In the first of three “making of ” documentaries posted on Nintendo’s YouTube channel, director Hidemaro Fujibayashi revealed that the development team had planned to re-examine the “conventions” of the Zelda series, including the design of its world and various gameplay mechanics, from the very beginning. The team even started with a 2D prototype game.
“Specifically, our process was to think of all kinds of different mechanics, and to try to distinguish between the unchanging, universal traits of the Zelda franchise and things that had simply become conventions of the series,” Fujibayashi said.
Multiple smaller play areas were implemented back in the original The Legend of Zelda simply because the technology at the time didn’t allow for a more open structure. Other series staples, like the Master Sword and villain Ganon, still remained in the game, but early design concepts for Breath of the Wild showed a remarkably different beast.
“Some of our younger designers came up with very unique suggestions,” said art director Satoru Takizawa. “Like the idea that UFOs could invade from space and abduct cattle.”
“The planners started by thinking about what kind of person Zelda is, and why she’s in a position that makes us want to save her”
Though the more ridiculous ideas didn’t stick around, Nintendo used this period of experimentation to build on emergent gameplay moments, such as learning how the game’s lightning could damage enemies, or how Link could mix his “stasis” ability with objects in the world.
This “emergence” idea, as well as the distillation of series conventions, also applied to the game’s story and characters, which producer Eiji Aonuma said, in a second video, was a result of switching to the open-world setting in Breath of the Wild. This was most evident with Zelda herself, who the development staff re-examined while designing.
“The planners started by thinking about what kind of person Zelda is, and why she’s in a position that makes us want to save her,” said Fijibayashi.
The designers, however, wanted to make sure players could instantly recognize Zelda with familiar characteristics, and when the two sides were able to reach a compromise, the character seen in-game was created.
The Guardians — the terrifying, spider-like creatures roaming Hyrule — were also created with inspiration from past games. The Octorok enemy, specifically, was a base for their design, in large part because of their size and terrifying noises.
The original The Legend of Zelda was a source of inspiration for more than just character designs. Though Breath of the Wild is drastically different from other games in the series, its emphasis on open-ended exploration does bear some resemblance to the original game. The world itself was inspired by the geography of Nintendo’s home of Kyoto, and Fujibayashi took the time to gauge how large the world should be based on how long it would take before Link would get tired traversing it.
“In the end, the world ended up being approximately 12 times the size of Twilight Princess, he said. “So rather than compare it to previous Zelda games, when we decided on matters of scope and scale, we experimented to decide what would be fun to play.”
This design philosophy appears to have also worked its way into the game’s combat, which puts a large emphasis on manipulating the open world to your benefit, like when Link rolls a boulder toward enemies or steers them into the path of a bomb.
All the experimentation and iteration has certainly paid off. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games Nintendo has released in years, and an early game of the year contender. It’s available for the Switch and Wii U consoles. For more on the game’s development, check out the videos posted above.
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