Eiji Aonuma (Part 1): Before The Legend of Zelda

Eiji Aonuma (Part 1): Before The Legend of Zelda
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青沼 英二 Eiji Aonuma was born March 16, 1963 in the Nagano Prefecture. Today, he is known for his influence of The Legend of Zelda series, but we’ll get to that in part 2. After graduating from High School, Aonuma attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music where he completed a master’s degree in composition design in 1988. Unlike most video game developers that studied computer science or the like, Aonuma made marionettes – mechanical wooden dolls that were able to perform a wide variety of tasks like dancing and playing musical instruments.

At college, I was making wooden dolls. Not simple wooden dolls, but mechanical dolls, ones that were able to play musical instruments, able to dance. I loved people seeing them and being surprised, watching them wonder how these kind of things could be done, what kind of gimmicks were inside.

– Eiji Aonuma

In the same year, Aonuma was interviewed at Nintendo by Shigeru Miyamoto. In an interview with The New York Times, Miyamoto admitted that he always looks for new employees who aren’t just a gamer but acquire a wide range of skills. This is so their developers and designers do not follow what they might believe to be strict guidelines when making a video game, always looking to break the pattern of game design. Aonuma’s background in composition design, as well as the marionettes that he brought in, impressed Miyamoto who believed that Aonuma would be a good fit for the company. 

Image Credit: Museums Victoria – We were unable to find any photos of a marionette made by Eiji Aonuma himself.

What’s surprising is that Eiji Aonuma had never played a video game prior to landing a job at Nintendo. So, why did he apply for a job there? During a career exhibition, Aonuma had met some big names in the video game industry. He eventually got the business card of Yoichi Kotabe, a big name in the creative industry who worked on the art for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and the Pokémon series. Upon recommendation from Kotabe, Aonuma was given the opportunity to meet with Shigeru Miyamoto himself.

In the interview, Aonuma showed Miyamoto his artwork that he had done during his time at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music. Miyamoto was impressed and once Aonuma had landed the job at Nintendo, he figured that he should become more familiar with video games. His girlfriend at the time often played video games and suggested he play a Mario game. Apparently, Aonuma was terrible at it, to which his girlfriend laughed and commented that he had slow reflexes. The next game she lent him was Dragon Quest on the Famicom and then The Portopia Serial Murder Case on PC. 

Aonuma soon fell in love with the concept of video games and how they can capture the imagination of those playing them. He has admitted to not playing video games in his free time, rather he does so only for research purposes towards his own games. He claims to still be bad at video games, but he personally likes Level 5’s Professor Layton series for its “interesting presentation style”.

Many video game developers play other video games in order to relax, but Aonuma loves to lose himself in music. At the 2004 Zelda roundtable interview at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), Aonuma told journalists and fans that he likes to play percussion instruments in his band called The Wind Wakers. This band is made up of forty Nintendo employees (as of November 2009), to which they like to play four concerts a year for fellow employees.

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Aonuma was excited about his new job opportunity. He expected that he was going to be in charge of box art and the like, however he was surprised to learn that he was to be put straight into designing game graphics. Aonuma’s earliest credited work was for NES Open Tournament Golf as ‘Sprite Designer’, which released on the Famicom on September 20, 1991. As Aonuma began to become more familiar with video game development, he started working on titles with external companies. However, the Super Famicom’s release was fast approaching and Aonuma was beginning to grow excited about the graphical possibilities that video games had to offer.


After playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past shortly after its release, Eiji Aonuma was inspired to work on future Legend of Zelda titles. As he wasn’t apart of the team that worked on the series, he began working on a game that had many similarities – マーヴェラス もうひとつの宝島 (Marvelous: Mōhitotsu no Takarajima – Marvelous: Another Treasure Island). 

Marvelous: Another Treasure Island revolves around three 12 year-old school children (as well as a gang of pirates) stranded on an island. Legend has it that the famous Captain Maverick hid the great treasure (Marvelous) on the island which is being guarded by unsolvable puzzles and strange creatures. The three school children (Dion, Max and Jack) must use their special talents and work together in order to find the treasure before the pirates get their hands on it.

Marvelous utilised the same engine that was used for A Link to the Past. A lot of the art design looks very similar, including the world’s environments. However, Marvelous’ game design puts more focus on puzzle solving, requiring the player to use each character’s unique abilities and even examine things by using a cursor (much like you would usually find in a PC point and click adventure game – perhaps drawing some inspiration from The Portopia Serial Murder Case).

Marvelous: Another Treasure Island was never localised outside of Japan. The game launched in Japan on the Super Famicom on October 26, 1996 (four months after the release of the Nintendo 64 in Japan and one month in North America). Although it has never been confirmed, it seems likely that the game was never localised outside of Japan due to Nintendo’s desire to shift its focus towards the new console – a similar fate to Shigesato Itoi’s Mother for the Famicom and Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance. Marvelous: Another Treasure Island contains a lot of text which would have needed to be carefully translated due to the game’s puzzle solving nature. However, there were four pages in Nintendo Power dedicated to Marvelous: Another Treasure Island, therefore it can be assumed that a localised version was in the works at one point.

Credit: Hardcore Gaming 101
Credit: Hardcore Gaming 101
Credit: Hardcore Gaming 101

The Super Famicom release wasn’t the only entry in the Marvelous franchise. Throughout January 1996, nine months before the game’s official release, a Satellaview version titled BSマーヴェラス タイムアスレチック (BS Marvelous: Time Athletics) ran. If you are unaware of the the Satellaview, that may be because it was never released outside of Japan. The Satellaview was a peripheral for the Super Famicom that allowed the console to receive radio signals from St.GIGA to broadcast exclusive hour-long games during the スーパーファミコンアワー (Super Famicom Hour). These broadcasts made exclusive features possible, such as voice acting and special events.

BS Marvelous: Time Athletics was a prequel to the official Marvelous title. The broadcasted game did not have an official story, rather it simply consisted of side quests that resembled Stamp Rallies, an activity in Japan that requires contestants to travel to locations in order to collect stamps in their books.

Stamp Rally Location at JR Meguro Station (Credit Dannychoo.com)

BS Marvelous: Time Athletics consisted of four unique courses that were broadcasted across four dates throughout January and April between 5PM-6PM and 6PM-7PM:

  • Course 1: January 1, 1996
  • Course 2: January 14, 1996
  • Course 3: January 21, 1996
  • Course 4: January 28, 1996
Credit: 1983parrothead

Shortly after Marvelous: Another Treasure Island’s release, there was a second round of Satellaview Marvelous games called BSマーヴェラス キャンプアーノルド (BS Marvelous: Camp Arnold). This series of Satellaview Broadcasts consisted of taking part in mini-game events at Camp Arnold, like fishing, collecting and… synchronized swimming?

Credit: Kiddo Cabbusses’s Unpopular Obscurities

Due to the time-specific broadcasting of these games, it is now impossible to play these BS games today. However, a YouTuber by the name of 1983parrothead was somehow able to record and upload footage of the broadcasts.

In an interview before the release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, when questioned as to whether Marvelous: Another Treasure Island would ever see a Virtual Console release in the west, Aonuma stated that while he’d like to see it happen, retrieving the code and inputting the subtitles would be too difficult. Whilst a fanmade rom hack challenges the validity of this statement, it may be that Marvelous may not be high on Nintendo’s priorities in comparison to The Legend of Zelda series.

Despite Marvelous: Another Treasure Island never receiving another game in the series, it is clear that Aonuma would go on to implement some of his ideas into his work on the Legend of Zelda series. Most notably, the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes draws a lot of inspiration from Aonuma’s earlier work, such as puzzle solving with three characters as you utilise each of their individual strengths and colour coding of the characters (red, green and blue).

Navi Trackers

In the Japanese version of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, which released March 18, 2004 on the Nintendo GameCube, there was a mini-game called Navi Trackers. This mini-game acted similarly to the BS Marvelous Satellaview games in that players would be required to collect stamps scattered across the map. In an interview on the Japanese Nintendo website, the team admitted to have drawn inspirations from the Marvelous Satellaview games.

Credit: TheRunawayGuys
Credit: TheRunawayGuys

Navi Trackers was fully voice acted, something that hasn’t been done in a mainline title before or until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released in 2017 (that’s right, we’re not counting the CDI games). Much like the core game of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, players would connect their Game Boy Advances and use that screen to play the games whilst the TV would show the map and give instructions. 

Credit: TheRunawayGuys
Credit: Eurasia M

Navi Trackers was initially planned to be included in the western release under the name Tetra’s Trackers, however it was cut before its release. There is no indication as to why this was cut and not much has been said about it since.

Not only is there a similarity with gameplay between Navi Trackers and the BS Marvelous games, but fans were able to find Marvelous icons and full 3D renders in the game’s data:

These icons and sprites indicate that Dion from the Marvelous series may have been intended to be playable in Navi Trackers. In addition to the icons, there were also 3D renders of ジーナ先生 (Ms. Gina), the boys’ teacher in Marvelous: Another Treasure Island, as the game’s announcer.

After the release of Marvelous: Another Treasure Island in 1996, Shigeru Miyamoto also noticed the similarities between Aonuma’s work and the Legend of Zelda series. He was also very aware that Eiji Aonuma desperately wanted to work on future Legend of Zelda titles and after making it very clear to Shigeru Miyamoto, Miyamoto approached Aonuma stating that they didn’t have enough employees working on the upcoming Legend of Zelda game being developed for the Nintendo 64 and insisted that Aonuma joined the team. 

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And that tells the story of Eiji Aonuma before he began working on the Legend of Zelda series. So if you’d like to learn more about Eiji Aonuma’s life, stay tuned for Part 2.

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  • Belinda Cubitt