
I can see why this would be difficult for Nintendo to understand, much less talk about. The
Zelda series has gone in all kinds of different directions since the very first game, and most of the titles are designed to be scripted and sequential. The Wind Waker lets you freely move about the islands, but the dungeons must be completed in a strict order. Twilight Princess strings together character-driven story sequences between each of the dungeons.
A lot has changed since the first game dropped us into that vast, open world. As a result, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cultural memory inside of Nintendo about
Zelda‘s open-world roots.
When asked about the challenges of developing an open-world game in an interview with
TIME, Mr. Aonuma mentioned that he found himself constantly grappling with how best to move the series forward:
“This is definitely the first time we’ve created a game this large. We didn’t know where to start. So it happened to be there was a team that was working on creating a larger world. And this team was a group of younger developers. So we had our old programmers from the Zelda team take a step aside, so we could introduce this new group of programmers.
these new, younger developers had no clue about how past Zeldas had been created. The group of new staff actually would ask us, like ‘Well I know that it’s been done, traditionally, in other Zelda titles, but why does it have to be that way?’ And among those questions there were some I just couldn’t answer, that I didn’t know the answer to myself. That was because I just took those things on as a tradition, and I didn’t really know why the tradition existed.
“When you think about it,
maybe those things really didn’t need to be there in the modern world, those traditions. So I started destroying these traditions I’d inherited in the series one by one. But it’s a process that takes a lot of time. And because we were destroying everything we’d done in the past, and rebuild new ideas from the ground up, that was the hardest thing, and it’s really taken a long time to create the thing I most wanted to create.” — Eiji Aonuma
There’s a stinging irony here when you consider that
Zelda games were traditionally non-linear, at least in partial measure. The approaches Mr. Aonuma took to sequential, linear, narrative-driven gameplay were actually a pattern that he himself created, not a tradition that he inherited. Mr. Aonuma himself actually got his start as the “new, younger developer” who “had no clue about how past Zeldas had been created,” and the way they’ve been made for the last 15 years is a product of his own vision.
Just look at his response to this remark from Matt Peckham, the TIME interviewer:
TIME: “In past Zeldas we’ve had a guide throughout the adventure. In Breath of the Wild, you seem to be inverting this, trusting players to guide themselves.”
Aonuma: [Holds up two thumbs, laughing.] “That’s it exactly. Exactly what you said.”
Here, Mr. Aonuma seems to see the idea that players should be trusted to guide their own adventure as a novelty that doesn’t line up with the approach in “past Zeldas.” But this approach was the bread and butter of the original Zelda games. Creating a more free and open adventure isn’t new, uncharted territory for the series—it is itself a series tradition, one that was long forgotten and neglected after Mr. Aonuma took the helm.
This lack of history and memory has also bled across to today’s crop of fans and onlookers. Many of these likely first encountered the series through
Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, or The Wind Waker. In his TIME interview, Peckham describes Breath of the Wild as “the first fully open-world Nintendo’s worked on.” (Obviously that isn’t true.) Looking at the wider fanbase, when it was first announced that the new Zelda would be non-linear back in 2013, many fans were anxious about Zelda turning into a Skyrim clone. (So far, it doesn’t seem that’s the case, either.) Rather than anxiety, the news should have been received with excitement that hearkened back to the nostalgia of the original titular games.
Zelda series has been around for a long time, and fans have come and gone. Other open-world games have emerged in the time that Zelda‘s been treading the sequential path—and they’ve exploded to popularity beyond anything Zelda‘s ever seen. I wonder how many fans—both lapsed fans and potential fans—Zelda has been leaving on the table by forgetting about the values it pioneered and leaving them to be picked up by others?
To be fair, Nintendo hasn’t totally ignored the influence the first Zelda game has had on Breath of the Wild. When it was first announced that the new game would feature an open world back in January 2013, Mr. Aonuma acknowledged that the first game let you travel to dungeons in any order and approach them from any direction. The team’s been open about how they took direct inspiration from a piece of artwork from the original game when envisioning the first glimpse at the horizon you’ll get when you start Breath of the Wild. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, though apparently somewhat hesitantly, says that the team is trying to go back to the roots of the series—but then tries to downplay comparisons to the first game as coming from the people trying out the game, insisting that they’re not trying to recreate it.
But since the game’s second unveiling, Nintendo’s generally tried to emphasize that the open world in
Breath of the Wild is a break from conventions. And while the game’s still getting plenty of recognition because it’s awesome, I can’t help but wonder how much more awesome the game could be if the team really knew—and really acknowledged—how much they’re tapping into the traditions that put Zelda on the map in the first place.