The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which was released Friday on Nintendo Switch, brings players back to the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild. This time, however, there are sky archipelagos of floating rocks to explore, along with a vast underground realm that spans almost as much real estate as the surface above it. What’s more, players have borderline game-breaking abilities with which to construct vehicles, craft weapons, manipulate time, and swim through ceilings.
In other words, Nintendo made a massive open-world sequel in which it hands you cheat codes right out of the gate.
Giving players this much freedom presented the developers with a fair amount of risk. With every new ability, they were giving players more ways to “sequence break,” wreak havoc on enemies, and, if not play god, then at least come pretty damn close.
After playing nearly 100 hours of the game ourselves, we sat down with longtime Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma and game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi to discuss the big swings they took in the massive sequel, whether the Majora’s Mask comparisons are overblown, and whether we might see Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf gracing the silver screen anytime soon.
[Ed. note: This interview was conducted through interpreters. The transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: You’ve talked before about aspects of multiplicative design in Breath of the Wild — giving players the freedom to stack multiple systems atop one another and see what happens. Tears of the Kingdom goes even deeper in that regard. How do you account for all of that player agency?
Eiji Aonuma: When it came to making a sequel, it’s really Mr. Fujibayashi and the ideas he had. And a lot of those ideas centered around this concept of giving the player more and more options, and the freedom to try to do different things. And I thought, you know, Well, if we’re going to take that approach, keeping the world the same would help with that proposal. But I’ll let Mr. Fujibayashi talk about that in detail.
Hidemaro Fujibayashi: This idea of multiplicative gameplay really adds a lot of factors to the equation. It really expands the possibilities. And there was a lot of experimentation done, and we were faced with the challenges of what to leave out and what to leave in.
And really, in that process, we decided on a guiding principle: Keep it simple and to the point. Try to avoid too much complexity. In experimenting, we found that things were becoming a lot more complex. And we wanted to make sure that the system itself is simple enough that anybody can pick it up and play without too much issue. The more we weed out complexity upfront, the more versatility and freedom there is to provide options [later].
I’m curious how much player feedback from Breath of the Wild played into the design of Tears of the Kingdom.
Fujibayashi: Toward the end of [development on] Breath of the Wild, we were kind of experimenting with this idea of being able to stick things together. And at the time, you know, of course, there was a little bit of doubt, or question, about whether this was going to be something that people enjoyed, and [would] have fun with.
And it was about that time that we started to see a lot of people starting to upload videos about all of the things that, basically, we were already wanting to do in Tears of the Kingdom. Making unconventional vehicles, and things like that. And seeing people have fun like that really provided us with the confidence that what we were going to start working on would be enjoyable.
In Tears of the Kingdom, I’ve noticed that the dungeons are a bit more pronounced than the Divine Beasts were in Breath of the Wild. These new temples aren’t exactly like the dungeons from past Zelda games, but they’re definitely closer.
Fujibayashi: So first of all, I want to point out: One of the appeals of this game is the idea that everything is seamless. And when we were creating dungeons for Tears of the Kingdom, we thought that it’s really essential to be able to leverage the theme of being seamless with these dungeons.
So you have the Sky Islands, and the Depths, and then taking it all and applying this multiplicative gameplay concept... We started creating dungeons, and we came up with the ideas about how you, you know, skydive into a dungeon, or walk seamlessly into a dungeon. And some of the potential solutions to those dungeons rely on your going in and out of them.
I’m curious what other Zelda games besides Breath of the Wild had the biggest influence on Tears of the Kingdom.
Fujibayashi: I mean, there’s no specific title that really had a huge impact. But I was involved with Breath of the Wild, you know, and one of the themes for Breath of the Wild was “moving dungeons.” And I was also involved with Skyward Sword, and that had more of the hardcore, standard puzzle-solving dungeons. And I felt like I had a good idea of what the fans like about those two things.
So I feel like I attempted to take those things and put them together into one sort of hybrid format. That’s what Tears of the Kingdom is.
People have compared Tears of the Kingdom to Majora’s Mask, in the sense that it’s a follow-up to a very critically acclaimed game, yet it’s taking a lot of bold risks. Would you say that comparison is apt?
Aonuma: With Majora’s Mask — this is something I didn’t really talk a lot about at the time. But that game is kind of the [answer to] the question of: What would you do if you had to make a Zelda game in a year? Ocarina of Time took five years, and we were able to use the ingredients and assets from that to make Majora’s Mask.
In some ways, this was kind of an unreasonable challenge for us to even try to take on. But we decided to take the approach of creating a more compact world, which was somewhat self-contained. And there’s this system of the three-day cycle that would recur over and over again. And as the player went through that game, they would solve the overarching puzzle that kind of was the game. This was definitely a struggle and a challenge to accomplish in one year.
And you know, in thinking about Majora’s Mask in comparison to Ocarina of Time in that way, the change from Breath of the Wild to Tears of the Kingdom kind of goes in reverse. [It was] the opposite sort of challenge, in which we took the same world and some of the same materials, or constituent parts, but needed to make it [all] bigger, and needed to create a more expansive world. Not just in the horizontal sense, but vertically as well.
I think it’s interesting what fans are picking up on. Tears of the Kingdom has a somewhat dark atmosphere, and Ganondorf, this prominent antagonist, brings a certain darkness to it as well. But I think, because of the reasons I mentioned, that these were two very different challenges, and that they don’t have that direct relationship.
Speaking of darkness: You knew pretty early on that you wanted to expand on the existing Hyrule from Breath of the Wild. How did you come up with the idea for the Depths?
Fujibayashi: It kind of plays into what we talked about earlier — this idea of vertical play. We created the Sky first. But then we thought, There’s not enough in terms of distance. So then we thought, Maybe we can look to the ground to provide more distance.
When you’re talking about the Sky, there’s just the idea of skydiving down to the Surface. But if we were to, say, have a chasm, you can dive even further, and have even more fun doing that.
On top of that, there’s also the idea of expanding the amount of exploration and the amount of discovery that you can have within the game. The Depths, as this place to explore and expand — not only in the sense of adventure, but also in terms of distance — really suited the game.
I understand that ancient Japanese culture played into Tears of the Kingdom’s storytelling and world-building — especially in relation to the Zonai.
Fujibayashi: The Zonai, originally, existed in Breath of the Wild. But as we moved forward with development, we felt that it probably wasn’t necessary to go into the weeds, to go deep into [who] the Zonai [are]. So we ended up not using all of it.
But when this idea of a sequel came about, and we were thinking about what we wanted to accomplish, we thought this would be an effective time to bring back this idea of the Zonai. It was still a mystery from Breath of the Wild, so it really felt like leaving it for the sequel was the right solution, both in terms of bringing out the gameplay and also providing an aura of mystery that fans could speculate about.
I’m curious whether any ideas came up during development that weren’t there at the start. Are any of Tears of the Kingdom’s elements the result of necessity that arose over the last six years?
Aonuma: This makes me think about the caves that now exist on the surface of Hyrule. There was a time when I was, you know, sitting and playing the game myself, and exploring these caves. And I would often make my way really deep into one of the caves and kind of wonder, Where does this thing end? I’m kind of lost. And if I want to get out, I need to go all the way back to the entrance of the cave, which seems kind of troublesome.
Hearing that, Mr. Fujibayashi said, “What if there was a way for us to just leave the cave by going through the roof?” We started exploring the idea, and we realized this would be another way for us to take that theme of increasing the options available to the player, and also tie in with our theme of verticality.
If you both had to pick a favorite from the four new abilities, which would it be?
Fujibayashi: I’d probably have to go with Recall. It seems very, very convenient. [laughs]
Aonuma: I guess for me, it’d have to be Ascend. I’m somebody who, you know, if I can find a way to cheat, I like to do that kind of gameplay. And so once I had the Ascend ability, I really was looking for all sorts of different places to make use of it.
Did that come up during development? The fact that you’re basically giving players cheat codes, 10 minutes into the game?
Fujibayashi: You know, that reminds me — and I don’t think we’ve shared this anywhere else, but — the Ascend ability was actually the result of a debug feature that we have in the game.
When I was exploring the caves, I would get to the destination where I was trying to get to, and once I checked it out, I would just use the debug code to get to the top. And I thought, Well, maybe this is something that can be usable in the game. And it was right around that time that Mr. Aonuma said, “It’s a pain to go back.”
And to be blunt and honest, cheating can be fun. So that’s why we decided to drop it in there.
Aonuma: But coming up with these cheat code-style abilities, it did create some issues for us. For example, if you give someone the ability to just pass through a ceiling anywhere, there are all sorts of possibilities to account for. We need to make sure that people can continue to play the game properly. We need to make sure there aren’t locations where you’ll pass through the roof and find nothing there because of some data-loading issue or something like that.
So while giving people cheats like this is fun, it takes a lot of time to implement. This is one issue that enjoying this type of gameplay myself may have put into the development process.
Broadly speaking, were there any ideas during development that you had to put aside, or any concepts that you didn’t get as deep into as you would have liked? Things you might want to explore in future installments?
Fujibayashi: I have a few in mind, but I’m not sure if I can share them here. [laughs]
Aonuma: Yeah, no, that would cause trouble for me. So please don’t. [laughs]
Fujibayashi: I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise for people.
Just to ask you another question you probably can’t answer: Does the recent success of the Mario movie have you excited for the prospect of a Zelda adaptation?
Aonuma: I have to say, I am interested. For sure. But it’s not just me being interested in something that makes things happen, unfortunately.
Fujibayashi: Maybe the voice of the fans is what’s important here.