From its earliest beginnings, the Zelda series has always been about exploration and adventure, but also about change. While the broad framework of a lone adventurer fighting evil in a lush fantasy world has remained the backbone for the series for a quarter of a century now, it’s remarkable just how much Zelda has evolved over the years; the jump from 2D to 3D, with the acclaimed Ocarina Of Time, is the most obvious marker in the series’ history, but even since then, the games’ creators have constantly branched out and experimented with new looks and subtly different play styles.
The Wind Waker introduced a new, cartoon-like aesthetic and a fresh vision of Hyrule as a flooded land populated by pirate ships. Its engagingly childlike look lived on in the Zelda series’ sublime handheld adventures, while Gamecube and Wii sequel, Twilight Princess, forged a darker path of its own.
When it came to developing the latest Zelda epic, Skyward Sword, a few changes were made to the creative line-up. The most significant change was in the choice of director; Eiji Aonuma, who’d been a major force behind the series for more than a decade, stepped down from the helm, but remained on the team as producer (and as we’ll later see, ended up providing far more input than he’d initially intended), alongside Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata.
The directing reins were handed over to Hidemaro Fujibayashi, an experienced writer and game designer whose first contact with the Zelda series came in 2001, with the Game Boy Color titles Oracle Of Seasons and Oracle Of Ages. Having acted as director and planner on the handheld adventures The Minish Cap and then Phantom Hourglass, Fujibayashi immediately began work on Skyward Sword, while simultaneously developing another small-screen Zelda entry, Spirit Tracks.
This means that Skyward Sword was in its early stages of development since at least 2007, making it the longest production process since Ocarina Of Time. Of course, some would have argued that, after Twilight Princess, its would needed careful consideration. Brilliant though Twilight Princess was, the sword fighting on the Wii version didn’t make full use of the console’s unique control system, and the game as a whole somehow didn’t seem as fresh or innovative as Ocarina did.
This may explain why Miyamoto and his team were at pains not only to speak as seldom as possible about its work-in-progress, but also to quietly address the criticisms that had been made among all the adulation for the previous title.
One of the priorities placed high up the list was improving on Twilight Princess’ sword fighting system, and plans were made to integrate the then-new Wii MotionPlus controller. Interestingly, however, Fujibayashi and his team almost abandoned their intentions of using it; speaking to IGN last year, Aonuma revealed that, “To be honest with you, we weren’t able to get the effectiveness we were looking for, and we tried some different ways to implement it and it really wasn’t going well for us.”
The Zelda team, among them veteran Nintendo game designer Katsuya Eguchi, were just on the brink of dropping MotionPlus support when Wii Sports Resort came out, providing the team just the inspiration it needed. “Its swordplay mode used Wii MotionPlus really well,” Aonuma said. “So then we said, ‘Wait a minute, you can actually implement it in a way that allows people to use that sword very freely and very naturally.’”
At the same time, Skyward Sword’s makers were looking again at the structure of previous Zelda games, and the well-established elements of field exploration and hazard-laden dungeon traversing. “So far, the basic flow of the Zelda games is you’re exploring a field, you go to a dungeon, you conquer it and return to the field,” Aonuma told IGN. “We’re looking at altering that traditional flow.”
Elsewhere, Miyamoto had suggested that he wanted to “cut down on the amount of time you spend lost.” To this end, the team came up with the concept of Skyloft, a hub world the player constantly returns to between jaunts to other areas. Meanwhile, attempts were made to make the dungeons more open and less like the interconnected cluster of rooms seen in previous games.
“This time around, what we’re trying to do is to take maybe some of that dungeon structure and actually move it out of those small connected rooms and, say, into an area that might traditionally be considered a field,” Aonuma told Nintendo Power last year. “[We may] take some of the same elements – some challenges that allow you to progress through the field rather than it being an area of small connected rooms – and maybe there’s a boss character at the end of that.”
Nevertheless, these early stages of world design weren’t without difficulty. Aonuma spoke quite openly, in a recent Iwata Asks interview on Nintendo’s website, about the fact that earlier iterations of Skyloft were “No good”. Having played an early version of Skyloft, and remarking that the roles the characters played in the area “Wasn’t clear”, Aonuma stepped in to provide a more hands-on role in planning the game’s development.
Around this time, the concept of Link flying around on a red bird was introduced – a method of travelling between discrete areas that echoed The Wind Waker’s boat excursions. Interestingly, planner Daiki Iwamoto mentions in the same Iwata Asks interview that Skyward Sword’s structure was inspired by the course selection screen in Super Mario, where the Italian hero could trot around and hop into whichever area the player chose. In fact, Aonuma suggests that this quite new, compartmentalised design approach for Skyward Sword may have been its saving grace.
“I think we were able to keep such a big project together because the game world this time is structurally simple,” Aonuma said. “We talk about all these ‘dense’ places, but structure-wise there are only four – forest, volcano, desert and sky.
“Those four worlds were independent, and the goal with regard to each one’s volume came into view, so I think we could do it because each staff member had in mind a prediction like ‘If we work hard in this direction, this Legend Of Zelda game will turn out great!’”
While that stage of development wasn’t without its challenges, other areas of the game were coming together beautifully. Together with designer Yoshiyuki Oyama, Miyamoto had dreamed up a new, impressionistic aesthetic for Skyward Sword, one that would provide echoes of previous games, while at the same time giving the game a look entirely its own.
That bold new look first came to public attention at E3 in 2009, by which time the game was well into production, although the visuals weren’t yet finished enough to demonstrate in public. The image presented at the expo, an eye-catching piece of concept art that showed Link standing with his back to the viewer, his body partially eclipsed by a mysterious new female character (whom we’d later discover is named Fi), immediately aroused public speculation. Why was Link unarmed? Could this mysterious female be a physical embodiment of the legendary Master Sword?
With that first small yet tantalising reveal, the positive buzz surrounding Skyward Sword began to build. Formally unveiled at E3 in June 2010, players who’d enjoyed an early hands-on with the game spoke excitedly about the 1:1 motion tracking, and new additions to Link’s arsenal such as the flying beetle and whip. Miyamoto’s attempts at showing off the RemotePlus’ prowess on stage weren’t exactly perfect, but this was more to do with the sheer number of infrared devices in the audience’s possession rather than a problem with the game itself; for the first time, it seemed that players would be getting the kind of swordplay that Twilight Princess hinted at, but never quite delivered.
Any hopes that Skyward Sword would fall into player’s hands by the end of 2010 were swiftly dashed at the expo, however, when it was announced that the game’s release would be delayed until 2011. As frustrating as that lengthy wait seemed to fans at the time, it’s now clear that the project’s five year development has been worthwhile, because Skyward Sword is without doubt the most complete entry in the Zelda series since Ocarina Of Time.
As Aonuma had hoped, the RemotePlus introduces a new style of combat that is both precise and rewarding; each enemy now requires a fresh approach to complete, like a mini boss battle. And thanks to some gorgeous little touches from the sound department, each successful hit on an enemy is followed up by a cheerful succession of notes, leading to a satisfying ‘plink’ after the killing blow.
The restructured Hyrule is now easier to navigate, but at the same time, this one of the biggest Zelda games ever – with side quests, Skyward Sword is conservatively estimated to take 50 or more hours to complete.
The extension on the game’s development had one other positive side effect. Although Aonuma and other team members had long enthused about the possibility of a full orchestral soundtrack, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 had enjoyed, Miyamoto had always resisted it, and suggested that their energies were better spent on perfecting gameplay rather than worrying about music. Remarkably, it was during an interview at E3 that Miyamoto had a sudden and surprising change of heart. When asked if orchestration was a possibility on Skyward Sword, Miyamoto said, “ I guess we’re going to have to.”
To this end, Super Mario Galaxy composer Mahito Yokota was brought in to assist Hajime Wakai and Zelda veteran Koji Kondo with the orchestral arrangement for Skyward Sword. The result is a world away from the cold synths of earlier games, and appropriately enough, the themes really soar, providing a sense of scale and drama that finally matches the epic visual design.
In a gaming landscape where many studios appear duty-bound to provide repeated iterations of the same formula with incrementally improved graphics, the Zelda team’s desire to create something that felt quite different from earlier outings is both admirable and unusual. But then again, the Zelda series has always thrived on change – whether it’s a visual evolution, a refinement of control mechanics, or the entire layout of Hyrule, the games have always been about fresh ideas.
As Aonuma said in a November interview with the Guardian, “Zelda‘s not really a genre in itself, but it should never limit itself to one genre. With Zelda we’re always trying to do something unique. I think this, and the fact that we continue to push ourselves to come up with new ideas for each title has kept the series fresh over the years.”
As The Legend Of Zelda reaches its 25th anniversary, the series has received a fitting birthday gift: Skyward Sword, perhaps its freshest, most magical entry yet.