GDC 2004 - Eiji Aonuma Zelda Roundtable

by the NWR Staff - May 17, 2004, 1:44 pm PDT

PGC and other online Nintendo press interview Eiji Aonuma about himself, Four Swords Adventures, and the series as a whole. Hear the complete audio and read its transcription inside!

Discuss it in TalkBack

During Game Developers Conference in March 2004, Planet GameCube was fortunate enough to participate in a roundtable interview with Eiji Aonuma, previously the director of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and currently producer of all games in the Zelda franchise.

As this interview is almost two months old, some of the information is now known to be incomplete or hilariously inaccurate. However, Mr. Aonuma also shares some interesting and humorous stories about his past games, and information about the upcoming four-player Zelda game already released in Japan, Four Swords Adventures.

The Full Eiji Aonuma GDC Roundtable Audio

Participants

Michael Cole, PGC


Matt Leone, 1-up


Fran Mirabella III, IGN


Raymond Padilla, GameSpy


Ricardo Torres, GameSpot

Eiji Aonuma, Nintendo NCL


Yasuhiro Minagawa, Nintendo NCL (translating questions)


Bill Trinen, NOA (translating for Eiji Aonuma)


Chris Olmstead, NOA


Tom Harlin, NOA


Q: You mentioned in that [GDC] presentation—which was very good—that at E3 we might see the franchise being worked on the DS? Can you confirm whether or not Zelda is being worked on for the Nintendo DS?

Eiji Aonuma: Well, of course I kind of thought everybody would want to hear something about Zelda on the DS, so yesterday I said that I can’t anything about it now, but maybe you can look forward to developments with the Zelda franchise on the DS at E3. And, of course, while I can’t say we’re necessarily working on anything specific at this point in time, with new hardware we’re always looking at new ideas. So we’re trying to decide if we’ll be able to show anything or not.

So, but obviously at E3 our big focus is going to be on the Wind Waker 2, which is under development as we speak. And, so that’s going to be our big focus. We’ll have a big push for that, and anything related to Zelda developments in relation to the DS will probably come at some point after that.

Q: I have a question. During the presentation you mentioned that you had certain regrets about things in, say, Majora’s Mask that you had a chance to fix and improve in the Wind Waker. I was wondering if you could give a few examples of what you thought, for the Wind Waker, things you would like to improve on in the future, in maybe Wind Waker 2. Or maybe examples from the past from the Ocarina of Time, that were interesting?

EA: Well, in WW1, as I mentioned yesterday, we introduced what we’re calling this focus system, whereby the main character’s eyes look around and interact with different things in the environment, interact with enemies and whatnot, and really make it feel like the character is alive in this 3D world. And we actually were able to take that in the WW and apply it the enemies even, so that he’s able to notice the enemies, there’s interaction between the main character and the enemies, and really fleshed out the world and really made it feel alive and real. One thing that I would really like to do is kind of increase that and see where else we can take that system, going forward.

Q: Now, he obviously mentioned upending the tea table [laughter] and pursuing all sorts of different things with the franchise. Looking at something like Four Swords, it looks like they could completely get away with doing an all 2D Zelda on the GameCube with crazy effects. Would that qualify as something you would want to do?

EA: Well, actually the main reason—there were two main reasons [why] we went with the 2D graphics for the GameCube Four Swords. One was that it was a sequel to the Game Boy Advance Four Swords game, and so for the continuity there we wanted to retain the same graphic style. The second reason was that, as a connectivity game with four players, we found that it would be a lot easier for people to understand what’s going on, when all four players are on one screen, when they’re looking at it from the top-down perspective rather than a full 3D environment. So that obviously had a big impact on choosing that direction as well.

And, generally, what we do is, when we determine the graphic style it’s really not so much a determination in advance of which style of graphics we want to use as it is by the type of game we’re creating. So, going forward, if we get to a point where we decide that going back and doing a 2D game is going to simplify the gameplay and make it more fun and allow us to do different things, then we would consider doing that.

Q: Would you say that the demographic for Four Swords is similar to the Wind Waker?

EA: Well, with the 2D graphics style, it’s really something that we’ve been working on for a while. In terms of taking the game, developing it from the 2D, and moving in the toon shading direction. If you look back at the look of link at the Wind Waker and the look of Link in the Capcom Oracle games, it’s really kind of an extension of what Link looked like in the Oracle games and then taking that and putting it in 3D to a certain extent. And because, obviously, the Wind Waker game is a toon shaded game, the look of it is going to have an appeal to a younger audience, but with the Wind Waker we found that people who played that game who were older, you know, and adults, got a lot of enjoyment out of the WW. And we’re finding also, particularly in Japan where the Four Swords has already been released, that a lot of people who are already mature gamers or older gamers, are picking that up, playing the multiplayer, and having a lot of fun with it and forgetting how much fun they can have playing a game like Zelda, particularly in a multiplayer fashion.

Q: During the presentation you mentioned an analogy of cooking [laughter]. I was wondering maybe you might incorporate something like that, like a cooking mini-game, into a Zelda game in the future? [laughter]

EA: To tell the truth, I’ve been thinking a long time about how I could work cooking into a game somehow. [laughter] But the fact of the matter is that cooking is, if you think about it, pretty boring. There’s not a lot you can really do—it’s really slow work—and there’s not a lot you can do to make it seem very exciting. I guess if you watch TV in the U.S. there are a lot of cooking shows and they somehow manage to make cooking seem exciting. So maybe if, going forward in the future, I can find a way to make cooking seem more exciting and a lot of people have fun with it, then of course I would probably try to put in a game. Maybe if at some point down the road there is cooking in a game, you guys can think back and say, “Hey, I bet Aonuma did this!” Then I’d be really happy. [laughter]

Q: Mr. Aonuma, do you cook often?

Yasuhiro Minagawa: Yes. Too busy to do everyday, but almost every day, he says, he cooks.

Q: And are you a good cook?

(Mr. Minagawa and Mr. Trinen ask Mr. Aonuma to elaborate in Japanese)

YM: He says that whenever a Zelda project is completed, he has a party—he is hosting a party—and at the party he is cooking some curry—rice curry—for everybody. So now, whenever he is asking some sort of difficult job or task to one of his team members, then the team member says, “OK, you now owe me one dish of the curry!”

[laughter]

Q: Can you ask him, if Miyamoto’s there, does his cooking pass the Miyamoto test?

[laughter]

YM: Hey says, “I have never asked Mr. Miyamoto to eat my curry.”

Q: I have a real question, though. [laughter] I wanted to ask, since this interview will not be posted until E3, if you could tell us a little about what the direction of WW2 is. I thought that MM felt and played very differently from OoT, I enjoyed it a lot. I was wondering if the WW2 is taking a whole new direction versus the original and if it is rooted in Link’s younger years, or maybe as an adult?

NOA: Even though this is embargoed, we can’t say much because we’re kind of working off the big bang theory, so we are going to hit you with a big bang at E3…there are still things that we will save for the E3 show even though this is embargoed, but maybe there is a hint he can give…

EA: We’re making something that is going to be very interesting, that is going to surprise you all very much.

Q: So Eiji’s worked on a couple of Zelda games, and knows a thing or two about the franchise…he talked a lot in his presentation about Zeldaness and that sort of thing. What has he learned about storytelling?

EA: Well, obviously there are a lot of games that other developers are making that have really in-depth stories. And I personally don’t know how they develop their stories. But the way that we do it is maybe somewhat different from what they do, in the sense that with Zelda, we don’t start off with a storyline and then build a game around it, we start off with a framework for the game, we create the game, and then we develop the storyline based on the type of game we’ve created. Obviously Zelda isn’t a story that exists already that we’re then taking and turning into games, it’s something that, essentially, the storylines evolves as we add new games in the series. And part of the reason that we do this is because if you start off with a story and try to turn that into a game, you essentially end up with some of the Aku, or impurities, that [chuckles]—basically, things don’t feel natural [since] you’re trying to make a game based on a story and you aren’t able to express everything the way you want to, whereas once you start with the game and build the story around that and you have your core framework, and then the story evolves based on what we’re doing with the game. Obviously, when it comes down to the reality of the Zelda series, it can be very important for us to try to go back and try to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle, and we’ve actually done that and put together a complete overall story at this point, but for us, the storyline in the Zelda series is really there to make the gameplay more interesting.

NOA: [To the translators.] Can you ask Mr. Aonuma to maybe expand on, he mentioned putting the framework of the game in first and maybe use an example from Four Swords or the Wind Waker shows how they started with the framework and turned it into a story?

EA: With the WW, we started off—as I mentioned yesterday—with the idea that we wanted to introduce a new style of movement. And so what we ended up with was the player moving around in a boat on the ocean traveling between islands. And the idea was that Hyrule—the game’s out now so I can say this [laughter]—that Hyrule’s down below and basically been flooded over and the ocean is above it. And so that was the basic idea for this new element to the gameplay, and once we had come up with this, that the player is going to be sailing across the ocean, then it became a question of, “Okay, so we know Hyrule has been flooded and it’s at the bottom of the ocean, but then the question is how did it get there?” And so that becomes an example of how we start off with a gameplay idea, and then from there think about how that affects the storyline or how to build the storyline around that.

In an example with Four Swords Adventures, I was the producer on that game, so I didn’t actually put the story for that game together—that would be put together by the director of the game. And in the end on that game, as we got closer to finishing it, of course, Mr. Miyamoto then came in and upended the tea table, and we changed the story around quite a bit at the end with Four Swords Adventures. And what Mr. Miyamoto pointed out in the case of that game was that the storyline shouldn’t be something complicated that confuses the player. It should really be kind of a guideline that helps ease the player through the gameplay process and helps them understand what it is that they’re doing. So that was one example of how the gameplay was there first, and the storyline changed all the way up until the very end.

Q: Speaking of Four Swords, I was fortunate enough to hunt down a copy of that. I noticed…near the beginning, there are a lot of old-school elements in it. For instance, you push the [chair in the] throne room to the right….Did the team go back and revisit the old games and note the things they liked? Was there a methodology to how they brought the flavor of the Super Nintendo Link to the Past—and other games—to this new 2D game, and kind of hybridize the connectivity multiplayer with the old school reminiscence of yore?

EA: I wouldn’t necessarily say that they intentionally tried to mimic specific events from the past game, but the fact of the matter is the Four Swords team does include members of the original LttP team, so obviously that may have had some affect of it. Also, the director of Four Swords is a huge fan of LttP and the old 2-D style games. But in bringing together the elements for the Four Swords, he looked at, essentially, taking elements from the 3-D Wind Waker, brining those into two dimensions, and finding ways to take elements that people who have played the newer games would then see in this game and be familiar with, in addition to taking some of the older elements from the past 2-D games and also applying them, so that we basically would come together with Four Swords being a game that is going to be something that will feel familiar, and be appealing to people of both time periods, both the old-school fans and the new-school fans. One example of that is, there was an element where he took the spotlight from the Wind Waker—you may remember on Windfall Island they have the spotlight where Link has to sneak around—if you play through Four Swords you’ll find an area where he’s done some kind of interesting things with the spotlight and applied that to 2-D. [Editor’s Note: Wind Waker’s spotlight is actually located in Forsaken Fortress.]

Q: In Four Swords I just wanted to ask about the voice work in Navi’s Trackers, and I was wondering if you’ve thought about using voice in future titles, and how they think it worked out [in Navi’s Trackers].

EA: I mean, it’s interesting to use voice in games. But using voice obviously leads to challenges in the localization process, because obviously you have to change the voice from one language to another. But in this case, with Tetra’s Trackers, what we had was voice work that was used in the game not only to just convey story, but really voice work that was integ—inte…

Bill Trinen: What am I trying to say? Inte…

Others: Integral.

Bill Trinen: Integral! I can’t believe [chuckles]…

EA: It was integral to the gameplay and was intricately connected to the actual gameplay. And so when you do something like that, what you really have to do is think through not only how the voice is going to connect to the gameplay but how the actual language is connected to the gameplay. Because in changing to a different language, and changing language structure, that can affect how those are linked and how things get linked up in the game. So I think it is definitely interesting and has possibilities, [but] it just leads to lots of challenges and a lot of very careful thought processes that you have to think all the way through.

NOA: One thing that group may not know is that for Zelda: the Four Swords, the one player game is very expanded from anything you saw at last E3, and your news—er this article will come out—before Four Swords launches in the U.S. So I was hoping Mr. Aonuma could talk about how the one-player side of that title is expanded, and kind of why and what that adds to the game.

EA: Well, at the very basics the game was created as a connectivity title for multiplayer, but in doing so we thought that single player has been very, very important for the Zelda series over the years, and we felt it was important to include a fleshed-out single-player mode in the game as well. And in order to incorporate that into the game, we created the formation system which you see in Four Swords that allows the player to control four Links and you put them into different formations, and that way allows a single player essentially get through the same puzzles that would normally require four players in order to complete. So in that sense we were able to take this four-player game and turn it into a one-player experience. In doing so, of course, one concern was that people would think that, “Oh, if I can play it single player, I don’t need to play it multiplayer—it’s the same game” which, in one sense, is true. But in fact, when you get four people together to play, you have four different people and each one of them is going to have their own very different play style. So in playing the game four-player, you automatically then get these moments where you have to cooperate with the other players, but you also find yourself competing with them. And in the single player mode, you yourself are working towards one final objective, whereas in multiplayer you really find those moments of competition tend to take over and overwhelm the moments of cooperation, and it turns into a very different style of play than what you would play single-player.

IGN: I’ve experienced that.

[laughter]

Q: I have a question about music in the recent Zelda games. In OoT you really evolved the music theme in Zelda, and you continued that in Majora’s Mask and the Wind Waker. I was wondering how music has played a role in your life, or in the lives of those involved in the development process.

EA: Well personally, I like music a lot. Yesterday, I don’t know if you noticed, but I was wearing a T-Shirt that said “The Wind Wakers” on it, which is the name of this Wind Orchestra—basically an Orchestra that is made up of Nintendo employees—that I’m a member of. I play percussion in the orchestra: bongos, congas, timpani, things like that. And we do four concerts per year—and they’re not big concerts or anything—they’re just for Nintendo employees.

Bill Trinen: And on a side note, not in his translation, Tom Harlin actually has some video of that somewhere that if you were to ask him kindly, he might be able to pull up for you [laughter] and show you video of one of Mr. Aonuma’s concerts [laughter]. Now back to the translation.

EA: Mr. Miyamoto obviously also likes music quite a bit, and music is something anybody can relate to, so in that sense, we like to include music in the games when we can. In developing OoT, one of the questions for us was: how do we want to have players play the ocarina in the game, and how do we want it to affect gameplay. And I came up with ideas and sat down with the team and Mr. Miyamoto and we fleshed out these ideas as to how the players would play the ocarina, what it would do to gameplay, how they would use it, and things like that. I can’t say to what extend the other team members like music, but I think it’s something—because anybody can relate to it—I’m obviously going to encourage them to continue to include those elements in the game, and hopefully, I’m sure going forward, that they will be able to find new ways to take music, apply it to the game in new ways, and allow people to find new and exciting ways to play with it.

Q: I actually wanted to ask about the orchestration of the music. Zelda has traditionally used a lot of MIDI samples—which definitely works for the titles, it clearly does—but I’ve also heard the full orchestrations from symphonies of Mr. Kondo’s orchestrations, which are beautiful. Have you thought about, going forward in new titles, using more orchestration with the franchise?

EA: Well, obviously Koji Kondo and his sound team, they’re always thinking about what types of music to use in games, how to use the music in the games, how best to apply the music. They’re always trying to come up with new ideas all the time. I think probably what’s important is not necessarily to have these grand orchestrations, but sometimes very simple music can be very important as well. We always have a good exchanging of ideas in trying to find the best music that’s going to match the game. In terms of actual full-on orchestration of the music, we haven’t really had an opportunity, or we haven’t had, basically, the facilities at Nintendo to do something like that, where we have a full orchestra there and we have a setup where we’re able to record them all. If Mr. Kondo thinks that will be best for an upcoming title, then we’ll probably look at ways to do that, and we can probably look forward to something like that in the future at some point. There aren’t any concrete plans for it right now, but it’s definitely something we’re thinking about.

You may recall in the opening to the Wind Waker, in the opening story scroll, that it starts off with a Mandolin that’s played, and that’s actually sampling taken from Mr. Miyamoto actually playing the Mandolin. And it was basically the result of some discussion that we really needed to have that kind of a sound to start things off, and be part of that music, so obviously we’re looking at what types of instruments and things like that, and what types of sounds we’re going to need. Hopefully at some point in the future, I’d kind of like it if I could get my bongo playing into a game somehow

[laughter]

Q: Do you have any fears, with Wind Waker 2 being revealed at E3 with Four Swords coming up basically right after that in June, that Four Swords will be overshadowed?

EA: Well, each game is very different. Obviously I think we have to present Four Swords in a way that really highlights the multiplayer, because that’s really going to set it apart from The Wind Waker 2. But for me, I would really like to see the franchise develop in a way that we continue to surprise people and provide them with new and different styles of gameplay under the Zelda franchise, where people are saying, “Oh, Zelda can be this type of game too”, or “Zelda could be that type of game as well!” So it’s not so much a worry as I’m kind of excited and looking forwards to those types of developments.

Right now my biggest mission is to make sure the DS announcements don’t overshadow the Zelda announcement at E3. [laughter] So I’m exerting a lot of effort and spending a lot of energy in trying to make sure that we do have a big announcement with Zelda.

Q: As sort of a follow-up to your response, you say you’re looking at new ways to bring the Zelda franchise to people. Would you, maybe, consider a darker Zelda, maybe delegated to a company like Silicon Knights?

[laughter]

EA: We’ve already done, I guess, what you would call a darker Zelda once with Majora’s Mask. I don’t know what the marketing cant was in the U.S., but in Japan, if you translate the phrase that Zelda: Majora’s Mask was marketed with, it basically means that this time Zelda has fear—this time there’s a fear in Zelda. And the idea was that—and that was a phrase that our past president [Hiroshi Yamauchi] thought up—and it was basically this idea that Majora’s Mask was darker, and maybe darker is not the right term, but there’s this kind of weird vibe to the game and a strange mystery to it that was really different from what you experienced in other Zelda games. So we’ve already done that once, so, to say we’ll never do it again I don’t think would be an accurate statement, but as to whether or not Silicon Knights [chuckling] would be involved…I have no idea. I haven’t thought about that at all.

1-up: He could have been in Eternal Darkness!

[laughter]

PGC: Yeah, maybe in an insanity effect!

[laughter]

Q: I have another one. I’ve heard rumors that Guru Guru looks a lot like Koji Kondo. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but is there a story behind that, how that came to be? [clarifying]…the music guy in Ocarina of Time.

[laughter]

EA: Well, I guess it would be kind of natural for the people who design the characters in the Zelda games to base their character designs off the people who are in their immediate vicinity. But obviously in doing those types of designs, even if they, say, have made a character based on somebody on the development team, in going through them and looking at all the artwork and whatnot, we take those designs and turn them into characters that are kind of more reminiscent of or fit in better with the Zelda world. As to whether or not that particular character was specifically designed based on Mr. Kondo I can’t really say, since I’ve never asked them. But I guess it could be possible [laughs].

Q: I was wondering when development on WW2 began. Was it before the original Wind Waker was finished? And also, you’re calling it WW2. Is that an actual sequel, or is that just a working title?

EA: As I explained in my speech yesterday, the [main] Zelda games are developed with the same team, so we have one group of team members carry over from the last game and start work on the next. So we had to finish WW1 before work began on WW2. And as to your second question, unfortunately I cannot answer that question today.

NOA: We’ve got about enough time for one more question, so this is going to have to be the last question.

Q: Where do you see the Zelda franchise being in two years?

EA: Well I think that maybe the fact that I don’t have an immediate answer to that question might cause people to criticize me as not being a very good producer of the series. [laughs] I’m obviously very excited about the opportunities that the DS is going to offer us, and the opportunities that we’re going to have to do something different with it on the DS. So I’m obviously going to work very hard in that direction and, hopefully, be able to show you something that will be neat.

Q: You still plan on being the Zelda director and producer?

EA: Well, yeah, I’ll continue to be producer. Up until now, as director, all I’ve ever done in working on the Zelda games is focus on the particular Zelda game that I was working on at the moment. Now, as producer, I’ll be looking at ideas as to which platforms we’re going to be releasing games on, which platforms we should be pushing Zelda towards, the types of developments that we can do on those platforms, and continuing to find new ways to expand the franchise. So that’s what I’ll continue to do.

But, I would like to make a Zelda that somehow surpasses the Ocarina of Time.

[laughter]

[Everyone gives his thanks.]

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