Link’s first steps in 3D define the future of the Legend of Zelda franchise, and gaming in the third dimension.
Hyrule Fantasy: The Power, Wisdom, and Courage of The Legend of Zelda
Chapter 3: Historical Drama at Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Author’s Note: This story has been adapted from Making Fun: Stories of Game Development – Volume 1. It is available for purchase in paperback and digital formats.
While the technology powering The Legend of Zelda games has changed since its inception, the philosophy driving their design has not.
“With better hardware come richer and more elaborate production values,” Miyamoto wrote in the preface to Hyrule Historia, a book published in 2011 that collects Zelda artwork, design tidbits, and outlining the series’ official chronology. “However, I feared that the gameplay might come to rely on […] the benefits of improved technology. The most important aspects of a game are the game system, the action, the sensory experience, the creativity, the production values, and the performances. With each generation the production values evolve, but in certain respects my involvement has been that of a guardian, to ensure that gameplay doesn’t suffer.”16
In 1994, the twilight of the Super NES, players enjoyed cutting-edge titles like Rare’s Donkey Kong Country while higher-ups inside Nintendo channeled energy into engineering a new console, the Nintendo 64. The N64 was capable of generating polygonal graphics; accordingly, EAD and other internal teams busied themselves preparing to convert flagship characters to the third dimension. New entries in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda would lead the charge.
Nintendo’s plan was to launch Super Mario 64 alongside the N64 in the fall of 1996. A new Zelda, codenamed Zelda 64, would follow one year later. Super Mario 64 takes place in Princess Peach’s castle, a hub that connects players to immense fields like winter wonderlands, rolling meadows, and deserts — all accessed by jumping into paintings hanging in the castle. Miyamoto recruited many of the developers who had worked on Mario 64, drawing on their familiarity with implementing 3D techniques like a free-roaming camera as the stepping stones needed to get Zelda off on the right foot.
Given the close development relationship between the two games, it isn’t surprising that EAD devs felt inclined to borrow elements from Mario for use in Zelda. Early on, Super Mario 64’s hub-based design factored heavily into EAD’s plans for Zelda 64. Miyamoto rooted the game in a single environment, Ganon’s castle, with ingress to new wings and floors opening up as players defeat bosses and solve puzzles. As an example, developers drafted a boss fight where Link fights a phantom version of Ganon that emerges from paintings bordering a room.
Building the game around a hub was a pragmatic decision more than a creative one. “No one knew how big in scale it would become,” Miyamoto explained to Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s late president, in a 2011 interview. “And I am not talking about budget or development period that I just touched on, but because the memory size we could use with the Nintendo 64 system was fixed, I was not able to tell how vast a game could be developed within that capacity. So rather than start by determining a story, we started by making the system.”17
Rampant piracy had been partly responsible for curbing sales of games for the Famicom Disk System during the 8-bit era.18 As such, Nintendo opted to stick with cartridges for the Nintendo 64, reasoning that cartridges were more difficult to pirate than CD-ROM. They afforded other benefits as well, such as rapid load times.
However, cartridges had less storage space to work with, so engineers had to think of clever ways to cram in as much data as possible. Ganon’s castle, the hub, could remain in memory until players entered a new zone, at which time the castle would be cleared and the new zone loaded in.
Not every decision made for Super Mario 64 fit Zelda’s action-adventure mold. Jumping, for instance, is an integral action in Mario games. It’s how players interact with the game world — squashing enemies, bopping blocks to get coins and power-ups, and so on. But Link has weapons and magic spells to dispatch enemies, and exploration in his world leans more on poking around than it does bounding over pits. “You had to press a button to jump when we first started making The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” confirmed Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had worked on Super Mario 64.19
EAD’s solution was to implement an auto-jump function: Run at a ledge and Link jumps of his own accord. Auto-jump also serves as a hint to navigation. If players can’t reach a far-off platform by jumping, there’s likely another way to get to it.
Miyamoto’s decision to confine Zelda to a single castle, no matter how sprawling and diverse its milieus, paled in the face of his second major change. “In the beginning, he had the [idea] that you are at first walking around in first-person, and when an enemy appeared, the screen would switch, Link would appear, and the battle would unfold from a side perspective,” said Koizumi.20
To Miyamoto, changing up Zelda’s perspective seemed in accord to 3D technology. Viewing characters and worlds from top-down and side perspectives made sense in 2D, because that technology did not permit other points of view. But the graphical and processing capabilities of the N64 provided the means to create a first-person game, a perspective guaranteed to immerse players more deeply in Hyrule than ever before by letting them see the world through Link’s eyes.
Koizumi was appalled by the idea of a first-person game. One of the hats he wore was character modeler, and he hated the idea of putting hours into designing Link only for players never to see him. “From my experience making Super Mario 64, I knew that displaying a character constantly running around on a broad field would be incredibly difficult,” he confessed. “But — while it wasn’t very nice of me toward Miyamoto-san — I didn’t try a first-person scene even once.”21
When Miyamoto saw the fruits of the team’s labor, he didn’t lambast them for insubordination. Quite the opposite: he agreed with their way of thinking. A first-person Zelda was immersive, yet paradoxically less interesting. By keeping the camera on Link, EAD could go all-out on Link’s animations, giving him a flurry of impressive-looking sword strikes and showing emotions writ large on his face as he reacts to events.
“When you go in the room with that boss, Gohma is hanging from the ceiling, so you wouldn’t usually notice, even if there was a rustling sound,” Miyamoto told Iwata in 2011. “So first we position the camera from the viewpoint of Gohma looking down at Link, then we have the camera close in on Link showing fear, then we change the viewpoint so it is from Link looking up toward Gohma.”22
Acknowledging that first-person view was undeniably immersive, EAD worked it into the game, letting players aim certain weapons such as the bow and slingshot from first-person, and looking through Link’s eyes by pressing the N64’s C-Up button at any time.
Samurais and Signposts
Abiding by third-person gameplay introduced more problems than it solved, many of which had plagued Super Mario 64. “There was no way we could take jumping out of a Super Mario. Bros. game, but when we actually tried making Super Mario 64, the action hurdle was a high one,” explained Koizumi. “For example, if you tried to beat an enemy in front of you, the axes weren’t aligned, so it was hard.”23
EAD’s workaround had been to give Mario a punch. Lining up attacks was still tricky and a little cumbersome in Super Mario 64, but ultimately inconsequential since most enemies could be avoided. Combat is much more important in Zelda games, since Link’s primary weapon is a sword. The developers expedited their search for a solution when Miyamoto entered the office to see them creating signposts containing tips on how to play the game. “He was like, ‘You can slice through the sign, right?'” recalled Kazuaki Morita, one of the game’s programmers.24
To make the sign easier to hit from any angle, the animators gave Link horizontal and vertical slashes, and the programmers coded the signs so they flew apart where his sword connected. Battles were trickier to finagle. Enemies presented moving targets, necessitating Link having a way to line up hits.
After brainstorming and discarding countless suggestions, the team voted to take a breather and visit nearby Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a division of Toei film studio open to the public as an amusement park. The day was sweltering, and they ducked into a playhouse to cool off after wandering for a few hours. As fate would have it, they stumbled into a historical drama showcasing authentic ninja and samurai weaponry.
The play featured a samurai surrounded by ninjas wielding kusarigama, chain-and-sickle weapons. “A number of ninja were surrounding the main samurai and one lashed out with a kusarigama,” recalled Toru Osawa, one of four directors assigned to Ocarina of Time. (A kusarigama is a sickle and chain that can be swung or thrown.) “The lead samurai caught it with his left arm, the chain stretched tight, and the ninja moved in a circle around him.”25
Beside him, Koizumi grew increasingly perturbed. The samurai and ninja continued to circle each other like cats while the ninja’s cohorts kept their distance. Eventually one attacked, then the other, and so on, as if in an ordered line. Koizumi didn’t understand why the other ninjas didn’t bum rush the samurai. Then he remembered he was watching a play scripted for entertainment, not realism — just like a video game.
Back at Nintendo, the developers discussed what they had seen and devised a solution to their 3D-combat problem. Osawa came up with an implementation called Z-targeting, so named because players trigger it by facing an enemy and holding the N64’s Z trigger. Osawa implemented Z-targeting as if Link and his opponent held opposite ends of a kusarigama, like the actors he’d seen. Facing an enemy and squeezing the trigger targets Link on that enemy. Tilting the analog stick forward lets players close the gap, while moving it to the side causes them to circle the enemy. Targeted enemies also obligingly circle around Link.
Z-targeting came with a second benefit. “Watching that show at the studio park was a clue toward solving that problem,” Koizumi said. “Z-targeting flags one particular opponent, telling the other enemies to wait. First, you have the other enemies wait while you fight with the first one, and the moment you beat that one, you can switch the Z-targeting to the next opponent.”26
Targeted enemies are surrounded by a yellow reticule, a visual cue that players are locked on. Koizumi’s design sensibilities couldn’t allow for the manifestation to remain an unnamed indicator, so he designed a fairy companion that flutters around targeted enemies in addition to the reticule. He named it the Fairy Navigation System and showed it to Osawa, who suggested they call the fairy Navi. “Usually, if you were to make a fairy, you would make a cute girl, but that wasn’t possible with the Nintendo 64 system, so I just made a ball of light with wings,” Koizumi said.27
As development wore on, technological discoveries and the persistence of EAD’s developers opened Miyamoto’s eyes to other possibilities. Following her husband’s work, Koizumi’s wife once asked him why Nintendo didn’t have more handsome characters. Admittedly, the appearance of Mario, a stocky plumber with a paunch, and other characters like Kirby, who resembled a pink beach ball, had never turned any heads. Koizumi rose to the occasion, modeling a dashing hero with wavy blonde hair, a muscular physique, elegant facial features, and hoop earrings.
Miyamoto liked Link’s design, but one issue nagged at him. “I never wanted to make him just another cool hero. Until The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link was a playful and childish character. I had worked on all the games since the first one, and I thought that if we made him too cool, he wouldn’t be Link anymore.”28
The problem was settled when Miyamoto proposed playing as two versions of Link — a child of approximately nine, and the more mature, teenage incarnation. To the immense relief of EAD’s programmers and animators, virtually all of adult Link’s animations could be applied to the new, younger character model.
Traveling through time ushered in a wealth of gameplay and storytelling possibilities. A combination of the Master Sword and Link’s Ocarina of Time instrument — which became Zelda 64’s namesake — lets players travel between childhood and teen-hood, leading to puzzles like a dungeon that must be started as a child and finished as an adult, and opening the door for characters to come and go during the story.
Characters that Link meets in childhood return years later during his adulthood, setting up significant reunions and events, and impressing upon players a sense of growth. Kaepora Gaebora, a loquacious owl, swoops around during Link’s childhood doling out longwinded advice. Saria and Malon, two of Links friends, aid Link at various stages — Saria by becoming a sage that grants Link a medallion he needs to advance in his quest, and Malon, a farmer’s daughter who nudges him toward adopting a horse named Epona.
A brainchild of Koizumi, Epona appealed to Miyamoto’s childhood, the wellspring of so many Zelda ideas. Like many Japanese children of his era, he appropriated aluminum cups stationed at his school’s drinking fountain and tapped them against concrete in the staccato rhythm of horse hooves, imagining himself as a gunslinger in his favorite westerns. When Koizumi told him he was working on a horse for Link to ride, Miyamoto assigned his artists and programmers the task of architecting a rambling field able to fit the confines of the N64’s limited memory. Ganon’s castle was relocated to the end of the game, and Hyrule Field became the new connective tissue joining towns, forests, lakes, deserts, and plenty of wide-open terrain for players to enjoy the simple pleasure of riding a virtual horse.
Playing to the time-travel mechanic, EAD coded a day-night cycle and oriented in-game events around it. Little touches, such as Hyrule Castle’s drawbridge lowering at dawn, lanterns casting warm glows from the windows of homes in Kakariko Village as night settled in, and the inclination to stop and watch the sunrise, cultivated immersion in a way that first-person perspective alone could not.
Koji Kondo, long-time composer of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series, had gained a reputation for tailoring his music to particular settings. The first Zelda’s famous overworld theme is optimistic and catchy, the sort of music that urges players onward in their grand adventure, while its dungeon theme is low and eerie, provoking trepidation and mystery. For Ocarina of Time, Kondo availed himself of the Nintendo 64’s greater technical capabilities and oriented each environment’s sound to its visual makeup. “The dungeons and temples have ambient music that employs sound effects and traditional instruments, so the music of these places also helps to make you feel like you’re really there,” he said in 2011.29
One of Kondo’s talents is composing short arrangements that players don’t get tired of hearing over and over. His favorite piece in that vein, and his favorite overworld piece in the entire Zelda series, is the theme he created for Hyrule Field. “I broke it into eight-bar sections and there was some random phrasing that was implemented so that the melody would be changed up,” he said in 2014. “Again, these are eight-bar sections that I created to all work together, but when combined, they change, and there’s some random stuff going on there. I really like the way that worked out.”30
Ocarina of Time’s projected 1997 release date came and went. EAD worked long hours, but according to Miyamoto and the developers, no one really minded. Every day brought new ideas and challenges that the team approached in much the same way as millions of Zelda players approach its puzzles.
“Work is generally fun, but that may have been the most satisfying time,” Koizumi said in an interview with Mr. Iwata. “I was able to make a lot of selfish demands, so I think we caused everyone trouble, but it was fun.”31
“I think if the same team ever had to make the next The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it would probably be fun,” Osawa agreed in the same conversation.32
Miyamoto, once playfully harried by a convenience store clerk who asked the design icon what he was doing browsing the store when he should have been at work finishing Ocarina of Time, summarized the game’s two-and-a-half-year development cycle best. “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”33
In November 1998, a full year past its original projected release, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time arrived in stores. Collector’s editions were encased in a gold cartridge, a fun (and lucrative) throwback to the original Zelda cartridge for NES. Beyond setting a high bar for every game that followed, Ocarina of Time deserves acclaim for, along with Super Mario 64, helping to define the language of 3D games. Z-targeting gave developers a way to help players aim more precisely, and context-sensitive controls — such as pressing A when near doors to open it, or pressing it while moving to roll — enabled them to map more actions to fewer buttons.
Reminiscing with the late Satoru Iwata, Miyamoto admitted that Ocarina of Time holds a special place in his heart. “In terms of having done new things with this game, I felt a very strong feeling that I only feel on a certain number of games that I’m involved in.”34
Players feel the same way. It tops many lists of the greatest games of all time, and is considered nearly perfect.
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- With better hardware come richer and more elaborate: Thorpe, Patrick (editor). The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. (2011).
- No one knew how big in scale it would become: “Iwata Asks : The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/zelda-ocarina-of-time/4/0.
- Rampant piracy had been partly responsible for curbing: “Feature: Slipped Disk – The History of the Famicom Disk System,” Nintendo Life, http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2010/11/feature_slipped_disk_the_history_of_the_famicom_disk_system.
- You had to press a button to jump: “Iwata Asks : The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/zelda-ocarina-of-time/4/0.
- you are at first walking around in first-person: Ibid.
- From my experience making Super Mario 64: Ibid.
- When you go in the room with that boss: Ibid.
- For example, if you tried to beat an enemy in front of you: Ibid.
- He was like, ‘You can slice through the sign, right?’: Ibid.
- A number of ninja were surrounding the main samurai: Ibid.
- Z-targeting flags one particular opponent: Ibid.
- Usually, if you were to make a fairy: Ibid.
- “I never wanted to make him just another cool hero: Ibid.
- The dungeons and temples have ambient music: “Koji Kondo talks Ocarina of Time, gives details on Skyward Sword,” Original Sound Version, http://www.originalsoundversion.com/koji-kondo-talks-ocarina-of-time-gives-details-on-skyward-sword/.
- I broke it into eight-bar sections: “The man behind Nintendo’s musical masterpieces,” Polygon, http://www.polygon.com/2014/12/15/7393129/nintendo-mario-zelda-music-koji-kondo.
- Work is generally fun: “Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/zelda-ocarina-of-time/4/0.
- I think if the same team ever had to make the next: Ibid.
- A delayed game is eventually good: Ibid.
- In terms of having done new things with this game: Ibid.