To make a game as massive and astounding as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the developers at Nintendo needed to take a lot of experiments. As a result, they left a lot of ideas on Hyrule’s floor.
Unlike other Zelda games, Breath of the Wild won’t give you access to environment-altering items that you gradually acquire as you make progress. Instead, the game offers four core “rune” skills: bombs, a magnet, a time-freezing stasis ability, and the ability to create a pillar of ice out of any body of water. You’ll obtain all four of these runes during the first two hours, in Breath of the Wild’s opening area, and with them you can solve any puzzle in the game.
But how did Nintendo decide on those four? During an interview at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi told me about some of the other ideas they’d tried over the past few years.
“Hookshot was [one] we experimented with and tested, as well as [the] Beetle from Skyward Sword,” Fujibayashi said, referring to the flying mechanical insect that you could use to grab items and drop bombs on enemies. “After a lot of experimentation and testing, we weeded out all the ones that had potential to detract from the gameplay and enjoying the game. What’s left currently, the four items, were really what would draw out the fun of the game.”
During their original experiments, they played around with allowing Breath of the Wild players to obtain objects within dungeons, as you could in previous Zelda games. They even tried the Link Between Worlds approach, although that was a little limiting.
“We did at one point test what it would be like to be able to obtain some of these abilities in some point in the story,” Fujibayashi said. “But when we do that, you are pigeonholed into having a specific order of dungeons. We did have ideas [that] if a certain dungeon needs bombs, for example, we might put a little bomb icon on the dungeon walls or somewhere on the ground.”
And then there were the weirder experiments, the ones that proved to Fujibayashi and his team that some Zelda traditions have lasted 31 years for a reason.
“We had talked about the idea of maybe — usually the heart gauge decreases from the right, having it decrease from the left,” Fujibayashi said. “Or have it naturally regain over time... We actually did that with a number of things in the game that don’t look like they changed in the final product. Actually, during our experimentation we tried to change them, and then realized, ‘Oh, this is actually really well thought out.’”
Another series tradition they tried to change: treasure chests. “We thought maybe there’s something we can do differently with these,” Fujibayashi said. “You’d find a treasure chest in the game that’s open. It’s just open, and that’s the end of it.” (This concept wound up confusing players too much, so they cut it.)
One of the reasons Fujibayashi and his team tried so many new things with Breath of the Wild—and one of the reasons it took so long, after originally being slated for 2015—is that Nintendo decided mid-development that the new Zelda would come to both Wii U and Switch, then code-named NX. During Fujibayashi’s GDC panel last week, he and the other directors shared a joke e-mail from series producer Eiji Aonuma:
“It wasn’t a real email, but our back and forth with him followed a similar pattern,” Fujibayashi said. Having to bring Breath of the Wild to Switch wasn’t a huge surprise—“We knew about the hardware... We thought it’s probably gonna come, oh and here it is.”—but it was a big undertaking, and it meant that Nintendo had to scrap all of the ideas they had for the Wii U’s GamePad controller, like a separate map and a different control scheme.
“When it was originally just for the Wii U, we had touch controls,” said Fujibayashi. “But we had to remove them... Although it was not very flashy or exciting work, it was still time-consuming and difficult.”
In Breath of the Wild, one of Link’s main tools is the Sheikah Slate, a device that resembles the Wii U GamePad and allows Link to interact with the world. Originally, this Sheikah Slate was going to be far more connected to Wii U GamePad, to the point where Fujibayashi and the other developers had to overhaul parts of the story when they decided to bring Breath of the Wild to Switch as well.
“We felt that the way the Sheikah Slate is represented in the game and how we use the GamePad in real life synced really well,” said Fujibayashi. “So when we had to remove it, I did feel like, ‘Oh, it’s too bad we had to do that.’ And because it was so tied into the scenario, we did have to go back and redesign and rethink the scenario, which was a little bit [of] hard work.”
So what’s next for Fujibayashi and crew? I told them I thought they had made the best Zelda game yet. I asked how they thought they could surpass it.
“Every time we put out a Zelda game we feel like we’re at the top of the mountain [and] this is the best Zelda game,” Fujibayashi said. “But we realize there’s a taller mountain behind that. And I feel like the minute you feel like this is the tallest mountain there ever will be, then you’re not being a good Zelda director.”
“Now that you’ve made the biggest Zelda,” I said, “you have to make the smallest possible Zelda.”
Fujibayashi laughed. “We’ll make one just within this room.”