If you're going to start working in games development, you might as well begin on one of the greatest games of all-time. That was the rather serendipitous position Eiji Aonuma found himself in, hired by Nintendo to work on the momentous first 3D instalment of the Zelda series.
Since then, Shigeru Miyamoto has taken a step back to allow the designer to direct the series for over a decade now, creating a string of classic experiences across multiple platforms. The next, Spirit Tracks, is out on DS next month, while Nintendo beavers away in secret on Link's first bespoke Wii adventure.
In London last week to promote his new handheld game, Eurogamer snagged a rare one-on-one audience with the manager of Software Development Group No.3 in Nintendo's fabled EAD division, to discuss his career, the relationship with Miyamoto, and what's coming next. Watch the interview on video or scroll down for the entire transcript.
Eurogamer: Let's go right back to the beginning. What's your earliest gaming memory, and when did you decide you wanted to become a game designer?
Eiji Aonuma: My first encounter with any videogames in my childhood was Game & Watch, the series of portable games products launched by Nintendo. I was amazed by knowing that within such a small LCD screen such an awful lot of different things were able to be done. That was my first memory of any videogames.
Since then, however, I do not have any recollection of what kind of games I was deeply into. I hardly played with any before I was grown up, even though a lot of my friends and people around me were already playing with Nintendo Entertainment System.
As a university student, I was more excited learning about the arts and wondering whether I should be an artist or not.
In my university and grad school days I was thinking what I should do in my life, whether I would be an artist, or whether I would like to do something else. I wanted to surprise people in a meaningful way, and I decided that as the theme of my life - and I happened to know there was a company called Nintendo whose job was also to surprise people in a meaningful way.
That's why I became interested in joining the company, and the company hired me. At that time I was not thinking about becoming the game creator myself. I thought I was probably hired because the company was interested in me as a product designer, because that's what I studied at university.
It was only afterwards I learned something about The Legend of Zelda, and when I started playing it I was deeply into it and surprised by the potential of videogames. I didn't know that so many things could be done! And later on Mr Miyamoto gave me the opportunity to work on Zelda, which happened to be Ocarina of Time - and before I knew it exactly 12 years have already passed!
Eurogamer: You started on Ocarina of Time, and your first Zelda game as project lead was Majora's Mask, which was a different take on the series. Was it difficult to leave your mark on something already so well-established and well-known, that already had Mr Miyamoto's stamp all over it?
Eiji Aonuma: In fact, in my mind I did not think that Legend of Zelda was already an established franchise, especially because Ocarina of Time turned out to be the very first 3D Legend of Zelda. So I thought there were many things we were able to explore and in fact many people, including Mr Miyamoto himself, were looking forward to the new directions future 3D Zeldas could take. And it was actually Mr Miyamoto who wanted to take the same engine as Ocarina of Time, yet try to make something really new. That mission was assigned to me by Mr Miyamoto.
So taking on the assignment itself was not that difficult. The most difficult part was when Mr Miyamoto told me: 'you've got to finish it within one year'! And at first I was quite at a loss what to do: what we could do with the Zelda franchise within just one year? And then there came help from the Ocarina team and we were able to use the same team members who already had experience of working on the same engine, and also Mr Miyamoto advised us to think about anything that was left undone during the development of Ocarina.
So we focused on the time mechanism already included in the Ocarina engine and decided that we should focus on the three-day system. And by adapting it so that everything would reset if the game cannot be completed within three days, I think that we were able to come up with one idea after another which made for a very fast-paced, excited game.
As I really wanted to surprise people in a very meaningful way that was something which suited my own desire. And even though we had to tackle the challenge of completing the game in one year, it was actually an exciting challenge and I felt the team could make it.
Eurogamer: I want to explore your relationship with Mr Miyamoto. After Ocarina, was it hard for him to step back into a more hands-off role and allow someone else to take the reins? What's the relationship like now? Do you have any major creative disagreements, or arguments of the direction of the series?
Eiji Aonuma: When we were creating Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the department we were working in, called Entertainment, Analysis and Development (EAD), was rather a small team. So with something as big as Ocarina and Majora, the entire EAD had to work on the same project by co-operating with each other.
Everybody including me was closely communicating with Mr Miyamoto. Since then, gradually, the number of people working in our group has been on the increase and the number of titles EAD has been taking care of at any given time is increasing. Mr Miyamoto is on the board of directors at Nintendo and he has to take care of all the first-party software Nintendo publishes while I can concentrate on the Zelda games.
In that sense, the distance between me and Mr Miyamoto - any producer and Mr Miyamoto - has been expanding, and even I have been taking care of multiple titles simultaneously. But actually Mr Miyamoto doesn't like the idea: he would like to be as close as possible to the actual game development.
That's why, in the case of the new Legend of Zelda on Wii, he's trying to take more direct hands-on and specifically at least once every month we are having a very intimate meeting where we confirm the status quo, we discuss what needs to be done and Mr Miyamoto gives instructions as to what we need to do.
And in such a situation, of course there are some heated arguments, because each of us has his own idea as to what a Zelda game should look like, should play like. As time passes and as we are growing in terms of number of people working for the same department, naturally Mr Miyamoto has to keep some distance away from any other producers and developers, but I think we always try to have as close communications as possible in one way or the other. That's how I think everyone including me has been communicating with Mr Miyamoto at Nintendo.
Eurogamer: The next Zelda game is Spirit Tracks - I've just been playing it out there - the sequel to Phantom Hourglass. The visual style, of course, harks back to Wind Waker on GameCube. Looking back now, that style split opinion - but you brought it back for the handheld version. Did you feel strongly you wanted to bring back that style, and do you think it now works better on handheld or can you foresee a time when you'd want to return to it on home console?
Eiji Aonuma: You say it might be good for handheld: exactly, that's the point. On handheld devices like DS, for the grand universe of Zelda to be correctly depicted, cel-shading or toon-shading style is the most appropriate. For example, for the touch operation we're using on DS, top-view angle is necessary. If we're going to apply photorealistic proportions between human characters and objects, the player character would have to be really small.
But with more anime/Manga-style art, deformation is allowed and taken as a natural. By that I mean that building and some other objects around you can be very small compared with real life, but yet it's not strange in the anime style. That kind of deformation is readily available with cel-shading technology and thanks to that kind of graphical style we are now able to put Zelda in an adventure where people can identify the most important items without difficulty in understanding proper distance or proportion between character and object.
Eurogamer: Looking at Phantom Hourglass, it was very well received: were you entirely happy with it? Was there anything specifically you wanted to chance in Spirit Tracks, and how do you feel the sequel relates as an experience?
Eiji Aonuma: When we were developing Phantom Hourglass, one of the things was how to make touch-control most efficient. And our developers were able to come up with a great many elements that surpassed my original expectations; I was surprised by how convenient it is for players to play with touch-control. Whenever we were working on 3D games, dealing with camera control was one of the most difficult, important missions to tackle. However, with the advent of DS touch control we didn't have that at all.
In addition, players were able to have a brand new feeling of being able to physically touch the universe of The Legend of Zelda for the first time. So I thought it was a very good system, that we should be able to take advantage in the next title. We thought, of course, we'd be able to enhance the touch-control further and that's how we started on Spirit Tracks.
We thought about the things that were left undone in Phantom Hourglass. One of the things was co-operative play with the phantom - the phantom existed and appeared in the Wi-Fi battle mode, and we thought it would be a shame if that was used only for a separate mode. So we incorporated that idea into the main adventure of Spirit Tracks.
Not to be very specific, but we were identifying good points of Phantom Hourglass and trying to enhance them to come up with a final game design, and I think people will enjoy them.
Eurogamer: With the next Wii Zelda game, Mr Miyamoto has already spoken about it, but for you personally what difference does MotionPlus make? And more broadly, because it's still some way off, are you concerned about the Wii being technically capable of delivering something that stands up to games on other platforms?
Eiji Aonuma: Talking first on Wii MotionPlus, I've been working on the Wii version of The Legend of Zelda simultaneously with working on Spirit Tracks and now we have already come to the stage that Link is wielding his sword just as you are shaking your Wii remote. It's so natural I sometimes have to wonder why it was not available in previous games.
I think it's going to be quite surprising, but it's so natural maybe not so surprising for new Zelda fans. But it must be quite a surprise for existing and long-term Zelda fans. Maybe they will say, 'why couldn't Nintendo apply the same system to Twilight Princess? You already had the Wii remote.' Among the fans I think it's going to be quite a big difference.
As to other elements of Wii MotionPlus, I'm afraid I have to refrain from talking anything probably until E3 next year. The only thing I may be able to confirm is, we are trying to change the structure, how the game proceeds, in terms of how you have been playing The Legend of Zelda franchise so far. That's a little thing I can say, but I hope people will be surprised by knowing what I mean right now.
Eurogamer: Well, I'm very excited to hear more! In general, we know how western games developers work, we visit them, we understand what daily life is like. With Nintendo, and this is perhaps part of the charm, the process, certainly viewed from the West, is shrouded in mystery. Could you give us some insight into what life is like at Nintendo, and what a typical day for you would involve?
Eiji Aonuma: I might disappoint you, but I'm afraid there's nothing unusual, nothing very exciting about how our days go at Nintendo. I go to the office at a given time every day; as soon as I arrive I check what my teams have been doing and probably, if the new version of the game is presented, I'll check it and play it myself and give the feedback back to the developers. And in the afternoon I attend a number of different meetings, relating not just to game development, but sometime to decide Nintendo's future, or EAD's next steps.
And after if there are any impending issues I need to tackle with certain games, I need to work very late at night or even to the next morning!
But the most enjoyable time is the lunch break. I would make it a point of playing some games with local multiplayer. Probably I'd be enjoying myself in multiplayer battle mode on certain games with other directors. Regardless of age, who's producer or director, we're deeply into battles against each other, yelling and crying, and that's how we get excited and get motivated to work more!
If Nintendo's developers are considered mysterious in comparison with other developers, it must be because every one of us really wants to surprise people, and we are finding some particular joy in making people surprised in a meaningful way, and the more we talk the less surprise we would be able to provide. That must be the reason why!
Eurogamer: Would you like to work on something completely new, or do you see yourself continuing with Zelda for many more years?
Eiji Aonuma: Well, the fact the company has constantly been giving me the opportunity to work on the next Zelda, and the fact that many people are looking forward for me to provide them with the next Zelda is something really gratifying.
The fact I have to work on Zelda - there is no fixed notion about what Zelda has to be. Most basically, any changes are appropriate because Zelda means unprecedented experiences. In other words, as long as I can work on new Legend of Zelda games there's hardly anything I can't do to challenge myself.
Having said that, whenever I get asked, aren't you tired about making Zelda again and again, I might say, 'sometimes!' But it doesn't mean I'm willing to make something similar to Zelda at all. I really want to surprise people in a meaningful way, so if I'm going to work on anything new then I would like to make something so that people are going to say, 'wow I could not imagine someone like Aonuma would make something like this'.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks releases for DS on 11th December.