It's one of the most infamous video game trailers of all time. At Spaceworld 2000, Nintendo set aside some time to show off what its legendary franchises could look like on the powers of the new GameCube console, and The Legend of Zelda was among them. A year later, Nintendo released a new trailer showing off what would eventually become The Wind Waker and its rising star: Toon Link.
Of course, after initial mixed reactions, The Wind Waker would go on to become one of the most popular and endearing games in the franchise, and the original "photo realistic" design of the Spaceworld 2000 trailer never saw the light of day.
We've had various reasons as to why Nintendo decided to change the style over the years, but a new interview with artists Yoshiki Haruhana and Satoru Takizawa from the new Zelda: Art & Artifacts art book discusses it further. Nintendo, being Nintendo, didn't want its game to be derivative of previous games and the games around it, and it decided to turn the project on its head.
Before we get into how Toon Link came to be, let's talk about the promotional footage from the 2000 event. It featured a realistic Ganondorf and Link fighting with each other. The footage was created by Haruhana-san and Takizawa-san, correct?
And everyone who saw that footage believed that the new Zelda title coming out for the GameCube would be realistic looking. So tell us: what happened?
Haruhana: Well, as we created that footage, we came to the realization that the realistic route wasn't the way to go.
Takizawa: [nods deeply]
So it was creating that footage that made you realize the realistic route wasn't the right course?
Haruhana: That's right. We were asking ourselves, "If this the right direction to go? and "Does realistic equal a good game?" At the time, as the console's hardware specs went up, many games were heading in a more photorealistic direction.
Haruhana: And, at that time, when I was flipping through a game mag, all I saw were really similar-looking games, and I began to worry we would be making one of them. So we thought about what we needed to do with our art to make it stand out. How could we make the readers of that magazine stop and look at our project? We decided that making a realistic Ganondorf and Link wasn't it…
So you felt that a realistic-looking Zelda would be lost in the sea of many other games?
Haruana: Right. So we cleared our heads of everything and thought about all the other games in the Zelda series. Toon Link came out of process.
And thank goodness too because The Wind Waker is awesome
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is an absolute masterpiece, not just from a gameplay perspective but also thanks to Toon Link's design. Up until that point, no video game character had ever shown so much expression in his face and actions, and I'm not sure if anything has even come close since.
I recently said that Toon Link had run his course, and I still agree that Nintendo needs a retro redesign for him if the company ever does an overhead viewpoint game in the series again. However, this doesn't mean I don't love the design and it didn't play a role in my ever evolving love for video games. If it weren't for Toon Link, the 3D Zelda games wouldn't stand a chance against the overhead games in my book. The Wind Waker keeps them from being entirely shut out by the likes of Link to the Past and The Minish Cap.
Breath of the Wild's Link looks amazing of course, but I genuinely want to see where Nintendo takes him afterwards. Unlike Mario, Link is an ever evolving character who isn't locked into one specific design, and that makes him endearing in his own way.
And to answer the question "Does realistic equal a good game?"
No, time has shown that it doesn't. During an age when developers were obsessed with recreating reality in video games, Nintendo was wise in seeing otherwise.