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Round and round the Nintendo E3 Developer Roundtable

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Last night, we had the privilege of once again attending Nintendo's Developer Roundtable. These events put luminaries from Nintendo's internal development teams up on stage without interference from the sales guys, where they go into depth about their latest efforts for us, the media.

This year's roundtable was attended by Shigeru Miyamoto (who I trust needs no introduction), Legend of Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma, and EAD Tokyo (of Super Mario Galaxy fame as well as Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat and Flipnote Studio) head Yoshiaki Koizumi. As the roundtable opened up, Miyamoto told us today we'd be focusing on current titles such as those announced for the Nintendo 3DS and the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and also reminded us—and, by extension, you, dear reader—about the launch of the Nintendo eShop this week and the availability of ten fully-3D trailers for 3DS games that you can download there for free. (Not a lot of us had actually done this yet—Miyamoto seemed a little taken aback.)

With the preliminaries out of the way, the event then began in earnest.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

It is the 25th anniversary this year of the Legend of Zelda series, and Miyamoto and translator Bill Trinen concluded it was probably thirteen since the original The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released. Miyamoto said that even though he knew the game extremely well back then, playing it again now brought a realization that perhaps he doesn't remember it quite so well now. Seeing the game through a this prism brought a different feel, particularly with the script; lines that he joked he was telling his staff were no good seemed to be pretty good after all after being filtered through the prism of time.


This month's release of Ocarina of Time 3D features hint movies that are intended to help players who are totally new to the game to solve puzzles they might otherwise be stumped by. Miyamoto said their intent with the hint movies is not to solve the puzzle for the person, but rather to encourage them to solve the problem on their own—to that end, they will not show the solution itself, and will not be available until the player has failed at solving the puzzle a number of times.

For those who are not at all new to the series, they've also included the mirrored Master Quest mode, and a mode in which you can re-fight bosses from the game.

Star Fox 64 3D

Lots of people think of Star Fox as a shooting game, Miyamoto says, but he always thinks of it as a game about flying through space, over, around, and under obstacles. To that end, he found himself revisiting the question of inverted controls. A show of hands was taken; most people preferred their flight controls inverted—the scant few that did not must have grown up as Sega fans, he joked.


As a designer, multiple control options troubles Miyamoto. He wishes that the industry could standardize on just one option. He felt Star Fox 64 3D was a point at which it might be interesting to reopen discussion on this point because the slide pad was not a stick—therefore it might not necessarily make sense to invert controls with it. (I was a little taken aback by this comment, actually. The slide pad may not be a stick, but it feels exactly like one. I'm not quite sure what he was getting at.)

The advent of gyro controls brought Miyamoto a new opportunity to unify the industry, he joked; but in all seriousness, he liked the idea of using the 3DS as a viewfinder, moving it through space. (He didn't talk about this—or, indeed, anything about Wii U—but it's pretty obvious to see the implications of this with Wii U as well... it's almost like a next-generation pointer.) For Star Fox 64 3D, he felt that it worked most well to move the series up and down for vertical movement, but use the slide pad to steer side-to-side.

Super Mario Kite and other asides

The as-of-yet-untitled Mario Kart for 3DS brings the new glider transformation to the series, which Miyamoto joked made him want to call the game "Super Mario Kite." He also noted that Retro Studios is pitching in on this one, doing course-designing duty.


Gyro controls were apparently more interesting a topic, though, so we got back to that one fairly quickly. One of the problems with it on the 3DS is that it's difficult for the 3D to stay in focus (something I've personally noticed even as I get more used to my 3DS, typically preferring now to have the 3D effect jacked all the way up.) It's OK to play games in 2D if it's comfortable, Miyamoto says, but he asks that you please do flip the slider upward for the cinema scenes in Ocarina of Time.

Those of us who brought our 3DSes to the roundtable got a special gift as well—a Mii named "MiyamoTo," who Miyamoto noted was his personal Mii from his own 3DS—my colleague Dean Bergmann, who was sitting next to me, had Miyamoto's official Mii, which Nintendo has distributed via QR codes, saved on his 3DS; the differences were quite apparent. A hidden staffer was apparently quite busy repeatedly clearing Miyamoto's StreetPass queue so that we all had a chance to get the man on our 3DS. I did, which I've gotta admit was pretty darned cool.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

To hopefully avoid the wireless interference problems that plagued E3 2010's Skyward Sword demo, we were once again asked to turn our wireless devices off—including those frantically-StreetPassing 3DSes in our bags. Series producer Eiji Aonuma took over at this point, with Nate Bihldorff playing the game.

But before jumping into Skyward, Aonuma had one thing to say about Ocarina of Time 3D, regarding the Water Temple difficulty from last year's roundtable. Apparently, there was actually a push to make the Water Temple easier through level design, but Aonuma defended it vehemently, saying that there was nothing wrong with the temple, only the difficulty of removing and replacing the iron boots—he considers that problem fully solved thanks to the addition of the touch-control item menu in Ocarina 3D.


Moving on to Skyward Sword, we went through a couple demos on the Japanese version of the game. The first demo was called "Dowsing," a demonstration of Link's sword's ability to act as a sort of dowsing rod to find hidden pieces of a key Link needs to get into a dungeon. As you use it to point in the environment, you get visual and auditory feedback indicating if you're pointing in the right direction or not—this was used to great effect over a rather large area of terrain. The problem isn't totally solved for you, though; you still need to figure out how to get an item out—one was under a structure and another behind a rock wall that was far away from a supply of bomb flowers.

The other demo was called "Siren," and involved the otherworldly Siren world Link enters by stabbing his sword into a magic circle; in here, Link needed to collect droplets while avoiding guardian statues that could take him out with one hit. (It looks eerily like similar sequences from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess... thankfully, the mechanics are a little different.) These guardians come to life when Link walks outside his safe zone, and return to resting position when he collects a droplet.

There are a large number of droplets scattered all over large area. Link needed to display a lot of dexterity, leaping across gaps in ivy-covered walls and running up hills, to get them—particularly as he was being pursued, requiring the use of judicious dashing. (Alas, Mr. Bihldorff was not quite judicious enough, and was eventually taken down.) The key to these and other sequences was to know the area well. Skyward Sword will re-use familiar areas again and again for new kinds of sequences, testing your familiarity with these areas each time—they've put a lot of work into the map system to this end.

Super Mario

Super Mario still doesn't have a title, and it's all Miyamoto's fault, producer Yoshiaki Koizumi joked. They do have a number of themes in the works, though—and maybe there are clues in the demo on the show floor.

The game is a return to a more traditional Mario world, we were told as Bihldorff played the game for us. Koizumi said Galaxy had afforded him the opportunity to really be experimental and explore Mario, learning about the tempo and excitement of the game—and Super Mario had indeed learned from those experiments even as it returns to the past.


As he spoke, Bihldorff demonstrated the Tanooki suit, returning from Super Mario Bros. 3 but with a different ability set—it's pretty much exclusively good for drifting and slowing Mario's fall. At that point, Bihldorff missed a key jump and would have fallen to his death were it not for the suit—but he was able to use it and some wall jumps to get back up again, to applause from the audience. The suit was intended to give amateur players landing, but—as Bihldorff demonstrated—could also be used by skilled players to great effect.

There were a lot of 3D props being shown off in the demo that we unfortunately could not see on the big screens, but it was pretty easy to tell where they were—using our imaginations, it was almost as good. Super Mario on 3DS afforded the developers new opportunities to really show things coming out of the background, which was difficult to do before; we saw this extensively with things like spiked skewers and Cheep-Cheeps. There was also a special top-down level created as an homage to Zelda for its 25th anniversary that we could tell would look really good in 3D, with many things like lava geysers shooting up out of the screen as well as some trampoline platforms that, in the top-down environment, must have looked very impressive as Mario soared to great heights. Lots of impressive 3D to be had here, I'm sure.

Luigi's Mansion 2

The last game discussed was Luigi's Mansion 2, for which we saw some exclusive gameplay footage. It's slated for hopefully early next year, Miyamoto said, and is actually being done by Next Level Games, most recently famous for their Wii Punch-Out!! game—it's actually not being overseen by EAD, but Miyamoto said he has taken personal responsibility for it nonetheless. Luigi's Mansion, Miyamoto said, was made because he wanted to, after they used the GameCube version to create some early tests on the 3DS.


The gameplay footage showed a few things from the floor demo as well as levels where Luigi works with Toad to accomplish some goals such as finding ghosts that can only be seen in mirrors. There was also a lot of gameplay involving things I didn't do in the demo because I didn't know I could, like pulling wallpaper off certain walls to find secret areas and the like. Miyamoto commented at the end that he thinks that because of the mix of action and puzzling, Luigi's Mansion 2 will be a game that will probably appeal to both male and female players.

Q&A

Finally, we wrapped up with a little Q&A from the audience. The first questioner asked why 3DS had not seen any expanded-audience titles like Brain Age or similar yet, neither released or in-development. Miyamoto seemed shocked by the question because nintendogs + cats did, in fact, exist already, noting that it came even before Mario. More to the point, though, he said that the built-in software was supposed to fill this role somewhat for the people who were not necessarily interested in the franchise entries being made and released now.

The DS was also a more experimental system, Miyamoto added, noting that the software naturally followed the fact that they had a new play style, with dual screens and a touch screen, to introduce and explore. 3DS, by contrast, was designed to bring a more traditional experience, and as such he would like to bring a lot of traditional games to the system—there are so many, he said, that he has a hard time picking which to do first. With that said, titles with broader appeal were in the works, and announcements would come later on those.


Another audience member asked about what Miyamoto thought about the divide between what boys and girls liked, given his comments on the appeal of Luigi's Mansion 2. The question seemed to stump everyone on stage for a bit, but Miyamoto eventually came up with a few anecdotes, like how women do play a lot of Mario, but Galaxy sounded too masculine, and how some girls had found the original Luigi's Mansion too scary.

All that said, Miyamoto said he generally does not try to separate between the two when making games, though he noted that Star Fox was a particularly masculine game based on a boy's dream of flying a jet fighter. Koizumi also jumped in here to follow up on Galaxy, saying that it was made in part as a fulfillment of his dream as a boy of flying around in space—and noted that the new Super Mario was free from that sort of thing.

The next question was rather pointed: was Skyward Sword Nintendo's last game for Wii? Miyamoto said that his responsibility, he feels, is to look forward and always develop for Nintendo's newest systems; as such they are winding down on Wii internally. That said, many Nintendo partners are still working on Wii titles and more announcements are forthcoming from Nintendo on that front.

Aonuma interjected that he wants to make Skyward Sword a title worthy of sending Wii off with. Miyamoto joked that he had told Aonuma that if it wasn't good enough, it would be the last Zelda title completely—and similarly, that he'd told the Star Fox team that if they couldn't revive interest in the franchise, that they'd stop making Star Fox games as well.

Super Mario was the next topic as an audience member asked about Mario feeling "slow" in the demo. Koizumi said that the tempo has changed somewhat to help maintain an accurate feel to the game, but he said that he was striving to keep Mario both fast and accurate, and still challenging.

The Vitality Sensor was also asked about. Miyamoto said they have found it rather difficult to make the device stable, and as such have not brought it to market.


The final question brought was a doubleheader, about the Tanooki suit in Super Mario. Why doesn't he fly, and where in the heck did the idea of having a racoon fly come from anyway? Flying does cause issues in 3D, they said, so the feature was not put into the game, quite simply.

For the second half of the question, Miyamoto called up long-time collaborator Takashi Tezuka—a real treat. Tezuka said that when designing Super Mario Bros. 3, they had simply begun by deciding they wanted Mario to have a tail, for things like the spin attack. Once he had one, though, the ideas just flowed from there. At first, they thought maybe making it flutter could make Mario jump further—and they decided that it felt so good, that they'd just go ahead and make him fly.

Wrap-up

We were forbidden to ask about Pikmin throughout the roundtable, and because we were so good about not asking about it, Miyamoto did actually give us a little tidbit about it, which he said was sort of hard to do, given internal conflict between his corporate side, which dictated he should not talk about unannounced games, and his personal side, which wanted to tell us all about what he was working on. He noted he wanted to make it for its 10th anniversary, but simply could not. They were indeed working on it for Wii, but are now looking at moving it over to Wii U, in part because he really likes how it looks with the system's advanced graphical capability.

Maybe, he said, we could expect to not have to wait very long for it, since work has already been done for it. But, he noted, they are not officially making any game announcements at all for Wii U at this point. So all we can do for those little guys at this point is hope.