It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game, which launched in 2017 alongside the Nintendo Switch, was an instant hit, selling 29 million copies to date and earning glowing praise from critics and players. It was singular in the staggering beauty of its game world, the deceptive simplicity of its plot structure, and the sheer fun and creativity of its mechanics.
In the years since, its popularity has only grown, as has anticipation for its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, which was at last released on May 12. There is ample evidence to suggest that Tears of the Kingdom will be the biggest deal in gaming this year.
This is largely due to the fact that Breath of the Wild (or BotW, as it’s affectionately styled and which my autocorrect now recognizes more readily than the common acronym “BTW”) introduced a whole swath of people to modern video games. An extremely unscientific sampling of my friends, acquaintances, and online strangers has revealed it to be by far the most frequently occurring gateway game, both for folks who had barely touched a controller in their lives and those returning to gaming after sometimes decades; more than one person I know bought a Switch solely to play BotW. A commonly echoed sentiment is how remarkable the game is when you’re playing for the first time; because it’s so focused on discovery and exploration, even the most seemingly mundane places become potential troves. If there were one game for which I could get a cosmetic lobotomy and experience completely afresh, Breath of the Wild would without hesitation be my pick. Getting to play Tears of the Kingdom now, six years later, feels like the closest we can reasonably get.
Breath of the Wild had a sizeable impact on the gaming industry. You’d be hard-pressed to look at a lineup of games from a major publisher in the last half-decade and not see its influence everywhere (and Tears of the Kingdom’s six-year development cycle — reasonable given the sheer scope of the game — left plenty of room for imitators). It catalyzed the open-world genre, wherein players can go wherever they want and complete tasks in any order. It has such a pronounced aesthetic, with its lush fields and imperious mountains and wide skies, that it’s been ripped off to the point of near-parody. There have been subtler lessons, too, evident in other games’ battle mechanics, minimalist music, and environmental puzzles.
All of those factors certainly helped make BotW special, but they’re not the whole story. Nor are they the whole story of Tears of the Kingdom (styled as TotK, which I have indelibly and unfortunately been pronouncing in my head as “TikTok”), a game that honors its predecessor — the same visual style, the same combat system, the same little jingle whenever you successfully cook a dish — while building on it in countless ways. Reportedly, the game is twice the size of BoTW. You can take to the skies and go deep underground in addition to roaming the land of Hyrule, and returning to locations from the previous installment yields a plethora of new discoveries.
What makes both of these games work is simple: They are games that respect you as the player and the very concept of games in the first place.
(A note on spoilers here: yes for Breath of the Wild, no for Tears of the Kingdom, beyond a couple of mechanics and plot points already highlighted in gameplay trailers.)
The Legend of Zelda has a long, not totally coherent, history. The games — there have been 19 major titles released since the debut of the series’ titular game in Japan in 1986 — take place along a scattered and splintering timeline, with some plot points reverberating throughout installments and others standalone. What every Zelda game has in common is the series protagonist, Link, a mostly silent, blond, elf-boy warrior. Sometimes he is a child, other times an adult. Sometimes he’s accompanied on his journey; more often he’s alone. He’s usually trying to help the Princess Zelda in some way, although she also tends to help right back, and generally their aim is protecting Hyrule from the evil Ganon. Those are the rough mythological contours, but the story is told anew each time.
Breath of the Wild occurs in the aftermath of great destruction. Ganon has already won; Hyrule has already fallen; Zelda is sealed away, and all you, Link, have left from her are memory fragments dispersed across the bludgeoned continent. Despite the unequivocally dour sitch, though, the atmosphere is lively and bursting with secrets, rewarding you no matter where you might want to explore. It’s easy to forget at times that you’re meant to be saving the world, when the world is so ripe in its own right. This is what has compelled so many people to play the game for hundreds, or even thousands, of hours: the sense of freedom it offers, the singular joy that comes from making a choice and having it pay off, the immersion in a place that’s by equal measures gentle and terrifying.
TotK, picking up the story a handful of years later, offers that same feeling, allowing you to explore the sky and the subterranean world with the same attention to detail of the previous game, only on an even grander scale. The first time I, as Link, swan-dove from the sky down to earth, I burst into tears; even hang-gliding from the highest mountains of BotW doesn’t achieve the level of loftiness that Tears of the Kingdom delivers. You feel small in that moment, but part of something much larger; it almost feels like glimpsing the sacred.
It’s not just the breadth and depth of the world that’s so appealing in these games, but how you can manipulate and navigate it. In BotW, players had the power of runes — like a large magnet you can summon at will, and endlessly replenishing bombs — to draw on in order to solve puzzles, fight enemies, and generally just mess around. They’re gone in TotK, which instead offers this same approach in the form of a magical arm Link acquires when his own is injured; it bestows abilities that are for the most part extremely clever. One such skill is the ability to reverse the path of an object through time (turning a raft over a waterfall, say, into an aquatic elevator); another is the ability to fuse items together; still another allows you to ascend through a ceiling above you, and features one of the more satisfying sound effects I’ve encountered in the game so far.
These build and expand on the rune powers by virtue of how endlessly customizable the combinations are, which is a boon for player creativity and gameplay flexibility. I’ve managed to build bridges, boats, mine carts, and a whole bunch of ill-fated hybridized weapons (weapon durability, a contentious aspect of the first game, is here to stay, which you honestly have to respect); I’ve also cooked a vast array of dishes because modern Zelda games are first and foremost really beautiful cooking simulators. While there are many small-to-medium quality-of-life improvements, the fact that there are now actual in-game recipe cards is one of my personal favorites, although it has been a little bittersweet not requiring an actual physical notebook to keep track this time around.
These games, while stunning, are not perfect; I didn’t love BotW the first time I sat down to play back in 2017, when I was too frustrated by the pace of the game’s first few tutorial hours and found myself clumsy with the controls. It wasn’t until the spring of 2020 (for no reason!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) that I picked it up again, got over the hump of the mechanics and my own fear of being bad at things, and realized that above all Hyrule was a place I could go at a time when I could go very few places.
TotK, too, takes some getting used to in its first section, particularly in the case of the fiddlier arm abilities; I spent probably a solid 30 minutes at the onset shaking apart items I’d accidentally fused together weirdly. I don’t imagine it’s a dealbreaker even for new players (although I would strongly suggest playing Breath of the Wild first because, like, it’s there), but it does take some force of will to figure out the controls and the rules of engagement before you can really get to the good stuff.
What even these flaws belie, though, is the degree to which both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are invested in teaching you how to play them. I think most good games are, to some extent. That’s the real magic of these games, to me: the way they allow you as the player to set your own pace and your own terms while still weighing each choice you make with appropriate gravity. They hand you the tools, and then graciously step aside to let you wield them.
This is why the way Breath of the Wild ends is quietly jarring. Not because of what happens, but because of what doesn’t. Once you’ve finally built up the strength to confront Ganon in his castle, once you’ve whittled down his health and braved a (IMO kind of anticlimactic) final battle, the game just ... ends. You don’t get to experience Hyrule post-blight; there’s no returning to this lush kingdom you’ve saved at last. You can start up a new game file, of course, but it’s not the same. This is intentional, and thematically resonant; Link has rarely, in his 37-year history, gotten to enjoy the spoils of his labor, perhaps because he’s needed elsewhere along the snaking Zelda timeline as soon as he’s dusted off his hands.
It helps explain all the breathless waiting for Tears of the Kingdom, and the relieved exhale when it turned out to be just as breathtaking as its predecessor. You don’t return to precisely the same Hyrule — if the series teaches you anything, it’s that you never really can — but where you do find yourself is both familiar and even richer and more expansive. What you do from there is up to you.