When Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017, it set a new standard for the open world format in video gaming. Rather than guiding players through rigid challenges as in previous installments in the series, the game dropped them in the middle of an open map of Hyrule, letting them choose their own adventure. It still featured battles with Bokoblins and other monsters, but users could also explore nature and even cook their own meals.
Breath of the Wild was a hit, converting many who wouldn’t otherwise call themselves gamers.
Now, six years later, Nintendo has dropped the game’s sequel. The highly anticipated Tears of the Kingdom is situated on the same map of Hyrule, but expands the world up — and down.
On Today, Explained, Polygon senior editor Mike Mahardy joins host Sean Rameswaram to explain why this franchise is so influential in the gaming world, and why it seems like — with the success of HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation and the Mario movie — video games are having a moment right now.
Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
This game is incredibly popular, including with people who previously weren’t gamers. How many people were brought into this game and this storyline through Breath of the Wild?
Breath of the Wild has sold about 30 million copies. Early in its lifespan, more people owned Breath of the Wild than owned the system you needed to play it on. Breath of the Wild was very much one of these watershed games.
Wow. So if Breath of the Wild sold 30 million copies at ... How much does it cost? Ish?
That was $60 per game. So that’s about $1.8 billion, just doing the general multiplication. Obviously not everybody would have had to pay full price through various deals or trade-ins, etc. But Tears of the Kingdom is $70. Games have just gone up with inflation.
This is like Top Gun: Maverick money, if not more. This is as profitable as a huge blockbuster movie and certainly more profitable than most popular TV shows could even be.
Yeah. For instance, the new Mario movie just crossed $500 million in box office sales. Granted, that’s only five weeks into its run, and Breath of the Wild is six years old. But right now, if you’re comparing them, sales of Breath of the Wild more than triple the Mario movie box office sales.
Wow. What was so groundbreaking about Breath of the Wild? What made this game such a game-changer that it made so much money for Nintendo?
It’s the same thing that made the original Legend of Zelda in the late ’80s so powerful. It was just about dropping into this world and exploring for its own sake, and the developers were smart enough to reward that exploration. So players kept exploring because there was confidence that their curiosity would be met with something cool, something interesting.
Breath of the Wild is actually much like that first game in that regard, except with better tech. The developers have way more experience and hindsight. You know, it was 2017 instead of 1986. So all these open world games that were coming out in the early aughts and the 2010s were very much about like, “Go knock these boxes on a checklist off.” Breath of the Wild was just much more organic in the way you’re exploring. And it really was just kind of like going back to the concept of the original Zelda, but with new tech, better hardware, more experience on the developers’ part.
Wow. And is the sequel to Breath of the Wild — Tears of the Kingdom, which comes out today — going to be bigger?
It’s hard to say. They haven’t released figures yet. Nintendo is usually a bit more closeted in terms of their financials. But it’s one of those games where Nintendo released a teaser a few years ago and people were not just combing through this 30 seconds of a teaser to see what that character said. They were like, “Oh, I heard this weird little sound snippet in the background.” Some people were even playing them backward, almost like you would an old-school Led Zeppelin record to hear demonic messages that Robert Plant might have been sending you.
You might remember that Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo was famously nowhere near as good as the original. Is there a chance that Tears of the Kingdom disappoints fans of Breath of the Wild?
So the game came out today. However, I actually have had it for like two weeks.
You’ve had it for two weeks! How do you do that?
I was reviewing it for Polygon. I’ve played it for 70 hours and still have not scratched the surface: It’s actually not really one open world in Tears of the Kingdom like it was in Breath of the Wild or any number of other open world games. It’s actually three, layered atop one another. There are these Sky Islands above Hyrule that they’ve been showing in the trailers and gameplay demonstrations. But there’s also an entire subterranean map, basically the size of Hyrule above it, that is much bigger than these Sky Islands.
So, effectively, you’re finding an item in the Sky Islands — like a treasure map — that leads you down to that subterranean map. But to explore the Depths, you also need to gather certain items that can light up the darkness from the middle world, Hyrule.
I think it actually might potentially turn some people away that really liked Breath of the Wild, specifically because compared to Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild was like an overture, an introduction. Even 70 hours into Tears of the Kingdom, I’m still — even right now, while we’re speaking — I’m thinking of things I haven’t tried. Like, “How can you build these vehicles? How can you fuse together different items to make new weapons?” I think people might find it overwhelming, especially those people who came in with Breath of the Wild.
So it stands to be just as huge, if not maybe even bigger, than its predecessor. What would that mean for Nintendo and for the gaming industry?
Breath of the Wild for Nintendo was their repudiation, so to speak, of open world games — those maps you’re dropped into to explore. Since the early aughts, open world games were becoming stale. You had games from publishers like Ubisoft, in which you dropped into this world and there are icons all over the map. The UI was cluttered and crowded. It had like six missions up on the side to go pursue.
Breath of the Wild came along as this kind of response to that. Since its release, we’ve seen tons of developers chasing after Breath of the Wild’s design: Elden Ring, Dark Souls, Bloodborne. If you don’t know those games, they don’t care how difficult they are. They don’t care whether it’s going to take some work on the player’s part to figure out what’s going on. They’re like, “Hey, go find this general boss and then see if you could beat them.” And, you know, we’ll figure out where to go from there.
So I think the games industry at large — I’m hoping, at least, as a fan of those games — will chase after Tears of the Kingdom the way huge studios have chased after Breath of the Wild.
Also, on the technical side, Nintendo really needed this. They are definitely lagging behind the other big companies: Microsoft with Xbox, Sony with PlayStation, even Valve with PCs and SteamDeck, now. I mean, Breath of the Wild was pushing the Nintendo Switch hardware back in 2017. Tears of the Kingdom is no different. They recently said not to expect the Switch 2 or Switch Pro — whatever it happens to be — in 2023, so they really needed a big win on the creative side, the software side. So it means a lot for Nintendo — financially, sure, but also in terms of continuing the relevance that Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Breath of the Wild established. It’s a big deal for them.
You mentioned that Mario movie a little while ago. I wonder, it feels like video games are kind of everywhere right now — in the movie theater; HBO just had a very popular TV show, The Last of US, based on a video game. Is there something more pervasive about video games in our culture right now?
I think it’s less that video games are having a moment right now and more that this is the result of a build-up. I hate to attribute everything going on right now to lockdown and Covid, but the reality is that during lockdown, people were getting into Animal Crossing. Video games became less this little hobby you do on the side alongside the TV shows you’re watching, alongside the movies you’re watching, alongside the books you’re reading. It became this cultural force that is a binding agent in your social groups.
I’m willing to bet most people play games in some respect, whether it’s Wordle in their family chat or it’s Marvel Snap on the subway.
The way you invest money using Robinhood or the way you look for your life partner on Tinder.
Duolingo! The way you learn languages is extremely gamified. Those platforms have learned so much from video game UI and the way video games teach us and vice versa. In some ways, I think everyone is what we call “a gamer” at this point.
So I think The Last of Us being this tentpole on HBO and the Mario movie — which is a bit more based on nostalgia than actually trying to be a quality drama — both of those are the result of video games having been mainstream for a while. And now creators in other disciplines are trying to bring that to the forefront for other audiences.
Other disciplines, as you generously call them, have always wanted to profit off of anything that’s popular, be it Barbie or Super Mario Brothers or whatever it might be. But when you get back to Tears of the Kingdom or its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, it feels like for a lot of people, it’s about just escaping. It’s just about spending some time in a world that’s really satisfying.
Yeah, I mean, one of the bestselling games on Switch, that released during lockdown, was basically just about having a normal life. Animal Crossing was just: You wake up, you tend your crops, maybe you harvest a few of them, go talk to your friend who happens to be the museum curator. And there was something really rewarding about having that normal life cycle when we’re all just kind of confined to our apartments.
So I think more and more people nowadays have realized that not every game is going to be focused around combat. Some games just can be about pure escapism, pure discovery. And Tears of the Kingdom, to me, is one of the sheerest demonstrations of what happens when developers embrace the fact that people want their curiosity to be rewarded.