With no Sox game today, Dan asked me to write up The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which many of us at OTM have been playing since it was released Friday. Minor spoilers to follow. If you don’t like non-baseball posts... just don’t read it, though there is a baseball reference herein.
Unlike the vast majority of people who would consider themselves fanatics of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I only started playing the ludicrously popular game last year, when I worked at a P.R. company. Every day I would come into the office and report my exploits to my (much younger) coworkers, both of whom had played the game five years earlier and were living vicariously through my fresh eyes. What shocked me most was how well they recalled the details of the game – the map of Hyrule, the names of towns and characters, how to complete certain quests, and so on. They were as nostalgic about it as one might be for college, or just a semester abroad, when every new impression lasted a lifetime and every story was bound to be retold into eternity.
If this sounds overly florid, it’s more the rule than the exception. Save for a baffling handful of haters, BOTW is more or less universally acknowledged as a singular achievement in gaming. When IGN ranked the best games of all-time again in March, Breath of the Wild was again #1, over everything from Tetris to Elden Ring. In very rudimentary baseball terms, BOTW is best thought of as Camden Yards, a concept so innovative that it immediately and definitively reset the norms of an entire multi-billion dollar industry which then only existed “before” and “after” its release.
Except it’s bigger than that. Far bigger. There are 30 Major League Baseball parks. There are hundreds if not thousands of video games released each year, and tens of thousands in existence. For a great many people, BOTW is atop all of them, largely because it purports, extremely convincingly, to be something it’s not.
Ostensibly, BOTW is an “open world game,” meaning that there is no one set way to finish it, unlike, say, the original Nintendo 8-bit Zelda game or Ocarina of Time, the flagship game for the N64. Those games follow a traditional linear structure: You do a, then you do b, then you do c, then you do d, and then you’re done. In BOTW, you can do a, b, c or d in any order before you end up at the final boss – or you can skip a, b, c and d altogether and try to finish the game in record time. It is exhilarating and addictive, but I’d argue that it’s not truly open-ended, even for all of its choose-your-own-adventure stylings. Everything you do in the game correlates, somehow, to beating the game. Even the most insane quest – the maniacal one to find 900 Korok seeds across the Hyrule landscape – ultimately provides you with nearly unlimited weapons storage. No matter how far afield you get, you’ll constantly be reminded that your goal is to beat Ganon.
By contrast, Tears of the Kingdom, the sequel to BOTW released last week, is very much an open-world game, to the point that the main quest seems like supporting material. If BOTW is a “sandbox game,” TOTK is the whole damn beach, the sky above and the bowels below. I enjoy it immensely, which is not surprising as it’s plainly a game for adults. My son is almost 6 and has played BOTW so extensively he can name every variety of creature in it, but he needed my help to survive just the first few minutes of TOTK in any meaningful way before he gave up and started playing something else. I suspect he won’t be the only one, and it’s why ultimately BOTW is a better game. It’s the perfect blend of complexity and simplicity, whereas TOTK is like the double album that follows a band’s best record, when simplicity goes out the window and it’s all about indulging yourselves and your die-hards.
I am in the latter camp, obviously, and my admiration for TOTK is pretty much endless. If BOTW was ultimately designed to be perfectly playable, TOTK is designed to leave you in awe. You start the game in the sky above Hyrule on a group of floating islands, much as you start on the Great Plateau in BOTW; in fact, the important narrative beats of BOTW are repeated pretty faithfully in TOTK, albeit with tweaks that make players like me squeal with delight. That said, it does push the main quest even further into the background. As I’m only about halfway through the main story, I can’t speak to what happens toward the end, but I’d be shocked if the plot strayed too far off BOTW’s course. They weren’t rebuilding the wheel. They were using the wheel to build bigger and better things – and now you are, too.
To that end, the biggest mechanical change in the game are the extra powers Link can use from the outset. Previously he could move metal, stop time, create bombs or freeze water into climbable slabs. The single most important innovation in TOTK is to give Link “Ultrahand,” a Luke Skywalker-like bionic limb with Force-like powers that you use to build structures out of wood and new Zonai devices, which are materials like wheels, fans, blowtorches and more. The level of creativity that this mechanic necessitates and inspires is the single biggest differentiator between TOTK and BOTW. This is what this game is about, and if you spent your entire TOTK life just building fun stuff you’d easily get your $70 worth, given that mastering this element alone is like getting a PhD in engineering.
It should surprise no one that this element has led to a flood of TOTK shitposts. This is a game made to exist alongside TikTok in the creative canon, right down to its initials. If it seems like no one cares about the main quests, it’s probably because they – we – don’t, having found other ways to enjoy it. It’s less a game than its own platform.
This is what a truly open-ended game looks like. Yes, the designers have added an entire sky and underground to BOTW’s map, which means there’s basically three times as much territory to explore, but it’s functionally just a larger canvas with which to get freaky. BOTW is often described as a “lonely” game; the same is not true for TOTK, where after beating the main dungeons you get ghostly versions of allies who follow you from place to place, enabling you to use their special powers. The essence of BOTW was stillness. In TOTK, it’s movement boarding on mania.
It may be too much for some people, nearly in the same way social media apps can be overwhelming to the non-power users; if you cannot grok how to harness the rules of the platform, you cannot really unlock their true creative potential. In this sense, TOTK is truly a game of the moment, which is really all you can ask for when building upon the timelessness of BOTW. And if you still don’t like it? You can always build it your way. In this version of Zelda, you rule.