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The secret to Zelda's success: breaking the game in your own way

Princess Zelda, herself, who would hardly condone all the hijinks <em>Tears of the Kingdom</em> players get up to.
Nintendo
Princess Zelda, herself, who would hardly condone all the hijinks Tears of the Kingdom players get up to.

It was a comedy of errors.

I grabbed a minecart, some glider wings, and what I thought were two perfectly placed fans. I stuck 'em all together, made sure my little Korok friend was strapped in, and proceeded to barrel off a cliff.

It turns out the propeller fans weren't perfectly placed, and my adorable co-pilot threw the balance off of my "plane." The two of us were in a nosedive, headed straight for a river.

There was only one parachute between us, and guess who took it?

Needless to say, my little forest companion — who I was fully intent on rescuing — didn't make the graceful descent to safety.

That might sound like a failure, but stories like it have fueled The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's success, which has sold 10 million copies in the first three days of its release — becoming the franchise's fastest-selling game. Much like last year's Elden Ring, Tears of the Kingdom lets you play your way and feel part of a community of like-minded miscreants as you do so.

Breath of the Wild 2.0

Until last week, internet skeptics doubted that Nintendo could pull off a successor to the groundbreaking The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It's hard to overstate how important that 2017 game was. While Zelda titles have always featured huge worlds to explore — Breath of the Wild opened the format up more than any other. You could go straight to the final boss without completing any of the main story.

That "do whatever you want" mentality fueled endless community content: Speedrunners finished the game in under 30 minutes, Twitch streamers would complete hysterical challenges, and players generally just had a great time breaking the game.

Rumors of a sequel first surfaced in 2019 and sparked wild speculation. After Eiji Aonuma, the lead producer of the Zelda franchise, first demonstrated gameplay for Tears of the Kingdom in April 2023, haters squawked on social media: "$70 DLC," they said. "It's literally the same game," another wrote.

It's true that Nintendo didn't completely remake Breath of the Wild. They took the same game engine, crammed it with new tools, and more than doubled the map's square footage. But despite the limitations of their aging Switch console, Nintendo did invent something intoxicating and fresh.

Explore, create, repeat

Floating captivatingly above an altered Hyrule Kingdom are beautiful, intricate sky islands — their cascading waterfalls and golden trees allude to a deeper story than the one directly in front of the player — one steeped in fantastical lore that whole YouTube channels decode in hours-long videos.

New abilities also open the door for in-game creations that feel closer to Minecraft than Zelda. The linear plotline formula feels like a distant memory as Tears of the Kingdom opens up a sandbox with limitless toys and gadgets. How about a complex rocket? Sure. A hoverboard? Easy. This crude monstrosity?: Yes, yes, yes. Whatever ridiculous construction you can dream of, you can create.

In older Zelda titles, there was usually one solution to every puzzle — bomb a wall to reveal a secret key or shoot an arrow to unlock a hidden door. In Breath of the Wild and even more so in Tears, there are dozens of ways to solve a particular puzzle. You could create a makeshift glider with fans and wheels, but if that's too complicated, sticking logs together to make a giant, rickety bridge works too.

Alone, together

While main Zelda titles have always been single-player, as ingenious and often hilarious creations flood Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok, the series has never felt more like a shared experience.

No, you can't literally play with multiple people, but you can dive into a vast sea of memes and inventions, each stranger and more illuminating than the last. It's refreshing to see Zelda evolve, even after players thought Breath of the Wild was as good as it would get. Like the sky islands that now hover over Hyrule, Zelda is reaching greater heights.

Link and Zelda join hands.
/ Nintendo
/
Nintendo
Link and Zelda join hands.

Before starting Tears, I rewatched the final cutscenes from the prequel. In the true ending of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the titular princess, gazing out at her broken kingdom, says to our hero, Link: "Let's be off."

It's a line that epitomizes one of the most iconic series in video games, and Tears of the Kingdom perfectly answers Zelda's parting invitation. Adventure awaits in dark caverns below the surface and high above the clouds — let's be off and see it all.

Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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