Nintendo broadens its horizons with Breath Of The Wild, the most ambitious Zelda ever conceived
Nintendo broadens its horizons with Breath Of The Wild, the most ambitious Zelda game to date
Game The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Developer/publisher Nintendo Format NX, Wii U Origin Japan Release 2017
elda, as you can see, has changed. It has done so in multiple, wonderful ways – but the Japanese, inevitably, can distil what Nintendo has done to a single word. The closest translation for katayaburi is ‘breaking the mould’; literally, it means to tear, rip or destroy it, but its everyday use expresses the unconventional nature of something. “There’s a form of Japanese theatre called kabuki,” series producer Eiji Aonuma tells us. “A kabuki master would say, ‘In order to break the mould, you have to know the mould’. Often, when I speak to Mr Miyamoto about a problem, that’s the feedback he’ll give me: ‘You don’t understand the mould here. That’s why it’s no good’.”
E3 is one mould Nintendo knows inside and out. It has had a presence at the show every year since the event’s inception in 1995. These days it no longer holds a bombastic press conference, preferring instead to filter out an increasingly critical press and speak directly to players through its Nintendo Direct broadcasts and Treehouse livestreams. But it still decamps to LA for the videogame calendar’s biggest week of the year.
This year, it broke the mould. Its announcement weeks before the show that it would have one game, and one game only, playable at its cavernous booth in the LA Convention Center’s west hall was roundly criticised. Almost inevitably, it was a staggering success. The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of
The Wild, running on a four-year-old console with a mediocre sales record, was the runaway game of the show.
Within an hour of the show floor opening on the final day of E3, Nintendo was already at capacity for the day, and turning people away from a booth that had been entirely decked out in Zelda style. Scenery – a Red Bokoblin on a guard tower, a stove full of ingredients, a laser-eyed Guardian – was built to scale so that visitors would see the world as Link would. A gigantic, curved watercolour painting of the distant mountains of Hyrule ran around the perimeter. There was a day/night cycle; the booth would darken and crack with thunder as mock storms rolled in. Beneath the faux-grass carpet lay pressure points which, when stepped on, would trigger environmental effects: a rush of wind, the th wip of a volley of arrows, the sizzle of food on the stove. And around it all, 140 stations – surely a record – devoted to a single game. Some interpreted Nintendo’s decision to only bring
Breath Of The Wild to E3 as further evidence of a former titan turning its back on the greatest videogame show on Earth. In the end, it might just have redefined it.
All of which is rather appropriate. As well as Nintendo knows its E3 mould, it is nothing compared to its knowledge of The Legend Of Zelda’s. Breath Of The Wild, Link’s 18th full outing in almost 30 years, is arguably the most ambitious dismantle-and-rebuild job Nintendo has conducted since the day it decided to get out of the playing-card business. It represents the greatest shift in Nintendo’s approach to its work since Super Mario 64. A company that is frequently, and fairly, accused of resting on its laurels has thrown out the style guide and started again, expanding, refining or redefining every component part of what was once the greatest RPG series on the planet. From what we’ve seen, it might well be about to reclaim its throne.
“We got a lot of feedback from the people that played
Skyward Sword,” Aonuma tells us. “There were these pockets of worlds that players were able to dive into, but they really wanted to see what was in between those worlds – all the hidden elements they weren’t able to see. I thought that was really natural for Zelda fans, who like to explore, to uncover little secrets. We realised that we needed to make this free, open-air world.”
And so they did: Breath Of The Wild’s Hyrule is simply enormous. Pausing the game, we bring up the world map; it’s not been filled in yet but we can zoom out and assess its overall size relative to Great Plateau, the game’s starting area and the setting for its two E3 demos. It occupies, we’re told, just two per cent of the map. The game is set across an expanse that spans 360 square kilometres – 12 times the size of Twilight Princess. If that reference isn’t modern enough for you, think of it as more than two-and-a-half times the size of The Witcher III.
The Plateau itself is sparse, airy and quiet. There’s the odd crumbling ruin, a moss-hewn Temple Of Time, small Bokoblin encampments and the occasional Shrine – the blue, sci-fi-styled puzzle chambers that dot the landscape and give focus to the rural sprawl in between longer, more traditional
Zelda dungeons. Nintendo limited the E3 experience to the Great Plateau for story reasons, of course – in the space of 20 minutes, there is only so much you can take away about where
Breath Of The Wild fits into the knotty Zelda timeline. But its elevation, high above the rest of the land, means it is the ideal spot to assess the extent to which Breath Of The
Wild’s Hyrule dwarfs that of its predecessors. Yet for all Great Plateau’s apparent solitude, it is simply packed with things to do, thanks in large part to the many layers of systems that bob beneath the game’s surface. After three decades of cutting down grass and smashing pots to find bombs and rupees, Link is now a master hunter/gatherer, either downing his own prey or scavenging it (a Bokoblin camp may have meat roasting on a fire, for instance). Heart pickups have been consigned to history: Link heals himself by eating, the contents of his knapsack pantry becoming more effective when combined and cooked. A raw steak will refill a single heart of Link’s life-bar; putting it on a stove yields a seared steak, which heals a heart and a half; cook it in a pot and the resulting steak skewer will restore two hearts’ worth of health. Experimentation is key here, certainly early on, since certain combinations of ingredients produce dishes which grant temporary buffs – an over-shield, perhaps, or improved stealth.
Yup, stealth. Click an analogue stick and Link enters a crouched stance, the new noise meter in the bottom corner of the screen showing a quieter step and reduced chance of detection. Hyrule’s day/night cycle means enemies set up camp and snooze through the night, so you can sneak up and dispatch them without a fight. That’s not to say Link has an easier time under cover of darkness, however: new, tougher nocturnal enemies roam, and simply finding your way in the dark is a challenge both to the player and the developer.
The first Legend Of Zelda was a strong influence, Aonuma says. A mountain range on the horizon first appeared as an illustration in the NES game’s manual
THE GAME SPANS 360 SQUARE KILOMETRES – 12 TIMES THE SIZE OF TWILIGHT PRINCESS
Aonuma admits that designing a game with a day/night cycle for the first time has been “extremely hard. We didn’t want to create something that was dark and scary. I’ve been up a tall mountain at night and seen the stars; it was completely dark, but the starlight made it brighter. I wanted our nighttime environment to be something like that. And when it’s dark, there are elements in the environment that glow, so the player can use those to find their way.” When all else fails, Link has a torch, but good luck sneaking up on an enemy with a great big flaming club in your hand.
Especially if you should accidentally swing it on your approach and watch in horror as the grass around you catches fire, the new dynamic weather system causing a sudden rush of wind that sees the flames spread off towards the camp you’re creeping up on, alerting the previously oblivious enemy force to your presence. As fine as each of
Breath Of The Wild’s new systems is in isolation, the real magic is in the way those systems collide and intermingle. The cooking experiment that yields a dish that raises Link’s body temperature to let him withstand the game’s colder regions. The arrow aimed through a campfire towards a stack of explosive barrels. The boulder or bomb sent down a slope towards a group of enemies, an accurate physics model dragging it off course at the last minute. For a series whose instalments have been almost entirely linear, despite the size of their worlds, this has necessitated quite the change of thinking for Nintendo. Aonuma, for his part, is just relieved that some of Zelda’s established design principles still apply.
“If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have anything to offer,” he says with a laugh. “I do question the staff about whether the way we did things in the past is really the right way to go this time. ‘Is this the path we want to take?’ That’s the question I ask them. The stuff we did in the past, we did for a reason. But a lot of the new staff on our team don’t know the real reason for why those things are there – they’re just so used to having them that they just kind of fit them in. We wanted to make sure they know why they’re doing something before they do it.”
Despite all this, it still feels, unmistakably, like a Zelda game. Yet if there’s a defining element to this series, Aonuma doesn’t know what it is. “Whenever I ask Mr Miyamoto what
Zelda is, he says, ‘Well, Zelda’s greatness is that it’s unique’. So we focus on what we weren’t able to do in other games.”
That is the sort of conundrum that only presents itself in the creation of a handful of videogames. The Legend Of Zelda’s longevity means that the most appropriate points of comparison for each new instalment are the games that preceded it. While Breath Of The Wild’s morass of systems are new to Zelda, they are hardly new concepts for the industry as a whole. Were Ubisoft to announce a vast openworld RPG with a day/night cycle and weather, with hunting, crafting and stealth elements, no one would bat an eyelid. For Zelda, and for Nintendo, it feels transformative.
“Of course we play a lot of games,” Aonuma says. “Especially the staff – they play whatever they like. When someone says, ‘Hey, I’d really like to put this feature in the game,’ someone else may say, ‘No, actually, that’s already been done [in another game]’. We try not to focus too much on whether it’s already been done. We think, OK, it’s been done before, but how can we implement it in our game and make it our own, unique experience?”
So while Link can climb now, he’s limited by a stamina bar that will make him fall if it empties, forcing you to plan your route. The patient, weighty combat system evokes the likes of
Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma, but is very much its own beast: weapons have numerical attack values, so you can take a giant leap up the power curve by beating a powerful enemy early on and using the weapon it drops. The jump button recalls Skyrim, since it shares its button mapping – but then you realise there has never before been a jump button in a mainline Zelda game. In the context of a 30-year-old series, innovation is relative, seemingly borrowed ideas feeling as fresh as the cold night air in a game that has previously trodden much the same path in every new instalment.
Yet in addition to writing new chapters in the Zelda rulebook, Aonuma and company have had to revise some older entries too. “In the past titles, if a player found a different solution to the one we’d intended, we’d call it a bug,” the director says. “But for this title we created puzzles with multiple solutions. Even battles against enemies have a puzzle element: you can push a rock off a cliff and defeat them that way, or have bees chase them away so you can sneak up and take their weapons. Even if it’s a strong enemy, there are a lot of strategies, and it’s not just about battling.”
This new freeform approach to puzzle-solving is finely showcased in the Shrines. While the early examples are brief, linear puzzle rooms designed to foster understanding of a single ability, later variants are larger, longer and a good deal more flexible. Abilities are styled as runes, found in Shrines and bound to the tablet-like Sheikah Slate. Magnesis lets you move metallic objects; Stasis lets you freeze time; Cryonis creates a pillar of ice from a pool of water. Bombs – the new square one a necessary addition given how often the physics system ruins your best-laid explosive plans – are rune powers too.
“EVEN BATTLES HAVE A PUZZLE ELEMENT. THERE ARE A LOT OF STRATEGIES, NOT JUST BATTLING”
ABOVE The clash of the Shrines’ sci-fi and the natural world is a key theme for Breath Of The Wild, Aonuma says. BELOW Link can swing this leaf to put wind in a raft’s sail, though its effect is no match for the real thing
TheLegendOfZelda series producer Eiji Aonuma has been working on the series since OcarinaOfTime