After The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword released to strong critical praise but tepid consumer response in 2011, series producer and director Eiji Aonuma promised to rethink the franchise's conventions. He lived up to his word: Breath of the Wild dominated social media after its world premiere on June 14, generating twice as many mentions as EA's Battlefield 1, the second most-talked-about game on Twitter.
That buzz was understandable. Breath of the Wild has shed most, if not all of Ocarina of Time's trappings—dungeons can be solved in any order you like, items are found instead of purchased, and Link heals by noshing on apples and cooking wild game he must hunt and kill himself.
I was giddy over Breath of the Wild's trailer and my hands-on experience with the game at E3, but I wasn't surprised. Any Zelda fan who gave headlines over the last five years at least a cursory glance knew just how radical a departure Aonuma had planned, even if some of the particulars were (and still are) hidden behind a veil of mystery.
At E3 2011, Nintendo hosted a hands-off demo titled The Zelda HD Experience. Footage depicted Link entering a temple and battling a giant spider reminiscent of Gohma, the franchise's arachnid boss. Link wore his traditional green-and-brown Kokiri (forest) garb, and the smooth animations and realistic characters sparked conjecture that Nintendo might be looking to build on Twilight Princess's graphical stylings.
Nintendo clarified that it had whipped up the "Experience" to test its Wii U console's capabilities, and to confirm that the next Zelda (after Skyward Sword for Wii) would be an HD game. However, the company insisted that Zelda HD Experience should not be taken as a proof of concept for the game's creative direction or visual flair.
Wind Waker 1.5
Dozens of publishers cash in on HD remasters and remakes, but Nintendo has issued surprisingly few. Among its first and finest was The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. Nintendo unveiled the game during a Nintendo Direct in January 2013 and shipped it for Wii U eight months later.
Wind Waker HD was more than a ticket for a return voyage on one of Link's most epic adventures. Aonuma explained that he and his team had been experimenting with visual styles for the still-in-development Breath of the Wild. Looking to the past for a sign of where to go in the present, the team whipped up an HD treatment of some of Wind Waker's characters and islands.
"When we were thinking about the new Zelda for Wii U, which is something we're actually working on, we needed to experiment with a variety of graphic styles and it was part of that process we took some existing Zelda games and made them HD just to see what would happen," Aonuma said in a 2013 interview. "In doing so we realized that the Wind Waker graphic style, the art style, really represented well on the Wii U given the graphic capabilities of the new system. It really brought that world to life."
The Wind Waker HD experiment turned out so well that the team decided to polish the rest of the game, add in a few new features, and release it as a retail product.
Nintendo's experiment served its intended purpose. Revisiting Wind Waker and touching up Twilight Princess a few years later telegraphed Breath of the Wild's medley of visual inspirations: a dash of Wind Waker's Disney-esque characters, a pinch of Twilight Princess's fine details, and a generous helping of gauche, a type of watercolor, and en plein air, French for "open air." En plein air defines a style whereby artists strive to paint their works out in the open in order to capture the essence of outside activities and environments.
Aonuma collaborated with art director Hidemaro Fujibayashi to arrive at Breath of the Wild's art style, evocative of Japanese animation.
"One of the first reasons we decided to do this was because while developing Wind Waker HD, we realized that creating this animation style was the best way to go about identifying the elements we wanted users to look for and find," he told TIME magazine. "So when we created this large, vast world, we knew that a style like that was going to be necessary to show users what they needed to see. And then the open air concept came from Bill Trinen, our product marketing manager at Treehouse. My main point was that we wanted to create a clear element in this large world."
30 Years in the Remaking
In the same Nintendo Direct where Aonuma confirmed that a new Zelda was in the works, he announced his intentions to go back to the drawing board.
"Our mission in developing this new Zelda game for Wii U is quite plainly to re-think the conventions of Zelda. I'm referring to the expectation that the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order, or that you're supposed to play by yourself. The things we've come to take for granted recently. We want to set aside these conventions, get back to basics and create a newborn Zelda so that the players can best enjoy the real essence of the franchise."
Read between the lines, and Aonuma-san is clearly alluding to the original Legend of Zelda, one of the very first open-world-style games made for consoles upon its release in February 1986. Zelda was so freeform, you could march into Ganon's labyrinth and defeat the evil wizard without a sword. (In fact, many consumers were so astounded by the enormity of Link's quest, and the notion that the newfangled game embedded on Nintendo's gold cartridge didn't unfold in levels, that then-president of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa pushed his Fun Club editors to expand their newsletter into a full-fledged magazine replete with tips, tricks, walkthroughs, and color pictures.)
Over time, technology that afforded designers access to narrative devices such as cutscenes and dialogue seduced Nintendo into fashioning gameplay systems around narrative, rather than the other way around. 2011's Skyward Sword was perhaps the worst offender. Aonuma knows the series lost its way, and looked forward to returning to Zelda's roots. "We had actually worked on this kind of challenge with Skyward Sword, but we weren't able to put effort into changing the linear path structure of the game."
Master Sword Meets Gravity Gun
Breath of the Wild is the most avant-garde rendition of Hyrule since Ocarina of Time's sprawling field hub. Trees can be chopped down to reach their fruit or to create makeshift bridges across chasms. Boulders can be shoved down hills to scatter enemies like bowling pins. A magnet-shaped rune latches on to metal and steel. A gust of wind can fan campfires, setting dry grass ablaze. And you'd better think twice before jumping off cliffs, as Link now shares more in common with the Prince of Persia than Mario.
Aonuma and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto offered a glimpse of what would be possible in Breath of the Wild's living, breathing Hyrule during the 2014 Game Awards. "There's insect and animal life as well," Miyamoto said as Aonuma played through a demo for the show. "I saw apples growing here the last time," he continued, pointing to a tree as Link rode past atop his trusty steed Epona.
"Yeah," Aonuma said, "you can pick them and eat them."
Edible fruit was only the tip of the iceberg. Visual cues such as the way grass bent and swayed in response to wind and Epona rushing through it, and the option to vault into the air from horseback before firing arrows, further indicated that Breath of the Wild would give players more agency in how to play beyond picking their way through the world.
The physics engine grew so complex that it slowed development, causing Zelda to miss not one but two release dates, in 2015 and 2016, the year the series celebrated its 30th anniversary. "It's complicated because as we're developing this—obviously development of NX started a while ago—and unfortunately, I'm sorry, but the development of this game took a lot longer than expected," Miyamoto told IGN at E3 2016. "We really felt like we would be able to get it done last year, but there was a lot of struggle with using the physics engine, so that's why it took a long time."
A Link Between Games
For long-time fans, 2013's A Link Between Worlds marked an opportunity to return to the world of 1991's A Link to the Past, widely considered one of the best, if not the best entry in the Zelda canon. For Aonuma, it was a chance to push the Zelda envelope and see how far it would bend.
"I think people have come to just assume that puzzle-solving will exist in a Zelda game, and I kinda wanna change that, maybe turn it on its ear," he said in a 2014 interview with Kotaku. "And when I hear 'puzzle solving' I think of like moving blocks so that a door opens or something like that. But I feel like making those logical choices and taking information that you received previously and making decisions based on that can also be a sort of puzzle-solving. So I wanna kinda rethink or maybe reconstruct the idea of puzzle-solving within the Zelda universe."
Halfway between a return to form and an adherence to conventions, A Link Between Worlds let you explore dungeons at your leisure. If one seemed too tough, you could backtrack your way to the exit and go somewhere else—precisely the way Aonuma foreshadowed Breath of the Wild's progression.
"As far as what you can do with such a vast field to explore, as soon as those boundaries are removed, it means you can enter any area from any direction," Aonuma said during the Nintendo Direct shown during E3 2014. "So the puzzle solving in this game begins the moment the player starts to think about where they want to go, how they want to get there, and what they will do when they arrive. This is a clean break from the conventions of past games in the Zelda series, where you had to follow a set path and play through the scenario in the right order.
You were also free to rent or buy items from a shop at any time. No waiting until you've finished the Forest Temple to get your hands on a bow, or blasted a hole in a mountain wall to stumble over the Ice Rod.
Every editor who played Breath of the Wild at E3 came away with wildly different accounts of the experience. Stories of spontaneous wildfires, overcoming challenges in Shrine dungeons, and revelations like the fact that you'll be able to finish the game without facing the final boss, or go from the starting area directly to the final boss if you know the way.
In March 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be released for Wii U and NX, and many of its secrets will be exposed. Many, but not all. The vast scale of the game, approximately 12 times that of Twilight Princess, holds the potential to contain mysteries that could take millions of players years to solve. There are probably still some leftover in the gameplay trailer, waiting in plain sight.
Five years of teases from Aonuma and Miyamoto, no doubt carefully orchestrated, formed a breadcrumb trail straight to the Breath of the Wild gameplay trailer that debuted at E3 2016. Despite all the hints, we've only scratched the surface of what the next Zelda holds in store.