If Nintendo is known for anything outside of its lovable, iconic characters—it's clean and intuitive game design. It's why players enjoy Super Mario titles long past childhood. Hardware inventions like the Nintendo Wii, which was in every American household? That too. 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that launched alongside the release of the Nintendo Switch, was an all-encompassing example of that innovative prowess. Breath of the Wild's expansive and beautifully diverse world was a digital playground of satisfying puzzles, challenging enemies, and limitless gameplay. There were a million ways to do just about anything, and all ideas were encouraged.
So, when Nintendo announced a follow-up—The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom—the studio spent six years improving upon just about every aspect of the game. What players boot up when the game launches on Friday, May 12, is essentially the same game as Breath of the Wild, but the experience is massively enhanced. New abilities, more places to explore, and an endless world of possibilities somehow made even more infinite. How, you might ask? Because this time, we drop down from the sky. This, right here, is how you make a sequel.
Link can fly planes now. Yes, they go very fast.
The Story Begins
Much of Tears of the Kingdom reminds me of another one of Nintendo's all-time video games: Pokémon Gold and Silver. There's a well-known Nintendo legend about the first Pokémon sequel that, fact or myth, has a lot in common with the ideas behind the latest Zelda entry. The story goes that Satoru Iwata—a 21-year-old programmer back in 1999—was able to compress the game's code so much that the developers had space to add the original Pokémon title back in as post-game content. After completing Gold and Silver, players could return to the first game's map, where familiar characters and places of the past had updated storylines and gameplay. The choice didn't just make for good worldbuilding—it was groundbreaking sequel work. Iwata later became the President of Nintendo, and Pokémon grew to become one of the most popular franchises of all time.
That idea of building upon the past, while also not abandoning the world you already love, lives and breathes in Tears of the Kingdom. Link still inhabits the fantastical world of Hyrule, almost exactly as he left it before—not that he ever remembers, anyway. The Gorons still roll around Death Mountain, but now, something evil is making them sick. The Rito's tree canopy is freezing cold, the watery Zora's Domain is polluted, and the Gerudo have been plagued by a classic undead Zelda enemy making its grand reappearance. The princess is missing, Ganon has returned, and the land of Hyrule needs your help. It's all the nostalgia for Breath of the Wild you'd want, but packed with exciting new dungeons to make even the familiar seem entirely original. Likewise, the feeling of first landing on the map is just as unmatched.
Bokoblins, beware. Link has a bomb shield.
Yes, Link Can Drive a Car Now
Without revealing too much of Tears of the Kingdom's generations-spanning plot—the Zelda timeline theorists are going to have a field day with this narrative—Link's new powers are where the improved gameplay hits it stride. "Ultrahand" can not only pick up and move any object in the world, but it can also fuse things together to build various vehicles and structures needed to traverse the map. You can also use special machine parts (called Zonai devices) that come out of capsule dispensers around the world, making wheels, fans, or a source of fire more accessible.
So, yes—Zelda has cars and airplanes now. They can go very, very fast.
A separate ability, called "Fuse," lets you combine any object to your sword and shield. This not only improves the weapon's durability and strength, but fusion provides added effects. As shown in the original gameplay trailer, attaching a puffshroom to your shield creates a cloud of smoke that confuses enemies upon impact. Keese eyeballs attached to your arrows? They become homing missiles. Enemy horns can be equipped to the end of lances for greater power, and boulders can be welded to swords, which creates rock-breaking hammers. Like anything else in Zelda, if you think it might work, it probably does. My cooked bass fish sword wreaked havoc on a few enemies early in the game.
Those goblins are going to scream when their big spiky ball comes back at them.
Two more movement abilities make traversing Tears of the Kingdom's new vertical plane much easier. "Ascend" has Link slinking through ceilings like he's X-Men's Kitty Pryde. The skill is useful around the map, but Ascend's application in various puzzles is the greater reward. It's the ability I forgot I had the most often, but also the one that—when I remembered I could use it—felt the most satisfying. There's also "Recall," which is probably the most hyped feature since the first trailer showed Link reversing time. You'll use this one much like "Stasis" from Breath of the Wild. (Read: All the time.) With Recall, Link can push away approaching enemies, or even ride on top of rocks, which act as elevators to the sky islands after they crash down on Hyrule. In short? Tears of the Kingdom has millions of applications. All of them rule.
Using "Ascend" helps Link travel vertically.
Not One, Not Two, But Three Maps
Now, I've played more games in my life than I'd like to admit, but it took jumping into Hyrule at the opening of Breath of the Wild to really make me think about how a game begins. Usually, open-world adventures like Elden Ring give inexperienced players quite a rude awakening. But Tears of the Kingdom—a game I described as, "a version of Elden Ring that's actually nice to me" after playing a demo last month—is wholly unique in its approach. Kicking things off on a gargantuan sky plateau, Tears of the Kingdom's tutorial world welcomes players in an environment that contains just about everything they'll experience later. When you complete Tears of the Kingdom's opening and dive off the sky island, the rest of the map is unlocked. Deep into the distance lies an imposing castle, a massive mountain, and a waterfall that reaches back up into the clouds. None of it is background art. You can reach everything you see—and you'll be rewarded for exploring every little inch. It's exhilarating, surprising, and beautiful, all at once. That feeling is what video games are all about.
You can go to any part of the map in this photo–even the ground way below.
Did I mention there's no loading screen between the sky and the ground? No matter how above or below ground Link goes, the transition is seamless. It's something that could spell problems for the Switch's aging hardware, but the console somehow handles Tears of the Kingdom's map way better than the occasional Breath of the Wild lag. I say below ground, as well, because it came as a shock to learn that the game expanded to not just a sky map—but a third map of vast, underground caverns called "The Depths." Where gliding around the sky feels freeing and magical, The Depths is dark, scary, and downright challenging. An evil and poisonous surface known as "gloom" covers The Depths, and it shatters your health so much that regular healing methods have no effect. It feels like the perfect solution for fans who may have been dismayed by Hyrule's sameness, or its lack of punishing difficulty. I have yet to fully explore "The Depths" and mine all its treasures, but that also goes for completing much of what Tears of the Kingdom offers.
Outside of the main story—which already takes Link all over Hyrule, the sky islands, and The Depths—there's still an insane amount of content in Tears of the Kingdom. These aren't just your usual fetch quests, either. The title features much grander, optional missions called "Side Adventures." With these, Link will often band together with Hyrule soldiers to fight hordes of enemies, side by side. You'll have to do most of the bashing yourself, but the new feature with have the little guys aid in distracting and subduing foes as well. You'll also participate in your fair share of shrine puzzles, horse collecting, Korok seed hunting, recipe crafting, and hundreds of new caves to explore. (Yes, caves—an entirely separate network full of underground tunnels and rare treasures aside from The Depths.) It's enough gameplay to make your head spin, but that's what the adventure is all about.
If you couldn't tell by now, gamers, Tears of the Kingdom is another masterpiece. 2023's Game of the Year? Most likely. One of the greatest video games of all time? I'll let the Internet go crazy over that one. That said, where many open-world titles have become stale or unplayably glitchy upon launch, the past two Legend of Zelda titles has carved out their own space in G.O.A.T. territory. True gamers may mock Nintendo—or Zelda's cutesy, cell-shaded art—especially when compared to open-world greats such as Elden Ring, Sekiro, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Red Dead Redemption 2. But nothing really captures a sense of adventure quite like Zelda does. Go to those other games for maddening difficulties or realistic-looking people, which both obviously have their own currency. When you boot up Zelda, it's to attach a rocket to the end of your lance and spank goblins sky-high. Just like Grand Theft Auto: Hyrule. It's exhilarating.
With the Nintendo Switch's life cycle likely nearing its end, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom may also be the last great title we see on this platform. It marks a perfect bookend from Breath of the Wild as a launch title six years ago to Tears of the Kingdom as a celebration of everything Nintendo has accomplished since. Similar to how director Masahiro Sakurai treated Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as the franchise's final magnum opus, it's possible we may never get a Zelda entry quite this good again. An overworld, an underworld, vehicles, weapon fusion, themed dungeons, time-reversal technology—the sheer amount of different elements packed into Tears of the Kingdom is absurd, yet it all works together in perfect harmony. Whether it's the last great Zelda title or just the first sequel in a bright new Zelda franchise, just know that I won't be putting it down until the next one.
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.