Nintendo president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aimé is not the only imposing figure at the company’s E3 booth this year. On each side of its high white walls, a 30-foot tall Link towers above the ever-expanding line. Some have waited more than three hours to get hands on with virtually the only game in town for the company at this year’s show: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
While Sony and Microsoft either acknowledged and embraced, respectively, the issue of mid-cycle hardware updates, Nintendo – which, given the flatlined sales of the Wii U, has the most to gain from a grand reveal of its next console – pleaded the Fifth. That takes confidence, and it’s a testament not just to the power of that single franchise for Nintendo but to its unique place in the games industry. It not only held its own amid a blizzard of stellar announcements from its rivals, but (according to Brandwatch) dominated social media buzz.
“This game is a risk”, says Fils-Aimé. “It takes all of the Zelda conventions and turns them on their ear. There are no longer dungeons – there are shrines to go through. There are over 100 of these. You have to cook, you have to craft, you have to do a variety of things that have never been in a Zelda game.”
Only in the world of Nintendo is a wholesale mapping of a currently successful genre – the open-world RPG – onto a guaranteed seller considered a risk. For decades, the company has resembled nothing less than a sort of mega-successful Geppetto-figure, making charming toys that captivated our inner child with little or no reference to the fleeting trends of the business around it. Fils-Aimé isn’t about to admit it, preferring to reference its proud history of innovation, but it’s clear that something has shifted in the past few years. Splatoon may look like a cross between a toddler’s food fight and a paintball apocalypse, but it successfully repackaged the ultraviolent multiplayer shooter for a young console audience, and Zelda may be about to repeat the trick.
“As successful as it’s been, we want more people to join in with the Zelda experience,” Fils-Aimé adds. “What we have is a number of things that are still Zelda – you have Link, you have to save the land of Hyrule, but you do it a different way – you can climb and you can jump. We want more people to play it – that’s why now.”
Breath of the Wild might be the future of Nintendo in more ways than one. Its open world structure is more than a nod to the gaming zeitgeist – it’s a reach for relevance and its best shot at pulling tens of millions of lapsed fans back into the fold. Almost 90 million never made the transition from Wii to Wii U. Some of them, it hopes, were in line this week. What the lucky ones got to experience was both classic Zelda and something else entirely.
A half-hour play session later, and it’s clear that Breath of the Wild really isn’t just another sequel or, for that matter, even just another Nintendo game. Distinct, segmented areas have given way to a landscape almost without limits. The more linear, critical path has been opened up, encouraging wandering. Many characters you meet along the way – traditionally checkpoints that would disgorge snippets of story or instructions – can be engaged or ignored entirely as you head for the next peak which, by the way, you can now climb.
We’ve all done this a hundred times outside of the Nintendo bubble, and recently. From CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 to Metal Gear Solid V to Fallout 4: Explore. Collect. Enhance. Quest. Repeat. Yet here we all are, entranced in the Nintendo booth, standing halfway up a mountain and rotating the camera to take in the full sweep of the kingdom of Hyrule. We trot about, pick apples from trees, climb things, fight a few largely identical monsters and try out the various weapons on offer. So far, so standard, but here it feels fresh and somehow different. Geppetto is at work.
The landscape evokes the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki. Fluffy clouds drift slowly by, trees and the long grass sway gently in the breeze. You can almost see the brush-strokes in the dappled sunlight. The Witcher 3 has scope to spare, but its beauty is often austere. This new, mostly-ruined Hyrule’s horizon is home to volcanoes, towers and forests that promise adventure in a way that only Nintendo can.
The fundamentals may feel familiar, borrowed even, but already, it’s doing what every Zelda game has done since 1987 – it’s charming you.