It’s already been half a year since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released to widespread adoration on Nintendo Switch and Wii U. Half a year! While there is the exciting Champions DLC on the horizon, the initial period of conversation for the game is starting to settle down. Other big-name titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms, Splatoon 2 and Mario+Rabbids have all been received well, and Super Mario Odyssey is inevitably going to take the spotlight soon.
Therefore, the fast-paced gaming world is soon going to demand what comes next for Zelda. It’s perhaps a more challenging question than ever before for Eiji Aonuma and the rest of these creative developers. How do you top such a stunning, sprawling, groundbreaking game? Can we go back to a smaller, dungeon-focused Zelda?
If you listen to series producer Eiji Aonuma, then it appears clear that standing still is not in the plan for Zelda. Talking to Japanese magazine Nikkei Trendy (as translated by Japanese Nintendo) he said (via Nintendo Life):
“It’s not an easy thing to be able to answer expectations of all our users, but through this game, I recognised again that the significance of continuing to create the series is right there, so in the future I’d like to repeat doing “great fusses*” and provide great ‘surprises’ that exceed everyone’s expectations.”
To think about what these surprises may be, looking backwards provides some possibilities. Whilst the original NES The Legend of Zelda started it all, the game with the biggest effect on the Zelda series is arguably N64’s Ocarina of Time. That game broke huge ground for what a 3D adventure could be, with a huge game world full of interesting characters, hidden secrets and memorable storytelling. Sounds familiar, hm?
The effects of the success OoT had were felt for generations to come, and not just in the Zelda series. Looking at just how the Zelda series (on home consoles specifically) responded is retrospectively fascinating, and could give us some ideas of how Breath of the Wild may be followed.
The Majora’s Mask Direction
In fact, the project being worked on straight after Ocarina of Time was the Master Quest version of the game, a version of the game with reworked versions of the dungeons. This could be compared to the DLC for Breath of the Wild; a way to still use the world that had so much development time and effort put into it. In an Iwata Asks interview, though, it came out that Aonuma wasn’t so happy about having to do this.
The next mainline Zelda, the cult favourite Majora’s Mask, came about from general producer Shigeru Miyamoto himself saying that series producer Eiji Aonuma wouldn’t have to do Master Quest if a new Zelda could be made in a year (OoT released in 1998 and MM in 2000 – let’s give them some slack, though!).
This shortened time limit was likely a factor that led to Majora’s Mask being the game that it was, with the three-day time cycle. We may see a similar departure after Breath of the Wild; the Switch and Wii U epic had years and years of development, so a tight experience with a unique new mechanic and a shorter development time could be a great refresher for everyone – developers and players alike.
The Wind Waker Direction
Whilst Majora’s Mask was very closely tied to Ocarina of Time in many respects, the next title in the Zelda lineage went in a very different direction. Met with skepticism at first and positivity upon release, The Wind Waker flooded Hyrule and washed away the previous visual direction of Zelda. It was replaced with a cartoonish, cel-shaded look instead. The general structure of Ocarina of Time remained (to really simplify it: get some major items, plot twist, more items, fight Ganon), but felt fresh with the sailing, islands, and new characters like Tetra.
This may be the most exciting way to look at Breath of the Wild‘s legacy. The open world looks like it is here to stay, considering how Eiji Aonuma has stated to Famitsu (via Polygon): “I think that, in the future, open air games will be the standard for Zelda,”.
Breath of the Wild‘s post-apocalyptic feel has a certain appeal. Now, though, could we perhaps see a more intact rendition of Hyrule? A more built-up world (even if it’s not quite to the degree of New Dong City in Super Mario Odyssey) – could be one such direction. Before Breath of the Wild, we saw the seas, twilight, and the sky introduced to keep the series innovative, and this kind of variation could be the answer post-BotW.
The Twilight Princess Direction
If there was one criticism to lodge at Breath of the Wild, it may well be how dungeons were implemented into the new open world. With the go-anywhere message, the dungeons were compromised to fit; they were shorter, and less clear-cut in their puzzle design. This was partly due to Link’s climbing and gliding making it harder to restrict the player. Furthermore, the dungeons lacked the visual variation we have seen before, even if the open world had plenty. Shrines were a welcome addition, but their bite-sized nature meant they, again, were compromised forms of dungeons. They couldn’t create the same a-ha! moment that comes from solving a larger dungeon in, say, Twilight Princess.
The thing is, Zelda as a series can’t go backwards now. If the games became more linear and restrictive, it could be seen as a step back. The great task facing Nintendo is combining the open world of Breath of the Wild with the peerless dungeon design we have seen in many other Zelda titles. 3DS’ A Link Between Worlds is a great reference for this – renting items for different dungeons may have been a clunky way to explain item limitation, but the reward of the dungeon design it allowed was worth it. If Nintendo could work out a more story-sensical reason for restricting items whilst in a dungeon, then that could be the answer.
Looking at those three post-Ocarina of Time games, you can see that we should have a lot of faith that Zelda has a bright future inspired, not overshadowed, by Breath of the Wild. The influence of OoT led to phenomenal – and, crucially, varied – games like Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, and Breath of the Wild can have a legacy just as impressive.
Seeing how the team working on the next Zelda try to top themselves is something we can very much look forward to. Meanwhile, I have another 100 or so hours to put into Breath of the Wild…