Considering the franchise goes back more than thirty years, The Legend of Zelda is not a huge commercial powerhouse for Nintendo, as the Mario and Pokémon franchises undoubtedly have been. Despite not kicking off until 2007, more than twenty years later, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has racked up more total sales than Zelda has in its thirty year history, some 93 million to Zelda’s 85 million. The Zelda games, however, have been hugely influential throughout their long and chequered history, inspiring Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver, Beyond: Good and Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Darksiders, Binding of Isaac, Hyper Light Drifter and more besides. But the real influence of these games is not felt by those that borrowed its template wholesale, but in the way professional game designers constantly check the new Zelda releases for how it will shift the landscape of videogames – make no mistake, even now, games in production are having their directions altered as a result of Breath of the Wild’s critical and commercial success.
This serial looks at key facets in the Zelda series, how they are used in Breath of the Wild, and the relationship this newest game has to the player practices and fictional worlds of its predecessors. My purpose is to try and reveal both the essential aspects of what makes Zelda what it is – and why that is so influential – and to apply the game design lineages method of historical analysis to Zelda in order to show how the conservation of player practices, the influence of material constraints, and the subversion of expectations through creator vision have all affected the path of this venerable franchise. Before looking at specific elements of the Zelda experience, however, it is necessary to put these games into a production perspective, by examining the circumstances outside the game that shaped the path of the series’ development.
The franchise roots are in two highly successful NES games, The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in 1987. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted the second title to feel distinct from the first, presumably in part because the technical limitations of the NES meant following the same style at that time would have resulted in a very derivative game. As a result, The Adventure of Link feels like the black sheep of the series and has had little influence on the play of future games in the franchise (it borrowed much from platform games and the newly-popular JRPG lineage, kicked off primarily by Dragon Quest), although it still contributed significantly to the still-developing lore that shapes the narrative space of each Zelda game. Conversely, the original Legend of Zelda not only provides the template for its 16-bit successor, A Link to the Past, released in 1991, but also for Breath of the Wild. Featuring what has come to be known as an open world, The Legend of Zelda was actually a little late to this party, since most of the key early open world games were released in 1984 and 1985. It also seems as if the ‘openness’ of the title might have been partly a consequence of the material constraints of the NES rather than express intention: Miyamoto-sans later Zelda games, A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, are much more locked down in their structure – a structure that had huge influence in the 3D combat and exploration games that followed.
The Legend of Zelda’s 6.5 million unit sales (which were meteoric for 1986) were not surpassed until 1998’s The Ocarina of Time, which brought the core player practices of A Link to the Past kicking and screaming into polygonal 3D, selling 7.6 million units, and (along with Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007) making the Nintendo 64 into a hit console. Ocarina of Time also set world records for high review scores, although personally I do not like the game very much, apart from two elements – the titular ocarina, which was perfectly designed for the controller and taught the player some actual musical skills, and the horse Epona, about which I will have more to say later in this serial. This was the first Zelda game that future franchise mastermind Eiji Aonuma worked upon, and its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask in 2000, was the first time he was handed the reigns. Far too arcane for the mainstream, Majora’s Mask’s labyrinthine temporal structure and impressionistic ending mark it out as a creative masterpiece, and it is not surprising that Miyamoto-san felt comfortable passing the franchise onto Aonuma-san, while remaining a stalking presence in the production of every Zelda game since.
It is 2003’s Wind Waker – Aonuma-san’s first major Zelda title (since Majora’s Mask was a spin-off from Ocarina of Time, reusing the same resources) – that begins to pave the way for Breath of the Wild by ‘failing’ commercially at ‘just’ 4.4 million units sold. This is actually twice what the best selling game I’ve worked on sold, and was still a good sales figure in 2003 – but on the budgets Nintendo affords a Zelda title, this was probably not much better than breaking even. The poor performance of the GameCube console was a factor here (as with the Resident Evil remake) but another problem was the choice of cel-shaded art. As Tom Hoggins touches upon in his Zelda retrospective, the choice flowed naturally out of the interior decisions guiding development but sat badly with many gamers, despite offering beautiful aesthetics throughout:
Many Zelda fans were aghast but those who fell for it fell hard, whisked away on the waves of colour. For Aonuma, the decision to switch wasn’t difficult. “Many developers were looking at ways to incorporate cel-shading into various games at the time, Nintendo too,” he says, simply. “One of the experiments was whether we could include these visuals into the world of The Legend of Zelda. When we finally decided that Wind Waker would feature child Link as the main character, we decided cel-shading was appropriate for the game and the more cheerful child-Link.”
The unique art style of Wind Waker has its own side-lineage in Zelda’s portable incarnations, Phantom Hourglass (2007) and Spirit Tracks (2009), which act as sequels. But the die was cast for the core of the franchise: the audience wanted a more realistic looking Link, and that is what they would get with 2006’s Twilight Princess, originally developed for the GameCube but then painfully reconfigured for the Wii. In the Hoggins retrospective, Aonuma-san only half-jokingly remarks that after the platform change his job was reduced to cheerleader: “From that time on, rather than actually making the game my job was to approach each staff member to convince them we could do it.” Twilight Princess was a success, setting a new high watermark for the franchise’s sales at 8.6 million units (1.6 million of which were on the ailing GameCube). This pattern was repeated two titles later with Breath of the Wild, which also launched on a troubled older platform (the struggling Wii U) as well as launching the new Switch, and by January 2018 the new game had sold an impressive 7.8 million (1.1 million of which had been on the Wii U).
Just as Twilight Princess’ heading had been altered by the sales of Wind Waker being blown off course, the radical vision for Breath of the Wild was a response to the disappointing 3.7 million units that Skyward Sword had sold in 2011. Unlike the GameCube, the Wii had a massive install base to draw against – but the majority of use that the Wii was getting that that time wasn’t with the kind of core gamers that typically buy a Zelda… The focus on newly-improved motion controls probably did not help the 25th anniversary game’s performance, since this had been something players had merely tolerated in Twilight Princess and wasn’t enough to lure them away from the PS3 and Xbox 360s that were enjoying the benefits of well-developed online services by 2011. In a GameInformer interview, Aonuma-san tells a story of how one fan’s reaction to Skyward Sword resonated with him:
There was something that fans said before starting development that changed what I thought. There was a fan that said he really, really loved Zelda. But, while playing Skyward Sword, he missed experiencing this huge world where he could just ride Epona around. During Ocarina Of Time, he really loved doing that. Somewhere within myself, I felt the same way. So for Breath Of The Wild, it’s something that I definitely thought about.
The point also came up in an interview with Aonuma-san by Mike Diver that discussed the role of fan-feedback in influencing the creative vision of the franchise:
Actually, we did have in mind, from the start of development, that we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world. And part of the reason for that comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. The way that game world was set up was that you had kind of separate areas, separate strongholds, that you'd sort of land in and explore. But they were all self-contained, and they weren't really connected together.
We listened to a lot of opinions, from people who played Skyward Sword. And a lot of people said to us how they found the game… Not exactly unsatisfying, but they wish they could have explored the areas between the strongholds. So taking that on board, from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.
Skyward Sword was an outstanding example of the polygonal 3D Zelda form that Ocarina of Time had popularised, with improvements over Twilight Princess in almost every significant aspect, and substantial experiments in modifying the formula – including a much more explicitly constructed narrative. Link still did not say anything the player could hear, although for the first time we saw him talking to other characters (i.e. we saw Link’s lips move), and those other characters formed a much more coherent base for storytelling (helped by the single village, Skyloft, that served as hub). Review scores for Skyward Sword were incredibly positive, but the sales did not emerge on the back of it. It is possible that nothing could have lured gamers back to setting up their Wii at this point in time, and certainly not a game that relied upon newly improved motion controls. Speaking personally, however, playing with the butterfly net in Skyward Sword was a far more compelling experience of immersive presence than VR, which relies merely upon visual illusion and is not able to overcome the limitations in controls this entails. But whatever Skyward Sword’s merits, it hadn't been enough. It was time for Zelda to take a giant leap out of its comfort zone.
In one of the few reviews of Breath of the Wild willing to take issue with its problems, Jed Pressgrove calls out a “dubious decision to draw inspiration from prototypical open-world games” seeing this as producing “a conflicted combination of marketing logic and staggering artistry.” This was, all in all, the only interesting review of the new game I’ve seen, since most have merely swooned over its ample pleasures. Jed’s review is the reason I’m writing this serial: there is indeed an aesthetic conflict within Breath of the Wild, as he alludes to, but I contend it is not the result of marketing interference (although don't get me wrong: this is a very tangible force at work in the videogame industry, and one that should never be ruled out prematurely). Jed’s only mistake is to see in Breath of the Wild problems brought about by borrowing from the open world genre lineage as codified by Grand Theft Auto III (having built upon firm foundations established by Elite back in 1984, right before the first Zelda).
However, Breath of the Wild moves into open world territory in near complete ignorance of the GTAIII open world template that fed into Oblivion, Skyrim, and all the Assassin’s Creed games. In respect of these particular games, the only evidence that Aonuma-san had played any of them is for Skyrim (e.g. in an interview for Le Monde, and also for Game Spot), and then only to get a feel for how such worlds work in practice. The other chief source of external influence upon the open world leanings appears to have been technical assistance from Monolith, who had already assisted Nintendo’s EAD developer (which makes the Zelda games) on Skyward Sword. (On a minor, pedantic note, the camera feature in the new Zelda can hardly be borrowed from other open world games – as Jed alludes – since it originates in Wind Waker.)
The bottom line is that unlike other franchises, Zelda is not beholden to marketing influence because it is a flagship franchise that exists in a strange limbo of isolation from the rest of the gaming world. Aonuma-san barely plays other games – and has little interest in making anything other than Zelda games – as this internal Nintendo interview makes clear:
As I get closer to the retirement age, people ask me if I’m ever going to make anything other than a Zelda game. And so sometimes I think maybe I should. But Zelda games really have everything in them that I would want to make in a game. The way the main character grows and develops. The puzzles and the minigames. I don’t think there’s much point in me making something other than Zelda, if I did it would only end up being something just like it. It’s a problem. So I think I’ll just keep making Zelda games!
Putting aside the billions of yen and hundreds of developers involved in making a contemporary Zelda game, at the core of this franchise – unlike any other that we know of – is the relationship of master to apprentice that has passed from Shigeru Miyamoto (age 65), to Eiji Aonuma (age 54), and is currently being passed along to Hidemaro Fujibayashi (age 45), who has worked on Zelda since 2001, firstly for Capcom on The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages for the Game Boy Color before joining Nintendo, co-directing Phantom Hourglass, and then directing both Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. This is not how major commercial videogames are made, but it is how Zelda is made, and provides the reason that the franchise is primarily governed by the conservation of its own player practices, and the creative vision of a succession of apprentices that subverts these in subtle or radical ways in each iteration.
Over the following weeks I’ll be examining individual facets of Breath of the Wild’s game design and narrative design, situating it in the unique – and insular – game design lineage of the Zelda franchise, and showing how the new game’s content emerges from the effects of a single additional constraint: the desire to transcend Skyward Sword’s functionally-isolated wilderness segments. The resulting serial endeavours to show how to understand Link as a character (and how Breath of the Wild’s Link is consistent with that character), why Hyrule is integral to this character, in part because of the way videogames necessarily represent player characters, how the horses are simultaneously one of the new Zelda’s greatest achievements and strangest failings, and why Breath of the Wild can lay better claim to the title ‘The Legend of Zelda’ than any game before it.
Next week: Link