Announced as a surprise stinger at the end of the E3 2019 Nintendo Direct, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has occupied the top spot of many “most anticipated” lists for nearly four years. The long-awaited sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is finally here, with reviews confirming that it was well worth the hype (you can read our full review here). The entry innovates and expands upon the formula established by Breath of the Wild in myriad ways, giving players the most open-ended Zelda game yet.
With the launch finally here, we sat down with series producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi to talk about the daunting task of following Breath of the Wild, as well as the new game’s successes and challenges.
Making of TOTK
There are several things in Tears of the Kingdom that feel like payoffs from seeds planted in Breath of the Wild. When development was happening on Breath of the Wild, did you already have the idea that you were going to be developing a direct sequel?
Hidemaro Fujibayashi: Towards the end of Breath of the Wild, and even during the latter parts of the development of Breath of the Wild, I had an inkling of a few interesting ideas that I wanted to see come to fruition. Once the development of Breath of the Wild ended, we took a look at what we had, and the idea that we had was really taking what already existed in the Breath of the Wild environment and world that we created and using just that. We had a couple of ideas that we wanted to do, and some of these were ones we thought weren’t suited to be included in Breath of the Wild. So, these were tested after we finished production on Breath of the Wild. We were able to put these ideas into reality. I recorded these as movies and did a presentation to Mr. Aonuma, so that’s how Tears of the Kingdom started.
Specifically, some ideas we had were in Breath of the Wild. There are these infinitely spinning cogwheels, so we took four of those and put them on this stone slate and discovered we were able to make a makeshift car. Another idea we had was taking long slates again and putting them together to create sort of a cylinder and then dropping a remote bomb in there along with a ball, and when you detonate, we were able to create a makeshift cannon. And then, the idea of putting those two ideas together to make, again, a DIY tank. This movie was a presentation to show that without really adding anything, all we would need was Link to have the ability to connect things and stick things together, and an entirely new experience could be had.
Eiji Aonuma: Then, from my perspective, after the development and production of Breath of the Wild had ended, I still really felt that there was a lot of potential somewhere hidden in this world that we had created. And so, when things took the turn to discussing the potential for a sequel, I was really happy to see this presentation coming from Mr. Fujibayashi.
The Legend of Zelda series is not one that typically gets direct sequels, but it has gotten a few. When you and I spoke at E3 2019, Mr. Aonuma, I asked you if you were giving the team more time than you had with Majora’s Mask, and you laughed and said, “yes.” Are there any other lessons you learned from making direct sequels in the Zelda franchise that you were able to apply in making Tears of the Kingdom?
EA: When considering sequels and the topic of making sequels, it is true that I’ve been involved in things like, as you mentioned, Majora’s Mask as being a sequel to Ocarina of Time, and then A Link Between Worlds being a sequel to A Link to the Past. But when thinking about the development of this game as a sequel, the scope and direction that the development needed to take for this game was completely different than those previous examples. That is to say we were using the world that we had created in Breath of the Wild to build a sequel from scratch with this game, instead of with previous examples that I had mentioned, reformatting or restructuring the games from their previous iterations and reconfiguring them to make something new.
There was really a challenge in this time of making a game this large. And with a game this large, as a producer, I had the hope that this was something that we’d be able to accomplish quickly, but of course, I learned that making a game of this scale is not an easy feat. And I had to kind of learn that the hard way as we proceeded through development.
Hyrule in Breath of the Wild was so massive. I remember just being in awe of how huge it was back in 2017, but then when you look at Hyrule and the world you’re able to explore in Tears of the Kingdom, it’s so much larger. Was there any hesitation in creating such a large world with the concern that it might overwhelm players?
HF: I don’t think there was any hesitation because we really put into consideration the speed or velocity of progress that players might be doing, and also thinking about what players might want to do in this world and using that as ingredients to provide a calculation or formula to do this. From that perspective, I think the size is as we have intended and calculated.
I think I may have mentioned this in an interview, maybe back in 2017, where the world of Hyrule is a rough approximation in terms of feeling as the city of Kyoto. And being from the city of Kyoto, I understood how much distance is felt within that city, and to overlap Hyrule with that really felt right to me. So from that point, we kind of let our imagination grow a little bit and created this world.
I’ve only ever been to Tokyo and Osaka. Does Kyoto have islands floating above it as well?
HF: [Laughs] I want to invite you to Kyoto to see for yourself if there are.
The Hyrule of Tears of the Kingdom, as we’ve covered, is very much the same one from Breath of the Wild, but it adds so much to it, even beyond the Sky Islands. How does the work you had to do to create such vast modifications and changes to the existing Hyrule compare to the work you would have needed to do to create an entirely new world?
HF: I think it’s a little bit different in terms of the type of difficulties and hardships that we encountered with this idea of diving because there’s an entire field up in the sky. So this idea of vertical play comes into view. And really, when you’re talking about diving, the speed at which Link travels vertically is a lot faster than, say, running across the field in lateral movement. Even as he’s descending in the sky, at least when you start out, there’s not a lot of lateral movement in the sky. But then, when you introduce this new ability to build vehicles, then Link is able to achieve lateral movement.
And, of course, thinking about the kinds of vehicles players are going to create – of course, they don’t actually need to create any vehicles since they can choose not to use vehicles – and making sure all of that feels right was a lot of work. And doing that in the sky was a unique challenge. For example, making sure that the distances between the islands were such that it makes sense and provides a comfortable traveling experience, how high the Sky Islands are going to be… all of that to make sure it feels good. That work was a lot of time and effort spent. And, of course, myself being from Kyoto, I knew the lay of the land, but I’ve never skydove into Kyoto, so I had to work my imagination that way.
What did the inclusion of Ganondorf in Tears of the Kingdom allow you to accomplish that you weren’t able to with Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild?
HF: So, simply put, I think we were able to, with that addition, provide an entirely different story and an entirely different experience between Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. With Breath of the Wild, we knew what we wanted to make, and we knew what kind of story we wanted to tell. And within that kind of setting that we set for ourselves, the idea of the Demon King Ganondorf wasn’t the right fit, and that’s why we created what was Calamity Ganon. With Tears of the Kingdom, there were ideas that weren’t able to make it into Breath of the Wild, or maybe setting-wise, we had thought about potentially using it in Breath of the Wild but didn’t, and now, it became possible to drop all of that into Tears of the Kingdom.
With Tears of the Kingdom, there’s this new relationship between the Demon King Ganondorf and Zelda, and then Link, the protagonist that kind of falls in between that. And really, I think we were able to come up with a new expression of this relationship and the story and the scenario of this game and were able to really create a new world and new story even though the system is very similar to the previous game.
When looking at the collection of powers Link has in this game, it feels like such a result of creative experimentation on the development team’s part. During that process, were there any ideas that you wanted to include but just didn’t work out?
HF: You know, come to think of it, there’s actually not a lot that we decided not to move forward with. We had the four abilities pretty early on that we wanted to use. Out of them, Ascend was the last one to be added, but again, there weren’t a lot of ideas that we ended up not using for this title. But of course, in the initial phases, we throw out a bunch of ideas and then kind of whittled it down to these four ideas, so what I mean by not having a lot that we didn’t use, I mean beyond that point; there was initially a lot of ideas that came up, but that was in a very early stage before it was actually fleshed out.
EA: When it comes to abilities, as Mr. Fujibayashi mentioned, we didn’t really have any that we came up with and didn’t use, but as you’re aware, there are also these objects known as Zonai Devices that are important when combining things together to build things like vehicles. There are a lot of types of these in the game, but we also had a lot of different versions of Zonai Devices that we came up with ideas for, but at some point, we realized we don’t want to give the player too many of these and cause decision paralysis or trouble for them. So we did eventually kind of pare that list down, and there were a few Zonai Device ideas that we didn’t use.
With the powers that Link has, for example, you mentioned Ascend – that power completely changes the way you explore Hyrule. And so does Ultrahand. Meanwhile, Fuse changes the way you approach combat. It’s all so well implemented, but I have to imagine that this challenged you as a game creator in completely new ways.
EA: When thinking of Ascent, we have this ability that lets you pass through surfaces that are above you as long as you have a ceiling above you, and you can pop out on the other side. But, of course, there are a lot of places that we would prefer people aren’t able to pop out on the other side. We also didn’t want things like loading issues to happen, where the game doesn’t have time to load the data in the new location you’ll arrive at and you could show up somewhere where there’s just nothing there. We didn’t want that, but we knew this was an ability we didn’t want to remove. We wanted to give people this power, so this was a good example of something that we had to go back and forth on numerous times and work with the development team everybody together to make sure that we got this one right and it would give people the ability we wanted them to have without causing some of the problems I mentioned before.
And regardless of how intelligently the game is designed and how creative its mechanics are implemented, these powers are so open-ended that people are inevitably going to solve puzzles and problems in ways you didn’t even imagine. I know I completed several puzzles and scenarios in the game where I thought, “Was that the right way to do it, or did cheat that?” What goes through your mind when you see somebody successfully complete a problem in a way you never even thought of?
EA: When you think about people… cheating is fun! [laughs] They like it! Finding that shortcut is enjoyable. People will look for an easy way to do something if they can avoid struggling. We want to make sure that is something that stayed in this game. When thinking of games in the past that we’ve worked on, where there was a puzzle to solve and only one answer, that’s kind of the past way of developing games. Now, I’m happy that we’ve arrived at this method where we’re giving people lots of options, and there are many answers to a single problem, and all of them can potentially be correct. I feel happy that we’ve arrived at this type of development style.
The State of Zelda
On that note, I think a lot of people share the viewpoint that Ocarina of Time was kind of the starting point for one era of Zelda games, laying the foundation for the several titles that came after it. Do you see Breath of the Wild as establishing the new blueprint or foundation of the next several Zelda games for years to come?
EA: With Ocarina of Time, I think it’s correct to say that it did kind of create a format for a number of titles in the franchise that came after it. But in some ways, that was a little bit restricting for us. While we always aim to give the player freedoms of certain kinds, there were certain things that format didn’t really afford in giving people freedom. Of course, the series continued to evolve after Ocarina of Time, but I think it’s also fair to say now that we’ve arrived at Breath of the Wild and the new type of more open play and freedom that it affords. Yeah, I think it’s correct to say that it has created a new kind of format for the series to proceed from.
Breath of the Wild was such a change from the rest of the franchise, but it still had a lot of the same DNA and undeniably felt like a Zelda game. When you’re implementing new features and innovating in such drastic ways with a long-running and beloved series like The Legend of Zelda, is there any nervousness that they might alienate longtime fans?
EA: Well, it’s just as you said: Making sure that Zelda-ness or that Zelda feel is really in the game. I think that’s a really important point. Even if a game like Breath of the Wild has really big changes in it, as long as the fans and the players are able to feel that this is a Zelda game at its core when they play the game, that is something that is really important for us when meeting fans’ expectations.
HF: And really, when we’re talking about this, I guess, essence of Zelda, as long as we preserve that, then I think it provides us with the freedom to really build Zelda, and it can become many different things. For example, it could be a puzzle game, an adventure game, or an action game. All of these moments that can be dropped into a game help it become a Zelda-like game as long as that essence is preserved. I think even with Breath of the Wild, there are big changes in the core gameplay mechanics, but that essence was still preserved. Likewise, with Tears of the Kingdom, we’re really providing players with the freedom to use their creativity to come up with solutions, so that nervousness or doubt about whether this is okay isn’t something that we’re really worried about. What we really are focused on is that, through experimentation, making sure that the gameplay experience is something that is enjoyable and fun, and then taking that and making sure that the essence of Zelda is still alongside that. That is what I think makes it important, and that’s a field that the Zelda team really has a lot of confidence in.
The Zelda series has been running for more than three decades now, and it’s still putting out critically acclaimed entries pretty much every time. What do you think is the most important factor for how the development team is able to sustain this high level of quality over such a long period of time?
HF: Speaking from the development perspective, I think some of it has to do with the fact that we have a unique and diverse set of people in our teams in that they have all kinds of hobbies; it’s not only just people who play games. And they have these hobbies that they enjoy, and they take that fun that they experience in their real lives and try to drop the essence of those elements into the games that they create. Having that environment where they feel like they can freely develop and use their creativity to drop these into the games they’re working on, I think, plays a critical role in allowing for very diverse and unique games to be created.
EA: When it comes to Nintendo’s development, I think we have a bit of tenacity with the ideas that we come up with. So as you may be aware, Mr. Fujibayashi was the director of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and in this game, he had the desire to give Link the ability to seamlessly descend from the sky and then, after landing, kind of proceed from there. That was something that, given the time, he was unable to do, but I think that this idea is something that probably stuck with him and stayed in his head. When it came time to make games of a different kind and the type or the shape of the game might change those, those opportunities arise when you can find a way when you can find a way, maybe from a different angle of implementing that idea that you’ve kept with you all this time.
This is something I think Mr. Miyamoto has said in the past, but when you have an idea and try to make it work, and it doesn’t work out, you don’t give up on that idea. Instead, just wait for the right opportunity to arrive. Those ideas – and I think this is true of our developers – stick around in their heads; they keep them with them as they continue in their work. When those things pile up, and the right opportunity presents itself, we find the opportunity to implement those ideas.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD
You mentioned Mr. Fujibayashi’s work on Skyward Sword. Was the release of Skyward Sword HD on Switch in 2021 a strategic move to perhaps prepare players to recall some of the parallel themes in Tears of the Kingdom?
EA: I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t necessarily intend strategically for Skyward Sword HD’s release timing to occur when it did. You know, there are a lot of projects, including Zelda development projects, that proceed in parallel at Nintendo, and we always discuss the appropriate release timing for those projects overall as a company and decide the best timing for things to come about. While I can say that I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between the Skyward Sword HD release timing preceding Tears of the Kingdom, I’m very happy if folks like yourself play both games and do sense some common threads or characteristics.
When we spoke at E3 2019, I asked you about the possibility of a Skyward Sword remaster with an option for no motion controls, and I believe you said it would be “close to impossible.” Fast forward two years, and that’s exactly what we got. What changed to make it possible?
EA: I’m sure that you’re right! During our interview back then, I probably mentioned that it seems like it won’t be possible, but I also probably had in my head at the time that this is a challenge that we would like to take on if we had the opportunity. As you’re aware, obviously, the Nintendo Switch is a system that does feature motion controls, and the first thing we would need to accomplish in bringing Skyward Sword to the Switch will be making sure that the motion controls from the original game felt good on that system; that would be the first thing we would need to take care of. But, of course, eventually, there would be a need for us to, as you mentioned, come up with a way to make sure you can play the game without using motion control. I thought that if this was something we could accomplish and we had a good way to do it, then it would be okay to proceed with creating a remake.
So, at the time when we were having our interview, I don’t think that I probably had that idea firmly in my mind, but I’m someone who receives input from a lot of different people, and once the right idea comes to us, presents itself, or someone comes up with it, then the path kind of opens, and we’re able to proceed. I think that’s what happened this time. I think that’s what happened this time as well. That’s kind of another representation of that tenacity I mentioned previously.