Skip to main content

How Breath of the Wild's sales changed everything for Zelda

Great sea change.

Just before the doors opened on E3 2016, years before Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was ever dreamt up, I was sitting in a room with a few media types. They were debating at length Nintendo's decision to show up in LA with nothing but The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

"It's supreme arrogance, bordering on stupidity," I vividly recall one prominent writer saying. Few disagreed.

This was a different time. Nintendo's Wii U console had been a catastrophic failure and the 3DS was showing its age. The company had announced it was working on a new machine, codenamed NX, but it was nowhere to be seen (it would be revealed four months later).

We're just days away from Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's launch.Watch on YouTube

There was no shortage of criticism aimed at Nintendo's business decisions in 2016. Nevertheless, at that E3, with just a single game, Nintendo stole the show. The excitement around Breath of the Wild was such that on the final day of the show, a stampede of fans rushed Nintendo's booth in a bid to get in before the queue closed.

It felt like a moment. And what followed was the resurgence of Nintendo, led by a Zelda game that would transform the series from being one of industry's most cherished, into one of its biggest.

The Legend of Zelda has always been an important series. People buy Nintendo machines for Zelda, and there's a lucrative business around Zelda toys, statues, soundtracks and even concerts. Yet when it comes to cold hard numbers, it's notoriously inconsistent.

Prior to Breath of the Wild, the best-selling Zelda game was 2006's Twilight Princess, which had sold just shy of 9m units on Wii and GameCube. That's not insignificant, but it doesn't threaten the upper echelons of Nintendo's most popular games, either. By comparison, Mario Kart Wii sold over 37m copies and New Super Mario Bros Wii broke 30m.

Zelda has a habit of losing more than half its players between releases

Twilight Princess was followed by Skyward Sword, which released on Wii in 2011 and didn't even manage 4m copies. It follows a familiar pattern. Ocarina of Time was a big hit on the N64 with 7.6 million sales, but its sequel Majora's Mask managed less than half that (3.4m). The very first Zelda on the NES achieved 6.5m, its follow-up (The Adventure of Link) brought in 4.4m.

It's not unusual to see Nintendo game sales fluctuate between platforms, mainly because the consoles themselves vary wildly in popularity. In fact, although Wind Waker sold 3m fewer copies than Ocarina of Time, its sales still represented over 20 percent of the GameCube install base, whereas Ocarina of Time was only slightly better by appealing to 23 percent of the N64 audience.

Nevertheless, even when looking at games on the same platform, Zelda has a habit of losing more than half its players between releases. And when it comes to the most successful Nintendo franchises, Zelda sits firmly behind Mario, Pokémon, Mario Kart, Smash Bros and Animal Crossing.

Then Breath of the Wild happened. With more than 30m sales (the Switch version alone is on 29m), the game sits ahead of Pokémon and Mario, and is neck-and-neck with Super Smash Bros. in terms of its Switch popularity. Most Nintendo franchises have grown substantially during the Switch generation, but it is Zelda that has grown the most, with Breath of the Wild's sales 240 percent bigger than the previous Twilight Princess high point.

It was certainly a huge launch. The game received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and the marketing campaign - including that epic E3 showing - drove a lot of interest. It was also the only launch title of note for Nintendo Switch, which attracted significantly more interest than the Wii U had. Famously, Breath of the Wild had a 100 percent attach rate with Switch, and in some markets, the Switch version had even outsold the console.

Newscast: Is Zelda playable in Tears of the Kingdom?Watch on YouTube

That last stat was certainly an odd one, but otherwise, none of this was particularly unusual. Zelda games frequently receive rave reviews, 95+ Metacritic scores, and they typically sell well to begin with. Skyward Sword was a commercial low point overall, but initially it was the fastest-selling game in the series in the US. In the UK, the fastest-selling Zelda on a single format is Wind Waker, but it's only ninth in the all-time seller list.

In other words, a big launch is great, but that isn't what gets you to 30m sales.

Breath of the Wild just kept selling however, and it's still going. In Nintendo's last financial report, the firm revealed that the game sold over 2.4m copies for the nine months ending December 31st - over five years since it released. It's now over six years old, and the game is still appearing in the UK Top 20.

Much has been made about how Mario Kart 8: Deluxe just keeps on selling and selling, but that's what Mario Kart always does. Zelda game sales tend to be more front-loaded, except that hasn't been the case with Breath of the Wild.

Breath of the Wild's emergent gameplay continues to drive sales, and Tears of the Kingdom leans into this even further

The key to that change is the game itself. Unlike previous Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild enabled players to explore and to tackle challenges however they saw fit, with an array of new gameplay mechanics. This type of emergent gameplay has led to thousands of YouTube videos, articles, streams and clips of players doing crazy things in the game. As new people have come into Nintendo Switch and started looking for a game to buy (or rather, another game to buy after Mario Kart), Zelda is still a game being discussed, shared and recommended.

This is why Breath of the Wild has managed to do what no Zelda has done before and remain a sales juggernaut year after year. And it's this that Nintendo is leaning into with Tears of the Kingdom. The ability to create vehicles alone is a significant opportunity for emergent gameplay, which could easily keep the community busy for years beyond launch.

As we've seen, second Zelda games on a console can be tricky. And although the Switch remains hugely popular, it is starting to slowdown as it moves into its seventh year.

But comparisons to Zeldas that came before won't tell us much. The series is operating on a different level today. Even if Tears of the Kingdom goes the same way as Majora's Mask and Skyward Sword and sells less than half of its predecessor, it'd still be the second biggest Zelda game of all time.

If you would like to read more sales data, and other assorted games industry interviews, news and analysis, then sign-up to the newsletter.

Sales figures courtesy of Nintendo financial reports, GDC 2004 talk 'The Evolution of a Franchise: The Legend of Zelda, and GfK Chart-Track.

Read this next