the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Architecture of The Legend of Zelda (NES/SNES)

The Architecture of The Legend of Zelda (NES/SNES)

If you read The Architecture of Gaming last week, you know that I covered Super Mario Bros. If you are reading this now, that means that you know I’m going to be discussing The Legend of Zelda. What you may not know, however, is that those two games were developed simultaneously by the same team, with the explicit goal of making two contrasting experiences. Mario was designed as the straightforward action game: there are secrets to be found, but for the most part, it’s a linear sprint from left to right. Zelda, on the other hand, was designed in a way that not only encourages exploration, but requires it. You aren’t even given your basic weapon right away – you have to find it. In fact, gamers looking for a challenge often play through the game without the sword (though the sword is necessary to defeat Ganon). But just like the jumpy plumber, Link et al have found success due to excellent controls and exemplary level design. This week, I’ll be analyzing the two Legend of Zelda games released for the NES, as well as the one released on the Super Nintendo. Get ready, because this Architecture of Gaming is going to be legen…

…wait for it…

The Legend of Zelda

Released in Japan in 1986, and worldwide in 1987, the original Zelda game has become regarded one of the most important games ever released, and has had a profound effect on the industry. At the beginning of the game, you are presented with a massive overworld area, where the focus is on exploration. Scouting this frontier will reveal numerous monsters, secrets, and dungeon entrances. Entering one of these dungeons will take you to an isolated (often labyrinthine) series of rooms where combat and puzzle-solving come to the forefront of the gameplay. The monsters in these mazes are generally tougher and more numerous than on the surface, and finding your way to the end becomes an ordeal in and of itself. You can also find at least one new tool or weapon somewhere in each dungeon. Once you reach the final room, you must fight a large boss monster. Defeating it will reward you with a plot-important item, and you must collect all of these Plot Coupons before you can enter the final dungeon.

If that basic outline seems familiar, it might be because it has been borrowed by countless games since, particularly action/adventures and RPGs. There are even a few recent intellectual properties that have been branded as “Zelda clones” (e.g. Beyond Good & Evil and Darksiders), to say nothing of self-aware homage games like 3D Dot Game Heroes. (Note that being labeled a “Zelda clone” does not automatically make a game bad; BG&E is now regarded as an underrated classic, and Darksiders and 3D Dot Game Heroes both enjoyed positive reviews.) The fact that the template is so popular speaks to how effective it is. It deftly balances several different styles of play (exploration, combat, puzzle-solving), and provides a steady string of rewards to motivate the player to continue. It can be formulaic, but several titles, both within and outside of the actual Zelda series, have added unexpected details to shake things up.

Zelda 1 begins in a gigantic, open-ended overworld. From the minute you gain control of Link, you can go to just about any point on the 16×8 screen map. While this sounds great, it presents its own set of annoyances, but I’ll go into further detail about those later. This overworld is replete with hidden alcoves and secrets. Bombing certain walls will reveal hidden shops, friendly “It’s a secret to everybody” Moblins that give you money, and even old men that will get pissed off and demand that you fork over some cash to fix the door you just destroyed.

There are a lot of alcoves in Hyrule. You use this word, “alcoves”?

The dungeons themselves are large, maze-like complexes that present you with two challenges: survive the onslaught of difficult enemies and find a way to the boss chamber. Since every room is the size of a single screen, this essentially amounts to finding the correct route through a grid, though you will occasionally need to go through a stairway to warp to a different part of the dungeon. Methods of navigating to adjacent rooms include open doorways, locked doors that must be unlocked with a key*, weak walls that can be bombed open, and doors that are sealed with what I like to call “the Zelda lock” – the door will only open when all of the enemies in the room have been defeated.

*In every other Zelda game, keys can only be used in the dungeon where you find them, but in the original, you can take keys from one dungeon to another, and even buy them in shops.

Sometimes, this multitude of options allows you to take multiple routes through a dungeon. If you don’t have a key to open a locked door, you may be able to bomb through one of the walls and take an alternate path. Another thing that some people don’t notice is that each of the levels is shaped like something. For example, five of the dungeons in the Second Quest are shaped like letters and spell out “ZELDA.” In the regular game, Level 7 is sometimes called the Demon Labyrinth because it’s shaped like a demon’s head.

Suddenly, “There’s a secret in the tip of the nose” makes a lot more sense. (Parts not appearing on the in-game map have been darkened. Original map submitted to by Rick Bruns.)

Despite the influence that The Legend of Zelda had on gaming as a whole, there are still a number of problems in the game’s level design, most of which were addressed in the sequels.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Released a year after its predecessor, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is now (unjustly) seen as the black sheep of the series, despite being considered a successful sequel at the time of its release. It introduced many of the elements that have become commonplace in the franchise, like towns with NPCs and magic abilities. It also made some drastic changes to the gameplay. Zelda II is the only game in the series to have experience points and random encounters; in fact, it’s the only game in the series that can rightfully be described as an RPG. Additionally, all of the dungeons and other action stages took place in a side-scrolling view that has less in common with the first Zelda game and more in common with Kid Icarus.

Through a cruel twist of fate, Pit from Kid Icarus cannot fly, but Link, who doesn’t even have wings, can.

These changes have caused many to deride the game for being “too different” or “too difficult” – likely the same people who say that the series is stagnating and current entries are too easy. The reality is that the game is in many ways better than the original, and easily one of the greatest games on the NES. But I think I’ll step down from my soapbox now and talk about level design.

One of the original game’s biggest problems was a severe lack of direction or guidance. You were placed in a huge world and then expected to stumble across the important parts of the game unaided. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with granting the player some freedom, and I have in the past expressed my displeasure with the industry’s current obsession with waypoints, but Zelda 1 is downright ridiculous. Its refusal to guide the player in any way is analogous to teaching swimming lessons by immediately pushing all of the kids into the deep end of the pool and telling them that they’ll figure things out on their own. All of the other games in the series correct this in some way or another, though some of them give the player a longer leash than the others.

Zelda II’s solution to the problem is to divide the overworld into sections that are “unlocked” with the tools and abilities that you find in the palaces (read: dungeons) and cities. The fraction of the map you have access to at the beginning is relatively small, but learning the Jump spell will let you pass through a bottleneck section into the next part of the world. Afterwards, items like a boulder-smashing hammer and a raft will let you reach even more of the overworld. This process could seem overly restrictive, but it unfolds naturally instead of arbitrarily.

One neat aspect of the Zelda II overworld is that the entire overworld of Zelda 1 is present in the lower left corner, albeit at a much smaller scale.

Check out Spectacle Rock to the north, the Graveyard to the west, the Lost Woods in the southwest, the coastline along the southeast edge, and the twin lakes in the middle (thought to be an early incarnation of Lake Hylia).

Zelda II’s dungeons are quite a bit larger than in the original game, but also considerably simpler. Without bombable walls or “Zelda locks” to worry about, the only obstacles are regular locked doors, enemies standing in your way, and various platforming challenges. As such, Zelda II’s dungeons are more action-heavy, with less emphasis on puzzles, but navigating through the elaborate layouts can still give your brain a workout.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Released in 1991 in Japan and the year after elsewhere, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is probably the game that most often challenges Ocarina of Time’s claim as “Best. Zelda game. Evar.” As far as I’m concerned, it is the definitive 2D Zelda game. It returned to the style of gameplay from the original, kept many of the improvements from Zelda II and offered many improvements of its own. In fact, A Link to the Past is part of a trend you might notice. Much has been said about how well many of Nintendo’s franchises broke into the third dimension during the fifth generation (sixth in Metroid’s case), but the jump from NES to SNES arguably represented the greatest improvements for many of the Big N’s flagship franchises.

ALttP’s overworld strikes a compromise of sorts between the overworlds of the previous two games. There are many areas that are inaccessible until you have a certain item, but a much larger fraction is initially available to you than in Zelda II. While the game does a good job of only railroading you when necessary, it also is much better about pointing you in the right direction than Zelda 1.

A Link to the Past is also the first Zelda game to feature parallel worlds (the Light World and the Dark World), a mechanic that appeared in several other installments of the series, as well as many games outside the franchise. Besides the cosmetic changes, the Dark World has slightly different topography than the Light World, and travelling between the two is necessary to reach certain areas. This is complicated by the fact that, while a certain item lets you travel to the Light World at will, you can only travel to the Dark World at specific locations.

Also, the Link to the Past overworld is shaped like a tic-tac-toe board.

I’ll go with the Desert of Mystery for the win, Peter.

The dungeons in ALttP are similar to those in the original Zelda game, but far more complex. Many rooms are still the size of a single screen, but many more are larger. Each dungeon also has multiple floors, and a few of the puzzles involve dropping down to the floor beneath you. The increased power of the SNES also means that the game can include many more unique objects, such as a number of switches and traps that make for some tricky puzzle-solving.

A Link to the Past also has a much better sense of level identity than the previous two games. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that each dungeon has a vastly different environment. While the dungeons in Zelda 1 and Zelda II had little to separate them beyond color, ALttP has the Desert Palace, the Flooded Palace, the Ice Palace, the cavernous Turtle Rock, and more, each with their own enemies and backgrounds. The dungeons also have a good deal of variety in their layouts. The Tower of Hera, instead of having two or three large floors, has six fairly small floors, and the first half of Skull Woods has you spending as much time in the overworld as you do in the disconnected pieces of the dungeon itself.

Also contributing to the sense of level identity is a Zelda “tradition” that was expanded upon (or possibly even introduced) in this game: using the treasure in the dungeon to reach the boss chamber. With the exception of Zelda 1’s Stepladder, all of the dungeon treasures in the first two games were either combat buffs or tools to help navigate the overworld. In ALttP, most of the dungeons will have a number of puzzles that require you to use the item that you receive therein. (Some of these puzzles may reappear in later dungeons as well.) The dungeon with the bow and arrow will have switches to shoot, the dungeon with the Hookshot will have gaps to cross, and the dungeon with the Power Glove will have heavy things to lift. (I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.) There are still some dungeons with optional treasures like the Blue Mail or Mirror Shield, but A Link to the Past can definitely be recognized as the beginning of a trend.

Even with all of the improvements that A Link to the Past made over its predecessor, it does not have the greatest level design of the series. The third dimension has been particularly kind to The Legend of Zelda, allowing the developers to create more thrilling action sequences and more interesting puzzles in the later 3D titles. Just like the Mario series, you can expect to see more installments from this revered franchise in the future.



  1. This was a neat look back into the series origins! I liked the nice things you said about Zelda II, as it doesn’t always get the appreciation it deserves.

    Also regarding the overworld to the original game, there was an installment in Nintendo’s recurring feature “Iwata Asks” where they unveiled their original design sheets from 1985. It’s worth a look if you haven’t seen them:

    • Oh wow! I had no idea that all of the Zelda 1 dungeons fit together like pieces of a puzzle!
      And while I did notice that the “Cheep-Cheep bridge” level was simply repeated with more enemies, I never noticed that there were more levels like that, nor did I know that was due to memory/time limitations. It’s fascinating stuff, and I think I might have to write an afterword of sorts about how the NES’s limited memory had an influence on level design.

  2. Sing it, brother! Zelda 2 is probably at the bottom of my Top 3 NES games of all time (right after Esper Dream 2 and Legacy of the Wizard, of course)! This was a fantastic overview of the first 3 Zelda games, though I would have liked to see more about the dungeons themselves, particularly with Zelda 2.

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