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Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild's 2D Prototype Holds Historical Significance for Nintendo

From its value as the proving ground that begat one of the best games ever made, to its function as a lens into the company, Zelda's prototype deserves to be released.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is more than just one of the best Zelda games ever made. Its medley of tropes turned upside down, combined with an apparent willingness on Nintendo's part to take cues from other open-world titles and either strip out or rethink the genre formula, make it one of the best games ever.

Every great idea starts somewhere. In Breath of the Wild's case, the trail of bread crumbs and monster parts leads to a 2D prototype engineered in the vein of the original Legend of Zelda on NES. The game's directors have been forthright in emphasizing the prototype's importance to Breath of the Wild's ideas. Its simplicity gave Nintendo an interactive white board on which to sketch out elaborate concepts like physics and chemistry engines.

That's reason enough for Nintendo to consider publishing the prototype, incomplete or otherwise. Nintendo has long worked inside a bubble. That strategy has led to some of its most innovative and successful ideas. Rather than following popular trends, its designers come up with their own game concepts—considered by many to be the cream of the industry's crop—and refine them.

Remember, this is the company that popularized the d-pad, analog stick, platformers, open-world adventures, and myriad other genres; that brought the North American video game market back from the dead in 1985; that put out a black-and-white handheld that went toe-to-toe with beefier, full-color competitors and came out on top; that created a mascot more recognizable among children than Mickey Mouse.

For as often as that strategy has worked out, it's also caused stagnation. The Zelda series had been in desperate need of a facelift for 10 years before Nintendo unleashed Breath of the Wild and changed gaming yet again. 2006's Twilight Princess, while boasting some of the best dungeon design in the franchise and perhaps the only likable sidekick to pal around with Link, was largely a remaster of Ocarina of Time's systems and progression route. Skyward Sword followed five years later, but was mired in divisive motion controls and tedious, repetitive tasks.

Nintendo seemed to agree. Two days before the game's release, three of Breath of the Wild's principal developers gave a standing-room-only talk at the Game Developers Conference where they discussed tearing down Zelda conventions to rethink and rebuild the series. It was during this talk that developers revealed the existence of the prototype. Images and video that looked like they could have been lifted from Link's inaugural adventure established a direct connection between the testbed's humble veneer and Breath of the Wild's "open-air" systems. Players could hunt wildlife for food, burn down vegetation, and make use of natural resources such as chopping down trees to make rafts or firewood.

Breath of the Wild's prototype has enormous historical significance. Not just as the first step along a development journey that resulted in a game likely to influence the industry for years, but as a lens into Nintendo's development culture and methodology—where it came from, where it is, and where it's headed next.

Related articles:

One Speedrunner's Journey Through Zelda: Breath of the Wild
How One Zelda Fan and His Mom Bonded in Hyrule
How Puzzles in Zelda: Breath of the Wild Reward Breaking the System

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

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