Tears of the Kingdom is the new blueprint for Zelda and I’m not sure how to feel

With the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom over a week ago, what’s next for the series is already on everyone’s minds. As part of the launch, series producer Eiji Aonuma was on the press circuit giving interviews answering questions about Tears of the Kingdom and the Zelda series generally. Speaking to Game Informer, Aonuma had this to say in response to a question about the future of The Legend of Zelda:

With Ocarina of Time, I think it’s correct to say that it did kind of create a format for a number of titles in the franchise that came after it. But in some ways, that was a little bit restricting for us. While we always aim to give the player freedoms of certain kinds, there were certain things that format didn’t really afford in giving people freedom. Of course, the series continued to evolve after Ocarina of Time, but I think it’s also fair to say now that we’ve arrived at Breath of the Wild and the new type of more open play and freedom that it affords. Yeah, I think it’s correct to say that it has created a new kind of format for the series to proceed from.

Seems like the open world approach is here to stay. It makes sense: it’s been hugely successful and opens up a lot of doors for them on the design side of things to really go wild with the possibility space. But also, as much as I loved Breath of the Wild and am enjoying Tears of the Kingdom, the thought of this being the formula for all games going forward is… I don’t know.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Breath of the Wild was exciting in part because it was something new for the series. The Legend of Zelda had been operating in the same format for a very long time until then. The formula worked, obviously (there’s a reason they stuck with it so long), but so many years of the same thing does get tiring eventually. Taking the series in a new direction was great because it meant there was room for new ideas. It would no longer need to adhere to the conventions that defined it for so much of its existence. It could do something different and unexpected.

Tears of the Kingdom makes sense as a sequel because of course you’re not about to just step away from the idea after one game. Breath of the Wild had plenty more room to explore and iterate on. Playing in that same space – the very same map – is expected. Seeing the ways this version of Hyrule has changed in the years since is fun in the same way it’s a joy to see Kamurocho evolve over the Yakuza/Like A Dragon and Judgment games. It makes the building mechanics work because it provides a new set of verbs to use as you explore a familiar space, changing your relationship to the world and how you interact with it.

But a third game – or more – of the same or similar structure? I can feel the fatigue setting in already.

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Every videogame of a certain scale needs to be open world now. The days where a simple level-based structure was the norm are seemingly vanishing among the biggest games. Everything needs to have a massive, sprawling world filled to the brim with “content” to wring as many hours of playtime as possible. Every game needs to be a time-sink. You can’t just make a tight, focused experience that’s over in a matter of hours. Every new game needs to be bigger and more demanding of your time than the last.

Tears of the Kingdom is no different. It’s a much bigger game than its predecessor. The sky islands that make up most of the new land mass are only part of what’s been added. Intricate cave systems dot the existing landscape and an entire underground zone the size of the existing map are now present. Like Elden Ring, the sheer scale of it all is staggering. But I can’t imagine doing this all again and again and still feeling that spark of excitement and wonder for long. It’s fun for now because the novelty of “X game but open world” can produce some great results, but that won’t last.

I’m sure Nintendo could find ways to keep each new game interesting. The next game will probably be great and I’ll probably lose just as much time to it as I did with Breath of the Wild and will continue doing with Tears of the Kingdom. But it would be nice if Breath of the Wild heralded an era of experimentation with Zelda instead of just settling into another formula for the foreseeable future.

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