SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine a job that involves making “Zelda” video games again and again. For at least a decade, that’s been Eiji Aonuma’s gig.
As one of the top designers working under original “Zelda” creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Aonuma has gradually taken top responsibility for the series since he was named director of “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” which was released two Nintendo consoles ago in 2000.
He just finished a “Zelda” game last year, “Twilight Princess,” which launched with the Nintendo Wii and brought Miyamoto back into the “Zelda”-making fold. Now Aonuma is already deep into “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass,” which is expected late this year for the DS. It’s enough to make a man pick up his sword and run away. That’s not so for Aonuma, though, who attended last week’s Game Developers Conference to talk about “Phantom Hourglass” and discuss how making “Twilight Princess” wore him out.
In a meeting room on the GDC exhibition floor, a few yards from where attendees could play a demo of “Phantom Hourglass,” Aonuma talked to MTV News about some of the little things that become big things in the mind of someone who is paid to think about “Zelda” day and night.
What Aonuma wants matters. He’s the man who made “Zelda” hero Link a wolf in the last game. “One day I kind of had a vision of myself as a wolf thrown into a variety of environments because I changed form,” he said. “I brought that to my staff, and they caught on.”
Aonuma thinks about blocks. Anyone who has played a “Zelda” game has heaved their share of giant blocks across tile floors. Arrange this one here and slide that one there, and a locked door swings open. It’s become not just a “Zelda” cliché, but a gaming one. Then “Twilight Princess” almost left blocks out altogether. Was Aonuma revolting? He chuckled. “Puzzles involved in pushing blocks is kind of a classic style,” he said through a translator. “It’s not that I want to get rid of those, but just in that game they didn’t seem to work as well. In contrast, in ‘Phantom Hourglass’ there are quite a few block-pushing puzzles because it works really well with that game’s interface.”
In Sony’s “God of War” series on PlayStation 2, the hero Kratos doesn’t push blocks, he kicks them. Aonuma was familiar. “In ‘Twilight Princess,’ just to give Link that adolescent, rough feel, we had him kick treasure chests open, so maybe I could have added kicking blocks as well.”
Blocks are a big deal. So are bows and arrows and boomerangs. When making a “Zelda” game, the designer has to figure out how to arm Link — and, by extension, the player — with each of the basic tools and weapons. Even though Link gets a lot of the same gear every game, he always starts with nothing. The player has to spend the first few hours gathering the familiar tools up.
“With a game, it’s all about developing — developing the character, developing the player’s skills, developing the story,” he said. “In that sense it is necessary … but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m always thinking of new ways to approach it.” Does that mean he sees a day when players won’t have to go through the same early motions game after game? “I guess there’s a part of me that would like everyone to have a variety of items and a variety of abilities available to them in the very beginning, but because there is such a wide variety of users’ skill sets out there, I want as many people as possible to be able to play. And in order to give that kind of accessibility, it’s better to start small.”
Aonuma thinks of saving the world, and what the fun way is to do that. “When I think about exploration and saving the world, if you do it alone it’s so lonely. So if it’s a game I’m involved in, there probably will be some allies in there.” He wants Link to always have some friends to fight at his side.
He thinks about making his team’s games easier to grasp. He thinks gesture control made “Twilight Princess” on the Wii a more approachable “Zelda” game for novices. And the idea to make “Phantom Hourglass” more intuitive? “Everything is controlled by the touch pad. There are no buttons used at all. That’s how we’re leveling the playing field.”
With all this hard thought on “Zelda,” Aonuma does not suggest his team has gotten it quite right yet. When asked to pick his favorite game, he says it’s one people haven’t played yet. “I find myself saying this all the time, but the game that I am working on now is my favorite. Only because every time we work on a ‘Zelda’ game we always try to improve on the last one.”
Someday, he hopes, he’s going to get those blocks, those bows and that saving-the-world stuff just right.