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Breath of the Wild breathed new life into Zelda | Why I Love

Brainium's Jonathan Rodgers explores how Nintendo reinvented both its classic franchise and the open-world sandbox

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Jonathan Rodgers, engineering manager at mobile developer Brainium.

Imagine this: You are thrown into a world that feels alien, yet strangely familiar. Prominently displayed is the looming mouth of a cave, full of intrigue and danger… What adventures await inside? Let's go see!

This is how The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System (released way back in 1986) begins. For many good reasons, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, released in 2017, has a very similar opening and a healthy attachment to the original formula. In the staggering number of sequels produced after the original Zelda, there has remained a design tension that is shared among all video game sequels: what are the elements that are concrete, and where do we have room to innovate and be creative?

Concrete design elements

One of the main reasons I love Legend of Zelda is its commitment to consistency and concrete design elements that reflect the game's origin and stay true to what made it successful in the first place. Concrete design elements serve several important functions:

  1. Give the series a unique identity
  2. Give long-time players comfort and consistency
  3. Provide nostalgia for past in-game experiences
  4. Ensure the experience will be fun, leading to higher sales potential

I challenge you to find a Mario game where he doesn't jump on enemies, a Kirby game where he doesn't inhale baddies, or a Metroid game where Samus isn't wearing her iconic suit. Designers often play with removing essential elements, but fans and critics make their voices heard when developers stray too far from the essential formula for success.

"The unique identity of the Zelda games is tied to certain elements... The look, presence, and meaning of these elements may change from game to game, but the powerful ones always return"

As far as this author is aware, Majora's Mask is the only mainline Zelda game that didn't have the Master Sword. The unique identity of the Zelda games is tied to certain elements, like: Link, Zelda, Gannon, Hyrule, Triforce, Master Sword, octoroks, mobilns, heart containers, potions, dungeons, bosses, ability expanding items, and tunics. The look, presence, and meaning of these elements may change from game to game, but the powerful ones always return.

But what happens if you stray too far from the original plot? If you tried to make a game where the final boss was an evil king named James and the hero, a ninja named Ralph who wields the Omega Laser, and subsequently slapped the Legend of Zelda brand on it, fans would lose their mind and shun that game. It just wouldn't feel like a Zelda title.

A perfect example of this is Zelda II: Link's Awakening, where developers took a big risk and turned the game into a side-scrolling action RPG. While I personally enjoyed the game (along with the other black sheep sequels Castlevania II and Super Mario Bros. 2), very few fans look back with fondness for it. This is reflected in the Game Boy and Super Nintendo sequels that followed: they stuck much more closely to the original formula and just added some incremental innovations instead.

Keeping major and minor elements of the original formula both provides players with nostalgia and makes good business sense. The Zelda series has always done a great job of putting fans first and tapping into the spirit of what made them fall in love with the game in the first place. At the end of the day, when things work once, there's a good chance they'll work again. Look at the movie landscape: remakes and sequels dominate because there's a built-in level of success due to familiarity and name recognition. We flock to the familiar and reward game studios who understand this.

Innovative design elements

On the flip side, players don't just want more content, they also desire fresh ideas and gameplay. The root of all the freshness in Breath of the Wild, and a large reason I play the game, is the open-world sandbox. Most of the innovative design elements thoughtfully stem from this enormous world to explore, inciting a sense of adventure and limitless opportunity for the player.

At the very beginning of the game, the player exits a cave (callback to NES Zelda) and is greeted by a beautiful, dramatic panorama of the world including a fiery volcano, mysterious ruins, a castle, that a giant robot bird flying around!? Clever introduction entices players to seek out mysteries. Even more intriguing, once players finish the first tutorial they can go to virtually any of the visible locations - including directly to the final boss. That raises the question (spoiler alert), if players can go directly to the boss, why even bother to explore?

The rewarding symbiosis of shrines, towers, and paragliders

Very early on, players are trained to look for two kinds of glowing orange structures: shrines and towers. Shrines are mini-dungeons that can be as simple as a single puzzle, or a more elaborate combination of brain and brawn challenges. In the shrine, there is always at least one piece of treasure, such as rupees, a piece of consumable equipment, or most awesomely, rare armor. Additionally, shrines always end with a spirit orb; trade four spirit orbs in and you expand your hearts (I can take more damage) or your stamina (I can climb higher and run farther).

These mini dungeons provide tangible rewards, and bite-sized experiences very reminiscent of the big dungeons that were core to earlier Zelda games. Another huge benefit shrines offer, upon completion, is providing a waypoint that can teleport at any time using the map. But, most of the map is empty (a huge break from earlier iterations of the franchise), so how do you fill it out?

"You can instantly look around the world and tell where the next exciting place to go is, and have a visual reference for which challenges have already been conquered"

One of the first mechanics you are trained on is that towers, once climbed, provide a map of the surrounding area and a waypoint. We want to go to towers so that we can fill out our map and the high vantage point makes it easier to find even more shrines, towers, and other points of interest. A new item in this game is a multipurpose tablet, with one of its functions being binoculars that let you zoom in and put colored "pins" in the world to tag shrines, towers, and other points of interest and. The player is constantly climbing towers, mountains, and buildings to get a good vantage point to find the next cool thing. There's another extremely cool reason to get vertical that we'll talk about a little later.

As mentioned earlier, towers and shrines glow orange (then blue, once completed). So, you can instantly look around the world and tell where the next exciting place to go is, and have a visual reference for which challenges have already been conquered. So, unlike most sandbox games which feature a frustratingly giant map with little icons, Breath of the Wild is all clearly visible and the rewards for completing the challenges are tangible and multi-faceted.

One of my favorite new innovations is the paraglider. It's an item players can earn early on in the game that allows them to float down slowly while moving forward. This novel mode of travel encourages the player to scale the highest structure they can find, jump off, and see how far they can float. Hey, remember towers? You can teleport to them at any time, they are super high up, and they make great launch points for paragliding. Oh, and guess what you need to glide for longer distances? Stamina. All these design elements support one another to create an addictive loop: explore to become more powerful and become more powerful to explore easily.

You can cook and break stuff

A common design element in open-world sandbox games, and one of my favorite features, is a focus on collecting and crafting ingredients. Breath of the Wild does a stellar job embracing this concept by introducing a new innovation: cooking. Ingredients throughout the world, many of which are unique to the different regions of the world, can be collected and combined together in cooking pots to make food and potions that both restore hearts and provide temporary buffs.

"What I love about [breakable equipment] is that it forces the player to make lots of decisions"

Breakable equipment is also a first for the series and has been polarizing among fans. Swords and shields have limited durability and will eventually break and be removed from the inventory. What I love about this mechanic is that it forces the player to make lots of decisions: Do I use my strongest weapon, or save it for later? Do I hang on to all these rare magic wands or pick up a strong sword? The fragility of the equipment constantly begs the player to improvise in the middle of combat, making gameplay that much more immersive.

But, the strongest reason for the inclusion of this mechanic is to keep the player hunting for weapons. In most sandbox games, like Grand Theft Auto, you buy the gun you want and you just have it for the rest of the game. It's a one-time thrill. In Breath of the Wild, since your gear keeps breaking, you're always hunting for powerful weapons. And, once you know which enemies wield the most powerful equipment, you can zip over to where they congregate and fill up on, say, Lizal Tri-Boomerangs, when you're running low.

The joy of foraging for Korok seeds

Finally, my favorite design element innovation in the game (and possibly in any sandbox game) is Korok seeds, which can be found throughout the world and used as currency. The reward for trading those seeds in is huge: inventory expansion. You find so many amazing weapons and shields around the world, but more often than not you don't have room for them in your inventory, so you need to either abandon your newly found treasure or toss a great item you've been saving. With over 900 Korok seed puzzles, the potential to create an arsenal of goodies feels dynamic and boundless.

Korok seeds also reward the "adventurer" within the gamer. While a common player behavior in open world games is exploring, and while it is satisfying to climb some crazy mountain just for the sake of doing it and seeing the vista, it always feels a little hollow. But in Breath of the Wild, you are given a tangible, hugely helpful reward for your curiosity through these seeds. If you're simply in the mood to spend a couple hours collecting them, it's a day well spent and the action of doing so sets you up nicely for your return to the world the next day. Ultimately, I think this mechanism makes the world feel "lived in" and purposeful outside of the larger puzzles and challenges thrown your way.

A perfect blend of old and new

Why do I love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild? Because it is a master class in making a sequel that feels both fresh and familiar. I love it because all of the mechanics (paraglider, shrines, towers, cooking, breakable equipment, Korok seeds) feed off of one another to propel players to continue and feel genuinely rewarded every time they turn on the console. If you haven't had the pleasure of trying it out, I strongly recommend it: there are so many adventures, stories, and secrets to enjoy. Have fun.

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