The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's PC mod scene is bizarre and amazing

Breath of the Wild's modding scene is still relatively small. It's not a PC game, but thanks to the rapid development of Wii U emulator Cemu, Nintendo's latest Zelda has become home to character replacement mods and meme videos that would never be possible on a console. The mod scene is fronted by only a handful of prolific modders, but the number of active contributors grows every week. Whether it's the off-the-wall personalities of the folks in the community or a side-effect of spending long hours on a passion project, Breath of the Wild's mod section is weird.

Like Naruto running around Hyrule with floppy arms or Shrek as a Hinox or wielding a guitar or Goku riding on a cloud shield kind of weird. The parade of odd characters being swapped in for the Hero of Time makes for a ton of great showcase videos, but distracts a bit from just how much work goes into creating each submission—Saiyan, ninja, or otherwise. 

A model Hylian

Emulating Zelda

If you're wondering how people play Breath of the Wild on PC, check out our article on how the developers of Wii U emulator Cemu got it working, and a more recent look at a 60 fps hack.

At the time of writing, there are over 160 mods for Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Gamebanana, which has become the go-to host for BotW modding. Three were posted in the last day. Eleven in the last week. The majority of current mods revolve around swapping the game's assets—typically the first achievable task in modding any game. Most replace Link with various other characters or swap out weapons with new models and textures. 

Fitting new character models to Link's body is challenging for a number of reasons, starting with geometry. With the tools currently available, new models are restricted to have no greater polygon count than Link's original model. Getting new characters to work, even conceptually, is a matter of fitting a square peg in a Link-shaped hole.

Shrinefox, who has already made a slew of videos on modding Persona 5, turned to Breath of the Wild earlier this year. While talking about the Playable Mipha mod, which replaces Link with another of Hyrule's champions, Shrinefox explains just what went into making Mipha work. 

"Since the only way to use Link's animations as [Mipha] without the game crashing was to rig her to Link's skeleton, I had to convert Link's model (as well as Mipha's) so that I could work with them in 3ds Max. It took a lot of careful planning of how many vertices and polygons comprised each part of Link's geometry before deleting it all and replacing it with Mipha's. Actually rigging those pieces to Link's bones took a couple weeks of trial and error to get exactly how I wanted."

WilianZilv, whose Link replacement mods range from strange (just, uh, watch the video above) to nostalgic, explains the other time-sink involved with adding a new player character. Spending a couple weeks hooking up a similarly proportioned character to Link's animation skeleton, it turns out, is the "easy" way.

"The easy way to make skin mods is to edit the 3D model to make it fit Link's skeleton. That was a must do to make skin mods. Juliet from Lollipop Chainsaw is a lot taller than link. She has really long legs compared to Link's. With the old way, I would need to modify her proportions by a lot (which by the way was my first attempt to put her in game). But [that] causes the model to look weird. We need to change the positions with a hex editor, which is pretty boring. We change the value, save it, import it to 3ds Max and then we see the result. We do it over and over again until we get the expected result."

Adusting Link's proportions takes a lot of trial-and-error work.

Heroes of Time

So far, changing properties on certain weapons and armor has been the next natural step. WilianZilv’s Mario and Cappy mod doesn’t just replace Link with Mario. It changes the behavior of a boomerang to create a shorter, straighter flight path that looks like Mario’s hat toss in Super Mario Odyssey. Properties and values like these can be edited, so long as someone has figured out where they’re located. Shrinefox’s Mipha mod lets the player swim up waterfalls without wearing the tunic that ability is normally tied to. Makes sense, for a natural Zora. 

Some problems—skeletons that look like they've been stretched on a rack when hang gliding and climbing—have yet to be solved. Tackling more complex projects will take time and commitment from skilled volunteers. Shrinefox has hope that Breath of the Wild will eventually dip into more advanced modding territory, but cautions that it could take years of off-and-on progress, depending on who steps up to the plate. 

"It's impressive that we have something that already supports such a new (and highly acclaimed) game. So skilled developers already have the resources they need available and it's easier than ever for them to share their work and findings. No question there will always be motivated people, but it's all about getting the right ones involved at the right time."

WilianZilv shares the same sentiment, but with with ambitious hopes for what modding Breath of the Wild could eventually achieve. "What I'm really looking forward to is scripting mods. I really want Breath of the Wild to be in the same level as GTA V  and GTA IV. Flying mods, super power mods, etc. Now it is not possible, but I'm hoping someone makes an API so we can work on that."

As steady progress is being made and larger projects are being whispered about around the community, modding Breath of the Wild could have a grander future than what’s been possible with previous Nintendo games. Still, there’s always risk that the right elements won’t arrive at convenient times, delaying the flash in the pan of sudden progress.

WilianZilv, after churning out numerous mods in just a few months says, "I did a lot of mods in a short period [and] now I’m out of creativity." The Breath of the Wild modding community will need to keep attracting the weirdest and wildest modding talent or we’ll be forced to endure a future with much less of this.