Minish Cap - 2004 Developer Interview
This lengthy Minish Cap interview with director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and producer Eiji Aonuma originally appeared in Nintendo Dream magazine. It offers a deeper look into the making of Minish Cap than the other interview hosted here at shmuplations, and looks at the working relationship between Capcom and Nintendo, the notion of "map-as-dungeon" design, and Fujibayashi's abiding love of 2D.
Eiji Aonuma - Producer
Hidemaro Fujibayashi - Director/Planner
—Aonuma, what was your role on Minish Cap?
Aonuma: Capcom would bring us versions of the game as they finished it, and several of our staff members would play it, review it, and then give their feedback. It was fun work. I admit it was frustrating seeing our staff play it before me…! I was busy with other work but I really wanted to be there reviewing Minish Cap. (laughs)
—Fujibayashi, I believe this is your first appearance in Nintendo Dream. Welome. Could you tell us how you joined Capcom?
Fujibayashi: I studied literature at a Buddhist college… my student days were totally unrelated to what I'm doing now. When I started looking for a job, all of my friends went on to be monks, so they didn't actually do any job hunting. I had never planned to be a monk, so I started looking through the magazine job ads. I'd always liked games, and as I looked through the magazines, a little light went off in my head, like "oh, yeah, you know… games are made by companies that I could get hired at." If possible I'd like to work for a company in Kansai, I thought, so I applied to Capcom.
—Not Nintendo? (laughs)
Fujibayashi: I didn't see any Nintendo hiring ads then. (laughs)
—Why did you want to join a game company?
Fujibayashi: I was actually interested in amusement parks at first… I was curious about who created the layouts for attractions like the haunted houses. As I was researching that, I found game companies like I mentioned, and my interest just shifted towards that.
Aonuma: It was kind of like that for me too. When I applied to Nintendo, it wasn't because I'd been wanting to make games specifically; I just wanted to do work that was fun. Fujibayashi's generation, though, they were brought up with games, so most of them join because they want to make games. Hey… are you lying about your age!? (laughs)
Fujibayashi: No, no. (laughs) I've loved games and played them since 4th or 5th grade. The first game I played was Donkey Kong Jr (1983, Famicom), I believe…
—What about the Zelda series?
Fujibayashi: I played the heck out of the first Legend of Zelda. I was in my first year of middle school when I heard that the Famicom Disk System would be released in January, so I excitedly saved up my money for it. Then when I went to buy it, it turned out the release date was delayed, and teary-eyed I returned home, and had to wait another whole month. (laughs) I played A Link to the Past in high school, and now I'm working with the same people who made that game.
—How did it feel when they asked you to make a new game in this series you played as a kid?
Fujibayashi: I was happy… I mean, I was taken aback. When I first saw one of our programmers at Capcom making Link's sprite move around, I wondered, "why are we making a Zelda game at Capcom…?" What had happened was, our boss Yoshiki Okamoto had been talking with Shigeru Miyamoto, and they'd agreed to do some exploratory research and prototyping, which is what I saw there. I never thought in a million years that I would be involved with it. But for some reason or other, they called me up and told me to draw up plans for a new Zelda game that Capcom would develop, and that was Oracle of the Seasons. I was amazed that Capcom was going to be making a Zelda game, and I thought it was an incredible opportunity. I was very happy.
—Did you put more energy into this than your other work, then?
Fujibayashi: No, err, wait… umm… (laughs)
Aonuma: Hey, what kind of question is that! (laughs)
Fujibayashi: Before this, all the planning work I'd done had been in-house at Capcom, but for Oracle, I had to commute back and forth between Capcom's Osaka offices, Flagship in Tokyo, and Nintendo in Kyoto. We drew up the plans in consultation with many different people and groups. The scope was wider than what I'd done before, so I wasn't thinking so much about how much more work it was, but rather, that this was the start of a very fun project.
—Do you think part of the reason you were selected as director is because you liked Zelda?
Fujibayashi: I don't think so. Before this I had been pushing hard for Capcom to let me make a Gundam game. (laughs)
Aonuma: Fujibayashi is a huge gunpla fanatic. (laughs)
Fujibayashi: I lined all these Gundam models up on my desk to try and appeal to them, but it didn't lead anywhere. (laughs) Since then, I've been involved with Zelda, for 6 years now… this year it will be 7.
Aonuma: His involvement, his "Zelda Career" if you will, isn't much different from mine. He's been working with us on Zelda for so long now, I sometimes forget he's not a Nintendo employee. (laughs)
Fujibayashi: When Miyamoto speaks now, he doesn't say "with Capcom…" he says "with Fujibayashi-kun". My team loves to hear that. It doesn't make us feel like here's Nintendo and here's Capcom… it feels like we're all under the same tent working together as one team on Zelda.
Aonuma: Miyamoto has always been that way. When Nintendo collaborates with another company, he sees the person, not the company name. What matters is their personal abilities, and the level of trust with them as an individual. Of course, there are also business-level conversations, but during the creative endeavor he doesn't think about companies.
—Regarding the subtitle, were you trying to establish "fushigi" as a kind of signature for Capcom-developed Zelda games?
Fujibayashi: I think for me personally, there's a kind of recognition of "fushigi" as a keyword for us, but I wasn't particularly conscious of that when we chose the subtitle, no. Almost all of the Zelda games have "の" (no) in them, like "kamigami no", "toki no", "majora no", "kaze no"… so that part was intentional. Miyamoto himself actually told me "fushigi no" was better than "fushigi na". 1
—Capcom's Zelda games, such as the two Oracles and Four Swords, have in some ways felt like curve balls with their original gameplay systems. Minish Cap, on the other hand, is a more compact and streamlined experience, seemingly geared towards players who enjoy solving puzzles on their own. It is, in other words, a very "Zelda-ish" Zelda game. Was that switch intentional?
Fujibayashi: It was, yeah. We wanted to make a "mainline", traditional 2D Zelda game. Traversing overworld maps, exploring dungeons… the essence of Zelda. I see it as following in the steps of the Famicom Zelda and ALttP, but a more powered-up version for today's hardware.
—I heard that you created a huge number of storyboards during the development. Is that how the development began, with concept illustrations?
Fujibayashi: No, that's not the case. The reason we prepared those, was that I've learned from my previous work that I have a hard time explaining in words the visuals I see in my head. I thought it would be helpful to have image boards to really get my ideas across, so I had a designer who I'd become acquainted with on the Four Swords development create them. Minish Cap's development theme was "big and small", which is hard to understand from words online, but having the pictures made it easy to show everyone what I meant.
—Those illustrations were drawn by one person then?
Fujibayashi: Yeah, the world and setting imageboards were done by one person.
Aonuma: It's impressive how close those imageboards feel to the actual in-game screens. There's very few designers who can draw like that… usually they end up getting absorbed in their own world, or they make something too realistic. They may be great images, but it's like… can we make this into a game?
—Where did the idea of "big and small" come from?
Fujibayashi: In addition to puzzles and action, Zelda games need some kind of gameplay gimmick. We have to find that "something extra". Oracle had the gimmick where Link can change the map with the Rod of Seasons.
When we started thinking about what that gimmick could be for Minish Cap, first, we knew it couldn't be that far-removed or out-there from the world of Zelda. I started thinking, what feature of these game worlds could we possibly expand on, what dimension could we explore… Front and Reverse, Past and Future, Light and Darkness… we'd done all these before, but could some other pairing remain? I racked my brain until I realized—ah hah, if we make Link small, that would be like entering a whole nother world within his own.
Aonuma: There was a shrinking effect in Four Swords as well, so when Fujibayashi explained that he wanted to expand on that idea, it was easy to understand what he was thinking.
—Was the Gnat Hat from Four Swords one of your favorite items then?
Fujibayashi: No, that's not it. The original idea for that item came from Miyamoto saying he'd like to play with getting inside treasure chests and making mischief. Well, how about an item that makes Link small, I thought. It turned out that controlling a 2-pixel wide version of Link was quite fun, and I thought it would be nice to use this again somewhere in the future. That's how the "big and small" idea ended up getting applied to the world-building of Minish Cap.
—Were there any other contenders for the main concept besides "big and small"?
Aonuma: We might use them next time so that's secret. (laughs) We had a lot of ideas, but "big and small" was the one that had the most potential for development, so we all focused our efforts there.
—Like Four Swords, Minish Cap features an item you wear that shrinks you. At first I thought that's all it was, but it's also a talking bird. (laughs)
Fujibayashi: When I was making Oracle, I was very conflicted about the fact that it didn't have a character to guide and explain things for you like Navi in Ocarina of Time. So that was something I decided from the very start of Minish Cap, that we'd have a companion character. At first I thought, maybe we'd have Link wear a bunch of different hats and masks, but I figured a single talking hat would be best.
—Link's green triangular hat is almost a trademark of his... was there resistance from Nintendo when you wanted to make it talk?
Aonuma: No, since it only looks like a bird when it talks. If it looks normal most of the time, they said it was no problem. I like characters like Navi, too, and I feel like it's more fun to have a companion than to journey alone.
Fujibayashi: We had another designer, separate from the world imageboard person, and he created the designs for Ezlo and the Minish (Picori). I explained to him that the hat would talk, and it was very hard for him, but eventually he came back with the bird design.
Aonuma: We want the player to easily understand that the hat is talking, so I think it was a smart design. Also, you know the way the very tip of the cap kind of curls in upon itself…
—It looks like Tetra! (laughs)
Aonuma: Yes, exactly. (laughs) I liked that little Zelda-ish touch.
—Then is Ezlo's true identity... Tetra?! (laughs)
Aonuma: That… would be reading too much into it. (laughs)
—Speaking of which, about Ezlo's (JP: Ezero) name... did you take the "E" from Rockman Eguze, and the "Zero" from Rockman Zero?!
Fujibayashi: No. (laughs) The origin of his name, I can't really say it here, it came from a very silly association. Names, you know, if you try too hard it doesn't work. It's funny how silly names that just get attached without much thinking, if everyone starts speaking that name, then it's probably a good one. If people ignore the name you've made and refer to it as "that hat" instead, for instance, then that's a bad one. It should be a name people aren't embarassed to say, that rolls off the tongue easily, nothing too "cool" or try-hard… that was Miyamoto's advice.
Aonuma: The Zelda series has a lot of three-syllable names. I think it happened naturally since they're easy to pronounce. That's why, when we're naming a new character, if the name is similar to one we've used before, we make sure to mix in some new sounds so players know it's different.
—What's important is how it actually sounds, then?
Aonuma: Yeah. Trying to deliberately reference something else, or over-thinking the names, usually doesn't turn out well. When someone suggests a new name to me, I don't ask about the origins; I judge it just on the sound, because what matters is whether it's going to stick and be memorable.
—There's a softness to the graphics in Minish Cap.
Fujibayashi: A big part of that is owed to the designer who drew the imageboards, and his personal style. I really wanted the graphics for this game to include all the elements of his concept art. Since this was the GBA, we couldn't just settle for standard pixel art. This was something I repeated many times at the start of the development, and the pixel artists heard me, understood what I was asking for, and these graphics were the result.
Aonuma: I used to be a 2D designer myself, so I know this all too well, but following the lead of the main designer and the world they've created is no mean feat. Knowing how to create some "soft" in pixel art is impossible unless you've got a lot of experience; it's a veteran's skill. Capcom has a lot of staff like that, thankfully. When it comes to 2D graphics know-how, I'd venture to say they may have more chops than us.
—How did you come up with the new items for Minish Cap?
Fujibayashi: A Zelda game always needs new items, but it's hard for us to come up with them. In my case, I like to imagine things that appear in fairy tales, or items used in scientific experiments. The Gust Jar, for instance, was the former. It was inspired by a gourd that appears in Journey to the West that can suck up anything. The conditions for a Zelda item are (1) versatility, (2) something that's not to small, and (3) something with movement… so I chose the shape of a big jar you could hold with both hands.
Aonuma: Fujibayashi came up with the new items for Oracle and Four Swords himself. To be honest, he's better at creating items than we are. (laughs)
—And they feel like they belong in a Zelda game, to boot.
Aonuma: Yes, that's the important part.
—The Switch Hook and Magnetic Glove were great.
Aonuma: The Magnetic Glove is awesome, isn't it? You couldn't do that in a 3D game!
Fujibayashi: That response makes me happy. (laughs) I have a stubborn attachment to 2D games, and I was trying to think of an item that you couldn't use in a 3D game. If I could make that, I thought, the 3D Zelda teams would surely be jealous. (laughs)
Aonuma: Yeah, but then they wanted to make an item that couldn't be used in a 2D game… and so something of a rivalry was begun. (laughs)
—What do you think are the merits and demerits of 2D?
Fujibayashi: I think the puzzles in Zelda games, pushing and pulling blocks and such, those are easier to create in 2D. With the top-down 2D view, you can see the entire room at once, so it's easier for us to create problems for players to solve.
Aonuma: In 2D games everything is there before you. With 3D you have to search for the answer by moving the camera all over.
Fujibayashi: The demerits of 2D are that it's difficult to present gameplay that feels three-dimensional. When Four Swords Adventures came out on the Gamecube, I was jealous of them, because they were working with more powerful hardware and could do many of the things I'd wanted to do.
—And what would those things be...?
Fujibayashi: The evolution of Nintendo consoles, from the Super Famicom, to the N64, and now to the Gamecube, has consistently moved in the direction of improving 3D capabilities. I was hoping things would move instead towards an "Ultra Famicom" type of hardware. When I was a kid, and I saw the transition from Famicom to Super Famicom, I believed the next console would be the "Ultra Famicom"! In my mind, 2D would just keep getting better and better. This is why I aimed for the most refined 2D experience possible with Minish Cap.
Aonuma: I think Minish Cap was a huge success in that regard, and you've achieved what you set out to do. For a game that revolves around the theme of "big and small", most people would probably think that's easier to do in 3D. When Link shrinks down, for example, in 2D we can draw him as a tiny little speck. In 3D, though, if Link gets smaller, it would mean his surroundings would have to become huge. This would lead to more instances of the player getting lost.
Fujibayashi: We'd also have had to create too many graphical assets. Huge pots, huge blocks, huge doors… it would have massively ballooned our work hours to make all that.
—What is the Capcom Zelda team like?
Fujibayashi: We all really love Zelda. Not only that, but everyone has their own specific vision of what Zelda is… and each of those passions borders on obsession. (laughs) It happens all the time, where I make a simple request, only to come back and find they've poured countless hours into it and turned it into this whole lavish affair. It's like, "Um, of course this is great, but I think you overdid it a little…"
—It's a testament to their passion, I guess! Miyamoto and Aonuma have described similar things about them before. (laughs)
Aonuma: They really do love Zelda though, and stuff like that shows us how much fun they're having.
Fujibayashi: Yeah, you know, if I was left alone to make a Zelda game, it would probably come out very unusual. We get a better result if I just create the outline, the empty vessel, and then have everyone pour their different opinions and ideas into it. My role then is to pick out the good ideas and trim away the things that went too far.
—Do you then send that over to Aonuma and Nintendo to check it?
Fujibayashi: We received reports from Nintendo. If those reports had only highlighted negative stuff, like "this is too confusing, fix this, this is wrong", then it would have dampened our enthusiasm. But they also wrote praise, "this is great! this was funny!", and that showed the team their efforts were being noticed, which was a big morale boost. It wasn't your typical bureaucratic process, in other words; it was a real human-to-human level of interaction between us, and I'm happy for that.
—What kind of criticism did Nintendo have?
Aonuma: Things like the balance or pacing being off here and there. If we thought something was extraneous, and removing it wouldn't hurt the game, we'd suggest cutting it. Also, since we were testing it from the player's perspective, when something was confusing we'd suggest adding a hint or something. Much of our advice was of that nature, really small details. Capcom's basic ideas though were quite solid, so there we no full rejections. We almost never said "this is wrong", it was more, "if you do this, we think it would be even better."
—And at the end of it all, did Miyamoto do his signature move...
Aonuma: You mean "upending the tea table"? (laughs) I'm proud to say that on Minish Cap, no—he did not!
—After Majora's Mask, I feel like the dungeons have taken more of a backseat role in the overall game design. Was this intentional?
Aonuma: I don't think it's something we were particularly conscious of… dungeons have a certain limited format to them, right? Find keys, advance further, defeat the boss. In contrast, the outside world, the field map, can offer more multi-faceted gameplay. But, I think the basics of what you do are the same in both. In Minish Cap you gather fragments, and when I first heard about this system, I simply considered it one of those "collectathon" things that have been around for awhile. But with this game, collecting the fragments opens up areas far from your current location. In a sense, this makes the overworld map itself act like one big dungeon.
—It's interesting you say that, as each screen in the map does feel like it's bursting with detail, with something to explore in every nook and cranny...
Fujibayashi: I think that was the result of the designers feeling like, if they did a middling job on an area, someone would single out their work… so, almost in a half-OCD way, they jammed every map screen with stuff. (laughs)
Aonuma: Ah, yeah, I totally know what you're talking about. There were indeed times I overhead worried murmurings, "is this ok… is this really enough?"
—It's like, on your way from one dungeon to the next, there's practically another whole dungeon's worth of content just on the map...
Aonuma: How far are you right now in the game?
—I'm in the middle of the third dungeon.
Aonuma: Oh, that's where it really starts picking up. Where it goes from there, it'll make you shout with excitement. I did! "Whoa, what is this?! Whoa, you can do that??"
—Fujibayashi, would you say that this section of the game contains the things you really wanted to do in Minish Cap?
Fujibayashi: That's right. I don't want to reveal the exact areas, but… in any event, I really wanted Minish Cap to focus on the Minish and Hyrule Town. I wanted to make the town feel like the people really lived there. And if I could make the town feel like a dungeon itself, I believed that would be something brand new to the Zelda series.
Aonuma: The town… it's incredibly content-rich. You can't really tell from the first part of the game, but it's stuffed with things to discover. It opens up a lot.
—Did you model it after Clock Town in Majora's Mask?
Aonuma: No way, it's not like that! …umm, wait, which company do I work for again? (laughs)
—There was a lot to do in Clock Town too, though.
Aonuma: It's not comparable, both as a town, and in the volume of content. I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing, of course.
Fujibayashi: There was actually a period where we talked about making Minish Cap take place entirely within the town.
—The second half of Oracle of the Seasons was very difficult. How about Minish Cap?
Fujibayashi: We didn't intentionally make it easy, and our skills have improved a bit, so we were able to put a lot of effort into the balancing this time.
Aonuma: In our initial meetings, we decided we no longer wanted to try to extend the playtime by making the action hard. It's not fun when you know what you're supposed to do, but the action is too difficult and you can't accomplish it. That moment of insight, when you go "I've got it!"—we wanted to let players capitalize on that feeling, not impede it. That's how we balanced the game.
Fujibayashi: When the staff would bring me an idea where the difficulty of the action would be a timesink for the player, I tended to reject those ideas. When that happens, it tells me that something is lacking about the original design. Trying to cover that deficiency up with difficult sections, for example, by spewing a bunch of fast bullets onscreen, or a placing a floor that moves really fast… I think that's a mistaken approach. If we were confident about the underlying design we wouldn't be trying these quick-fix patch-ups.
Aonuma: To put it the opposite way, in a Zelda game, if the action feels way too hard, you're probably taking the wrong approach.
—Yeah, and when you finally figure it out, you realize it was your own mistake that was holding you back.
Aonuma: Exactly, that's how we want people to see it. And likewise, when you solve something right away, you feel, "damn, I'm smart." (laughs)
—It impressed me with every Zelda game, just how many "ah hah!" moments there are.
Fujibayashi: That's the theme of our development. When players solve a puzzle, we don't want them going "how the hell was I supposed to figure that out…?" Instead, we want them to a feel a little embarassed that they couldn't figure it out before. If players feel like the puzzles are cheap, that's a failure on our part. That's a vulgar, unrefined idea. We want them to think, "ahhh you got me!" And then the next time they encounter a similar puzzle, they feel like they know what to do—problems that build on and apply your knowledge is what we aim for.
—Applying your knowledge... yeah, that's definitely how it feels. That's very well done.
Fujibayashi: I'm lucky that I had a great teacher who taught me how to create puzzles and problems. Nintendo's staff taught me everything about how to create Zelda-ish puzzles. Since then we've continued to work with the same staff, so now I know instinctively what Aonuma wants, want Miyamoto wants, and the kind of gameplay that Nintendo is looking for.
—It's probably hard to explain in words, but can you give some concrete examples...?
Fujibayashi: One method is to use a red herring, if you will… an incomplete hint or view that makes the player feel like they fully understand what they've seen. But it's not the real answer—it's just a glimpse we've shown them. Players get deceived by those.
—How do you feel now having finished Minish Cap? Is it different from before?
Fujibayashi: Very much so. We were still immature in many ways when we made Oracle, and a lot was left undone. The players pointed these shortcomings out, too, and hearing that made us feel like, "ah yeah, I knew someone would say that." But this time, we've gotten feedback from a lot of different people, and they've enjoyed Minish Cap above and beyond what we expected, and that's given us this newfound sense of satisfaction.
Aonuma: Because of that experience making Oracle and 4 Swords and getting to learn the nuts and bolts of how to make a Zelda game, Minish Cap has turned out to be a supreme coupling of a "Capcom Zelda" and "Nintendo Zelda" game.
—What is Zelda to you, Fujibayashi?
Fujibayashi: Hmm, what is Zelda to me…
Fujibayashi: It's definitely that too. People often worry about me, they say… you're a Capcom employee, is it really OK for you to be working on Zelda for so long? But I don't feel like I'm "making Zelda", so to speak. For me, I see it as a medium to create and develop the worlds I've been dreaming up since I was a kid. At the same time, it's not like I can do anything with it, but the sort of restrictions are actually helpful for me, creatively. You can't approach Zelda carelessly, it demands your full dedication—but that's exactly why it's so satisfying.
—Do you ever want to take on the challenge of a 3D Zelda?
Fujibayashi: If there's the chance, sure, I'd like to. But as I said before, I have that "Ultra Famicom" mindset, of wanting to create the ultimate 2D expression, so I've still got that ambition of wanting to release an even better 2D game into the world. I believe there's still so much that can be done with 2D.
—Please leave a final message for readers.
Fujibayashi: My intention with Minish Cap was to show the world, through a Zelda game, how fun and interesting 2D can be. I have great pride in it and believe it's a pinnacle of 2D gaming. Our staff poured their passion into it, so please pick it up and give it a go. You won't regret it!
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"no" is the Japanese possessive article for nouns, while "na" is an adjectival particle. Miyamoto may have had "fushigi no kuni no alice" (the Japanese title for Alice in Wonderland) in mind here and liked the literary association, or it could just be for stylistic consistency.↩