Posted on July 01 2016 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
Under Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto’s watch, the Zelda series has certainly tried it’s hardest to innovate. It started with art style changes and a boat and has ranged from DS touch controls and trains to multiplayer experiences and motion controls. While all of these changes to the series in that of themselves are harmless, they represented an idea of change that primarily involved how a player physically controls Link. Even in A Link Between Worlds, probably the most traditional Zelda in the last decade, the game centered around a singular mechanic to make it stand out (wall merging).
When I look back on the games released since Ocarina of Time I tend to find a general theme that they are all built around a singular idea or concept. Zelda stopped being about… Zelda, and started being built around single ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, some of my favorite moments in all of video games have happened in these very titles, but it also represented a close minded approach to advancing the series. It wasn’t built around improving within, but in injecting a new concept and trying to fit the rest of the game around it.
Breath of the Wild represents a true shift in that mentality. While the general theme for development might have been breaking with series gameplay conventions, reality is that the demo alone showed how this title isn’t about any one singular concept, but rather about improving the very fundamentals about the series on the whole – advancing them forward both with how other games in the world have showed advancement and both in the formula of Zelda games needing to be updated.
It’s hard to fault the Zelda team specifically for this lack of ideal in prior games, as the direction of the entire company since the launch of the Wii and DS has been built around some sort of singular feature. From touch controls and dual screens to motion controls and tablets, Nintendo on the whole found itself in a cycle of one off ideas and games being forced to work around them. One could argue there was a lack of synergy, despite the fact that during this time some of Nintendo’s very best games released.
That being said, back in 2014 it very much felt like Breath of the Wild, even for all the ideas going into it, was going to try and force itself around this idea of using the GamePad. In fact, at one point Nintendo stated rather boldly that Breath of the Wild (then, just called The Legend of Zelda for Wii U) would prove the idea of the gamepad in more traditional games.
We saw evidence of this during the gameplay footage at The Game Awards, with Eiji Aonuma showing off map navigating and “looking through the gamepad” while he moved it around to mark points in the world, almost as if it was a literal telescope. In this, the developers behind Zelda were trying shoehorn their ideas into a control method just to show it’s possible. Enter 2016, and every single one of those ideas has been tossed in the trash. Instead of focusing on building the game around the gamepad, they were able to focus their efforts and energy into everything else in the game.
This may even be, in a small way, a reference to Nintendo’s new ideal moving forward with the NX. For generations it’s been about innovating the controller input, but is that truly the only way under which console gaming can innovate the way folks play games? Hardly, and it’s possible we may not see such a crazy controller this time around, but rather some other new unique concept that Nintendo most certainly wants to be first to market with. Let’s get back into Breath of the Wild.
Many times over Breath of the Wild has shown how it may be the next giant leap forward for the Zelda series, but it’s doing it in a way that feels completely organic. Instead of building a title with classic elements around a singular idea or controller input, it instead focused itself on perfecting and innovating the very things that make Zelda what it is. This is the sort of progress we saw regularly in Zelda games going through the Ocarina of Time era, with The Legend of Zelda proving a concept, Zelda II trying to turn that concept completely on its head for something more, A Link to the Past proving it can naturally evolve the series with the best of what the series has done before, with new elements added that make sense, Link’s Awakening proving that experience can be taken on the go, and Ocarina of Time finally showing that the experience can translate into a new dimension. Every step of the way the advancement felt organic and natural – huge sweeping improvements to overall direction of how Zelda games were made.
After that we got experiments and one off ideas, but progressing what the actual formula is hasn’t occurred again until arguably right now. They are finally looking within the core of the series and moving that forward, instead of focusing on other things. Nintendo is innovating from within, rather than from the outside looking in. I can only hope this continues to be the case. I’ve argued for years that Nintendo should probably look into improving and perfecting the core of the series instead of keeping that the same and throwing a new “gimmick” or idea on top, but until now they seemed to stay that course. Let’s hope a successfully selling Breath of the Wild reminds them of the direction this series was built upon, so we can have a more consistent and more interesting future.
Banner image is by JisuART.