Eiji Aonuma, Zelda’s guardian

Amongst its prominent elements, there is not a single person within Nintendo who is as closely tied to a single series as Eiji Aonuma (we’re referring, of course, to The Legend of Zelda). Nintendo’s project directors almost always come from an artistic background, and he is no exception; it’s certainly not a common choice within the industry, but in his case it’s even more anomalous. It’s not a common choice within the industry, but in his case it’s even more anomalous. For example, he had never touched a video game until he was 25 years old; incredibly, by the time he was 35 he had already managed to join the team of one of the most important sagas in history.

Let’s go in order. Eiji Onozuka (yes, it’s the same person) was born on March 16, 1963, in Nagano prefecture, into a family of carpenters. His father and uncle worked with wood, so he grew up in a practical and, at the same time, creative environment. These qualities came in very handy when he embarked on his academic studies in Tokyo, at the National University of Fine Arts and Music (since 2008 only “University of the Arts”): as DidYouKnowGaming? reports, it seems he had no particular talent for graphics. So Eiji turned to the manual skills he had acquired through genetics, and began to concentrate on the construction of Mecha puppets, traditional Japanese creations (the earliest date back to the 17th century). They are puppets, a perhaps reductive term, extremely well-preserved and finely decorated, with a mechanical device inside that allows them to perform simple tasks: Onozuka concentrates mainly on making puppets that play musical instruments, on which he also bases his thesis.

Aonuma col suo tipico abbigliamento: giacca e t-shirt.

Aonuma in his typical outfit: jacket and t-shirt.

When he graduated it was 1988: during his studies he was lucky enough to meet and get to know Yoichi Kotabe, responsible for the character design of Heidi and, above all (as far as we are concerned) of Super Mario. We’re not talking about the general appearance of the character (created by Miyamoto), but rather his refinement, which took place between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2. The famous designer got him an interview directly with Shigeru Miyamoto. If you didn’t already know, you should know – in this context – two things about Nintendo’s grand master. He trusts his instincts and intuitions blindly. Secondly, he doesn’t consider it a virtue that a potential video game creator is trained solely in… video games. He prefers to convert passions from outside this world into interactive aesthetics.

Thus, despite being already 25 years old and having never touched a video game, Eiji Onozuka made a good impression on Miyamoto, who was captivated by his mechanical puppets. He joins the most famous (at the time, and perhaps still) video game company on the planet, knowing absolutely nothing about what he was going to do: a kind of belated letter from Hogwarts. Eiji asks his girlfriend of the time, a gamer, to introduce him to that world: she starts with Dragon Quest, for NES, which fascinates Onozuka to the point that he can’t sleep at night.

From Marvelous to Zelda

Eiji joined the R&D2 division, which dealt with both hardware and software, and would later be merged into EAD. His first credited work is NES Open Tournament Golf, released for the NES in 1991: he tried his hand at creating sprites. In general, his first tasks all concern the graphic side of games, such as working on screen design for the Super Game Boy, and his role as graphic designer in BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge, published on Satellaview, a peripheral for Super Nintendo that allowed downloading additional content using satellite technology.

In the meantime, Eiji Onozuka continues to expand his knowledge, developing a clear, unequivocal preference for games that feature good stories, even text, and finely constructed puzzles. He doesn’t like arcades, and The Legend of Zelda for the NES leaves him stunned, to the point that he can’t get past the initial dials: too difficult, too scattered. As he would later confess, the Octoroks, among the first enemies he encounters, are in his mind almost invincible giant beings: this nightmare would spawn the Guardians of Breath of the Wild.

Marvelous: Another Treasure Island: uses the same engine as A Link to the Past.

Despite not liking the series progenitor, Onozuka fell in love with The Legend of Zelda in 1991, when A Link to the Past was released: a more harmonious and structured game, more cohesive and smooth than the NES episode. He likes it so much that he wants to create a clone. The SNES era was nearing its end, but Eiji made his wish come true with R&D2: Marvelous: Another Treasure Island, released in 1996, was his first project as director. It uses the same engine, and the same overhead shot, as A Link to the Past. Unlike the game forged by Tezuka, it focuses more on solving puzzles, and is strongly centred on dialogues and the clues they give, always with a view to solving the puzzles offered by the island. An island where three boys, Deon, Max and Jack (present as Spirits in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate), must face a crew of pirates (… and their monkeys) who have kidnapped their teacher. They search for and collect treasures: the three protagonists are always present on screen, each with their own particular skills. Fighting is kept to a minimum, and even these – rather than action and reflexes – are often focused on solving a logical puzzle.

Coming at the dawn of the Nintendo 64, Marvelous: Another Treasure Island was never brought to the West (as, of course, were its “DLCs” for Satellaview). Recently, the game was translated into English by some fans. Shortly after the publication of this adventure, Aonuma was entrusted with the supervision of some projects developed abroad, such as Blast Corps and Goldeneye 007: Miyamoto liked Marvelous, and thought it was time to aggregate Eiji to the main Zelda team, to take it from clone to original.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: un artwork del gioco, con Link adulto e bambino.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: artwork from the game, with adult and child Link.

At this time, Onozuka is getting married. When marriages are celebrated in Japan, it is customary for the couple to choose a single surname: in the majority of cases, with percentages of over 90%, it is the wife who acquires her husband’s surname. We don’t know why, but Eiji chooses to go against the tide again: from this moment on, Onozuka is replaced by Aonuma.

Da Ocarina of Time a Twilight Princess

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Link che suona l'ocarina fuori dal Lon Lon Ranch.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Link playing the ocarina outside the Lon Lon Ranch.

In Ocarina of Time Aonuma becomes one of the four sub-directors, and he is given the onerous task of designing the dungeons. The work he does is superb: despite a few too many exaggerations, as in the famous Water Temple, Aonuma’s dungeons are perfect mechanisms, Mecha puppets turned into temples.

This is not the time to celebrate Ocarina of Time any further, but it is important to emphasise, by retracing the history of this designer, how much the success of the masterpiece for Nintendo 64 marked him. In the following years, surpassing it would become an obsession. Immediately after Ocarina of Time, the game’s two main sub-directors were given the task of creating a sequel in record time, i.e. twelve months: Yoshiaki Koizumi, the other rising star, came up with the concept of Majora’s Mask (the three recurring days), and invented its story and subquests. Aonuma is in charge of the general direction of the project, the construction of the dungeons and the overworld. The work is strange, ambiguous, and extraordinarily beautiful: we recalled it here, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

At the end of this project, the time has come for a vigorous generational change for Nintendo. Miyamoto and Tezuka can no longer be in the business of shaping games with their own hands: heirs are needed. Koizumi has proved to be extraordinary and eclectic: he seems the perfect man for The Legend of Zelda. But Aonuma… well, Aonuma on Mario would be a foolish choice, given his aversion to fast-paced, arcade games; so Koizumi is given the plumber, Eiji the adventures of Link. He becomes, in short, the guardian of The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, un artwork del gioco, con Ganondorf sullo sfondo. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, un artwork del gioco, con Ganondorf sullo sfondo.

The first game he directed was The Wind Waker for GameCube, and it was – as he told us in this interview in 2011 – his most personal work, to the point that he imagined his own child, still young, in Link’s place. With this project he fulfils another long-standing wish, namely to create an adventure set at sea. The game has problems in the ending, it is not as perfect as other episodes of the series, but it turns out to be magnificent: simple, rather easy, but magnificent. And with graphics, even if initially harassed, of incredible beauty: it is still one of the most visually brave and beautiful titles in circulation. Toon Link was drawn by Yoshiki Haruhana: that deformed character would give birth to the entire aesthetics of The Wind Waker, an aspect that would also deeply influence the title’s interaction. Before Breath of the Wild, it is the 3D Zelda that comes closest to embracing the open world concept: its oceanic map, though full of empty spaces, is totally open.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Link in sella ad Epona.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Link riding Epona.

At this point, Eiji wanted to leave the series: it was Miyamoto who convinced him to stay. The next one would be the last The Legend of Zelda directed by Aonuma. The work was apparently inspired by requests from Nintendo of America, which wanted a chapter with a darker and more “mature” look; at the same time, Eiji dreamed of being a wolf bound in chains. These two coordinates led to the creation of Twilight Princess, on which Aonuma initially worked as producer: the project director, who was, alas, unknown, did not prove up to the task, and Eiji returned to the helm. The work was well received by critics and audiences alike, and proved to be the biggest commercial success since Ocarina of Time. As a reaction to The Wind Waker, whose limited number of dungeons had been criticised, it offered a plethora of temples. However, it sacrificed a lot of exploration, and the Hyrule it offered was rather empty and tunnelled, composed of macro-areas connected by narrow portions of land. The look of the game is more marketable, but compared to the charisma of The Wind Waker it seems soulless.

Produttore, da Phantom Hourglass a Breath of the Wild

Eiji Aonuma, a Londra, intervistato da Multiplayer.it.

Eiji Aonuma, in London, interviewed by Multiplayer.it.

From here onwards Aonuma began his adventure as producer and manager of the EAD (later EPD) team number 3, the Zelda team: the first project in which he played this role was Phantom Hourglass, an episode for Nintendo DS in which Hidemaro Fujibayashi worked as director. The same pairing appears for the next home-grown chapter, released in the year – 2011 – in which the series celebrates its 25th anniversary; Skyward Sword brings the relationship between EAD and Nintendo Wii to a close on a high note, but although excellent, it is a The Legend of Zelda that marks the “crisis”, if you can call it that, of the saga. The ratings are excellent, the sales less so; despite the great quality, and the usual bewitching attention to detail, the series does not manage to undermine the advance of western software houses, and in particular Bethesda, which with Skyrim, although different in its mechanics, steals the scene from Nintendo’s fantasy saga. Skyward Sword is a dense, cohesive, almost obsessively inlaid game, but it does not have the broad scope of a legendary adventure: it is too linear, and focused on puzzles too much. In a way, more Marvelous than Zelda.

At the same time, while retracting statements in the following days, Eiji Aonuma calls The Legend of Zelda a “gilded cage”. Working on a single series for so long can, of course, become nerve-wracking, but to retire at this time would be to go out a loser. The Wii U era is coming, and Aonuma knows that The Legend of Zelda must renew itself: his motto of the period, “rethinking the conventions” of the series, has gone down in history. Conventions that can be overturned and overcome also thanks to the new hardware, which finally, after ten years of stagnation, projects Nintendo into a new dimension. High definition delays the work and complicates it, so much so that EPD 3 decides to experiment with a remake of The Wind Waker.

The next The Legend of Zelda, the first truly open world of the three-dimensional era, is presented at E3 2014: it takes another three years, and a new console, for it to see the light of day. Aonuma is the producer, Fujibayashi the director: this time the pair hit the target as best they could. Inspired by the first episode of the saga, the first one that Eiji himself couldn’t stand, but he proves to be intelligent in changing his mind: action and exploration are back in the foreground. Finally Ocarina of Time is no longer an objective to overcome, but a beautiful memory to hide in the melancholic game map, so that the new Link, without hat and green tunic, can ride free over the ruins of the Hero of Time.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: un artwork direttamente ispirato all'episodio NES.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: artwork directly inspired by the NES episode.

Breath of the Wild was a triumphant success, hailed as game of the year, and by many awarded – subsequently – as the best title of the decade. Aonuma was further promoted, no longer “just” the manager of EPD 3, but Deputy General Manager of the entire software area.

Aonuma’s legacy

Eiji Aonuma e Bill Trinen.

Eiji Aonuma and Bill Trinen.

What will be left of Eiji Aonuma? He certainly won’t be remembered as one of Nintendo’s greatest geniuses. He won’t be part of the band that includes Gunpei Yokoi, Takashi Tezuka, Yoshiaki Koizumi; he won’t even come close, of course, to the wizardly, cosmogonic status of Shigeru Miyamoto.

There’s no denying that for a long time the impression was that we had someone unsuitable to manage Nintendo’s most prestigious, sacred saga. For so many years, the feeling was of watching a driver at the wrong wheel; a novice put in a McLaren, Felipe Massa in Senna’s car. A person who didn’t like racing; a person who always preferred reflection to instinct, cerebrality to action. In keeping with the perspective of the video game industry, it was absolutely insane, and verging on the fideistic, to put an individual who had never played a game until he was 25 years old in charge of the company’s most prestigious saga. To entrust to a person who despised The Legend of Zelda, the NES one, the one with the golden cartridge, the destiny of the series.

Eiji Aonuma was a good director. The Wind Waker will long be remembered, despite its problems, despite its levity, despite its playful conservatism, in stark contrast to its visual boldness. But it can’t be said that Aonuma was an unavoidable game designer; rather, the more power he had, the more he tended to bring The Legend of Zelda closer to what he had in mind from the start, namely a game based on puzzle solving rather than exploration or action, with a strong focus on dialogue. Where there should have been the company’s chosen one, there was a (supposedly) naive artist. He had to handle something for which, perhaps, he was not ready. He suffered a lot, and this is certainly not a minor factor, the technological stagnation: he had to guide the series in the worst possible moment, during those two lustrums in which Nintendo did not create more performing hardware, which for The Legend of Zelda are oxygen, they are lifeblood, they are the alphabet itself with which to write history again.

Eiji Aonuma , a Londra, intervistato da Multiplayer.it.

Eiji Aonuma, in London, interviewed by Multiplayer.it.

Eiji Aonuma has also shown himself to be the best possible producer; a path essentially opposite to that traversed by Takashi Tezuka. Aonuma has given ample scope to the Legend of Zelda saga, has indulged its nature of being the queen, more genetic than a ruler, of the world of video games; and, at the same time, has reaffirmed its right to consider itself detached from this strictly confined environment. Zelda must have high cultural contaminations, it must not be a series recurring to the electronic world, and this concept Aonuma has continuously expressed: through his passions, through his elegance and his way of speaking. Through his aesthetic ambitions.

More than any other characteristic, Aonuma brought versatility to The Legend of Zelda as a producer. He brought the ability to change his mind, retracing his steps, recognising the importance of exploration and action, despite not appreciating it. He has given the saga elegance in presentation, with his good looks and above all with his class in communication, in his sobriety in announcing delays and movements (a constant…), in his passion for art, linked to music and puppet making.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: artwork della copertina giapponese e americana.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Japanese and American cover artwork.

Aonuma has, consciously or unconsciously, steered The Legend of Zelda towards graphic experimentation. Perhaps this is his most important legacy; every title under his stewardship, and not before, has looked “right” in relation to gameplay. And he has always yearned for aesthetic recognition outside of the video game industry, so closed in on itself; he wanted to draw inspiration from Cézanne when creating Skyward Sword, to mask the technological limitations of the Nintendo Wii. In his naïve way, and despite having – from a gaming point of view – almost normalised one of the most prestigious sagas in the entire firmament of video games, he has always claimed, in his communications and choices, that The Legend of Zelda belongs to a wider world than the ‘nerd’ one, which, on the contrary, he has often mocked. It’s no coincidence, pardon the word, that the prize for harvesting all of Breath of the Wild’s Korok seeds is… well… shit. Gilded, but shit nonetheless.

Aonuma may not have been able to “shoot” the best The Legend of Zelda possible, and indeed he failed to do so. But in his mind, what The Legend of Zelda was was extremely clear: a series associated with prestige, art, elegance, quality. And he is not a haughty person: he was the first, when necessary, to recognise the merits of rivals. He was the first to consider Skyrim an equal opponent, someone capable of surpassing it, even though it was Western: well before Nintendo fans, well before many other Japanese.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, image from the 2014 presentation.

Eiji Aonuma until 1988 had never tried a video game. Ten years later, he was designing the dungeons of Ocarina of Time. He was still afraid to race on the track. In 2017, as a co-pilot, he produced the greatest title – or what is considered by many to be the greatest – of the past decade. With commitment and sensitivity, he became one of Nintendo’s key figures, and the producer of that masterpiece called Breath of the Wild. As well as, from before, the creator of that wonderful fairy tale The Wind Waker. Meanwhile, he continues to build puppets, and play percussion in the post-work wind band – among Nintendo employees – called The Wind Wakers.

His Link is not a chosen one, but a child, a shepherd, a student, a beaten and forgetful leader who, despite everything, has managed to stand on the same level as the Hero of Time.