The Development of A Link to the Past

Posted By at 2:18 PM on Monday April 23, 2012

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The following interview with Shigeru Miyamoto took place in 1991. It was retrieved from Game Staff List Association Japan, a Japanese website that, among other things, aims to summarize, transcribe, and categorize interviews with video game developers.

Development

Mario & Luigi & Miyamoto

We started making the game at the same time as Super Mario World. Even back when we first unveiled the Super Nintendo at the company in July, 1989, our plan had always been to develop the game alongside Mario. I’d wanted to release the game this March, but the release date was extended to summer vacation and, in the end, it came out for the Super Nintendo’s 1 year anniversary. [laughs]

(A Link to the Past was released in Japan on November 21st, 1991, exactly 1 year after the release of the Super Nintendo.)

At Nintendo, we don’t spend a long time or have a lot of employees working on the development of a single game. We start by having a few people developing a title, which lasts about a year. Then we add some more staff who spend about 8 months putting in the finishing touches. It was November, 1990 that more members were added to Zelda’s development team.

Basically, we begin by doing a bunch of silly experiments with a small number of people, then, once the project begins to take shape, we put a larger amount of staff to work on it. If you start out messing around with a large number of people, you’ll end up with a bunch of employees with too much time on their hands. Specifically, we eke out what system the game is going to use by testing the hardware limits early on, then incorporate things like the enemies and the scenario afterwards.

During development, I worked so hard that people asked me “What are you going to do when your body gives out since you never go home?”, but I always ensured that I get 8 hours of sleep a day so my brain doesn’t get tired. I also made sure that the programmers were taking time off to sleep. Work never progresses if you don’t get any sleep. But, while it’s important to get some rest, it’s also not good to have people saying “Well, it’s time to go home, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” If someone prances out the door because the day is over when everyone’s still hard at work, their reaction will be “Who is this guy?” [laughs]

The Move to the SNES

The water disappears in front of Level 7.

Zelda 1 had an inadequate system, so my idea was to do the things we weren’t capable of doing in the first game. Back then, there were a lot of things we intended to do but weren’t able to because of hardware constraints. For example, for the Level 7 dungeon entrance, we just changed the colour of the ground when the water drained, but we intended to have the water actually disappear. And you can burn small trees, but we intended for you to be able to burn down big ones. There were a lot of things like that, and I wanted to express them realistically in a Zelda game for the Super Nintendo.

In addition, back when LoZ was being made, having a world based on swords and magic was still a fresh idea, as was the concept of being able to save your game. A system that allowed you to buy items in-game was also new, not to mention solving dungeons. However, in the 5 years since the game’s release, a lot of titles have appeared on the market that do the same sort of thing, so the sense of innovation has disappeared entirely. I thought hard about what we could do next that would entertain the players. Just because it was no longer innovative didn’t necessarily mean that we should have cut out the shopping and dungeons entirely.

Now that graphics have gotten a lot prettier, I wanted to make animations to match. Adding the diagonal movement that Zelda 1 lacked, for example. If you can move diagonally, you’d want to cut diagonally with your sword, too, right? But when we tried to put in a diagonal thrust, the operability of the game declined, and we ended up using a spin attack instead.

The SNES controller has more buttons, so it was quite difficult to divvy them up. Players can make use of a variety of actions in Zelda, like “Pick Up” and “Read”. We figured out how to divide the actions between the buttons through trial and error. I’m still worried about whether or not players will figure out that they have to work switches by pressing A and pushing or pulling in the opposite direction. It’s a little complicated. It would have been better if you could just press A in front of something to push it. But if that had been the case, players themselves wouldn’t understand whether they were intended to pick something up or throw themselves against it. I think they’d be unsatisfied if they’d solved a puzzle by accident when they hit A, intending to pick something up, but the character pulled it instead. However, if we’d made the controls too difficult, there would have been people who didn’t learn how to use them. That’s why we put in a way to grab things, and the game became the way it is today. There were staff members opposed to it, though. There are switches that require you to pull them, right? You’ve got to pull them no matter what, so you should be able to do it just by pressing A. But just pressing a button doesn’t make you feel like you’re pulling anything. That’s why I put in two types of switches, one which wouldn’t be correct. If players can decide for themselves which way it’s supposed to go, they’ll get a greater sense of satisfaction when they figure it out. It took a lot of time to bring out that feeling.

The Joy of Discovery

For some people, Zelda is an adventure game in the guise of an RPG. For others, it’s an adventure game in the guise of an action game. The latter might not be able to get away from the preconception that they have to use the strongest weapon to fight the boss. For example, you can damage the Helmasaur King with bombs or the hammer. Originally, we had it so that the hammer didn’t do anything, but because we went to the trouble of putting a hammer in the temple, we went back and reprogrammed it so it could be put to use as well.

Also, there are walls that can be destroyed with bombs. In actuality, walls can be broken even if they don’t have cracks. When you hit the walls with your sword, they normally make a “ting ting” sound, but walls that can be broken make a hollow sound. From the perspective of the player, when they go around hitting all the walls and find one that makes a different sound, they’ll be very pleased with themselves. But, of course, there’s also the problem of how much longer that will result in people playing. Concerned, I balanced the joy players would get from hunting around and at long last discovering a breakable wall and the thought of how long that would realistically take, and, in the end, opted for putting in visible cracks on the walls that can be destroyed.

Scrapped Ideas

The wildfire idea was later incorporated into Four Swords Adventures.

There were a variety of ideas that didn’t make it into the game. Using the lantern on a grassy area to cause an endlessly expanding fire, for example. And digging a ditch with the shovel or bombing the swamp breakwater to cause water to rush into the hole. Work on these was in progress. If we’d had another 6 months, we might have been able to make them a reality. Aside from that, there’s a part where a girl does *** in OOO, but she originally did — with the +++ and XXX.

You can’t make games on hopes and dreams alone. You have to the program’s consistency by linking what you make to in-game tricks and creating all-purpose devices.

I believe that ideas are limitless. These days, the world is overflowing with them. It’s a game designer’s job to figure out how to compile and program them into a video game. I think that the ability to compile things is even more important to making games than the power of imagination and creativity.

What’s Next

Miyamoto Hard at Work

Miyamoto hard at work on a Super Nintendo game.

In my opinion, a game isn’t just the time spent playing it. It also includes moments when you’re away from home and think “I’m going to play when I get back.” That means that we should be making games that cause players to think to themselves “Maybe I’ll play today for 5 minutes.” If you include even the things you’re not sure whether to call games under the umbrella of computer games, the ideas never end. Computer games are testing all sorts of new things. We’ll never run out of material.

As for the next Zelda, if we go in order, it’ll probably be “Super Nintendo: Adventure of Link”. [laughs]

Be sure to read The Men Who Made Zelda and the Discussion Between Miyamoto and Horii for more secrets behind the development of ALttP!

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, you can now follow me on Tumblr for more great game interviews!

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10 Responses

  1. Garsh says:

    Are you completely sure that the part about the spin attack is translated correctly? It doesn’t make total sense to me.

    The spin attack doesn’t really compensate for not being able to attack diagonally, but Link’s normal sword slash covers the diagonal areas, so I’m wondering if he could have been referring to that instead. The default arcing sword slash was new at the time compared to the straight forward stabbing thrust in the original Zelda.

    I’m extremely curious what he could have meant when he said, “when we tried to put in a diagonal thrust, the operability of the game declined.”

    Also, what’s up with this part: “…there’s a part where a girl does *** in OOO, but she originally did — with the +++ and XXX.”?

    Thanks for this article. It’s especially interesting to me.

    • GlitterBerri says:

      今回は絵が綺麗になったから、動きもそれなりに綺麗にしたかったんです。それで「1」に無かった斜め移動を加えたりとかね。で、斜めに動けるようになると、斜め方向も剣で切ってみたいと思うでしょ?でも斜めに突く動きだと操作性が悪くなるんで、回転で斬るようにしたんです。

      Here’s the original text, if you’re interested. 操作性 directly translates to “operability” or “manipulability”. I can’t give you any context beyond what’s there, I’m afraid.

      他には、女の子が**で○○○するところがあるんですが、本当は△を□□して
      ×××だったんです。

      Same deal! I can’t tell if Miyamoto’s joking or not.

  2. [...] entire interview can be read at GlitterBerri’s website here. Keep in mind the interview was done in 1991, so some things about how game are developed at [...]

  3. [...] the development of a single game”, Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto said in a 1991 interview, lovingly translated by Glitterberri. “We start by having a few people developing a title, which lasts about a year. Then we add [...]

  4. takkun169 says:

    “… I’m still worried about whether or not players will figure out that they have to work switches by pressing A and pushing or pulling in the opposite direction. It’s a little complicated. It would have been better if you could just press A in front of something to push it. But if that had been the case, players themselves wouldn’t understand whether they were intended to pick something up or throw themselves against it. I think they’d be unsatisfied if they’d solved a puzzle by accident when they hit A, intending to pick something up, but the character pulled it instead. However, if we’d made the controls too difficult, there would have been people who didn’t learn how to use them…”

    Its interesting that this excerpt I feel shows that even back then Nintendo and Miyamoto had ZERO respect for the intelligence of the people playing their games.

  5. [...] disse o criador de Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto, em uma entrevista dada em 1991 e publicada pelo blog Glitterberri. “Nós começamos com poucas pessoas fazendo o jogo por cerca de um ano. Então adicionamos [...]

  6. Garsh says:

    Thanks GlitterBerri!

    I didn’t realize the “***” and “OOO” and so on were in the original source. That makes it even more confounding. Maybe they were just omissions to prevent spoilers in the original publication.

  7. [...] s Game Translations » The Development of A Link to the Past [...]

  8. JaiGuru says:

    @Takkun: I’m not a Nintendo fanboy by any stretch. However, I think this is an unfair statement. Game logic can be very confounding even today. We have games where you can drive through brick walls and see individual bricks flying around but you crash into chain link fences as though they were immovable objects of black hole density. The obvious isn’t always obvious and this was somewhat more true for games back in the 80s and early 90′s. Much of the routine controls and conditions we enjoy today were not even remotely routine back then. They were developing, and along with it, the experience and expectations of the player as well. It wasn’t just the industry that needed time to grow in sophistication, it was the players.

    Miyamoto’s comments were not derogatory. They were a direct, and I’d argue honest, assessment of the level of manual sophistication of the average gamer, as they related tot he average game. A Link to the Past was not an average game, in it’s prime, either.

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