One of my favourite things about The Legend of Zelda series is how forthcoming Nintendo have been about the design philosophy behind each game and the markets it prioritized during development. The developers behind Zelda, more so than any other Nintendo brand, always make it clear what they are trying to do with each game and why.
For example; The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was developed to revive and rejuvenate the North American market for Zelda after The Wind Waker’s relatively poor performance in that territory, and the game takes a lot of its overall design cues from this goal. The realistic character proportions, the more adult-looking Link (Twilight Princess’ Link is still the eldest of all the Links to date), and the obvious influences from big-budget fantasy movies at the time were all part of this effort.
Meanwhile, games like Phantom Hourglass and Skyward Sword were designed to appeal more to the Japanese videogame market and combat “gamer drift”—a term used by the Japanese to refer to the steady decline of the video game-playing audience—which has been underway for more than a decade. As part of this initiative, Phantom Hourglass was given touch controls to reduce the number of buttons required to play the game, while Skyward Sword was stripped of the vast, exploratory landscapes that Zelda is so well-known for and designed to be more manageable in scope than its predecessors.
Juggling the Western and Japanese markets has been a difficult task for Zelda. This largely boils down to a notion Nintendo got into their heads during the Wii era: that Japanese people do not like to play large games where it is easy to get lost, and prefer more straightforward, guided experiences.
It’s a notion that first took shape with Mario. At some point, Nintendo noticed that while the 2D Mario games were selling upward of 2-3 million units in Japan, 3D Mario games were not doing nearly as well. Where New Super Mario Bros. Wii had sold over 3.6 million units in Japan by 2010, Super Mario Galaxy had only managed 1.01 million. Statistical data in hand, late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata voiced this observation in the presence of the company’s investors in May 2010.
“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,” Iwata explained to investors during one of Nintendo’s financial results briefings. “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.”
The way Nintendo saw it, Super Mario Galaxy had attempted to create a more straightforward form of 3D exploration to better appeal to the Japanese audience, but had not entirely succeeded in its goal. The company decided it would try again, and went into the development of Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, and Super Mario 3D World with this goal in mind. (I recommend reading the insightful “Iwata Asks” interview that discusses this subject.)
By the time Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy 2, three things had happened in the world of Zelda:
- Twilight Princess had taken an incredibly long time and relatively high budget to develop. It had sold multiple millions in North America and Europe, but less than 600,000 units in Japan.
- Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, two simpler games developed on a much smaller budget, had not only sold well worldwide, but had performed admirably in Japan as well. Phantom Hourglass in particular had sold approximately 900,000 units, which a Zelda game hadn’t managed in years.
- Shigeru Miyamoto had become of the opinion that fewer and fewer people were “interested in playing a big role-playing game like Zelda” in Japan.
Thus, when the time came to develop the next Legend of Zelda game for Wii (which would ultimately become Skyward Sword), Nintendo took what they felt was the most obvious step toward streamlining development while maximizing sales potential: taking a cue from Mario and removing the “unnecessary” (in their opinion) exploration that got in the way of the player’s enjoyment.
Series producer Eiji Aonuma touched upon the subject in an Iwata Asks interview:
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. But the first thing we thought of this time was that perhaps we didn’t need those roads. [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?’
The conclusion Aonuma arrived at?
“Course selection in Super Mario games,” according to Aonuma. He elaborates:
In Super Mario games, there’s a course selection screen, and you waltz on over to it and hop in. While we were turning it over, the idea came up of having the starting location be floating in the sky. When I heard that, I thought that structure-wise, it was possible to have Link jump down from there.
And thus, Skyward Sword was born, bereft of a large overworld to explore and starring a new sidekick character with a penchant for backseat driving, all for the purpose of making Zelda development more manageable whilst maximizing sales in Japan (and hopefully the rest of the world as well).
What Nintendo failed to consider at the time was that Mario and Zelda were two different kinds of games that appealed to two different audiences, and thus needed to be treated differently. While Mario games benefited from having a vast space to explore, they didn’t need one for their mass appeal to come through. Zelda games, on the other hand, had built their audience up almost entirely on the promise of exploration, and when you took that exploration away, you took away their core essence.
And so, when Skyward Sword failed to light the sales charts on fire even in Japan (where it has sold just a little over 350,000 units), it was back to the drawing board for the Zelda team. Japan, Nintendo correctly concluded, was probably a lost cause by this point, and Zelda’s Western audience was clearly much larger and more important to the series’ long-term success. It was time to target the West once more.
By this point, vast open-world games like Skyrim, which emphasized exploration and actually encouraged the player to get lost, had become a noticeable trend in the West, alongside other games that emphasized player freedom such as Minecraft. In parallel, Nintendo and Monolith Soft’s own expansive RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles, had amassed the sort of critical acclaim that Japanese RPGs had not received in years, largely due to its vast alien landscapes and the way they made the player feel as though they were on a grand adventure. There were a number of encouraging signs to suggest that this was a trend worth exploring, and even the feedback from Skyward Sword indicated that players actually did want exploration and didn’t take kindly to it when you took it out of a Zelda game.
With these factors in mind, the direction the next Zelda needed to go in was obvious: it needed to be vast and exploratory. It needed to be high on interactivity the way Zelda games had always been, but without compromising anything in terms of scope. It needed to challenge players and turn these challenges into talking points that could serve as word of mouth. In essence, it needed to do everything that Nintendo had wanted to avoid doing with Zelda ever since the middle of the DS/Wii era and their “blue ocean” approach. This is what ultimately led to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is already a serious contender for the title of “best Zelda ever” and possibly even the best game of 2017.
In terms of sales, on a worldwide basis the performance of the new Zelda speaks for itself. Breath of the Wild has shipped over 3.92 million units between its Nintendo Switch and Wii U versions—but it is in Japan that the heights the game has achieved are truly interesting. As of two weeks ago, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has sold 676,040 units between Switch and Wii U at retail.
That means the game has outsold Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and A Link Between Worlds in the Japanese market, and is well on its way to outselling Spirit Tracks and The Wind Waker. (The latter is at 730,000 units sold) Should it continue to sell alongside the Switch over the next few years, it may even have the ability to match the sales of Phantom Hourglass (over 900,000 units sold) in Japan. And thus, while Western sales of the game have been very impressive, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will likely be the highest-selling Zelda game in Japan in a while, and that is a significant achievement.
So, how did this happen? I mean, Japan doesn’t like exploratory games, so they say. They don’t like getting lost, and new audiences are gained by making games more accessible and straightforward, not by making them more complex and difficult. Luckily, there are a few plausible theories regarding just why Breath of the Wild has managed to find a large audience in the Japanese market.
- There is an audience for vast, expansive games in Japan: Did you know the PlayStation 3 version of Grand Theft Auto V has sold somewhere in the range of 800,000 units in Japan at retail alone? Meanwhile, the initial release of Grand Theft Auto IV has sold nearly 300,000 units, with the complete edition having sold an additional 150,000 units. A large enough contingent of Japanese videogame players is obviously not opposed to large games, provided they are framed within a context that is appealing to them, whether it’s living the American thug life or starting forest fires in Hyrule. While Breath of the Wild may not be speaking to the more casual audience that played Phantom Hourglass, it is reaching out to a new audience regardless, and that’s always a good thing.
- Promotional activities by Nintendo: In the years following Zelda’s 25th anniversary in 2011, Nintendo have actively promoted the brand both in the West and in Japan through a steady stream of concerts and games. Re-releases of games such as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 3DS have helped expose new players to the series everywhere, and have had a positive impact on the brand’s level of awareness on the whole.
- The right platform: Like a lot of videogames in Japan, Zelda benefits from being released on a portable platform. Where Skyward Sword suffered from being on the Wii, Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D both benefitted from being on the Nintendo 3DS. Ocarina 3D, in particular, has performed admirably, selling well over 600,000 units in Japan. In light of this, it isn’t surprising that the new Zelda is benefitting from being on the Switch, which is somewhere in between a home console and a portable itself.
- The brand’s popularity: Zelda isn’t unpopular in Japan, nor is it what I’d call niche. On the right platform, it sells about 500,000 units on average, which puts it on par with brands like Persona. Clearly, Nintendo would like for it to do better. That having been said, 700,000 units sold—which is a lock for Breath of the Wild—can definitely be classified as “better,” so one could argue that the series is doing as well as could be expected, given what it is. (A lengthy, action-heavy, single player-focused game with no multimedia offshoots or tie-ins)
So, the obvious question now is: what’s next? How do you push the Zelda brand beyond that 800-900k figure and make it appeal to even more people? Can it even be done in Japan, a videogame market that is now famous for its steady decline?
I think so, yes. I believe the answer to this problem is something that Pokemon has promoted since 1995, that Monster Hunter’s popularity was built upon in 2005, that Dragon Quest discovered in 2009, and that both Animal Crossing and Splatoon have leveraged to great effect: communication and interaction between players.
By this, I don’t necessarily mean multiplayer—although, that is the most direct approach—but anything that encourages players to communicate and cooperate with one another. Pokemon does this by allowing players to trade and battle together, whereas Dragon Quest IX did it through the use of its SpotPass feature, which enabled players that passed each other on the street or in the train to acquire new treasure maps that led to rare enemies and loot. Given all the examples that already exist in the market, we know there are a number of ways to approach player-to-player communication.
Even Zelda has tried something along these lines in the past. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures, Hyrule Warriors, and Tri Force Heroes have all explored the idea of cooperative multiplayer from different angles. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite ever worked out for a variety of reasons (a topic for another time), but that doesn’t seem to have discouraged Nintendo from trying.
Speaking to IGN at E3 2016, Eiji Aonuma stated: “I would like to take what I learned from Breath of the Wild and see if we can somehow fuse those learning points into another multiplayer Zelda. For example, with Tri Force Heroes, which followed a similar format of Four Swords, there was a multiplayer involved in that game. That’s definitely a possibility and we will continue to [experiment] throughout the Zelda franchise.”
It should be interesting to see how Nintendo continue to grow the Zelda brand in the future, and as someone that has always enjoyed closely observing and commenting upon the Japanese videogame market, I’m incredibly curious as to what they could possibly have up their sleeve.
Sources of sales data: Nintendo Co., Ltd. and Media Create Co., Ltd. Chart includes retail sales only.
You can find Ishaan Sahdev at @ishaansahdev on Twitter, tweeting obsessively about videogame sales and comic books.