In 'The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom' the open world is wide open : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is the latest, and fastest-selling game in Nintendo's beloved franchise. Many critics and gamers are declaring it not only the best game of the year, but maybe the best game, period.

In 'The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom' the open world is wide open

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The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom is the latest and fastest-selling game in the beloved Zelda franchise. Many critics and gamers are declaring Tears of the Kingdom not only the best game of the year but maybe the best game, period. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about the Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Joining me today is James Mastromarino. He is producer for NPR's Here & Now and edits NPR's gaming coverage. Hey, James.


WELDON: Also joining us is Lenika Cruz, a senior editor covering culture at The Atlantic. Welcome back, Lenika.

LENIKA CRUZ: Thank you so much, Glen. Hi, James.


WELDON: We all have thoughts on thoughts, so let's get on to it. The Legend Of Zelda is a nearly 40-year-old video game franchise, and Tears Of The Kingdom is a direct sequel to 2017's Breath Of The Wild. It's unusual for a new Zelda game to build so directly on the game that came before it. But Tears Of The Kingdom starts you off by stripping away all the powers and weapons our hero Link accumulated in Breath Of The Wild. It also outfits him with a brand new and slightly creepy, magical right arm that lets him access a wholly new set of abilities. The goal of the game is classic Zelda. Find the princess. Defeat the evil villain Ganondorf. Go on quests that will have you fighting monsters and making lots and lots of mushroom-based meals while exploring the game's vast open world.

But that open world has gotten even more open somehow, as Tears Of The Kingdom introduces archipelagos of sky islands loaded with ancient tech floating high above the kingdom of Hyrule and a vast network of deadly caverns far below it. The goals may be familiar, but how you achieve them isn't. That's because the game rewards ingenuity and leaves you to decide what to do and when and how to do it. Within hours of Tears Of The Kingdom's release, TikTok filled up with gamers showing how they combine disparate pieces of ancient technology they found in the game to solve its many puzzles or to create insanely elaborate vehicles or to just make giant penises. Tears Of The Kingdom was developed by series producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi. It's available for the Nintendo Switch.

Lenika, can I start with you? You come to this like me, kind of a casual gamer, would you say?

CRUZ: That's right. I feel like I need to offer some caveats or bits of context for what I'm going to say about this game. I did not grow up playing video games, and the Nintendo Switch Lite that I was lucky enough to get back in, like, April 2020 was the first console I've ever personally owned. I've played indie games and whatnot on my phone, but Breath Of The Wild, I would say, was the first game game that I played all the way through back in 2020, 2021. And I thought it was just absolutely breathtaking.

I was a little nervous before I started playing, but a lot of people told me that I would love it, that it would be OK that I didn't have a ton of experience playing before. And, honestly, they were right. And I can't even tell you how many hours I spent playing that game. Just - both the storytelling, the visuals, the way that it lets you just make your own story and play around and just - you know, like, if you want to just run through a forest for a little bit collecting mushrooms, you can do that. If you want to tackle a bunch of shrines and solve puzzles, you can do that, too. But I feel like it does a good balance of allowing you to, yeah, just try things out for the first time, not punishing you too harshly if you don't get something. It's not like Elden Ring or any of the Dark Souls games.

So I was really excited for Tears of the Kingdom, and I've played in several-hour bursts, I would say, over the past week. I'm trying to take my time with it. Like you were saying, there are a lot of people who are being very ingenious about building interesting contraptions, and I feel like, as someone without an engineering brain and...


CRUZ: ...With, like, very little technical know-how, I'm just like, I will make a bridge, and sometimes I will attach a battery to a fan. And that's like - I'm happy with that. I think as I get more comfortable, I'll be more creative. But it's so much more than I could have hoped for. The fact that, like you said, there's the sky archipelagos and then also the caverns, and it just feels, like, triple the size of the previous game.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, James, I mean, like, you come to this with more experience, more gaming experience than either of us - than both of us combined. So what do you make of Tears Of The Kingdom?

MASTROMARINO: It is a tremendous achievement. I mean, 2017's Breath Of The Wild was this phenomenal reenvisioning of what an open world game can even be. At that point, we were all telling each other, this is the most open a game has ever felt. And Tears Of The Kingdom continues to be just so inviting. I'm astonished by how good it is at directing new players through it, even as it has all of these advanced tools that, you know, somebody like me who's been playing these games since 1998's, like, Ocarina Of Time can really sink their teeth into. And then there are all of the Minecraft sort of engineers, the Kerbal Space Program acolytes, those sorts of people who play these very technical engineering games that are already working marvels within it. And I've been playing it pretty much any time I don't have to do anything else. Over the weekends, it's been meals, occasional social activities and Tears of the Kingdom.

WELDON: Yeah. I also have not been able to stop playing this game. I am consumed by it. I have found - having to stop every so often because my eyes are watering because I've been playing so avidly, that I've forgotten to - what is the word? - blink. Does that happen to you guys? I am in. I am - I've put in hours and hours and hours. I know I'm going to be playing it for hours and hours and hours from this point. What I don't know, entirely, is if I like it. I mean, here's my thing. I - casual gamer - I am lousy at combat. I still can't parry worth a damn. I'm lousy with the bow and arrow, which is why I'm so grateful that this game allows you to stick an eyeball at the end of your arrow to turn it into a homing missile, which is gross. But it has saved my life countless times. What I always hate with any RPG are the fiddly bits, the tedious micro stuff, like inventory management. I hate the mechanic in this game of your weapons breaking all the time. I hate boss fights, which combine memorizing patterns - how fun does that sound? - with combat, which I'm lousy at.

But you know what I'm great at? Lenika, you alluded to this. What I'm great at is riding around on my little horsey looking at stuff. I could do that competitively. No one could beat me - also climbing mountains what I probably shouldn't be climbing because I don't have the stamina to do it. This game, James, as you mentioned, really doubles down on the open world quality. It says, hey, do whatever you want. There are no right answers, man. And I'm like, sure, yes, I get it, but what should I do, and where should I go? And seriously, though - because I need structure. I need margins. I love margins and discipline. I am a grade grubber at heart. I'm Lisa Simpson. I need to be assigned a task and follow a rule that you grade me on. And maybe this game isn't made for the mes of the world, which is why this game, to me, feels like an extended session of FOMO. I know there are layers and layers and layers to this game, and I am just doggy-paddling over the Marianas Trench. Lenika, you mention these mechanical engineering feats, these mechs, and when I slap a fan onto a raft, I feel like Da Vinci. But then somebody shows me on TikTok a Trojan Horse. Does any of that resonate with you, James? Is this a game for casual gamers? You said it directs people through it. How?

MASTROMARINO: Like Breath Of The Wild, it starts you off in sort of a mini version of this open world. You begin in this great Sky Temple sort of area. That is really interesting because it introduces nearly all of the ideas that you're going to be playing with through the rest of the game.

WELDON: That's true.

MASTROMARINO: That said, whenever you're presented by a sort of little micro challenge, the game will almost always present you the tools with which to do it. It'll often give you a device right there, or it'll give you a device and all of the components that were needed to make it. So you might need to make a glider and shoot yourself across a distance. It'll give you the glider with the fans already attached. It'll also give you a glider with fans off to the side so that you can sort of see the building blocks and the completed product just to get your mind whirring.

As to whether it's good for somebody who wants very discreet tasks all the time, the way that I play it is basically like a connect the dots. I go from, like, one shrine to another to another to another, one tower to another to another to another. And when I'm done with that, then I try and hone in on the actual story. And as you get hooked into one of those major quest lines, they will tell you, go here. Talk to this person. Gather this fish that I need to give you some armor. So there is a linear games you can find within this vast open world.

WELDON: That's true.

MASTROMARINO: But I agree that there's always this tension between trying to provide such limitless freedom to you and also trying to prevent you from completely spinning your own wheels. And there are many wheels in the game to spin.

WELDON: There are many wheels. Lenika, talk to me about how you play through shrines. Now, for people who don't know, shrines in this game, which you mentioned, are these locations around the world where you solve elaborate puzzles. And every time I hit a shrine, I just pause the game and Google the shrine's name and solve the puzzle the way people online have solved the puzzle, which is to say - let's not mince words - I cheat because I don't find the experience of trial and error fun because I find making errors - and I make a lot of errors - a trial. I don't possess this 360-degree mechanical engineering thinking. Do you guys cheat? Lenika?

CRUZ: I do my best not to. And if I am falling to my death repeatedly and I just cannot figure it out, I think I've - of the shrines I've completed - I don't know how many I've done so far, maybe, like, 20 or - I don't know, something like that - I have maybe looked up stuff for two or so of them. I can usually figure it out. And there are times where I'm just like, my head is not wrapping around this, and I will look up the walkthrough. Like, I also think of it a little bit as cheating, and I try to just figure things out on my own. But sometimes I'm stuck, and I'm just like, I don't know how to get into the caves that they're talking about at the bottom of the hill. And after I spend two hours running around what I think is the bottom of the hill, it turns out it's right underneath the tower or whatever, you know, something like that. And I'm like, OK, I'm really happy I looked this up because I would not have figured out how to move forward.

So I think it's, like, a balance for me. I don't find looking up how to get through things - like, it doesn't necessarily diminish the enjoyment, but I do enjoy the process of trying things a couple of times, not getting it and then being like, aha, and then figuring it out on my own. So I find that really rewarding. And I think because you have to assemble so much, because things break so much, there are a lot more of those aha moments, but it also means that there's a lot more of those frustrations of, like, I just don't know what you want me to do.

I feel like I have a lot of ongoing, incompleted side quests right now...


CRUZ: ...Of, like, trying to map this game onto the previous game. There's lots of things that you're like, OK, I know I have to do this. I know I want to go to this forest to be able to upgrade, you know, my slots in my weapons, you know, cache or whatever, like, things like that. And the number of steps that it takes to get there now, it feels like there's so many more.

WELDON: Right.

CRUZ: They just introduce so many more, like, intermediate steps and quests to even accomplish the things that felt more simple in the previous game. And so I'm not worried about running out of things to do necessarily, but I am worried about just, like, the story getting a little bit too big for me and getting a little lost. So that's why I'm trying to just take my time with it.

WELDON: Yeah. James, your method of going from temple to temple, tower to tower, that's what I'm doing, too, just exploring. I mean, any game is a balance between the cost of frustration and the joy of satisfaction. And for me, getting to a shrine, it's like, I know I just want the reward, so let me just cut directly to satisfaction. Just show me what to do. I'm guessing you are a gamer gamer, and you - the trial and error is part of the fun for you.

MASTROMARINO: Yeah. Well, and let's be clear. I'm not a genius. Like, there are plenty of problems that I, too, have solved just by constructing a bunch of bridges. There was one where they gave me...

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

MASTROMARINO: ...Some wheeled vehicles, and instead of realizing that I could operate them as vehicles, I stuck them together as a giant bridge and got to where I needed to go. I don't look things up online except in extremely rare instances because I'm terrified of being spoiled. For me, the joy of this game is in the discovery of it, so even seeing something incidental is a little dangerous. However, it does remind me of my days playing Ocarina Of Time and Majora's Mask where I'd be on the schoolyard. I'll be hanging out with a friend, and I would ask them how they solved something. So I do have this network of other gamer buddies, and we're all approaching these problems differently. We almost all come to, like, different, divergent, often hilarious answers. And so I kind of have that hotline to call upon.

When it comes to the trial and error, Zelda, as a franchise, is sort of based around the satisfaction you get from hearing just a couple notes. The (vocalizing) whenever you open a chest.


MASTROMARINO: You discover something new.


MASTROMARINO: That dopamine hit is just so palpable. And I think Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi just really wanted to zone in on that. So if getting from frustration to that little stinger is taxing for you, then this game is a marathon. If, however, you find them as, like, little bite-sized bursts of puzzles or combat challenges, then it feels like a relay race. You, like, go a place. You stop. You reassess where you want to go next, and you go again. I will admit the problems I have most with this game and Breath Of The Wild are when I can't decide what to do next, right?

WELDON: Right.

CRUZ: Yeah.

MASTROMARINO: So usually, I just let my eyeballs do the talking, like you do, Glen. I just see something cool, and I'll decide to go there. And if there's something cool, then great. And if not, at least I hung out in a beautiful world.

WELDON: Yeah. That's a question I have for both of you. Like, is this game sufficiently different from Breath Of The Wild to justify a $70 purchase? Because a cursory glance at this would say it looks the same. The combat's the same with some new mechanics, most of the same villains. And I'll be honest, when I read those reviews, I expected something radically different. Now, there's a reason why it's so similar, of course, because we're playing this game on a machine that is six years old, so the tech can only do so much. And it also helps that this series trades so much on nostalgia, on that (vocalizing) fanfare. But can you trade on nostalgia for a game that's six years old?

CRUZ: For me, I do think it's worth it, I mean, to the point where, originally, I was just going to play the game - like, my husband and I were going to both play it together and just trade off and, like, use his Switch.

WELDON: Oh, cool.

CRUZ: And I was like, no, I want to play this on my own. I don't want to have to give you the controller. So I bought it again for myself and played it from the top again after, like, five hours or so of getting off the sky island or whatever. I mean, for me, playing Breath Of The Wild was such - is such a nostalgic experience even though I played it a few years after it came out and only a few years ago. And it was my first introduction, really, to this world. I can't say if some of my love of this new game - and it's, like, love, frustration - the fact is I'm just addicted to it right now.


CRUZ: But I can't tell if it's, like - you know, when I was playing it, I was not leaving my house, really - Breath Of The Wild. I was not leaving my house. So the most, you know, exploration that I got was just running around the fields and killing chuchus or whatever.

MASTROMARINO: It was, like, the pandemic when you were playing, right? Yeah.

CRUZ: Yeah. It was the pandemic. And that was the - it was, like, that and Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. It was all the, like, you can't go outside and see people, so this is your way of feeling free. And now I can go outside and see people, and I'm choosing to stay inside and play Tears Of The Kingdom. But I find myself missing different things about Breath Of The Wild, like, certain powers where I'm like...

WELDON: Oh, yeah.

CRUZ: ...I just want to shoot into the sky and fly, but, like, no, I have to ascend or just little things like that. But, at the same time, it's like once I had basically finished Breath Of The Wild, I just wanted to do it again. And I realize I could just play that game over. But it's kind of like getting to do the same thing but harder and more expansive. And, yeah, I think - so, for me, it was - I'm having a good time, and I don't feel annoyed by the similarities. There's enough for me that feels different.

WELDON: Yeah. OK. So James, Nintendo's banking on this, and it turned out to be a pretty good investment. How important is this game for Nintendo?

MASTROMARINO: Oh, it's really important. Switch has sold phenomenally well. I think it's the third best-selling video game console ever. The pandemic gave it a big boost. But competitors like PlayStation and Xbox have much more powerful devices that came out much more recently, and everyone was anticipating that this game might come out with a refreshed Nintendo Switch because, while it runs phenomenally well, if you're ever in a big war with a bunch of pirates, you'll notice it really start to chug. The Switch will just struggle to keep up because it essentially has a chip that's older than iPhones had, like, four years ago. The Switch is much less powerful than what most people just carry around in their pockets these days. However, I know people who have gotten a Switch to play this game.

WELDON: Right.

MASTROMARINO: I know people for whom this is their very first Zelda game, which is sort of wild to me because, as you said, it's trading on so much nostalgia and so much familiarity with Breath Of The Wild. But this and the Mario movie's immense success at the box office sort of positioned Nintendo as this global multimedia empire. And people are going to be singing Zelda's praises for years to come. And so long as they can keep Zelda and Mario front of mind for not just gamers but for just casual observers, their bet will work out for them.

WELDON: You mentioned singing its praises. Let's close by talking about the sound design of this game, which really keys into nostalgia. I mean, the music cues, that fanfare when you unlock a chest, the little - I think it's a marimba kind of sound when you're cooking something especially great.


WELDON: Do you guys have favorite sounds, favorite cues?

CRUZ: I feel bad because I usually skip the sound of the food cooking. I do like it. I listen to it a little bit. I think the satisfaction of, like, beating a whole group of bokoblins or whatever and then the chest opening on its own - like, it unlocks. It's not just one of the regular wooden chests. I love that.


CRUZ: Definitely the - when you finish a shrine...



CRUZ: ...And you hear the little, like...


CRUZ: Congratulations. You figured it out. I do think that that does...


CRUZ: ...A lot of work to make you forget how frustrating it was because of that dopamine hit.

MASTROMARINO: Hats off to Koji Kondo, who did the original Zelda music and much of these stingers. And they continue to be recycled and reimagined game after game. Like Breath Of The Wild, Tears Of The Kingdom can often feel kind of sparse.

CRUZ: Yeah.

MASTROMARINO: But I really appreciate the open, breathy musical atmosphere. I really love - even though koroks themselves can drive me insane, when you discover one, they'll go, ya-ha-ha (ph). You found me.

CRUZ: That's so cute.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Korok, inaudible).

MASTROMARINO: I enjoy that every time. It's just littered with these touchstones to memories from my youth, right?


MASTROMARINO: I got chills when I saw, like, the last trailer they released for this game because it was pulling all the stops for these grand overtures, and I can't wait to see how those rear their head again as I, like, encounter bosses...


MASTROMARINO: ...And temples and find some old companions. Hyrule has never felt more magical to me, I guess, even as I'm rediscovering it more than I'm discovering it freshly anew.

WELDON: Yeah. That's an interesting point. I mean, for me, sound cues - I do like the way the bokoblins laugh at you when they hit you. They kind of look like Ernie from "Sesame Street." And they also do that Muppet laugh. They have that kind of open-mouth, he-he-he (ph), and I love that. I've also become incredibly familiar with Link's scream when he falls to his death.


KENGO TAKANASHI: (As Link, screaming).

WELDON: It is always so funny to me...


WELDON: ...Because we never hear him talk. We only ever hear him grunt as he's climbing a mountain or scream in terror.


WELDON: And every time it happens, it makes me feel like, oh, this again. I'm home.

MASTROMARINO: To say something of the story - you alluded to this, Lenika, that it's sort of the stories that you find yourself as you're playing it. Like, as an open-world game, the pacing is sort of odd because theoretically, there's this huge threat to the kingdom, but you can just ride your horse for days, man.


MASTROMARINO: You don't have to really go anywhere or do anything. The story will wait for you. But it's all of those little failures and little successes that make for such good talking on - be it on a podcast or with your friends. It's a very shareable game, and I think that's because everyone's journey through it will be entirely unique.

WELDON: That's a great point to end on. OK. We want to know what you think about The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom. Find us at And that brings us to the end of our show. James Mastromarino, Lenika Cruz, thank you so much for being here.

CRUZ: Thank you so much.


WELDON: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music, which you are making a mushroom skewer to right now. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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