Interview:Nintendo Power November 2008

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While countless games have been released over the past 10 years, previous few are considered turning points in gaming history. Fewer still can be credit with introducing features that have helped shape nearly every game to come after them. And only one game-a decade after its release-still holds the all-time highest average review scores. There are classic video games, and there there is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. On November 23, 1998, gaming changed forever. While Nintendo 64 players were still in awe of the groundbreaking 3-D gameplay introduced in Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time exploded onto the scene with an epic, immersive adventure unlike any we'd ever experienced. It redefined the adventure genre with vast 3-D environments, a revolutionary lock-on camera, cinematic storytelling, new types of puzzles, and much more. Shigeru Miyamoto, famed creator of the Zelda series, provided the vision for a team of supertalented game creators that included Eiji Aonuma, who now oversees all Zelda titles. Ocarina was the first Zelda project for Aonuma, but he dove right in and designed six of the game's dungeons, crafted puzzles, worked on the battle system, and more. Aonuma took a break from crafting his next Zelda adventure (still top secret) to look back at the game that shaped his career. It's clear that the fans aren't the only ones still smitten with this timeless classic.

Nintendo Power: Ten years after its release, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still revered by many as the best and most influential game ever made. Why do you think it has made such a large and lasting impact?

Eiji Aonuma: Unlike Shigeru Miyamoto, who had a firm idea of what he wanted to make based on his experiences developing 3-D games in the past, I was working on a 3-D game for the first time. Since there weren't any similar games to emulate, I groped around in the dark for quite some time. In the end, when I read the testers' response, I heaved a sigh of relief.

Since there was nothing to copy, we were force to be original. I believe that's why we were able to create a game that inspired a fresh sense of wonder in its players. Working on later games in the series, I was skeptical we could ever make anything to surpass it. I think Ocarina, as a 3-D action-adventure game presenting a miniature world within which players could move around freely, set a new standard.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of the Zelda series, and how is that reflected in Ocarina of Time?

Eiji Aonuma: It's the feeling that you have completely entered into the world of the game and had the same experiences as Link, the main character.

Virtual reality is an overused term these days, but I think the miniature world that Miyamoto created with Ocarina was exactly that. If you cut a tree with a sword, it sounds like you're cutting a tree; if you slash at stone, it sounds like you're hitting stone. In a game like that, a lot of simple elements that are easy to overlook build up so that rather than feeling like you've played a game, you feel like you've experienced something.

Miyamoto always says the parts of a game that are the most skillfully done show a great deal of consideration. To put it more clearly, the developer guesses what the player will feel or want to do and prepares a response to that. If that response is completely natural and unobtrusive, it shows the developer's consideration of the player. When making a new game in a series, you do, of course, have to instill it with new ideas and surprises, but the attention paid to the more subtle aspects… is what gives the Zelda games their distinct flavor.

Nintendo Power: What were the earliest design goals for Ocarina?

Eiji Aonuma: We wanted to create a game so original that it couldn't be compared to any other game. We didn't post it on the wall as an official group goal, but the team naturally tackled the project in that spirit.

At the beginning of development, everyone wrote down on slips of paper what they wanted to achieve in a 3-D game. We put those on the wall and chose the ones we would actually reflect in the game. As we sorted through the ideas, some of them stood out, and we'd think, "Nobody has ever done this, right? Or "It would be awesome if we could do this, but can we?" We looked for what we wanted to see in a game and for what only we could do-what other companies wouldn't.

When I think about it now, I realize no amount of time would have been enough to chase down such grandiose dreams. We extended development time after time, and in the end spent three years working on it. I'm extremely grateful that the company believed in us (especially because Miyamoto was with us) and gave us the time we needed.

Nintendo Power: When creating Ocarina, you didn't have the luxury of playing similar games for inspiration. What, if anything, could the development team look to for guidance?

Eiji Aonuma: As you say, there were no similar 3-D games to use as examples at the time. However, since many on the team had worked on development of Super Mario 64 and Star Fox 64, we had a certain degree of know-how when it came to making a 3-D game. Moreover, Miyamoto had been involved in game design for all of those games, so from the very beginning he was able to point us in the right direction based on what had been effective in previous games, what needed to be improved, and what we needed to try when it came to Zelda. Considering that, you could say that we looked to our own company's 3-D games for quite a lot of guidance.

Nintendo Power: The lock-on targeting was one of Ocarina's most profound innovations. What led to its creation?

Eiji Aonuma: Everyone has probably experienced how hard it can be to go where you want to go when moving your character around in 3-D space. When an opponent is approaching, in order to attack with your sword, you've got to position yourself in such a way as to hit it, and that can be quite difficult. Another problem in games with a third-person perspective is that the camera must follow around the player character. Opponents with a large range of movement soon fall outside the frame. Losing track of your opponent's location happens much too often.

That was one obvious problem with Mario 64, so when it came to Zelda, which features a lot of swordfights, we introduced "Z-targeting," by which the player could lock on to an opponent. The opponent would stay in front of the player, all the player's attacks would converge on the opponent, and the camera would always capture both the opponent and the player onscreen.

This lock-on system was developed by Miyamoto and Yoshiaki Koizumi, our 3-D system director. Together with the programmers, they worked directly on adjusting game operability, camera-rotation speed, and even sound effects.

Nintendo Power: At the very start of the game's development, what were the primary goals (and possible concerns) with take the series into 3-D?

Eiji Aonuma:In making a 3-D Zelda game, our primary goal was to have swordfights go smoothly using lock-on targeting. If we hadn't been able to do that, I don't think we would have ever successfully achieved a Zelda game in 3-D.

In other areas, we needed a cut-and-try tool by which we could easily carry out a process of repeated trial and error resulting in solutions to the problems we encountered. With Ocarina of Time, we began serious development of a tool for freely arranging objects in 3-D space.

Before I joined the development of Zelda, I spent two years supervising 3-D games being developed by overseas developers, where use of such tools was common. It was easy to cut and dry, but one time where I suggested they try something, I was told they couldn't because the tool didn't have the necessary function. I was surprised. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't do it, even thought it would make the game better, just because there tool didn't have the capability.

So when it came to introducing a tool for Zelda, I made sure we would be able to enhance its functions easily. Then we continued to improve the tool even as we used it. In fact, we added so much to it that in the end it became slow, but if we hadn't had that tool, there's no way just two level designers could have made that game.

Nintendo Power: Ocarina added a strong cinematic feel to the Zelda series, which has continued with every subsequent console Zelda title. In creating Ocarina, how did you define the appropriate style of storytelling for a Zelda game?

Eiji Aonuma: The scenario directors decided upon the scenario for Ocarina in consultation with Shigeru Miyamoto. I don't know exactly how they came up with it, but I know that Miyamoto was especially interested in having Link grow up, meet a girl… there is this protecting entity, and he put a lot of effort into direction of the movies.

Miyamoto's direction focused more on how players who continued playing the game would feel than on constructing a plot per se. For example, he took great care in the execution of emotionally moving scenes, such as when the child Link first leaves the forest and is impressed by how large the lang of Hyrule is.

Nintendo Power: What were the toughest design challenges in taking Zelda from 2-D to 3-D?

Eiji Aonuma: In a 2-D game, in which you look down on the game field from above, where everything is and how far away it is are both very clear. A lot of puzzlelike games were based on that characteristic. However, in 3-D games everything lines up in perspective and it becomes difficult to attain a sense of location and distance, so the player has to keep track of where everything is. If we had kept the same approach as for 2-D games, Ocarina would have been significantly more difficult and no fun at all.

Also, one concept that doesn't exist in 2-D is height. There's a limit to how much height a camera can capture, so if you're not careful how you develop gameplay utilizing height, some players won't notice the added dimension and will have trouble. We really racked our brains for a way to give users appropriate hints without simply giving away the answer.

Nintendo Power: Except for perhaps the original NES Zelda, no other game in the series has introduced as many new ideas as Ocarina. Was this simply a byproduct of making the game 3-D, or were there any other development goals that drove such a high degree of innovation?

For the most part, the technical innovations in Ocarina were the result of Shigeru Miyamoto taking what he had learned from working on 3-D games in the past and adapting it to the Zelda series. Without that know-how, we would not have been able to turn Zelda into a 3-D experience.

After making Ocarina, Miyamoto expressed to a reporter that he was worried that such a unique game like this wouldn't feel like Zelda. Over and above simply making the game 3-D, he paid attention to how unique he could make the game. This resulted in a whole new unique experience, even in terms of technical innovations.

Nintendo Power: Every Zelda title seems to have its own distinct gameplay hook, and the time travel in Ocarina remains one of the best. Why do you think it worked so well?

Eiji Aonuma: We brought in the time-travel element to allow players to enjoy playing both a younger and an older Link. Making it so that events during Link's childhood would have an effect on the world when he was older was similar to the dual-reality concept portrayed with the Light and the Dark Worlds in A Link to the Past. We decided to have gameplay inherit this structure from the earlier game.

Then we created the character of Sheik, made the ocarina to serve as a critical item, and developed the surprise twist by which the peaceful world of Link's childhood is revealed to have changed dramatically by the time he wakes up years later. Overall, I think you could say we created a game with an effective structure.

Nintendo Power: How did the idea of playing the ocarina come about?

Eiji Aonuma: Wouldn't you say the controller for the Nintendo 64 looks a bit like an ocarina?

An ocarina had existed in A Link to the Past as well, but it was Miyamoto who suggested making it something that could actually be played.

While brainstorming for Ocarina of Time, we knew we wanted to include magic. Eventually we decided that instead of using a magic item such as the ocarina via a single punch of a button, it would be more fun for the player to memorize a melody and actually play it.

Altogether there were 12 melodies for the ocarina, each composed of five notes. It was difficult for the composer to select five notes that seem like you're creating major and minor sounds.

Ever since then the idea of playing a musical instrument has appeared in different forms in the series, and Wii Music places that idea front and center. I think Miyamoto has been carrying around that idea ever since we made Ocarina of Time.

Nintendo Power: Ocarina gave players their first look at Ganondorf's human form, and did a lot to flesh out the character. What was the development goal with him?

Eiji Aonuma: Miyamoto wanted to make characters with appeal, to make interaction with them enjoyable, and that had an influence on our portrayal of Ganondrof, the villain, as well. By having him first appear in human form and then transform into a monster dominated by evil during the climax, I think we did a good job of showing him also as a tragic figure who was not purely an evil villain, but a real person ruled by greed.

Every since then, he's show up more and more often as a person. Recently, Ganon will often turn into a monster partway through a game and then return to being human again. That's how strong his human side is.

Nintendo Power: The sight of Link riding atop Epona might be the game's signature image. Was horseback riding included simply because it would be fun, to serve a game design need, or…?

Eiji Aonuma: If I said we included Epona because Miyamoto likes horses, that would be oversimplifying it, but that actually was the biggest factor. He wanted Ocarina to be unique, and realized that there weren't any games that involved riding a horse. He thought using Pegasus Shoes for transportation might be alright, but eventually decided that riding a horse, something you can interact with, would be more fun.

However, while Miyamoto was intent on the idea because he liked horses, he knew it would be hard to accomplish. But then he was reassured by an experimental version presented by Koizumi, and all of a sudden it became a reality.

Because the ability to call the horse and ride it were so close to Miyamoto, whose role was almost like that of a director, the development team felt a lot of pressure to get it right.

Nintendo Power: Ocarina featured some of the series' best and most influential music, and together with the somewhat melancholy world, the game created a very unique atmosphere. What types of emotions was the team hoping to cause within players?

Eiji Aonuma: I think the reason many people feel that the music for Ocarina of melancholic is largely because of the ocarina melodies. They sound pretty, but there's also something sad about them. Perhaps every time players hear them, they are left with a melancholic impression of the whole game.

Nintendo Power: Many new types of puzzles were added with Ocarina. Was this a focus during development, and were there any new goals with the dungeons, in particular?

Eiji Aonuma: The goal of the dungeons was to create a contrast to gameplay in the outdoor environment, so we did deliberately shift the focus on solving puzzles.

With the move from 2-D to 3-D, it becomes difficult to understand how the rooms connect and where everything is without a map. At first I made a test dungeon, and even I got lost. So in the final dungeons that I designed, after you defeat a miniboss, a shortcut appears between the entrance to the dungeon and that boss's room. That way once you defeat a miniboss you can go outside a little break before continuing on with the dungeon.

Also we included events for each dungeon involving the various characters important to the story so that the dungeons came across as more than just puzzle-solving exercises.

Nintendo Power: The Sheik character-and his secret identity-remains one of the biggest twists of any Zelda story. Can you give us any insight into how, and why, the character was created?

Eiji Aonuma: I don't remember exactly at what stage of development we got the idea for Sheik, but if you look at when Sheik uses a harp to teach Link the ocarina melody, you know that we must have included that scene after the ocarina had come to function as a key item, so I suppose it was during the latter half of development.

After the time warp, when Link wakes up seven years later, he's extremely concerned about what has become of Zelda. If he found out right away, that wouldn't be very interesting, but if he didn't know until the very end, and then he learned that she'd been captured by Ganon all that time, that would be even worse.

When she was a little girl, Princess Zelda had shown spirit by pegging Ganondrof for a villain, so we didn't want her to be the kind of princess who would just go into hiding. That gave birth to the idea of Sheik, a mysterious character whose loyalties are unclear.

Nintendo Power: What was the impetus for creating the game's multiple races-Gorons, Zoras, the Gerugo, Kokiri, etc.-and what was the process like for creating them?

Eiji Aonuma: In creating a unique cast of characters, we thought it would be effective to have nonhuman races, each of them invested with different lifestyles and mannerisms. Almost from the beginning we had decided on Kokiri to live in the forest, Gorons to live in the mountains, and Zoras to live in the water.

At first we imagined the Zoras as monsters sort of like mermen, who would be antagonists to humans. The original concept was strong. However, after we had decided Princess Ruto was going to be one of the sages, that image didn't seem to fit anymore, so we changed them to be a friendly race more like humans.

Each of the races has a character fated to become on the sages later on. We named them after towns in The Adventure of Link so it would appear that the towns had been named after them. (In the world of Zelda, the ventus of Ocarina of Time occur before the events of The Adventure of Link.)

Nintendo Power: Could you tell us about any gameplay elements that have been planned for Ocarina, but were cut or eventually used in later games?

Eiji Aonuma: At the time we were developing Ocarina of Time, not many games had both day and night. In order to heighten the sense of reality within the game, we thought changing from day to night would be important, so we set some events to happen during the day and others to happen at night.

In the game, we were only able to completely differentiate day and night, and there was no in-between. But in planning these events to occur at different times of the day, we learned how to control the characters' actions in real time as measure within the game. Afterward we wondered if other types of gameplay would be possible using that sytem, and the result was the three-day cycle in Majora's Mask.

Nintendo Power: Personally speaking, what is your favorite moment in the game?

Eiji Aonuma: One of my favorite scenes is one that Miyamoto really put a lot of work into, and I can remember it clearly to this day. It's when Link leaves his home, the forest, and sets out into the unknown world and sees the vast expanse of Hyrule spread out before him.

Along with the stirring background music, the feeling that the adventure begins now suddenly wells up within you. It's a truly impressive scene.

Nintendo Power: What does the game's success and longevity mean to you?

Eiji Aonuma: I'm happy that a title I worked on some time ago remains highly praised to this day, but that also shows how none of the subsequent games in the series have surpassed it. As someone who is still working on the series, I have mixed feelings about that.

Because I haven't yet surpassed it, I can't quit. Surprisingly, that simple motivation may be the reason I continue to work on the Zelda series.

Nintendo Power: If there's one thing you could go back and change about Ocarina, what would it be?

Eiji Aonuma: I would change the Iron Boots from the equipment to an item. If they could be turned on or off at the touch of a button, the Water Temple would be more fun. I wish I could travel back via a time warp and fix that.

Nintendo Power: What lessons did you learn during the creation of Ocarina that you will carry with you into future games in the series?

Eiji Aonuma: I learned that when something is fun to make and gamers have fun playing it, you've created something truly original.

Luckily when Ocarina came out, 3-D games hadn't taken over the market yet. To do something no one else had done was relatively easy. But now, finding something like that is extremely difficult. However, finding something new and giving it to players is a game designer's duty. In the future, I want to make something-not limited to Zelda- that takes players by surprise.

Just as it was with Ocarina, I believe that if we keep on believing we can do it, someday we'll find what we seek.