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Three is a Trend: Echoes of Wisdom and the Experimental Nature of Modern Zelda

Three is a Trend: Echoes of Wisdom and the Experimental Nature of Modern Zelda - Article

by Evan Norris , posted on 22 June 2024 / 2,503 Views

Nintendo made a big splash this week. Not content to let its money-making hybrid console fade away gently in its eighth year, the company hosted a 40-minute Nintendo Direct during which it trotted out several trailers either announcing or reconfirming upcoming Switch games. Fans got their first look at Mario & Luigi: Brothership, reveled in brand new footage of Metroid Prime 4, and, perhaps most consequentially, enjoyed a sneak peek at Echoes of Wisdom, the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda franchise.

Echoes of Wisdom is important for a few reasons, aside from its role in a surprisingly stacked 2024. The first and most obvious is that it features Princess Zelda as the main protagonist. The iconic head of state has, of course, featured prominently throughout the franchise, at times as a damsel in distress, at other times as a sidekick or guide, and, most recently, as a heroic figure whose behind-the-scenes sacrifices have ensured the security of the kingdom. However, she has never had a standalone game all to herself. That all changes with Echoes of Wisdom.

The second reason is that the game's existence demonstrates that top-down "AA" Zelda games are alive and well, and still a priority for the developers and producers at Nintendo. If we ignore the 2019 remake of Link's Awakening, the last wholly original top-down entry was Tri Force Heroes from all the way back in 2015. It's good to know fans can continue to rely on smaller-scale installments between those once-every-six-years "AAA" leviathans.

The third and most telling reason is that it confirms the experimental gameplay and do-it-yourself mechanics introduced in Breath of the Wild and elaborated upon in Tears of the Kingdom are here to stay. They say that once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a trend. If the Echoes of Wisdom footage from this week's Direct is any indication, we now have a trend. Like it or not, creative, outside-the-box solutions, and the emergent situations that accompany them, are now an indispensable part of the Zelda experience.

Nintendo laid the groundwork for this sea change seven years ago with Breath of the Wild. That game was a revelation (not to mention a critical darling and a commercial juggernaut) in large part because it offered true freedom — not just the typical open-world freedom to go anywhere, do anything, and delay the main quest indefinitely, but the freedom to approach any obstacle or problem from a hundred different angles. Underpinned by a complex physical and chemical framework, the Switch launch title invited players to experiment with objects, materials, and elements in unpredictable, inventive ways in order to arrive at their hoped-for destination. The game succeeded because it adhered to the sage advice of the great dungeon master Matt Colville: "don't solve the players' problems; solve their solutions."

It would be difficult to underestimate the profound effects of this change in philosophy. Obviously there were the critical accolades: Breath of the Wild scored a 97 on Metacritic, won over a dozen awards during GOTY season, and was hailed as one of the best games of all time, if not the best. But more important were the sales numbers — 31 million units sold and climbing — and what they represent for Nintendo's bottom line and the growth of the franchise. Yes, the game alienated some long-time fans used to the relatively rigid lock-and-key approach of past franchise titles, but at the same time it flung open the doors to a legion of previously Zelda-agnostic players who embraced the open-ended back-and-forth — the friendly, accommodating conversation, if you will — between player and game.

Six years later, unsurprisingly, producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi doubled down on this winning formula with Tears of the Kingdom, which retains the complex physics engine, spatial freedom, and general accessibility of its predecessor Breath of the Wild, and then adds on top of it all even more game-changing playground tools. It allows players to worm their way through solid stone, send objects backward in time, forge unlikely weapons by fusing unrelated items together, and, most dramatically, create bespoke equipment, machinery, and vehicles to rule the road, sail the seas, or soar through the sky. It dialed the do-it-yourself possibilities up to 11.

With Echoes of Wisdom, the Zelda brain trust appears to have embraced, for the third time in a row, unconventional thinking and DIY problem-solving. Indeed, it's foundational to the game. Using the Tri Rod, Princess Zelda can create imitations, or "echoes", of objects in order to defeat monsters or bypass obstacles. She can recreate boxes, water blocks, rocks, and even enemies. At one point in the trailer, the Hyrulian heroine conjures three beds and a bounce pad to scale the wall of a Gerudo town; at another point she summons a decorative shrub to block a dangerous gust of air; at yet another she places a piece of meat on the ground to lure away carrion birds. Said Aonuma, "How you solve puzzles and battle enemies will change depending on the Echoes used. In short, we've created a game where each player experience will be different."

This is all par for the course. Back in 2016, he had this to say about Breath of the Wild: "In the past titles, if a player found a different solution to the one we'd intended, we’d call it a bug. But for this title we created puzzles with multiple solutions." Based on Aonuma's own words, and the gameplay footage shown earlier this week, it's crystal clear that the experimental nature and problem-solving flexibility of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are now fundamental pieces of the modern Zelda formula.

Is it possible that The Legend of Zelda will change course in the future? Absolutely; the series has undergone several permutations throughout its 38-year history after all. For now though — whether 3D or top-down, whether the protagonist is Link or Princess Zelda, whether it's a launch title or a swan song — the legend will be what you as the player make of it.

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UnderwaterFunktown (on 22 June 2024)

Interesting, I definitely think the emphasis on player freedom these last few games has been so well received that it will be part of the series DNA moving forward, but I don't think that will necessarily mean "experimentation mechanics" every time, as much as just increasing player options. Certainly makes me curious for the future of both 2D and 3D Zelda though (Also how it's gonna look since we haven't had a new art style in a while)

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