The Legend of Zelda and its protagonist, Link, reached new heights this year — literally. The hero soared through the skies and plunged into the deepest depths of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. The game’s developers took their risks, too: This time around, players wouldn’t just explore but also construct devices with Link’s new set of powers.
As soon as players had Tears of the Kingdom in hand, they tinkered with Link’s newfound building powers to delightful and chaotic results. Fans constructed mega bridges and skateboards and, if they were skilled enough, even Godzilla-like kaijus. Outside the world of the game, fans dove into Hyrule and its history; they theorized about what would happen and lamented lost romance. If Breath of the Wild set a new gold standard for open-world exploration in games, Tears of the Kingdom proved all over again that the team could find new ways to delight players. For these, and countless other reasons, Polygon named Tears of the Kingdom our top game of 2023.
Together, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom served as the perfect bookends for one of Nintendo’s most popular and beloved consoles, the Nintendo Switch. Roughly seven months after its release, Polygon was able to sit down with longtime Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma and game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi to reflect on the way social media influences development, the future of Zelda, and what it’s like to say goodbye to the Nintendo Switch.
[Ed. note: This interview was conducted through interpreters. The transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: As a writer, a large part of my work is covering what people do inside of video games. For Tears of the Kingdom, I wrote about how people were making super-long bridges to solve all their problems in the game. Did the team see this, and what are your reactions to this way of playing?
Eiji Aonuma: I was surprised to see what people have gotten up to in the game. For example, linking together tree trunks to try and reach the Sky Islands that are up in the sky from the surface. It’s something that kind of blew my mind. I mean, there are limits to how many objects you can put together. But people really rushed to find out what those limits were, and that was surprising to me.
A big part of Breath of the Wild, and also now Tears of the Kingdom, is that both allow players to express their creativity in the games and then share it with the world. How do you imagine creativity and shareability will play into future Zelda games?
Hidemaro Fujibayashi: When you look at people posting on social media, I think there’s a big overlap of a general audience and then also Zelda fans that [express their creativity]. Breath of the Wild was the first time that, as a development team, we saw this new, added layer of enjoyment that people have in being able to share and talk about, Look what I was able to do, look what I was able to make. I think that’s certainly something that was top of mind or something that we considered when moving into Tears of the Kingdom. This idea of being able to create and share is certainly a very interesting concept. If there is an opportunity to do something in the future, that’s something we’ll at least be considering.
Is there ever a world where you could imagine a Zelda game that allows people to make their own dungeons, almost like Super Mario Maker?
Aonuma: When we’re creating games like Tears of the Kingdom, I think it’s important that we don’t make creativity a requirement. Instead we put things into the game that encourage people to be creative, and give them the opportunity to be creative, without forcing them to. There are people who want the ability to create from scratch, but that’s not everyone. But I think everyone delights in the discovery of finding your own way through a game, and that is something we tried to make sure was included in Tears of the Kingdom; there isn’t one right way to play. If you are a creative person, you have the ability to go down that path. But that’s not what you have to do; you’re also able to proceed to the game in many other different ways. And so I don’t think that it would be a good fit for The Legend of Zelda to necessarily require people to build things from scratch and force them to be creative.
Just to follow up on this creative aspect, is there any way that fans have played the game that has surprised you? Is there anything that you’ve seen built that has shocked you?
Aonuma: I mean, one thing for me is Godzilla. Gotta call that out. [laughs]
To continue on that a little bit. When I first saw this Godzilla video, at a glance, I didn’t realize that this was Tears of the Kingdom. I mean, Link isn’t even present. So it didn’t strike me like, Oh, that looks like something that’s similar to Tears of the Kingdom. But you know, then watching the whole thing, I thought, This is incredible. You can feel the passion of the person who created [this] kind of coming through the screen. You know, they kind of perfectly recreated Godzilla in a very recognizable fashion. The editing and cuts that they put in were really incredible — and then all the way down until the end, when Godzilla kind of disappears off into the evening sun. I was just surprised [to see] this kind of complete package they’ve made out of a video like that.
This year was special for Zelda but also for the Nintendo Switch. The Switch opened up the opportunity for Nintendo to make a huge, open, seamless world. I know we don’t have an announcement for a new console yet, but the Switch was released in 2017 and is likely nearing the end of its cycle. What’s it been like to say goodbye to this particular console?
Aonuma: I think this doesn’t just apply to the Switch’s life cycle, but I’m someone who has worked at Nintendo long enough to have been present during the changing of console generations multiple times. When something like that happens, we’re always looking forward to, What can we do that’s new? What will we be able to do? What kind of new themes will we be able to explore? And so I think, rather than focusing on the past, when we’ve changed from one console to another, it’s more than a feeling of saying goodbye. It’s a feeling of excitement. It’s about what will be the new things that we’ll be able to do.
What excites you most about the future right now, then?
Aonuma: As a producer who’s been involved with the series for a long time, I think it’s a miracle of sorts that this franchise I’ve worked on has continued for all these years. But that’s not something that I credit myself with, but instead with being surrounded by a team of really talented people. Getting to work with them and discussing our ideas about the game is something that has been responsible for the continuance of the series. I don’t know what the future holds exactly, but I’m excited about the changes that we’ll be able to accomplish together. And so I’m looking forward to continuing this process of working with the team, and I’m sure that it will continue.
Looking back on Tears of the Kingdom, and also Breath of the Wild, it feels like these two games have really captured a new era of Zelda, and in a way Zelda has become — you know, no digs to Mario, I love Mario — but in a sense Zelda has become an extremely revered series. I’m wondering if you could talk about what it feels like to work on such a treasured series and why you think it’s become so revered now.
Fujibayashi: Obviously, the first Legend of Zelda title was created by Mr. [Shigeru] Miyamoto. But having had the pleasure of working on this franchise, I think it boils down to, and it’s thanks to, the reactions, thoughts, feedback, and sharing of the players that have played this franchise. This directly connects to our motivation to think about, OK, what’s next? What kind of gameplay experience? What kind of experience do we want to provide the players?
You mentioned in a previous question, “What’s exciting about the future?” And I think this sort of ties in [with] that. The Zelda team is filled with people who love to actually feel the excitement, the joy that players are having when they’re playing their games. And in the world of social media, that feeling of excitement that players are feeding, there’s almost a direct pipeline in that environment to have that direct feed of players’ reactions. That environment exists now. And I think that also really helps support and, again, directly feeds into the motivation we have for trying to figure out what our next step is. What do we want to do next? And so, when we’re talking about, you know, “How did this franchise become what it is?” I think part of it is the kind of incredible motivation that we have to create the next step, and that’s all again thanks to seeing people actually play it, actually experience it, and actually enjoy it.
What kinds of values do you hope to embody as you develop future installments of Zelda?
Aonuma: I think Mr. Fujibayashi hit on something by saying that our motivation is derived from seeing the joy that people get from playing these games and seeing [what] they clued in on and what makes them so happy. And I think we desire to repeat that process, to get that feeling again, and to take our thoughts for whatever we want to make going forward and try to get that response from the fans again, to please them. Like Mr. Fujibayashi mentioned, having social media now is a great way to be able to see that directly. That said, it can be intimidating at times, because knowing what the expectations are and having pleased fans in the past, we want to make sure we don’t undercut those expectations. We don’t want to disappoint them. So, you know, I would say that there is a bit of tension; we keep ourselves motivated and motivated not to disappoint fans, but we also really enjoy — and I think this applies to each member of our development team — [that team] really enjoys the work of trying to meet fan expectations and please them. And I think we’ve really landed on a good cycle of that now with our recent games, and I’m really looking forward to carrying that kind of process forward as we continue working in the future.