The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was a critical and commercial success, garnering glowing reviews across the board (including from this port here) and making a lot of Switch owners very happy in the process. All of that praise is well deserved, but with so many AAA developers and publishers slowly but surely upping their game when it comes to including comprehensive accessibility options, we wondered how Nintendo would rate the latter in those terms.
We’ve previously looked at several Nintendo titles from an accessibility perspective, and now it’s TOTK’s turn. To Hilliard…
There was a fairly noisy group of people declaring that Kingdom Tears was nothing more than a glorification of Breath of the Wild’s $70 DLC. It was all a no-brainer based on fear that the game couldn’t live up to the hype (or loathing that the game wouldn’t be anything like the 50th iteration of the Zelda template created by A Link to the Past). I knew they were silly, but I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t afraid Kingdom Tears would do something quite like its predecessor.
The big difference was that my fear was justified. I was afraid that Kingdom Tears would not have any accessibility features. Before launch, I said I’d dye my hair Nintendo’s signature red if the game included something as simple as an in-game button reset. Instead, I turned everything off.
I was paralyzed about 14 years ago (C5/C6 quadriplegic), so I have a pretty good understanding of Nintendo’s feelings about adding accessibility features to their games. They just won’t.
Why did the organization and its developers take this position? I can’t read minds like Professor X so I don’t know the answer (even though I’m bald). Maybe a wheelchair user accidentally stepped on Eiji Onuma’s foot and this is his way of getting revenge? It must be something like that because Onuma knows this is a problem. Read this exchange with Jason Schreier when asked why the buttons didn’t reset in Breath of the Wild in a piece Kotaku ran in June 2019:
Onuma: When we have a button arrangement, we think a lot about how we’re going to do it, because there’s a certain way we want players to feel. In some ways, if we allow players the freedom to make customizations on main missions and the like, I feel like we’re abdicating our responsibility as a developer by simply handing everything over to the users. We have something on everyone’s mind when we play the game, so that’s what we hope players will experience and enjoy as well. But we also understand that gamers have a desire for free customization.
wicked: Also, physically challenged players may not be able to play the way the developers intended.
Onoma: Certainly, that’s a very good point, and it’s something we’ll keep in mind going forward and think about that.
Aonuma admits but brushes the point aside, ending up doing nothing. Take a look at what your peers are up to, Onuma-san. Sony, Microsoft, and every major developer are doing the equivalent of installing a push-button door opener while your car is parked in the handicap dump area.
I don’t want to read another press release stating that “Nintendo strives to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone,” which is what the company said after criticism from AbleGamer’s Steven Spohn in 2021. Either be honest and say you’ll continue to leave the disabled out in the cold or Join the accessibility revolution.
By the way, companies that add accessibility features to their products don’t just do so out of the goodness in their hearts. They do this for good public relations and to take advantage of an underserved market.
My experience playing Kingdom Tears
All that said, I was still able to play Tears of the Kingdom relatively well. I can’t move my fingers but when I have the pro controller resting on my leg, I can fiddle with the joysticks with the palm of my hand and hit the face buttons with my right thumb very easily.
Sometimes the controller starts slipping but the game allows you to pause whenever you want it so I can reset as often as I need to. The shoulder buttons are depressable with my knuckles, but that requires me to take my left hand off the joystick and my right from the face buttons. This means that I am unable to lock on any enemy unless I keep Link stationary. Obviously, this isn’t perfect, so finding a solution to that was my main priority when resetting the controls in the Switch’s settings. This is the setup I created:
By moving “ZL” to “A” I am able to grab the enemy and still move Link. This step also works for me because I have the ability to press two face buttons at the same time. This means I can still attack as well as perform jumping dodges. Hitting ‘Y’ (Attack) while holding ‘A’ is a struggle so I moved it to ‘B’. I rarely feel the need to aim while using a bow, so moving it to “Y” from “ZR” works fine.
Moving ‘A’ and ‘B’ to the right and left bumper respectively is awkward and by far the main reason I hit the wrong button, but swapping their position isn’t without its advantages. Dodging the shield with an ‘L’ isn’t a problem because Link doesn’t need to move to do so and I was already used to using the ‘R’ for an enemy thanks to playing Dragon Quest XI (the best RPG on the Switch in my humble opinion). The only problem is clicking on “L” to pick things up while the link is moving. If I need to do this, like when I’m trying to catch a foul, I extend my right hand so I don’t have to take my left off the joystick.
The only thing I couldn’t make easier on myself was using the D-pad. I can still switch weapons and armor by going into the menu but pressing up is the only way to combine items into an arrow. As I was writing this, however, I realized that pressing down is a lot easier for me, so I switched it down and it made the experience much better.
The control pad is also the only way to rotate objects while using Ultrahand. I know some people have found the process challenging, but imagine trying to do this when you can’t move your fingers. It just sucks. I can’t jam the joystick with my left thumb very well so I use the edge of my palm. My hands are a bit too big for this so I get a lot of accidental diagonal turns. I’ve found it easier to flip things around a bit, drop them in, hope they end up close to the way I want them, and iterate until I get them right. I’ve backed up every Hudson sign and completed every shrine I’ve come across, so this strategy has worked well so far.
My experience is not without frustration but there are somewhat more upsides with the setup I came up with. I die all the time, about five times more often than I did in Breath of the Wild, but the game tolerates the near-constant autosave. Very little in case any progress is lost if you bite off more than you can chew when entering an outpost full of bokoblin or when your Ultrahand contraptions fail spectacularly.
Access feature recommendations
Before I finish this piece, I’d like to give my accessibility recommendations to developers. The first two are very clear.
Color blindness mode and reset button in the game
Yes, both of these can be done in the Switch’s system settings but there’s no reason they can’t be included in the game’s Tears of the Kingdom settings. I can already hear the keyboards crackling telling me this is a waste of time but it isn’t, especially to remap buttons.
The first reason is a system-wide button remapping change and is only reliably compatible with official Nintendo controllers. I bought a 3rd party pro controller after my official one started drifting but I use my old ratty Pro more often because I need access to my custom configurations.
The second reason is that the game you’re playing doesn’t change its prompts to match your configurations. I put hundreds of hours into my remapping of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom but I keep hitting the wrong button all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tapped “R” to move right in the Games menus only to close it because my “B” is set to “R”. Most of the time it’s harmless, but I missed the sudden burst because I couldn’t ignore the blinking prompt telling me to hit “Y” when I reset the attack action.
On/off switch function
My next recommendation is something like sticky keys – AKA a function on your computer that you accidentally trigger by hitting the shift key multiple times. This toggling option should be available for targeting enemies, weapon/shield swap/arrow fusions, as well as rotating objects while using the Ultrahand.
Here’s how it works: You click the button to activate its function and they stay active until you press the button again. very simple. A toggle option like this for targeting enemies exists in all 3D Zeldas dating back to Skyward Sword but it was removed for no reason at all. I played all of these games without having to remap the controls thanks to this option. I know I could have done the same if this option had been included in Tears of the Kingdom or Breath of the Wild.
Optional manual manipulation of the left arm
My final recommendation isn’t really about accessibility; It’s just logic. There’s no reason why you can’t use the left joystick to rotate an object while using Ultrahand. The user has no reason to move Link while rotating an object (plus it takes an awkward finger position and grip to use the joystick and D-pad at the same time), so why are we restricted to using the D-pad? i don’t get it.
None of these recommendations will be game-breaking and can easily be added with a patch. There is no excuse for Nintendo not adding these or any other access options to Tears of the Kingdom.
Kingdom Tears does the impossible, surpassing its predecessor – a game many consider to be the greatest of all time – in every way… except for making the game an accessible experience. It does not have a single accessibility option in an era when doing so has become commonplace. Yes, I’ve personally been able to enjoy the game thanks to the inclusion of controller remapping in the Switch’s system settings, but it’s far from a great solution and may not benefit others as much as it did.
Nintendo can and should correct accessibility options in a game. But is that? History suggests not. I would have thought that it would never have occurred to Nintendo to make its games available but that is not true. It can only be the fact that our suggestions and requests have been noted, but at this point, developers are actively choosing to exclude players with disabilities. Kingdom Tears is the clearest example to date.
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