Though an extremely clever designer in his own right, Eiji Aonuma has long been lost under the shadow of Shigeru Miyamoto. Rather than send Aonuma off to produce his own games, putting him in a position to learn his own lessons and gain confidence in his own sensibilities, Nintendo quickly propped him up to be the successor to its commercial champion, Shigeru Miyamoto.
Aonuma, for his part, took the assignment as an honor. For some while he was zealous in his adherence to “The Miyamoto way” of design – at GDC 2004 he gave a speech on it – deferring to Miyamoto’s past work whenever there was a conflict with his own ideas and instincts.
A Post-Wind Waker Rebirth?
On Thursday Aonuma candidly, and with self-effacing humor, spoke of his period of aimlessness and mistakes that began with the release of The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker, the way in which they reflected the Japanese industry as a whole, and how they led to Nintendo's shift of focus over the last few years.
After Wind Waker, Aonuma concedes, Zelda was a franchise in distress. Although he immediately set to work on a sequel, word soon arrived that sales were far below expectations – particularly in Japan. After studying the market, someone at Nintendo came to the conclusion that the Japanese industry was undergoing what Aonuma termed "gamer drift" – a slow disenfranchising of the core audience, matched with a failure to attract a new audience. Wind Waker, Aonuma realized, fed directly into that trend.
Although stylish, the game design was barely changed over previous Zelda games. In fact, Aonuma realized, the Zelda series as a whole had not seen any "really new ideas" since at least Ocarina of Time. Instead, he and other designers had simply stacked content on top of the familiar template, making the games all the more vertical and convoluted. The result was that gamers familiar with the series were growing bored, while the barrier to entry was getting no shallower.
The revelations brought on by Wind Waker were a smack in the face at Nintendo, forcing a change of perspective. Beginning in late 2002, Nintendo's new mission was to reverse the sinking ship that was the Japanese industry by actively combating "gamer drift". The eventual result of this philosophy was the DS, and then the Wii. Their release was still a couple of years off, however. In the meantime, Aonuma and others became distracted by this "connectivity" buzzword.
More as a test than anything, Aonuma threw together Four Swords Adventures to show at E3. He knew a new system was needed for Zelda to go anywhere, and the mix of conflicting perspectives in Four Swords was certainly different. It was a hit at E3, so Aonuma ran with the idea. When it again bombed at retail, Aonuma immediately realized why: it required too much junk.
Between all of the Game Boy Advance systems and cables needed, not only was the game prohibitively expensive; it was also convoluted. Although it was a new experience, there was practically no way to communicate why it was fun to play.
Change Is Needed
While Aonuma was working on Four Swords, word hit that – although the sales were nowhere near as abysmal as in Japan – Wind Waker was also selling far below expectations in North America. Aonuma was perplexed, as "gamer drift" did not seem as obvious a problem outside of Japan. When asked for a reason, executives at Nintendo of America told him that people were put off by the game's "toon shaded" style, feeling it meant the game was aimed at a younger audience. By this point Aonuma was at a loss, as he had been solidly working on Wind Waker 2 for some months.
In the end, Aonuma threw up his hands. No one in Japan was buying Zelda, so he might as well aim his next game at the US market. No in in America like the style of Wind Waker (or so he had been told), so he would scrap his game in favor of a gritty Zelda – one closer to Ocarina of Time. At this point Miyamoto stepped in to criticize Aonuma's reasoning.
If Aonuma was now intent on making a realistic game, Miyamoto warned, he would have to do it right – to justify the realism by allowing the player to do things impossible in the past. As a starting point, Miyamoto suggested that Aonuma should allow Link to swing his sword on horseback. Aonuma nodded and did as he was told. If this game also tanked, he knew, it could well have been the end of the franchise.
Shades of Perspective
At E3 2004, Aonuma was still puttering aimlessly with the game, unsure what he wanted – and then the DS hit. Although initially Aonuma was as perplexed with the system as any Internet troll, he was impressed with its horsepower. Here, he realized, was the possible salvation of his "toon shaded" Zelda. He set someone to work studying whether cel shading was possible on the DS; when it proved a success, Aonuma knew he had found another excuse to procrastinate.
The only problem with the DS game was its wonky control scheme. Since it was there and he was bored, Aonuma tried implementing a new scheme using the touch screen – and had a revelation. It turned out, Aonuma said, that touching the environment fit perfectly with the themes behind Zelda – exploring, manipulating, directly interacting with the gameworld.
This was, he realized, the first major innovation in the series since the N64. Even so, Aonuma was unsure how the change would go over with the hardcore set, so he threw in a wi-fi battle mode (based, it would seem, on Pac-Man Vs. for the GameCube) to placate them.
All the while he was fiddling with his DS game, however, the clock continued to tick on Twilight Princess – as the realistic Zelda had now been titled. At that time, there was still little to set the game apart from Ocarina of Time. Aonuma sank into frustration, looking for an idea to change the way the game played.
Since he had no way to replicate the interface changes in his DS game, Aonuma focused on altering the game environment. This had been a common theme in Zelda: Ocarina of Time is set in two time periods; Link to the Past has a parallel dark world; even the original game has a second quest, that greatly alters the landscape and the rules that guide it.
In Link to the Past, the player becomes a rabbit in the dark world. What if, Aonuma pondered, the rabbit had a unique way of interacting with the world? Thus, Aonuma added the ability for Link to turn into a wolf. Hearing what Aonuma was up to, Miyamoto grew even more concerned about the project. A realistic Zelda was hard enough to get right, he said, without trying to animate for four legs. Nevertheless, Aonuma pressed forward. No sooner had he set his team in motion, however, than he was again distracted.
Merry Go Round
As Twilight Princess was still a ways off, Aonuma saw a need to maintain the profile of the Zelda series. In early 2005 the Game Boy Advance was still selling well, so Aonuma set to work planning a 2D Zelda, incorporating some of the vague concepts he had in mind for his GameCube game. In design terms, the titular Minish Cap was a similar mechanism to his wolf idea. Perhaps this smaller game would serve as a decent test bed?
In the meantime, Aonuma had left his Twilight Princess staff to fend for themselves. "I thought they'd figure it out," he said. At E3 2005, however, he realized the game still lacked a coherent design concept – and worse, there was still nothing special about the way Link moved around the gameworld. Miyamoto had seen enough. The game, he said, "had to be 120% Zelda", or there was no point in pursuing it. He demoted Aonuma from producer to director, and set about weeding the garden.
Although the game looked nice, they both observed, there was nothing particularly innovative about it – not like the DS game. Miyamoto asked Aonuma why he had not yet moved the game to the Revolution (as the Wii was still code-named). "We still don't even know what we're doing," Aonuma protested. Miyamoto observed that the pointer capability of the system's remote was exactly what the series needed to combat "gamer drift".
Aonuma complained that the hardcore would be up in arms if Nintendo failed to deliver the game they had promised. Satoru Iwata then suggested they develop the game for both systems in parallel. "If Zelda can be played on both Wii and the GameCube, won’t users be happy even if they have to wait until 2006?"
Gamecube _and_ Wii?
Though daunted, Aonuma saw the logic. Amongst other butterflies, he had never worked on a system launch title – and therefore had no idea what kind of stress to expect. His inexperience worried him. Since the GameCube and Wii are basically the same, however, he ran into few problems. Aonuma made the decision to develop the GameCube version to the halfway point before thinking about the Wii adaptation.
One side effect of waiting so long is that, although both Aonuma and Miyamoto wanted to implement motion controls for Link's sword, they saw Link's being left-handed – and the entire game having been designed with this property in mind – as an irreconcilable issue. Thus, for the Wii version, the entirety of Aonuma's focus went into the pointing system. Miyamoto suggested making the controls as simple as possible by assigning all camera movement to the pointer.
For months Aonuma struggled with this mandate, as he saw it – yet when the Wii version debuted at E3 2006, the most common responses were complaints about the controls. On the one hand, the pointing seemed difficult and twitchy. On the other, it seemed bizarre that there was no motion control in the game.
With only four months left until release, Aonuma brushed off the criticism, saying control schemes are things people just need to get used to – and there was no time to allow that on a show floor. "Gamers are going to be bewildered," Aonuma said. "It’s practically a given." After wandering the show floor and playing the other Wii games, however, he realized his team really was forcing players to adapt to the controls. "It wasn’t a Zelda that wouldn't have been received well."
"When people try something new." Aonuma observed, "they look for reassurance. People feel things that require getting used to are difficult." To make the player feel comfortable, he decided he had to change the pointer camera. As a last effort to implement motion control for Link's sword swings, Miyamoto suggested mirroring the gameworld, thereby allowing Link to be right-handed (himself then mirroring 90% of the playing audience). Doing this immediately made Aonuma's life easier, and the control scheme less convoluted, by freeing the B trigger for other functions.
The End Of The Tunnel
In the end, Aonuma observed, although the game was received well in the US, it still failed to sell to expectactions in Japan. Clearly, he said, that meant there was far more work to do. There is a phrase that Miyamoto often uses: “In many ways, creating something is suffering.”
After the last five years, Aonuma says he better understands what this means. Having seen the mistakes he can make, and where they lead, Aonuma feels far more prepared to take on future challenges, and has a better idea what problems to take head-on rather than to avoid.
As a side note, Aonuma mentioned his glee at hearing his five-year-old son – long sheltered from videogames by the boy's mother – ask for a "Wii remote". The boy had little concept of what it did, or that there was a system to go along with it. He just thought the remote was neat in its own right.
When Aonuma brought home a system, his son took to Wii Sports right away, without any coaching. Although Twilight Princess was a little harder to get used to, his son soon adapted. At the end of his short play session – as Aonuma's wife was convinced that playing videogames would hurt the boy's eyes – the boy was rapt in wonder, and asked if he could play more tomorrow.
Fast forward to the next day, as Aonuma comes home from work. He hears the sounds of Twilight Princess in the other room and wanders in to find his wife slashing through a dungeon, her son cheering her on. "What are you doing?" Aonuma asked. "Oh," she said, "He got scared, and asked if I would help him past an area. Then I... kept playing."
Since then, the two of them have been playing through the game together. She was impressed with the game's function as a bonding experience, and has since expressed interest in other games. Hearing this, Aonuma felt relieved that he seems to be on the right track, at last.