Though Skyward Sword was released to a positive reception, certain players voiced their displeasure over the sheer amount of filler present and the hand-holding nature of the game. The latter aspect was especially ironic given the challenging nature of Skyward Sword. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, though mostly satisfied with what he and his team created, ended up agreeing with these reservations. The series’ next installment, A Link Between Worlds, seemed to openly defy the design choices behind Skyward Sword, featuring a terse narrative and a largely non-linear design. In an era when gaming placed a great emphasis on storytelling, A Link Between Worlds would have been a sleeper hit had it not been part of a famous franchise. Emboldened by this installment’s success, he and his team sought to “rethink the conventions of Zelda” for the series’ next console installment. He made their intent known at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo when their newest project was unveiled. He planned to reform dungeons and puzzles, the elements the series had hinged upon from the very beginning, and arrange them in a way to allow players to reach the end without ever engaging in the story. In other words, their next project was to be an open-world title.
The success of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series throughout the 2000s helped popularize these kinds of games. Players could fulfill mission objectives or explore the large world at their own leisure, occasionally completing a side objective to obtain a helpful reward. Despite the franchise’s success, it wouldn’t be until the 2010s that these open-world games took on a life of their own. Whether it was Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Just Cause, this style became the standard in the Western AAA scene. Such was the extent of its influence that even long-running series known for their linear structure saw sequels placing protagonists in a metaphorical sandbox. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon in action was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which not only drastically changed the series’ gameplay, but also received widespread acclaim for it.
In the face of these numerous success stories, Nintendo found themselves in something of a conundrum; they had never worked on a modern open-world game before. This was quite ironic given they themselves invented what many consider the first interpretation of an open-world game in the form of the original The Legend of Zelda in 1986. Though considered one of the most influential titles of its day, the series began gradually shifting away from the kind of design its debut installment codified. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemed like an anomaly when it forced players to adhere to a strict sequence. A Link to the Past was considered a return to form of sorts when it allowed players a degree of freedom in the game’s second half. The series could have continued on as it did with the developers placing all of their effort in gameplay like the Mario franchise. This changed when Yoshiaki Koizumi was allowed to pen the scenario for the series’ first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening. Suddenly, the man who was limited to outlining the instruction manual of A Link to the Past now found himself changing the direction of the series. To accommodate the fact that the plot of Link’s Awakening had a definitive beginning, middle, and end, developers strategically placed roadblocks to ensure players couldn’t deviate from the narrative’s intended sequence. Traces of the series’ debut were seen one last time in the second and third acts of Ocarina of Time before Majora’s Mask made the Link’s Awakening model the standard.
It wouldn’t be until A Link Between Worlds, which was released twenty-two years after the debut of A Link to the Past, that the exploration elements thought to have been completely abandoned made a triumphant return. However, creating a non-linear experience on the same scale as A Link to the Past was a relatively simple task. Translating that knowledge to the home console industry, which had long since adopted three-dimensional gameplay as its bread and butter, would prove significantly more challenging. Nonetheless, the team, led by Hidemaro Fujibayashi and Eiji Aonuma felt they were up for the task. Looking for inspiration, they felt it appropriate to extensively study a highly popular game that took the world by storm upon its 2011 release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
As gaming evolved, an interesting dichotomy emerged between Western and Eastern enthusiasts. This was especially noticeable when observing how the two cultures conceived role-playing games. Non-linear experiences were allowed to flourish in the West, for those kinds of enthusiasts preferred the freedom to do as they pleased without interference from the plot or any other outside influence. Meanwhile, the Japanese RPG was often maligned by Western enthusiasts for precluding the ability to explore on one’s own and forcing players to grind levels. Many of them were unaware their Eastern counterparts preferred their games to have a clear goal at all times and grinding levels tied into a common belief that hard work results in a proportionally satisfying payoff.
In other words, when Mr. Fujibayashi and Mr. Aonuma began this project, they had their work cut out for them. In order to bring these concepts to reality, they had to go back and examine the series’ debut installment with a fine-toothed comb.
Before they began developing this game in earnest, the developers designed a playable 2D prototype bearing the distinct 8-bit visuals of The Legend of Zelda to experiment with physics-based puzzles. To ensure everyone was on the same page and to recapture the original’s essence, the staff had to periodically cease working on the game. Whenever this happened, they were tasked with playing through The Legend of Zelda in its entirety. Over the course of this development cycle, the developers had played through the game at least ten times.
Their game was to be released on the Wii U, making extensive use of the touchscreen features on the console’s tablet. Developers then reconsidered when they found looking away from the main screen was distracting. Eventually titled Breath of the Wild, it was originally slated for a 2015 release. However, later in the year, Mr. Aonuma announced that it would be delayed to 2016. In April of that year, another delay was announced, but this time, it would be for a different reason. Around this time, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo Switch. After having dominated the handheld market for the past four console generations, the Switch was to be a unique hybrid. Making use of a docking station, the gameplay projected itself onto a television screen. By removing it, one could easily transport it as though it were a tablet. Despite having a selection of quality games, the Nintendo Wii U was a commercial failure. To make their newest console all the more appealing, Breath of the Wild was to be one of the Switch’s launch titles. Because many people claimed to have purchased a Wii U purely for the sake of getting to play Breath of the Wild, a version would be made available for both consoles.
After much speculation, Breath of the Wild was at last released worldwide on March 3, 2017. Though the gaming press had no shortage of praise for the series, the universal acclaim previous titles had no trouble amassing seemed to be utterly dwarfed by how critics felt about Breath of the Wild. A mere few days after its release, countless critics were quick to call it a masterpiece and one of the greatest games ever made. This acclaim translated to a stellar commercial performance. By March of 2018, Breath of the Wild had moved nearly ten million copies across both platforms, making it the best-selling game in the franchise at the time.
When taking a look at what critics had to say about it, one would rarely find a less-than-perfect assessment. Despite this, fans of the series were slightly divided. As the game was being showered with praise, they took to aggregate review sites such as Metacritic to write negative pieces in protest. At one point, it boasted a 7.0 fan rating – a noticeable contrast to what critics had to say. Some fans accused the series of selling out to Western sensibilities while others, observing the greater amount of praise Breath of the Wild got compared to the latest open-world experiences such as Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry Primal, concluded that critics let the Nintendo brand cloud their judgement. It should also be noted that the mid-to-late 2010s marked a severe deterioration in the relationship between fans and critics. Fans would say critics were out of touch; critics insinuated fans had no taste. The takeaway is that while the mainstream media unanimously deemed Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games of the decade, fans weren’t completely convinced. Could the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Breath of the Wild have been the result of the critics’ close relationship with developers at the time? Did the fans overstep their boundaries?