A Chat with Eiji Aonuma

A few words with the man to whom Miyamoto has passed the Zelda torch.
By Chris Kohler | July 21, 2003

At forty years old, he is only ten years younger than Shigeru Miyamoto. But, with his hair dyed chapatsu brown in the style of most young Japanese, Eiji Aonuma stands in stark contrast to Miyamoto's shaggy salt-and-pepper locks. He is the one entrusted with the legends of Zelda; as its producer, he is filling the role previously held by the series' very creator. We sat down at E3 2003 to discuss Aonuma's past, his experience at Nintendo, and his future aspirations.

GameSpy: Where were you born? Where did you go to school?
Aonuma: I was born in Nagano prefecture. I studied design at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and joined Nintendo right after I graduated. In the beginning I did graphic design -- drew dot-pictures for sprite-based games. I drew all the characters for Mario Open Golf on the Famicom. After that I directed a game called Marvelous: Another Adventure Island, which never came out in the United States. When the N64 came out, I was involved with working with international third parties on their game design. And, after that, I directed Majora's Mask on the N64, then Wind Waker.
GameSpy: You studied design, just like Miyamoto.
Aonuma: Well, Miyamoto-san studied product design, but I majored in global design.
GameSpy: With an eye towards making video games?
Aonuma: Actually, I wanted to design for advertising. Initially, I didn't think about designing games, because back then games weren't as popular as they are now. In the process of my studies I discovered that I was more interested in 3D design, creating something with volume. So, I started creating karakuri ningyou -- traditional Japanese wooden dolls of carved wood that have a machine inside that allows the doll to move on its own. When I interviewed at Nintendo, I brought these and showed them to Miyamoto-san. I think that's why I was hired (laughs).
GameSpy: So you're now the producer of the Zelda series. Who's doing your old job of directing the games? And what is Miyamoto-san doing?
Aonuma: Miyamoto is still the producer. My relationship with him has not fundamentally changed -- he is still in the position of giving feedback on the direction of the Zelda games. But now, after speaking with Miyamoto-san, I [instead] talk to the directors of the games. Just because my title has changed does not mean that my day-to-day work will change so much, but I will now work with the directors and less with the creative team. My responsibilities are now of a more overall nature.
GameSpy: Do you feel like you're being put in charge of carrying on Miyamoto's legacy? His image?
Aonuma: Hmm ... Zelda is, of course, a game designed by Miyamoto-san, and he definitely has his own taste. I feel a responsibility to stay true to the basics of the game, but also I try to add my own flavor. In the process of developing a game, there are numerous times when I come to a sticking point and don't know what to do -- in times like that, I lean on Miyamoto-san. Also, when I implement something in the game that the creative team doesn't like, I say, "Oh, but Miyamoto-san wants this in there..."

Marvelous never made it to the United States. GameSpy: What is Aonuma-flavor as opposed to Miyamoto-flavor?
Aonuma: There isn't a clear distinction between Miyamoto's style and mine. I think over the years I've always asked myself, "What would Miyamoto do in this situation?" But, I've gradually gained confidence to add my own little distinct touches, my own little Aonuma-esque touches. And when I do that, and show it to Miyamoto-san, he usually accepts my ideas; gradually these increase in my various projects.

One thing we do have in common is a love of music. I play percussion and Miyamoto-san plays guitar. If you listen to the opening title theme, that's Miyamoto's mandolin. It's not him playing it, but it's his instrument (laughs).

GameSpy: We've heard so much about the gameplay of Four Swords and Tetra's Trackers, but not so much about how it all works. Were the GameCube and Game Boy Advance built specifically to connect to each other? If not, what do you have to do to get something like that working?
Aonuma: Actually, it was not in the initial planning of either system. One of the main issues was the cable connecting the two. The issue was the transmission speed. In order to make transitions faster, it would require a thicker cable, which would affect production costs. In regards to Tetra's Trackers, there is a mini-game before the main action, where characters have to collect treasure boxes. In fact, this time it is used so that character and field data can be sent to the Game Boy Advance.

And, because the game is so full of information, it does take quite a bit of time for this to be delivered. At this time, however, we feel that we've cleared all of these problems and have come out with a complete system.

Another issue was with the GBA and the fact that there is no electrical feed through the cable connecting it to the GCN. This means that your battery is going to be drained even when you play on the GameCube. The life for the battery on the GBA-SP is a little bit longer, but it does still require after playing the game that the AC be connected again and the battery charged.

Aonuma designed dungeons and enemies for Ocarina. GameSpy: When the next generation of Nintendo hardware hits, will connectivity be something that will be built-in from the initial planning stages?
Aonuma: Nintendo always looks at the previous generation of hardware and keeps all the functions that were useful from that system. For example, the Rumble Pak add-on from the N64 was built into the GameCube controller.
On Majora's Mask

GameSpy: Was Majora's Mask the first game for which you served as director?
Aonuma: I directed the development of enemies and dungeons for Ocarina of Time. But for overall direction, Majora was my first.
GameSpy: Whose idea was it to create the system with three days that repeat over and over?
Aonuma: Koizumi-san (Super Mario Sunshine director) and I decided this together.
GameSpy: Majora's Mask was certainly the darkest, most depressing Zelda game of all, and what followed that was Wind Waker, which was potentially the brightest and cheeriest. Was that a deliberate move? What about the next game?
Aonuma: There hasn't really been a mood determined for the sequel to Wind Waker. Of course, it's not like we establish some sort of feel for the game beforehand. With MM, though, we needed to establish a sense of urgency, a sense of fear in the player about the three-day cycle, to give them a feeling that three days is going to be the end. And, with regard to WW, because it takes place on the sea, and you've got the blue of the ocean, the blue of the sky -- that's what gave that game a bright feeling. We don't go into projects with an idea of how the game will look in the end. It's just what results.

Majora's Mask was Aonuma's directorial debut. GameSpy: For these games, are there any times during the development when Miyamoto has said, "No, don't do it this way," and you had to push your own opinions through the process?
Aonuma: That never happens. There's very few times when Miyamoto-san actually doesn't like things. We always come to an agreement in the end.

What I really want to explain to you about Four Swords for GameCube and Tetra's Trackers is that the demos we're showing off look like small games, but they're not. There are going to be lots of cool things in there, and they're going to be fully realized, Zelda-style games when they're finished.