Aonuma And Fujibayashi Talk Tears Of The Kingdom’s Reception And Their Approach To The Timeline

When The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom launched in May, it immediately became a cultural phenomenon. In addition to spawning countless viral social media posts about the creations of players, it also quickly became the fastest-selling Legend of Zelda title, as well one of the frontrunners for 2023’s Game of the Year award. At the time of its launch, producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi didn’t know what the community reaction would eventually become.

However, now more than a half year removed from the launch of Tears of the Kingdom, I once again caught up with Aonuma and Fujibayashi to break down some of the more discussed moments of Tears of the Kingdom and speak about the evolution of the series. You can read the full interview below.

Just be warned that there are sporadic spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in the interview below.

Now that it’s been just over half a year since The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was released, how are you feeling about the reception of the game to this point?
Eiji Aonuma: Thinking about my past of making games, with past titles in the series, it always seemed to me that there was great excitement when the game would come out among the community, but then that would kind of die off relatively quickly. And then, we kind of saw a new trend with Breath of the Wild where the game was released, and we were really pleased to see that it maintained this interest among the fans and they continued voicing their opinions and sharing discussions online. We’ve been happy to see this continue with Tears of the Kingdom as well. I’m so pleased to see that people are still putting up these unbelievable vehicles and different creations they’ve been making online. I’m just happy to see that’s still continuing.

And another thing that I haven’t really experienced myself from the development side, looking at the reception once a game has come out, is I’ve seen many people saying that they don’t want to go to the ending of the game because they don’t want it to end. And so they’ve been putting off clearing the game, and that’s something I haven’t experienced before.

Hidemaro Fujibayashi: From my side, obviously, in past titles, the core gaming audience expressed their joy and satisfaction and fun playing other Zelda titles. But starting with Tears of the Kingdom, I see now a wider audience being able to enjoy this game. People who are maybe older or maybe a lot younger. You know, kids that are around my youngest kid’s age. Obviously, it’s with Breath of the Wild as well, but we built this game to be able to be enjoyed by a wider audience. And to see that come to fruition and to see that really gives me the realization that we were able to accomplish that goal.

Tears of the Kingdom plays off Breath of the Wild, but the addition of Ultrahand adds so much to the core experience. It now feels so integral to the experience and so important to those more casual fans that you mentioned bringing in. With that in mind, do you think we will see Ultrahand return in future titles?
When we’re creating a title, say, Tears of the Kingdom, as you mentioned, the crux of the experience in playing Tears of the Kingdom is Ultrahand and the freedom to create. As you mentioned, that is what Tears of the Kingdom is. So every time we’re making a Zelda title, we want to create something new. If, for example, there was any continuation of Tears of the Kingdom and we were to bring in, say, Ultrahand, then I think to us, it would feel like, “Well, we’re just bringing in Tears of the Kingdom as is.” What we want to do from a game creator’s perspective is create something new. From that perspective, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Ultrahand in every Zelda game or anything in the future.

EA: When you’re talking about Ultrahand, that is a really core idea for Tears of the Kingdom and I think it represents our approach of kind of putting everything we could into this game. You know, first putting all of our ideas in and then being very selective about what we wanted to remain, removing all of the parts that didn’t make sense or didn’t fit perfectly. This game, then, is the result of that selection process. This time, you’ll see that there is no DLC because of that process. We created what we wanted to create and felt that it was complete in that fashion. So from that aspect as well, I think we definitely won’t be including Ultrahand in titles going forward.

In that same notion where you did, earlier this year, confirm that there won’t be any DLC for Tears of the Kingdom because you’ve already accomplished everything you want to accomplish with this game – have you ruled out another direct sequel?
[Laughs] Well that would be a sequel to a sequel, which is getting a little bit wild when you think about it! But as I’ve mentioned previously, with Tears of the Kingdom, we were seeking to build on top of the world we created with Breath of the Wild and really exhaust the possibilities of what we could put into that world. I think it is – to use a bit of a term – an apotheosis, or the final form of that version of The Legend of Zelda. In that regard, I don’t think that we’ll be making a direct sequel to a world such as that that we’ve created.

One thing I really loved during Tears of the Kingdom’s final battle sequence is when Ganondorf powers up and the health bar extends to go off the screen. It was a really great way to subvert expectations of the player. Where did that idea come from and why did the team decide to implement it into that battle?
HF: At the core of what you mentioned is really the DNA of Nintendo. If we want to express the power level or ability of something visually, how can we do that? For example, if you look at a turtle shell and it has spikes, you intuitively know that you can’t step on it. It’s that same concept; we wanted to express how much of a level-up or power-up Ganondorf is experiencing, and we thought about how can we express that visually. How can we do it in a way that again subverts expectations and gets a reaction like you had? The result was, “Why don’t we just have the health meter go off the screen?” That’s very intuitive and conveys the fact that this enemy is very, very strong.

Normally, other companies would probably just put another layer of a different color over the pre-existing health bar instead of what you did.
EA: I think we always have the desire to try something different and to go a different direction with things like that. We also want to make things that look cool and, as we previously said, give you that impression of, “Wait, what’s going on here?! What is this?” We always want to do something a little bit that will make you kind of laugh a little bit, like, “What am I seeing right now?” 

HF: We usually take the diagonal approach, not the straightforward approach. [Laughs]

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

When you’re developing a new Zelda title, obviously your primary focus is on core gameplay, but the timeline placement discussion has become more important and prevalent among the fans of the series. How much consideration and importance does the development team put into those discussions?
HF: As you mentioned, we realized that fans have a great time theorizing and enjoy thinking about where things fit on the timeline. That’s something that the development team recognizes and it considers, but to an extent. And I say, “to an extent” because if we get too into the weeds or too detailed in that placement, it results in kind of creating restraints for our creativity; the process of creating new ideas becomes restricted because we’re so tied up and trying to make this fit into a very specific spot in the timeline. We do consider it, but not to an extent where we feel that our development process feels restricted or constrained.

EA: Another point kind of related to this is that as we’ve been able to realize more fully a real, working world because of technology, you are also able to fine-tune all the details of that world. But, we don’t always want to do that just because we now can. Instead, as people play the game, we want to give them the ability to exist in that world and a world that they can interpret in their own way. And, so, that’s also something that we really keep in mind as we’re continuing to develop games.

Have you heard the theory that some scenes in Tears of the Kingdom are perhaps loose retellings of some events from Ocarina of Time?
Oh, no. I’m hearing that for the first time.

Well, there’s Rauru, there’s the Imprisoning War, and there are some scenes in Tears of the Kingdom that resemble scenes in Ocarina of Time, particularly in the flashbacks. For example, you have the scene where Ganondorf is kneeling before the king of Hyrule before he betrays him.
HF: We understand that fans have theories and that’s a fun thing to do for fans. We also think about what kinds of theories fans may come up with given what we create. It’s not like we’re trying to plan ahead for those theories, but in the series, there’s this idea of reincarnation in that Zelda and Link, as they appear in the different titles, they are not the same person per se, but there’s sort of this fundamental soul that carries on. Because of that, certain scenes may turn out similar, like you were saying, the antagonist kneeling before the king, those scenes might turn out because they are sort of like glimpses or representations of the soul of the series. For people to kind of pick up on that and see that, it’s something that we enjoy also and it kind of helps create this myth of The Legend of Zelda.

Does the Hyrule we saw in the flashback scenes in Tears of the Kingdom predate Skyward Sword or does it come after the other games in the timeline?
Obviously, there’s something a little bit clearer in our minds, but of course, it could be that we’re wrong as well! [Laughs] I kind of want to pose the idea that, like in real-life history, you define by the artifacts and by the data that you currently have. So within what we have, there might be a correct answer, but it could be a different answer. So, I guess my answer would be that it could be both. Both could be correct.

EA: I mean, the Legend of Zelda is a series of games that focus on puzzle solving, so this is just another sort of puzzle that the users will have to see if they can solve and think about. [Laughs] 

A game I referenced a couple of questions ago, Ocarina of Time, just turned 25 years old two weeks ago. When you look back at that game, how do you assess the legacy of that title?
I think with Ocarina of Time, that was us establishing The Legend of Zelda as a 3D game. Mr. Miyamoto was the director of that title and then I kind of took the baton from him and then it was my task to take that form that we had established with Ocarina of Time and carry it forward. Then, in working with Mr. Fujibayashi with Skyward Sword, I had at that point been involved with the series for quite a while and then the job became, “How do we take what we’ve established until that point and create something new and carry the series forward?” That process has continued through to Breath of the Wild. 

When you’re thinking about the legacy of a game like Ocarina of Time, there’s been a flow that feels natural to us on the development team of one creator to another, one game to another that has taken us all the way to Tears of the Kingdom. I think that legacy and the momentum of that legacy will see us through to future titles going forward as well.

You and Mr. Fujibayashi have been working together across several games in the Zelda franchise now. How has your relationship or collaboration style evolved in that time?
I don’t really think our relationship has changed over the course of our time working together, but it is true that I worked on titles as a director prior to Mr. Fujibayashi joining the team in that role. So in our relationship together, I had the way that I directed previous Zelda titles and he took the baton from me in that regard and was able to see what I and the previous teams had done and bring his own interpretation to how to move the series forward while also collaborating with me. So, bringing ideas to me that I can look at and say, “That looks great,” or, “What if we took this idea and changed it a little bit in this way?” So, it is true that we’ve worked together now in Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild, and Skyward Sword in that way, but the crux of our relationship hasn’t changed. The only thing I can say is that now, I am 100 percent confident that if I leave it up to Mr. Fujibayashi, he’s going to make it work. My role is kind of just playing the game, saying what I want, and giving feedback. Things like that.

It seems like for a long time now, the veterans of Nintendo, such as Mr. Miyamoto, Mr. Tezuka, and yourself have been mentoring the younger members of Nintendo to do that kind of baton pass you described. For example, we have Mr. Tezuka overseeing the Mario franchise, but Mr. Mouri is the director of Super Mario Bros. Wonder. How does having that kind of team composition, where the longtime designers, directors, and producers are working with these younger developers who maybe grew up playing Nintendo games, benefit the titles released by Nintendo?
EA: In some ways, it’s a matter of vitality! When I look at Mr. Miyamoto, it’s actually kind of frightening! [Laughs] I mean, he hasn’t changed at all from his past self. Here he is at 70 and he’s just as healthy and vigorous as ever! I look at that and I’m kind of shocked. [Laughs] But for myself, as I’ve continued at Nintendo, and now in the position and age that I am, I do notice that it’s not as easy to spearhead a massive project. I’m really grateful for the team that I’m surrounded by and the ways that they are able to contribute to the games that we’re making.

I think you’re right to point out our pillar franchises like Zelda and Mario that were creations of our veteran staff, but if you look at franchises like Splatoon or Animal Crossing, those were things that were originally created by younger developers. They, of course, have now solidified themselves as standalone franchises, but we also have a lot of younger developers that are supporting behind the scenes in many ways, and contributing a lot of ideas that go into the development of our games. I think those younger developers don’t always show up in the most noticeable ways, but they will continue to contribute those ideas. I think we can expect things like, you know, the creation of new IP, for example, or just their contributions to products going forward.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

When you look at the year Nintendo has had, obviously there’s Tears of the Kingdom, but there’s also The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the opening of a new Super Nintendo World here in Los Angeles, the release of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and other things we don’t have time to go over. What has it been like to work at Nintendo during this era?
So, 18 years ago, when I joined Nintendo, that was the era of Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii. Prior to that, I was still in the industry, but not at Nintendo. Looking at Nintendo from the outside, but within the industry, I always thought, “They’re always doing something fun. I heard there’s going to be this wild controller coming out. I heard there’s going to be this system with two screens.” These things just seemed a lot of fun and really had a big appeal and were very attractive to me.

Now that it’s been 18 years since I joined the company and we’re at a point where, as you mentioned, there’s been movies, there’s a theme park; those are things that maybe veterans within the company are being part of, but then there are also things like, as you mentioned, Super Mario Wonder, where there are newer generations of people being involved. I think the idea that there’s enough equal space for both veterans and newcomers to be able to really flex their muscles and be able to embark on this creative journey is something that I think is really incredible. That’s, I think, what’s helped us bring Nintendo to where we are now. To kind of sum it up, I really feel honored and fortunate to be able to work at Nintendo in this era, just as much as I felt honored and thankful to join Nintendo back in that era.

EA: I’ve worked at Nintendo for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve ever really known everything that’s being worked on in the company. You know, we have many projects going on kind of simultaneously, whether that’s, for example, the movie – that was an entirely different team and I didn’t know anything about what they’re making or how they’re making it. Those projects are kind of kept separate and there are a lot of secrets as people are working on their projects. Sometimes, I have the feeling of, “Come on! We’re here at the same company! Tell me about some things like that earlier!”

But I think it is a really unique situation to be able to work in the same company but still be surprised when I get to find out what these other projects are and how they’ve been created. I think that’s something special about Nintendo. Even at my age, I can still be part of this company, but also get to be observing and spectating from the outside when new projects that I knew nothing about are announced and delight in that sense of discovery. I think that’s something special about Nintendo.

Thank you both so much for your time. I’ve heard about how sometimes questions about games can inspire them to be made, so I selfishly want to ask you about a modern Ocarina of Time remake, but I have a feeling I know the answer I’ll get.
[Laughs] No comment! 

For more with Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi on Tears of the Kingdom and the Legend of Zelda franchise as a whole, check out our interview with them from earlier this year here. We also have a conversation with Shigeru Miyamoto and Koji Kondo, which you can read here.

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