It seems like Zelda games have changed forever


Tuesday’s biggest shock The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom it was revealed, of course, that Princess Zelda would be the playable heroine. The second biggest shock was that the game even existed and that it would be released in three months.

The third biggest shock took me a little longer, but it’s probably an even bigger deal: Echoes of Wisdom this is a clear indication that Nintendo has turned its back on what might be called established Zelda game design for good.

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Tradition is extremely significant in the Legend of Zelda series. This sequence of games over 38 Earth years (and millennia in Hyrule) essentially told and retold the same story over and over again. Likewise, the game’s design has changed and changed within strict limits, following Zelda’s antiquated rituals.

Over the decades, each game opened gradually, in a non-linear but carefully prescribed way, as the player unlocked recent tools that fit like keys into the map’s many locks and used them to find solutions to intricate puzzles. In the first Zelda game review I wrote – I think it was intended Minish hatin 2004 – I described these games as “clockwork fairy tales”, meaning they functioned like lovely, precise machines that the player could tap into. And it stayed that way – until 2017.

Image: Nintendo

Breath of the Wild he tore up Zelda’s manual. This gave players all the most significant tools at the beginning of the game and allowed them to explore the map in any direction, facing challenges in any order. With systems like weapon durability, weather, stamina, and cooking, many variables have also been added to keep players on their toes and encourage improvisation.

Then 2023 Tears of the Kingdom turbocharged this approach with a few abilities that seemed designed not so much to disrupt the game’s design, but to completely break it. Ultrahand allows players to build their own furniture, buildings, vehicles and powered devices. Fuse connects almost every object in the game to the weapon system. Rewind allows players to send individual objects backwards in time. And Ascend – which started life as a debugging tool for developers – is almost a literal cheat, a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Thanks to these two open world games Tears of the Kingdom in particular, series producer Eiji Aonuma and his team changed the Zelda design paradigm towards player openness and creativity (to a point). These games were hugely popular, but – perhaps due to the cumulative cultural weight of the first three decades of Zelda games – I assumed that established Zelda would survive alongside this recent variety, likely in smaller titles that harked back to the series’ 2D roots.

It seems not. Introducing Echoes of Wisdom in the video, Aonuma made it clear: “We wanted to create a new style of gameplay that breaks the top-down conventions of previous Legend of Zelda games,” he said. Nintendo wasn’t done tinkering with its beloved franchise – or rather, it allowed players to tinker and challenged designers to keep up with them.

In the game, Princess Zelda can apply a magical staff called the Tri Rod to create copies of objects and even monsters, called Echoes. She can build stairs out of bed frames, summon Moblins to fight on her behalf, or create free-standing columns of water. In the video, Aonuma pointed out that how battles are played and puzzles are solved will vary greatly from player to player, depending on the Echo they are using. Echo’s ability is Princess Zelda’s Ultra Hand; as in Tears of the Kingdomthe ability to brute force in-game challenges, or go outside of the usual Zelda rule set and bypass them, is built into the game’s design and is part of the fun.

Echoes of Wisdom will be the first entirely recent Zelda game to appear since Link’s open-world adventures rocked the series. Visually, it looks like a 2019 remake of the 1993 classic Link’s Awakening, but design-wise it feels like it belongs to a different, newer genre of Zelda games. The basic premise of the series now seems to be to take into account the player’s creativity and freedom. Aonuma’s hushed revolution continues; Zelda will never be the same again.

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