Pushing Buttons: I’ve just seen Tears of the Kingdom gameplay for the first time – and the sky’s the limit

In this week’s newsletter: From meat arrows to makeshift dinghies, the follow-up to one of the best games ever somehow got more creative

When my launch-day Nintendo Switch arrived in March 2017, I was on maternity leave with my then three-month-old baby – which meant that, for the first time in my adult life, I was able to enjoy a new video games console without worrying about what I was going to write about it. And with it arrived The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which casually redrew the blueprint of open-world games, replacing repetitive missions and box-ticking busywork with a genuine sense of wonder and discovery. I played almost nothing but Breath of the Wild for an entire year – and yet, ever since Nintendo announced the sequel in 2019, I’ve been feeling oddly flat about it. We’ve known so little about it, beyond teaser-trailer glimpses. Is it going to be more of the same?

Admittedly, more of the same wouldn’t be so bad: we’re talking about one of the best games ever made here. But then Zelda series producer, Eiji Aonuma, played 10 minutes’ worth of Tears of the Kingdom in a video presentation yesterday – and now I’m sold. It is more of the same, in that it looks identical to Breath of the Wild’s toned-down watercolour style, features the same stirring orchestral exploration-music, and it’s set in the same kingdom of Hyrule. But this time around, Nintendo’s designers want us to get creative with it.

In Tears of the Kingdom, floating islands hover above Hyrule’s familiar terrain, and you can move freely between the sky-kingdom above and the grassland, rivers and forests below. Aonuma showed Link tracking down a piece of fallen rock on the surface, then using a time-reversing power to ride it back up to the island above. When Link is knocked off the island in a fight, he goes into freefall, the whole of Hyrule stretched out beneath him, and he can parachute down; it’s like jumping out of the Battle Bus in Fortnite.

The real difference, though, is that Link can now use whatever’s around him – planks, sticks, rocks, foraged mushrooms, abandoned machine parts – to make stuff. Stuck for a weapon? Grab a stick and a rock and instantly make a hammer. Need an extra-long pitchfork to poke at moblins from a distance? A long branch is the answer. In a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of a corporate team-building activity I was once forced to do, Link smooshes together a bunch of logs and two fans to make a powered raft to get him across a lake. That rideable drone thing that he was flying on in the previous teaser trailer? You can make that. You can even stick an exploding mushroom to your shield.

A screenshot of Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
A screenshot of Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Photograph: Nintendo

The idea seems to be: what if crafting was actually fun? Instead of collecting ingredients for recipes and then pressing a button at a workbench to magic up a new gun out of 3 x Scrap Metal, 4 x Rusty Nails and 2 x Gunpowder, what if you could just pick stuff up and bash it together to see what happens? You can attach monster eyes to arrows to give them homing powers. The possibilities are hilarious and exciting; players are already theorising wildly about meat arrows.

People did amazing, unexpected things with Link’s world-manipulating powers in Breath of the Wild, resulting in hundreds of Reddit clips of Link skidding across the map on flying boulders, or creating seesaws to catapult him up mountains. It seems that the Zelda development team has leaned into this, giving Link more outrageous superpowers to play with. (Fun fact: Ultrahand, the name of Link’s object-manipulating power in Tears of the Kingdom, is a reference to this 1960s Nintendo grabber toy designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who would later invent the Game Boy.) He can even swim through rock, diving into the ceiling of an underground cave in order to appear at the top of a hill. In taking the work out of getting around Tears of the Kingdom’s world, its designers are inviting players to be more imaginative with it.

Some fans have expressed disappointment that Tears of the Kingdom looks so similar to its predecessor; the Switch’s tech wasn’t cutting-edge even in 2017, and is now really showing its age, especially when you see games on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X now. But this is what we expect from Nintendo: the fun-factor is more important than performance. The sheer ingenuity of what was shown yesterday has planted a massive smile on my face; I’m looking forward to playing it in May, but I’m looking forward just as much to seeing what players build and do with all these fun features in the weeks and months afterwards.

What to play

Fish tetris... Dredge video game screenshot
Fish tetris... Dredge video game screenshot Photograph: Black Salt Games

It’s not often that I encounter a game that’s like nothing I’ve played before, so Dredge caught my eye at Gamescom last year: an eldritch horror fishing game? Sold. It’s out this week and happily, the game is exactly as good as the demo suggested. Shipwrecked on the rocks near a small fishing town, you are given a run-down boat, sent out to catch cod, mackerel and squid, and warned to be back before dark. But before long you start catching things that are just … grotesque. Something is corrupting the ocean, and as you bring in your catches, improve your boat and explore further, you are drawn into a compelling and sparsely-written horror-tinged mystery story. I loved it, and played it nonstop for days.

Available on: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: 15 hours

What to read

  • The return of E3 in June this year is not going to plan. Ubisoft is the latest big publisher to pull out, reports VGC, deciding to hold its own event instead – and I am starting to hear whispers that the whole thing may be called off. If that happens, it would presumably be the end for the expo formerly known as Video Game Christmas, which would be a sad thing indeed; as The Last Worker developer Jörg Tittel put it on Twitter, “we are NOT a tech industry. Games are fundamentally physical and profoundly social. We are culture. And that demands human interaction.”

  • Although, allegations of drink-spiking and sexual harassment in San Francisco last week during the Game Developers Conference remind us that the social aspect of gaming isn’t always as comfortable for everyone as it should be.

  • Valve announced Counter-Strike 2 for this summer – a free update to/evolution of CS:GO, the go-to competitive shooter that’s made millions for its developers and its professional players over the last 11 years.

  • Animal-friendly cosmetics company Lush has released a range of Mario-themed soaps and bath products, so of course Keith had to try them out, for science. He found Bowser’s masculine aroma to be an interesting contrast with the sugary peach-and-pineapple fragrance of the Princess Peach body spray.

What to click

The spirit of 80s racing games lives on in Lego 2K Drive

How a video game has revolutionised the way farmers are buying tractors

The Forest Cathedral review – an unnaturally intense ecological puzzle game

Terra Nil review – restore nature, and with it your hope for the future

Question Block

Terra Nil: a climate-anxiety wish fulfilment strategy game, in which you restore the earth’s biodiversity and transform brown, depressing plains into beautiful green ecosystems.
Terra Nil: a climate-anxiety wish fulfilment strategy game, in which you restore the earth’s biodiversity and transform brown, depressing plains into beautiful green ecosystems. Photograph: Free Lives

Reader Daniel asks:

“Do you know of any more games like 2011’s Fate of the World, a really challenging strategy game about dealing with climate change? I really liked how it was grappling not just with the enormity of the practical solutions, but creating the social acceptance to implement them, and also how to balance limited funding between competing regions and needs.”

When it comes to games about climate change, few of them try to accurately simulate the complex politics and economics involved in enacting useful change – most likely because makes most players feel very defeated. You might want to try Frostpunk, which couches these issues in fiction: it’s a city-building game where you’re in charge of a civilisation brought low by a global freeze. A game called Eco, currently in Early Access on Steam, has you working with other players and their virtual governments, balancing the needs of the ecosystem with human activity. For a more chill take on the theme, try Terra Nil (above), an eco-restoration puzzle game out this week: it’s lighter on the challenge but more generous with the hope.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com


Keza MacDonald

The GuardianTramp

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