Eiji Aonuma on the return of A Link To The Past, after 22 years in a twilight realm

Released in Japan in 1991 and produced by Shigeru Miyamoto, the SNES title The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past has gone down as one of the most revered games in history. It wasn’t the first Zelda,  of course, but it set the quintessential adventure template and put the series on a course it has followed for decades. Thus Nintendo’s classic ARPG is considered holy by many, and you don’t mess with sacred artefacts. Not unless you are Eiji Aonuma, a designer who’s worked on the Zelda series since 1998’s equally renowned Ocarina Of Time and who now heads up the team creating A Link To The Past’s sequel for 3DS. We ask him how you follow up a 22-year-old classic on a platform offering a variety of ways to play, and what prompted Nintendo to revisit its world after all this time.

During January’s Nintendo Direct, you said that you intend to “rethink the conventions of Zelda”, and then a few months later you announced the sequel to a game from 1991. Isn’t that a contradiction?

[Laughs] Right. But although it looks like we’re repeating ourselves, the new game will play very differently to the original. I think the new additions will make players see the game in a different way. And, of course, we’ll introduce even more unexpected elements in the Zelda game that we’re making for Wii U.

Why return to the world of A Link To The Past? And why do it now, some 22 years after the original?

I didn’t make the original, but it was the first game I played that opened up my eyes to all the things a videogame can be. It’s the game that inspired me to make games.

When the 3DS came along, I thought it would be cool to make a 2D-style Zelda game that you could play in 3D – it seemed like a challenge. In the meantime, one of our younger staff had this idea of giving Link the ability to turn into a painting and walk around the walls. While I was thinking about how best to implement that idea, I thought it might be interesting to combine that side-on view with the top-down view of A Link To The Past. So we arrived at the idea of making a new game set in the existing world of A Link To The Past. More than the world or whatever else, the main thing I wanted to get back to was the jaunty tempo of a top-down game. In a 2D Zelda game, you can zip through the stage at a faster pace, which brings the action to the fore. I wanted players to revisit that style.

The original game is nothing short of a masterpiece. How will you live up to the fans’ expectations? You must be feeling some pressure.

Yes, that’s a concern. Fans of the original game have a lot of fond memories, and when we announced this sequel I know that some were dubious about the idea of us adding to that game’s lore. The challenge is to pinpoint what it was about the original that people loved and to respect that, and so long as we do that I think we can make something those fans will like. It’s been a big point of discussion among the staff – how much fan service to give without blowing it. We’ve been thinking about how to make the new one in a way that will excite the fans without alienating people who haven’t played the original. We’re paying close attention to that.

Have you been looking at the comments from fans on Twitter, the Internet at large and Miiverse, and taking those into account?

If we respond too directly to the things the fans are asking for, they’ll end up playing a predictable game. But with the Internet, social networks and Miiverse, the fans have more ways than ever to voice their opinions. We hear that input, and then we think about how to deliver something even better than what they’re asking for. I really don’t want fans of the original to hate it! So I’m working hard to make sure it doesn’t [make them do that]. If I really get it that wrong, then I’ll consider myself talentless [laughs].

What lessons have you learned from your previous Zelda games that have influenced this one?

Each time we make a new Zelda game, we’re aware that if we change it too much, the fans will feel it is too much of a departure from the series. But if we don’t change the game systems, then there’s nothing new to enjoy. So it’s all about expanding the ways to play while still making a Zelda game.

This new title will feature lots of things that are new to the series; right at the start of the game, there’s a big surprise that will shock players. We started out with the new play mechanics, such as Link being able to become a painting and walk along the walls, and then figured out from there how to build a story around them. Rather than forcing elements of the original story into this one, we’ve instead focused on bringing back the characters, so you can see what happened to them after the events of the first game.

Will there be a Dark World?

Yes, that’s an important point. Part of what made A Link To The Past interesting was the way you could move between the Light World and the Dark World and solve puzzles, and we’re planning to bring that back in A Link To The Past 2 for sure. Link’s ability to become a painting will be related to that.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in rebuilding a 2D world using 3D components?

The truth is that the SNES version used lots of sneaky tricks to portray that 2D world [laughs]. For example, when you had a lot of trees, you could see the roots as well as the treetops, but in reality you can’t see the roots of a tree from above. However, if you can’t see the roots then it’s difficult to navigate the field, so we had to show them this time, too. So again there are lots of sneaky tricks in this version.

The staff were split between those who thought we might have to stick rigidly to the world of the original and those who thought we should make something completely new. But those discussions led us to conclude that some things were worth keeping and others were worth changing. For example, some enemies and their attacks worked differently in a 2D space than they do in 3D, and with the new game’s extra level of depth. So we took each element on its own merits.

The original game was made under Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. Have you gone to them for advice while making the sequel?

I have asked them for advice, but the problem is that they don’t remember anything! For instance, Link was originally left-handed, but later became right-handed, and everyone has a different theory as to the reasons why. When I asked Miyamoto about it, he said, “I forget!” But rather than make this game the way Miyamoto and Tezuka did, we want to make a game that they will find exciting to play.

What kind of tools and puzzles are in the game that could only work on 3DS? Are you using the handheld for more than its stereoscopic 3D screen? After all, you have gyros, cameras, two screens, and touch input.

Well, there are players who don’t like 3D and always keep it switched off, so there’s nothing in the game that absolutely requires 3D, like puzzles that can’t be solved without it.

The problem with the gyros is that moving the 3DS destabilises the 3D effect, so we’re avoiding that. But the game runs at 60fps, while all the 3D games up till now have run at 30fps. The faster the framerate, the more stable the 3D effect, so 60fps is a big deal. And, of course, we’ll take advantage of there being two screens, so that you have the map on the bottom screen and can change items by touching and so on.

The 3DS software lineup is strong at the moment – it recalls the SNES era in a way. So what was the reason you chose to make this game for the device?

By which you mean that Wii U doesn’t have such a strong lineup, right [laughs]? But the great thing about the 3DS is that it offers new ways to play, or ways to reimagine past franchises, which makes it very easy to think of new types of games to make.

The character of Link has always been left deliberately blank, giving players enough room to project their own personalities onto him. What’s your take on the boy in the green tunic?

When I first started making Zelda games, I was more interested in the enemy characters than in Link himself. But while I was making Twilight Princess, I was listening to the theme music on an iPod while walking hand in hand with my child, and I suddenly burst into tears. I was thinking about all the awful trials Link would have to go through in the new game. I realised that Link really is my other child. I don’t inhabit the character so much as watch him from somewhere very close.

As a Zelda fan yourself, do you remember how you felt when you first joined the team that was making Ocarina Of Time?

The thing I was most excited about was the 3D worlds Nintendo was creating for N64, and thinking about how best to explore the new boundaries and turn that into a Zelda game. I found it fascinating and so much fun. And after I finished making the game’s final battle with Ganondorf and the ending, I cried.

I remember getting a letter from a schoolgirl who had paralysis on one side of her body. Her mum had given her a copy of Ocarina Of Time to keep her occupied in the hospital, and she was inspired by Link to not give up. She started to put more effort into her rehab, and she regained the ability to walk again. I realised from that letter the power of games to move people, and the importance of never making a game halfheartedly.

Aside from some credits on the Smash Bros games, you’ve spent over 15 years working solely on Zelda. Do you have any desire to make something else?

Definitely. I’m 50 now, so I only have about ten more years to make games at Nintendo. I want to try all sorts of new things before it’s too late – I don’t want to get to the end of my career and only have worked on Zelda. But every time I come up with some good new ideas, they end up being used in a Zelda game! I need a six-month break to get away from the Zelda cycle and focus on something new [laughs]. But I’d probably end up making a game that’s similar to Zelda; after all, A Link To The Past was my biggest influence.

After being so heavily influenced by A Link To The Past, how do you feel to be making a sequel to it all these years later?

I’m slightly worried to be making a sequel to someone else’s game, that’s for sure. When I was younger, I would never have dreamed of making a sequel to a game by Shigeru Miyamoto. But now that I’m older, I’m like, “Whatever!”

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