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What's the deal with Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's gacha machines?

Fun encapsulated.

I've been spending more time with my nephew recently and, at age five, it's been exciting to see him start getting into video games. It's also been something of an education, to be honest, on the kinds of games available to him, as well as the sorts of things he's drawn towards. He plays on a tablet, and it may not shock you to hear that a lot of the games he's keen to try - and that get advertised to him - have some pretty dodgy-looking monetisation mechanics. Slot machines, chance-based mechanics, loot boxes - there's a reason the tablet isn't hooked up to any kind of payment device.

The gacha machines in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom are thankfully about as far away from all that as you can get, but their inclusion in the game still caught me a little off guard. Here, in this beautifully-crafted fantasy epic, was a nod to something very different. Of course, the Zelda series is no stranger to anachronistic distractions and mini-games within its ostensibly medieval setting, but this, initially at least, felt more of a surprise. This was Nintendo riffing on a much-criticised monetisation structure - or, looking at what my nephew wants to play, the entirety of the gameplay - of other games, with a knowing nod and a wink. And it's especially amusing to see Tears of the Kingdom include this following the launch of the gacha-powered Genshin Impact, which sparked more than a few comparisons with Breath of the Wild.

10 Things We Wish We Knew Before Starting The Legend of Zelda Tears of the KingdomWatch on YouTube

Is it a troll by Nintendo? Maybe. Is it some inspired meta-commentary about the advanced Zonai race discovering a love of gacha shortly before their societal collapse? Maybe not. Here in Tears of the Kingdom, I think ultimately this may just be - whisper it - some rather fun game design. These gacha machines gobble up the Zonai Charge items you get from certain enemies, then unleash a cascade of capsules that clatter out in reward. It's admittedly exciting to watch, especially when you're given a device labelled ??? that's brand new to you. These capsules hold Zonai device pieces - the ones you cobble together in Shrine puzzles or in the open world to create your wonky creations like carts, death rays and torture devices - and the whole process of building this stuff is made a lot easier by having a stock of Zonai parts already in your pocket.

Could this have worked as a straightforward item shop, operated by some Zonai storekeeper? Sure. But as a method to ensure players always have a stock of the more basic Zonai devices, it also allows the game to peek into your inventory (I suspect) and top you up on any you're running short on. Would you spend rupees on a cooking device? I probably wouldn't. But the other night, low on health and food in the wilderness, I was delighted to find I had received one from a recent gacha machine visit, ready to set down to craft a heart-filling dish. The system also allows the game to dole out more advanced devices as you progress further, as if they were waiting all along, buried further down the gacha machine's insides.

Putting materials in to watch the game spit out something fun in return - there are tendrils here to Zelda's cooking system itself, where Link dumps in a selection of ingredients and - when I'm playing anyway - rather hopes for the best. In fact, there are tendrils here to a lot of surprise elements in basic game design - the ? block in Mario! the Chance card in Monopoly! - entirely innocent of any app store ills. I'll give it a few years, perhaps, but playing Tears of the Kingdom with my nephew is still very much on the cards.

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