Now that we’re so very close to A Link Between Worlds’ launch, it’s time for Iwata to sit down with the team behind the creation of the game for a deep discussion. As with the Iwata Asks on The Wind Waker HD a couple of months ago, the participants all have incredibly insightful information to share with fans, as well as many new secrets behind the game’s development.
Here we have again taken all of the most important parts of the interview. Did you know that A Link Between Worlds initially featured Toon Link, Miyamoto refused the game’s concept twice before approving, and that the graphics hold a crafty visual trick? Read on for all this, and much more!
The idea for a new handheld Zelda game came to fruition as early as 2009, shortly development on Spirit Tracks was complete.
“Iwata: When did the idea come up of making a new Zelda game for the Nintendo 3DS?
Aonuma: Well, as director, Shikata-san should talk about that.
Shikata: Sure. It first came up right after we finished Spirit Tracks.”
It began with a team as small as three members: Hiromasa Shikata (director of ALBW), Shiro Mouri (assistant director and lead programmer), and another unnamed programmer.
Miyamoto wasn’t pleased at all when when the trio presented their idea for the next handheld Zelda game. At that time, the project did not yet feature Link’s heiroglyph ability, nor that it was a sequel to A Link to the Past. And yet, Miyamoto remarked that their pitch sounded “like an idea that’s 20 years old”–but not as a compliment.
“Shikata: Yeah. At first, just the three of us were steeped in it, looking around in all directions. After about half a year, just to get the project through, we decided to give a presentation to Miyamoto-san and have him say yay or nay.
Iwata: Did you have the idea then of making a sequel to A Link to the Past?
Shikata: No, A Link to the Past wasn’t on our minds at all. We didn’t even have the idea of Link entering walls. We were thinking about a Zelda game with the theme of communication. When we presented it, Miyamoto-san said, “This sounds like an idea that’s 20 years old.” (laughs)
Iwata: From 20 years ago? (laughs) Did the air get chilly?
Shikata: No, it was cold from the start! (laughs)
Mouri: As soon as we started the presentation, I could clearly see Miyamoto-san’s facial expression rapidly darkening. I thought, “This is bad…” And then at the end he said, “This sounds like an idea that’s 20 years old,” that was the killing blow. We were down on the floor.
Iwata: What did you do once you were beaten down?
Shikata: He had ripped it apart so badly that I was distraught.”
The trio then decided to start from scratch.
“Shikata: We decided to rethink it from the start, and one day when the three of us were having a meeting, I suddenly said, “What about having Link enter into walls?” Mouri-san and the other programmer were like “That’s great!” and got into it. But even though I had brought it up, it didn’t quite make sense to me.
Iwata: You weren’t certain it would be fun, but you blurted it out anyways?
Shikata: Right. So I asked them what was so good about it.”
While Shikata remained hesitant about his own idea, his usually “mild-mannered” co-worker appeared adamant on utilising the concept.
“Mouri: There’s this other programmer who is usually a really mild-mannered person, but Shikata-san, who had suggested the idea, was so indecisive about it that the programmer got mad and angrily said, “I think the idea of entering walls sounds amazing, so what’s wrong with it?!”
Iwata: Even though he’s mild-mannered?
Mouri: Yeah. (laughs) He got even hotter, saying, “We’re at a fork in the road as to whether this project runs astray or not, so I’m not changing my mind!” and “We’re making this no matter what, so tell us what to do!” Then Shikata-san was like, “Maybe the point is turning corners on the walls…” without any confidence, so I got angry too and fired back, “Then I’m making a prototype!””
Mouri then produced said prototype in a single day and presented his work to Shikata the next morning. Shikata was very pleased at the result.
The Toon Link prototype
Interestingly, while the game at this stage had the Merge ability, the visual perspective was not yet top-down. Shikata reveals that “the viewpoint was overhead from an angle” like in Spirit Tracks. In fact, the game began as a successor to the DS games.
“Iwata: When you made that prototype, was it a direct top-down view like in A Link to the Past?
Shikata: No. As in Spirit Tracks, the viewpoint was overhead from an angle.
Aonuma: At the time, we were thinking of it as an extension of the Nintendo DS games.”
This time, Miyamoto was impressed when presented with the prototype, and allowed them to continue with the project. However, it was put on hold because the staff were required to help work on the Wii U launch titles.
“Aonuma: With a prototype like this, you would usually go on to enter serious development based on it.
Aonuma: But that wasn’t to be.
Iwata: Why not?
Aonuma: The director can explain that.
Shikata: Okay. When we showed this to Miyamoto-san, he said, “Let’s do it.” And we were stoked, too. But before two weeks had passed, we got involved in launch titles for the Wii U.
Iwata: When was that?
Shikata: About October of 2010.
Iwata: About two years before release of Wii U.
Aonuma: They absolutely needed more people to work on the Wii U launch titles.”
When the team had disbanded, Shikata began to worry that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to revisit their project. However, they left a “parting gift” for Miyamoto, “a sticker with the development code name on a Nintendo 3DS with the prototype in it”–just to remind him that they wanted to continue with the prototype. Shikata then went on to work on Nintendo Land’s “The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest”.
How it became a sequel to A Link to the Past
Next year in 2011, development on Skyward Sword was complete, and Aonuma was pondering what to do for the next Zelda game. Fan demand was calling out for a Zelda title to release by the end of 2013, and Aonuma became interested in the idea of Link entering walls.
“Iwata: But Shikata-san and the others were still off elsewhere.
Aonuma: Yeah. Then development of Skyward Sword ended two years ago in 2011 and I started thinking about the next project. Since the idea of entering walls had come up, I sensed the possibility of making a new kind of Zelda game from that and thought I should do something about it. I wanted development to make even a little progress, so while they were gone, I resumed work on it.
Iwata: What? You revived the project even without the core members?
Aonuma: If I hadn’t, and we’d begun after they got back, we’d never have been able to bring it out by the end of 2013.
Iwata: Oh, I suppose not.
Aonuma: I brought in a programmer who would carry on Mouri-san’s intentions, and had Tominaga-san join who carried over for Shikata-san. They kept on making the game until the two directors came back.
Iwata: When did Tominaga-san, who succeeded Shikata-san, step in?
Tominaga: It was right after the development of Skyward Sword had ended, so about November 2011.”
Despite Tominaga’s best efforts, Miyamoto displayed his ruthless disapproval once again–but this time, he gave the team a hint.
“Tominaga: Without letting myself be constrained by the world of The Legend of Zelda, I made a few small dungeons with entering-the-wall ideas I came up with, and then about May of 2012, I presented them to Miyamoto-san saying that I would be making 50 more of these dungeons where you used the entering-walls ability.
Iwata: What was Miyamoto-san’s reaction?
Tominaga: He tore it up! (laughs)
Shikata: Again! (laughs)
Tominaga: But he didn’t just criticize, he also gave us a hint. He suggested basing it on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Iwata: That was when A Link to the Past first came into the picture?
Tominaga: Yes. And right after Aonuma-san said, “What if we base it on A Link to the Past, and try pairing entering walls with a point of view looking down from directly overhead?””
Switching to a top-down view
Aonuma realised that a top-down perspective would allow for a better visual transition from Link exploring the world to him entering a wall. Taking it upon himself to create a basic demo of this concept, Aonuma finally gained Miyamoto’s approval.
“Aonuma: It didn’t look different enough when you entered the wall. Then, as I was discussing various things with Tominaga-san, we considered placing the camera directly overhead and fixing it there, and we made a test version. It felt really intriguing when Link entered a wall and the view switched from a top-down view to a side view. Miyamoto-san had given us the task of turning 2D Zelda into stereoscopic 3D, so…
Iwata: It connected with that.
Aonuma: Right. It fit perfectly, and I thought, “This is it!” I also suggested to everyone that we should use the landforms from A Link to the Past instead of starting from scratch.
Iwata: Did anyone say that it would turn out like a remake even though you had this new idea of entering walls?
Aonuma: They did. Everyone gets skeptical when they simply hear about it in words.
Aonuma: So I used a tool myself to render the landforms of A Link to the Past into 3D.
Iwata: You did that yourself? (laughs)
Aonuma: Yeah. It took about three days.
Tominaga: I think it took a little longer…
Aonuma: Did it? (laughs) I wasn’t sure it was right for a producer to go that far, but I thought showing the actual thing would be more convincing and made three-dimensional landforms. I had them place Link and move him around. When they saw that they all marveled out loud and were convinced that it works. When we showed it to Miyamoto-san, he finally gave the okay.”
A clever visual trick
Despite their triumph, however, they noticed that the top-down view posed a new problem.
“Shikata: If you looked straight down from the top, all you could see was Link’s hat. So it looked like some mysterious green object moving around! (laughs)Everyone: (laughs)
Iwata: A true top-down view actually has lots of problems. If you make it truthfully, it doesn’t look interesting at all.
Shikata: That’s right.
Iwata: So you have to fake it-but in a good way.
Aonuma: Right. We decided to fudge it a bit. Then I was on a speaking session at New York Comic-Con15 in October, and…15. Comic-Con: A cultural event held yearly in cities like New York and San Diego celebrating comics, movies and other forms of entertainment. Nintendo was an exhibitor at the New York Comic-Con in 2013.
Iwata: You revealed the trick.
Aonuma: Yes. I showed Zelda fans pictures from a side view as well as from above, and it reveals that Link and the rupees were set at an angle.
Iwata: I saw those pictures too, that world looked so strange that I wanted to say, “What in the world?!” (laughs)”
Development secrets behind the “Merge” ability
Iwata then poses the question of how the team came up with Link’s heiroglyphic design when he merges with walls. He reveals that originally, the wall version of Toon Link maintained the same appearance, only in 2D.
“Iwata: Until then, it was like in the prototype you showed me earlier. A 3D Link like in Spirit Tracks went into the wall looking the same way, only just in a flat 2D.
Takahashi: That’s right. When you’re playing like normal, the top-down viewpoint changes to a side view when he enters the wall, and the conditions are different, so we thought Link’s design should change, too.
Iwata: In an easy-to-comprehend way, you wanted to convey through a different style the conditional changes when Link goes into a wall.
Takahashi: That’s right. When phrased as “entering walls,” I got the feeling there was a different world inside the walls.”
Initially, Link had more abilities in his Merge form.
“Aonuma: In that way, there was a lot of trial and error until those visuals solidified, but there was also a time when you could do a lot when Link was a mural.
Mouri: Like jumping.
Iwata: Jump? (laughs)
Aonuma: There was a time when Link was jumping around like Mario! (laughs)
Iwata: Oh! (laughs)
Aonuma: But we abandoned that completely.
Shikata: We decided to make becoming a mural only a means of movement so the players wouldn’t get confused.”
“The New Legend of Zelda”?
At one point, the team discussed calling A Link Between Worlds “The New Legend of Zelda”.
“Aonuma: Right. In Japan, though, it didn’t feel out of place to add a “2” to Triforce of the Gods, so we decided on that. Some of the staff, however, thought that would encourage people to think it is a remake.
Shikata: There was even talk of calling it The New Legend of Zelda like there’s New Super Mario! (laughs)”
Why the rental system and new dungeon format?
To minimalise player boredom/frustration when getting stuck in a Zelda game, Shikata thought of the idea of making all dungeons accessible to the player at once, instead of enforcing a fixed order. This, however, brought its own chain of various imbalances to the game. Eventually, this lead to the item rental system.
“Iwata: Instead of a single order, you can take them in any order.
Shikata: Right. But that came with a number of problems.
Iwata: It would break down the structure of the games so far.
Shikata: Right. In Zelda games, you go into a dungeon, get a new item, and use that item to find the next new dungeon.
Aonuma: The traditional Zelda formula.
Shikata:That’s why there always ended up being a set order, but this time I worried over it for a long time, which brings us back to rethinking the conventions of Zelda. Aonuma-san, take over for me.
Aonuma: Okay. (laughs) First, we talked about being able to buy all sorts of items in a shop.
Iwata: Then you could beat any dungeon.
Aonuma: Yes. But when we talked about the prices, we realized cheap prices would allow players to easily get all the items, and then they wouldn’t need rupees anymore.
Iwata: You’d never want to cut grass to gather rupees.
Aonuma: Right. But on the other hand, if we made the prices high, then you wouldn’t make any progress.”
“Iwata: You choose whichever dungeon you like, you go in, and even if you get stuck, you can rent an item and go conquer a different dungeon.”
You can catch the full interview here. It’s very long, but thoroughly fascinating throughout.