This week at GDC 2017, Nintendo Game Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi took to the stage to discuss all things Breath of the Wild. Alongside the game’s Art and Technical Directors, the hour and a half long talk delved into all of Zelda’s “traditional conventions”, and how they’ve made a multitude of “convention-breaking changes” to the formula for the latest instalment. However, most interesting was the revelation that Breath of the Wild actually began life as a 2D 8-bit inspired prototype.
Yes you read that right, the latest entry in the Legend of Zelda was originally fully playable in a fashion very similar to the 1986 game that started it all. Obviously this is awesome, but the team didn’t build this prototype just for fun. In fact, this 2D Breath of the Wild prototype was actually integral in the overall creation of the game.
You see, Fujibayashi wanted Breath of the Wild to be approachable from multiple different angles, with an infinite amount of solutions to each puzzle, rather than one solution which could be shared online. This was done so as to create an experience that would be different for every player, thus replicating the sense of wonder and discovery that has been at the heart of the series ever since the genre defining NES original. However, in order to make sure that such a big change didn’t alter the core enjoyment of the series, Fujibayashi first wanted to test put these design changes.
And this is where the retro prototype came in. By using this simplified 2D creation, Fujibayashi was able to quickly experiment with his idea of making an “active” game. On top of this, he was able to quickly present his ideas to the rest of the team in a way that was easy to understand.
I thought that the quickest way to bring this idea to life and to present this to the rest of the team would be to create this in 2D.
Given that the new gameplay and design mechanics were a hit, this quickly meant that what began as a simple experiment, eventually became a fully fledged prototype. This was something Fujibayashi was very keen to confirm in the GDC talk:
As you can see, this is a 2D Zelda, but we used this as a way to experiment with the mechanisms I was talking about earlier. So you can say this is a legitimate prototype of Breath of the Wild. It’s very nostalgic.
What’s more, despite being very reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, this 2D Breath of the Wild prototype even went as far as to include a variety of advanced features found in the final game. This includes not only advanced physics, but also some of the gameplay elements involving environmental manipulation. This is something that was discussed by the game’s Technical Director Takuhro Dohta:
We used 2D graphics to quickly create a prototype as a proof of concept. 2D prototyping is handy in that it allows you to reduce the game to a set of symbols and clearly display the logic behind an idea.
In fact, after extensive testing using this 2D Breath of the Wild prototype, the team even found their findings altering the design choices being made for Breath of the Wild. You see, as the team learnt more and more about how they envisaged the physics system working within the game, they became increasingly convinced of the art style you see today, one that blends fantasy and realism. Rather than for example the more exaggerated world of Toon Link and the Wind Waker universe.
So there you go, whilst we may not be getting a brand new 2D Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Switch just yet, the importance of 8-bit 2D design certainly can’t be underestimated. Not only did Nintendo use this retro infused prototype in order to continually experiment with the core gameplay, they even found that it influenced the design of the game too. All in all, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this 2D prototype, and the alterations and learnings that came from using it, were critical to the universal acclaim the game has received.