1UP October 17th 2007
1UP asks Aonuma some personal questions and about the Zelda series.
It used to be that when one spoke of the creative force behind Zelda only one name would come up: Shigeru Miyamoto. Which made sense -- Miyamoto was, after all, the series creator and the man who oversaw every installment since its inception. But in recent years, as Miyamoto's position within Nintendo rose and his responsibilities increased, a new face of Zelda was introduced: Eiji Aonuma. Having been at Nintendo since 1998, Aonuma worked under Miyamoto for quite some time, and with Zelda: Ocarina of Time he was given his first job helping direct a Zelda game. Since Ocarina, Aonuma has been the director of the entire Zelda franchise, including Majora's Mask, The Wind Waker, and The Twilight Princess. With his latest Zelda, The Phantom Hourglass, now in stores and getting rave reviews, we took some time to sit down with Aonuma to talk about his life and the series he so loves.
1UP: Shigeru Miyamoto has said that his game designs for Zelda were very much inspired by his childhood. What about you? What was your childhood like?
Aonuma: Miyamoto said that he liked to explore when he was younger, and that's where Zelda came from. I was actually the same exact way, and I think most kids are like that. That's why I love Zelda so much -- it brings back those memories and experiences.
1UP: When you were studying at an art university, what were your dreams back then?
Aonuma: Ever since I was a small child I've loved art -- I didn't excel at much of anything except art. I was always creating things and that's why I went to an art school. I also really enjoyed woodworking -- creating wooden puppets and things of that sort -- just really working with my hands. I didn't really know what my contribution to society would be, but back then that's what I really liked.
1UP: So how did you get involved with Nintendo?
Aonuma: When I graduated from college it was during the initial stages of the Famicom (the Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System). When I started working at Nintendo I actually didn't think I would be making games at all -- I thought I was going to go into product design. So when I first started at Nintendo and Miyamoto asked me to do some character designs for games, it was a huge shock. I'll be honest, I wasn't all that into videogames before I started working at Nintendo.
1UP: You mentioned how you joined Nintendo for product design and spoke about your prior passion for designing things out of wood -- did you ever want to design some hardware for Nintendo?
Aonuma: Yeah, I do like to create things with my hands, so I was hoping that I could create something like hardware eventually. It wasn't necessarily that I didn't want to create games -- because once I actually started working on them I really started to enjoy my job -- but I think that maybe Miyamoto didn't understand that I could take another route at the company. I am very happy where I am now, though.
1UP: It's often been said that Wind Waker wasn't as well received because of its graphical style. Was it frustrating for you as a creator that people just couldn't overlook the visual style and appreciate the game for what it was?
Aonuma: You're right, a lot of people paid attention to the graphic style. And that was really frustrating for me because the graphics and gameplay worked so very closely together in that game. Wind Waker looked the way it did because it played the way it did, and it played the way it did because it looked the way it did. The visuals are always the easiest thing to point out in a game, but I honestly hope more people will look at how tied the visuals and the gameplay are in the future.
1UP: With the Twilight Princess, the tone was very dark though. Was that because the market dictated that Nintendo should explore darker themed games?
It's not as though I made it intentionally dark. My goal was simply to make a realistic looking Zelda, and because the story of twilight -- the whole idea of twilight
-- was featured so prominently, the overall look of the game became much darker. But it wasn't because of market trends or whatever.
1UP: How do you balance the issue of meeting the steady expectations of the fans while still driving the Zelda series forward creatively? For example, how do you balance what the fans want (more of the same) yet simultaneously come up with some new and fresh ideas (such as the gameplay of Phantom Hourglass). Do you follow what the fans want or what you feel they should have?
Aonuma: I always want to know what the players want and what they're looking forward to. And I always try to use whatever feedback I have when making a game (which is one of the reasons we've had Zelda games playable at events like E3 well before they're released). But I will say this, though: I do base a lot of my decisions on what I've personally learned will make a good game. I have to.
1UP: Some designers play lots of games for inspiration while others like to pretty much do their own thing. You seem to fall into the latter camp. Does that lead to more originality in your games, do you think?
Aonuma: It's more of an individual thing, to be honest. I don't think one way is necessarily better or worse -- both deliver good results. It's just that for me at least, it's not that I don't want to play other peoples' games, I simply don't have the time!
1UP: When you go to work on a new Zelda game, how do you start the process? For a lot of companies the approach for sequels seems very systematic -- this worked well last time, this didn't -- but how do you approach things at Nintendo?
Aonuma: With Zelda games it all starts with me and Miyamoto. We have some brainstorming sessions and Miyamoto will say, "Why don't we try something like this?" From there, I'll go to the team and we'll talk about things and really go back and fourth on the ideas. Then I go back to Miyamoto and we discuss what we can and can't do.
1UP: The character Link, he obviously doesn't talk much, and whenever he does it's only through text and without voice. It seems very much that Link is a simple vessel for the player to identify with instead of a real personality; it's more that the player creates the character in his mind. Can you give us some insight into this? Why is Link such an interesting character to you?
Aonuma: When a player is playing a Zelda game, my desire is for the player to truly become Link -- that's why we named him Link, so the player is linked to the game and to the experience. Of course, the player can always change Link's name to their own name to further that notion should they want. But if we did give him a voice, that would go against the whole notion of Link being you, because Link's voice should really be your voice.
1UP: How do you recharge your creative energy?
Aonuma: My first priority is to spend time with my son. But I also like watching movies and reading books just like anyone else. I use my time off to recharge, sure, but I don't use it to necessarily get inspiration -- I don't watch movies to get material for my projects. I tend to find inspiration in everyday things.
1UP: Like in cooking?
Aonuma: Yeah, exactly. I'm a chef and a percussionist, so I find inspiration in those things as well.
1UP: What's your specialty?
Aonuma: There's a Japanese soup like dish with a fish cake in it -- that's my specialty.
1UP: You play percussion in a band, right? Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, in a Nintendo brass band called The Wind Wakers
. It started out as me and five friends at Nintendo, but then it expanded to over 40 people. The band's actually been around for about 12 years. I'm the leader and I play Latin percussion.
1UP: Miyamoto once said that Nintendo makes very special games because you're based in Kyoto -- that it gives the games a special sense or atmosphere. Do you agree with that?
Aonuma: Well, I don't think Kyoto is necessarily better than anywhere else -- as you might know, Super Mario Galaxy is being developed in Tokyo -- but since the two studios are located in two very different areas, you can see the differences in the games they produce. It's not that Kyoto's necessarily better, but the environment definitely influences the products we create there.
1UP: Speaking of Mario, you once said that you're not that interested in Mario games because all you do is jump.
Aonuma: I'm just not good at them, that's why! I always fall!
1UP: You've seen how games have changed and how hardware has changed over the years. Where do you think we'll be 15 years from now?
I just spoke about this with Miyamoto actually. Miyamoto said that if I knew that, I wouldn't have to work anymore. That being said, there are so many possibilities, and so many things that I want to work on with Miyamoto and Nintendo President Satoru Iwata
in the next years. I'm really excited about the future.