Fresh Air

Nin­tendo broad­ens its hori­zons with Breath Of The Wild, the most am­bi­tious Zelda ever con­ceived

EDGE - - SEC­TIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

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

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