Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they’ve been chewing over. Today, Kate examines how Nintendo learned economic lessons from past Zelda games in Tears of the Kingdom…
Much like me, Hyrule has always been bad with money. It’s hardly surprising. In an economy where you can find cold, hard cash in rocks, trees, bushes, pots, grass, and even sometimes just lying on the floor, you don’t have to be a financial expert to know that you’re going to experience inflation at some point.
In most games, money is used for things that make the game better, like upgrades, new weapons, and new skills, but in Zelda games, those things are goddess-sent. Why buy new weapons when you have the Master Sword? Why acquire new skills when dungeons provide you with all you need? Why purchase an upgrade when you can just wander into a cave and find a Great Fairy to do it for free?
And so, the money problem is compounded: you eventually have a lot of it, and you have very little to spend it on, which leaves the poor Rupee feeling undervalued and useless. So why have Rupees at all?
The problem is that games are all about dopamine. We play games like mice in a maze, racing towards the delicious cheese prize. We are reward-oriented creatures, and that means we have to have something to entice us into exploring, discovering, and excitedly opening chests in the hopes of finding something new, which in turn means that the designers need to come up with something to put in those chests that doesn’t break the game. Hence, Rupees – something that isn’t even really a prize in itself, but a promise of being able to obtain a greater prize in future through the exchange of money for goods.
Therein lies the rub: Rupees are not prizes in themselves; they have to be worth something, they have to be put towards a purchase, for them to have any value to the player. When Zelda games struggle to offer exciting purchases, Rupees in a chest might as well be a piece of paper that says, “You did it, here’s a gold star!”
Past Zelda games have attempted to iterate on the Rupee economy to make it a little more exciting, but they’ve all failed:
Ocarina of Time has multiple Wallet sizes, each with limited capacity, but this feels like a restriction for the sake of restriction; if Link can carry bombs, shields, three changes of tunic, multiple pairs of shoes, and an entire chicken in his pockets, why not a little more money?
Majora’s Mask resets your Rupees at the start of each cycle, making them more precious, but then also introduces a bank that is somehow causality-proof that can retain Rupees across cycles, nullifying the point of the reset entirely
The Wind Waker makes you pay Tingle for plot-required items, and later on introduces the Magic Armor, which consumes Rupees instead of hearts for damage – but that just reinforces the uselessness of Rupees, especially in the late game
Phantom Hourglass introduced the Rupoor, which subtracts Rupees from your wallet, but you could easily make that money back from a single treasure haul
You get my point. Opening a chest containing Rupees in a Zelda game began to feel like some cosmic joke being played on you, like a Christmas present of socks (again). Slowly, though, over the course of the last few Zelda games, things started to change.
Skyward Sword introduced Treasures – not the first time they had appeared in games, of course, but the first time they existed free from the economy. You could sell them, but they were primarily used to upgrade weapons and items, like a crafting system. Suddenly, a treasure chest was a more enticing proposition, because it might contain a rare Treasure instead of a cache of pennies.
In Breath of the Wild, this expanded further from Treasures into Materials. Again, you could sell them, or you could cook with them, craft with them, upgrade armour with them, or create stat-boosting and survival-encouraging elixirs. Even the item descriptions steered you towards putting these resources to good use: “You could sell it to a store,” reads the description of a dragon’s claw, “but it must have some other use.”
Weapon degradation gave the designers something to put in the insane number of chests sprinkled throughout Hyrule – the cheese in the open-world maze
But the big change to Breath of the Wild’s treasure system was a controversial one. Weapons would now break after just a few uses, despite that being something that swords and shields are specifically designed not to do. The weapon degradation system came from a place of well-intentioned design, which hoped that players would be more willing to experiment, mix things up, and not be too precious about their sword hoard; it also gave the designers something to put in the insane number of chests sprinkled throughout Hyrule – the cheese in the open-world maze.
But players didn’t like the weapon degradation system in BOTW, did they? It felt fussy, unfair, and irritating, especially when having to change weapons in the midst of a tense boss battle. Besides, isn’t the Master Sword supposed to be a bit more powerful and longer-lasting than a dish sponge? Hasn’t it already survived through hundreds of years of Zelda lore? Why has it been nerfed to little more than a pointy stick that needs naps? Sure, the treasure chests in Hyrule had renewed purpose, but only thanks to a system akin to someone snapping all your pencils.
Enter Tears of the Kingdom, with its narrative reasoning for weapon degradation (bad magic made the weapons rot!) and its Fuse system (stick a chicken leg onto a spear to make a +5 Chicken Spear!). Fundamentally, they haven’t changed the number of items in the game that much – you can still get Bokoblin Fangs, Rusty Halberds, and dragon scales – but suddenly, the combinatorial possibilities turn weapon degradation and treasure hunting into a whole new ball game.
Everything is now a treasure worth having, limited only by your imagination. Do you like keeping your distance from enemies? Combine a crappy spear with another crappy spear to make a DOUBLE CRAPPY SPEAR, which is twice as long! Are you about to fight a Lynel, and you’re aiming to not die a billion times? Combine your Extra Durable wooden club with one of your rarest materials – a Black Bokoblin Horn, maybe, or a Diamond – to make something that can take chunks out of that Lynel’s health bar in one swipe. Every single treasure chest is either an exciting unknown or a genuine gift, something that you can actually use immediately rather than putting it in a pot of money for some as-yet-undecided purpose.
isn’t the Master Sword supposed to be a bit more powerful and longer-lasting than a dish sponge?
Rupees still exist in TOTK’s Hyrule, of course, and they can still – rarely – be found under rocks and in pots, mostly just as a fun callback to the olden times, but thanks to the ubiquity and variety of degraded weapons and treasures for fusing, Rupees no longer need to bear the weight of player dopamine generation. They are obtained instead as rewards for quests, or through selling items to merchants, and only very occasionally as treasure chest prizes (or as the lifeblood of a poor Blupee). You know, like actual money. It’s almost like the Rupee has been allowed to retire comfortably after carrying the treasure economy of Hyrule on its glittering back for decades; allowed to sink back into an economy of currency that makes sense.
Listen, I know a lot of you are probably still up in arms (heh) about weapon degradation continuing to exist in Tears of the Kingdom. I understand – it’s still a little fussy, a little irritating, and a little unfair. But the trade-off is that every single cave, every chest, every Bokoblin camp, is exciting again. Money is more precious, too, as it should be, because it has more prizes to compete with.
You see, dopamine isn’t actually about rewards. It’s not about the cheese at the end of the maze. Dopamine is the thing that drives you to go towards those rewards – which means that it’s actually all about expectations. You are far more likely to be excited to find a chest and open the chest than to have what’s inside the chest. That’s the thrilling part. When you know that a chest is likely to contain the same exact prize as the last ten chests, that excitement is lesser, and the dopamine hit is, too.
But in Tears of the Kingdom, with its hundreds of items, weapons, clothing, shields, bows, arrows, et cetera et cetera, every chest is an unknown, and even when you have the thing that was in the chest, there’s still the unknown of what it does when fused with other items.
The joy is in the not knowing, and Tears of the Kingdom is the most unknowable Zelda game there’s ever been. I hope I never know it all. I hope there’s always a little bit more cheese hidden away in that maze somewhere.