It’s somewhat amusing to me that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been so widely heralded this year. Not because it isn’t deserving of its reputation or the end-of-year accolades that it will no doubt garner; it will deserve every single one of them (sorry, Jim Sterling). Nintendo unleashed one of the greatest games of all time, and we’re all fortunate to live in a time when we get to play it at our leisure. A new, impossibly high benchmark has been set down for what open-world games can be.
No, the amusing thing is that no one is asking the big question. How the hell do you follow it up?
Zelda so thoroughly smashed the static, structured, lifeless sandbox template that we’ve all grown accustomed to that the game might as well be considered a digital Thanatos. It isn’t that there won’t be any “going back” to pre-BotW open worlds; it’s just that games that have been aping GTA3’s template for the past 15 years will all feel their age. Nintendo, though, will have the hardest time. The shadow of Zelda circa-2017 could threaten to loom as large as it did nearly 20 years ago, when Ocarina of Time simultaneously brought forth both a new blueprint for the industry as well as a ball and chain for Nintendo’s development priorities.
Of course, the mad geniuses in Kyoto have already pressed their midas touch on other properties: ARMS and Splatoon 2 are like nothing else in gaming, and Mario Odyssey is set to be yet another stellar adventure, the type only Nintendo makes. But topping the action/adventure pedigree of Breath of the Wild? That’s a tall, tall task. It might only be possible to supplant a giant of game design like this with an even larger, more elaborate adventure into an even grander Hyrule.
Or…were Nintendo feeling ambitious…they could choose the path less traveled. A path beyond what is achievable in a fictional, feudal kingdom. A higher path, beyond the sky itself, leading out into the universe, where galaxies host stars that warm planets ripe for adventure, so long as you’re one of the chosen few able to wield the armor and weaponry of the greatest warriors of the cosmos.
Metroid could take the Breath of the Wild template and become something greater.
Think of it, if you can, for a moment – from the top of a mountain, under the soft glow of the planet’s three moons, what do you see? Ruins. A landscape overtaken by the slow, inexorable march of nature, which only ever allows temporary dominion of its treasures by the strongest, most clever, and sometimes most hubristic, of animals. In the distance? Mountains, plateaus, steppes, valleys, jungles, forests, rivers, lakes.
You set your eyes beyond the lake, and see some kind of structure rising above the canopy of a jungle. The visor scanner’s analysis: “A landing pad. Large enough to accommodate the Gunship. It appears functional, but currently lacks power.” That’s where you need to go.
Imagine the journey there: With your Power Suit’s Spider Ball mode, you carefully tread down the cliffside, making sure to stop and rest where you can to restore your energy. But letting gravity take over is too tempting to resist – jagged rocks blur at your sides as you whirl down the cliffside at maximum speed. An angled rock softens your free fall, but the momentum launches you through the air right into the lake. Good thing you brought your Gravity Suit.
Picture a wrecked spaceship at the bottom of the lake. Its hull is rusted and perforated at multiple points, with a gash splitting the ship into two uneven sides. You slip through the opening, and spot an Energy Tank deep under the wreckage. You make your way in, and eventually find the ship’s log: while escaping with stolen Chozo technology from a nearby solar system, the Space Pirate ship was irreparably damaged by the planetary defenses. It drifted aimlessly for months, unable to establish any communications. With their resources depleted, the space pirates had no option but to place themselves in cryogenic stasis. Eventually, the life support system failed, and the ship continued to drift until it was pulled by this desolate planet’s gravity, finally crashing down in the very place where you now stand.
Envision the jungle at the far end of the lake. You must cut through it to reach the landing pad, but only scarce light breaks the canopy, and a dense fog hangs in the air. As you push into the cacophony of chirp, buzz, and birdsong, a sudden rustling and snapping of leaves and tree branches unnerves you. You are being watched.
Remember your thermal visor: color and light fade, replaced by cold, purple shades. Bright streaks paint your view as you jerk your head around hoping to find the stalker, whoever – or whatever – it is. There’s something odd going on. If you were being followed, then surely your thermal visor would pick something up? Warm tracks on the ground, for example. But there was nothing. Maybe you weren’t being followed. Maybe you were just paranoid. Or maybe your stalker wasn’t on the ground.
You turn your visor up high: a slender, twisted mass of hot yellow hangs from a high branch. You see it but for a second before it springs at you – but it was just enough to react. In one elegant motion, your body falls back as you swing your arm cannon upward as hard as you can, where it meets the creature’s pulpy flesh. The momentum carries you both to the ground, but you manage to land on top of it, your cannon pointing straight into its soft belly. Droplets of water condense around your cannon, then freeze as you charge your Ice Beam. A blast is heard, and the air suddenly fills with snow, which flutters down onto a frozen puddle. On the puddle lies the creature, frozen solid. A moment passes, then it shatters into a dozen pieces. The fight is over. You press through the jungle, unscathed, then reach the landing pad.
A large metallic canopy covers the landing pad. Your gunship won’t be able to land here until you open it, and you won’t be able to do that until you restore energy to its systems. Reason your way through this puzzle: reach higher platforms and power up stalled generators. You have your adventurer wits and the gifts of the Chozo – everything you could ever need. You succeed; the canopy retracts, creating a large opening through which your gunship may pass; at the same time, a nearby console lights up. It displays ancient runes, too ancient for your scan visor to decipher entirely. Only the phrase “map station” can be understood. You can come back later for a detailed map of the area. For now, you’ll have to be content with being able to call your gunship to this location.
If you wanted, you could fly your gunship: you may be limited by fuel, but this isn’t the first landing pad you activate, so you could easily resupply out there. But you can leave that for later. For now, you set off to explore some more. You climb a hill nearby and scan the horizon. What do you see? Ruins. A landscape overtaken by the slow, inexorable march of nature, which only ever allows temporary dominion of its treasures by the strongest, most clever, and sometimes most hubristic, of animals. In the distance? Mountains, plateaus, steppes, valleys, jungles, forests, rivers, lakes. Where will you go next?