The New Zelda Game Is Like Nothing We’ve Ever Seen Before

REUTERS/Gus Ruelas
Japanese video game designer Eiji Aonuma demonstrates his latest production “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD” during the Wii U Software Showcase at E3 in Los Angeles, California June 11, 2013.

NEW YORK – Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda” series has been on the bleeding edge of gameplay innovation since the 1980s. In 2023, “Tears of the Kingdom” is probably going to continue that storied history.

I played 70 minutes of the game during a highly curated, in-person preview event held by Nintendo in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Journalists in attendance were the first outside of Nintendo’s inner sanctum to have hands-on experience with the year’s most anticipated title, which releases May 12. Those minutes washed away any fear that this is a mere update to 2017’s critical and commercial hit “Breath of the Wild,” which has sold more than 29 million copies and was often bought along with the Nintendo Switch console. “Tears” will bring many features never seen before in the series.

Zelda games in the past have set the agenda in the industry. “Ocarina of Time” from 1998 is often referred to as the “Citizen Kane” of video games, in part because it dictated how games will present fighting in 3D space, an influence that persists today, as in the upcoming big-budget “Final Fantasy XVI.” “Breath of the Wild,” the prequel to “Tears,” disrupted open-world game design, relying on player curiosity to determine the game’s events rather than any script. This inspiration is felt throughout many games, including the Chinese online game “Genshin Impact” and last year’s blockbuster surprise hit, “Elden Ring,” by FromSoftware and George R.R. Martin.

The demonstration gave us access to the Ultra Hand feature, which allows hero Link to build machines out of parts found throughout the land of Hyrule. Ultra Hand is named after the 1966 toy that operated like spring-loaded tongs, a relic of Nintendo’s history as a toy manufacturer. It’s an apt name, since “Tears” encourages “play” and “invention” as the core principles of the experience. This is a fantasy adventure that asks players to invent their own pathways, whether it’s building rocket ships or robots.

This is not a new concept for Nintendo games, particularly the ones created or inspired by Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto. In a 1996 interview about “Super Mario 64,” which laid the foundation for all subsequent 3D interactive entertainment, he said his “eternal theme for game design” is all about letting players “create their own vision.”

“I don’t want to just hand players ready-made experiences – here you go, play this stage we made, solve this puzzle,” Miyamoto said. “Rather, I want a game that allows players to try come up with their own solutions and playstyles and test them out there on the spot.”

During my “Tears” session, I unlocked the entrance to a sky dungeon by timing my 50,000-feet-in-the-air jumps while moving floating platforms around with Ultra Hand. Nintendo representatives overseeing my play said they had not seen anyone else solve the puzzle the way I did. I peered over at my neighbors, who used fans, airplanes and floating platforms to get to their destination. It’s the kind of experience Miyamoto advocated, even though he long ago handed the reins of Nintendo’s flagship series to Eiji Aonuma.

There are two more headlining features, called “recall” and “fuse.” Recall allows players to essentially rewind time for a specific object. Enemies decided to roll a spiked iron ball down a ramp to prevent me from entering a fortress, so I hit recall and sent the ball back in time, up the ramp and over my attackers. Fuse allows players to stick a random object to one of their tools, such as a rocket onto a shield to create a makeshift rocket pack. It’s a way to increase weapon attack damage and durability.

Thanks to the addition of underground and sky areas, there appears to be far more area to explore than what was available in the also-gargantuan “Elden Ring,” a game that famously seemed to get bigger the more you played. “Tears” includes underground cave networks not just on the ground but within the Sky Islands.

“Tears” seems to be a fusion of the traditional Zelda adventure and the DIY recipe system of the coronavirus viral hit of 2020, “Animal Crossing.” In that life simulator game, players gather materials to discover different “recipes” to create various items such as bug nets, shelves and even buildings. Zelda is tapping into the bottomless well of possibilities by allowing materials of all kinds to be fused.

The 2017 Zelda game already allowed for so much player experimentation with physics and elemental systems, such as burning grass creating a gust of wind. Players six years later are still finding new tricks to navigate the world and defeat enemies, particularly the ones in Japan. “Tears” further leans into that ethos and will probably be played for years in similar fashion.

Even in failure, the game may reward your ability to improvise. I built an airplane that took off from the ground in attempt to reach a sky shrine. I didn’t have enough fuel to land at the top of an island, but I had just enough to fly close to the bottom. As my plane exploded without fuel, I performed a somersault jump onto the underside of the island and climbed up to my destination. It was messy, but it worked.

With all these features, Link is also considerably more difficult to control. The game demands dexterity as the player uses every shoulder button alongside the directional pad, and every button has multiple uses depending on the mode Link is in, whether it’s fuse or Ultra Hand. I kept forgetting the recall feature existed. Rotating objects grabbed by Ultra Hand can get confusing, especially if you were just in the fuse mode. Even 70 minutes was not enough warm-up for all the buttons to feel natural. It’s probably going to take a few hours before tasks feel like second nature.

There are story details (as well as gameplay features) that Nintendo didn’t want us to see or don’t want us to talk about. Toward the end of the demonstration, when I reached the entrance to the aforementioned sky dungeon, I was asked by representatives not to enter. But I tried to skydive or fly to other parts of the map, above and below ground. There was a large square floating on the horizon, an enigmatic temple from the 2017 game now looming ominously.

It’s the mysteries of when, how and why Hyrule has changed along with why the villainous Ganondorf has returned that have electrified the Zelda fan community. To find out where big events are occurring, players have been trying to essentially “dox” the locations of characters by examining a thrilling four-minute trailer released earlier this month and using the map of the 2017 game. YouTube creator Ed “Zeltik” King, with more than 693,000 subscribers, created an hour-long analysis video based on those four minutes, including translations of the game’s made-up Zonai language. The video has more than a million views.

King, 26, who has been creating Zelda videos since 2015 from his home in England, said that while Zelda trailers are densely packed, “Tears” is especially so. “Nintendo knows what they’re doing with them, they’re deliberately giving us a puzzle piece by piece. . . . A lot of things we see in the trailer, we’re not meant to understand yet.”

South Florida-based YouTube creator HMK said he expects “Tears” to continue the Zelda tradition of inspiring other games, resulting in the most commercially successful title in the now-20-part series.

“They added verticality and a seamless world, where you can go from the top of a mountain down to a crevice, where there’s even more to explore,” said HMK, whose first name is Gio but who goes by his username in the gaming world for privacy reasons. He added: “‘Breath of the Wild’ was just the blueprint. But with ‘Tears,’ it is going to be the ultimate Zelda for a while.”

King is one of the few influencers who had a hands-on preview experience with the game. He feels “Tears of the Kingdom” will not only thrill fans of “Breath of the Wild,” but even players who disliked that game’s features, such as the infamous durability of weapons.

“With ‘Tears,’ they haven’t done the easy thing, like addressing weapon durability with the fuse system instead of a simple blacksmith,” King said. “They’ve reinvented the wheel again and came up with crazy new mechanics and features no one expected, no one has seen before.”