Shigeru Miyamoto is an impossible act to follow. He is widely considered to be the most important game developer since the beginnings of the industry.
Eiji Aonuma has been working in that man’s shadow for more than ten years, but steadily he is becoming more synonymous with the franchise that Miyamoto had spawned some 25 years ago.
Now with his command over Zelda franchise stronger than ever, Develop interviews Aonuma to discuss his motivations and ultimate ambitions.
Why does the Zelda series still resonate with the public after 25 years?
I think it’s because Zelda doesn’t fit into any gaming genre perfectly. Really what we’ve always aimed for is not about fitting one particular game genre, but to keep providing unique experiences that people can enjoy.
Of course, there are certain techniques and certain basics that are similar throughout the series, but really what we are striving to do with each new Zelda is offer a new world for people to enjoy and to experience.
Over those 25 years, while we’ve been working on the Zelda series and creating the games, we’ve always had a wealth of ideas, and as we’ve worked there’s always been a surplus of new ideas, which I think is what has kept us going all these years.
So how do you filter those ideas so as to make sure each Zelda game meets the quality bar?
Perhaps it is a little bit strange for me to just say good things about my staff, but it really is about the team. I have a team of superb artists, engineers, creators and everything else, and Mr Kondo and his sound team are very talented and strong.
People have a lot of ideas of their own, but we are very strict with ourselves.
Working with those people, everyone is striving to make each Zelda game better than the last one, focussing on making something more and more polished.
My role in this process now is to really just create the basic grounding for these creative people to allow them to really flourish and really show their potential.
And how do you keep yourself and those staff creatively motivated and enthusiastic when the Zelda series has been around for so long?
My staff really are driven and kept motivated by the idea of seeing the players enjoy their creations. That is what I try and make them strive for and that is why they invest part of their life over many years into these games.
In my case, for me it is about impressing Mr Miyamoto; that’s the big one and that’s what keeps me motivated.
How have you used your previous experience making Zelda titles to make Skyward Sword a better game?
The development of Skyward Sword, I would say, started with reflection on Twilight Princess with a view to try and fix lots of the things that we felt weren’t perfect.
Twilight Princess was a very big environment, and what we were really aiming for was realness; we wanted to have this real world experience. Looking back I feel that it was maybe too big and there were maybe not enough things in the environment for players to enjoy and challenge.
Looking back at Twilight Princess, my determination and my aim with the new Zelda was to make the game not only big and the environment very large, but to offer many experiences along the way as people journey through the world. This is why there are three big areas on the surface and the huge town Skyloft. Even when you revisit areas all over the environment there are new experiences and themes that can help the player connect their memories through the game and let them get to know the world more deeply.
Was there an overarching design theme or idea that directed the game’s development?
Where Twilight Princess was about realness, this time it is really about bringing the game’s areas to life; to make players understand and feel the history behind the game, and to deepen the feeling of experiencing it.
And does working in the shadow of the success of Ocarina of Time concern you?
Of course, I wouldn’t deny that I am always aware of the game and the praise it has received, and how much people like the game.
On the other hand, I do believe that all the Zelda games since have offered new aspects to the gameplay and setting.
We just recently did the 3DS version of Ocarina where we changed some things, and there were still difficulties.
Even with that version of the game there were things we could improve upon. One big issue we have dealt with is the saving system, where now you do not have to start the game over from the start point.
So does bettering Ocarina motivate you?
Yes, absolutely. But it’s not only Ocarina of Time. We look at every past Zelda title in the franchise, with a view to make people realise that the game has grown and improved. This is what we are aiming for with every release.
What is most core to the Zelda experience? What is so sacred to the series it could never be changed?
Well. Zelda has to be in the title. That’s something we could never change [much laughter].
That’s not everything though. There’s something that makes even the most distinct Zelda games feel similar in spirit.
Many people ask about that ‘Zelda-ness’, and I think Mr Miyamoto would say the same as me. What makes a game a Zelda game is the theme of uniqueness that we strive for.
A Zelda game should never be similar to anything else or resemble other games. This is always what we aim for, and that striving for uniqueness is the common denominator across the series.