Portrait of Nintendo’s Illustrator
When players aren’t immersed in their favorite titles, they carry images of their favorite heroes and scenarios in their mind’s eye. But it’s illustrations that do the heavy lifting, spreading the look and feel of a game deep into the real world. We’re talking about the artwork that appears on everything from the pages of manuals, magazines, and game guides to t-shirts, lunchboxes and skateboards. Illustrators deserve a lot of credit for helping us gamers wear our favorite series on our sleeves, so to speak, so we’re delighted to hear directly from Yusuke Nakano, one of Nintendo’s foremost (and highly passionate) illustrators, to get the story behind the images – like his darkly evocative Link/wolf illustration that graced NP’s cover last month – that have already begun connecting our world with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Under Cover of Twilight
It’s always a fascinating challenge to create artwork that authentically reflects a game, but developing the Link/wolf illustration for Nintendo Power? Now that was quite a task. I always sit down with the game’s developers to talk through what kind of artwork we should create, but specific details about a game still in development are continually shifting. It’s difficult to pin down the gameplay details to commit to artwork, but working the process in reverse – making the development follow the illustrations – would be impossible! So [the developers and the illustrators] work very closely. In the case of the Link/wolf illustration, prepared in the weeks leading up to the game’s debut at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, we could at least complete Link’s face and the head of the wolf for your cover. One other thing: The emblem at the crux of the illustration is taken from Hyrule Castle in Ocarina of Time. Did you notice that?

The Look of a Hero
At Nintendo, I’m responsible for more then illustrations for Zelda games, but for Twilight Princess, producer Eiji Aonuma brought me into game development at a much earlier stage than usual. I helped build the new Zelda game and assisted with the preproduction work, where I developed many sketches that explored how Link and monsters, for instance, could be expressed during development. Participating in the earliest stages of development was a first for me as an artist working at Nintendo.

Link is a very difficult character to draw. He’s the hero of the story. He needs to be liked by everyone. And he needs to have a characteristic, attractive style. For this Zelda game, the illustration challenge is even more daunting: he’s an adult this time around. I had quite a discussion with art director Satoru Takizawa about the new Link and drew a variety of sketches. We tried to find a new direction for Link’s face and body that would emote a wilder spirit then we’d seen before. When we finally agreed upon a direction, Miyamoto and Aonuma vetoed the style. He looks like an old fogey, they said. So we went back to the drawing board!

I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be an easy job, since many people at Nintendo had a specific vision about how the new adult Link should look. I think quite a few of them were using the older Link from Ocarina of Time as their foundation, especially since some of the younger people at the company say that they wanted to work for Nintendo because they liked Ocarina’s Link a lot. I remember when I was illustrating the grown-up Link for Ocarina of Time, I was very carefully about his look: basically, he’s a handsome guy. Broad-chested – that’s important. If his body were too slender with his handsome facial features, he’d end up looking more effete and aristocratic. I think that Link looks authentic – the Link we’ve all come to know in the Legend of Zelda world – when he has a fair amount of muscle and a physically conditioned body, since he needs to look impressive when he’s taking action, like when he’s riding a horse. Now Princess Zelda – she’s basically a beautiful woman. And in the new Zelda game, we’re portraying the Princess as if she’s wondering about something, and I’ve connected feelings of hopelessness and anxiousness to her illustration. Overall, this is the same for Link too. I have tried to avoid generating images that are too full of doom and gloom, however. As a side note, I seem to remember that my illustrations of Sheik – the mysterious character from Ocarina of Time who very famously turned out to be Princess Zelda in disguise – were also very popular when that game was released. Of course, it is entirely up to Aonuma whether Sheik will show up in the new Zelda or not.

Fantasy Made Reality
My generation grew up during a high point for animated series, manga, and movies in Japan, and I loved popular shows like Starblazer Yamamoto and Gundam, and manga-turned movies like Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausiacaä. My interests shifted to the world of art when I was in junior high, and American comic art and fantasy art became my passions; in particular, the style of muscular, impressionistic art done by Richard Corben and Frank Frazetta. At the same time, I also liked hard funk – the music of James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone – so I was kind of a strange guy in high school, drawing hyper-muscular fantasy art and listening to that kind of music. I studied oil painting in art school, a totally different world from my major interest in fantasy art, but I wanted to hone my drawing skills. I wanted to work as an illustrator, but had no idea how to make it happen and was pretty concerned about my future as an artist.

At the time, I didn’t think video games were anything so special, even though it was already a big part of young people’s lives. Though I’d played video games since my youth, I really wasn’t that much of an enthusiast. Then I played my first Legend of Zelda game, A Link to the Past, and discovered the Fire Emblem series, which I liked a lot. In those days, the video game industry was still young, a new kind of business in Japan, and the people in the industry were trying many ideas, including developing art for their video game worlds. I saw that the fantasy-art style was frequently used, and thought it was right up my alley, so I was compelled to contact Nintendo about a job.

After my first year with the company, I was in charge of monitoring the print quality of exported game materials – not a creative job, but it opened the door to the development department, where I worked on the designs of packages and manuals. Back then, Nintendo outsourced most illustrations, but when Nintendo launched the Nintendo 64 – and Super Mario 64 – it decided to start doing internal art development, and I was soon put in charge of creating 3D illustrations. Ever since the N64, I’ve created art for several Mario series: Mario Kart, Mario Golf, and Mario Tennis.

Right Style, Right Time
When I first heard about the Ocarina of Time project, and the need to create a new Link, I knew the job was for me. I put my name out there for the project by creating some sample illustrations of my ideas. Fortunately, Yoshiaki Koizumi, one of the game’s art directors, like the drawings, so I was put in charge of the illustrations. I loved the project and drew constantly; it was almost like I was giving vent to all of my passions through those drawings. And I’ll tell you one thing: drawing bad guys is worthwhile work. It felt great to draw characters like Ganondorf, exaggerating his fearsome, powerful presence. But my favorite Ocarina of Time illustration was of Impa, Zelda’s Royal Protector: It was extremely rare that Nintendo had such a muscular woman in one of it’s games. She was a natural fit for my preferred art style.

Though I hadn’t intended to keep illustrating the Zelda series, I went on to work on Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker and other Zelda games as well. The Wind Waker was an interesting experience, since the art style as so vastly different, and my job was to build upon that style, or bring it together with other elements to create great illustrations. Of course, I’ve worked on other titles in addition to those in the Zelda and Mario series; I’ve developed the Wave Race: Blue Storm art and – given how dark we’re going with Twilight Princess – you might be surprised to discover that I’ve even drawn Animal Crossing illustrations, too.

Today I still love American comics and fantasy art. While I was working on Majora’s Mask, I was especially into the Hellboy series. Who knows? Maybe it’s imagery influenced my own illustration style for the game. My favorite comic artists right now are Ashley Wood and Phil Hale, two artists who have really made their mark on Marvel and DC with their gritty, tough styles. And ate E3’04, I had a chance to meet one of my other favorites, Joe Madureira, one o the artists who works on the X-Men comics. And as Japanese animation is becoming more popular in the US, it really seems like American comics are absorbing some influences, so we’re seeing new talent emerge in comics. It’s fascinating to watch.

Overall, the world of Twilight Princess has been much more attractive to me personally than Ocarina of Time. Though I’m always involved in multiple projects, Twilight Princess is by far my biggest priority, and it’s where I’m investing most of my energy. I’m surrounded by many, many people who are investing their beliefs and passions into the game. I’m definitely one of them. I’m dead serious when I say that this project is a match made in heaven for me as an illustrator. Count on me to help make Twilight Princess live up to your wildest dreams.