How 'The Legend of Zelda' changed the game

Two iterations of the lynel, which resembles a centaur, in the original Legend of Zelda game, left, and as one of the most fearsome enemies in Breath of the Wild, the last entry in the franchise. (Photo: Nintendo/NYTimes)
The footage was only two minutes long, yet that was enough to conjure months of debate over sacred relics, goddesses, and swords that could easily be confused for the arcane squabbles of medievalists studying Arthurian legend.اضافة اعلان

But these self-taught experts were discussing a more recent hero’s tale, one that has unfolded over the past four decades in a doomed kingdom called Hyrule. More than 6 million people watched the preview for hints about the next video game in Nintendo’s beloved “Legend of Zelda” franchise. Millions more are expected to play it.

It has been a long six years since the last entry — “Breath of the Wild” — revitalized the series with the apotheosis of an open-world game, one that tantalized players to explore a vibrant environment full of ambitious quests and powerful equipment.

“Breath of the Wild” dropped players into the wilderness of a destroyed Hyrule with little direction beyond sight lines to inviting mountains and a castle surrounded by an evil smog. “Tears of the Kingdom,” the sequel that will be released for the Nintendo Switch on May 12, promises to open that world further, with sky islands and caves. The game also gives Link, its protagonist, new abilities that allow him to construct vehicles and weapons by combining an array of items in a system that rewards ingenuity.

The immersive gameplay of the Zelda franchise is bolstered by its deep mythology, convincing players they are unearthing ancient secrets.

“Someone might write an entire university dissertation on a specific part of the worlds created by Tolkien,” said Ed King, a 26-year-old British gamer who translates the mysteries of the Zelda universe for his 700,000 YouTube subscribers. “Zelda lore isn’t quite on that level yet, but it does have depth.”

For his half-hour analysis of that “Tears of the Kingdom” preview, King spent more than a dozen hours scrutinizing every frame, even playing the audio backward in search of any messages that could divulge some of the plot points Nintendo closely guards. He also belongs to a Reddit forum where Zelda theorists are attempting to translate hieroglyphics from marketing materials; some of the amateur philologists speculate that the symbols were inspired by Chinese characters or Japanese hiragana.

The video game franchise that started in 1986 with a pixelated map guarded by ghosts and goblins has evolved into an elaborate topography of mountain ridges, coastline villages, and enemy hideouts. The gameplay has also become more riveting, with puzzle-box designs and environmental storytelling that encourage exploration.

But throughout it all, the basic spark of discovery has endured.

The original “Legend of Zelda,” played by millions on the Nintendo Entertainment System or the company’s Famicom console, was the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto, who has described Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.”

But over the past 20 years, the stories have become more nuanced, with a tone and artistic style displaying the influence of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Link has sailed across the sea, lived above the clouds, transformed into a wolf, and even become a train conductor. He has forged the ancient blade of evil’s bane and shrunken down to microscopic size.

Another series producer, Eiji Aonuma, has been responsible for scattering the narrative breadcrumbs that elevate the Zelda games. “The story is there to give the big world you’re in some substance and meat,” he told Game Informer in 2017. He tends to keep Link on the archetypal hero’s journey, giving the young knight the task of healing the world from a cycle of generational violence.

Aonuma’s rise through the corporate ranks of Nintendo has become its own legend. He joined the company, shortly after graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1988, without any experience designing video games. What the young artist did have was a passion for woodwork, and Miyamoto — who preferred employees with unconventional skills — was impressed by the intricate puppets Aonuma brought to his interview.

In the late 1990s, Aonuma began working on the Zelda series as a dungeon designer for “Ocarina of Time,” a Nintendo 64 game that was the franchise’s first adventure with 3D graphics. Those dungeons illustrated Aonuma’s penchant for mixing narrative and gameplay. His puzzles were not just a series of rooms, but haunted mansions, secret shrines and the innards of a giant fish.

“Ocarina of Time” had a grueling two and a half-year development period, and Nintendo spent millions of dollars marketing the title that is now an honored classic. Many players remember stepping onto Hyrule Field the way they recall their first cartwheel.

Later Zelda games, such as the acclaimed “Twilight Princess,” a launch title for the Nintendo Wii, would return to the formula established in “Ocarina of Time,” with a gameplay loop of clearing dungeons and traversing the overworld with tools such as grappling hooks, boomerangs and bombs.

But by the time “Skyward Sword” was released in 2011, it was clear that the modern Zelda formula was growing stale. Though critics praised its cinematic narrative, there was too much backtracking and hand-holding, with an opening tutorial sequence that lasts for hours. Regions were more generic and largely devoid of life, with the exception of a sky island occupied by a handful of villagers.

Other studios recognized an opportunity and started building their own games in response. Greg Lobanov was just starting his career in the gaming industry around that time, when designers wondered if Nintendo had lost its magic.

“Zelda is the standard unit of measurement in the gaming industry,” explained Lobanov, whose 2021 game, “Chicory: A Colorful Tale,” is heavily based on the series’s conventions. “People were really frustrated by the direction.”

But Lobanov said that the wildly successful 2017 release of “Breath of the Wild,” one of the flagship games for the Nintendo Switch, led many developers to scrap their rival projects. The game sold more than 29 million copies, far more than any other entry in the series.

Nintendo had succeeded in recapturing the original “Legend of Zelda” game’s joy of exploration, giving Link the new abilities to freely jump and climb walls. Although he remained silent, other characters had fully voiced dialogue for the first time. Traditional dungeons were replaced by puzzles hidden inside four divine beasts and 120 shrines, and 900 scattered Korok seeds gave Link an incentive to search the landscape.

“‘Breath of the Wild’ was so ambitious,” Lobanov said. “It had a clear sense of progression even though it was so open-ended.”

The feeling of wonder in “Breath of the Wild” emerged from a design philosophy that the game’s director, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, called “multiplicative gameplay.”

During a speech at the 2017 Game Developers Conference, Fujibayashi explained that many previous Zelda puzzles had been based on natural phenomena or simple facts, such as an understanding that exploding a bomb near a cracked wall might open an entrance. A problem would typically have only one solution.

Multiplicative gameplay encourages players to combine actions and objects in ways that allow for a vaster set of solutions. Developers created a prototype to test their theories, recreating the original “Legend of Zelda” game with an interactive environment where the player could burn trees, pick up the logs and then make rafts from the timber. Those mechanics were incorporated into “Breath of the Wild,” alongside a physics system that allowed players to manipulate rules like the conservation of momentum.

Gameplay previews for the sequel, “Tears of the Kingdom,” indicate that Zelda developers have expanded this system.

Players can expect a dynamic world where bolts of lightning might trigger brush fires that roast the apples on a nearby tree, and the game will also encourage new combinations of weapons and objects. A twig paired with a rock might produce a makeshift mallet. An arrow combined with the eye of a batlike enemy might track enemies like a homing missile.

Zelda theorists including Ed King had a field day as these morsels of information were released, seeming to confirm their speculation that the new game would include story elements that were only hinted at in “Breath of the Wild.”

The remains of a lost tribe called the Zonai, referenced in the ancient, crumbling ruins scattered throughout Hyrule, were mentioned in the preview. And an artistic style associated with the fictitious tribe is obvious throughout the many sky islands that appear in “Tears of the Kingdom.”

“The word Zonai is based on an anagram in Japanese for the word ‘mystery,’ and it was deliberately added to give a sense that something might have come before you,” King explained. “If everything is strictly relevant to the plot, you would have the sense that the game world is fake. But evidence of the Zonai makes you feel like it all could be real.”

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