Can Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Carry The Nintendo Switch?

I hope Link has got a strong back, because he’ll be carrying the hopes and dreams of both Nintendo and its fans starting March 3rd.

The Nintendo Switch’s launch lineup was painfully thin at of time of my discussion of Nintendo’s Switch rollout event, and it’s only grown by a single title since then. Of these six titles, Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the clear jewel of the list, and Nintendo is banking on the game to move entice gamers into buying their new console.

On the surface, choosing Breath of the Wild for this task makes a lot of sense: The visuals are stunning, the size of the world is breathtaking, and the story and gameplay promise to be at least as compelling as those in prior Zelda games. But do the numbers back this up? To answer this question, we first need to answer others:

Title Lifetime Sales
The Legend of Zelda 6.51 Million Units
Zelda II 4.38 Million
A Link to the Past 4.61 Million
Ocarina of Time 7.60 Million
Majora’s Mask 3.36 Million
Wind Waker 4.43 Million
Four Swords Adventures 0.81 Million
Twilight Princess 8.58 Million
Skyward Sword 3.67 Million
Average 4.88 Million

(If portable mainline Zelda titles are factored in as well, the average drops to 4.08 million.)

Basically, as long as Nintendo limits you to two Links or less, they’ve got a good shot at eventually selling several million copies of their game. Whether or not they can afford to wait for “eventually” to happen is another matter entirely.

Based on these numbers, it looks like Breath of the Wild will have a difficult time carrying the Switch to 2 million first-month sales on its own, but it’s possible if the game reaches Ocarina of Time-levels of greatness (which, given the current hype levels, is definitely possible).

  • Can a Zelda game actually move systems? To date, there have been only two Zelda games released as system launch titles: The original Legend of Zelda (which launched with the Famicom Disk System that never made it to the US), and Twilight Princess (which came out as a Wii launch title in 2006).

Twilight Princess is a decent comparison for Breath of the Wild, since it was not only a launch title for the Wii, a Gamecube version of the game was also released (albeit slightly later than the Wii version). It’s certainly a comparison Nintendo would like to make, as Twilight Princess stands as the best-selling Zelda game to date. (Even if you separate the Wii and Gamecube sales, the Wii version accounted for roughly 85%, or 7.26 million, of the total games sold.) If Breath of the Wild approaches these sorts of sales numbers, Nintendo should meet its Switch sales goal.

It’s important, however, to take this comparison with a grain of salt:

  • The sales of Twilight Princess are an outlier across Zelda‘s history. Only two other games have even crossed the five million mark in lifetime sales.
  • Wiis also sold like hotcakes during their initial launch period, and it’s hard to tell if Twilight Princess drove Wii sales or if the Wii drive Twilight Princess sales.
  • So what do these numbers mean? Can Zelda do the job or not? Unfortunately, the answer remains a solid “maybe,” as the data on Zelda’s history as a top seller and console-mover doesn’t give us any insight at all as to how Breath of the Wild might fare. Sure, Zelda games usually end up with solid sales, and it did extremely well the one time it was anchored a worldwide console launch lineup, but our limited sample size keeps us from making statements about Breath of the Wild‘s future (and how it might affect sales of the Switch) with any degree of confidence.

On the flip side of this debate, there is a franchise with a proven track record of success that lurks in the background:

  • Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64 have all sold over ten million copies in their lifetimes, and are generally credited for kick-starting the reigns of the NES, SNES, and N64.
  • Super Mario Land, a Game Boy launch title, and has over eighteen million in sales to its credit.
  • Even New Mario Super Bros. U has sold more copies than the average Zelda game (although it didn’t help the Wii U all that much).

In other words, there’s plenty of data that suggests that the world’s most-famous plumber can sell consoles. So why wasn’t Super Mario Odyssey tapped for the Switch launch? The answer is twofold:

  • Breath of the Wild began life as a Wii U game, and has a huge head start on Mario Odyssey in terms of development time and effort.
  • Gamers have been waiting for Breath of the Wild for a really, really, really long time, and having it as anything but a launch title would have caused Nintendo fans all over the world to blow a fuse and fill their social media feeds with angry anti-Nintendo bile. Mario Odyssey, in contrast, was shown off for the first time only a few months ago.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the good plumber couldn’t have lent the Hyrulians a helping hand in their Switch endeavor. After all, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a slightly-enhanced port of the Wii U version, is slated to come out a mere eight weeks after the Switch launches. If I were Nintendo, I would have made MK 8D a launch title as well, taking pressure off of Breath of the Wild by appealing to more types of gamers. After all, Zelda games (at least the good ones) are generally single-player affairs; MK 8D could have roped in players looking for multiplayer action, and seems like a better fit for the on-the-go, LAN-party gaming action that makes the portable Switch stand out.

At the end of the day, however, Breath of the Wild must stand alone in its quest to make the launch of the Nintendo Switch a success, and we won’t know until March 31st whether or not it was up to the task.