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I’m glad Nintendo didn’t make a new Hyrule for Tears of the Kingdom

After returning to the Great Plateau, I understood why the new Zelda stuck with its masterpiece map

Link paraglides down over an expansive Hyrule landscape in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom takes place in the same Hyrule as its predecessor, Breath of the Wild. It’s true that the map has been extensively changed by the events of the Upheaval: Zonai ruins have fallen from the sky, sky islands float overhead, and rifts have opened up to a pitch-black underworld. But everything is still where it was: Hyrule Castle, the jagged, leaning spires of the Dueling Peaks, the baking wastes of the Gerudo Desert. It’s recognizably the same place. For a full-fat sequel that took Nintendo six years to make, this level of content recycling is unusual, to say the least.

Prior to Tears of the Kingdom’s release, some fans wondered if the sequel would feel more like a glorified expansion. Since the game’s launch, however, this topic has barely come up. Even the expected flood of comparison shots, or the laundry lists of what has and hasn’t changed, haven’t really materialized (although players have noticed that Zelda changed the decor after moving into Link’s pad). Swept up in the dizzying possibilities of Tears of the Kingdom’s new toolkit, or the surprise and mystery of its new quests, players don’t seem to notice, or mind, that they’re literally retreading old ground.

To begin with, I felt the same. Maybe it was something to do with the game’s opening, high in the heavens on Great Sky Island. The untethered, windblown novelty of this lofty place, capped off with a sensational skydive to the more familiar world of Hyrule below, set the tone and made everything that followed feel fresh as a breeze. Maybe it was the liberating joy of being back in the hands of master designers with the confidence to give players the freedom to explore their world, and the craftsmanship to guide their eyes toward all of the exciting things to do there.

A view of the Temple of Time standing on a green hill on the Great Plateau in pleasant lighting in Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Either way, I began to hungrily gobble up the game’s secrets and diversions, marveling at the sense of discovery it could generate, without even considering how doubly hard it must have been to make such a well-trodden landscape feel somehow different. It looked familiar yet felt new, and I didn’t give that a second thought — until I arrived, by happenstance, at the Great Plateau.

This hit different. The Great Plateau is Breath of the Wild’s Great Sky Island — a safe, sunny, contained area, raised above the fray, where players can learn the game’s systems and Link’s core abilities in relative peace. More than any other part of Hyrule, it’s scored into my brain; it’s formative in a literal sense, because this is where I learned how to cook, to paraglide, and to fight, and learned how Link would relate to the world around him in the game. I can picture the geography of this pocket world clearly in my mind’s eye. Encountering it in a radically different context was jarring — even emotional.

In Tears of the Kingdom, the Plateau feels wild and forbidding. There are some medium-to-high-level monsters here now, and Link is hounded by the masked assassins of the Yiga Clan. Maybe I came a little too early, but I had to move cautiously and make preparations as I explored. The ruins, once picturesque, now look somehow raw and jagged, and there are ugly splashes of gloom around multiple gaping chasms. It even felt different to ascend to this newly hostile place, rather than sail down from it, as I had in the first game.

The ruins of the Temple of Time can be seen in the distance on the Great Plateau in Tears of the Kingdom. In the foreground there’s a pile of rubble and a menacing enemy
The Great Plateau in Tears of the Kingdom.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Exploring the Great Plateau is the most thrilling adventure I’ve had in Tears of the Kingdom to date, and that has a lot to do with my memories of the area from Breath of the Wild. Arriving at a place I knew so well and finding it turned upside down, approaching it from a new angle and seeing it from a new perspective, relearning my way around the space with a mixture of familiarity and uncertainty — it was like going back to a childhood haunt. Everything was the same but different, familiar but impossibly strange. This was a powerful feeling, more powerful even than the wonder of exploring somewhere totally new.

There’s only one other game landscape that has made me feel like this, and it’s World of Warcraft’s Azeroth. Azeroth was upended, in a similar way to Hyrule, by 2010’s Cataclysm expansion — but other, more subtle changes over the years have had a similar effect on me. I’m sure long-term players of any other massively multiplayer game will recognize the feeling. When you live with a game space over time, spend so long there that it becomes deeply enmeshed with your memories of your life, and then come back to find it’s still there but has moved on without you — for me, this is what elevates virtual worlds to places that, psychologically speaking, might as well be real.

Coming down from the Great Plateau to resume my exploration of the rest of Hyrule, I felt I understood why Nintendo had chosen to stick with Breath of the Wild’s map. Not because it’s a masterpiece (although it is), or because it would have been too much work (it must have been just as difficult to rework it meaningfully), but because bringing it back genuinely adds more to the game than an all-new world could have done. It brings history; it brings resonance; it brings meaning. It’s been said, correctly, that Hyrule itself was the true star of Breath of the Wild. What would the sequel have been without its star?

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