How do you follow up a video game considered by some to be the greatest of all time? Nintendo’s been forced to answer that question before, and it’s in the process of doing so again.
It’s been a little over six years since “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” launched alongside the Nintendo Switch to near-universal praise. That’s the longest gap between mainline titles for perhaps the most critically acclaimed gaming franchise in history. But we now are just weeks away from May 12, when Nintendo will release the wildly anticipated sequel, “Tears of the Kingdom”.
Details and footage of the forthcoming Zelda entry have been in short supply. Nintendo initially revealed the then-untitled sequel in a first-look video during E3 2019. The next footage landed two years later at E3 2021 in the form of a proper teaser trailer. Fans then waited until last September, when Nintendo dropped the game’s first official trailer while finally unveiling the title. The second official trailer was shared five months later in early February.
Along the way, fans and critics largely were left in the dark about the game’s purpose for existing beyond Nintendo’s obvious need for releasing a sequel to the Switch’s fourth best-selling title. One of the most innovative franchises in gaming, the Zelda series features 19 mainline entries and multiple spinoffs, with nearly each unique from the next. While the core formula almost always is present, Zelda games typically include new hooks, gimmicks and/or creative choices that help the titles differ from their predecessors and successors.
Will “Tears of the Kingdom” feel similarly fresh? That remains to be seen, but the biggest clues arrived Tuesday when Nintendo shared roughly 11 minutes of actual gameplay footage.
Take a look:
There’s a lot to unpack in that video, and we’ll cover much of it in a moment. But first, let’s go over some important context.
“Breath of the Wild” was somewhat of a double-edged Master Sword (sorry, had to). Largely eschewing the linear, dungeon-focused formula that undeniably grew stale, the game instead drew inspiration from the franchise’s freedom-based roots, providing the kind of groundbreaking open-world experience that fans always felt was possible. In many ways, “Breath of the Wild” was the perfect marriage of everything that makes Zelda such an iconic gaming institution.
You can play the game in virtually any way you can think of. Want to hit all 120 shrines, gather all the collectibles and pour hundreds of hours into exploring the enormous map? Go ahead. Feel like ignoring nearly everything in favor of breaking the speedrun record of just over 24 minutes? Give it a shot. Think you have enough stamina to climb the game’s highest peaks or glide to the edges of the world? Have at it. Interested in leveraging glitches and hacks to go viral with creative videos? The possibilities are endless.
But there were nitpicks and warning signs, many of which we pointed out in our review. Gone were the classic, challenging and required Zelda dungeons, and in their place were four “Divine Beast” sorta-dungeons that were uninteresting, relatively easy and entirely avoidable, along with the aforementioned shrines, which functioned as quick-hit puzzles. The tried-and-true system of unlocking essential (and indestructible) weapons and items was ditched for a vast array of optional and breakable items and weapons, plus a handful of fancy abilities that were cool but also inessential. Most notably, the story, normally a top priority in development, was deemphasized — perhaps unintentionally — by the ability to skip over many sections of the game.
I haven’t played “Ocarina of Time” in over 10 years and I still can tell you exactly what happened. I replayed “Breath of the Wild” six months ago and I barely remember what went down.
But that’s fine, because all of those aspects are what make “Breath of the Wild” uniquely Zelda and a worthy entry. The problem, however, was that the game created a sneaking feeling that Nintendo wouldn’t know what to do next. Was it possible for Nintendo to backtrack to the previous formula, or did it make its bed with a generation of gamers that are hyper-focused on either first-person shooters or supersized open-world games? Could the toothpaste go back into the tube?
The hope is that the “Tears of the Kingdom” team found a way to retain what made “Breath of the Wild” so great while reintroducing Zelda elements that stood the test of time. And given the franchise’s track record, there’s a decent chance the developers pulled it off. We won’t know for sure until the game comes out.
But the new gameplay footage seemingly worried as many fans as it excited.
On one hand, the game’s creators clearly are doubling down on the unpredictable creativity that enabled “Breath of the Wild” to have such a long shelf life — and that’s great.
Instead of effectively punishing players for things like the popular “flying machine” glitch, Nintendo inserted the “Ultrahand” ability, which apparently allows you to assemble random objects into something potentially useful, such as a makeshift boat or flying car. In a perfectly Nintendo move, the developers listened to fans on both sides of the weapon-durability debate and came up with a wonderfully creative compromise in the “Fuse” ability, which enables players to combine weapons with different items to form entirely unique weapons. Annoyed by your tree branch breaking after a few strikes? fuse it with a rock and voila: a stick-rock thing that’s stronger and more durable. Stink at using your bow on flying enemies? Fuse your arrows with a Keese Eyeball and you suddenly have a homing arrow — because of course.
The footage also offered a deeper look at the “sky islands,” which you can access in multiple ways, including by using the “Recall” ability that essentially rewinds time for specific objects, like a boulder that fell from one of the islands. We also got a look at the “Ascend” ability, which enables Link to, well, ascend through the ceilings of most indoor spaces, such as caves and buildings. All of these abilities should provide new, exciting ways to investigate the map, which likely will be the largest in Zelda history. That’s good news, especially for those who fell in love with the exploration enabled by the world in “Breath of the Wild.”
On the other hand, it’s hard to watch the “Tears of the Kingdom” footage and not feel like the game is just a souped-up version of its predecessor. And that’s something that Zelda fans rarely, if ever, have been able to say about a new entry.
Type “Zelda DLC” into the Twitter search bar and you’ll find numerous fans who feel like the new game’s map is a glorified copy of the previous one. On the surface, that’s not an inherently bad thing, because for many, the map in “Breath of the Wild” is the primary feature that sets the game apart and makes it great. What’s wrong with more of a good thing?
However, the issue lies in how the map feels, which is an admittedly nebulous criticism.
Take “Majora’s Mask”, for example. Released just 17 months after the legendary “Ocarina of Time,” the game’s map was a virtual carbon copy of its predecessor. But the world in “Majora’s Mask” featured a distinct personality that was embedded in all of its areas, enemies and missions. It was a completely different game, and not just because of its central conflict and storyline.
In comparison, the world in “Tears of the Kingdom”, at least the one shown in the gameplay footage, replicates the same personality that shone through every aspect of “Breath of the Wild”. The same music, sound effects, graphics and general aesthetics all are back, along with many of the core user interface elements. It feels like you’re looking at “Breath of the Wild 2” or a years-later DLC package.
That’s not to say the case is closed. Far from it, in fact.
The new footage didn’t include any looks at the underground areas that were teased in previous videos. For all we know, there will be an “Elden Ring“-like elevator that will take you to an underground world in which you’ll spend countless hours. That would be a fitting outcome, considering “Elden Ring” built upon, and in some cases perfected, many of “Breath of the Wild’s” open-world innovations.
The “sky islands” also remain shrouded in mystery. The ones shown in the footage might look like natural extensions of the “Breath of the Wild” map, but the above-ground areas in the final game probably will feature significant variety. That’s the hope, anyway.
We also must acknowledge that most of our questions remain unanswered.
The story details are unclear. Only the developers know if classic dungeons will return. The cooking/crafting system looks like it’ll be different, but the extent to which is unknown. We barely have seen any enemies. The rumors of a playable Princess Zelda also still could prove true.
Nintendo almost always has tricks up its sleeve, and “Tears of the Kingdom” probably will be the latest example of that. Series producer Eiji Aonuma indicated as much at the beginning of the gameplay video.
“If we talk about all the changes today, we’ll run out of time,” he said.
For now, Zelda fans will just have to take him at his word.