Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom—the latest iteration of a series created in 1986—is likely the Game of the Year. You may have seen it on the front page of The New York Times or you may have bought one of the 10 million copies it sold in its first three days. For my book All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Shigeru Miyamoto told me he was inspired to create the series after remembering a scouting field trip he took as a child near his home in Kyoto. Tears of the Kingdom comes almost 40 years after the original, and its brilliance is that the hundreds who worked on it know precisely how to lure players into fantasy worlds of excitement and emotion.
That’s seen from moment one when the series leads, elf-human Link and Princess Zelda, find themselves in the murky, subterranean gloom beneath Hyrule castle, where the young royal has been told never to tread. Armed with a torch and descending into the depths (the single piano notes rising in tension with every step), the two discover hieroglyphics which begin to explain the kingdom’s violent history. Immediately, you know you have to solve the mystery of the Hyrulian ages.
It’s happily unusual that Zelda is with you to begin the story. Often, she’s in the background or needs to be found and saved. But now, she’ll share the adventure! Silent, never-speaking Link will have a smart, loquacious pal. Only just as you settle into having a constant partner in crime, she’s taken away by evil forces. In an apocalyptic tragedy of bright red fire and earthquakes, she begins to fall into nothingness. Link reaches out for her, but can’t grasp her hand. (In fact, Link’s right hand seems to be damaged.) Once again, as through video game time immemorial, you must save the princess.
You want to. It’s set up that way. In these first minutes, the game makers have assembled a human bond. Zelda is an intelligent but caring friend, not royalty as much as a peer. There’s a need to find this important compatriot.
After ascending the rocky steps to daylight with a new arm that has a number of powers to unlock, you take a leap off a cliff, a seeming swan dive of doom. Descending from high above through the clouds feels a little like the start of a quick game of Fortnite, but there’s no fighting against 100 others to be the last one standing. It’s just you as Link landing with a loud splash into a lake, which also protects you from enemies while you swim. That descent isn’t Nintendo lifting an idea. It’s Nintendo reinventing the best to create something new that fits perfectly.
There’s also a riff on Minecraft and Roblox present in the vast kingdom of Hyrule: players craft things to move forward. The Ultrahand, your bionic appendage, leads you to lift massive things like walls, put things together, even make weapons. Toys and games that involve making things have been around since well before Lincoln Logs were invented more than a century ago — kids have used sticks for games since prehistoric times. The thing is, no matter if it’s the Fallout or Borderlands series, I’m not a fan of taking the time to construct items to help solve puzzles or beat ever-present forces of evil. I like pushing boxes around to make steps. That’s as far as it goes. Especially in a world as immense as this I want to get to the adventure and explore the expanse of new lands. I also want to listen to the subtle but perfectly spare soundtrack, reminiscent of early Laurie Anderson.
Putting three logs together to cross a broken bridge, as Tears of the Kingdom asks, takes too much time. I’d rather learn about the lore of Hyrule by talking to its varied, often lovable residents. The tales they tell are nuanced and considerable. It seems like every non-playable character has a personalized, compelling story. That’s what kept me going in “Elden Ring,” the wildly idiosyncratic denizens.
Not wanting to create my own things in Zelda may make me sound lazy, or maybe like I don’t want to think while playing. Rather, it’s that I prefer thinking in a different way about the world within Tears of the Kingdom. I got used to my tasks, but using Ultrahand took me out of Hyrule for just a little too long. And placing the items I made I encountered a spatial issue that sometimes led me to drop, say, a sailboat, over a precipice and into the nothingness of sky.
It’s easy enough to get back into Tears of the Kingdom with its puzzles, demons, and layers of Hyrule, the Surface, the Sky and the Depths. While riding vehicles like rockets in the sky is fun, I still like the terra firma best. Peppered throughout is something of a pastoral essence with frogs, birds—all manner of flora and fauna. You notice purple smoke, signals of colorful Great Fairy Fountains, first introduced in Breath of the Wild, but made more beautiful here. These allow you to upgrade your weapons.
The dazzling lands and varied residents along the way keep you going through scores of hours. It makes the price increase to $70 worth it. The successful recipe includes the right amount of humor and nods to other forms of ancient and pop culture. For instance, the one-hour final boss battle is called The Menace Unleashed, an homage to the Star Wars series. But it’s not George Lucas. It’s dreamy and celestial, this battle of all Zelda battles. At the end, without revealing spoilers, it isn’t a castle or kingdom which indicates great wealth or power. It’s something between Zelda and Link, the bond that survives. It’s not corny, not cliche. It’s just about the richness of love and friendship.