It’s kind of difficult to accurately describe how impressive a game The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom actually is. Personally I find it increasingly rare that I actually play a triple-A game that delivers on the promise of its scope, but Nintendo’s latest outing has successfully done so. There is just… so much to do, and so much of it is worth doing. Side quests feel like worthwhile endeavours rather than meandering distractions, the new abilities are busted beyond belief, and the main story itself hooked me quickly. Obviously, there’s an easy argument to be made that this is the game of the year. But I just hope that whatever Zelda game Nintendo makes next, it’s nothing like Tears of the Kingdom.
Zelda is a bit of an odd series. It is somewhat of an iterative franchise, but not as big a one as its cousin Mario, which constantly strives to make moving in a 3D space more interesting – or at the very least radically different – than the last one. For the most part, though, each Zelda game kind of has its own thing that really helps it stand out, at least since Majora’s Mask. Said N64 game obviously had the masks which allowed Link to transform into the different groups of people it featured in Ocarina of Time.
Then there’s Wind Waker, which did away with the open Hyrule landscape and turned it into an open Oceanscape. Twilight Princess took things even further by turning Link into a literal wolf, Skyward Sword gave Link a bird to fly around on, A Link Between Worlds let him turn into a painting, Minish Cap let him shrink down to the size of a speck of dust, the list goes on. These are all gimmicks, but ones that frequently offered interesting ways to explore the world – much in the same way Tears of the Kingdom’s new abilities do.
It isn’t the gimmicks that made any of these games as interesting as they are though, as for me personally, it was the worlds that you got to explore that made them feel worth exploring. And Zelda is at its best when it’s at its weirdest, like with what is easily one of the best of the lot on the series, Link’s Awakening.
I played Link’s Awakening for the first time when the remake came out, and very quickly found out why so many people consider it to be their favourite Zelda title. The concept easily lends itself to doing something different with Link (he’s stuck in a dream and needs to find a way to wake up), and it’s all the better for it. Everything is just wonderfully eclectic in Link’s Awakening, everyone slightly odd-but-charming. And without the shackles of having to deal with the Triforce or Ganondorf, it let Link have an adventure where the stakes were a bit lower.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if we’re going to get a game like Link’s Awakening again. Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma did say that Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are the new format for the series going forward, and if he means that will be the case for every Zelda game, I think that’s a real shame. While I do understand people who want to experience a bit more of that classic feel with linear dungeons and the like, I don’t really mind myself that the series has made a change in that regard (to be perfectly honest, I think only a handful of the dungeons are truly memorable).
What I don’t want to happen, though, is that Zelda loses its unique spirit in really doing something different from game to game. It’s perfectly OK, even quite great, actually, when Zelda is much smaller in scope. You can even go as small as indie – something Nintendo once did, or rather let developer Brace Yourself Games do, with Cadence of Hyrule.
An action game in the visual style of classic 2D Zelda games, quite literally set to the remixed rhythm of the series musical history, Cadence of Hyrule is a constant surprise. In one part because of just how good it is, in another that it actually exists (Nintendo? Letting an indie developer handle one of its most precious properties?) Story-wise, it doesn’t do anything revolutionary, a surprise to no one, but it was such a treat to spend time in Hyrule in such a unique and vibrant way.
I felt the same when I recently replayed Minish Cap for the first time in many years. The first time you shrink down to Minish size still feels magical to me, primarily because it invited me to an unseen world by the citizens of Hyrule. Even better, the game only took me 10 hours or so to beat, a rarity in the world of today where we constantly see games bloated with things to do but no reason to do them.
Minish Cap reminded me of the small ways that Zelda could feel big; it didn’t need Tears of the Kingdom’s huge open world to feel impressive, all it needed was a wonderfully saturated colour palette and impeccable pixel art. Not that I don’t love exploring Tears of the Kingdom’s world, I do in fact. I just don’t want this to be the only way I can go on an adventure with Link anymore.
Tears of the Kingdom is an incredibly tough act to follow, because it is arguably the biggest and loudest journey that Link has ever been on. How do you even come up with a sequel that is at minimum just as impressive as the last? I don’t think you can, honestly! But purposefully going for something smaller, though not necessarily quiter, means that the team behind Zelda can do something fun and unique without having to take home the gold.
Nintendo clearly loves to experiment, even if it is to their detriment (would we have the Switch without the Wii U?) and it’s part of why it continues to matter in the gaming space all these years later. I don’t need Nintendo to let an indie team have another go at Zelda, though I wouldn’t mind it, but I don’t want Zelda to lose that odd spirit it has.
Mostly what I want Nintendo to do is to let Link do lots of things; let him fall asleep and save a dream island, let him shrink in size and take on enemies larger than life, let him save a town doomed to be crushed by the moon. Zelda will be all the better for it.