Ocarina of Time – 1999 Developer Interview
This in-depth Ocarina of Time interview first appeared in a Japanese strategy guide. The interviewer's strong opinions are a good match for producer Shigeru Miyamoto's big-picture pontifications about Ocarina's design choices and gameplay changes, plus a lengthy exegesis on interactivity in 3D games. Though much ink has been spilled over Ocarina, this interview manages to dig up some brand new info.
—I wanted to first ask about the scenario for Ocarina of Time. Before it was released, Nintendo announced that this new N64 Zelda would "unlock the mysteries of the entire Zelda story". Could you tell us about that in your own words?
Miyamoto: Maybe "mysteries" was a bit of an exaggeration, but you do learn the story of where the triforce came from, and it is meant to be "Episode 1" of the Zelda saga. The basic order is Ocarina, then the original FDS Zelda, followed by A Link to the Past.
—The fact that the triforce is composed of three parts (Wisdom, Courage, and Power) was somewhat downplayed by ALttP, but it's been reasserted in Ocarina where you see the triforce emblem on Link, Ganon, and Zelda's hands. It made me feel that this was really those characters' story.
Miyamoto: I probably shouldn't say this, but there's still a number of things I'm not satisfied with there. "How did Ganon really become the way he is…?" "Is Link from Ocarina the father of Link of from the original FDS Zelda…?" "Who was his Mother then? Zelda…?" These were some of the "mysteries" that perplexed me during the making of Ocarina of Time. (laughs)
—I can imagine those questions vexing a producer. (laughs) Link does seem to be a different person each game. Maybe they're all related by descent though.
Miyamoto: Yeah, maybe. For Ganon, you can think of him as resurrecting each game. But I still don't feel like we've given a good answer about Link and Zelda. If we don't make two or three more games, I don't think anyone will be satisfied. Myself included.
—It's like how George Lucas needed to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker. You're a man of your word Miyamoto so I'm looking forward to seeing what you do there. I must take you to task on one point, though. To be honest, when I finished Ocarina of Time, I didn't feel that connection to the first Legend of Zelda like you mentioned. Obviously the difference in power between the two consoles is huge; perhaps there's simply too much distance between the two.
Miyamoto: It stings a little to hear that, but I do have a response.
Right now our highest priority is to create an interesting game, first and foremost. Sometimes that means not worrying about the joints not lining up perfectly, which is inevitable anyway. Excluding really obvious, big breaks in continuity, we ignore the little inconsistencies.
—Right. You're a little looser with all the story connections, in other words.
Miyamoto: For that reason I've often been accused of not caring about the story, but when I consider the medium of video games, above intra-series continuity it's far more important to me that the player is left with a satisfying "aftertaste" once the experience is over.
—Like the feeling you get after finishing a good book?
Miyamoto: I think it's similar, yes. And only to that extent do I care about continuity, in that huge breaks with canon or previous games would make players feel betrayed. And we don't want that.
For those who played the original Zelda and ALttP, I would ask you to compare how you felt when those games ended, with how Ocarina of Time felt when you finished it. If you focus on that "aftertaste", then I think you'll understand: "ah, yes, I see how it's a series."
For example, in your standard turn-based RPG, on beating the game one is left with a satisfying feeling of all your hard work and labor paying off, in terms of leveling up your characters and so forth. But in Zelda, you're confronted with puzzles and mysteries to unravel, and powerful enemies to face, and it's the immediacy of the experience that is more engaging, and that's what I want players to come away with.
—What you've just described sounds closely related to the question of game difficulty. In your opinion, is Ocarina of Time a difficult game?
Miyamoto: The action difficulty and the puzzle difficulty are two separate things, and on release, I was worried that we might have made the action a little too difficult. When I saw player's feedback postcards, however, many people said "the difficulty level was tough, but really satisfying." Actually, even my daughter, who's in 5th grade, was able to reach each dungeon boss with only 1 continue.
Sometimes a skilled action gamer will say "this was pretty hard for me, so I bet it will be even harder for other people", but then we're surprised to find that beginners have no problem with it at all. This is a problem for setting the difficulty of 3D games, in particular.
There's also the fact that lately people haven't been very welcoming of easy games. When we were developing Yoshi's Story, director Takashi Tezuka instructed them to make sure it wasn't too hard, but we got a lot of feedback saying "it's too easy."
—How about the puzzle side?
Miyamoto: I think the way we give hints is still a little too unfriendly. Speaking plainly, I can now confess to you: I think the whole system with Navi giving you advice is the biggest weakpoint of Ocarina of Time. It's incredibly difficult to design a system that gives proper advice, advice that's tailored to the player's situation. To do it right, you'd have to spend the same amount of time as you would developing an entire game, and I was very worried we'd be digging ourselves into a hole, if we pursued perfection there…
If you read Navi's text, she says the same things over and over. I know it makes it sound bad, but we purposely left her at a kind of "stupid" level. I think if we'd tried to make Navi's hints more sophisticated, that "stupidity" would have actually stood out even more. The truth is I wanted to remove the entire system, but that would have been even more unfriendly to players. You can think of Navi as being there for players who stop playing for a month or so, who then pick the game back up and want to remember what they were supposed to do. It's a brazen excuse, I know. (laughs)
Otherwise, we tried to make the hints friendly for players, but I heard many people saying how they couldn't solve them without a strategy guide. When we took a closer look, though, we've found that the sections people need hints for vary from person-to-person. There's no consistency. That can't be helped, though, in a game like Zelda which combines action and puzzle solving.
—If I can take the player's side for a moment, isn't it also necessary that the action be a bit difficult, and puzzles be somewhat challenging, for the game to be interesting?
Miyamoto: Hearing you say that puts my mind at peace. To be sure, even in the Dragon Quest series, people don't praise Horii and Nakamura for the exquisite balance; it's rather that the unforgiving difficulty in some places ended up making it more memorable.
Hidden in that phenomenon we see a grand theme of game design; it's still ongoing and I haven't found the perfect "conclusion" myself yet, either. But as a developer, the important thing is that if you can reach a certain level of quality, then you can establish a relationship of trust with players. That is something unique to the interactive medium of video games, I think.
Anyway, now that some time has passed since the release of Ocarina, I basically feel like the action difficulty was just right, while the puzzles still had some confusing or unfriendly parts.
—How long did the development of Ocarina of Time take, in total?
Miyamoto: Three whole years.
—The last Zelda game, A Link to the Past for the Super Famicom, was 7 years ago. The 1993 Game Boy release, Link's Awakening, was a side-story, and I believe you were only working as a supervisor on that development.
Miyamoto: My official title was Producer, but the truth is I was mostly just monitoring everyone's work. (laughs) It was a very laid-back project for me.
—It's been 12 years since the original Zelda as well. Has your work changed dramatically in the interim?
Miyamoto: In terms of volume, if I had to attach a percentage (of my involvement) I'd say it was 70% for the original Zelda, 50% for A Link to the Past, and maybe it's dropped to 40% now. The hardware keeps changing over the years and consequently the overall work we have to do has blown up, so I can't give you an easy answer.
I didn't storyboard everything at the beginning of a development like director Akira Kurosawa. I didn't do anything like that. From the start I tried to act like a producer: "do whatever you want, as long as it's interesting." However, midway through the second year, it started to feel like if I wasn't physically there on the floor, they might never wrap things up. At that point, the different sub-teams of the development had been working independently and in parallel, so as it was in the last two Zelda games, my work was less about adding my own ideas as it was bringing together and consolidating what everyone else had done. Because a game this large is the combined work of a huge number of people, it's not my place to come in and try to exert my own control over everything.
—What kind of instructions and guidance do you give to staff, specifically?
Miyamoto: For example, with script director Osawa-kun, I told him he should spend less effort on the story and plot, and more on making sure the characters themselves are enticing. In my opinion, the most interesting thing in Zelda is seeing all the different characters appear in the story, so I told him to focus on them and give them interesting things to do.
—What was your personal "hobby horse" for this game, or what did you spend the most attention on?
Miyamoto: Well… of course I want to say I gave my attention to all and sundry. (laughs) But in reality there were two points I really honed in.
Number one, was that first 30-60 minutes of gameplay, the prologue battle. Everything up through the first Deku Tree dungeon, like where you destroy the spiderweb and jump down, I oversaw that all very closely.
Number two is related to what I mentioned earlier about "aftertaste"… I made sure there were enough elements with a "Zelda vibe" throughout the game, and helped add them where needed. I mean little traps and puzzles that, once solved, make the player feel like "Ah, now this is a Zelda game." That was one of my main duties on this development, I felt.
—It's interesting, you said "Zelda vibe" there... I feel like I know what that means, but at the same time, I can't put my finger on exactly what it is.
Miyamoto: It's not easy to explain in concrete terms, but given two options, I feel like I could tell you which is the more "Zelda-ish" of the two. Novelty, mystery, a certain inimitable quality... the truth is, you can analyze from an infinite number of viewpoints I think.
—There's also the elements that are carried across from each different Zelda game.
Miyamoto: That's true, of course, but there's also things we didn't bring over, and things we felt heartbroken about having to cut. If you just port everything over from the previous game, you can't really create something "new", right? The development staff has largely changed, too, and I wanted them to make the Zelda they wanted to make, and to add their own "Zelda" things.
The scenes with Epona were the result of long discussions with Yoshiaki Koizumi (who was also responsible for Link's design this time). The reason we chose a horse is because we wanted the vehicle, or mode of transportation, to be something that brought you into contact with others. That choice is also a reflection of the staff's understanding of what "Zelda-ness" means, to be sure.
—While Ocarina of Time features familiar characters like the Tektites and Armos Knights, there are also some notable absences. The Mario series regular Chain Chomp, for instance, who appeared in ALttP, didn't make the cut.
Miyamoto: Actually, Chain Chomp was in there up to the very end, but in the final revisions we removed him. Do you know where he was going to appear?
—Was it the desert area?
Miyamoto: It was Gerudo's Fortress. If the Chain Chomp grabbed Link, he'd be bound by chains, and could only escape by using the hammer to break the chainlinks.
—The Megaton Hammer has a lot of different uses. The big variety of ways you can use items is another "Zelda" thing, like how you can kill Agahnim with the bug-catching net in ALttP. It's so fun discovering those unexpected uses... there's very few items which are used only to clear a single event, or defeat a specific boss.
Miyamoto: There's the fight where you can use the Megaton Hammer on Dark Link… but the truth is, not all of those uses are perfectly planned out by us. There's a lot of patterns and combinations with the enemies and items, and sometimes we just run out of time to check everything, and unintended things emerge. We'll often intentionally leave them in, though. It's part of that relationship of trust between user and creator that's unique to the interactive medium of video games, like we talked about a moment ago—though I admit that when we do decide to leave something unintended in, I feel a small pang of guilt.
—Your well-known "dislike of magic" is alive-and-well in this latest Zelda. In ALttP, there were the three magic medallions, but they had hardly any use outside of a few events. Ocarina, likewise, has Din's Fire and that's it. The lack of emphasis on magic—or to be more ill-spirited, a contemptuous attitude towards magic (laughs)—is this too a part of "Zelda-ness"?
Miyamoto: You're overthinking it. (laughs) If it were up to the team, though, they always want to create more magic. In Ocarina, as well, there was a version where you could use 5 or 6 magic spells, but they didn't really leave much of an impression on me, and I decided those effects would be better served as items, or as Ocarina songs. I do hope that in the future magic can be used as a way to show off the power of the new 3D visuals. It's not that I "dislike" it, you see, I just think relying on magic is taking the easy way out somehow.
—In turn, you've put a lot of that focus on the Ocarina this time around. It's become more and more important with each Zelda game: the ocarina in Link's Awakening had a bigger role than in ALttP, and now its role is bigger still. With its various uses, I think it's fulfilling some of what magic would otherwise do.
Miyamoto: In Ocarina of Time, the first thing we did was make the ocarina more usable as an actual instrument, with the ability to play real notes. Then we thought about how to incorporate that into the game in an interesting way. In the beginning there were only 6 songs, but that expanded to 13 once the ocarina took over the role of the magic spells.1
—In the transition to 3D, I think it's the dungeons that have changed the most.
Miyamoto: In every Zelda development, the dungeons take a huge amount of time to make. I can't tell you how many times they end up having to be remade and revised, while the team is on the verge of tears. Did you know, in the original Legend of Zelda, at the beginning of the development it was just dungeons. There was no overworld map. That's a testament to the "Dungeon Supremacy" philosophy we've always followed. However, with Ocarina of Time, for the first time we didn't spend as much time on the dungeons. It was a very a "un-Zelda" thing to do. (laughs)
—Wait, you're telling me that these hugely complex dungeons in Ocarina didn't take long to make...?
Miyamoto: Well, compared to the previous Zelda games, yeah. It may be because we were working from completely new ideas this time. The Ocarina of Time dungeons are not further iterations on the "labyrinth" ideas from A Link to the Past. So to the extent that we weren't constrained by earlier notions, it went fairly quickly.
You know, we asked ourselves whether those mazes, where everything is always linked in a linear fashion, are actually still interesting to players. Is it still fun to spend all that time plotting your way through them? And the conclusion we came to is no, it's not really that much fun. Instead of mapping your way through a maze, I think what's more important is a sense of dread, a sense of pressure, and of course an opportunity for finding secrets and solving puzzles—we should be pursuing an emotional immediacy, the sense that you are really there. Before Ocarina of Time was released, I spoke of Zelda as having a "scent", or a "temperature", and that's what I was trying to get at.
There are still traditional mazes, like Gerudo's Fortress and the Forest Temple, but overall I don't think those are very appropriate to a 3D game.
—Yeah, now that you mention it, the Gerudo Dungeon and places where the exterior isn't really properly established, those felt a little awkward to me. To go back to what you said a moment ago about new ideas, the combat in Ocarina of Time is also completely new. The original Zelda and ALttP had shared the same basic system.
Miyamoto: The sword combat in Ocarina didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped, unfortunately. I'm pretty bad at action games myself, so I wanted Ocarina to have a system with depth, something you could steadily improve at the more you played—though it didn't need to be as complex as Tekken, of course. (laughs)
At the same time, however, part of me wanted the action to be easier than Mario 64. There were people who had told us "I couldn't get past the later stages in Mario 64", and I felt we needed to make sure Ocarina could be finished by them, otherwise it wouldn't be a proper Zelda game. About a year into the development, I realized that if we lean too heavily into the sword combat, it will definitely end up being more difficult than Mario 64, so we pulled back and eased into the simpler system we have today.
—You've always had a very clear, delineated idea about the differences between a Mario game and a Zelda game. You may be the only one who can fully articulate the distinction between "Zelda-ness" and "Mario-ness".
Miyamoto: I don't think that's true. Actually, for Yoshiaki Koizumi, who created the animation and camera system for Link, and has been staff since Mario 64, he said hearing "It's just like Mario!" was one of the most annoying things for him. He was very conscious of Mario while making Zelda, and while there are some similarities, he knows they're two completely different games. So it was a little grating to hear that.
—With the N64, Mario and Zelda are now more separate. In the SFC era, the character design of both games had a similar mood, as they were based off original illustrations that you yourself drew. Essentially cute, cartoonish characters. But now that polygons have arrived, not only the characters, but the maps, environments, and really all the game assets have changed dramatically. I think this is something to pay close attention to, and maybe it speaks to the incredible power of the N64's 3D graphics processor... but in the past, Mario and Zelda games would end up somewhat resembling each other despite your best efforts; and now, if you set out to make them different, they indeed turn out completely distinct.
Miyamoto: That's because in Zelda, we've put a heavier emphasis on lighting. We carefully positioned the lighting sources in each stage to make sure it cast the right shadows on the characters. You noticed Link's shadow gets longer in the evening, right? I think that's the biggest difference in expression, between the new Mario and Zelda. Other than that, the kinds of textures we apply are different, and the color choices have a totally different lineage, of course.
—And the characters now have a very different vibe from the cute, cartoonish characters you originally drew.
Miyamoto: Regarding the characters… in the beginning of Ocarina's development, there was only adult Link, with a harder, more intense look to him. But I insisted that they add a child version of Link too. In that sense, the Ocarina development actually moved closer to my original image of the character as time went on, compared to the start.
—From what I've seen, players have been really divided over Link's inability to jump.
Miyamoto: I thought if we added jumping, it would be one-too-many gameplay elements. And it would be frustrating if you were in the middle of a dungeon and had to make some pixel-perfect jump to progress. If we really tried to make that mechanic fun, it would have turned Ocarina into a completely different game.
We're sort of asking players to trust the developers when they make those jumps, and so we didn't include player control for the jumps.
—Is this also a "Zelda" characteristic?
Miyamoto: Hmm, no, there was a different intention there.
I hate to say things like "the history of games" because it sounds so pretentious, but when you look at those games that have done something truly and historically new, they are the games which gave the world a new "etiquette" of basic movement and action. 2
I'm very aware of the fact that I am the first person to create what we call "jump games".3 And as the creator of jump games, the one thing I can't let someone else change is the whole jump action! If someone is going to change the grammar of "jumping", it has to be me. In Ocarina of Time, you no longer have to press a jump button to cross ledges, for instance.
We wrote data for each terrain location, and that data determines what kind of jump Link will perform. Honestly, this is not only a new "grammar" for jumping, it also signals a whole new range of possibilities for 3D interactivity. It's kind of like having a bunch of miniature "movies" that you can interact with, to put it simply, but having all that encoded into the terrain data is the new part. For example, when Link approaches a cliff's edge, the camera swivels upwards and allows you to peer down into the chasm. Or when you cross a bridge on horseback, the camera switches to a cinematic side-view. In this way, we're not interrupting the gameplay with lengthy cutscene movies, but attaching the movies to the character's own movements. If we push forward with this "grammar" I think we'll be able to do weirder and more interesting things too.
—So normal actions, like simply walking around, can now be imbued with a cinematic flair...?
Miyamoto: Yes, and yet it doesn't interfere with the gameplay. That's the problem with movies, if you add too many, they can confuse the players sense of direction, and actually make the game harder to play. To avoid that, you've got to have the right know-how and sense, and building that intuition up is going to be key for us in the coming years. In doing so we're going to create a whole new grammar of interactivity. It's a range of possibilities that do not exist in movies, I believe.
There's people out there who think "games are inferior to movies", but the new frontier is interactivity, so rather than fighting over winners and losers in the here-and-now, I say let's enjoy working constructively towards that new future.
Indeed, people from the American film industry have sometimes visited us at Nintendo to ask various questions about interactivity. They're very serious about it. But they still don't know what they're doing yet. Just as Japanese people, when they first started filming movies, didn't know all the techniques of filmmaking—they'd use cranes for overhead shots that Western directors would use a helicopter for—these film people couldn't imagine encoding all that different jump data in the terrain itself. Ocarina of Time incorporates so many intricate, foundational techniques like that.
—Recently we've seen a glut of RPGs which use lots and lots of movies. The market seems to be indicating that those kinds of games are in demand: do you pay attention to those market trends?
Miyamoto: We think about them, of course, but we have no intention of making a game like that. We can't make a hit game if we limit ourselves to appealing to those users, after all. We don't want our games to be for niche audiences only. You know, this is something Takashi Tezuka says a lot, but our notion of "playing to the crowd" means making something that can be enjoyed by a variety of people in a variety of ways.
—Another trend I see are games with heavy fandom elements. Cosplay, anime, character goods. I don't see a lot of cosplayers for your games.
Miyamoto: I see American cosplayers sometimes. (laughs) But yeah, trying to make our games accessible to that kind of fandom, that's something we almost never consciously set out to do. Instead, we focus on something much simpler: to make a game that "can be easily explained in a few words." Sales ultimately depend on word-of-mouth, so I think it's our job as creators to make something people can easily describe to each other.
However, a game that's a hit is not always well-made, and vice-versa. Being well-made is more important to us, of course. I don't think any of our designers are thinking about how cosplayable Link's outfits are when they're creating them.
—What was the most memorable comment(s) you've received from the player feedback postcards?
Miyamoto: "I want to ride the cows." (laughs)
—Ah, I'd like to ride the owl too. (laughs)
Miyamoto: This is my promise to you: next game, you will be able to ride the cow. Just a quick jaunt around the pasture, though!
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The original 6 songs are probably the Warp Songs, of which there are six.↩
The word he uses here is 作法 (sahou), which is difficult to translate into English, but refers to typical, everyday actions and speech, taken together as etiquette or manners. In this case "grammar" would be a good translation as well, and I use it just below.↩
A common Japanese way to describe what we call platformers.↩