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Zelda’s Aonuma discusses the dangers of games that help too much

“We kind of have a bad habit of hand-holding”

Eiji Aonuma surrounded by fans in Zelda cosplay at the New York Comic Con 2013 panel for The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Samit Sarkar/Polygon
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

On Friday, Eiji Aonuma was a man of the people.

Aonuma, the longtime producer of the Legend of Zelda franchise, was the host and star of Nintendo’s lone panel at New York Comic Con 2013. As he was introduced and came up to the dais, the packed room gave him a sustained ovation, and his talk itself was interrupted by applause almost as much as a State of the Union address.

"This is actually the first time I've ever been able to be in front of fans and speak the way I did today," said Aonuma through a translator in an interview with Polygon shortly after the panel, which took place Friday afternoon.

"It was kind of crazy, the way I would say one little thing and get this huge reaction from people. It really made me realize that man, the fans here are so passionate," he continued. "I think they're even more passionate than the fans in Japan."

During the panel, Aonuma briefly touched on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, the well-received Wii U remake of the cel-shaded seafaring adventure, and then launched into a lengthy discussion about the origins and development of the latest Zelda title, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

The developers completed the game about one week ago, said Aonuma, before he began talking over gameplay footage to explain what's unique about A Link Between Worlds. One of the main ways in which Nintendo attempted to shake up the Zelda series in the upcoming game was to allow players to rent items and weapons at their discretion, so they can approach dungeons in any order they choose. The other was to give Link the ability to merge with a wall, at which point he turns into a version of himself that looks like a cave painting and can travel between Hyrule and Lorule, the two different worlds in which the story takes place.

In the footage, Link enters Ravio's Shop, where he can rent a bow for 50 Rupees or buy it for 400 Rupees — Ravio offers a half-price deal on the purchase because it's Link's first visit. Link decides to rent bombs for 50 Rupees first, then buys the bow and proceeds to blow up a fissure between two stones to access a new area. Aonuma noted that Silver Rupees — worth 100 Rupees — are more plentiful in A Link Between Worlds than in previous Zelda titles, since players will need more spending money for rentals and purchases.

Aonuma told the crowd that although A Link Between Worlds is a follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, it didn’t start out that way. Only when the developers were thinking about the wall merge ability they had come up with did they land on the idea of doing a sequel to A Link to the Past, with that title’s world as a base for the new game. Aonuma elaborated on that in our interview.

Wind Waker HD, as a remake, couldn't have existed without the GameCube original, and A Link Between Worlds ended up as a sequel, Aonuma noted.

"But we could've made this game, or a game, without having Link to the Past as a base," he said. "Because we have the ability to go into the walls, and then contrasting that with the top-down view, that was basically the kernel of the game — that mechanic, and then those two contrasting camera views."

We asked Aonuma if he was apprehensive about retroactively dampening the affection fans maintain for A Link to the Past by developing a sequel to it, in much the same way that the newer Star Wars trilogy left a bad taste in the mouths of fans of the first three films. He told us that while he didn't necessarily feel any additional pressure in making A Link Between Worlds, it was important for him to check his nostalgia at the door and not try to recreate the magic of A Link to the Past.

"On the topic of Star Wars, I was one of the people who felt that way about the new films as well. So I think there's always this phenomenon where things in the past always end up getting viewed more favorably," said Aonuma.

"So I think even with me, if I had thought back to what I thought of Link to the Past and said, 'All right, since we're making a new game in that world, a sequel to that [game], Link to the Past was like this so this new game has to be like that' — I don't think that would've matched fans' expectations, either," he continued. "But I think, more than being a sequel, A Link Between Worlds, it's not really a sequel so much as I think it's a new title. And I have confidence that when people play it, they will feel it's more like they've played a new title."

Once the developers decided to make A Link Between Worlds a sequel, they really threw themselves into that connection, although they worked to make this game a unique Zelda title.

"We used a lot of the base material from Link to the Past, setting it in that same world to kind of deepen the entire experience. Because that would make it easier for people to get into, and easier for people to understand," Aonuma continued. "But there's also a lot of stuff in it that's completely different. So it could've just been its own game — I mean, it is its own game."

According to Aonuma, the aforementioned new elements in A Link Between Worlds aren't just meant to make the game stand out from its predecessors. He also wanted to design the game so it would be "a less linear, more free experience.

"We wanted to make it a game where it would be fun to get stuck and be lost," Aonuma explained. Aside from it being a sequel to a 22-year-old game, that's another way in which A Link Between Worlds connects to gaming's past: It doesn't completely guide players through the experience, which is a criticism levied at many modern games — including recent Zelda titles.

"I think that one thing all game developers worry about when they're putting something into a game is, 'Will people notice it? Will people realize what they're supposed to do?' And we kind of have a bad habit of hand-holding, trying to make things easier for everyone," said Aonuma. "But more and more, I start to think that that kind of isn't actually that fun."

Aonuma and his team wanted to implement hints judiciously in A Link Between Worlds. So they tried to design the game so that the people who need hints get them, and those who don't can do their own thing.

"There's actually one area in the game where I fought for three days with my director over whether we should have a hint in there or not. As a result, after the end of that we actually decided to take it out," said Aonuma.

"So if that part of the game is too difficult, it's my fault," he added with a laugh. "But it's fine — it'll be fine!"

That design methodology — the idea of attempting to satisfy as many players as possible — is indicative of Aonuma's fan-centric approach to game development. Aonuma mentioned the Zelda Miiverse community, which Nintendo created earlier this year, a number of times during the panel and our interview; he said he checks it regularly to get an idea of what Zelda fans are thinking, even if he can't understand what they're saying because it's not in Japanese.

Aonuma closed the panel by thanking the fans for their continued support, and then posed for photos with all the attendees cosplaying as Zelda characters, as you see in the photo above.

"It's great to have that exchange, and I can kind of see what Zelda fans are looking forward to, expecting, from new Zelda titles," he told Polygon, referring to Miiverse. "And I hope I can just satisfy their wishes."

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