Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is one of the biggest and most successful video games of 2023, maybe ever. It takes an iconic franchise to new heights with a spectacular physics system and compelling exploration. But I’m not here to talk about that. Sure there’s a story and combat and gameplay mechanics, but I won’t beat around the bush. Tucked inside of this giant adventure is a cozy birdwatching game.
In Tears of the Kingdom you play as the hero Link, on a quest to discover where Princess Zelda has gone by solving crises that have cropped up all around the kingdom of Hyrule. In the process, you explore different regions and encounter any number of creatures. Some are friends, some are foes. All of them however are photographable once you’ve gotten your camera. Yes, this medieval-inspired game has a camera, as a part of your futuristic “Purah Pad”. It’s basically a Nintendo Switch that you can use as a map, a quest log, and for capturing cool pictures of birds.
Not only is snapping pictures of animals possible, it’s highly encouraged. Each player is given an encyclopedia that can be filled with the hundreds of creatures, enemies, objects and more that are scattered throughout this world. By taking a picture of something, you are identifying it and saving its appearance in your encyclopedia for future reference and tracking. As you can imagine, many players don’t pay much attention to this feature and focus on the sword swinging, but some have spent hundreds of hours scouring every square foot of Hyrule to get a picture of that last lizard, that last butterfly.
Beyond the wild birds, there are also anthropomorphic intelligent bird-people named the Rito. Based in the cold snowy region, they are excellent fictional representation for birds, and served as my favorite regional questline. The spunky Tulin, a gifted young Rito archer, is a great companion, and the climactic boss fight had Link soaring (and diving) through the air to target a dragon’s weak points. Outside of their chilly home, you can find a sweet himbo reporter named Penn. Pictured below, he’s a pelican and he’s a delightful standout character. Throughout his questline, you become his reporting partner by going from stable to stable and investigating rumors of what’s happened to Princess Zelda. Along the way, he has absolutely no idea that you are the iconic hero Link. He loves you all the same. He also has an adorable catch phrase: Soar Long!
I loved this game. I played for over 70 hours before I reached the credits, more than I’ve spent on a game in a long time, and I left a ton of content on the table. Not just in my encyclopedia, but my quest log and maps as well. It’s a huge credit to the developers at Tokyo EPD (Nintendo’s internal studio) that I can enjoy so much side content and also feel perfectly content to leave a bunch behind. Whenever a section or feature wasn’t grabbing me, I just ignored it and moved on. With this much meat on the bone, you can get picky with your bites.
For me, the bites involved a lot of camerawork. Obviously I grabbed pics of birds whenever I could, especially the gorgeous herons. However I found myself appreciating frogs, fish, and the sheep eating grass at stables. It’s a gorgeous world, with a lot of visual inspiration taken from the works of Studio Ghibli. While I don’t often enjoy open world exploration, it’s hard not to fall in love with the charming and dynamic kingdom of Hyrule. Nintendo handled the fictional birds perfectly: most fantasy video games insert exact birds from the real world and just kinda-sorta depict them as is, or they have nondescript black birds and gulls and ducks. Here, we have over 20 named species of birds to be captured, including sparrows, pigeons, gulls, crows, ostriches, herons, ducks, and the iconic cucco (a Zelda chicken mainstay that swarms anyone who hits it).
While TOTK’s status as one of the most well executed and ambitious video games ever made is without question, I think it deserves special praise for its avian accomplishments. Few games have had this level of bird breadth, allowing us to both bond with and observe birds of all kinds. Some are characters with compelling development, some are cute lil sparrows we can photograph. When Miyamoto developed The Legend of Zelda, he famously wanted to capture his childhood love of exploring the forests near his house. Surely, this is the closest we’ve come to that deep appreciation for nature. Doing it at this level, without sacrificing any of the action or puzzles or humor, is special. Truly special. From the moment you boot up this masterpiece, you won’t want to say Soar Long.