It's cool to be different. That's the message we typically feed our children when they come up against peer opposition. It's also an attitude Nintendo's adopted time and time again when its penchant for innovation, aversion to hardcore gameplay and reliance on classic franchises have put the company in a perceived last place position. But, as it's continually proven -- and most successfully with the Wii -- you can't ever definitively count the Mario hitmaker out. There always seems to be an ace in the company's IP sleeve that keeps bringing gamers and its diehard fanbase back to the fold. But we have to wonder: how long will that last? It's a question we posed directly to Eiji Aonuma, Nintendo's Most Valuable Player #2 and Zelda mastermind, this week at E3. And his answer might surprise you: "If we don't change we might die. We need to evolve. Things need to change. Things need to grow." It's a sobering admission, especially considering the source.
"If we don't change we might die. We need to evolve. Things need to change. Things need to grow."
The IP ace this time around falls upon the Zelda franchises' shoulders, except not in the way we've come to expect. The two newest titles in the series, headed to the 3DS and Wii U, also happen to be recycled efforts: a reimagining of A Link to the Past and an HD reboot of the Wind Waker, both headed up by Aonuma. Perhaps it's just a consequence of franchise fatigue and player familiarity, but there's something more alarming, more distressing about this back catalog mining; something Aonuma's all too aware of. It's also something he's actively steering his production teams away from, while at the same time attempting to take it all in as a greater lesson for a company so tethered to video gaming past. So to catch some deeper perspective on Nintendo's next-gen leanings, its level of self-awareness and the future of Zelda, we sat down with Aonuma for what turned out to be an honest and refreshing chat.
"If I continue making remakes, I feel like I won't grow." That's how Aonuma responded to the possibility of producing more classic HD remakes for the Wii U, of which the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is the first. It'd be easy to dismiss his team's work on that Wii U title as a lazy band-aid solution to the console's weak first-party release schedule. Easy, that is, until you consider its greater purpose: it's a training tool. And that's according to the man, himself. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword were also considered as HD do-overs, but it was the Wind Waker conversion that showed the most promising and dramatic results. For Aonuma, development on the Wind Waker HD has helped his production team "learn what it is the Wii U can do... [and] what the system is capable of." All lessons he intends to apply to the development of future Wii U titles.
"If we change it too much, I'm also concerned people will say, 'Okay, is it no longer Zelda if we don't have this formula?'"
Yet, for all this humbling self-awareness, there's a persistent contradiction that threads through our conversation about Nintendo's reliance on old IPs and its reluctance to make Virtual Console games plentiful on the Wii U. It's a one foot in the future, one deeply entrenched foot in the past mindset that has Nintendo shooting itself in both feet, thus hampering its evolution. But as much as Aonuma would like to move on, his company's having a hard time letting go of tried-and-true formulas for AAA franchises like Zelda. "With regard to... breaking the mold or changing the formula, I certainly hear the thoughts of fans. The impressions of fans that maybe it's getting a bit stale." But that understanding also comes with some heavy trepidation, with Aonuma pointing the finger at gamers and going on to explain that "... if we change it too much, I'm also concerned people will say, 'Okay, is it no longer Zelda if we don't have this formula?'"
That's not to say a new, radically different Zelda Wii U title isn't coming. It is. His teams are currently developing the next-gen title, but unfortunately it's not at a point where there's anything relevant to show. Progress on the title's also being held up by Nintendo's development resources, or lack thereof. Right now, Aonuma's teams are spread a bit thin across A Link Between Worlds and Wind Waker HD, with priority going to that latter title. So before Nintendo can make any serious headway on Zelda Wii U -- let alone make the title's existence public -- WindWaker HD needs to be completed. When it does eventually come to light, gamers may even be able to control a fully playable Princess Zelda (or even Sheik, Zelda's occasional other form). Or, at least, Aonuma seemed open to the idea when we asked him about it. It's a possibility and we can always hope.
Nintendo had a six-year lead up to this new console generation, giving the company more than ample time to get the handle of HD development and learn from its rivals. But as Aonuma explained, "HD requires resources -- resources in the form of money, in the form of people... in the form of time." Almost all of which Nintendo appears to lack, save for the money. So how to remedy this situation? When we suggested the possibility of a second-party approach, something along the lines of the N64's "Dream Team" strategy, Aonuma laughed. "With regard to the Dream Team, I don't see something like that happening again. Because, quite frankly... we didn't know what we were trying to make. And then we brought people from the outside in to help us create this thing we weren't really clear on..."
"With regard to the Dream Team, I don't see something like that happening again. Because, quite frankly, we didn't know what we were trying to make."
The end results of that strategy are now a thing of history, but Nintendo is adapting to the current gaming climate. There is a "solid vision" in place for outside developer support, one that has the company actively seeking out studios and "people who have the powers to make our ideas a reality." It's the Nintendo magic the company's after and if it can find that talent, perhaps we'll see a more plentiful release schedule. That's if (and this is a big if) Nintendo can get over its own stubborn perfectionism.
It's a hurdle at the forefront of Aonuma's mind; a mentality Aonuma referred to as being furui, meaning 'old' or 'antiquated' in Japanese. He went on to explain that, "... the way we make games is we're very careful. We're very thorough. We're very detailed. We take a long time analyzing the different parts of a game... almost to our detriment. Almost too careful. I think the need is there for us to make decisions more quickly, weigh the risks [and] see what the payoff is." It's not the sort of navel-gazing confession we're used to hearing from the traditionally proud Nintendo and its star developers. Nonetheless, it's a reassuring sign of the change to come. Nintendo's already put some of these risk-taking practices into place and Aonuma assured us that we'd start to see the fruits of this shift come next year. And when it does arrive, you can expect a more open take on gameplay that straddles the overlap of Western and Japanese gaming trends. A happy cultural medium, if you will.
"We take a long time analyzing the different parts of a game almost to our detriment. Almost too careful. I think the need is there for us to make decisions more quickly, weigh the risks [and] see what the payoff is."
When we pressed about the lack of Virtual Console games on Wii U, Aonuma pushed back, saying that "for people that've played the [classic games] already, you can't just give them something they've already experienced. You need to make it something special, something different. That's something I'm always very conscious about." The concept of "added value" was something Aonuma stressed repeatedly throughout our talk, so it's clear the man's sights are not set on the gold mines of gamer nostalgia. Regardless, Nintendo's Virtual Console strategy isn't really something Aonuma has much control over. He doesn't get to call the shots on what games make the whitelist and when.
So what of this new Wind Waker? Is it really any different? According to Aonuma, the Wii U version should look "more like a puppet show than like an animation." He's referring, of course, to Nintendo's polarizing decision to go with a cel-shaded look back during the GameCube title's original release. With the power of the Wii U, his team's been able to make the edges of 3D objects appear "clearer and more crisp... so there's actually a bit of depth", as opposed to the original's flat 2D-ish cartoon style.
Aonuma only lightly touched upon the ways in which he's attempting to 'break the mold' with Zelda Wii U and, in particular, the player's use of items. In fact, he directed our attention to the private demo of A Link Between Worlds (not the showfloor version) for evidence of how he intends to change the concept of items. "We're trying to find new ways to play. Not only the kinds of items you find, but how you use those items. I want to give the player more freedom. I want them to be able to explore more." How that will actually play out for Zelda Wii U and its 3DS companion, we're not sure.
"The concept of the item will be completely different than what you've experienced before."
But before our interview came to a close and we headed out the door, Aonuma expounded on the idea further, adding this tease: "The concept of the item will be completely different than what you've experienced before." Had any other developer said that, certainly one with a lesser hit-making track record, we would've been quick to dismiss it as famous last words; a surefire, hyperbolic nail in the coffin. Fortunately, this is Eiji Aonuma we're talking about. The man that made Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask indelible gaming memories. And for that, we're willing to reserve a little faith.