Tears of the Kingdom shows that without change, accessibility in Nintendo games will remain accidental

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is an evolution. Building on the world of 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has created something richer and more malleable through a grander story, an expansive map, and the ability to build countless contraptions to torture innocent Koroks. Fifty hours later, I haven’t even started a story-related adventure yet, and I’m more interested in dressing Link up in cute outfits. Does this make the game good or bad? I have no idea!

As with so many Nintendo games, however, it’s an evolution that comes at a price for many gamers. Tears of the Kingdom may be a glimmer of light for Switch-era Hyrule, but fundamentally not much has changed in the six years between titles. Suffice to say that the game remains, in a way, both accessible and inaccessible.

This is only made clearer by the advancements in accessibility made by the gaming industry between The Legend of Zelda releases. These are advancements that may have finally shattered the perceived apathy towards accessibility shown by Japanese studios, but which Nintendo continues to ignore.

It’s disappointing, if not entirely unexpected, to see players struggling with the greatest game of 2023. And one that, if the enduring popularity of Elden Ring is to be believed, will be part of online conversations for years to come.

Trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.Watch on YouTube

That Tears of the Kingdom wouldn’t prioritize accessibility in its development was obvious from 2019when Jason Schreier asked series director Eiji Aonuma about the lack of button mapping in Breath of the Wild.

“If we let players freely do customizations on key missions and the like, I feel like we’re giving up our responsibility as a developer,” Aonuma said. “We have something in mind for everyone when we play the game, so that’s what we hope players will experience and enjoy as well.”

Emphasizing the importance of remapping for gamers with disabilities, Aonuma’s response was noncommittal. “That’s a very good point,” he said. “That’s something we’ll keep in mind going forward.”

Four years later, many are experiencing less realm tears and more just tears because we press the wrong buttons because of the game’s confusing control scheme.

That said, Tears of the Kingdom isn’t without improvements. Mandatory motion controls are gone, though players still have no control over UI readability beyond making text boxes more opaque, and nothing to mitigate silent speech and numerous input from Tears of the Kingdom.

Close-up of the link in Tears of the Kingdom
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. | Image credit: nintendo

The game does, however, include a chat log and a recipe book, both of which are great additions for people with dementia (though the cluttered layout of both suggests that wasn’t the intention). But the game’s habit of placing quest markers at quest givers rather than at the destination is a cognitive nightmare. Elsewhere, hiding combat prompts behind missing tutorials is one of the game’s most baffling design decisions.

All of this paints a remarkably unattainable picture in 2023, made all the more ironic by a game centered around a main character with a disability.

Rather than expanding on accessibility, Tears of the Kingdom continues a trend that Nintendo has oddly stuck to for years. It’s a trend in which accessibility in its games seems almost accidental.

We can’t say for sure what considerations went into the tangential accessibility that Nintendo uses. We can only assume that there is no evidence that gamers with disabilities are a priority for the company, while there is plenty of evidence in their games that we are not. Instead, features that seem designed for a different demographic or purpose end up helping us – Sometimes.

For example, Animal Crossing: New Horizons uses a robust set of sound cues in its fishing minigame. These are signals that make it easier and more fun for blind and visually impaired players. But the sound design otherwise oscillates from accessible to inaccessible in this game, particularly around the characters’ speech.

A more relevant example may be the Bullet Time effect in Breath of the Wild and its sequel when using a mid-air bow. It’s necessary to make shooting while falling viable, but it also becomes vital in helping many disabled players in general combat – including players with low vision. That’s something Tears of the Kingdom actually adds with its homing arrows. But, again, with most of the unspoken speech elsewhere, it’s hard to see that these players were a consideration.

Link standing near the City Goddess Statue of Tarrey in the Mountain Ulri area in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. | Image credit: nintendo

Even Nintendo hardware is unwittingly accessible. The low-quality graphics on the Switch make the viewing experience easier for many, even if dictated by console hardware limitations. Meanwhile, the Switch’s dedication to portability makes the controllers lighter and therefore easier to hold for some with mobility and pain issues.

You can already see the pattern. Nintendo is constantly adding accessible features into its games that don’t seem accessibility features. They’re not designed for gamers with disabilities, they just help in specific contexts – and often in otherwise inaccessible games. This, despite a stubborn attitude towards accessibility and despite Nintendo’s contentious approach to preservation and homage.

This begs the question. If Nintendo repeatedly ignores inclusive design, why are so many of its games accidentally accessible? A clue can be found in March’s Nintendo Direct, in which Eiji Aonuma showed off Tears of the Kingdom gameplay.

While demonstrating the new function of the homing arrows, Aonuma let out an interesting confession. “My eyes can’t follow fast moving objects lately,” he said. Sixty-year-old Aonuma’s assessment feels like an acknowledgment of the cognitive difficulties faced by older players.

Nintendo may create accessible games. Its developers TO DO make games accessible. In fact, accessibility is integral to the company’s fundamental understanding of game design. What Aonuma’s admission shows, however, is that Nintendo views accessibility for an age-focused market, rather than as part of an inclusive approach to design.

While Sony and Microsoft strive to make games for everyone, Nintendo is focused on making games for a wide range of ages – the whole family, so to speak. This is evident when considering how Nintendo has positioned itself as a family-oriented developer. This is why its games are accessible to both inexperienced and experienced players, but also why we see so much accidental accessibility in games that otherwise work against their disabled player base. This is why homing arrows in Tears of the Kingdom are great for blind and visually impaired players, but there are little to no considerations for how they navigate the world and story otherwise.

Understand that none of this is intended to actively disparage the accessibility found in Tears of the Kingdom and other Nintendo games, accidental or otherwise. Rather, it’s about showing that Nintendo understands the fundamentals of accessible game design. He understands that accessibility is about more than settings – in an age where options are the focus – and clearly understands how to implement accessible features. This is to show that it would be so easy for Nintendo to become more inclusive and, in doing so, become an industry leader – if not the industry leader – in accessible design.

To do this, however, Nintendo would have to give players more control over their individual experience. The company should build on a solid base accessibility found in many Nintendo games and supplement it with features and options that make Nintendo games more aware of the needs of individual gamers. This is something he currently seems reluctant to do.

That’s what makes Nintendo so frustrating – what makes Tears of the Kingdom so frustrating. Finding ways to play or design decisions that momentarily make inaccessible games easier is great, it signals Nintendo’s ability to create solid basic accessibility almost without trying. But unless Nintendo shows a willingness to build on that and accommodate gamers with disabilities, to make games for everyone, its accessibility will never be more than an accident.

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