Many ages ago (30 years) in a faraway kingdom (Japan) an imaginative young lad (Shigeru Miyamoto) dreamed of taking the world on a magnificent adventure full of swashbuckling, monsters, and discovery. Through a lot of hard work and surely a little luck, his dream came true (virtually speaking) and was given a name: The Legend of Zelda.
When the original Zelda was released in 1986 for the NES and the Famicom, it was a game inspired by (as the common story goes) Miyamoto-san’s childhood in rural Japan and the hours he spent exploring the countryside. With The Legend of Zelda, he hoped to recreate that sense of directionless exploration by creating a game in which one could get lost in the wilderness of Hyrule (the franchise’s ever-evolving magical kingdom) and through trial and error eventually work out where to go next and how to get there. This concept, the “open world”, was uncommon in game design of the 1980’s, when most games were structured as linear obstacle courses with clear starting and ending points.
The extent to which The Legend of Zelda could truly encompass a vast world of endless exploration was limited by the technological limitations of 1986. Its “go anywhere, do anything” world was actually limited to a series of individual screens that made up an 8×16 rectangular grid, a size that in retrospect sounds far smaller than the game ever felt (a credit to its design.) For its day, Zelda was massive. But as a true “lost in the wild” experience… well, it did the best that it could.
The Legend of Zelda gave birth to one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. On any new Nintendo console, the mainline Zelda entry is among the most anticipated games. The immediate predecessor to The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, started a trend that would end up as a franchise signature: in the parlance of gamers, progressing through Zelda games became a march forward through a series of item gates. An item gate, for those who may not know, is a point in a game’s design that the player can not progress past without first acquiring a particular in-game item. Over the years, the in-game Zelda landscapes have grown cluttered with obstacles: boulders, plants, sheer cliffs, etc. These obstacles are most often overcome by an item found in one of the game’s dungeons (bombs, a bow and arrow, a grappling hook… whatever) and once the obstacle is bypassed the path to another dungeon lies open. Anyone who tries to explore beyond that next dungeon is blocked off by ANOTHER obstacle for which ANOTHER item is required. It’s a way to guide the player’s experience, and a design trick used to make game worlds that are narrow in design seem wide open.
There have been Zelda games that at least partially bucked this system of controlled player progression. There was the original, of course, where a only few of the first eight dungeons had an item gate and the final ninth dungeon required first that you defeat every other dungeon. You could, however, tackle several of the harder dungeons as soon as the game began, and good luck to you if you the first thing you do in The Legend of Zelda is tackle the sixth dungeon: the Dragon. The next partially open-world Zelda experience didn’t come until years later in The Wind Waker for the GameCube, where every section of the game’s vast ocean has an island, and as soon as the player finds a sailboat they’re free to explore any island they choose. The islands, though, often possess their own item gates, and progression through the game’s goals is strictly linear. A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS was perhaps the biggest departure from the item-gated nature of the series since the original Zelda, as every item in the game can be rented from a store early on, and the game’s dungeons can be tackled in any order. Each dungeon, though, still requires a particular item to defeat it, and signposts outside of the dungeon direct the player towards the necessary item.
More often that not, though, Zelda games hew closely to the item gate method of game design. The most recent title in the 3D Zelda series was Skyward Sword, a game where series protagonist Link spends much of his time soaring through the sky on the back of a giant bird. It’s ironic, then, that a game about flight may be the most linear of Zelda titles. Skyward Sword features no Overworld map as most Zelda games do, and instead is a rigidly structured progression through the areas immediately outside of dungeons and then the dungeons themselves.
So it was that promise of the original The Legend of Zelda went for decades unfulfilled: the goal of creating a true go-anywhere-do-anything adventure game had been usurped by a strict adherence to guiding a player’s progression through a game’s primary quest.
This adherence, it seems, has now been thrown out the window.
The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was first announced over two years ago, presented to the public during the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) convention by series producer Eiji Aonuma as the first Zelda in a long time that was designed to directly reflect the nature of the original game. It wasn’t clear just how much of the original Zelda‘s spirit would make up this new game’s DNA until this past week, when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received its full E3 coming out party. Gamers were treated to a glimpse of a massive open 3D world with biomes and if-you-can-see-it-you-can-reach-it landmarks off on the horizon. It is the first Zelda game since who-knows-how-long, probably since the original, where the player turns on the game, guides Link out of the cave he wakes up in after Rip Van Winkling it for 100 years, chooses a direction, and just… goes.
The path is undefined. The world is untamed. The frontier is unending. It is (or at least it has been presented as) a game that truly is about exploring a vast world, getting lost, and finding your own way. As Link, the player forages for food, finds clothing to survive in random weather, and stumbles across enemy encampments, all while exploring a Hyrule that has befallen some tragedy and is now a landscape peppered with ruins, a desolate place that seems as lost as the player is meant to become. It is a watercolor world of limitless possibilities devoid of visible boundaries. It has taken 30 years, but finally the game that Miyamoto-san dreamed of creating in the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System is on the cusp of arriving.
We have heard for years the story of Zelda‘s inspiration, and the tale of a young Miyamoto-san getting lost in the Japanese wilderness is, if you will, the legend of Zelda. Now, after three decades, the promise made by the original Legend of Zelda of a vast open wilderness where anything can happen anywhere and at any time… finally, that promise is on the cusp of being realized.
Finally, the legend has come true.