It’s been a full five years since Breath of the Wild was released on March 3, 2017, and we’re still entranced. Nintendo packed so many innovative ideas and small details into its open-world opus that new discoveries continue to be made almost every day. But how did the development team decide what Breath of the Wild should be like as an experience? Where did they draw their inspiration from? And how different could it have been? To find out, let’s go all the way back to the game’s development to revisit 19 fascinating facts that helped shaped this landmark game. Be sure to let us know in the comments how many of these you already knew, and also don’t miss out on the video version of this feature above!
1) Breadth of the Wild Ideas
The goal of Breath of the Wild was to “break the conventions of the Zelda series,” and that was really taken to heart by the development team, who pitched all sorts of wild ideas early on in planning, from a Hyrule with invading UFOs that could abduct cattle, through to a guitar-wielding Link and motorbike-riding Link.
The team clearly had fun imagining new possibilities for the series, and for Link alone almost a hundred different designs were presented within the team. And hey, as goofy as he may look, the concepts for Biker Link weren’t too far off the mark in the end… at least, mechanically.
2) Who’s The Boss?
And that’s thanks, incidentally, to series producer Eiji Aonuma, who was the driving force behind the inclusion of the Master Cycle Zero in the game. In the must-read Creating a Champion book, he says he pitched the idea early on but was rebuffed, only to bring it up again later as the ideal reward for players who complete The Champions’ Ballad DLC. The staff were “pretty unenthusiastic,” according to Aonuma, but eventually “got into the idea”. I mean, it is a fun concept. And not without some precedent, either.
3) A Link to the Past
Early on in development, the team wanted an easy way to test – and illustrate – the interactions that they saw as the foundation of Breath of the Wild’s gameplay. To do this, they created a prototype that looks for all the world like a classic 2D Zelda game (albeit with a Link in blue instead of green), and used this to show how Link would be able to do things like shoot an arrow through a fire to set a bush on fire, or to use a Korok leaf to blow an enemy back. It was a hugely important step in assuring the team they were on the right path.
Breath of the Wild’s 2D Prototype
4) Multiplicative Magic
In fact, the interconnectivity between different systems became the core technological focus for Breath of the Wild. The philosophy was that by building connections between everything in the world, the gameplay possibilities would multiply. To realise this multiplicative gameplay concept, the team implemented a robust physics and chemistry engine, and really focused on making the interactions as intuitive as possible.
This gave players the opportunity to test things that made logical sense. Like, if Link gets struck by lightning during a thunderstorm because he has metal weapons equipped, does that mean that you can get enemies struck by lightning if you take their wooden one and drop a metal one for them? The answer in this specific instance is yes, but what makes Breath of the Wild so special is just how often the answer is yes across the board. The game offers unprecedented opportunities for player agency and creative thinking.
5) It’s Elemental, My Dear
It’s worth diving a little deeper into something I mentioned in the last point – the game’s chemistry engine. After all, in gaming we hear a lot about physics engines – which are concerned with movement, but Breath of the Wild’s team also formalised the idea of a chemistry engine – which is concerned with states. And this really is one of the game’s key underlying components. It’s called a chemistry engine, but it’s actually less about chemistry and more about elements – fire, water, ice, wind, electricity – and how they interact with both objects and one another. The idea of calling it a chemistry engine actually makes a lot of sense, however, when you consider that the development team described the multiplicative gameplay they were trying to create as ‘chemical reaction play’.
6) Stylised Realism
Breath of the Wild’s gameplay design drastically increased the possibilities for players and ensured they could approach challenges in countless different ways, but how to make it work visually? It was the art team’s job to come up with an art style that would allow the game to deftly balance realism and playability. And their starting point was actually quite surprising – it was Wind Waker and specifically, how elegantly that game was able to transition to higher resolutions – as seen in Wind Waker HD – without losing the originality of its presentation and the fun of its gameplay.
Wind Waker HD’s visual design was thus the starting point for Breath of the Wild, but it soon became clear that those visuals were too stylised for a game that relied on believable physics and chemistry; for people to make connections based on things they could do in the real world. They needed information-dense art and a certain level of realism, and thus the art style shifted to incorporate that. The end result is detailed and realistic in general, but with stylised – and often comical – elements that help keep things punchy and easy to understand everywhere else.
7) What’s Yours is Minecraft
No game is made in a vacuum, and Nintendo’s designers found inspiration in a number of other games when setting out to create Breath of the Wild. Game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, for instance, told Edge magazine that he was inspired by both Minecraft and Terraria, citing “the sense of adventure, exploration and how it inspired curiosity.”
Producer Eiji Aonuma, meanwhile, mentioned in interviews that he had played a number of open-world titles – The Witcher, Far Cry and Skyrim, but insisted it was to more broadly understand the development task they were facing. Many of the goals for Breath of the Wild, he said, were actually born out of Skyward Sword – specifically, expanding on that game’s stamina gauge and restricted climbing mechanic, as well as giving players the chance to explore between the different areas.
8) We Be Jomon
Nintendo concepted a wide variety of looks for Breath of the Wild’s Sheikah civilisation, but in the end settled on the Jomon period in Japanese history as the main source of inspiration. This ran from around 14000 BCE to around 300 BCE, and it’s not hard to see how Jomon pottery designs influenced the look of the shrine entrances, towers and other ancient Sheikah technology.
9) A Camel Costume for Giants
The Divine Beasts were known originally as The Four Great Relics and the team explored how to portray them extensively during development. The focus was always on making each clearly identifiable as an animal from a distance, but one fused with factories, palaces and other constructed elements.
It was actually the initial design for Vah Naboris that helped solidify the direction for the three other Divine Beasts, and the process of refining it sounds fascinating. Art Director Satoru Takizawa says in Creating a Champion that the walking animation for Vah Naboris was modelled “as though the camel was a costume with people in the front and back like a lion dance.” Wildlife artist Aya Shida, meanwhile, says it was designed as though it were “a camel but drawn by someone who has never actually seen a camel.” This helped make it feel ancient and unsettling yet also lovable.
10) Creatures Great and Small
The Divine Beasts weren’t the only denizens of Breath of the Wild inspired by real life animals. Mipha was modelled on a dolphin, King Dorephan a whale, Muzu a manta ray and everyone’s favourite, Prince Sidon – a hammerhead shark. Outside Zora’s domain, Teba was based on a hawk, while Kass was inspired by a Macaw.
11) Paths Not Taken
One of the most fascinating aspects of Breath of the Wild’s development is imagining how radically different the game could have been. Some of the early Guardian Stalker concepts, for instance, were for spindly, crab- and spider-like creatures. And even once the final Guardian look had been settled on, there was “a design for a giant, fortress-like Guardian that was equipped with multiple beam cannons,” Lead Artist for Enemies Takafumi Kiuchi reveals in Creating a Champion, but it didn’t make it into the game.
12) An Octoroky Start
Staying on the game’s Guardians, did you know the Guardian Stalkers were actually inspired by the Octoroks from the original Zelda? “When I played the first Legend of Zelda game,” Eiji Aonuma explains in an official making of video, “I felt like the Octorok were pretty huge. They’d make all these complicated movements, and I really didn’t like those guys. So we thought about creating an enemy using that image, and that’s how we came up with the Guardians.” Of course, he didn’t think they’d be shooting lasers, but in video games, most things are made better by adding lasers. Smart move, Nintendo.
13) Purah Punk Attitude
Ancient tech researcher Robbie was always a mad scientist, but according to NPC Artist Yuko Miyakawa, his other starting point was that he would embody the spirit of rock and roll. Robbie, after all, was well outside normal society, doing really “out there” research. Complementing this concept, Purah’s original theme was “punk rock girl.” Both changed significantly, but in different ways. For Robbie, it was his clothes, which became more Japanese and more in sync with the finished design for the Sheikah relics. For Purah, on the other hand, her personality completely shifted, going from languid and low energy to bubbly and excitable.
14) Horsin’ Around
Malanya is one of the stranger creatures players come upon as they journey across Hyrule, but this horse god’s design was originally much more in line with the other fairies. That would have been an awkward fit, however, given Malanya serves an entirely different purpose – bringing the player’s horse back from the dead, as opposed to upgrading armour. The change to a leering, creepy disembodied spirit allowed Nintendo to give Malanya a personality all its own. You can also see echoes of Malanya in the design of the stables all over Hyrule.
15) Whatcha Doin?
Staying on horses, they’re pretty multifaceted in the final game, but the team had plenty of concepts for what horses could potentially do that didn’t make the cut, such as nuzzling Link’s cheek, popping their head through a window if Link was inside and swaying in time with any music in the environment.
16) The Maestro
The team’s rough concept for The Sheikah Slate – or Conductor, as was its placeholder name – gave it more of a mechanical bent. The device would have two halves, with a handle on each side, and to turn it on (or off), Link would pull those halves apart, twist one side 180 degrees, then slot it back into place. The plan was also for the Sheikah Slate to house a mechanical dragonfly spy which Link could launch and (presumably) use to survey the surroundings like a drone. One physical element that did stick is the idea that Link pulls an actual pin to generate remote bombs. If you watch carefully in-game, you can see him reach to the Sheikah Slate on his hip when pulling out a remote bomb. The pin is clearly visible on top too.
17) A Clean Slate
It’s also worth pointing out that the Sheikah Slate evolved right up until release. During E3 2016, one of the Nintendo Treehouse livestreams showed off how the Sheikah Slate could be used to scout out enemy HP, tagging them like Far Cry and many other open-world games. That feature may have been cut, but being able to see enemy HP – albeit only from close range – still made its way into Breath of the Wild via the Champion’s Tunic. (And also the game’s Divine Helms, which can only be obtained through scanning Champion Amiibos.)
18) Just Gimme That Horn Now
Speaking of enemies, one of the most iconic sound effects in Breath of the Wild – the horn that Bokoblin guards blow to alert the camp or base – was made using an actual horn that one of the programmers brought in from home.
19) Mini Ye
This last point is particularly crazy given just how large and just how dense Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule already is. Consider this, the team also wanted to include tiny towns populated by tiny people, and Link would be able to shrink himself down and visit them, Minish Cap style. This worlds within worlds concept certainly looks cute, but I think we can safely say – five years on – that Breath of the Wild had enough content to keep us occupied without it.
Would you like to see the mechanic of Link shrinking down return in a future Zelda? And what features are at the top of your most-wanted list for Breath of the Wild’s sequel? Let us know in the comments. And be sure to pick up a copy of Creating a Champion and also to watch the Breath of the Wild presentation from GDC 2017, as both offer incredible behind-the-scenes insight into the development process.
Cam Shea has worked at IGN since before the before times, and has played more Breath of the Wild than just about any other game. When he’s not playing games he’s mixing records.
https://www.ign.com/articles/zelda-breath-of-the-wild-development-five-year-anniversary-fascinating-facts Breath of the Wild – 19 Fascinating Facts From The Game’s Development