The Future of Zelda

Last week at E3, I got to chat with the fine folks behind the next two Zelda games: the action spinoff Hyrule Warriors and the recently-announced open-world Zelda that will be out next year. Both games are on Wii U.

We talked about what Hyrule Warriors will do, what "Zelda" actually means, and whether a Zelda game will ever star a lady, among many other things. I couldn't resist slipping in a question about Majora's Mask, too. And of course we talked about what next year's Zelda will bring.

The cast, from left to right in the above photo:

Eiji Aonuma, Zelda producer and the guy in charge of the series. Enjoys dancing like a chicken.

Yosuke Hayashi, head of Team Ninja, and a lead on Hyrule Warriors.

Hisashi Koinuma, a producer at Tecmo Koei, also a lead on Hyrule Warriors.

Reiko Ninomiya, a translator who works for Nintendo's Treehouse, who helped us all communicate.

I've already posted a few excerpts from this talk, but some readers have requested the whole transcript, so here's the whole thing, edited for clarity and brevity.


Schreier: There was a lot of talk about the main character of the trailer—is it Link, is it not Link, is it a boy, is it a girl? One of the big questions that it got people talking about is: Would we ever be able to play as a female hero in a Zelda game? Is that something you've ever thought about, or something you're considering?

Aonuma: The main character isn't actually Link—it's the player. Of course we have to have a main character in the story, so Link is that main character. But I don't want him to be like a superhero. I want him to represent any player, have that possibility. So that's why I don't really know if we need or want to define it so clearly.

Schreier: But when you look at Link, you see a certain type of person—you see a male character... There was a case I remember where a father coded Legend of Zelda and made it so you could play as a woman because his daughter wanted to feel like she was really represented in the game. Mr. Aonuma, have you ever thought about that, and whether it'd be more inclusive to female players if they could play as someone of their own gender?

Aonuma: Is it that simple—that creating a female character means bringing more female users into the world?

Schreier: I guess what I mean is, when I'm playing and I see a man—in response to what you said about Link being a representation for the player, and the player being the main character—when a man is playing, he can feel more represented by the player character than a woman playing might.

Aonuma: So there are actually many female characters you can play as in Hyrule Warriors. We've introduced Midna, we've introduced Princess Zelda, and Impa as well. So if that connection needs to be there—I'm not saying that it does—let's see what happens with Hyrule Warriors, if as a result of there being more female protagonists, more women pick up the game, I'm all for it, so I've decided to see what happens with this title.

Schreier: I wanted to talk a little about the open world in the next Zelda game that you announced. I played Link Between Worlds, and I liked it very much, and it was very interesting in the way it changed things up and was non-linear in that you could rent items and choose which dungeons you wanted to go to in whichever order you wanted to go to them. But for Link Between Worlds, in each of the dungeons, you could really only use that one specific item that you needed to bring into the dungeons, and there weren't the multi-item, really complicated, difficult puzzles that other Zelda games often have.

I'm wondering—if the new Zelda is also non-linear, will you run into the same problem? How do you make a Zelda game that is non-linear and also has those kind of difficult dungeons that require you to use multiple items and are very complex and complicated and interesting?

Aonuma: I hadn't actually thought that because there was only one item per dungeon that puzzle-solving was made simpler because of that, and that in contrast multiple-item puzzle-solving was more complicated, so I guess I'll keep that in mind.

About the open world though in the new Zelda game—I heard that there was some concern out there about whether or not the images that were used in the trailer were cinematics or if they were actually in-game graphics—they are indeed in-game graphics. So you saw behind me there were mountains in the background; you can actually go to those on your horse. You can actually ride out to those—I just wanted to clarify that.

But today we're here to talk about Hyrule Warriors, so if possible I think we should shift the conversation to that project.

The Future of Zelda

Schreier: So I know that you can play as Zelda and Midna in Hyrule Warriors. A lot of people have been looking at that and saying, 'Hey, I would love a game where I could play as Zelda, or Sheik'—have you ever thought about making a game where you get to play as Zelda and Sheik as the main character or hero?

Aonuma: I mentioned this earlier, but there are female characters in Hyrule Warriors, and I'd like to see what the result is of people actually being able to do all these things they want to, and if we get the results that in fact do say if people are given the opportunity to play as a female character, then more people will start playing, my ultimate goal is to have as many people as possible enjoy a game so I'd like to see what happens with Hyrule Warriors.

Schreier: So Hyrule Warriors is very much like Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Warriors has traditionally had a very niche, specific audience. And Zelda, on the other hand, has always had a very broad audience—a lot of people are very interested in Zelda, and Zelda appeals to anybody. Anybody can pick up and play. How do you make something like Hyrule Warriors appeal to a broader audience like Zelda does?

Hayashi: In the past, traditionally the Dynasty Warriors series has been taken place in settings that aren't familiar to Westerners. They have been historically Chinese, or something like that. Because this time the theme is The Legend of Zelda, a franchise that has appealed to such a broad audience, we think this is a good opportunity for first-time players to try the game out, test the gameplay out, see if it fits for them, and maybe open their eyes to a new type of gameplay.

Schreier: So how much involvement did Mr. Aonuma actually have with the development of Hyrule Warriors?

Aonuma: Initially, Hayashi-san and I worked very very closely together in the planning stages, but once we were able to come up with something that gave us a good sense for what our ultimate goal was gonna look like, then I stepped back a little bit and moved into more of a consulting role. So once they started development, it was more of them checking in, looking at new builds, new versions of the game, the progress they were making. I have to admit though, coming up to E3 we talked almost on a daily basis.

Schreier: So Hyrule Warriors is, from what I've seen, it's a very action-heavy game, there's a lot of fighting monsters, and fighting enemies. But when you think of a Zelda game, you don't just think of action, you think of exploration, and puzzle-solving, and dungeon adventuring—are there any of those elements in Hyrule Warriors, or is Hyrule Warriors only going to be about action?

Hayashi: From the initial conceptual stage, when Aonuma-san and I were in the planning phase working really closely together to get a sense of what the game was gonna look like, we decided it didn't really make sense for the team at Tecmo Koei to make a copy of what Aonuma-san and his team develop, but one thing we did make sure to do was to include elements that would make the fans of the Zelda series happy, include things that they would appreciate.

So our decision at that time was to let Aonuma-san's team develop the more traditional Zelda games with the gameplay like the exploration and the puzzle-solving, let him take care of those, and we would work on the celebration title, but I have to say though that sense of accomplishment that is so key to the experience in the Legend of Zelda titles, you do have that in Hyrule Warriors.

Schreier: Does Hyrule Warriors use the GamePad? What kind of ways does it use the GamePad?

Hayashi: There's a co-op version, there's a co-op mode in Hyrule Warriors where two people can play. But we've used the GamePad as kind of the second screen. So in the past when there's been multiplayer in Dynasty Warriors games we've used the split-screen approach. But this time because we have the two screens both players can be playing on a full screen.

Schreier: When I think of Zelda, I don't just think of Link and his sword and shield, I also think of the hookshot, and boomerang, and bombs, and all of the other items and familiar tropes in Zelda's world. Will those all also be in Hyrule Warriors?

Hayashi: Yes, they do, and they're not just used in those battle scenes, but I'm hoping that players look forward to the different ways these tools are used in Hyrule Warriors.

Schreier: Mr. Aonuma, since you talked about Hyrule Warriors during the preproduction stage and then went off to work on the traditional Zelda, how do you feel about other people working on your baby, the series you're in charge of? Is it scary?

Aonuma: Actually, no, I had the same concerns that I do when I leave my team in Kyoto—I give them an assignment and we work on developing a game. Because the check-ins that I do with Tecmo Koei are pretty much in the same frequencies as the ones that I have with my team internally, they happen about once a month. There is the physical space difference, where my team is local, but having worked with the development team at Tecmo Koei, I really get the sense that they are very passionate about the Zelda franchise, and they really love the Zelda franchise. So I really got the strong sense that it wasn't a mistake, that this is actually a really good move, and every check-in that I have where they show me the new version, what they've done with the Hyrule Kingdom is just confirmation of that.

Schreier: You've talked a lot about shaking up the series traditions, and kinda changing things for Zelda in some big ways. For either Hyrule Warriors or future Zelda games like the one you just announced, would you ever consider giving Link voice acting and a personality?

Aonuma: Actually the voice issue is a little bit tricky. We could just make him talk, we could just give him a voice and have him speak, but does that add to how fun the game is? Does that add to the experience? It might actually just make it the same as a lot of other games. By not having him talk, it kinda lowers the hurdle for the player to really feel attached to Link, so that's something that I'm still having to think about.

Schreier: Is it something that you've ever actually experimented with, or made a prototype or anything like that?

Aonuma: (laughter) There are actually a series of videos called Nyan Nyan Mario Time, that are only in Japanese. In those videos, Link was talking, and not only was the actions and the voice a little bit strange, but it just felt strange overall.

Schreier: Why did it feel strange?

Aonuma: (laughter) Link doesn't talk yet, but if he did, he probably wouldn't sound like this.

Aonuma: But you know, in the same way that I have a strong sense for the way Link should sound, I think everybody has a sense for how their Link sounds. And Tecmo Koei I think they agree with me because they opted not to make Link have a voice in Hyrule Warriors either.

Schreier: Do the other characters? If I play as Zelda will she talk in the game?

Aonuma: They just do the "ahhh" sound. This is actually the first Warriors game where characters don't talk.

Schreier: Ah, interesting. Is there a story at all in Hyrule Warriors?

Hayashi: There certainly is. The story happens in kind of this separate Zelda Hyrule world, and Link starts off as a trainee. Through a series of interactions, that's how the story transpires. But in the process I feel like we've really provided players with a little bit different gameplay, and maybe some gameplay they've been looking for, something they're excited to experience.

Schreier: So is the Link we see in Hyrule Warriors the same as the Link we see in Smash Bros and also the Link we see in the new Zelda and all the other Zeldas we've been looking at? Are these all different generations? I don't wanna get into the timeline, but just like a brief overview.

Aonuma: I don't want to get into the timeline either. (laughing)

Hayashi: This is actually a new Link, specifically created for the Hyrule Warriors. He exists within the world that Hyrule Warriors' story takes place. If you can think about Hyrule Warriors and the Legend of Zelda worlds, they're existing in separate dimensions but there is some crossover between the two. And through this crossover you've got shared characters, you've got Link, you've got Princess Zelda, you've got Impa, Midna, and most of the other characters, and enemies, that also have crossed over to this Hyrule Warriors world.

Schreier: If someone is a Zelda fan but hasn't played the Dynasty Warriors games, how would you convince them to play Hyrule Warriors?

Aonuma: In Hyrule Warriors, the Tecmo Koei team did a great job of including a lot of content from the Zelda universe that I think fans of the series will be really excited to see in this new context. We've talked a little bit about the playable characters—there's a host of characters as well that normally you can't play as, but in Hyrule Warriors you can. And in addition, as you're playing as these chars, they've got a variety of attacks and even the team in Kyoto who works on the Legend of Zelda series, as they're playing the game, they're like oh my gosh they're doing things that we couldn't even imagine were possible, or could happen.

So there's lots to enjoy for fans of the series. I think they'll have a lot of fun playing it. In addition, because of the gameplay system that is available, there's a huge battlefield and there are all these battles that take place in these different areas on the field, and depending on how the players should decide to claim those different spaces on the map, the flow will change, the experience will change.

In addition, with the boss battles in Legend of Zelda, the door comes down and you're in the boss's room fighting it out, but in Hyrule Warriors, the boss actually moves around the field, and attacks you and attacks the other enemies and it's all really dynamic. So I think they did a great job of balancing those elements from Zelda that will definitely charm and delight fans of the series but also taking those game system elements from the Warriors series that will create a really exciting experience.

The Future of Zelda

Schreier: I have to ask... I asked readers what questions I should ask you, and the number one question was that you've hinted so many times about a new Majora's Mask or a Majora's Mask remake for the 3DS—will we ever see that?

Aonuma: I do know that fans want to see Majora's Mask. I've heard that voice, it's very, very strong, and I'm always listening, is what I would say.

Schreier: I think people reacted to the teaser in A Link Between Worlds, the mask in the house. People saw that and thought it was a hint for the future, so that's why people are excited about that.

Aonuma: Maybe I was toying with them a little. (laughter) I'm doing everything I can. I hear the voices of the fans. There are so many out there. It's very loud, and just to acknowledge the fact that the need, the want is out there, I put that in there.

Schreier: So in Skyward Sword, a few years ago, I think that a lot of people loved that game—I enjoyed that game quite a bit—but one of the biggest criticisms or complaints was that it took a very long time to actually jump into the gameplay because there were a lot of tutorials and a lot of introduction and cut-scenes in the beginning. Then Link Between Worlds came along and you just jumped in right away. So I wonder, when planning for future games, are you going to go more towards that Link Between Worlds approach or Skyward Sword, or something in between? How do you feel about intros and tutorials these days?

Aonuma: Yes. When we created Skyward Sword, I really felt the need to make sure that everyone playing the game understood it. But I also understand now, in hindsight, that when you go out and buy a game, you buy the game because you want to play it, and you don't want to have any obstacles in the way. And I guess it was received as a bit of an obstacle. In a game, it's when you get stuck, when you want that help. And I kinda frontloaded all that in Skyward Sword, and it doesn't really help to get that information when you don't know what to do with it. So that was a real learning experience for me. So I'm going to be careful not to do that.

Schreier: Is that why Link Between Worlds had the Hint Ghosts?

Aonuma: Yes.

Schreier: Something we've been talking about a little bit is, with Zelda going in so many interesting different directions, like Hyrule Warriors and the new open-world game, what exactly is Zelda now? I think the answer to that question might have been different a few years ago, but in the abstract, what do you see Zelda as? How do you define Zelda?

Aonuma: I think it's both complicated and wonderfully appealing at the same time. You know, people have asked me how I've been able to work on something so complicated and complex for so long, and my answer is always "This is all that I know." I think, especially in recent years, Zelda has proven to be something really flexible. I'll explain that a little bit. In Link Between Worlds, there's a scene with baseball in it, which doesn't always fit with all environments. In contrast, in the trailer the other day you saw a beam, like a laser almost, come out of an object, so I feel like it's got a lot of flexibility. It's defined, but it's also loose and flexible. And I also think it has a lot of potential.

Schreier: I just have to slip in one question that a lot of people are wondering—Mr. Aonuma, you've talked a lot about changing traditions and shifting away from the series formulas. Can you give me one example of a tradition that people are familiar with in Zelda that you've changed in a big way for the new Zelda that you're working on for next year?

Aonuma: So you know we've talked a little bit today about the puzzle-solving element in Zelda, and how that's kinda taken a different shape in Hyrule Warriors. But I think people have come to just assume that puzzle-solving will exist in a Zelda game, and I kinda wanna change that, maybe turn it on its ear.

As a player progresses through any game, they're making choices. They're making hopefully logical choices to progress them in the game. And when I hear 'puzzle solving' I think of like moving blocks so that a door opens or something like that. But I feel like making those logical choices and taking information that you received previously and making decisions based on that can also be a sort of puzzle-solving. So I wanna kinda rethink or maybe reconstruct the idea of puzzle-solving within the Zelda universe.