In the earliest stage of my career in covering games, I worked as a blogger for a site that focused on Nintendo news, and from the years spent on that particular beat, I considered it all but set in stone that Nintendo, in their classic reluctance to chase a trend or trust third parties, would never release DLC. While I was wrong about that, all the same, Nintendo has been selective, almost restrained, in adopting a post-release content model for some of its biggest properties. What I might have come to accept in gradual increments has now come all at once and the result is almost jarring. I think, over time, I came to see Nintendo’s hesitancy to participate in DLC as noble, or at very least, principled and consumer-minded. This has as much to do with the mythos of Nintendo as it does the negative rhetoric surrounding DLC in general. The reality is, while Nintendo may have dragged their feet for any number of reasons when it comes to adopting the game release trends of their publishing peers, in the end, like any company, they’re here to make money too.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s two-part Expansion Pass is the first DLC the games have ever seen. So how does DLC fit in a series that hasn’t adapted over the years to accommodate it? While Nintendo has been in the position of playing catch-up, they’ve also had a chance to observe what works on their consumer base without the risky, expensive trial and error process. The recent debut of The Champions’ Ballad provides an opportunity to examine the role of DLC and how Nintendo has approached it in response.
Despite some tone deafness over the past several years, Nintendo seems to be learning how to read a room. As a consumer base, the gaming community has spent the last decade vocally refining their preferences, or rather, what they will or won’t tolerate when it comes to post-release content. A strong distaste for the pay-to-win model, which established a class advantage in multiplayer games, has led to the greater trend of aesthetics-based digital offerings, with many games offering mostly or purely appearance-enhancing items instead of weapons or other upgrades that might disrupt the balance of the game. Other forms of post-release content focus on additional missions or story arcs that sit outside the base game narrative so as not to disrupt the lore, while still others focus on additional play modes that offer new challenges to reignite new interest in the game. The goal is to make the additional material enticing, but not so integral to the game that “vanilla” players are left out.
In keeping with that, the DLC for Breath of the Wild, released in two parts entitled The Master Trials and The Champions’ Ballad, has focused largely on non-essential content. To Nintendo’s credit, they didn’t throw a bunch of reskinned assets up on a store page and call it a day. Many of the new items, be they a horse bridle, a fast travel medallion, or an outfit, take some effort to track down, requiring the player first figure out a riddle, then find a chest at the hinted location. It’s a lot more interesting than simply purchasing and using new clothing immediately, and it gives the player a chance to enjoy the landscape (and hunt down more Korok seeds) again. The Hero’s Path, meanwhile, manages to extend the player’s desire to explore Hyrule by dozens of hours simply by revealing how much ground they’ve already covered. Even the challenging new difficulty modes, like Trial of the Sword, are locked behind achievement barriers—for example, the number of heart containers the player has collected. This puts the DLC in a better position to provide an end game palate cleanser for those burnt out on the game.
But while much of the new content serves a practical purpose, that does not mean it’s necessary. In terms of functionality, the effort suffers for its late stage introduction. For most players, the new tools and items come into the game far too late to become a permanent part of their strategy. At this point, I’ve no need of improved horse stamina, or a fancy powerful bridle. I’ve already learned how to get by, and even excel, without them. Some are not fond of the motorcycle rewarded at the end of the main quest of The Champions’ Ballad, but I’m less troubled by how out-of-place the vehicle seems than I am its lack of relevance in the game given the many options available for traveling quickly over long distance. The argument could be made that the motorcycle, as well as the Sheikah Slate itself (among other additions) essentially amount to lore breaking. But that’s an angle that’s hard to maintain for long given the many reimaginings that The Legend of Zelda has been through over the past three decades. While some companies may use DLC as an opportunity to experiment with and explore stories and aesthetic themes that couldn’t reasonably fit within the base game, Nintendo has no need of that in a series that is so different with each iteration.
Examining the non-aesthetic DLC in Breath of the Wild, Nintendo seems to be going through some of the same issues that other developers and publishers encounter in their post-release content model. In attempting to make an afterthought part of the main attraction, the new material feels like a garnish turned into the main course: pretty, but much too small to be satisfying. What tidbits of lore-building exist in The Champions’ Ballad are not experienced by the player so much as they are delivered, through the same Memories system used in the base game. While the additional puzzles and modes are a great extension of the skill-based elements of Breath of the Wild, the lack of meaty story-driven missions is disappointing. Zelda has always been more than its combat or exploration.
The end result is that the DLC isn’t necessary to the overall Breath of the Wild experience, which is good for fans who can’t afford more than the base game. But on the other hand, that means what players are paying for is inessential, blurring the line between “can” and “can’t miss.” DLC, as a long term monetization plan, has in the past largely been accepted as a necessary evil due to rising development costs. But is Nintendo really hurting for the money, given that The Legend of Zelda is one of their most successful franchises? And does the DLC add anything to the game in terms of artistic vision or value? Was it necessary for either practical or creative purposes, or is it a desperate attempt to appear relevant and competitive, with the added bonus of extra profit?
Ultimately, DLC seems unnecessary for a series that gets boldly reinterpreted with every generation. And few players judge the legacy or merit of a game based on whether or not it had DLC. In that sense, The Legend of Zelda doesn’t need post-release content, practically or artistically. And while Nintendo has played to the existing consumer preferences well, sometimes less is more. There are games (like Mario Kart 8, for example, where Link’s Master Cycle Zero first showed up) that are well suited to constant updates and new content. Others demand a sense of finality that DLC will inevitably interfere with. It’s not one size fits all.
If in the future Nintendo decides that DLC is unnecessary for The Legend of Zelda, I won’t be too upset. The series would be fine without it. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy the game’s extended shelf life for what it is, and take a spin around Hyrule on my new hog.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.