After development on 1998's acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time wrapped, then-dungeon designer Eiji Aonuma was less than thrilled about moving on to the derivative spinoff of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master Quest, which used the original Ocarina's plot and structure but revised its dungeons.
In response to Aonuma's reluctance -- driven in large part by Aonuma's realization that, as the developer primarily responsible for the game's dungeons, he would bear the lion's share of work -- Ocarina director and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto offered an ultimatum: If Aonuma could lead a team to create a new Zelda game in a single year, they wouldn't have to deal with developing a new so-called "flip-side" spinoff game.
"So you're saying The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask was the result of your team picking up the gauntlet he'd thrown down?" Nintendo president Satoru Iwata asked Aonuma in the latest edition of the internal "Iwata Asks" interview series.
"Yes. That was the deal," Aonuma replied. "We were supposed to make its sequel in a year."
"At first, we had absolutely no idea what sort of thing we were supposed to make, and we just kept expanding our plans," he admitted.
During the concept phase, perhaps as an extension of the its own compressed development cycle, the team kept coming back to the idea of a short, replayable game system.
"The 'Three-Day System,' the idea of a compact world to be played over and over again, came down from Miyamoto-san and one other director, [Yoshiaki] Koizumi-san," Aonuma recalled. "We added that to the mix, and then, finally, we saw the full substance of a The Legend of Zelda game we could make in one year."
Majora's Mask ended up fully developed and shipped to store shelves a mere 18 months after its predecessor was released. Its gameplay centered around a Groundhog Day-like mechanic by which the player could continuously replay the same period of time again and again, making progress while the NPCs' memories were repeatedly reset.
In retrospect, Iwata noted, that development attitude of developing a smaller, denser game world rather than a massive, sprawling environment in the vein of Ocarina of Time, inadvertently pointed the way to an emerging development style.
"I feel as though, back then, we were given a glimpse of the concept that 'Deep, compact play is one form of the games of the future.' In that sense, as a product, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask was a big turning point for Nintendo," the executive mused.
"That said, I had no idea it was the result of an argument," he added.