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Eiji Aonuma reflects upon the history of Zelda

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Eiji Aonuma, Producer of Software Development for Nintendo, has been the creative director of the Zelda series since The Ocarina of Time. In his Game Developers Conference lecture "Twilight Reflections in the Hourglass," Aonuma described the evolution of the series and his current project for the NDS: Phantom Hourglass. .

A 19-year veteran of Nintendo game design, Eiji Aonuma has spent much of his time working alongside legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Most recently, he served as director of the critical and commercial success The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Nintendo Wii. In his talk for the Game Developers Conference, entitled "Twilight Reflections in the Hourglass," Aonuma described the challenge of adapting the epic franchise for generations of Nintendo consoles.

In his talk, Aonuma described a phenomenon that had affected the Japanese gaming industry around the time The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was published. Called "gamer drift," the slowing of game sales had made it clear that the industry was experiencing some stagnation. Wind Waker was met with poor sales, which Aonuma assumed was due to the cel-shaded graphical style. For seasoned gamers the title appeared intended for younger audiences, while new players were intimidated by the complexity of the gameplay. This led the developers at Nintendo to search out a more innovative style of gameplay.

To combat gamer drift, Nintendo designed a system called "Connectivity," which allowed players to hook their Game Boy Advance systems up to their Gaecubes and use the portable system as a controller. Aonuma and the Zelda team adopted the new system for their title The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. However, though the use of the Connectivity system allowed for a new style of gameplay, said the Zelda director, resultant sales were not spectacular. This time the problem seemed to be with the extensive hardware involved. Requiring players to have both game systems to enjoy the title might have been too much to ask of fans.

Based on the weak response to the Connectivity system, the developers at Nintendo realized they needed a more intuitive form of gameplay to attract players. At this time, Aonuma was planning a sequel to Wind Waker, but had concerns about the cel-shaded graphics. There were clear signs coming from publications and fan sites in English-speaking regions that what American gamers wanted more than anything else was a realistic-looking Zelda title. Shigeru Miyamoto suggested to Aonuma that they do a test of the Wind Waker engine using a stylistically more mature graphical style. After a week of experimentation, their tests resulted in a demo where Link could be seen attacking enemies on horseback. The Zelda team decided to commit to the look for their next game. A surprise trailer was revealed at the 2004 E3 event and was met by a standing ovation from the crowd.

"I am not Rink, but I do know him." Miyamoto previews Zelda at E3

Considering the recurrent theme in the Zelda series of encountering two parallel worlds (such as the light and dark sides of A Link to the Past, or the past and future of The Ocarina of Time) Aonuma was given the notion of transforming Link into a wolf for the upcoming game. The idea would introduce to the title a new gameplay element, along with being reminiscent of such transformative moments in the Zelda timeline as Link's rabbit form in the Super Nintendo title and his various guises in Majora's Mask. But pitching the idea to Miyamoto, Aonuma was met with some resistance, the director said. "It's hard enough controlling a two-legged Link in a three-dimensional world," Miyamoto complained. "Only an amateur would try for a four-legged Link."

By the time the 2005 E3 rolled around, Aonuma had yet to happen upon a real breakthrough for the Nintendo "Revolution" Zelda. He had taken some time off to work on the Game Boy Advance title The Minish Cap, which the game designer said was a way to temporarily escape the responsibilities involved in the more challenging title. At E3, the Nintendo representatives were pleased to see that American audiences were egaer to experience the realistic Zelda, some waiting three hours in line for a shot at the demo. However, the feedback was not entirely positive. Many players complained that the controls were too complicated.

Aonuma and the Zelda team came back from the event with a number of ideas regarding how more natural controls might be implemented. They developed one prototype where the scene switches to first-person whenever Link encounters an enemy, requiring players to swing the Wii remote like a sword. One problem with this system was that losing sight of Link during battles sacrificed the variety of movements players associated with the character, since he would be off-screen while they were performed. Another problem was that controlling the left-handed Link was awkward for right-handed players. Swinging the Wii remote, they would see the sword slash on the opposite side of the screen. The developers realized the first-person view would not be warmly received by players.

A trailer of Twilight Princess featuring left-handed Link

After some lengthy experimentation, the design team decided upon the intuitive controls found in the Wii version of the game. To swing Link's sword, the player would slash with the Wii Remote. However, the problem of handedness still remained a problem. Considering a possible solution, Aonuma asked to see what would happen if the game were presented in a mirror view of its current design. Inverting the game world resulted in a right-handed Link, which would allow for more intuitive gameplay for the majority of players. The level designers grumbled that the newly-inverted bizarro world did not reflect their original designs, but within weeks they had already unconsciously adapted to the change. In the GameCube version, Link remains left-handed, and the maps and player guides for the two games are mirror versions of each other.

Twilight Princess was met with overwhelmingly positive critical reviews in both the US and Japan. Famitsu gave it a score of 38 out of 40 points, while IGN said it was the best Zelda game ever. Still, though the results were positive, great difficulties presented themselves at every step of development, Aonuma said. While initially disappointed after the negative feedback received at the 2005 E3, the critical response was necessary in hindsight to the team's successful new focus. "Creativity is about suffering," Aonuma said. "Without struggle, one cannot become what you want to be." In a slide from his talk, the game director illustrates his point by showing Shigeru Miyamoto around the time of the 2005 American media event mentoring his colleague with a voice bubble reading, "Looks like you need to suffer a little more for your art." Aonuma, looking bummed, answers, "Aww, man..."

Keeping in mind that the next title in the series will be appearing during the holiday season of this year, Aonuma took some time to discuss the WiFi-enabled battle mode nicknamed Hide and Seek that will be implemented in the DS title, The Phantom Hourglass. Through this feature, two players can compete against each other, either playing as Link or an opposing team of three phantoms. Link attempts to move yellow force gems from the overhead map into the goal field to score points, while being pursued by the phantoms. When Link is caught, the players switch their offensive and defensive roles. How will a player be able to control three phantoms at once? The director explained that by drawing paths for the phantoms on the touch screen, players will be able to direct them to where they anticipate Link might be headed. The longest possible game of Hide and Seek lasts twelve minutes, and the strategy lies in predicting the opponent's movements.

A glimpse into The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Eiji Aonuma concluded his talk by saying that Nintendo has taken some risks in countering the gamer drift phenomenon, and the attempts to provide new gaming experiences to players had paid off. The director explained that he has a five year-old son, and, as with the case of Shigeru Miyamoto, his wife has no interest in games. Because she does not see the everyday hardships he faces with his job, she assumes he leads a happy-go-lucky lifestyle, playing games all day. The director said that he does not bring his work home with him, so he was surprised when one day his son asked him for a Wii remote. "He didn't ask for a Wii, but a Wii remote," said the game designer. In his request, the child was going by the happy faces of the people he saw playing with the device.

While his wife was apprehensive about having a gaming console in the house, said Aonuma, when they gave it a try, they found that their five year-old son not only managed to progress through the bouts of Wii boxing, but could also play Zelda. A child that young who can play as Link is surprising, said Aonuma, but downright startling was the experience of coming home to find his wife fighting a boss in Twilight Princess. "He gets so sad when he sees the big Game Over sign," Mrs. Aonuma had explained. "So I can't help but help him out." His wife says that with the older Zelda titles, she never felt compelled to play. But now, through her son's interest, she is finding a reason to actually be involved in the game. According to the director of Twilight Princess, watching his wife getting a hang of the Wii remote reminds him of his first time picking up a game pad, back in the days of Mario on the NES.

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