What does it mean to be an iconic game? In a world where the term has been overused in the confines of “internet speak” on a plethora of playable experiences that have come (all too quickly) and gone (all too quickly), the word in question has begun to lose a bit of its mythological weight. The mark of a true gaming icon is the ability to exude excellence through its gameplay, immersing its players in a world of possibilities and jaw-dropping creativity. A true icon moves the zeitgeist forward in ways we once thought were impossible.
And, if we were to speak honestly on games that deserve to be categorized and heralded as “iconic,” Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that should always be considered for this title. A franchise known for its genre-defining gameplay, narrative, and everyone’s favorite semi-silent hero, Link, The Legend of Zelda has worked to captivate gamers of various generations for thirty-six years with games featured across Nintendo’s home and handheld consoles alike.
But with three decades worth of familiar dungeons and narrative progression, the late 2010s saw Nintendo taking a bit of a risk with their beloved iconic franchise. Flipping The Legend of Zelda on its head, Nintendo released Breath of the Wild as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch and the Wii U on March 3, 2017.
Implementing an unstructured open-world concept, Nintendo sought to create a nonlinear experience for fans of the iconic franchise, allowing the player to play and beat the game however they liked. The decision was risky, but ultimately paid off—the game was met with overwhelming critical acclaim.
But how did we get here? Why did Nintendo take such a risk with a franchise so beloved by their fans and run the chances of changing it into something unrecognizable? Was there a need to adapt to the ever-evolving trends of the game industry, especially for an icon? Well, allow for us to answer all these questions and more with another installment of Origin Story!
The Conventions of Zelda
Our story begins immediately after the release of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Acclaimed Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma stated that—after fans played, beat, and engaged with Skyward Sword on a critical level—he received an abundance of emails and messages requesting the Zelda team to incorporate more modern mechanics into the franchise. One message in particular that stayed with the producer was a comment from a player saying, “We want to know what happens in the places you can’t go to.”
“I think for people, especially Zelda fans, they have a curiosity to find out what happens in those places where you can’t go, where you’re not supposed to go,” says Aonuma in a 2016 interview with Game Informer. “So we wanted to create a world where you can further that investigation, you can go further and further and continue to search for places where you can’t go.”
Aonuma had taken these comments to heart as he and his team Nintendo EPD—an internal division at Nintendo—began to seriously think about the possibility of transforming the Zelda franchise. As he began to work on 2013’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and the then-untitled Zelda console game, Aonuma felt that these two aforementioned games would be the perfect opportunity to test out new mechanics that could potentially “rethink the conventions of Zelda.”
While hard at work on A Link Between Worlds, EPD decided that they wouldn’t go too far in breaking from the franchise’s conventions but would use the game as means to ease players and themselves into a different kind of Zelda game. Hiromasa Shitaka, director of A Link Between Worlds, loved the idea of unraveling the franchise and looking at it from a fresh perspective that brought everything about the mechanics, gameplay, narrative, and objectives into question.
With this mentally equipped and agreed upon by the entire team, EPD would go forth and introduce first-time mechanics/concepts for the Zelda series with some of them including clearing A Link Between Two Worlds dungeons in any order/way they choose and a system that allows the player to “rent” items to clear dungeons. A Link Between Two Worlds was met with critical acclaim, with both of the new mechanics applauded for fitting seamlessly into the iconic essence of what makes Zelda, well, Zelda.
With Nintendo impressed with the results of changing a bit of Zelda’s identity in A Link Between Two Worlds, Aonuma, along with Hidemaro Fujibayashi—the director of Skyward Sword—set their full attention to the untitled Zelda console game that EPD had only flirted with up until this point in time. The concept of Breath of the Wild was born.
An Icon, Reimagined
Development on Breath of the Wild began around 2011 with a full-fledged dedication to the process ramping up in January 2013. After seeing how positively fans reacted to the changes made to their latest 3DS iteration of Zelda, Aonuma was determined to deliver a console Zelda experience that would challenge the way we all expected from a Zelda game. In a conversation with Kotaku, Aonuma doubled-down on their current philosophy of “rethinking the conventions of Zelda,” arguing that what players have come to expect from the game are not the characteristics that make Zelda the game that we all love. “Our mission is developing this new Zelda game…is quite plainly to rethink the conventions of Zelda. I’m referring to the expectation that the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order,” said Aonuma. “We want to set aside these conventions, get back to basics and create a newborn Zelda so that players can best enjoy the real essence of the franchise.”
Nintendo EPD compiled a list of mechanics and concepts that they could implement into their next console Zelda game, including but not limited to: open-world concept encouraging exploration, the chemistry engine—an engine that would control the elements of objects within the game and how they interact with the world around you, Link’s stamina improved gauge, the player having the ability to “break” weapons and the Master Sword being unlocked as a special “rechargeable” weapon, and, of course, the ability to tackle any dungeon or any objective however you want. Yes, Aonuma and co. wanted to give the player freedom to do what they pleased and experiment in their virtual playground, truly reimagining not only The Legend of Zelda as a franchise but, as a result, what an open-world game could be.
To materialize this version of the iconic franchise, Aonuma and Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi drew inspiration from one of the greatest open-world games of all time: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—however, not in the way that you would expect. In a 2017 interview with Gamespot, Aonuma revealed that looking at Skyrim was a matter of collecting the proper “data and then work and see what worked, what didn’t.”
“In the past, I’ve also actually said that I have played Skyrim, so it’s not necessarily that I don’t play games,” said Aonuma. “But we don’t look at it from, ‘Oh, what kind of things can we take from this game?’ It’s more of like, ‘How can we prepare for this? What should we expect from games like this?’” It was after this assessment that they began to add more people to their team to prepare for the massive challenges they noticed that Bethesda had when creating Skyrim, including inconsistencies across the world map, how to properly implement the open-world concept and do it without, you know, acquiring Bethesda’s signature Easter egg: bugs. After steady studies of Skyrim and what avenues Bethesda took to pull off such a landmark game, Aonuma took what they learned and hit the drawing board hard. It was time to breathe new life into an icon.
When Breath of the Wild was first announced, it would be initially slated for a 2015 release, then a 2016 date, and, finally, pushed to a 2017 estimated arrival date. Being in full gear production since 2013, if Nintendo were going to flip the Legend of Zelda franchise on its head, they would need a bit more time to pull this off. Aonuma wanted to refocus his team and “rethink the conventions” of Zelda but specifically the art direction/character design, graphics, and the “open-air concept” and how players experience the game. These three areas of the Breath of the Wild would prove crucial in delivering a final product that would help redefine the Zelda experience, and Aonuma had the team do it.
The Most Difficult Character Design
With an open-world concept set in place, it was time to decide on the art direction of the brave new game and art director Satoru Takizawa knew they had to deliver, especially for a game of this scale. To capture the timeless essence of the franchise, Takizawa and Aonuma agreed that they needed art that felt familiar yet fresh, and that’s when they agreed on drawing inspiration from old anime that the team used to watch in their youth. Opting to pull inspiration from the power of nostalgia, Takizawa and the rest of the art team agreed to simplify the animation in a way that allowed for the characters to pop; utilizing an array of vibrant colors, simplified designs, and distinctive character expressions, the team wanted to make it easier for the player to engage and remain engaged with the game’s world and its inhabitants. When asked about this specific direction for Breath of the Wild’s artistic direction and anime influence on its graphics, Aonuma made sure to emphasize that there wasn’t one particular anime that they were heavily pulling from but were enamored with the sense of wonder that these throwback animations made them feel. In a conversation with Game Informer, Aonuma said:
“Instead of us trying to build a game that’s like an animation, it was more about functionally in that animation is a process where you kind of chip away at the unnecessary stuff and really return to the more simple and basic colors. And in the same way, we try to do that in which we had to make some of the features of the game very clear, distinct so that it’s visible and clear to the player. So if we put too much detail, too much complexity to the background and the characters, the character or anything that’s going on will start to blend into the background and be hard to see what’s going on. And that’s why we wanted to make it very, pop out and make it very clear that our intent and the focus is very apparent and clear to the user.”
But then the team hit a creative snag. It was no secret that Breath of the Wild had looked significantly different from Zeldas past and the team was very adamant on sticking to these artistic decisions. But when it came to the design of the princess of the same name… well, it wasn’t that simple. Zelda’s design wound up being one of the most complicated development points as the team couldn’t agree on what direction they wanted to interpret Hyrule’s famed princess. The issue was found in the fact that the planning and design teams didn’t agree on how Zelda should make the player feel, and as a result, they were split on how she should look. This disagreement was based on two different approaches that the teams had.
The design team felt that Zelda’s appearance should be based on the notion that “first impressions are everything,” and from the moment players see her for the first time, her design “should make you feel something deep inside.” On the other hand, the planning team felt that they should approach her design from the standpoint of “what kind of person Zelda is.” Planners felt that if players could understand who she is and why she needed to be saved, this would, in return, cause players to have a positive reaction to her when they finally saw her. Both of the teams felt that whichever approach they decided on would ultimately dictate how Zelda would be showcased through her demeanor, personality, and how players responded to her in-game.
They wound up blending both of these approaches as Fujibayashi felt one approach couldn’t exist without the other. “The character that was the most difficult…well, that would be Zelda, by far. The reason behind that, well, it’s sort of obvious… I mean, she’s the heroine,” said Takizawa in an interview with Kotaku. “Until the very end, we were making subtle changes to her gestures, the lighting, the way her eyelashes look, stuff like that. We were saying, ‘No, she looks better this way, no this way’ until the very, very end. So I think that would make Zelda the most memorable, but also the most challenging character, no question about that.”
The “Open-Air Concept”
It’s no secret that the world of Breath of the Wild is enormous. With the ability to scale mountains (and slide off of them in the rain, ugh), drop from the highest peak in the game and ride the winds with your paraglider, and sand-surf what seems like a limitless desert, Breath of the Wild felt like a real-world with a real depth to it. But what isn’t widely known is that Nintendo had been trying to accomplish something along these lines before they ever started production on this game-changer.
This concept that they came up with was known in-house at Nintendo EPD as the “Open-Air Concept,” a truly groundbreaking mechanic for the Zelda franchise that originated back in The Wind Waker; the player would be able to pick a destination, usually a faraway island, and then would be able to travel there through the air or by sea. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of hardware back in the day and a much smaller team, the “Open-Air Concept” was unable to be fully realized during the days of the GameCube. Still, it was kept on ice as Aonuma always “wanted to try to make a massive world in which players could go anywhere someday.”
That “someday” was Breath of the Wild. Fujibayashi and Aonuma enlisted Monolith Soft., known for their extensive work on modern open-world masterpieces in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, to assist in making the “Open-Air Concept” dreams become a reality as they worked to perfect the game’s geographical depth. Before they could really understand what map size they were going for in this new Zelda installment, the teams wondered how massive they could make their world and which size would amount to the most fun. Kyoto-native Fujibayashi felt that Monolith and Nintendo could utilize Kyoto as a foundation on which to base the game’s scale, stating that Kyoto’s geography was perfect for this particular adventure and easiest to pinpoint the direction of the game’s map. The decision to look to the capital of Japan as a world model would also serve as a basis for the game’s litany of shrines, temples, gardens, and overall culture for Breath of the Wild’s stunningly humanistic atmosphere.
The outside help from Monolith and the addition of more members to Breath of the Wild’s production would help push the creativity for the game into untapped territory for a Nintendo game, let alone the Zelda franchise. Unfortunately, as a result, the game’s world grew a hundred times over and became too big for Aonuma to manage. To remedy this issue and to keep track of all the new additions that Monolith and EPD were making, Aonuma felt it would be a great idea to stop production every time they hit a development milestone and celebrate by everyone playing the game together with each playthrough dedicated to exploring the world discovering all of the game’s brand new locations, topography, and other additions.
Mechanics of the Wild
Fujibayashi had also wanted to implement more mechanics to Zelda since the creation of Skyward Sword allowed the player to become more engaged with the environment around them. Mechanics include hunting, cooking, gliding, perfect dodging, and complete freedom in combat. Much like the “Open-Air Concept,” though, these ideas were simply just dreamed until now, of course. To achieve an authentic feeling that the world was alive like our own, Fujibayashi utilized the Nintendo Switch’s software process to bring these mechanics to life, granting the player the ability to fully immerse himself/herself in the open-world of Hyrule.
In a nod to the title’s name, the production felt it would make it harder for players to acquire hearts—a shift in typical Zelda philosophy. Replacing this easy method was the act of hunting as the player would be able to hunt animals and gather fruits/vegetables that they would then be able to cook on an open fire. Through multiple trial and error situations, the player would learn which animals, fruits, and vegetable combinations would give the player the most hearts after being cooked or, at the very least, consumed raw.
Battle was another aspect of Breath of the Wild that was turned up to ten as the technical developers incorporated an immersive combat system that allowed complete player freedom in defeating enemies. Perfect dodge, flurry rush, and riding gusts of wind with your paraglider were introduced as ways to put Link in the best possible situation when engaged in battle and gave the player an option to decide how they vanquish their opponent. You could set the fields of luscious grass ablaze, wait for a gale of wind to begin, hitch a ride with your paraglider over your enemies and then, when they least expect it, plunge your sword upon them. Or you could parry an enemy’s attack, or better yet, you perfect dodge and attack with a flurry of slashes that send that bokoblin to bokoblin heaven. The choice is yours. Through the use of the game’s physics engine, it became possible for every player to essentially create a new experience every time they stepped on the battlefield.
With new experiences also came new music. Sound director Hajime Wakai explained that they stripped away the much-expected themes for this Zelda installment and wanted to try something that felt more authentic to the game’s open-world concept, revolutionary mechanics, and humanistic identity. “From the very beginning, we wanted to focus on those ambient sounds rather than excitement-building music because we knew they’d add authenticity to the environments and scenery,” said Wakai in Nintendo’s The Making of Zelda: Breath of the Wild video. “We felt that this approach would be a better fit for this game.”
The sound team decided to make heavy use of the piano to properly set the tone/mood for this game’s adventure. Although piano had never been used before on any Zelda game, the incorporation of the piano would end up helping recreate the identity of The Legend of Zelda, or at least for this particular installment. To ease players into something familiar, they also decided to make piano Breath of the Wild versions of old classic songs/tunes that fans were accustomed to and incorporated them into . The idea was that the familiar melodies would work as a gentle way of inviting hardcore Zelda fans into some new and fresh while reminding them that this is still Zelda.
The soft, drawn-out ambient keys assist in narrating Link’s travels through the unruly but beautiful paths of the wild, and, as they do, the piano compositions are used to determine what time of day it is, the weather and your geographical location. As an indication of sorts, song tempos in the game would either speed up or slow down the closer you got to morning or night. Music, the game’s geography, and mechanics work in tandem to create such a vibrant open world that replicates the beauty of a real breathing world.
As every component of Breath of the Wild came together, and production finalized, it was time to give Breath of the Wild to the world. On March 3, 2017, a revitalized icon would be unleashed upon the world as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch and one of the last exclusives for the Wii U. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild marked a beginning for Nintendo just as much as it did an end, as we stepped into the next generation of Nintendo consoles and game innovation. And Breath of the Wild was the perfect game to make a statement with.
The game that flipped the Zelda franchise on its head was released to critical acclaim for its groundbreaking take on the open-world concept and its ability to reinvent the Zelda franchise without missing a beat. Breath of the Wild would win a ton of Game of the Year awards and, by the end of 2017, players were already citing this installment of Zelda as one of the greatest video games of all time; The Legend of Zelda was still an iconic franchise, and while updating the game for a new generation Nintendo created another iconic installment in the game’s history.
And of course, this wasn’t the last time we would see this take on Link, Zelda, and Hyrule. With the success of Breath of the Wild, Nintendo Switch owners were treated to Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, a spin-off of Breath of the Wild that utilized Dynasty Warriors-style gameplay. And as a cherry on top, Nintendo announced that they are actively working on the much-anticipated follow-up to the Breath of the Wild in the form of a direct sequel.
Regarding the sequel, Aonuma stated at E3 2021 that Breath of the Wild 2’s setting “has been expanded to include the skis above Hyrule,” which, in an actual full-circle moment, bring us right back to where our idea for Breath of the Wild started: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. While we don’t know what to expect from the sequel of the acclaimed game, we can expect this iconic franchise to keep making classic entries into its catalog and, as long as the creativity and passion for the series’ mythology is there just as we were shown with Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda as a whole will forever remain a gaming icon.