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The Legend of Zelda Retrospective Part 8 - A New Beginning

The Legend of Zelda Retrospective Part 8 - A New Beginning

Kris Randazzo
27 minute read

Welcome to the finale of our 8-part Legend of Zelda retrospective. In this episode, we look at the series bold reinvention with Breath of the Wild, the series 35th anniversary celebration, indie game crossover, and most recent success story, Tears of the Kingdom.

Transcript of the video: 

While Nintendo was eventually able to turn things around for their struggling 3DS hardware, the Wii U wasn’t so lucky. The usual rumors continued to spread that Nintendo was going to leave the hardware business and become a 3rd party publisher, or that they were going to be acquired in full by either Microsoft or Sony. But behind the scenes something far more interesting was happening.

Dating back to the 80s, Nintendo always had at least two platforms to support at any given time, a handheld and a home console. But back in January 2013, Nintendo announced that they would be merging their handheld and home console divisions in an effort to streamline their operations. The implications of this ignited no small number of rumors, including adding fuel to the notion that a full-on acquisition was inevitable for the company. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

In April 2016, Nintendo released their quarterly financial report. On page three, buried between paragraphs about 3DS sales and their line of amiibo figurines, Nintendo included an unexpected statement.

“For our dedicated video game platform business, Nintendo is currently developing a gaming platform codenamed “NX” with a brand-new concept. NX will be launched in March 2017 globally.”

Naturally, speculation ran rampant, but Nintendo remained completely tight lipped about any and all details pertaining to their new system. The wait for new information felt to many like a lifetime as rumors continued to permeate seemingly every Nintendo discussion forum in the world, but with its release date less than a year away, fans wouldn’t have to wait long to learn more.

At E3 2016, many expected Nintendo to properly unveil the NX to the world. What they did was far more unconventional. Nintendo remained mostly quiet about the NX for the duration of the show, instead turning their entire focus to The Legend of Zelda for Wii U. While it wasn’t the only product Nintendo talked about, it was the only game they brought with them to the show floor, as they dedicated their entire booth to that game alone. Fans were treated to a stunning new trailer showing off the game’s impressive visual style, atmosphere, and for the first time since the ill-fated CD-i games, voice acting. It all ended with the reveal of the game’s official title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

For the remainder of the show, Nintendo publicly demonstrated hours of gameplay footage via their Treehouse Live presentations, but one of the most talked-about details wasn’t a new gameplay element, but the platforms it would be releasing for. Much like Twilight Princess back in 2006, Breath of the Wild would officially be releasing on both the Wii U and the NX.

Four months later in October 2016, Nintendo released a video online breaking down exactly what the NX was. Like many had speculated back when Nintendo had merged their handheld and console divisions, the NX, now officially dubbed Nintendo Switch, was a hybrid console that could seamlessly change between television and handheld formats. The first game shown was Breath of the Wild, but other popular titles like Skyrim and NBA 2K followed suit. The video was a tremendous success, and seemingly erased years of negativity towards Nintendo in an instant. The Switch appeared to be the result of capitalizing on every lesson learned from the Wii U’s somewhat disastrous lifetime, and with the basic concept of their mysterious new platform out in the world, people couldn’t wait to learn more.

Three months later, in January 2017 Nintendo hosted a live presentation finalizing details on the Switch’s release. During the show, it was revealed that the console’s design incorporated aspects of every previous iteration of Nintendo hardware in an effort to reinvent its video game business, just as Breath of the Wild aimed to do for the Legend of Zelda.

As the focus then turned to their new Zelda game, the presentation concluded with Nintendo executives playing coy about its actual release date. This led to an emotional new trailer that finally shed some light on the game’s story, and confirmed that it would in fact be on store shelves right next to the Nintendo Switch on launch day.

It had all been building to this. All the years of experiments, delays, remakes, and side stories, had been in service of this bold new direction for not only the Legend of Zelda, but Nintendo itself. The Switch elicited a level of excitement for a new Nintendo platform that hadn’t been prevalent in decades, and in just two months time, the wait would finally be over.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released for the Nintendo Switch on March 3rd, 2017, and as planned, completely changed the way Zelda games were played. Upon starting the game, Link woke up in a strange futuristic pod with no items, no equipment, and not even any clothes. Players were quickly given an item called the Sheikah Slate, and once they made their way out of the cave, the most expansive and alive version of Hyrule ever seen sprawled out before them.

This area was called the Great Plateau, and it worked as a sort of training ground for new players and veterans alike to learn how this Zelda game played. Link now had a dedicated jump button, and could climb nearly any surface with ease. Tree branches could be used as tools or weapons, and apples and other food would restore health instead of the series classic heart pickups. It was also here that the game introduced the concepts of towers and shrines. Towers helped Link uncover more of the game’s map, while shrines worked as sort of miniature dungeons where players would have to solve puzzles or survive specific combat situations in order to complete them.

But no matter what you were doing, the bulk of the game’s actions revolved around the mysterious Shiekah Slate, an item that looked suspiciously like a Wii U Gamepad. This small tablet not only functioned as Link’s inventory and map system, but was upgradable to give him access to new abilities like Stasis, which allows the player to freeze items in time and build up their kinetic energy to alter their trajectories, and magnesis, which allowed free control any objects made of metal. It was by far the most important item in the game, but right behind it was the Paraglider.

Much of Link’s traversal could be done by jumping from high places and using the paraglider to soar through the air, evolving from the sailcloth from Skyward Sword, which itself evolved from the Deku Leaf from Wind Waker. Once some basic tasks on the Great Plateau were completed, Link was given the paraglider, and the immense world of Hyrule was then immediately at his disposal, with complete freedom on where to go.

Similar to the original Legend of Zelda, if players wanted to head straight to the end of the game and try to defeat the final boss with nothing but a tree branch and a pot lid, they were welcome to do so, but for those willing to explore, a near limitless amount of rewards awaited them, including an unconventional, potentially nonlinear discovery of the game’s story.

A Long time ago, a race called the shiekah created a civilization of peace and prosperity with the help of advanced technology. They created gigantic machines called Divine Beasts as well as an army of walking tanks called Guardians to serve as protectors.

Eventually, a great evil known as the Calamity Ganon threatened to reappear and bring destruction to Hyrule, so four champions were chosen to pilot the divine beasts, while Zelda and her appointed knight Link faced Ganon head on. Unfortunately, upon Ganon’s return, he took possession of the divine beasts and all of the guardians, killing the king of Hyrule, all four champions, and gravely injuring Link. Zelda sent Link away to be healed while she used her power to seal both herself and Ganon away inside Hyrule Castle. 100 years later is where the game began, with Link finally healed but without any of his memories. These can be found throughout the world in fragments, and thanks to the game’s unstructured nature, are likely to be found out of order, leaving the player to piece together the events of the past to make sense of the future.

It was then up to Link to travel Hyrule, reclaim the Divine Beasts, awaken four new champions, recover the Master Sword, and destroy Calamity Ganon.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was an instant hit, handily outselling every other entry in the Zelda series in short order, so much so that it became a genuine phenomenon. For years after its release, images and videos could be found on social media of players experimenting with the game’s impressive physics to create all manner of inventions, showcase impressive combat feats, and speedruns. Fans and critics lauded the game as a true generation defining experience, but not every fan was pleased. In rethinking what a Zelda game could be, some of the series hallmarks were no longer present in Breath of the Wild, like unique gadgets to help solve puzzles, and the series trademark dungeons, which were replaced by the four Divine Beasts. The world was so vast that many found it intimidating to even consider finishing, But the biggest complaint of all revolved around the game’s controversial weapon durability system.

In an effort to force players to try many different weapon options, Nintendo introduced a durability system where any and all weapons would eventually break. While this concept is theoretically sound, everything broke surprisingly quickly, which proved to be a constant source of frustration for many. Swords, spears, bows, shields, they were all prone to destruction, and while replacements were almost always easy to find, the constant management of items grew to be a chore.

Regardless, Breath of the Wild was a massive success, and coupled with the Switch hardware accomplished Nintendo’s goal of reinventing both themselves and the Legend of Zelda for a new generation. Players spent countless hours exploring every corner of the game’s expansive world, and fell in love with some of the most fleshed and expressive characters the franchise had ever seen.

On the same day, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also released for Wii U, providing an outstanding swan song for the troubled platform. The game contained everything its Switch counterpart did, only with longer load times and a few framerate issues. Still, considering the power of the Wii U the game was a technical marvel, and a fitting goodbye to one of Nintendo's most unique home consoles.

With Breath of the Wild out in the world and The Legend of Zelda’s popularity at an all time high, it wasn’t long before players and the gaming press began asking what would be next? Following up a game like Breath of the Wild wouldn’t be easy, and once again, Nintendo went about it in a way that no one expected.

In February 2019, Nintendo hosted another one of their Direct presentations focused on new games for Nintendo Switch. It was a fun show as always, but at the very end, Nintendo surprised Zelda fans with a trailer for a game that no one saw coming.

A full remake of the Game Boy classic The Legend of zelda: Links’ Awakening was coming in 2019, and while the game’s graphic style took many by surprise, it was an extremely welcome one, showing that even in the face of the massive success of Breath of the Wild, smaller Zelda adventures still had their place. But that wasn't the only new Zelda game coming that year.

One month later at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in California, Nintendo surprised everyone again with the announcement of yet another 2D Zelda game, but this time it was coming by way of an indie developer, and was a crossover with the rhythmic cult hit Crypt of the Necrodancer.

It was an exciting time to be a Zelda fan. Breath of the Wild continued to be a rousing success, and now not one but two new Zelda games were coming to Switch in the same year, but Nintendo wasn’t done yet.

On June 11th 2019 during their E3 Nintendo Direct presentation, more information was given on both the Link’s Awakening remake and the Crypt of the Necrodancer spinoff. This was naturally very exciting for Zelda fans, but it was also very expected. What wasn’t, was how they ended the show.

In a rarity for the Zelda series, the next mainline game was going to be a direct sequel to the previous one. A mysterious mummified corpse bearing no small resemblance to Gannondorf came to life amidst a trailer that seemed to show off a much darker followup to Breath of the Wild, but no matter what anyone thought of the theoretical tone, the fact that the game was in development was very exciting indeed. Fans and the gaming press had no shortage of questions on their minds, but Nintendo was as quiet as usual when it came to details. All anyone knew was the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was in development, and it looked amazing. But just two days later, players got their chance to try their hands at a different kind of Zelda game. One that would test not only their reflexes, but their sense of rhythm as well.

Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda released for the Nintendo Switch in June 2019, just three months after its announcement at GDC. The game saw the main protagonist from Crypt of the Necrodancer, a treasure hunter named Cadence somehow transported to Hyrule, where a being named Octavo had placed the King of Hyrule under a sleep spell. She then had to join forces with Link and Zelda to find her way home, and save Hyrule from ruin.

It may have looked like a traditional Zelda game, but it played quite differently as it was effectively a rhythm game. Players had to move their character around the playfield one square at a time, and every movement be it attacks, defense, or basic traversal had to be done to the rhythm of the music.

Zelda games have historically prominently featured musical instruments, but this time around, the entire experience was music themed, including the boss characters who were clever amalgamations of classic Zelda monsters and musical instruments. Gohma became Gohmaracas. Gleeok became Gleeokenspiel, and so on.

Cadence of Hyrule was a radical departure from the usual Zelda formula, but it was a successful crossover spinoff that provided fans with a fun new take on the classic world they knew and loved. Not everyone was able to get into this new game though, with many fans unable to get the hang of its unconventional movement patterns. Fortunately for them, something much more familiar was just over the horizon.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening released for Nintendo Switch in September 2019, delivering a somewhat divisive but remarkably faithful remake of the Game Boy classic.

The game’s map was nearly a one to one recreation, except everything was remade from the ground up with a unique visual aesthetic. While the game’s cutscenes were portrayed in a style reminiscent of the original’s concept art, the in-game visuals looked almost like a toy diorama. The game’s overworld was no longer limited to displaying one screen at a time, and now scrolled freely in every direction as you traveled. There was also an optional dungeon building mechanic included. But arguably its biggest quality of life improvement came in the form of inventory management. In the original game, players would have to frequently open and close the pause menu to change items since the Game Boy only had two face buttons to work with. Thanks to the modern controls of the Switch though, items like Link’s sword never needed to be unequipped, streamlining the gameplay experience considerably.

It may have looked dramatically different, but the original game’s soul was still present underneath this new coat of paint, and while many players criticized its visual style and inexplicable framerate issues, the core of what made Link’s Awakening such a special game in the first place was as present as ever, and gave new fans who may have started out on Breath of the Wild an opportunity to learn about why classic Zelda titles are still considered classics.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for fans' focus to turn back to the sequel to Breath of the Wild. But their next trip back to that world would be an unconventional one.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity released for Nintendo Switch in November 2020, applying Tecmo-Koei’s Warriors style gameplay to the world of Breath of the Wild.

Unlike the original Hyrule Warriors, Age of Calamity technically acts within the series official canon, albeit in an unusual way. This game tells the story of a small egg-shaped Guardian that traveled to an alternate timeline before the Great Calamity. It was discovered by Link and Impa, who brought it to scientists Purah and Robbie to try and understand what it was and where it came from. Through accessing its memory, they learned of the impending Great Calamity, so Link and Zelda, as well as the original champions Daruk, Urbosa, Mipha, and Revali, set out to retrieve the Master Sword, and hopefully put a stop to the calamity before it happens. However, during their quest they encountered a dark prophet named Astor who was himself aiming to revive Ganon in hopes of controlling the calamity for his own ends.

The gameplay functioned much like it did in the original Hyrule Warriors, with the player taking control of a number of different characters and using over the top attacks to defeat hordes of enemies, while managing multiple skirmishes across a large battlefield. The roster was considerably smaller than the previous game’s, thanks to it being specifically tied to Breath of the Wild, but the characters were diverse enough to keep things interesting, especially when given the chance to actually pilot the massive Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild.

In the end, the story did very little to move the overall plot forward since it took place almost entirely in an alternate timeline, but it did provide some interesting insights into the characters' pasts and personalities, and further combined the Warriors gameplay with elements from The Legend of zelda, including some light puzzle solving.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity quickly outsold every other game in the Warriors series, including the original Hyrule Warriors, and while it provided a fun and unique excuse to travel back to the world of Breath of the Wild, excitement for that game’s true sequel continued to rise.

But with it still a long way off, Nintendo saw fit to repeat what worked in the past, and offer fans something to tide them over in the form of an often requested remake, one that many thought to be impossible.

In a February 2021 Nintendo Direct presentation, series producer Eiji Aunoma made an appearance, and immediately clarified that he was not there to give any new information on the sequel to Breath of the Wild. While he did confirm that development was going well and that hopefully more information could be shared later that year, his true purpose was to announce another game to play in the meantime, a full HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. This new version wouldn’ just feature a visual facelift though, it also included the option to play with traditional button controls, something that fans had been asking for for years. After the trailer, Aunoma explained that fans of Breath of the Wild might find the game’s structure jarring since it was still adhering to the classic Zelda conventions, but also pointed out how many of Breath of the Wild’s aspects could be found in the game, and hoped that new players would give it a try while they waited for the sequel.

Four months later During their E3 Nintendo Direct presentation, Aunoma once again appeared to host a segment of the show dedicated to The Legend of Zelda, this time specifically the celebration of the series 35th anniversary. He started by showing off new details regarding Age of Calamity’s downloadable content and the upcoming Skyward Sword HD release, but also showed off a brand new piece of Zelda themed hardware, The Legend of Zelda Game & Watch releasing later that year. But the big reveal was what came next.

For the first time in two years, Nintendo was finally going to talk more about the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The trailer highlighted the new game’s focus on the sky, yet another parallel to Skyward Sword, and gave a nebulous 2022 release date. There were still far more questions than answers though, including the game’s official title which Nintendo claimed couldn’t be revealed, citing that it could be considered a spoiler as to what the game was about.

So while fans continued to wait patiently for more information on the newest Zelda adventure, they once again traveled back to the earliest story in the series timeline.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD released for Nintendo Switch in July 2021, and finally gave players the option to experience the game with a standard controller. Like The Wind Waker, Skyward Sword’s visual style lent itself well to the high definition upgrade, with the game’s bright colors looking better than ever in HD. But it was the controls that proved to be the biggest selling point thanks to the original game’s reliance on motion having turned off so many upon its initial release. The option of motion controls still existed as the Switch’s Joycon controllers could be used to mimic the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, but a more standard layout was also available, mapping the movement of Link’s sword to the right analog stick. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was serviceable, and successfully convinced many new Switch owners to give it a try.

Like Nintendo’s previous HD remasters, Skyward Sword received a number of quality of life improvements, most notably the game running at 60-fps, and the removal of the original’s intrusive insistence on explaining what each item Link picked up was every time a save file was loaded. But for the most part, it was still the same great game, only much more accessible.

Skyward Sword HD was a moderate success, outselling the original Wii release, but not by much. With the Zelda series 35th anniversary in full swing, fans were hopeful that Nintendo would release some sort of collection or special edition. Instead, they got this.

Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda was released in November 2021 as a means of celebrating the series 35th anniversary. It contained fully playable versions of both the Japanese and North American releases of The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and The Legend of Zelda: Links’ Awakening, which was re-released here in its original form for the very first time, with all other re-releases having been based on the colorized DX version. Strangely enough, the original Zelda Game & Watch game was not included in the device. It did, however, contain three completely unique Zelda games. One was a reskinned version of the Game & Watch game Vermin with Link replacing the original game’s protagonist. One was a clock that allowed players to fight off an infinite wave of enemies in the style of the original NES game, with the stages changing depending on the time of day. And one was a sort of survival game where players faced off against waves of enemies from Zelda II set to a timer. None of these were exactly in-depth experiences, but they were fun additions to an already very nice package.

But for as fun a device as the new Game & Watch was, the wait for the next proper Zelda game had grown far longer than anyone had anticipated, including Nintendo. So in March 2022, they officially announced that the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be delayed yet again, this time to spring 2023.

As the year went on, news of The Legend of Zelda continued to be scarce until the very end of the September 2022 Nintendo Direct. A new trailer for the game was shown, but while it was only a few seconds long, it concluded with the much anticipated reveal of the game’s title and release date. The name was The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and it would release on May 12, 2023.

With its name and date revealed, it seemed that the game’s long development period was nearing an end, and Nintendo was finally confident enough in its progress to start setting some things in stone. In the coming months, more and more details were slowly revealed about both the game’s new story and mechanics, until at long last, the time had come. Four years after its announcement there were no more distractions, and no more delays. The sequel to Breath of the Wild was finally here.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom released for Nintendo Switch as promised on May 12, 2023, and somehow was an even more expansive game than its predecessor. The game took place on the same map, with almost all of its landmarks appearing in the exact same place as before, only this time there was not one, but two entire new maps to explore. A series of floating islands in the sky, and the depths, which spanned the entirety of Hyrule with unique locales, enemies, and dangers.

Following the events of Breath of the Wild, a mysterious gloom had been covering the land of Hyrule. Zelda and Link determined that its source was coming from beneath Hyrule Castle, and set off to investigate. They discovered a series of catacombs with a number of drawings on the walls. Zelda explained that they likely represented The Imprisoning War. As they traveled deeper into the caves, they eventually encountered what appeared to be mummified remains being held in place by a disembodied hand, but upon their arrival, the corpse came back to life, and seemed to know exactly who Link and Zelda were, much to their confusion. He then attacked Zelda, causing Link to come to her aid, but the being’s overwhelming power easily destroyed the Master Sword as well as Link’s arm in the process. As the being summoned more strength, Zelda fell into a chasm. Link jumped after her, but was unable to catch her in time. Zelda vanished into a mysterious light, and the disembodied hand which had now sprung to life as well, caught Link and pulled him to safety.

He awoke sometime later with his own arm having been replaced by the disembodied one. It turned out this hand belonged to an ancient being named Rauru, and the mummified corpse that returned to life was none other than Gannondorf. He used his power to raise Hyrule Castle into the sky, and in the process caused untold amounts of chaos across Hyrule, including dozens of new islands floating in the sky, and massive openings to the depths below. It was now up to Link to explore this newly transformed Hyrule, discover a way to repair the Master Sword, find out what happened to Zelda, and travel to Hyrule Castle to face off against Gannondorf.

The gameplay itself was quite similar to Breath of the Wild, except instead of the Sheikah Slate, Link used a combination of a new item called the Purah Pad, a sort of evolution of the Sheikah Slate invented by the scientists Robbie and Purah which looked suspiciously like a Nintendo Switch, and Rauru’s hand, which could be imbued with a new set of abilities. Replacing Stasis was Recall, an ability that allowed Link to rewind a specific item’s place in time, and other new techniques like Ascend and Fuse granted the ability to travel vertically through solid matter and attach items to weapons respectively. But the most important new ability of all was the game’s replacement for Magnesis, Ultrahand. Providing the game’s central mechanic, Ultrahand gave Link full control over nearly any object, metal or otherwise, and any object that was movable could also be attached to anything else in the game. This resulted in a near limitless toolset for players to creatively solve puzzles, traverse the world, defeat enemies, or even just play around for fun.

Like Breath of the Wild, players were again granted the freedom to approach the game in whatever order they saw fit. Shrines once again returned, only this time there were even more of them to find, and in response to criticisms of Breath of the Wild, dungeons were back, and spread across the game’s three maps. This was a welcome change for fans, but what unfortunately didn’t change was the game’s weapon durability system, and even with the new Fuse ability extending the life of certain items slightly, was still considered a nuisance by many.

But while some didn’t see the merit in what Nintendo had done, even going so far as to call the game nothing more than glorified DLC, the vast majority of players were enthralled by Tears of the Kingdom and all it had to offer. It quickly sold over 10 mission copies in its first three days, easily eclipsing Twilight Princess’s lifetime sales across all platforms, and making it the fastest selling Zelda game of all time.

There are few names in the history of the video game industry that command as much respect as The Legend of Zelda, nor that elicit a more emotional response. The series has changed dramatically during the course of its lifetime, but one thing has remained constant. Its ability to resonate with players on every level. Impeccable gameplay, memorable stories, awe-inspiring worlds, unforgettable music, and of course, a fascinating history, all come together to make The Legend of Zelda one of the most beloved names in gaming. Its past may not be perfect, but its future is brighter than ever. So what’s next for The Legend of Zelda? Only time will tell, but if history is any indication, it will be legendary.

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