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Austin Wood

Accidentally finding Tears of the Kingdom's best ending in New Game+ was the coolest gaming experience I've had in years

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom reveal trailer

To this day, I struggle with open-world fatigue. I've built up some tolerance for the genre out of necessity, what with more and more games going open-world nowadays, but I still regularly get overloaded and need breaks from open worlds in a way I don't for most games. As a result of this affliction, once I beat an open-world game, I'm done with it. I totally check out after rolling credits. No matter how much side content I missed or skipped, no matter how bad my ending was, I ain't doing that shit again. 

I thought this would be the case for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, but I ended up replaying its finale in what's technically New Game+. The fact that I still had the energy to continue after the credits is high praise for Nintendo's design philosophy, but I also returned because I had a hunch I'd missed something important. Like, really important – something that'd been hanging over me throughout the entire game. I immediately booted up my save file and started investigating. The resulting saga kept me up until 3am and ultimately became one of the most memorable moments I've had with a game in ages. 

Spoilers for the ending to Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom ahead. All of the spoilers. Every single one. Put a bucket on your head or turn back now if you don't want to be spoiled. 

Oops, I killed Ganon  

(Image credit: Nintendo)

I initially finished Tears of the Kingdom basically by accident. I had two main quests left: solve the mystery of the castle, and find Zelda. In pursuit of the former, I made my way to Hyrule castle and entered the chasm beneath it instead of actually going up to the floating structure. In hindsight, this should've been obvious given the way the game starts, but I honestly thought there might be something extra underground and the true finale would take place within the castle. So I kept spelunking until I realized, oh shit, this is the final fight. Well, no turning back now. Let's get this done. 

This is the point where my post-game investigation truly starts to snowball into something special.

So yay, I beat Ganon. I'd already found all the dragon tears and the Master Sword, and the ending scene was great. But something was nagging at me. The plot felt resolved, but it also felt like I'd skipped a chapter. I couldn't ignore the unadorned finger on Link's Zonai hand, awkwardly sandwiched between digits emblazoned with the symbols of the sages I'd met. I must've missed a sage, I realized. Let's go find them. 

I loaded the point before the final fight and started thinking. There were still three big mysteries I'd planned to investigate out in the world: the Korok forest, the big storm in the southern sky islands, and the ruins at Kakariko Village. I decided to start with the Kakariko ruins, but I ran into the familiar problem of being blocked off from one of the main sites. Just as they had dozens of hours ago, a surveyor told me not to touch it because apparently Zelda said so. Defeated but determined, I poked around the four other ruins in search of clues, and I ended up with some bread crumbs about the sages. I figured I was on the right track and that I'd better make a pit-stop at Hyrule castle to find the secret I missed last time. Maybe it will shed some light on things. 

To my delight, this field trip closed the book on the Phantom Ganon mystery, confirming that this ghoul had been impersonating Zelda during all those strange side quests. I remembered that the Kakariko surveyor used Zelda's orders to stonewall my search, and I wondered if they'd let me pass if I told them it was Ganon all along. Not only that, if Ganon didn't want anyone to find this ruin, it must be important, right? 

This is the point where my post-game investigation truly starts to snowball into something special. I start as I mean to go on: following a hunch. Not a quest marker, not a waypoint, just an honest hunch based on what's available to me. 

The search for the missing sage  

(Image credit: Nintendo)

I went back to the surveyor to share my findings not because the game told me to, but because it made sense. This is what Link, or anyone really, would do with this information, I reasoned. I realize it's a pretty simple chain of events and not exactly an amazing feat of reactivity in design, but it sure felt like one in the moment the surveyor agreed with my assessment that this ruin must be important if Ganon lied to obscure it. 

The easier it is to totally miss important stuff in a game, the more memorable the stuff you find becomes.

With the quarantine lifted, I made my way inside and found a clue for the missing sage. More excitingly, it was clear this quest would take me to the area directly below that sky island storm I mentioned earlier. The gears in my head are really turning now. It was also around this time that this simple side quest was upgraded to a main quest. My hunch was on point. I'd missed something big. 

Everyone will experience this sequence differently, but let me try and explain my headspace at this moment. With absolutely zero prodding from the game beyond a lingering and vague goal to check out a castle, I was able to:

  • Conclude I'd missed part of the plot
  • Determine three suspicious areas most likely to contain that missing piece 
  • Interact with an NPC in a way that perfectly lined up with my own reasoning and intentions
  • Uncover a main quest by continuing a seemingly minor side quest that I first started over 30 hours ago
  • Discover a new line of questioning that ended up tying two of those suspicious areas together

This is why I was up until 3am. I was into this shit, man. This is textbook immersive sim fun, right here. My own curiosities led me to my own discoveries, and it would've been so easy to miss all of this. My first clear of the game is proof of that. Obviously it was all laid out for me to find, but the important thing is that I was demonstrably never led to it. 

Let me figure it out  

(Image credit: Nintendo)

I don't know if I looked at my quest log a single time after this point. I didn't need to. All I had to do was follow the clues in front of me in a way that truly made sense to me as a person, not just as a player of a video game willing to suspend disbelief. Again, no waypoints needed and no NPCs telling me where to go. You don't get that kind of hands-off experience in a lot of games. And I can understand why; it's a creative risk to leave this up to the player and therefore up to chance. What if they don't find it on their own and their experience with the game suffers as a result? 

It's a valid concern, but the counterpoint that won out in this case, and in greats like Elden Ring and Baldur's Gate 3 and so many other (but also not enough) games, is powerful. What if they do find this stuff on their own and their experience with the game improves exponentially? 

The easier it is to totally miss important stuff in a game, the more memorable the stuff you find becomes. I was more invested in Tears of the Kingdom during this final quest than ever before. I physically could not tear myself away. I don't think it would have had the same impact if I'd found it before beating the game once, and I know for a fact that it wouldn't have if somebody had loudly told me about it. Maybe somebody did and I'm just inattentive, but I still had a lot of fun.  

I'm harping on about the quest itself, but the aftermath was a treasure in its own right. The many Phantom Ganons I'd beaten at the castle were now removed from the final fight, as was the infected golem I destroyed after assembling a new body for Mineru, the sage of spirit I'd been looking for. The game is screaming at me: your actions mattered! On top of that, Mineru now joined me for the finale as well, and thanks to her contributions, the revised post-credit cutscene was head-and-shoulders above my first ending. 

The fact that Mineru was already one of my favorite characters from the flashback arc only added to my satisfaction. But the important thing was the feeling that: I did it! I was right! I had a theory and Tears of the Kingdom gave me the tools, and more importantly the freedom, to follow it to its end, and I will never forget that. 

More and more, I find myself agreeing with the 26 developers who explained why Tears of the Kingdom will be talked about for years

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