There was something in the air when Koei Tecmo wanted to pitch Nintendo on fusing The Legend of Zelda with Dynasty Warriors. At the time, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma was playing a Dynasty Warriors game.
"I happened to be playing another Warriors game at that time," said Aonuma. "As I was playing it, I was imagining what it might look like if it took place in the Zelda universe. The timing couldn’t have been better! When I approached Mr. Miyamoto about the idea of moving forward with a project like this, he approved it."
The result is Hyrule Warriors, a game that's plucking pieces from Zelda and dropping them into Dynasty Warriors, a series that generates as much love from diehard fans as it does confused eye rolling from players who don't understand how the series is still going. It represents a big departure for the traditionally conservative Zelda series, but for Zelda, it's a time of change.
"Certainly, it’s not that I wasn’t without my concerns about opening up this new gameplay style for the Zelda universe, but I’ve made several Zelda games in my time at Nintendo," said Aonuma. "We’ve been talking a lot lately about rethinking the conventions of Zelda, and really knocking down those obstacles and opening up the possibilities for the franchise. I think this might be one of those ways that we can do that."
Back at E3, I sat down with Aonuma and several members of Hyrule Warriors' creative staff, including development producer Yosuke Hayashi, a man familiar with Nintendo collaborations. Tecmo's Team Ninja created the polarizing Metroid: Other M, and Hayashi's involved with Hyrule Warriors, as well.
The idea for Hyrule Warriors came from Koei Tecmo. Executive producer Hisashi Koinuma was one of the people involved with the project at an early stage, including the original pitch to Nintendo.
"When we’re working on a collaboration, you need to convince the other party that 'hey, we’re gonna get married. This is a good thing!'" said Koinuma.
Koinuma claimed he wasn't nervous about asking to use some of Nintendo's most beloved characters, but both Koinuma and Hayashi were freaked when it was time for the game to be announced on Nintendo Direct.
"We were really scared of Zelda fans," laughed Hayashi.
When the Nintendo Direct started, everyone involved with Hyrule Warriors stopped working.
"They were watching it with bated breath," he said. "They see it [the announcement] come out, and they saw the reaction was actually positive! It was really positive. That gave us a lot of confidence, and let us breathe again. [laughs]"
The fan reaction came at a time when Koei Tecmo was tip-toeing with the game, especially careful about what pieces of Zelda to drop into Hyrule Warriors. Once it was clear fans were getting behind the game in a big way, the team started looking for all sorts of new easter eggs to drop in for series diehards.
"It was a confirmation of the idea, confirmation that we were going in the right direction," he said.
Before the Nintendo Direct, Aonuma himself had to calm the staff down.
"I actually had to encourage them to not worry so much, not to be so scared. [laughs]" he said.
Aonuma has been hands-off on Hyrule Warriors lately, busy building a brand-new Zelda game for Wii U. The Zelda games have not seen a fundamental shift in design for some time, a criticism that eventually reached a breaking point with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Both Hayashi and Aonuma articulated a struggle to honor what fans have come to expect from Zelda, while pushing Zelda in new directions. This doesn't just come from people on the Internet, either. It's within the studios actually building the games.
"One interesting thing that’s happened is that when we talk to Nintendo and ask them about ideas and say 'hey, what about doing this?' They’re generally fairly positive," said Hayashi. "'Yeah, try new things!' They’ll give us ideas. 'Hey, why don’t you try this out?' It’s an open discussion and very creative. But when we bring them back and discuss those ideas with the Zelda fans internally, they come back and say 'no, that’s not Zelda, you can’t do that!' [laughs] They are the ones who are really strict about what you can and can’t do."
"We certainly have Zelda fans within our development team, as well," said Aonuma. "We have people who were raised as kids on Zelda. I can come up with just an idea and off-the-cuff say 'let’s not do this' and they’ll just insist 'nooooo, don’t touch that! That’s not acceptable!' Then, I’ll sit down with them and go 'why do you feel like that? Why do you feel this way?' and we’ll have a conversation. We’ll come up with something that’s acceptable both to myself and to the very ardent fans of the series. I think what we’re ultimately able to come up with is something really unique and special that offers that something new, while, at the same time, staying true to what the fans of the series really come to love."
In fact, working on Hyrule Warriors has given Aonuma some pause about his own game. While he wasn't ready to divulge many specifics, Aonuma did tease how the dynamics of Zelda might be changing next year.
"You have this map and there are battle areas all across this expansive battlefield," he said, describing Hyrule Warriors. "Things are happening, regardless of whether or not you’re in this particular space. How you approach reclaiming these different areas on the map really changes how you progress through the game. So it’s really, really dynamic, it’s really, really expansive. It also increases replay value because if you change your strategy, your process will also change. Having worked on a game that has this kind of expansive battlefield style has really opened my eyes to new discoveries, and my thought and approach to gameplay has really deepened. I see many, many possibilities now that I’ve worked on this project with Tecmo Koei."