Uninterested in recycling Ocarina of Time for a quickie sequel, Eiji Aonuma takes the Zelda series in a darker direction.
Hyrule Fantasy: The Power, Wisdom, and Courage of The Legend of Zelda
Chapter 4: A Terrible Fate
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.
Eiji Aonuma couldn’t believe his ears.
He was sitting in a conference with the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, his mentor and the man who had hired him to design games for Nintendo. A graduate of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Aonuma got his start drawing pixel art for NES games before directing a little-known RPG for Super NES called Marvelous: Mouhitotsu no Takarajima. After that, he was recruited by EAD to help design Ocarina of Time’s dungeons.
Now Ocarina’s success had come back to bite him. The game had already sold millions of copies in just a few months, spurring Miyamoto to ask Aonuma to pull off the impossible: assemble a small team and turn out a sequel for the N64 in record time to avoid another lengthy development cycle. “Since we already made The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, we had 3D models that we invested a lot of time in to build,” Aonuma explained in an interview. “This all started by Miyamoto-san asking whether we could make a game in one year if we repurposed the models. We were told to repurpose the dungeons from Ocarina of Time and make a game out of it, and I was handed the baton to make that happen.”35
“When it comes to Zelda, we’re always trying to advance the series by making each installment a step up from the one before,” Miyamoto explained in a 2000 interview. “That means a two-year development period is the norm.”36 Typically, he explained, Nintendo starts out with a small staff who spend a year tossing ideas back and forth. During times when Nintendo is building a new console, another 12 months are dedicated to probing the hardware to see what it’s capable of.
“However, it really only takes a year to make the game itself,” Miyamoto continued. “For Majora’s Mask, we had 30 to 50 staff members working on the game right from the get-go. With amount of resources required for a Zelda game, we had everyone working overtime. Striving for a unique experience with every game makes for hard work. And we did manage to do that with Majora’s Mask. So, all in all, I can say that it made for one strenuous year.”37
Reinventing the wheel by rearranging Ocarina of Time’s assets into a second, more difficult quest held no appeal for Aonuma. “When we made Ocarina of Time, we made those dungeons thinking they were the best we could make. That’s when Miyamoto-san asked me to remake them, so I hesitantly obliged…but I couldn’t really get into it. So I secretly started making new dungeons that weren’t in Ocarina of Time, and that was much more fun to me. So, I grew up the courage to ask Miyamoto-san whether I could make a new game.”38
Miyamoto consented — provided Aonuma could deliver his new game within 12 months. (Nintendo eventually rearranged Ocarina and released it as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time — Master Quest, contained a collectible disc for GameCube.)
Aonuma was one of six directors appointed to the game. He served as supervising director, doing his best to corral the other five directors working on other elements such as the script, dungeons, and game systems. One of the directors was Yoshiaki Koizumi, from Ocarina of Time. Koizumi happened to be conceptualizing a project of his own, an RPG that unfolded in a few central locations and allowed players to replay the same events over and over, resulting in different outcomes depending on their actions. It was a tighter, more compact experience — exactly the sort of game Aonuma needed to meet his 12-month deadline.
Koizumi and approximately 70 percent of the developers who had worked on Ocarina of Time joined the project to keep it on track. As a condition for joining, Koizumi persuaded Aonuma to implement his notion of repeating a cycle of events.
Miyamoto loved the idea. “It’s useless to make something that the audience just skims over in one viewing, like a movie. The full flavor of a creation gradually emerges with each viewing, as all the subtleties reveal themselves. That’s what we were aiming for. It’s something I’ve always strived towards. […] I wanted it to be dense, something with maybe four dungeons, a game where you could fight the same bosses twice. I wanted to pay attention to every detail.”39
The team came up with a story that revolved around Termina, a world threatened by a moon on a collision course with its surface. Link has seven days to halt its descent and save Termina. Koizumi’s time system became the nucleus of the game, called Zelda Gaiden, a Japanese term meaning “side story.” The adventure begins at dawn of the first day. Real-time seconds translate to in-game minutes, and players can see the sun arcing through the sky as they explore, find items, solve dungeons, and defeat bosses.
On top of Zelda’s familiar brand of dungeon crawling, Zelda Gaiden is populated by NPCs that have their own lives, schedules, and goals. Each has a lengthy questline to complete. Some events only take place during specified hours, and many quests span all three days. Some give players rupees or heart pieces in return for helping out, but most grant masks. “As a basis of Zelda games, you’re able to use items to do all sorts of different things, and we felt it would be a lot of fun if Link could acquire all these abilities by putting on these different masks,” Aonuma said in 2015. “We felt that would expand the gameplay.”40
Mere trade items in Ocarina of Time, masks are Gaiden’s sine qua non, letting players take different forms and granting unique abilities: spitting seeds as a Deku Shrub, rolling around like a boulder as a Goron, and swimming nimbly as a Zora. Other masks subtly subverted older, tried-and-true items. The Bomb Mask, for instance, can be detonated to destroy walls and damage enemies — the trade-off being that Link takes damage, since he’s exploding a mask strapped to his face. But if players raise Link’s shield and then ignite the mask, Link emerges unscathed, effectively granting them an unlimited supply of bombs able to be used at close range.
With each passing day, signs of impending doom grow more evident. The sky turns a sickly green. The ground trembles. Clock Town, the hub at the center of Termina, empties as NPCs flee or seek shelter. Fail to restore harmony before time expires, and Link and Termina’s inhabitants perish in a wave of fire. Luckily, Link has a get-out-of-jail-free card. Playing the Ocarina of Time zips players back to dawn of the first day, saving critical progress such as items gathered and dungeons finished, and giving them a chance to tackle new quests or return to previously explored areas and try new activities.
Later on, the time limit changed from seven days to three. “When you returned to the first day it was like, ‘Do I have to go through an entire week again?’ So we thought three days would be just right,” Aonuma said in a 2015 interview. “In this game the townspeople do different things each day and many different things happen, but when the timespan becomes a week, that’s just too much to remember. You can’t remember who’s where doing what on which day.”41
The finished product, released as Majora’s Mask in the U.S., arrived in stores on October 26, 2000 — almost 23 months to the day after Ocarina of Time released in ’98. Majora’s Mask proved even more divisive than Zelda II, if not more so. Many fans and critics disliked being under the gun, especially given the franchise’s history of letting them explore at their own pace. Others appreciated Majora’s modus operandi of prioritizing tasks: Always block out a full three-day cycle to decipher a dungeon’s brainteasers, then devote other cycles for exploration and odds-and-ends tasks like upgrading items, helping out NPCs, and so on. Being able to restart the game’s cycle of events gave players more autonomy in choosing what to do, and how and when to do it.
Although gripes about its unorthodox gameplay systems have merit, there’s no arguing that Majora’s Mask is one of the most, if not the most mature entry in the Zelda series. One quest asks players to reunite two lovers so they can spend their final moments together. In another, an older sister drugs her younger sister so she isn’t lucid when the moon hits and fiery death consumes the world. The game is also rife with symbolism, with fans debating topics such as whether Link is alive in Majora’s Mask, or in a state of purgatory, forced to move through stages of grief so his soul can move on.
In an industry where “mature” is too often associated with gratuitous violence and nudity, Majora’s Mask stands as a shining example of sophisticated character development, themes, and storytelling.
Simultaneously, it served as a testament that Nintendo was willing to take Zelda in directions other than the expected.
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- Since we already made The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D interview,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/majoras-mask-3d/0/0.
- When it comes to Zelda, we’re always trying to advance: “Zelda Is Always Bringing Something New to the Table,” Glitter Berri’s Game Translations, http://www.glitterberri.com/majoras-mask/staff-interview/zelda-is-always-bringing-something-new-to-the-table/.
- However, it really only takes a year: Ibid.
- When we made Ocarina of Time, we made those dungeons: “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D interview,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/majoras-mask-3d/0/0.
- It’s useless to make something that the audience just skims over: “Zelda Is Always Bringing Something New to the Table,” Glitter Berri’s Game Translations, http://www.glitterberri.com/majoras-mask/staff-interview/zelda-is-always-bringing-something-new-to-the-table/.
- As a basis of Zelda games, you’re able to use items: “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D interview,” Nintendo, http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/majoras-mask-3d/0/0.
- When you returned to the first day it was like: Ibid.