Mark Nielsen
, posted 2 hours ago / 540 Views

With last year finally seeing the release of the anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild – after a long, long wait from reveal to release – we now find ourselves in the strange and unfamiliar territory of not knowing what to expect next from this long-running flagship series. With Tears of the Kingdom being so recent and Nintendo’s next system likely coming soon, it’s safe to say we won’t be looking at another big Zelda launch title this around and it’ll likely be years before any ruminations of the next game start to surface, but in the meantime we can always speculate. Breath of the Wild changed things for the series by multiplying its popularity manyfold, so it would seem only logical that the franchise will continue along the path Breath of the Wild started, however a look at the series’ history shows it might not be as simple as that. So, let’s take a look at what the future of this legendary series might have in store for us, blending in equal parts qualified theorizing and wishful thinking.

For a series built around variations on a circular narrative – infinite incarnations of the titular Princess and the non-titular hero – the Zelda franchise itself has been far from repetitive. Sure, until Breath of the Wild one could say the games followed a quite specific formula with certain boxes that each entry checked, but in regards to everything surrounding that formula Nintendo hasn’t been shy about experimenting. Link has explored the open seas as a cartoony kid, he’s fought his way through a darker Hyrule steeped in shadows, and he’s soared through the skies far above the land (twice). While many other series have developed over the years in a fairly linear, iterative fashion, one could say that Zelda has evolved in a branching structure with separate paths, sometimes revisiting or combining previous ideas, and sometimes taking a leap of fate into uncharted territory – as was the case with Breath of the Wild.

Perhaps the most distinct path the 3D series has seen is that of Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess. Two games that borrow heavily from their progenitor Ocarina of Time (in slightly different ways) and that both opt for a much darker atmosphere and tone. But in-between those two titles we also had a very different title: The Wind Waker. It opted not only for a different tone and visuals, but also a vastly different structure, giving you a large open sea to explore, upon which the areas that would have made for separated zones in the other entries were instead scattered around as islands. Skyward Sword tried this again to some extent, giving you a sea of clouds instead of a sea of water, though the main areas of the game were separated from this sea on the land below. Another similarity it shared with Wind Waker was its colorful cartoony style, though it also drew inspiration from Twilight Princess in other areas.

And then came Breath of the Wild, resembling most closely The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword among the existing games, but also being a completely new direction in many ways. It broke away from traditional dungeons and item progression in favor of a larger focus on puzzle-solving and survival mechanics (material gathering, cooking, environmental hazards, etc.) and, of course, it had a sprawling open world. Tears of the Kingdom continued this trend, layering a newfound focus on tinkering and crafting on top, while retaining the old systems.

And that brings us to where we stand now. To say the last two entries have transformed the Zelda we know would be quite the understatement, but they’ve clearly struck home with many players both old and new (personally I consider them my favorite entries). The thing that’s hard to tell at this juncture is whether this will be the new blueprint going forward, or just another branch? My theory on the matter is that it’s somewhere in-between.

The biggest revolution of the new Zelda and what I believe will be par for the course going forwards is the open world. Even on the series’ first attempt at a (land-based) open world, Zelda immediately cemented itself as one of the kings of the genre, and with the popularity of both the recent games and said genre, it’s hard to see Nintendo moving away from that again. However, what to fill that open world with is far from written in stone. The last two entries brought new mechanics to the forefront for survival and crafting, and while those made for some incredible fun & novel elements, I’d wager they’re not as certain to stick around as the open world. They don’t exactly feel like a natural evolution of the series, nor something with a strong root in its history, so to me it’s these elements specifically that feel like the branch part of the Breath of the Wild duo, while an open world Zelda could just as well exist within the other branches. In other words, I see those mechanics as game-specific focuses; well-executed ones that could be revisited again in the future (or, in the case of TotK’s device-tinkering, make for an interesting new IP in its own right), but also ones that could just as easily be left behind for the next entry.

If Nintendo intends to continue the series the way it has traditionally, it can’t keep just layering new elements or focuses on top without replacing something. A game, just like a person, can only focus on so many things before it loses focus of them all. But what then will Nintendo do instead? This is where we get to the truly speculative part, but I for one think we haven’t seen the last of the Zelda branches, nor for that matter the traditional Zelda dungeon. There’s no real reason why an open world and dungeons can’t co-exist, and Hyrule Castle in both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom shows us, if anything, that there are even more possibilities for these dungeons going forward.

Don’t get me wrong, these two variants of Hyrule Castle are very different from the dungeons of yesteryear, where every room had purpose and you unlocked areas little by little as you went, but what they show us are the possibilities for scope and optional areas. Combine these two types and you could have a truly exciting prospect on your hands; dungeons that hold both a feeling of grandness, a sense of progression as you unlock them piece by piece, and various secrets for you to find along the way.

That’s my theory (and to an equal extent, hope): that the focus of the next Zelda will (surprisingly) be grand dungeons – a handful of them spread evenly across an open world that, of course, in itself will still hold secrets, quests, puzzles, and will provide compelling exploration. Of course, grand or not, these dungeons will only play one part in a larger experience that will doubtless bring other new things to the table, small or large, but the prospect of these grand structures would in itself make for an enticing hook.

That’s only the functional part. As mentioned previously, Zelda is also a series with a history of changing up its style and tone from entry to entry. In this area, I think it’s high time to continue along the darker path. While Tears of the Kingdom did of course have its fair share of darkness in the literal sense, it’s been a long time since the series has seen a game that fully embraced such an atmosphere and made it its MO. Another reason this could be a possibility is that the next Zelda won’t have to serve as an opener for a new console the way Breath of the Wild did. This time the main man Mario will likely have made quite an impact on the new console and to some extent carried it by the time the next Zelda makes its appearance, so having a darker game in contrast might actually be beneficial.

A connected question is that of visual style, which is another area I could see the next title continuing from where Twilight Princess left off. While it seems silly to say this by modern graphical standards, Twilight Princess presented a sort of stylized realism for the time, and while I don’t think Nintendo should or is likely to swing any further towards the realism side than Twilight Princess did, that slightly realistic look might be perfect to flex the muscles of a new system that’s likely to more or less match a PS4 in power.

So, to summarize in brief here at the end, for the benefit of both the forgetful reader and the bottom-scroller: The Legend of Zelda is a series that has traditionally evolved in branches, rather than through linear iteration, and while open world Zelda is very likely here to stay, there are other possibilities for such a title than what we’ve seen in the last two entries. On the gameplay side one such possibility is the reintroduction of the traditional dungeon, making them grander than ever like dense, self-contained islands of content. On the artistic side another (compatible) possibility is a game with a darker atmosphere and stylized “realism”, like we last saw in Twilight Princess – greatly enhanced by new, more powerful hardware.

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