Unearthing the magic of a very Nintendo open world
Let’s hear it for the Koroks. Early on in Breath Of The Wild, as you head up the hill to a village, you happen across a sobbing spirit, upset because its maracas have fallen silent. Bandits, it transpires, have stolen the Korok seeds from inside them; seek one out, the spirit pledges, and it will expand your inventory by way of thanks. Storage space is at a premium early on, so while you’re amassing sidequests from passers-by at a lick, this one feels worth prioritising.
When you reach the village, you spot something curious at the entrance of the elder’s house: a row of statues, each with a ceremonial dish at their base. All but one have an apple inside. You forget about your quest for a moment – a recurring theme, this – and drop in an apple from your inventory. Out pops a tiny sprite, introducing himself as a Korok; he gives you a seed, you return it to the quest giver, and choose which category of inventory you’d like to expand. Five slots, perhaps? Ten? No. One. Bring more, the spirit urges you. Suddenly you realise there must be dozens of these seeds out there, and that you’re now hunting for a set of the world’s smallest needles in a haystack the size of a small country. It feels impossible.
Then they just sort of… arrive. After a botched attempt to glide between mountaintops sees us clamber desperately to a nearby ledge, we round the mountain’s corner and find ourselves on a path. Nearby, something seems a little off, and we head over to investigate. Moments later, out pops a Korok, and we have another seed. Who put this here, and why? Was it a reward for the sort of painstaking completionist who combs every square inch of the map, leaving no stone unturned? A reward for those who buy the strategy guide? Or did a member of the design team look at the two mountains and predict players would try to paraglide between them only to mess it up, and thus need a ledge to scurry for, a path to get them back on their feet, and perhaps a little reward to sweeten the pill of failure?
This is Breath Of The Wild’s magic in microcosm. The Korok seeds are, in theory, the worst sort of collectible: tiny things strewn seemingly at random across an enormous world. The solution in many openworld games would be to have a merchant sell a pricey map (perhaps, if we’re feeling cheeky, for real-world money) that reveals their locations. Yet that’s a decision born of a very different kind of open-world design. Ubisoft builds places – the Florence or London of an Assassin’s Creed, the San Francisco or Chicago of a Watch Dogs – then designs a game within them. This is Nintendo’s first open world, and it has come at this oversubscribed genre with a very different attitude. Open worlds are sandboxes for players, certainly. Yet to Nintendo, they’re sandboxes for developers, too, a chance to break free of the overworld-and-dungeons structure that has defined Zelda for decades. The result is a land that, for all its nonlinear freedom, feels not just built but also uncommonly tightly designed.
Genre staples are mined for novel design opportunities, giving fresh spins on established conventions. Cooking is fun, playful, and rewards logical experimentation. Variable weather is par for the course these days, but Nintendo works to ensure that even the climate is a mechanic. Extreme temperatures will drain health without the correct clothing or a mitigating elixir. During our final assault on Hyrule Castle, we had to hunker down in cover for five minutes while we waited for a rain shower to pass, since water makes climbing impossible. On the approach to Goron City, the volcanic climate will cause any wooden weapons on your back to catch on fire. And if a thunderstorm strikes up, you have a few seconds to unequip anything metallic before you’re faced with the Game Over screen. A guiding principle for Breath Of The Wild’s development was that puzzles should be able to be completed in multiple ways, a necessary tactic when everything can be approached from any angle. The towers – another genre staple, looming high in the sky and revealing the local map once scaled – are a case in point. The climb itself is simple enough, with generously placed ledges ensuring that even those without an upgraded stamina wheel can safely make their way up. But the real challenge is getting there. First you must find them – they’re not marked on the map – and then you must work out how to pass the obstruction at the base. One is walled in by frozen rocks; another is surrounded by floating enemies that will follow you up the tower if you try to bypass them. Another is patrolled by Guardians, the toughest enemy type in the game, blessed with 1,500 health points and a laser that’s a one-shot kill. Reach the top and the map fills in, but there are no icons, beyond the shrines and towns you’ve already discovered. There are road markings and area names. But the rest is up to you.
We’ve tried, over the years, to get Nintendo executives to talk about other companies’ work. The house of Mario has long cultivated the impression that it’s profoundly uninterested in what goes on outside its own walls. Breath Of The Wild producer Eiji Aonuma admits that younger members of the team play lots of games, and studied other open worlds in preparation. Yet this is no copycat work. Rather, the design teams have studied the competition, identified the genre’s staples, its peccadilloes and its problems, and addressed them with the same flair that goes into a Mario or linear Zelda game. The results are breathtaking.
During our final assault, we had to hunker down in cover for five minutes waiting for a rain shower to pass