Retro Studios’ unreleased Zelda project was “an experiment gone wrong”

It turns out that Retro Studios’ Zelda project progressed to the point where it had working gameplay – but it just wasn’t very good.

Retro Studios – the developer behind the Metroid Prime series – was long-rumoured to have worked on a canned Zelda game and in 2020 concept art of the project was discovered.

Now, YouTube channel Did You Know Gaming has uncovered more information about the project.

The surfaced concept art, drawn by former Retro Studios contract artist Sammy Hall, had a much darker tone than previous Zelda games and featured Sheikh in a lead role as the game’s plot relayed the origins of the Master Sword.

Did You Know Gaming since followed up with Retro Studios employees to glean more information on the game.

This led to Paul Tozour, a programmer at the developer willing to speak on the project.

“At no point was it really anything like Zelda,” said Tozour. “It was an experiment gone wrong that happened to be set in the Zelda universe.”

Essentially, the gameplay was atypical of the Zelda series and did not live up to expectations.

Tozour describes combat as simplified whack-a-mole, with lead character Sheikh standing in place as wolves took turns to attack. Simply flicking the Wii Remote was enough to kill them.

When Tozour voiced concerns about the gameplay with designers, he was told that simplified gameplay was the wave of the future, which was compared to Link’s Crossbow Training.

Overworld traversal was totally separate, with Sheikh transported into separate battles like in a JRPG.

Tozour described this part of gameplay as “a hot mess”.

While the artwork has been widely praised, the gameplay of Project X / Sheikh wasn’t reviewed by Retro’s other designers.

Instead, Tozour suggested the team work on something like Shadow of the Colossus. Unfortunately his pleas fell on deaf ears and Tozour blames Retro’s leadership for the game’s poor quality.

Incidentally, many designers from Retro left to form Bluepoint Games, which worked on a remake of Shadow of the Colossus for Sony.

So what did Nintendo think of this game when it was pitched?

“[Nintendo] couldn’t really make heads or tails of it,” says Tozour. “Their reaction basically boils down to ‘this is seriously what you’re proposing? Really?’ …[it was] immediately rejected. [That’s what I was told,] but I wasn’t there when it happened, and I suppose there’s a possibility it never actually happened and they decided not to show it to Nintendo.

“Nintendo gave us the greenlight to make the prototype… but they had zero input or visibility [during] the nine months of pre-production, which is one of the reasons it failed.”

A further story from Did You Know Gaming’s video is that Retro Studios was also working on another Zelda game.

Known as Heroes of Hyrule, the story focused on a Goron, a Zora, and a Rito who lived 100 years in the past, plus a version of Link who’s now an old man. That seems suspiciously like Breath of the Wild.

The YouTube channel will have further details in a new video soon.