Nintendo's beloved Legend of Zelda franchise has been around for over three decades, and over all those years we've seen the series' visuals evolve time and time again. Nintendo has dabbled with more realistic graphics, a stylized "toon" look, and everything in between. When developing Breath of the Wild, Nintendo once again went back to the drawing board to re-imagine the world of Zelda, perhaps for the final time.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champion recently made its way to the West, and fans are discovering more interesting tidbits all the time. Those findings include a series of quotes from Satoru Takizawa, a longtime artist on the Zelda franchise who served as the primary art director on Twilight Princess and Breath of the Wild.
As Takizawa explained, the Zelda team always tries to use the graphics to express the spirit of the game, which typically leads to a new style. In the case of Breath of the Wild, that spirit was "revisiting expectations." With that in mind, Takizawa set out to give Breath of the Wild a look that would become the definitive version of The Legend of Zelda's art.
"With Breath of the Wild we spent a lot of time thinking about how to visually represent this massive open world. The theme for this game was "revisiting expectations," which left me at a loss as to how to express that visually [laughs]. At the same time, I felt that it was an ideal opportunity to establish a style that would become the definitive version of The Legend of Zelda's art.
"After a lot of worrying and going back and forth, we created a painterly art style that combined the realism of the game world with its playability. For example, if you cut down a tree in the game, it immediately creates a firewood. That was an intentional contraction of reality that cuts out portions of the game that the player might find boring or makes short waits more fun with comedy. We wanted to create a world that could accommodate the fantastical elements of Hyrule without sacrificing a more realistic art style, and we went about that by crafting a hybrid of the two that would allow the players to suspend their disbelief when certain things happen. That allowed us to include a broad range of ideas from the designers and enabled us to have some crazy stuff happen. For example, the player is able to toss a bunch of ingredients into a pot and have a dessert pop out. We found that injecting humor into the visual shorthand helps players forgive the break break from reality." — Satoru Takizawa
The result of Takizawa's vision and his team's hard work was a blend of fantasy and realism which they hope will come to define the franchise. Does this mean that Zelda's art won't see any major changes going forward? It's hard to say for sure. There's always the possibility of spin-off titles in a new style, and years down the road Nintendo could set out to re-imagine the series once again. However, considering the time and resources Nintendo spent developing the game's look, I'd be surprised if they don't recycle it (perhaps with some tweaks and upgrades) for at least one more game in the future.