A New Creative Force Brings a Vast New World to Zelda
The Nintendo Paradox is in full effect here at E3. Even though Nintendo isn’t nearly as popular as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, its booth is the place to be. The massive stand teems with demo kiosks where people spend hours waiting to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Say what you will about the company and its foibles, but the folks behind Mario and the Wii U still make some of the world’s best games. The Zelda series, now 30 years old, remains a perennial favorite replete with painterly graphics, tricky puzzles, and thrilling combat against fantastic beasts. The demo offers an intriguing look at what is the most expansive Zelda yet, an open-world adventure that encourages you to go anywhere you like and take challenges as they come.
People are raving about the demo, which nods toward a company no longer afraid of new things and a series breaking with some revered creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s cherished design philosophies. But before any of that could happen, producer Eiji Aonuma had to overcome his great fear of letting players roam unguided.
“I thought that making the user get lost was a sin,” he says.
He faced this demon with Skyward Sword, the last console title in the Zelda series. “A lot of the feedback that I received from the players of Skyward Sword is that they saw these pockets of land, but couldn’t explore what was between them,” he says. Players complained that it lacked the joy of exploration and discovery evoked by the Legend of Zelda, the game that started it all in 1986. Aonuma says that game’s 2-D bird’s-eye view made it easier to find and follow your path. “But in 3-D, all of a sudden, you might come across a wall or something that you can’t get past,” he says.
The solution to that problem defined the design of Breath of the Wild and the terrain players explore. “Link can climb up high and look down from cliffs,” Aonuma says. “It’s kind of like 2-D gameplay.” The demo’s opening scene shows Link running to the edge of a high cliff and surveying the world beyond. This harkens back to a beloved illustration from the game manual of the original Zelda, and it provides an insight into the gameplay: You can always climb something to get a sense of where you are and where you ought to go.
The first of the two Zelda demos encourages you to explore a vast area that Nintendo says represents just one percent of the gameworld. Climbing and running deplete Link’s stamina meter, requiring brief rests after a short sprint or climbs. I decided to raid a monster camp and found treasure and weapons. This is important, because weapons degrade with use. You’re constantly on the lookout for new bows, spears, clubs, and what have you.
I died in a fall while running up a cliffside trying to push a boulder onto enemies. I revived among those enemies, defeated them, and found a treasure chest containing a Fire Rod—a magnificent weapon that shoots big, bouncing balls of fire, Mario-like, starting huge fires in the dry grass.
Eiji Aonuma (L) and Shigeru Miyamoto (R) at Nintendo’s E3 booth.
The second demo is a bit more structured. It features scenes from the beginning of the game. Link awakes in some kind of mysterious water-bath stasis chamber, like a Precog in Minority Report but wearing boxer briefs. (Many people have, upon seeing this, promised to keep Link nearly nude for the entire game. “Please try it,” Aonuma says.) You soon find clothes, which you can swap throughout the game to increase your defensive capabilities.
Once clothed (or not), you meet a mysterious old man in another callback to the first Zelda, which started with Link coming across an old man who gave him a sword. The fellow sends you on the first storyline missions.
At this point, I understood why Nintendo offered two demos, in this order. It wants players to get a sense of the storyline without holding their hands so tightly they lose sight of the fact this is a new kind of Zelda, one that no longer requires slavishly going from story beat to story beat. You can ignore the old man if you want.
Under the Eyes of “God”
Breath of the Wild is the first console Zelda since creator Shigeru Miyamoto relinquished day-to-day development duties. “I’m actually the one who was the most affected by Miyamoto taking a step back, because now I have to take on all the responsibilities of Zelda,” Aonuma says. “I thought, hey, this is my chance to create something I really want to create!”
That doesn’t mean Miyamoto is gone, however. To the development team, “Miyamoto is God,” Aonuma says. “So even when I say, hey, this is what I think should be done, they’ll always question: ‘Well, what would Miyamoto say?’” In that sense, the team wanted to create something Miyamoto will enjoy. “Up until about two years ago, Miyamoto actually had a lot of comments and advice about Breath of the Wild.” Those comments shaped some elements of the game.
At about the same time, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata instructed Miyamoto to create games that capitalize on the Wii U’s unique GamePad controller, with its motion controls and touchscreen. The first of them, Star Fox Zero, featured dual-screen gameplay that confused players. The developers tried the dual screen approach with Zelda, but rejected it.
“We realized that having something on the GamePad and looking back and forth between the TV screen and the GamePad actually disrupts the gameplay, and the concentration that the game player may be experiencing,” Aonuma said. “You have your car’s GPS system on your dash. If you had it down in your lap, you’re going to get into an accident!” Still, you can play the game entirely on the GamePad screen, if you like. Considering how vast the world is, it would keep you from monopolizing the TV.
It’s a safe bet that Aounuma favored single-screen gameplay with a standard gaming controller because Nintendo is bringing Breath of the Wild to NX, its next console. The two games will play identically. “I’m not going to create something where the users are going to have a different experience,” he says. (And now you know NX will support a standard buttons-and-sticks gameplay style, and you won’t be using some crazy contraption.)
A Wild New Nintendo?
Breath of the Wild is a new direction for Zelda, but the gameplay is familiar and brings a decidedly Nintendo-like twist to the popular “open world” genre. Aonuma recruited “a different set of programmers than I’ve worked with in the past. This is a group of people who have studied triple-A games, and researched and dissected what kind of elements we can add to Nintendo games to create experiences like that.”
In other words, Nintendo is studying where others succeed, deconstructing those games down, and reassembling those elements in a game immediately recognizable as a Nintendo title. Their work will shape games beyond Zelda. “Because of all the efforts that they’ve put in, we were able to create a new base,” Aonuma says, “so I think you’ll start to see different types of games in the future.”
This is an intriguing idea and a bold experiment. If it succeeds, Breath of the Wild will mark the start of a new journey for the company, one that sees a new team, a new Zelda and perhaps even a new Nintendo unconstrained by the boundaries of its past.
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