"First of all, it would be great if I didn't have to put a release date out at all," Nintendo's longtime chief game designer Shigeru Miyamoto recently told me when I asked him about the tendency for Zelda games to be late. "But I have to." We both laughed. Nearly every major Zelda console game from the past two decades has been delayed, usually at least by a year. That sets the series apart from Mario Kart, Mario Party and just about every other Nintendo franchise that more consistently ships on time and, perhaps not coincidentally, is not as critically well received.
Check the record. The all-time great Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was supposed to come out in 1997. It was released in 1998. The celebrated Zelda: Wind Waker slipped from 2002 to 2003. Twilight Princess? 2005 to 2006. The next Zelda, the one that was widely regarded as the best game of E3 2016 last week? Nintendo announced for 2015, but it is now slated for 2017.
I figured it was time to ask why these games are nearly always late.
"When we think about the release period for any Zelda game, we really want to get it out as soon as possible so that everybody can play and experience it," series producer Eiji Aonuma told me during an interview in Los Angeles last week. "But every time we make a Zelda, we want to make something new. It's hard to gauge how long that's going to take. And it's also hard to gauge at what point whatever we consider to be new is done."
Aonuma helped design Ocarina and has been the leadership roles of director or producer for all of the big Zelda games since. The first Zelda he oversaw, Majora's Mask, came out on schedule. Technically, the delays didn't start with him.
"A lot of times what we try to tackle takes a lot longer than anticipated," he said. "So that's why many times the development struggle there is a delay. The people around us keep telling us: 'This is the last one. You really need to shape up.'" Aonuma was laughing when he said this, but it's not hard to believe.
"I think there's different reasons for delays," Miyamoto told me a couple of days later. "One could be that the direction just hasn't been decided, which is probably the worst kind of delay. And the other is that the direction has been decided but putting that into reality — implementing that — is taking time. So it might have taken us six months to do this much. It will take us a year to do that much.
It sounds like the new Wii U Zelda, Breath of the Wild, was particularly tough for Nintendo to schedule. It's a very different kind of game for the company. It's vast and, from what was playable at E3, very open-ended as far as what can happen and where the player can go at any moment.
"In terms of Breath of the Wild, we implemented many things like the physics engine and the AI and the type of graphics that we use. We had to make sure that design has enough time to create that. It just dawned on us that we're not able to do that in this schedule. That's what we realised about two years ago. In this instance, we never really experienced this, so that's why we had to delay it."
One would think that Aonuma would be the one delaying the game or maybe Miyamoto, who is basically Aonuma's boss. It turns out someone else had to make the call.
"Mr Aonuma and I had this understanding that this game should be done in this timeframe," Miyamoto said. "And he's in a tough position. He can't say that we can't do it. So I had someone else look into it and they had to convince Mr Aonuma and then they had to convince me."