Almost 40 years ago, I sat in my basement playing one of Nintendo’s first major games, The Legend of Zelda. To my 12-year-old self, the game felt massive. Its whole point was exploration.
Since the joy of that moment, I’ve checked in over the years to see how the Zelda series has evolved over its many iterations. Since 2017’s Breath of the Wild—widely considered one of the best video games of all time—fans have been eagerly awaiting Tears of the Kingdom, the direct sequel to BOTW, wondering where the creators could possibly go next. When Tears of the Kingdom was released this summer, it quickly became apparent that the sequel extends the worldbuilding of BOTW. Indeed, Tears of the Kingdom uses the same map, rearranges the location of key objects, and adds more destinations—alterations that at first glance might have seemed disappointing. However, it didn’t take long for players to recognize the game’s grandeur. In addition to the main map, TOTK features a series of islands floating in the sky and a massive underground chasm that (you slowly realize) mirrors the entire aboveground landscape.
As if this weren’t enough, TOTK also gives players new abilities, one of which allows them to manipulate materials they find to build just about anything they can imagine. This feature seems pretty obviously inspired by Minecraft, but it goes a step further in that the physics involved in creation have to make sense. Try attaching a flamethrower to a raft, and you risk burning your boat. Tilt a fan wrong on your glider, and you’ll plummet to earth instead of ascending to that just-out-of-reach sky island. At one point, in fact, my son gave me a tutorial on how gears work so that I could solve one of the game’s many mechanical puzzles.
Ultimately, the game encourages imagination while also setting limits. What’s amazing is that these strictures reward and enhance creativity rather than limit it. In the game's best moments, I found myself thinking, “Well, that’s definitely not how the designers wanted me to finish that task, but, hey, it worked anyway.” Similarly, TikTok and YouTube users are already showing off elaborate vehicles the creators likely couldn’t have foreseen.
The game’s range goes beyond its main quest and the inventions and workarounds it inspires. You can spend time cooking, reporting stories for a newspaper, playing minigames, or skydiving. I’ve spent more hours exploring than I care to admit, and there’s still a lot I haven’t done.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give this newest Zelda game is that, even well into adulthood, I can apply a word like wonder to my experience playing the game. Promos for the game highlight the idea that this game might encourage its players to see the real world in a new light—one that beckons adventure. This is probably overselling what a video game can inspire; after all, Zelda’s designers have nothing on the universe’s Creator. Still, a video game like Tears of the Kingdom allows us to grasp the good gift of creativity afresh. (Nintendo)