“I wanted something that players could get so lost in, it would take them a whole year to finish.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1992 
“I thought that making the user get lost was a sin.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2016 
The Zelda series has a storied, 30-year history. Shigeru Miyamoto created the first game with a team of six people; it released in 1986. A decade later, Eiji Onozuka’s first role was the director of dungeon design for Ocarina of Time. He later took his wife’s family name of Aonuma, directed Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, and went on to become the producer for the franchise.
There are almost 25 years between these two quotes, and they reveal a stark shift in the design philosophy for the Zelda franchise. I have long felt that the franchise lost something crucial in the games after Ocarina. It’s easy to blame Aonuma’s leadership. But I have a different take: The move to 3D in Ocarina was uniquely challenging, and the Zelda team solved those problems imperfectly. Then later, they doubled down on Ocarina’s path for years after.
That is until they created Breath of the Wild. It went open-world, had a non-linear narrative, and re-imagined how dungeons and items work. But those changes required a more fundamental shift: They needed to solve Ocarina’s problems, trust the player, and build their gameplay out of emergent systems.
This is the first of three articles. In this series, I use my own experience as a game developer and extensive reading of interviews to infer why Zelda development decisions were made, and how Ocarina’s design shaped the series for years afterwards. But I wasn’t there! This is ultimately an act of speculation. Keep that in mind as you read!
Game design concepts
“I would say that Mario is fun in a very accessible, immediate way while Zelda really gives you that expansive feeling that you are developing along with the game.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 2006 
Let’s start by defining some key terms I’ll use throughout these articles.
Difficulty is how hard it is for players to overcome challenges. For action games, think of it as the margin of error: how many mistakes a player can make and still succeed. If a game is too easy, players get bored. Too hard, then it becomes frustrating.
Complexity is how much the player must learn and understand to play the game. If difficulty is about overcoming challenges within the game’s rules, complexity tests the ability to grasp the rules or the controls in the first place. If a game is too complex, players are overwhelmed or intimidated.
Readability is how well a game delivers information to the player. Games are packed with info: health bars, audio cues, a monster’s tail twitch, and dialog from an NPC are just a few examples. Readability has a deep impact on difficulty and complexity, and conveying the right information at the right time is an art. Get it wrong, and the game can become frustrating trial-and-error or lose all sense of tension and surprise.
The larger your audience, the harder it is to balance these three factors, and the more important it becomes. Which brings us to our last key term, a quality that Nintendo values very highly:
Accessibility is the art of making a game that many people can enjoy, even with different skills and backgrounds. (It can also refer to handicap accessibility, but we’ll focus on the first definition.) Making games less difficult can make them more accessible, but complexity and difficulty pacing are bigger factors. Mario is accessible because its rules are easy to learn and understand. Though Mario games start off easy, they can get quite hard. High difficulty can be accessible if players are eased into it over time.
Complexity is harder to balance. Gradually ramping it up and taking care to teach game systems can help, and so can designing the rules so that players can bring knowledge from real life or other games. Miyamoto gives insight into the importance Nintendo places on accessibility:
“Lowering the difficulty gives more players access, but it completely ignores the dedicated players—particularly those that played previous games, if it’s a series. It’s best to balance these two sides’ interests, but that doesn’t always happen.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1998 
Now, we’re ready to talk about Ocarina of Time.
The travails of Ocarina of Time
“Since the old 2D rules weren’t applicable, everything was made from scratch. Everyone was groping their way forward in the dark, but for some reason there was an odd confidence and faith that they would make it out into the light, and that spirit possessed the whole thing.” – Satoru Iwata, 2011 
Ocarina had the highest hurdle of any Zelda game; it had to transition to 3D and hit Nintendo’s accessibility standards at a time when third-person 3D worlds were still in their infancy. There were groundbreaking 3D games prior to Ocarina, but they tended to be first-person, flight-based, or clunky to control. Few of them featured melee combat. The big exception was Super Mario 64, which was developed in parallel with Ocarina by many of the same people. In short: Ocarina had to solve many fundamental problems from scratch.
One problem was ensuring that players would reliably see the environment and the things in it. In fixed-camera games, like top-down Zelda titles, the designers can guarantee that information is visible. In A Link to the Past, you always see every switch, enemy, and door in the room. But when the player can direct the camera, they can miss things.
“The 3D world has a camera, so it’s important that the player be able to see what routes to follow and not overlook something important. By changing the camera viewpoint just a little you might not be able to see something you ought.” – Eiji Aonuma, 1998 
Early in Ocarina’s development, they tried a fixed camera with pre-rendered backgrounds to attempt to address this issue. You can see remnants of this in Link’s House, Hyrule Castle Town, and the Temple of Time.
The second readability challenge was conveying spatial relationships, especially in combat. In 2D games, it is clear where enemies are and how they relate to the avatar. Distance is easy to judge, you can see enemies in all directions, and the area of attacks is clearly shown. 3D introduced varied camera angles, depth, and verticality. All of these hurt the player’s ability to visually read spatial relationships.
“… [I]t got really hard in ways that would have been extremely easy in first-person, like how to handle the camera and battles.” – Yoshiaki Koizumi, 2011 
Sickles, chains, and the axis problem
“… [I]f you tried to beat an enemy in front of you, the axes weren’t aligned, so it was hard.” – Yoshiaki Koizumi, 2011 
Super Mario 64 had an unsolved issue: It was hard to line up Mario’s facing with targets, such as a sign. This was the axis problem. The game industry was still learning to think about facing, camera, and movement as separate things that needed to be controlled simultaneously. First-person games didn’t have to solve this, because their facing is tied to their camera.
Mario solved this by rarely relying on facing. But Ocarina had to fix it: they wanted to swing the sword in front of the avatar. Inspiration struck when Yoshiaki Koizumi and Toru Osawa, two designers on the Ocarina team, saw a chanbara show together:
“… [O]ne lashed out with a kusarigama (sickle-and-chain). The lead samurai caught it with his left arm, the chain stretched tight, and the ninja moved in a circle around him.” – Toru Osawa, 2011 
This led to Ocarina’s solution to the axis problem: Z-targeting. By default, movement and facing are controlled together. When you move right, Link faces right. While Z-targeting, camera and facing are synced instead: when you move right, Link strafes right while continuing to face the target. It also made distances and spatial relationships easier to read, thus leading to the character Navi.
“We wanted to make it easy to see which enemy you’re targeting, so we made a marker. But … I didn’t want to use such a simple marker … so I came up with a fairy. I called it the Fairy Navigation System, took it to Osawa-san … He immediately said, ‘Let’s name it Navi.’” – Yoshiaki Koizumi, 2011 
They then used Navi to help solve the out-of-camera-frame problem: Navi would fly to points of interest, change color to hint at what it was, and make a sound to draw player attention. Other details, like panning the camera to highlight doors or chests when they unlock, also helped.
“… [W]e put in Navi, your little follower. She’ll help you notice something that you’d previously be able to see using a fixed-point camera.” – Eiji Aonuma, 1998 
“A great advantage of 3D is that players can feel that they are inside the game. On the other hand, it is true that the number of difficult-to-play games has increased because … we have to let players get accustomed to the way the camera works.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 2002 
These solutions helped solve some fundamental gameplay and readability problems in 3D, but Ocarina was getting complex. In A Link to the Past,we controlled Link on a two-dimensional plane with eight directions to move and four directions to face.
Ocarina introduced verticality; 360 degrees of facing; the need to control facing, camera, and movement separately; and a toggle that changed the rules for all three on the fly. Instead of a reliable fixed-point camera, players needed to actively orient their camera. If an enemy or a switch was above or below them, they’d have to use another toggle to switch to the first-person mode and look. Navi would highlight things, but they had to learn how to interpret her colors and sounds.
That’s all before we get into items, boots, swimming, shooting, Cucco gliding, or horse-back riding, all of which could change the rules of movement, facing, or the camera.
Tossing the ballast
Earlier I described how difficulty, readability, and complexity are important factors when creating accessibility. Zelda in 3D was less readable than in 2D, but they mitigated that with tools like Z-Targeting and Navi. It was also much more complex. Slightly decreased readability and strongly increased complexity meant that the game was less accessible than Nintendo wanted. They addressed this in a few ways.
First, they attempted to combat complexity directly. If complexity is a measure of how hard it is to understand a game, then just teach players! Ocarina of Time was one of the first games with extensive tutorials and hint systems; it helped usher in the modern age of tutorials. These have big pacing downsides and force players to invest some time into the game before they can really enjoy it, but they get more players over the complexity hump.
The second strategy was to adjust difficulty downwards. Combat had more margin of error, and dungeon puzzles became more self-contained. We’ll examine this in more detail in the third part of this series.
These solutions were inelegant, but they worked for Ocarina of Time. The game was an incredible success, and it built the foundation for third-person action games. Every one of them since has had a little bit of Ocarina in its DNA.
The influence of Ocarina and its 3D solutions fell most strongly on the Zelda series itself. We’ll investigate that when we continue in part two!
- Shmuplations: The Making of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Famicom Tsuushin Jan 1992)
- A New Creative Force Brings a Vast New World to Zelda (Wired.com)
- Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The Indefinable Essence of Zelda
- Shmuplations: Shigeru Miyamoto talks Game Design (Game Hihyou Magazine)
- Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D Development Staff
- Glitterberri’s Game Translations (Looks Like This Zelda Was Half Done by Mario)
- Iwata Ask: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D Original Development Staff
- The Illustrated History of Electronic Games: High Score!