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- Zelda: Breath of the Wild
If you haven’t heard, work on Nintendo’s upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is now officially finished. How do we know? As usual, it didn’t come from anybody working directly for tight-lipped Nintendo proper. Instead, news of a company event celebrating the game’s completion was tweeted by Monolith Soft developer and Baten Kaitos(!!) director Yasuyuki Honne.
Nintendo’s BotW shindig looks about as amusing and awkwardly fun as any paid-for milestone work gathering, and if you look real close, you can even see Fujibayashi-san sporting Link’s time-honored hero of time hat. It’s the very same hat that has not, I’ll point out, been officially spotted in any Breath of the Wild gameplay footage released to date, so his donning of the classic green cap can definitely be taken as a good sign. Perhaps Mr. Fujibayashi will also serve as an unlockable playable character.
In a recent interview series producer Eiji Aonuma and creator Shigeru Miyamoto joked about the ballooning size of Zelda staff on this project, which reached an impressive 300 strong at its peak. This was apparently so daunting that Aonuma likened the fear of managing such a motley tribe to that of actually battling Ganondorf! Perhaps more importantly, it raises some questions of talent allotment. What does a company do when 300 people are suddenly completely available?
It’s not so simple as “start the next Zelda” either. With Monolith staff on rental and Nintendo Switch calling the traditional ebb and flow of Zelda development into question, it’s not exactly clear who will end up working on what. I’ll address some possibilities and raise questions about others here.
The famed RPG developer Monolith was snapped up by Nintendo just 10 short years ago, and has since contributed developmentally across the spectrum, from assisting Sakurai and Sora Ltd. on Super Smash Bros. Brawl to lending a helping hand on both Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. The studio has also become famous for the now-quite-popular Xenoblade RPG franchise, which spiritually succeeds Xenosaga and, in a shocking display of efficiency, has a new entry due out later this year.
We know from Aonuma and Miyamoto that much of the help lent to the Zelda team by Monolith pertained to world design and topography – young developers and Xenoblade Chronicles X artificers who know their way around a massive, sometimes sickeningly large and expansive open world (if you played XCX you know exactly what I mean). Breath of the Wild’s staff grew at such a consistent pace that it appears Nintendo enlisted both Kyoto and Tokyo members of Monolith to help.
Nintendo’s recent Switch event confirmed the existence of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, so with Zelda wrapped it’s likely the Monolith personnel will refocus their collective efforts on that game. Still, the studio's staff is quite large on its own (over 110 members as of last summer), so there very well could be new project planning or other Nintendo assistance on the agenda. My secret hope is that Monolith is privately creating a game engine capable of sustaining worlds literally the size of the planet Earth. You scoff, but XCX is a game that can house the entire breadth of The Witcher 3 three times over. Anything’s possible.
The Core Zelda Team
The easy answer for Zelda squad’s immediate to-do is “start planning the next Zelda,” but there’s a new and potentially unifying complication: Nintendo Switch. How will Zelda proceed on this platform?
Traditionally, and since the release of Link’s Awakening in 1993, Zelda releases have come in two separate lineages of handheld and home-console varieties. More important than their hardware designations, though, are the differing play styles and diversity of experience. At home, it’s the ultimate indulgence – big budget, epic plot, latest items, dungeons, and foes, months of escapism. We all know it, we all love it.
On the go something different exists, however, and I don’t think I’m alone in hoping this particular variety of experience isn’t lost in the shuffle. For one, handheld Zelda has provided an excuse to keep the top-down 2D style alive, resulting in quirk and whimsy for titles such as The Minish Cap and old-made-new nostalgia with a release like A Link Between Worlds. These are feelings not necessarily generated by these games’ older siblings.
My belief is that Nintendo knows this, and as such my prediction is that the immediate planning tasks of the Zelda team following Breath of the Wild will not be to conceive the next massive, epic Zelda adventure. Instead, a side diversion of likely very worthwhile measure will be concocted and developed in relatively short order. In other words, there’s more on the way amidst the next monster six-year wait.
Key Zelda Staff
This is more difficult to track or predict, but here’s what I expect as of now. We likely won’t learn anything concrete until after Breath of the Wild is released.
Eiji Aonuma – After a short break, Aonuma will likely partake in discussions with high-level staff such as Shigeru Miyamoto, and also hear ideas or pitches from staff for future Zelda options. He’ll no doubt be in discussions with the likes of Hidemaro Fujibayashi (BotW and Skyward Sword director) as well as Hiromasa Shikata (A Link Between Worlds and Triforce Heroes). I’m not privy to how Nintendo extracts feedback from its teams at large regarding the future of its franchises, but if that exists, certainly Mr. Aonuma will be navigating that information as well.
Hidemaro Fujibayashi – Having directed the most recent two major Zelda releases Breath of the Wild and Skyward Sword, there’s little reason to believe the trend won’t continue moving forward. What this means is that Fujibayashi will likely be part of an initially very small planning team already hashing out the next major Zelda release, even if development efforts at large focus on something smaller or 2D-based first. This is a guy who’s in the know.
Hiromasa Shikata – An N64 Zelda field designer-turned director, Mr. Shikata is likely to lead the charge on the next 2D Zelda game if my earlier theory is correct. If not, there are a number of possibilities. Would Nintendo ever venture to juggle separate teams working on major 3D Zeldas in tandem, Fujibayashi leading one and Shikata another? Or perhaps, in an unprecedented move, there will be Breath of the Wild story DLC? This is all speculation of course, but there are numerous possibilities we might see unfold in the era of Nintendo Switch. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Shigeru Miyamoto – This man is the father of the Zelda series! It seems his hands-on development these days is limited to pet projects or releases of his choosing, but he remains a guiding, overseeing force for most large titles. There’s not much to predict here, as his recent approach and public presence is likely to continue.
As for the rest of the 300? They’ll no doubt be assigned to other various Nintendo development efforts in the pipeline. The way I understand it staff at the Kyoto company can be rather fluid, even between Kyoto and Tokyo, though I’ll admit this is not as explicitly clear in the Kimishima era under his EPD restructuring. Regardless, these are the folks you don’t necessarily hear about unless you obsessively read credits as they scroll. Which, to be fair, I’m sure there are some players who do.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is nearly upon us – just 25 days until it and hybrid console Nintendo Switch are made available on March 3rd. I can rest easy knowing my pre-orders are secured, though for many this is not yet the case. Hopefully in the wake of a Super Bowl ad that may have sunk the Atlanta Falcons fortunes, Nintendo has plans to restock its supply in time to meet demand that is already nearly certain to surpass that of the decidedly deceased Wii U.
Regardless, as Nintendo’s development teams gear up to lose themselves in their various post-Zelda projects, I fully expect to lose myself in Breath of the Wild, ideally enough-so to prevent me from endlessly speculating about the former. Do you have theories, ideas, or inklings of what Nintendo and its teams might dream up for its franchises in the future? If so, be sure to let us know.