The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is nearly upon us. Hyrule is in danger once again and in mere days we will set out to find the Master Sword, aid Zelda, and defeat Calamity Ganon.
It has been a long, winding journey just to get to the game’s launch on March 3, 2017 though. Zelda fans love timelines, so I thought it would be worthwhile and interesting to look back at the history of the development of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It is easy to forget where a game has come from and exactly what it took to get to a launch.
Breath of the Wild mirrors The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess by launching across two game systems and promises to be the largest Zelda game to date. Since hindsight is 20/20, let’s take a look back and see how Nintendo’s foray into open world game design came to be.
2011- Dawn of the first Year -6 Years Remain-
Nintendo first breathed life into the possibility of a Zelda title in HD at E3 2011. The Zelda franchise was turning 25 that year and the next 3D installment, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, was months away from launching on the Wii. The impending launch of one of Nintendo’s most anticipated games did not stop them from showing off proof-of-concept footage showing Zelda in HD for the first time. This was enabled due to the fact Nintendo debuted their next home console, the Wii U, at the expo that year. Nintendo’s next system was sporting HD graphics and a tablet controller. A conceptual look at Zelda could show off all the possible new features a Zelda game could have on Wii U while generating hype for the next era of home consoles from Nintendo.
In an interview with IGN, Eiji Aonuma, producer on the Zelda series, discussed the possibilities of a Zelda title on Wii U.
“It’ll be an interesting challenge for us to see how we want to incorporate the controller itself and also previous successes such as using the Nunchuck and Wii Remote for swordplay,” Aonuma said.
With the first entirely motion controlled Zelda title on the horizon, the intriguing at the time (now controversial) Wii U GamePad was clearly at the forefront of Aonuma’s mind when considering development.
The controller dilemma pops back up in August 2011. In Nintendo Power volume 270, Anouma discusses the differences between the controls on Wii and Wii U in regards to a brand new Zelda title.
“”With The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, we had the Nunchuck and Wii Remote sort of stand in for the sword and shield that Link carried. But in a game for the Wii U, I can definitely see something like the controller itself becoming the different items that Link is using, allowing you to interact with the game world and with the game items in a very different way,” Aonuma said.
In October 2011, Game Informer had Skyward Sword as the cover story of the magazine. In a sidebar of issue 222, Phil Kollar asked Aonuma if the team had already begun planning an HD Zelda.
“The demo that we showed at E3 was really just more of a rough idea of if all we were to do was to take a Zelda game and put it in HD, this is what it might look like. We’re much more interested in looking at the power of the Wii U system and seeing how we can take advantage of that power to do things that we haven’t been able to do in a Zelda game before,” Aonuma said.
Before the end of 2011, Aonuma gave a seemingly final say on the controller possibilities for Zelda on Wii U in an interview with Official Nintendo Magazine in issue 75.
“I honestly think we cannot go back to button controls now, so I think that these controls will be used in future Zelda titles, too,” Aonuma said.
Even this early on into the notion of a HD Zelda, it seemed Skyward Sword had left a permanent mark on the franchise. The swan song for the Wii was met with critical acclaim, but when the dust settled, slow pacing, the reuse of environments, and incessant hand-holding dragged the entry down in the eyes of fans. Thankfully, Nintendo heard the complaints regarding Skyward Sword and took them to heart when beginning the development process for a new Zelda experience.
2012- Dawn of the Second Year -5 Years Remain-
2012 was a barren year for any Zelda on Wii U news. Nintendo was gearing up to launch the Wii U that November and their focus was clearly on the launch of the new system. Games that were years away did not take precedent. The new console launch didn’t keep Zelda off of the minds of Nintendo fans.
Entertainment Weekly (EW) had an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of The Legend of Zelda and other key Nintendo franchises. Ironically enough, it only took seven months after the launch of Skyward Sword for Nintendo to toss aside the idea of motion controls for the next 3D installment.
“With the last game, Skyward Sword, that was a game where you had motion control to use your weapons and a lot of different items, and I thought that was a lot of fun, but there were some people who weren’t able to do that or didn’t like it as much and stopped playing partway through it. So we’re in the phase where we’re looking back at what’s worked very well and what has been missing and how can we evolve it further,” Miyamoto said.
And just like that, both motion controls and more Zelda for Wii U news in 2012 were canned.
2013- Dawn of the Third Year -4 Years Remain-
Nintendo hosted a Wii U focused Nintendo Direct in late January 2013. As a sweet surprise and a promise for the future of the system, Nintendo formally announced a brand new Zelda title in development for the Wii U. No title was given or even a screen shot shown. Instead, Aonuma took over the Direct to share the vision and mission behind the next entry in the series.
“Our mission in developing this new Zelda game for Wii U is quite plainly to rethink the conventions of Zelda. I’m referring to things such as the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order. That you are supposed to play by yourself, the things that we’ve come to take for granted recently. We want to set aside these ‘conventions,’ get back to the basics to create a newborn Zelda so players today can enjoy the real essence of the franchise,” Aonuma said.
The remainder of 2013 was nearly as barren as 2012. Aonuma did talk about how changing up the Zelda formula excited him in an interview with 4Gamer in October 2013. Speaking with Mashable, Aonuma told fans they could expect more news about Zelda on Wii U at E3 2014. And not another word was uttered about the game until then.
2014- Dawn of the Fourth Year -3 Years Remain-
The excitement surrounding E3 and Nintendo this year could be described as palpable. Others may describe their attitude toward the event as hopeful or cautiously optimistic. The second year of the clearly stumbling Wii U was picking up speed with the release of Mario Kart 8 in May and the much-anticipated Super Smash Bros. entry in the Fall. One game on everyone’s mind though was the new Zelda title. Aonuma promised more at E3, but what exactly would they reveal and how much of it?
It wouldn’t take long to find out. Roughly half way through Nintendo’s Digital Event, Aonuma took over and began to describe the latest installment of the Zelda franchise. Aonuma spoke about the original Legend of Zelda game and how its wide world felt connected. The 3D titles tried to mimic this vast feeling, but never quite matched it in execution.
Aonuma snapped his fingers and switched (heh, see what I did there?) the background to an image of what Zelda on Wii U would look like. It was a colorful take on Hyrule field that seemed to meld the The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Skyward Sword art styles. He went on to discuss how the Wii U allowed them to create a vast open world where the player can approach an area from any angle. Then Aonuma vanished and a 47 second teaser showing off a blue garbed Link riding on horseback with stylish archery skills mesmerized fans. A giant, tentacle monster (that we would come to know as a Guardian) chased Link across the field and they began an engrossing fight. The teaser closed out with a fade to white and a launch year of 2015.
Considering all the tidbits of information up to this point, these 47 seconds seemed like the mother lode. Not much more came out from E3 except some confusion on whether it was actually Link in that trailer. For any new substantial information to come to light, folks would have to wait six more months.
The next chunk of Zelda on Wii U news would arrive during the 2014 Video Game Awards. A pre-recorded demo starring Miyamoto and Aonuma aired during the live stream. It featured the first extensive look of gameplay with four minutes of footage. It was all off-screen though, which was a great disappointment. The gameplay showed off horseback riding, shooting enemies with arrows, and how vast the world would be. Nintendo even reiterated the 2015 launch window, although that hope would soon be dashed upon the rocks.
2015- Dawn of the Fifth Year -2 Years Remain-
The year that was 2015 would go down as arguably the most disappointing year in Zelda on Wii U’s history. It was a trying year for the Wii U as well. On March 17 during a Japanese press event, the company announced a partnership with DeNA to create mobile games with Nintendo franchises. These games would go on to be Miitomo, Super Mario Run, and Fire Emblem Heroes, with more on the horizon. To quell potential investor and consumer concerns about Nintendo as a dedicated hardware manufacturer, the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata shared that the company was already developing next-gen hardware under the codename “NX.” Just three short years after the Wii U’s launch, the next bullet in the chamber seemed to be locked and loaded.
10 days later, Nintendo released a brief video statement from Aonuma saying that Zelda on Wii U would not be coming out in 2015. Due to the team discovering “several new possibilities” for Zelda on Wii U, Aonuma decided that, “we are no longer making a 2015 release our number one priority. Instead, our priority is to make it the ultimate and most complete Zelda game.” To rub salt in the wound, Nintendo also announced that Zelda on Wii U would not be at E3 2015 in any capacity.
In hindsight, it’s not hard to imagine those “new possibilities” involved porting the game to NX, which would become the Switch. Speculation of this popped up briefly, but with no expected timeline of launching the NX the chances did not seem terribly high. Little did fans know that they had another Twilight Princess situation on their hands.
Despite the game not being at E3 2015, people still asked about the game. In an interview with IGN, Nintendo President of America Reggie Fils-Aimé talked about why Zelda was not at the expo. Nintendo’s reasoning was that E3 is meant for upcoming content in the Holiday season and early the following year. Fils-Aimé went on to clarify that the game was still coming to Wii U and that it would be released in 2016.
“IGN: Do you worry at all that not showing it this year sends the message to Wii U owner and the potential Wii U buyer that Zelda is not a 2016 game?
Fils-Aime: “‘No. I don’t believe that it sends that messages. In fact, in separate interviews [Shigeru] Miyamoto has reinforced that it’s a 2016 game, and I also believe he’s reinforced that it’s a Wii U game because I know that there is that thinking floating around.'”
The year did cap off on a slightly more positive note. During a Nintendo Direct in November 2015, the company showed off 14 whole seconds of new footage of a hooded Link riding a horse through a familiar field. The short clip ended with the date of “2016,” which conveyed a sense of déjà vu to fans from the 2014 E3 teaser for Zelda on Wii U.
2016- Dawn of the Sixth Year -1 Year Remains-
2016 was supposed to be the year for Zelda, and in many ways, it was. Nintendo went all in with showing the world the new Zelda game in a way that felt like a heartfelt apology for stringing fans along the game’s development cycle up to this point. Before the healing could begin, heartbreak struck one more time.
On April 27, Nintendo of America tweeted out bittersweet news.
The delay of the game and the announcement of a NX version was likely made to placate fans, although the NX version would not be present at E3. Nintendo also declared that Zelda would be the only playable game they offered at E3 that year. Zelda being the sole focus of E3 for Nintendo was equally bold and revealing for the Japanese company. Bold in the confidence of the game. Revealing for how little the Wii U had left of prominence from the developer.
June 14, 2016 was Nintendo’s big day and it had finally arrived. The dam on Zelda news was cracking and ready to burst. Nintendo opened their day-long live stream with a brand new trailer. This trailer showed off a variety of landscapes, Link in combat, new outfits, an open world, voice acting, and the title—The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The flood of information was overwhelming and I won’t even attempt to mention it all here. I wrote an in-depth preview on the game here on Go Left Gaming. This covers the copious amount of news from Nintendo’s E3 2016 presence. Some broad strokes include the open world design, the fact the final boss is available from the get go, new Amiibo, and that the Wii U and NX versions would have the same experience.
Post E3, the drip of Zelda news wasn’t constant, but Nintendo didn’t completely clamp their mouth shut either. An update to the game’s website showed how Nintendo was going back to The Legend of Zelda, which was something Aonuma mentioned back at E3 2014.
October 2016 came and Nintendo finally revealed the long awaited NX as the Nintendo Switch. Boasting portable features, the Switch concept trailer opened with a player taking Breath of the Wild on the go. A fully featured 3D Zelda on the go could be considered the dream.
As 2016 was winding down, the rumor mill began churning out release date rumors. The most notable was that Breath of the Wild would not be a launch title for Switch, which was known to be launching in March 2017 at the time. Nintendo never claimed Breath of the Wild would launch the same day as the Switch, but fans were hopeful for a day one launch.
Breath of the Wild popped its head back out on December 1, 2016 for a reappearance at the Video Game Awards with not one, but two special looks at the game. During the pre-show, a new trailer showing off life in Hyrule played, while during the show, a let’s play from Nintendo aired. Both of these clips represented the Wii U version of the game.
Six days later, Fils-Aimé and Miyamoto appeared on The Tonight Show. Showing off Super Mario Run, Fils-Aimé also brought a Nintendo Switch to the show. For the first time ever, somebody not employed by Nintendo got to use the Switch. All these new bits were a positive way to cap off the 30th anniversary year of Zelda that finally brought much needed information to light, despite a second delay.
2017- Dawn of the Seventh Year -62 Days Remain-
January 2017 proved to be a crucial month for Nintendo. The Switch event was taking place on January 12 and the Nintendo Switch was supposed to launch sometime in March 2017. The company had a lot to announce (and still does) about their next console. Bundled in with all those questions about the Switch were questions about Breath of the Wild. Were all the rumors of Zelda not being at launch true?
The event opened strongly with important Switch information. The Switch would launch on March 3, 2017 at $299.99. The Zelda rumors were quelled at the end of the live event when Nintendo aired a phenomenal trailer for the game, which was punctuated by the final date the public would ever see attached to a Breath of the Wild trailer: March 3, 2017. Zelda would be a launch title for the Nintendo Switch after all.
But was the Wii U version on par with the Switch version?
It seems that (rightfully so) all of Nintendo’s marketing for Zelda’s first HD outing was behind the Switch version. Nintendo quickly confirmed that it was still launching simultaneously across both systems. How about the experience? Was it the same across both platforms? Almost to a tee. Both versions of the game target 30fps and feature the same content. The Switch version does run at a higher resolution of 900p when docked and features higher quality sounds. The Wii U would not be getting the special or collector’s editions of the game either. Other than that, the games should be the same experience.
On February 3, 2017 the final major milestone for this lengthy development cycle came to pass. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild went gold. Trusted Reviews translated a tweet from Yasuyuki Honne, a developer at Monolith Soft. They were brought onto development to help with some open world elements in the game.
February 24, 2017 -7 Days Remain-
The end of the Wii U is upon us. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be the Wii U’s swan song. Speaking to Polygon, Fils-Aimé said “From a first-party standpoint, there’s no new development coming after the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild…”
It strikes me as fascinating and odd that the Wii U would live and die with the next 3D Zelda game. While the game itself breathed its first breath on the Wii U, the system itself will breathe its last with the launch of the game. Of course, the Zelda franchise has lived on during this development cycle with Wind Waker and Twilight Princess being ported to the Wii U in HD. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes launched on 3DS. There was even a Dynasty Warriors spin off called Hyrule Warriors that came to both Wii U and 3DS. All of these titles released during the development of Breath of the Wild. The game itself does has a fresh start on Switch, which is a fresh start unto itself as well.
During a quirky, fun rapid fire interview with Game Informer published on February 8, 2017, Ben Reeves asked Miyamoto and Aonuma which Zelda game was the toughest to develop. Aonuma looked right at Reeves and said plainly “Breath of the Wild.” Looking back on this development cycle, I wholeheartedly believe him.
Delaying the game two years after its intended launch window, adding development for a whole new platform in the middle, Iwata passing away, and a failing home console are all wrapped up in the history of this game. This new title may just be Nintendo’s biggest experiment with the franchise since its 3D debut in 1998. The hype is palpable. It has taken five years, eight months, and 25 days to get to launch. From Nintendo planting the seeds of hope for a HD Zelda game before the launch of Skyward Sword, the company and franchise have ebbed and flowed like the steady breathing of a person in a deep sleep. On March 3, we can finally awake from our slumber and heed Zelda’s call to explore and save a brand new Hyrule.