Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom confirms Zelda games have changed forever

The biggest shock of Tuesday’s The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom reveal was, of course, that Princess Zelda will be the playable protagonist. The second-biggest shock was that the game exists at all, and that it’s coming out in three months.

The third-biggest shock took a little longer to register for me, but it’s possibly an even bigger deal: Echoes of Wisdom is a clear indication that Nintendo has turned its back on what you might call traditional Zelda game design for good.

Tradition is deeply important to the Legend of Zelda series. This sequence of games has, over the course of 38 Earth years (and millennia on Hyrule), essentially told and retold the same story over and over again. Similarly, its game design has morphed and shifted within strict limits as it observed the time-worn rituals of Zelda.

For decades, each game would open up in a gradual, nonlinear, but carefully prescribed way, as the player unlocks new tools that fit like keys into the map’s many locks and uses them to find the solutions to intricate puzzles. In the first review of a Zelda game that I wrote — I think it was for The Minish Cap, in 2004 — I described the games as “clockwork fairy tales,” meaning they worked like beautiful, precision pieces of machinery that the player could slot themselves into. And they stayed that way — until 2017.

Image: Nintendo

Breath of the Wild tore up the Zelda rulebook. It gave players all the most important tools at the start of the game and let them explore the map in any direction, tackling its challenges in any order. Through systems like weapon durability, weather, stamina, and cooking, it also added a lot of variables that would keep players on their toes and encourage improvisation.

Then 2023’s Tears of the Kingdom turbocharged this approach with a handful of abilities that seemed conceived less to disrupt the game design than to break it completely. Ultrahand lets players build their own furniture, buildings, vehicles, and powered contraptions. Fuse splices almost every single object in the game into the weapons system. Rewind lets players send individual objects backward in time. And Ascend — which started life as a debug tool for developers — is almost a literal cheat, a traversal get-out-of-jail-free card.

With these two open-world games, Tears of the Kingdom especially, series producer Eiji Aonuma and his team shifted the paradigm of Zelda design toward open-endedness and player creativity (up to a point). These games were enormously popular, but — perhaps because of the accumulated cultural weight of the first three decades of Zelda games — I assumed traditional Zelda would live on beside this new strain, probably in smaller-scale titles harking back to the series’ 2D roots.

It seems not. Introducing Echoes of Wisdom in a video, Aonuma laid it on the line: “Here, we wanted to create a new gameplay style that breaks conventions seen in past Legend of Zelda games with a top-down perspective,” he said. Nintendo is not done messing with its beloved franchise — or rather, letting players mess with it, and challenging its designers to keep up with them.

In the game, Princess Zelda can use a magic staff called the Tri Rod to create copies of objects, and even monsters, called Echoes. She can build stairs out of bed frames, summon Moblins to fight for her, or create freestanding columns of water. In the video, Aonuma pointed out the way battles or puzzle solutions play out will vary greatly from player to player depending on the Echoes they use. The Echo ability is Princess Zelda’s Ultrahand; just as in Tears of the Kingdom, the ability to brute-force the game’s challenges, or step outside the usual Zelda ruleset to bypass them, is baked into the game design, and part of the fun.

Echoes of Wisdom will be the first brand-new Zelda game to come out since Link’s open-world adventures shook the series up. Visually, it looks just like the 2019 remake of the 1993 classic Link’s Awakening, but in design terms it feels like it belongs to this different, newer breed of Zelda games. Embracing creativity and player freedom now appears to be a core tenet of the series. Aonuma’s quiet revolution continues; Zelda will never be the same again.

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