Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma is seeing two major “The Legend of Zelda” titles through release in 2013 — “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD” for the WiiU and “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds” for the 3DS — but with each project nearing completion, his attention is shifting to a project he hopes will completely reimagine the “Zelda” franchise.
Though early in development, the first original “Zelda”-branded game for the Wii U is proving to be a creative challenge for Aonuma, the longtime overseer of the franchise. The Wii U, with its touchpad-like controller, offers game mechanics unlike any other system on the market — or coming to the market — and Aonuma intends to use them.
“It’s not that anyone is telling me we have to change the formula,” Aonuma said. ”I want to change it. I’m kind of getting tired of it.”
Speaking frankly through an interpreter last week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Aonuma said the production for the Wii U “Zelda” is still in its experimental phase. Yet everything, including game mechanics and how players relate to Link, is up for reconsideration.
Maybe, perhaps, the largely silent protagonist will even have a voice? Probably unlikely, Aonuma said.
“If I’m getting tired of it, then I’m sure other people are getting tired of it,” Aonuma said of “Zelda’s” dungeon-exploration formula. “There is an essential ‘Zelda’ I feel we need to stay true to. We are still testing things, exploring our options. We haven’t landed anywhere at this point. We’re still seeing what we can do.”
“Zelda” fans will get glimpses of what Aonuma and his team have been up to when Nintendo releases “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD,” the Wii U remake of the GameCube title due in October. Of course, a remake of a 2002 game is not the “Zelda” revelation longtime fans have been clamoring for, but Aonuma said bringing “Wind Waker” to the Wii U has been an exercise in what is possible on the relatively new system.
Aonuma stopped short of calling it a “training ground” (his words), but noted that after “Wind Waker” is completed the team will then be fully dedicated to reimagining “Zelda” for the Wii U. Some game mechanics originally created for the Wii U, such as utilizing the GamePad’s gyroscope ability to allow Link to better look around and aim via the controller’s motion abilities, were brought to the “Wind Waker” remake.
“In thinking of working on the new ‘Zelda’ for Wii U, there’s a lot that can be learned in the process of making ‘Wind Waker’ for the Wii U,” he said. “There are certainly people working on ‘Wind Waker HD’ who will then be working on the Wii U version of ‘Zelda.’ We want them to acquire all the skills and technical know-how that they can in this process and then apply those to the Wii U version.”
Just don’t start asking him about tentative release dates.
The launch of the Wii U already has been hampered by the somewhat slow pipeline of games, and titles originally planned for the system’s launch window, such as “The Wonderful 101″ and “Pikmin 3,” encountered numerous delays. While Nintendo has outlined a relatively robust release schedule for the remainder of 2013, players shouldn’t expect to see the Wii U “Zelda” anytime soon.
“I’m the one clamoring for dates and deadlines,” he said, “but all that stuff can get thrown out the window at any given time. The company is always telling us, ‘When are you going to be done with your games?’ Because they need a release date. But I can’t tell you where in the development we are because things are still up in the air.”
So how does Aonuma know he has hit on an idea he wants to move forward with?
“Regardless of what hardware we’re developing for, the element of surprise is key to the experience,” he said. “Honestly, I want the feeling of, ‘Yeah, you didn’t think you could do that!’ Or, ‘You didn’t think of doing that, did you?’ Those are the proud moments as a developer. With ‘Phantom Hourglass’ [for the Nintendo DS], no one thought you could control Link so well using a stylus and a touchscreen, but we were able to accomplish it.”
Another moment that gave Aonuma that sensation occurs in the upcoming 3DS title “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds,” set in the same universe as 1991′s “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” The game allows Link to essentially become a drawing to slip into landscapes and scale walls. It was a way to toy with the 2-D and 3-D abilities of the handheld 3DS, as well as create puzzles not traditionally found in a “Zelda” game.
“A Link Between Worlds” was given to Aonuma as an assignment from Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, who is responsible for some of the most recognizable games of all time, including “Donkey Kong,” the “Zelda” series and the “Super Mario Bros.” franchise.
As Aonuma tells it, Miyamoto wanted to reexplore “A Link to the Past” because in the original “we actually kind of faked the sense of height with shading and other tricks. Mr. Miyamoto really wanted to find out what that world looks like. What does it look like when you see it in 3-D and experience it in 3-D? How does that change gameplay?”
It wasn’t until Aonuma’s team hit on the idea of turning Link into a drawing that he became excited about the possibilities of the project. The concept of shifting Link into a work of art was inspired by the ghostly Phantom Ganon from “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” a 1998 title that counted Aonuma as part of the team.
“If Link enters a wall, visually it’s not very interesting,” he said. “It’s going to be a limited space. But if you combine that with a top-down view and have two shifts in perspectives, you open up the opportunities for discovery.”
It isn’t always clear when and where Link needs to jump into 2D-mode and at what moment Link should use it to slither in and out of dungeon walls. That’s by design, as Aonuma is against the hand-holding of many modern adventure games, where directional cues and highlighted objects make the path before the player an obvious one.
“You create this world, you create this character and the world should tell the character what he or she is supposed to do as opposed to it being spoon-fed,” he said. “At the same time, you want the character to be interesting enough so the player is invested. You don’t want a character that’s boring and doesn’t really do much…. You need to give some information, but not too much. If it’s too much it starts feeling forced or separated from what [the player] feels and the connection is lost. As a creator, that’s something we struggle with.”
And struggle Aonuma does. When he said he doesn’t have much to share on the Wii U’s original “Zelda” adventure, he said he isn’t being cagey, mostly; he’s still waiting for inspiration to strike.
“What I want to do, not specifically with Link but with the ‘Zelda’ franchise, I’m always striving to make something no one else can, something that is so distinctly ‘Zelda’ that it can only be done in a ‘Zelda’ game,” he said. “There are times when I hit walls and I can’t come up with new ideas and I think maybe I should just give up and quit, but eventually a new idea comes along and I’m proud of myself. It breeds new life into the creative process.
“I go through these phases, over and over again,” he continued. “I hope those high points keep on coming.”
– Todd Martens
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