The key figures in the Zelda franchise

News Ryan Lambie 25 Nov 2011 - 16:24

With Skyward Sword out now, we find out just who are the key players behind that game, and the Zelda series as a whole…

Like all great videogames, their success is thanks to the work of a legion designers, programmers and artists. And while the sheer number of people required to make Skyward Sword is simply too long to list, we can at least take a look at the important figures in the development of the game, and the people who’ve furthered the Zelda series in the past.

Beginning with one of Nintendo’s leading creative lights, here’s a look at some of the people who’ve played a vital role in making the Zelda series such an ongoing success.

Shigeru Miyamoto

An industry figure who requires little introduction, Miyamoto is the most prevalent figure in the creation of Zelda, and one of the most famous names in game design. Link’s adventures could be described as the most personal of all the designer’s works, and since 1985’s The Legend Of Zelda, the series has been a veritable hotbed of innovative ideas.

Although Miyamoto long since stepped aside as director of the Zelda series, and has more commonly been credited as producer on most titles since Ocarina Of Time in 1998, his influence still looms large over the entire series, and many of the key elements he so deftly introduced are still important Zelda staples.

With Miyamoto overseeing the launch of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS, along with Skyward Sword this month, he remains a vital creative force at Nintendo.

Eiji Aonuma

Although Shigeru Miyamoto is rightly regarded as the father of the Zelda series, the contribution of Eiji Aonuma shouldn’t be underestimated.

As a relatively young game director, Aonuma gained Miyamoto’s attention in the early 90s with the Japan-only action adventure, Marvelous: Another Treasure Island. Although its premise, a Goonies-like scenario in which three boys went on a search for a pirate’s treasure, was quite individual, the game’s play mechanics and design were heavily inspired by A Link To The Past.

Impressed by what he saw, Miyamoto appointed the 33-year-old Aonuma as assistant director on Ocarina Of Time, a game that would go on to redefine the Zelda franchise for many years to come. Since the immediate and enduring success of Ocarina, Aonuma has continued to play a key part in the series’ production. He co-directed the immediate sequel Majora’s Mask with Yoshiaki Koizumi (more on him later).

In 2002, he directed The Wind Waker, the Gamecube’s fondly remembered yet mildly controversial Zelda entry, whose cartoon-like, cel-shaded graphics were blamed for its comparatively lukewarm sales in the West. Perhaps stung by the response to that game, Aonuma steered the next game, Twilight Princess, down a more mature, grittier path, resulting in it being the only Zelda game to date to have received a Teen rating from the ESRB in the US.

Aonuma has, therefore, lived and breathed the Zelda games for more than a decade, and it’s notable that, in each game, he’s experimented with different visual design approaches and control systems.

Koji Kondo

As we pointed out in our music feature last week, the Zelda series simply wouldn’t be the same without the catchy, atmospheric melodies of Koji Kondo. Hired by Nintendo while still a student at Osaka University, Kondo has crafted some remarkable videogame tunes since the start of his industry career way back in 1983. Punch-Out!!, Super Mario Bros, Pilotwings and Star Fox have all benefited from his input, but it’s the Zelda games, perhaps, that felt the impact of his talents the most, providing a sense of scale and adventure that graphics of the 80s couldn’t hope to convey.

Although not the only composer to provide music for Skyward Sword (he’s joined by Hajime Wakai, Shiho Fuji, Mahito Yokota and Takeshimi Hama), this year saw his work given the recognition it deserved, with the Zelda 25th Anniversary orchestral tour.

Yoshiaki Koizumi

Another graduate of Osaka University, Yoshiaki Koizumi originally intended to become a filmmaker. His first contact with videogames, however, changed his career path, and an encounter with Super Mario Bros left him convinced that games could provide the basis for a new kind of dramatic storytelling.

Hired by Nintendo, Koizumi began work on the art and design for A Link To The Past’s Japanese instruction manual. His help in making sense of the game’s elements, and stringing them together into a workable story to set down in the manual’s pages eventually led to him writing its entire script.

The success of A Link To The Past resulted in him becoming one of the four co-directors on Ocarina Of Time, a game that needs little introduction. As well as overseeing the construction of its ground-breaking 3D system, Koizumi oversaw Ocarina’s character design, and co-wrote the story with Shigeru Miyamoto and Toru Osawa.

Had Koizumi opted to retire after the success of Ocarina, his importance in videogame history would have been assured. Remarkably, he’s been involved with the creation of remarkable videogames ever since, including The Wind Waker, Super Mario Galaxy and its sublime sequel, and most recently, Super Mario 3D Land.

Yusuke Nakano

If there’s a character or place in the Zelda games that particularly sticks in your mind, you probably have Yusuke Nakano to thank. An artist whose work has graced some of the finest games Nintendo has ever created, Nakano shaped the visuals of such diverse titles as Super Metroid, Mario 64, Animal Crossing and Super Mario Galaxy.

Most importantly, at least as far as this article’s concerned, Nakano’s illustrations formed the basis of the characters in Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.

Counting anime and manga series such as Starblazer, Space Battleship Yamato and Gundam among his influences, as well as the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Nakano studied oil painting at art college, and had only a passing interest in videogames. That is, until he played A Link To The Past, which was where his love affair with the Zelda series began.

Like so many artists and designers at Nintendo, Nakano worked his way up in the company; he began by checking the print quality of game boxes and manuals before they were shipped overseas – a tedious yet important toe-hold in the business. Later promoted to the art department, where he helped design the covers for Nintendo’s first in-house package designs, starting with Mario 64.

What’s remarkable about Nakano’s work is how diverse it is; across each of the recent Zelda console titles, the art style has changed radically. It’s Skyward Sword, perhaps, that contains the most of Nakano’s various influences. Nakano said that he’s been influenced by Western artists such as Richard Corben and Frank Frazetta, and in the most recent Zelda game, the art style shows a distinct fusion between a more Western aesthetic, and also the more gentle edge of Hayao Miyazaki.

Hanako Hisada

A graphic designer and expert at designing videogame environments, Hisada’s career at Nintendo began in 2004, when she created the reworked maps for the DS version of Mario 64. From there, she designed Ordon Village and Kakariko Village in Twilight Princess, before creating the maps for Phantom Hourglass and its sequel, Spirit Tracks.

Her finest piece of work to date, however, is surely Skyloft, the magical floating city in the clouds that forms both the launch pad and hub for adventurers in Skyward Sword.

Hidemaro Fujibayashi

Although Skyward Sword marks Fujibayashi’s debut as a Zelda director, he’s played an important part in the series since 2001. Having made his mark over at Capcom as a planner on the Japanese-only adventure game, Gakkou no Kowai Uwasa, Fujibayashi began work on the Game Boy Color Zelda games, Oracle Of Seasons and Oracle Of Ages.

Working as director, writer and planner on subsequent handheld titles, Four Swords, The Minish Cap and Phantom Hourglass, it was during the production of the latter that he began work on Skyward Sword.

Although the latest Zelda game was, of course, a team effort, Fujibayashi several key ideas in the game were his alone: the personality of Fi, the spirit in Link’s sword who provides advice throughout the game, was Fujibayashi’s invention, with her weirdly robotic voice and obsession with statistics and analysis. The director was also anxious to establish more of an emotional relationship between Link and Zelda, so that when the inevitable kidnap occurs, the player is given a clear reason why the hero would risk his life to get her back.

"Something that always gives me trouble when I'm working on Zelda is the fact that, although the point of his adventure is always to save Princess Zelda, that seems more and more contrived the further away Zelda is from Link in terms of relationship," Fujibayashi told the Japanese magazine, Famitsu. "It's like you see this girl for just a moment and you're supposed to want to rescue her because she's probably a princess or something. One of the themes here was to figure out how to really make the player think 'I want to save her!' instead of just making him do so as part of the story progression.”

If Fujibiyashi felt any pressure at making the jump from handheld to console, it doesn’t show in the finished game, which at the time of writing is among the most acclaimed Zelda titles yet – no mean feat for a series that rarely makes a misstep among critics.

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out now on Nintendo Wii – you can read our review here. Lots more exclusive Zelda content can be found here.

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