Any little change in a Legend of Zelda game — tweaks to established mechanics, a shift in art style or sly nods to a previous iteration — excites and infuriates the players who love Nintendo's iconic RPG series. Eiji Aonuma knows this and the designer who's charting the future for the franchise came to New York ready to tease the Zelda faithful.
When he spoke to a packed hall of attendees at New York Comic-Con this past Friday, Aonuma showed off a chunk of gameplay from A Link Between Worlds, the upcoming 3DS successor to A Link to the Past. Part of the presentation introduced Zelda doppelganger Hilda and her kingdom of Lorule. There've been alternate worlds and alternate versions of Link in previous games, of course. Hilda's existence is significant because she's an alternative version of Zelda but don't assume she's going to be evil.
"Obviously they're both princesses and they both have kingdoms that they love and want to support," Aonuma said. "But Lorule is a place where something cataclysmic has happened in the past. So, with Hilda, her feelings of wanting to save her country are perhaps a bit stronger than Zelda because Zelda is living in peaceful Hyrule. It's not as strong for her. I think that difference in motivation for each of them is where the differences come in." During the panel, Aonuma mentioned that Lorule has more monsters in it than Hyrule. That's a result of the cataclysm that happened in the past but Aonuma said it's also in part because of things that are happening there now.
Aonuma: "...the main place where I'm hoping to change a lot of things and show a lot of new ideas is in this next console Zelda. In the process of coming up with them, some of those ideas wound up in A Link Between Worlds."
More than any other Nintendo franchise, Zelda has a sense of mythology. It creates its own continuity, both inside and outside of the games. But Aonuma said that he doesn't really feel the need to make things 'fit' inside this mythology, in terms of game design ideas. "I think things that don't change with the times are going to get lost," Aonuma answered. "They're going to be forgotten. As times change, people want different things. That's obviously true with any kind of media, not just video games."
"You see a bit of that in Wind Waker HD and A Link Between Worlds. But the main place where I'm hoping to change a lot of things and show a lot of new ideas is in this next console Zelda. In the process of coming up with them, some of those ideas wound up in A Link Between Worlds. But my focus in changing things is going to be in this new console Zelda."
Could he talk about any of those changes at all? Would they be as radical as, say, the new shop in A Link Between Worlds? "It's way too early be talking about any of that," Aonuma laughed. "I could say something will be in the game only to have it be cut later."
"I think when you have something strong there at the base, something that [exemplifies] that 'what's it like' feeling, then you can keep changing on top of it. I think that's the best thing. I want to make sure that Zelda keeps being that type of thing."
Take the wall merge ability that Link has in A Link Between Worlds. "The basic idea of being able to move through walls was just something we hadn't ever done in a Zelda game, so we wanted to try that."
The concept of a Zelda mythology came up during the panel's Q&A session. One fan inquired about a return to Wind Waker-style cel shading. When Aonuma threw it back to the crowd, they roared with a resounding yes. "I'll think about it," he chuckled.
Aonuma: "We kind of went back with A Link Between Worlds — the game we just made — and simplified it a bit. [We went for] a bit of a throwback [feeling] there. I'm hoping that is kind of a launching point and we'll be able to get more people into Link."
Another fan asked if Aonuma would chart a return to the Majora's Mask universe. He made a theatrical show of thinking for a few long seconds before saying "If you play A Link Between Worlds, you may get an answer." When I asked Aonuma to elaborate on his vague response, this exchange happened:
Kotaku: There was that one question from somebody in the audience about Majora's Mask and he wanted to know if that's ever going to be revisited. I just want to confirm what you said as an answer was that they should play A Link Between Worlds...
Aonuma: It's not something you'll notice right away when you play it. But it's something you might be playing along and you'll be like, "Huh?" It's that kind of thing.
Kotaku: OK... [laughs]
Aonuma: I don't really want to say anymore because I think it will ruin it.
Kotaku: Is it a clue or just an homage? Does it lead somewhere? Or is it a nice nod?
Aonuma: I think if I say that it just won't be interesting.
When you go to gatherings like NYCC, there are Links and Zeldas everywhere. Dark Links. Steampunk Zeldas. Zombie Tingles. (Ok, I made up that last one.) But they're greatly outnumbered by folks dressing up as Nintendo's adventuring plumber. I asked Aonuma why Link wasn't quite as iconic or well-known as Mario. Now, to be fair, Mario's up there with Mickey Mouse and Superman in terms of ubiquity and recognition. Still, Aonuma was game enough to offer some thoughts in response. "Mario games — which are, in their core, based on running around and jumping — are much, much simpler than [Zelda games]," he replied.
"Zelda games are generally more complicated and they're a bit harder to get into. But at the same time, we kind of went back with A Link Between Worlds — the game we just made — and simplified it a bit. [We went for] a bit of a throwback [feeling] there. I'm hoping that is kind of a launching point and we'll be able to get more people into Link."