Why Zelda: Skyward Sword Has No Overworld (and Constantly Nags You) - Game Design Gazette

Thursday 12 October 2017

Why Zelda: Skyward Sword Has No Overworld (and Constantly Nags You)

While The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess had achieved its goal of aligning itself with the Western market’s tastes and preventing the franchise’s cancellation, Japanese sales of Zelda were still considered unsatisfactory by Nintendo back in 2007.

The next step for Zelda would be to attempt a comeback in Japan, combating the weakening Japanese videogame market.

Twilight Princess was completed as Miyamoto and I had envisioned. Having heard that in North America and Europe, the majority of users who bought the Wii also purchased a copy of Twilight Princess, I thought all of our hardship and hard work had paid off. 
However, in comparison, the sales figures were not what I had been hoping for in Japan, and so I believed that many users still had the impression that Zelda was too complicated and, therefore, too hard to play. Based on this, and realizing that Zelda needed to change even more, I was well aware that getting more people interested in the title was going to be difficult. 
[Zelda: Phantom Hourglass], which we are planning to release this year, is full of concessions that we made based on this understanding, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of results our efforts bring about. - Eiji Aonuma, GDC 2007

Due to the success of the Nintendo DS and its ability to reach a vast mainstream audience, Phantom Hourglass did benefit from Nintendo’s design decisions. In Japan, the game sold 302,887 in its first week, and went on to sell 907,821 copies over the course of two years.

Although Phantom Hourglass had performed admirably in Japan, it had been on a portable platform. By 2009, portables had become Japan’s preferred devices for gaming, and Phantom Hourglass had benefited greatly from being on the Nintendo DS, which was the most widely owned videogame system in Japan of its generation. Achieving the same success with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on Wii, which was a home console and not as conducive to Japan’s changing trends, was going to be difficult.

Still, Nintendo had to try—and try they did. Skyward Sword was designed to be a much more compact game in comparison to Twilight Princess, and was also designed to provide the player with constant guidance on where to go and what to do next. Zelda herself was designed to be cuter to appeal to a Japanese audience, and was made Link’s childhood friend. The development team also gave Skyloft a sense of school drama. Where Nintendo had once made the decision to rely on its Western audience, it was now trying to save Zelda from losing relevance in Japan. That required certain concessions.

Here’s an excerpt from an Iwata Asks interview, where former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata and Aonuma are discussing the the removal of an overworld in Skyward Sword. It sheds some light on the development team’s design principles at the time:

Aonuma: Usually, when we make a Legend of Zelda game with a continuous body of land, we need an overlapping part to join one game field to the next. This time, we made all kinds of gameplay for the forest, volcano and desert areas, and needed to create roads for going back and forth among those places. Every time, it was quite a struggle to figure out how to handle those roads.

Iwata: Roads are particularly essential to a game like The Legend of Zelda.

Aonuma: That’s right. But the first thing we thought of this time was that perhaps we didn’t need those roads.

Iwata: What do you mean?

Aonuma: Well, [director] Fujibayashi-san and I talked for a long time about how, if we could make the gameplay in each area dense, then we wouldn’t need to physically join them. Then the question was “How do we design it?"

Iwata: And what did you think of?

Aonuma: Course selection in Super Mario games.

Iwata: Course selection?

Aonuma: Yes. In Super Mario games, there’s a course selection screen, and you waltz on over to it and hop in.

It must be pointed out that during those years, Nintendo as a whole were making a concentrated effort to prevent the Japanese audience at large from abandoning videogames. The general consensus was that audiences in Japan didn’t like getting lost or having to stumble around before managing to find their way. This was considered the primary reason that 3D Mario games never managed to sell as much as the 2D ones, and even Super Mario Galaxy 2 was designed to make traversal as simple and straightforward as possible, compared to its predecessor.

As we see it, one reason why a number of people who love 2D Mario do not want to play 3D Mario appears to be because they are afraid to be lost in the 3D world by not knowing the exact directions, while they feel that they can play with 2D Mario with no such issues. One of the development themes of the original Super Mario Galaxy was to create a 3D world where people may not be easily lost, and the spherical shape was adopted as the game play theme for this reason. However, when we look at the Japanese sales, I do not think that we were able to effectively tackle this challenge with the original. - Satoru Iwata, Nintendo investor briefing

Given that course selection in Mario games is a fairly straightforward process, Nintendo’s designers felt at the time that the same design could be applied to Zelda, and would achieve similar results.

Unfortunately, despite these changes in design, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword saw unremarkable sales in Japan—far lower than those of Twilight Princess, and with even less staying power. Whether this was due to the game itself or the stagnating Wii software market is debatable, but as it stands Skyward Sword did very little to turn the series’ fortunes around on home consoles in Japan. At the same time, it also earned Nintendo the ire of the larger Zelda fanbase.

Of course, all of this occurred back in 2010. Following Skyward Sword's failure to elevate Zelda to its former glory, Aonuma and his team made the smart choice of trying to finish what Twilight Princess had begun: a game that was open-ended, exploratory, and squarely aimed at the West. We all know how that went.

Sales figures courtesy Japanese sales tracker Media Create.