The Legend of Zelda 101


A game by Nintendo for NES, originally released in 1986.
Looking at the history of gaming in general, a number of arcade and computer titles are immediately recognizable for their influence on the medium. However, while console gaming grew from the same basic nutrients as computer and arcade gaming, it managed to flower into something entirely different.

Early console games tended to mimic the quarter-driven sensibilities of the arcade, or simply offered conversions of the arcade experience on a smaller scale. But the NES managed to popularize home console gaming in a way that none of its forebears had, and it brought with it a slew of console-originated gaming experiences where high scores were no longer the primary goal. Rather than the endlessly-repeating screens of Pac-Man and Nintendo’s own Donkey Kong, games like Super Mario Bros. offered a variety of landscapes, new obstacles to overcome in each area, and clear progress toward an end goal.

The Legend of Zelda also offers a specific end goal rather than a score, but its design is in direct opposition to the linear experience of Super Mario Bros. Instead of moving from left to right as Mario does, Link explores a large open world where he can travel in any direction, free from the constraints of gravity. Where Mario must hurry to the end of the level in order to outpace the countdown clock, potentially risking his limited stock of lives, Link is free to take his time and explore the world, resuming his quest at will, even after being killed.

Not all of the games in the Zelda series have offered the level of freedom (or lack of guidance) as the original, although they are clearly built upon the same foundation, with many of the core elements carrying over into modern iterations. From a design standpoint, it’s worth exploring the elements that make The Legend of Zelda stand as a classic game as well as a template for the action-adventure genre as a whole.

Lesson the First: It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
The thing that sets The Legend of Zelda apart from its peers is evident from the very first screen. At the start of the game, our hero is standing in an open field surrounded by green mountains. The player is free to move in any direction, although he is not able to walk over the stones. Pressing either the “A” or “B” buttons on the controller does nothing, and pressing START takes the player to an empty inventory screen.

With no other information, the player determines that he can walk around in the open area that extends off the edges to the left, right, and top of the screen. There is no specific incentive for the player to choose one path over the other, and no clear “correct” path. However, there is one thing in this area that stands in stark contrast to its surroundings: a solid black opening in the rocks near the upper left of the screen.

While everything else in the area is rough-hewn with jagged edges, the opening is a perfect rectangle, appearing to be a doorway or manmade cave entrance. This draws the player’s eye and his curiosity… and curiosity is the engine that drives the action adventure experience. If the player allows himself to succumb to this curiosity, he will find himself rewarded with a wooden sword, allowing him to defeat enemies.

But even if the player decided not to enter the cave and he walked out of the area instead, he would find himself being attacked by vicious foes with no way to fight back, eventually leading to his death and returning him to the very same area with the waiting cave door.

In either case, the player was given the choice of how to proceed, and when the player does eventually decide to explore the cave, the reward will appear to have been gained by his own cunning rather than explicit tutorialization. (For those who have the instruction manual, details on how to obtain the sword and navigate the opening areas are included, although this does not detract from the elegance of the design.)

Lesson the Second: Organic Freedom
As a game developer, it’s a frightening prospect to give freedom to the player. After all, what if the player makes the wrong decisions? What if he wanders off and gets lost? What if he ends up hating the game because he doesn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing in the first place?

In a linear action game, the developer knows how the player made it to Level 2. He got there by beating Level 1. By the second level, the player knows how to move and attack and make use of his basic abilities, so it’s fair that the second level make him use those abilities in a new or more challenging way.

In a nonlinear action adventure experience like The Legend of Zelda, it’s very much possible – incredibly likely, in fact –that the player will wander into the second or third dungeon before he is even aware that the first dungeon exists.

The only way to prevent this from happening would be to make the other dungeons inaccessible until the first is completed. But this is a slippery slope when dealing with player freedom… after all, what’s to stop the developer from making each dungeon accessible only in a specific order, thus turning the game into an entirely linear experience. On the other hand, how does the developer prevent the player from walking into the final dungeon before he is ready?

In the Legend of Zelda, the player is free to move to almost any point on the map. There are no invisible walls to prevent his progress, nor are there any NPC’s refusing to open a door because the player hasn’t first spoken to the proper quest giver. All of the obstacles that Link faces appear to be organic.

For instance, Link can’t swim, so he can’t cross rivers or lakes. It’s not immediately apparent that he will be able to acquire equipment that allows him to bypass some of these restrictions, and so the player doesn’t feel that his actions are being artificially limited.

The most common restriction that Link faces comes in the form of stronger foes. In the early areas, Link is able to defeat enemies with a few swipes of his sword, and taking damage only reduces a small amount of his health.

But moving higher into the mountains reveals falling rocks that take off a healthy chunk of Link’s life meter, as well as faster enemies that can absorb more damage and kill Link with just a couple of hits.

Later, when Link is able to wield a more powerful sword and absorb more damage, these enemies can be defeated with ease. However, even from the start of the game, there are no artificial restrictions preventing Link from accessing these areas.

The punishment for being killed in these areas is that Link is sent back to the starting point at the bottom of the map, thus requiring a struggle to get back to the area… potentially to be killed once again. This keeps the freedom in the player’s hands while also acting as a natural barrier to progress. It makes sense that some areas of the world will have stronger enemies, and so the player may leave these areas alone until he is better equipped, or dive in and face the consequences.

Lesson the Third: Growth through Exploration
RPG’s are notorious for doling out new equipment and abilities slowly over time, but these rarely have an impact on how the game is played.

When the hero’s sword and armor are replaced with a more powerful sword and armor, it just allows the player to mete out more damage while taking less himself, often while facing more powerful enemies that make the equipment functionally identical in combat. Learning an ice spell may allow the player to take advantage of an enemy’s elemental weakness, but players still can’t freeze an impassible river in order to cross it.

Since the player has direct control over Link, the player’s gameplay skill is a major determining factor in how successful he will be in combat. In support of this design, growth is made through the player’s gameplay experience and the thorough exploration of each area in order to discover new equipment, as opposed to stat increases that occur upon levelling up.

In The Legend of Zelda, it doesn’t matter how many tektites the player kills, Link will never grow any stronger.

Link grows in strength by finding two additional swords, both of which require exploration to uncover, and both require Link’s health meter to reach a certain length before he can wield them. Link’s health meter grows by discovering heart containers, many of which are gained by killing bosses in the dungeons (and the dungeons themselves require exploration to uncover), but many more can be found by thoroughly exploring the overworld.

In addition, exploration leads to new equipment that grants the player new combat abilities as well as supporting the core design with items like candles, bombs, and the raft, each of which offers new avenues for exploration.

Lesson the Fourth: Multifunctional Equipment
In many action adventure experiences, equipment fulfills a lock-and-key function, blocking the player’s access to a given area until he acquires the appropriate gameplay-altering item or ability. This may come in the form of a wall jump or some other environmental navigation tool, or perhaps an ancient relic like a magical ring that grants the player passage through certain types of doors. In The Legend of Zelda, on the other hand, many pieces of equipment serve multiple functions, and several of them are entirely optional.

Take the boomerang for instance. There are two boomerangs to be found in the game, a wooden one and a magical one, with the magical boomerang offering a bit of extra reach. Boomerangs serve numerous gameplay purposes: they can be tossed to stun enemies at a distance, they are able to pass through walls and fly over bodies of water, and they can destroy small enemies in a single hit.

Stunning enemies adds another layer of strategy as the player may choose to get up close and take down tough foes with his sword or bypass them altogether. The player may also toss a boomerang and then move to another position, potentially causing the object to fly back through additional enemies. And, boomerangs may be used to retrieve dropped items, such as hearts and coins, allowing the player to grab them from a safe distance.

Boomerangs serve multiple purposes and may significantly alter the way in which the player engages the experience… and they are also entirely optional. At no point is the boomerang required to complete a puzzle or navigate a dungeon, and it is actually possible to complete game without ever finding one.

Other items may be used to affect the environment and enemies alike, such as bombs that can blow holes in walls and kill enemies, and candles that can cause continuous damage to enemies and burn bushes to reveal hidden staircases. In fact, enterprising players may complete the bulk of the game using the candle as their primary weapon.

Even the Link’s sword is a piece of multifunctional equipment… By keeping Link’s health meter fully charged, the sword emits a projectile that flies in a straight line, even passing through solid objects and moving over bodies of water. This projectile has the same strength as the sword itself, and thus becomes more powerful when the player discovers the white sword and the magical sword. This projectile attack can greatly affect gameplay as it allows Link to deliver strong attacks at a distance, potentially taking down enemies and bosses from afar.

Lesson the Fifth: Enemy Variety
With such a wide variety of useful skills, it is important that our hero face enemies that require their use. While most enemies can be defeated with a liberal use of sword attacks, relying on this tactic is risky as it generally requires players to get up close with their opponents and potentially take contact damage. The risk is even greater considering that health restoratives are infrequent, particularly in dungeons.

From the early going, Link faces off against enemies that require varied combat tactics, often with several enemy types on the screen at the same time. Octoroks are easy prey, but they can fire off rocks in the direction they are facing. Fortunately, they pause for a moment before unleashing their stony projectiles, giving the player an opportunity stop attacking and let the rocks bounce harmlessly off of Link’s shield.

Tektites jump around the screen, even hopping across rocky areas that Link cannot reach, thus requiring the use of projectile weapons. Their movement can be somewhat unpredictable, but they pause every so often, letting Link get in close with his sword. Leevers rise up out of the ground, giving Link a brief opportunity to damage them – and vice versa – before they burrow back down. Peahats are even tougher to attack as they cannot be reached while they are flying through the air, but instead must be attacked when their propellers stop moving and they land for a moment.

Zora (referred to here as Zola) rises up out of the water to fire magical projectiles, which cannot be blocked by Link’s default shield. Since this enemy resides in the water, Link often cannot reach it with a regular sword attack. In the early going, this may be considered a nuisance enemy, as the player must simply avoid incoming projectiles, but acquiring a magic shield lets the player block these attacks.

Some enemies can only be attacked from the side or behind, requiring the player to move quickly or make use of special items. Many enemies are also immune to being stunned by boomerang attacks, and some are weak to specific items, such as the bow and arrow or bombs. Dodongo may dislike smoke, but and Pols Voice dislikes arrows between the ears.

Some dungeon-based enemies also split into smaller enemies when destroyed, requiring the player to perform crowd control in rooms that may already be packed with baddies. There’s even an enemy that can eat your magical shield, and another than can prevent you from swinging your sword. Some enemies are equipped with Link’s armaments as well, attacking him with arrows and boomerangs.

Lesson the Sixth: A Sense of Adventure
If there’s one thing that The Legend of Zelda doesn’t have much of, it’s story. At no point do NPC’s pause to give Link the history of the world, nor do they explain in detail where he must go next in order to further his quest, nor do they soliloquize on the nature of the universe and their purpose in it.

Link is largely left to his own devices, with only the occasional obscure hint to prompt him to search in a given area. Ultimately, it isn’t the story that pays off the player’s actions, but rather the journey itself, which is to say that the player is rewarded by his gameplay experience rather than overt storytelling…

The player must chart his own path through the world, map out where he has been, and keep track of areas to which he must return later. While modern games happily offer a flashing icon on the player’s map or a hovering arrow pointing the way, players of The Legend of Zelda may find themselves needing to create a map of their own, lest they prefer wandering aimlessly. The HUD only shows the player’s general position in the overworld with no additional details.

Dungeons may be difficult to find and many valuable objects can only be found by wandering into caves, blowing holes in solid rock, and burning bushes. Bombs are in limited supply, making random bomb dropping a time-consuming and often fruitless endeavor. Bushes may be burned with candles, but the first candle available to the player may only be used once per screen, requiring a maddening amount of experimentation for extreme completionists (at least for those who aren’t using a guide, anyway). Even once discovered, a number of caves and staircases lead to useless ends or optional pickups… although there is a full-length dungeon hidden beneath a somewhat inconspicuous bush, and the final dungeon is hidden somewhere in the rocks to the north.

The overworld is divided into a number of themed areas (forests, mountains, desert, etc.) punctuated with waterways and other landmarks, eventually allowing the player to grow accustomed to the general layout of the world so that he can move freely through it… essentially promoting the player to the position of a seasoned adventurer through his own experiences.

Dungeons represent a more focused challenge. Where most enemies on the overworld may be avoided entirely, enemies in dungeons must be defeated in order to open doors and acquire keys. It is possible to purchase keys (and eventually acquire a skeleton key), and even stockpile extra keys by skipping rooms or bombing through walls, but each dungeon contains the number of keys necessary to open every door and eventually reach the boss.

Each dungeon also contains a compass showing the boss’ location as well as a map showing the overall dungeon layout, giving the player tools to ensure that every room is explored thoroughly so that no valuable items are missed. This offers a sense of completion when a dungeon has been entirely overcome and the evil within vanquished.

Aiding in the player’s sense of adventure is a musical score that has become one of the most recognizable in all of gaming. The overworld is scored with a sweeping upbeat melody that encourages the player to push ever forward, while dungeon areas offer a darker and more foreboding tune that implies danger and the threat of death, which is further emphasized by a repeating tone that plays when Link has nearly reached the end of his health meter. And, when the player manages to be particularly clever and solve a puzzle or uncover a secret, a brief fanfare plays.

Lesson the Seventh: Always Put Something Behind the Waterfall

Lesson the Eighth: The Second Quest
Once the player has defeated all of the game’s bosses, collected the eight pieces of the Triforce, and introduced Ganon to the business end of a silver arrow, Link makes his way to Princess Zelda and the game ends.

If the player returns to the game at a later date, he will be able to complete it much more quickly because much of the challenge comes from his initial exploration and discovery of the world. However, the game still has more to offer in the form of a second quest.

By beating the game once, or by entering “Zelda” on the starting input screen, players may play a more difficult remixed version of the original adventure.

In this quest, the structure of the overworld is the same, but the locations of hidden areas are changed, often making them more difficult to find, and dungeon entrances are repositioned. In addition, the dungeons themselves have new layouts, allowing the player to experience an entirely new set of challenges.

The first six dungeons of the original quest

Interestingly, the creation of the second quest came as a result of a mistake. Designer Takashi Tezuka was tasked with creating the game’s dungeons under very tight memory constraints, which involved using a sheet of graph paper to fit the dungeon designs together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The oddly-shaped dungeons can actually be assembled together. However, Tezuka made a mistake and accidentally used only half of the allotted memory for the dungeons. Shigeru Miyamoto suggested that the extra space be used to create the second quest.

Unlike a New Game+ mode in an RPG, Link’s equipment and stats do not carry over into his new adventure. He begins the game on the overworld once more with no equipment or items and only three hearts in his life meter. This allows veteran players to experience the game a second time while still requiring a healthy amount of new exploration and offering more challenging dungeons to further test the player’s skills.

While later games in The Legend of Zelda series featured a lessened focus on nonlinearity, the original game established many of the elements that would become core to the Zelda experience, as well as inspiring the designs of many other games and acting as a template for the action-adventure genre as a whole.

Today, The Legend of Zelda stands as one of the most influential titles ever released, offering an action-based experience in an open nonlinear world where players are rewarded through exploration rather than a stat-based leveling system. In addition, the game offers compelling combat, interesting and useful equipment, and a fantastic adventure on a grand scale.


John B. Marine said...

You pretty much explained why "The Legend of Zelda" is one of the greatest games of all time. Also, you did so nailing a number of key points even I never thought about. I speak as someone who's beaten this game multiple times- both quests. Even once with only 12 hearts. Great post!