the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Legend of Zelda: a Second Look at the Second Quest

The Legend of Zelda: a Second Look at the Second Quest

If you were to ask me a year ago what I thought the worst game in the Zelda series was; I’d say the original. I would tell you it’s a great game, and still worth playing, but all entries since then have improved on the formula in some way; be it storytelling, gameplay mechanics, or in anticipating and guiding player interactivity. It’s an opinion I’ve held for some time now, although as years have gone by my memories of the experience itself had become clouded. So I gave the game a second chance.

I’m not sure what my answer would be to that question now, but I can tell you that my opinion has changed. 28 years after its original release, I can tell you that The Legend of Zelda holds up just fine as one of the franchise’s greatest successes, and there’s a unique brilliance to it that few games can ever hope to match. While you can now file me among the converted, I should say that what ultimately swayed my opinion was not the main game itself (although it is still quite enjoyable), but for what comes after.

That’s right; my second chance heralded a second coming… arriving in the form of the Second Quest.

The Second Quest, for the uninitiated, is the remixed version of the game that begins after you complete the main quest (or if you just opened a new file named “ZELDA”). Providing an “advanced” option, dungeons now have new maps with tougher setups for enemy encounters, and their locations across the overworld have been hidden; requiring more exploration, experimentation, and discovery. But that’s not all; the Second Quest also introduces several new concepts the main quest had gone without, as well as push existing concepts to their full potential. There’s more logic and significance to the Second Quest’s design than even the Main Quest chooses to offer (right down to the previously-inconsequential placement of item drops); which is surprising since public perception would often suggest the opposite.

Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on player guides that has led to the Second Quest being understood as a chaotic randomized mess. Looking at a map of the overworld or dungeon all at once can be a confusing ordeal, unable to discern the difference between what  is required and what is possible. Following a walkthrough will limit the player experience to a series of actions without pause for reflection. Neither of these can relate to how the Second Quest guides the player’s actions as they play for themselves and think about their experience (not just for the current quest, but the first one as well). Does this mean there’s actually a way to play the game for yourself without a little bit of trial and error? No;  but it’s not as bad as it sounds, and the game within is worth the attempt.

The Second Quest is not some throwaway extra; some cheap addition to existing code to fill the available memory space (though that may be its origin). It is not illogical. It is not random. It’s one of the most brilliant and creative experiences ever programmed. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why.

The Overworld

Second means Second

Reasons for playing the Second Quest after the first are not limited to it being harder; it should also be played second for the knowledge one gains the first time around.  Not only do players know item uses and general combat skills, but they’ll be familiar enough with the overworld to be guided by past experiences. In fact, dungeons 1-5 have direct correlations to points of interest from the main quest, and in surveying the world to see what’s changed, players would be able to discover things that remained the same to clue them in.

Let’s think about progression from the start: Players will find Level 1 right where it was, and from there, if they walked to level 2, they’d find a pool of water instead. While that stalls progression, they now know things have been moved, and also have a place to come back to once they found the Recorder (again based on knowledge from the main quest). Level 2, players will likely find unexpectedly by heading to the cave that used to sell the Blue Ring (we’ll talk about that item later), and in getting the Recorder inside, they can then head back to that pool to reveal Level 3.

Progression is again stalled for the player, prompting further exploration that will yield the Power Bracelet, which again is found right where it was the first time. In leaving it there, they wanted you to find that item; and with Link’s added rock-pushing ability, the player is confronted with their first real trial and error phase; smaller than the ones to come (there’s only 13 panels with rocks in the game), but culminating in the reveal of Level 4. Those that fully explore Level 4 will then leave there with the Raft, which again will be used to cross the lake to Level 5 (the previous location of Level 4).

It’s only after Level 5 that the game becomes a bit more random, although it’s never entirely without its own rationalization. Level 6 and 7 are relatively close to where dungeons were in the past, and Levels 8 and 9 have some Old Man hints to act as clues. All in all, the layout is never without its own methodology, and a great deal of it stems from what you’ve been shown before. In that regard, the Second Quest doesn’t act as a replacement; but a continuation – A second act of the play, retaining prior logic and familiar territory but introducing something new as well.

Useful Secrets and Thinking Like a Game

One of Alice Kojiro’s phrases I’ve always enjoyed has been “games that remember they’re games,” although she typically uses it to represent fun times to be had. I’ve come to have my own meaning for the term, to be applied to games that not only remember that they’re games, but try to remind players of that as well, and incorporate that mindset into understanding the game world as it’s constructed. An example game within this ideology at its core is perhaps the recent Corrypt by Michael Brough, where players solve a collection puzzle by effectively breaking down the game world through a mastery of its mechanics and item relationships (it’s free on PC and brilliant; do check it out). It’s only through recognizing the world as a piece of programming instead of a real inhabited space that the game’s logic begins to make sense to the player.

Now, I’m not here to necessarily argue authorial intent; but I want to point out that the same level of understanding can be found within the Second Quest, to the degree that it not only drastically alters the off-putting trial and error experience, but provides a greater level of purpose to the overworld and secrets within that the Main Quest never attempted. While the Main Quest places Link in Hyrule, the Second Quest brings you back into the living room, and I mean that in the most engaging way possible.


20 rupees down, and all the richer for it!

The overworld is a big grid divided into a series of panels. Within those panels are caves (leading to shops, items, levels, rupees, etc.). There will only be one cave per panel. It’s that last part that has the most importance. Arguably the one-per-panel setup is a programming constraint, but think of the power this knowledge can have for those that wield it. If a panel has a cave visible from start, there’s no need to test that panel for more. If you find a secret cave, there’s no need to test that panel for more. If you chart the caves you’ve found; the amount of overworld space in question begins to drop down dramatically. For the Main Quest; secrets held no logic; dispersed across the overworld to be found if willing. In the Second Quest, caves are assets to be exploited  by the player in locating the new levels; providing a means of closure to eliminate panels from further testing. At 128 panels with 79 caves, players have roughly a 60% chance off the bat at finding one, and further experimentation will only increase those odds as the game continues. For a rather evolved logic devoid of in-game thematic relevance to potentially present itself, and yield such a huge benefit to players when discovered, it’s a pretty impressive feat even today, and it’s coming from a game that released during the Reagan administration!

Guidance through Level Design

The final layer to understanding the overworld outside of past experience and trial and error shortcuts, are the available hints made to the player from the game, and no I don’t just mean the OLD MAN hints. There are several, and some are obscure, but with a little bit of thinking, they end up being rather interesting; in fact, they demonstrate a level of creativity in their simplistic guidance that can’t be replicated by further installments in the series due to their more complex overworlds.

Let’s start with the new location of the Blue Ring. It now sits in the top-right corner of the map, only accessible by walking through a wall from the panel below. That’s pretty obscure right? It’s like they didn’t want you to find it right away! This panel existed in the Main Quest as well, although inside was just 100 rupees. Believe it or not, the corner panel isn’t being entirely secretive, and there is a logical puzzle behind its discovery; it’s just a discovery based in the Second Quest. In Level 1, observant players will learn that the map can be used to find secret rooms. In Level 2, players learn that they can walk through walls. Applying both of these lessons to the overworld, players may see that they are unable to reach the top-right corner of the overworld by any normal means, and they’ve been clued in to a new mechanism of discovery. Seeing that there’s a gap coming from the left-side panel, their only possible point of entry is the panel below; and voila.

There’s your Blue Ring, and a puzzle other Zelda games can’t provide – if your overworld isn’t a grid; how can players deduce for themselves that a secret’s there in the corner to be found? It’s a shame that now so many guides just tell you to head up there to begin with, as not only does all of that logic and guidance escape the player (possibly even impeding on their ability to find level 2 on their own since their motivation is gone), but now most end up grabbing the Blue Ring right at the start to bring the initial challenge level down. Oh, internet; you are a blessing and a curse.

Let’s move on to the entrance of Level 7; which is under a tree you need to burn. There’s nothing the player can go on to lead them to do so directly, other than the fact that level 8 was under a tree, and hey there’s a lot of trees to burn (and with the Blue Candle this time for an extra kick in the pants). In fact, one of the areas in which the Second Quest drops the ball is that they didn’t update their hint given by the OLD MAN in the overworld. “SECRET IS IN THE TREE AT THE DEAD END” is nothing but a bold-faced lie this time around. Fortunately, where the hint fails there’s still some level design to pick up the slack and provide some further clues.

What if I asked you to burn the most interesting tree on the map? Well, scratch that; the most interesting tree formerly led to Level 8 in the Main Quest, and won’t burn. So what’s the second-most interesting tree? Well, there are some green trees among red trees that are interesting (in fact one of them leads to the only 100 rupee secret cave in the quest), and several isolated bushes may also prove eye-catching, but what we’re looking for is something truly unique. The trouble is; how do you make a tree unique when they all look alike and can be stacked into similar formations?

Most trees you can burn and reach from the same direction. A small handful of trees you can burn, and then only approach it from another direction (i.e., burn from below, then walk into it from the right). The tree that burns to reveal Level 7 is the ONLY tree on the ENTIRE MAP that you can burn, but can not immediately reach after you burn it, needing to leave the panel to come back from another side. In a quest designed to be challenging, the Level entrance has technically fallen to the most challenging tree to burn; the worst possible tree in existence! Is that some crazy backwards logic in determining what tree to burn; absolutely! But it’s also about as far away from random as you can get. There was definitely some thought to selecting that tree; the game just forgoes telling the player why they selected it, leaving the player to come to terms with the rationalization for themselves (and hopefully not be scared off by some trial and error in the process).

The last piece to go over here has to do with the two Old Man hints that can be applied for Levels 8 & 9. In the mountains of both quests, players will find the “ARROW MARK;” a panel consisting of rocks forming a giant arrow pointing left. Being rocks, clever players will attempt to push them, which in the Second Quest will yield the Magical Sword, but that’s neither here or there. This panel also holds a great deal of importance, far more than in the main quest, for it’s a point of reference for the old man hints. “SOUTH OF ARROW MARK HIDES A SECRET” means the panel south of the arrow mark (which contains level 8), and “IF YOU FOLLOW THE ARROW” means to go in the arrow’s direction (which will end up at level 9). Amazingly, the arrow mark even adds to the hints by lining up with player positioning; being a linear marker for at least one coordinate where the player should stand when attempting to bomb.

The Arrow wasn't just a starting point; it was a clue in itself

The Arrow wasn’t just a starting point; it was a clue by itself

What I also find fascinating is how to ensure players are on the right track, the layout effectively uses its cave system as a series of fail-safes to back those hints up. The entire area surrounding level 9 contains secret caves in each panel to help reduce random testing time; as does the panel to the left of Level 8 in the event the player miscalculated their position. The game knew that its text hints weren’t perfect, so when it came time to start relying on them, they built up the overworld accordingly to allow those hints to fail, while still encouraging the player to experiment for themselves.

Taking these occurrences together, we can see how this Hyrule separates itself from later games. This Hyrule is built as a grid, and made to be understood as such; calling on coordinates, plot points, unique anomalies, and pathways as guidance tools to understanding and revealing its mysteries. It’s an understanding that scrolling panels, craggy borders, and multi-floored corridors could only abandon in order to bring players further into the game world without regard for how that world is a mechanical construct; a development philosophy that’s really been picking up steam in more recent years. New school thinking isn’t as new as we thought, I guess.

The Underworld

Introduction of New Mechanics

Alright, now to get to the dungeons, which is where the Second Quest truly shines. Levels in the Second Quest may feature the same type of actions and inputs (for the most part), but the way players make their way through dungeons has changed dramatically, to the point where one can’t help but appreciate the thinking behind their design. There are several areas in which the dungeons offer some very new experiences not encountered in the Main Quest, but most are created through a rearrangement of existing components in a more strategic way. That’s not so say the Second quest doesn’t offer anything truly unique.

The Second Quest introduces the player’s ability to walk through certain walls; now having invisible doors between certain rooms. Sometimes these are one-way trips; sometimes two. This opens up yet another way of thinking about dungeons; adding to the bombable walls, locked doors, closed doors, and secret staircases for navigation. While this may sound intimidating, the Second quest exercises a great deal of restraint in making use of this new concept; only requiring it sparingly, and usually adding in visual tells through room observation and map positioning. Just like in the Main Quest, the game introduces its new mechanics through first-hand demonstration. In Level 2, players will reach a dead end with blocks making a straight line to the opposing wall, suggesting the path will continue even though it looks like it wont. Players who ultimately do test out the opposing wall, will reach the room that contains the Recorder, and will be able to progress through the rest of the game.

Forced interaction; how Legend of Zelda teaches without words.

Forced interaction; how Zelda teaches without words.

That same introductory care was given to the addition of the Red and Blue Bubbles; a revised version of the Bubble enemy from the first quest. Early in the 4th dungeon, the player can walk through a room filled entirely with red bubbles, and touching one of them will disable Link’s ability to use his sword (previously this was only temporary, but the red variant has lasting effects). This is corrected in the next room, now filled with Blue Bubbles, and getting one of them to hit you will restore the sword ability. The game never tells you what the Red and Blue Bubbles do; they simply set up a demonstration for you to encounter, safe from the presence of other enemies and allow you to make the conclusion for yourself. Of course, if you didn’t pick up on it there; you’ll likely get to realize it quick a few rooms later where the game locks you in with 4 darknuts, 3 red bubbles, and a single blue bubble to rely on in one of the most diabolical rooms of the game. Education through straight gameplay; that’s what made the Legend of Zelda amazing to begin with, so it’s great to see that even after the main quest, the game is still finding new ways to relay their intentions without text.

The other “new” areas of the Second Quest aren’t introduced in the same way, but it’s because they were designed to be surprise encounters. The “LEAVE YOUR LIFE OR MONEY” rooms are a surprising shock to the system, with the potential to reduce Link’s maximum heart capacity if ill-prepared, and the one-way warps act as another way to force players into progressing a certain way; either as wrong turns, making them go through a number of rooms again just to get back to where they were, or acting as a point of no return, so they can’t just double back to safety.

Cross-Dungeon Play

Another innovative area is how the game now uses keys; an optional area of interest that has some pretty large ramifications for the series as a whole. In the main game, keys and doors were never a great concern. You could enter a dungeon with zero keys, and complete it using only the keys you picked up inside. Not so for the second quest. Across levels 1-8 there are still 24 keys, and 24 locked doors, but the key to door ratio in each dungeon is no longer 1:1. What that means, is the game is set up for you to be carrying keys between dungeons; no longer isolating the experiences, but integrating the exploration experience across the entire map.

It begins as early as Level 2, which contains 4 locked doors and 7 keys; completion-willing leaving you with a 3 key surplus. Heading next to Level 3, you’ll find yourself 100% needing an outside key (two, if you got the item before fighting the dungeon boss) to complete it. If you plan on unlocking every door in the game, key-on-entry requirements hold true for 5 different dungeons in the game; requiring you to maintain a key inventory when crossing over the overworld; an extension of the main game’s key functionality that’s been taken to its logical extreme, while still allowing for players to never resort to buying a key (although they can if they like).

What’s more, is they even use keys to reward backtracking, sequence breaking, and revisits by placing keys in initially-inaccessible places. In both Level 4 and 5, keys can be found across gaps that only the Ladder from Level 6 will help you reach. The game is actively encouraging you to not simply go for the straight 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 level progression, but to mix it up, possibly finding places early (you can technically access the ladder as soon as you complete Level 2 after all, and it’s en route to the Power Bracelet required for Level 4), or returning to others post-completion with a better inventory. If you liked going back to Dodongo’s Cavern in Ocarina of Time as Adult Link; you can thank the Second Quest for blazing that trail first!

Specialized Enemy Scenarios

Moreso than the first quest, the Second Quest is carefully structured to hold back on Link’s inventory in aggressive ways. This first increases the challenge level to keep Link from being overpowered, but also allows for some items and enemies to be encountered in ways they haven’t before. By the time Link finally picks up the Bow in level 5, he’s already faced several Pols Voice enemies, needing many sword strikes instead of being able to kill several at once with a single arrow. In fact, in order to get the Bow in the first place, Link needs to run directly past a Gohma, only to return later to kill it.

Nearly every enemy also ends up spending time in room layouts that benefit their abilities. Wallmasters appear in rooms that force the player to hug the walls with red bubbles to render Link helpless. Ropes appear in rooms with many blocks that make them charge at close range. Stalfos now shoot sword beams. Gohma gets a offensive boost from two stone statues in the middle of the room that provide curtain fire. A special moment is even given to the Jelly-based Zols, in some rooms that share the same color pallette. Each one of these scenarios are comprised of elements that existed in the prior game, but their pairing together here provides something new. The Second Quest is even the first Zelda game to present a form of Boss Rush to the player in Level 6; where Link must defeat a Gleeok, a Manhandla, and a Gohma, in quick succession, instead of spreading their fights across the dungeon map.


You’d be surprised how many neat series moments occurred first in the 2nd quest

Enemy positioning has also been designed with the overworld changes in mind to enforce a more guided (albeit still exploration-based) experience. A Digdogger guards the 4th dungeon entrance, meaning they’ll need to complete Level 2 before proceeding (important, since it’s in Level 2 where players learn to walk through walls). Gohma guards the 6th dungeon’s triforce, meaning players will need to beat level 5 first. What’s also very telling of the quest’s attention to these changes is that unlike in the first quest, the “Hungry Goriya” that you need Food for is in fact optional in its appearances; not needed to beat the dungeon itself, but only to access the unrequired Magical Boomerang and Lion Key. This is likely because since the shop with the Blue Ring was moved in the overworld, there’s now no obvious place for the player to find Food without completely halting all forward progress to force random testing.

Evolution of Item Drops

In the main quest, killing enemies in certain rooms will drop items like keys, bombs, rupees, etc. This holds true for the Second quest as well, but to provide another tweak on the existing formula, the second quest gives actual consideration to where items appear, and in fact uses their spawn points in strategic ways. I’d mentioned some earlier examples of keys you need the ladder to reach, but we start to observe this behavior as early as the first dungeon. Heading into a room, we see the dungeon map suspended beyond our reach, requiring access from the upper door, implying that we’ll need to travel to the room above first to reach it.

This way of thinking presents itself again in level 2; although now hints at a required action as well as a needed point of entry. Players find themselves in a room where a key spawns behind a wall of blocks. Players then can go to the left-facing room, and bomb their way in to claim it. Items now are coming with requirements to meet; an item is present and players react by learning what they need to do to claim it. This occurs periodically throughout the quest. In most cases, the item drops have effectively created puzzles for themselves, adding an extra process for the player to complete; although the item drops have one last trick up their sleeve.

The coolest rupee in the game

The coolest rupee in the game

Let’s look at an item drop in Level 9; the player arrives in a room with blocks cutting off their access to the top portion, where a rupee spawns. By this point, the action required is obvious (one needs to enter from the room above to claim that rupee). But why care to even bother; I mean, it’s just a rupee… right? It just so happens that the room above you is not on the map. It also happens to be the room where you find the Silver Arrows. The item drop just clued you into the fact that the room even exists. Two rooms from now, you’ll pick up the map; see the hole in the room layout, and be able to figure out how you can get in there; all because a random rupee drop tipped you off. The second quest just took one of the most mundane actions in the game (kill all the enemies and get a rupee), and turned it into a vital hint system that ultimately aids in dungeon progression. How cool is that!?!?


The Second Quest really is a fascinating endeavor, featuring several “firsts” for the Zelda series and demonstrating the true potential of existing mechanics through ways the main game avoids, and the entire franchise has failed to retain. In the Second Quest, the overworld becomes a much more holistic experience; adding interactivity as a key component of the game’s exploration segments, and placing a value on each individual panel. Those who may be put off by the changes to the overworld may still otherwise find enjoyment in the dungeons for what new experiences they bring to the table. It may appear at first that the Second Quest is an overwhelming ordeal; a random array of mechanics and locations hastily thrown together for the sake of extending the value of a product. Instead, those that attempt to play the game for themselves may find a cohesive, calculated, and highly creative gaming experience that is as intelligent and innovative in its design today as it was thirty years ago.


  1. /standingovation


  2. Nice article, you’ve captured what makes this part of LOZ so interesting. For over twenty years now I’ve pretty much felt the first quest was just in the way. I like to have my SQ file have my name though, so I always plow through it. To make the first quest more interesting I have to come up with goals, though. Now when I play either I quest I insist on getting every key and only opening otherwise impassable locks. It’s crazy but you can even finish the second quest with 9 spare keys! Anyways, thanks for articulating what makes it so good. Hopefully it will convince others to try it, it’s definitely a much better game than quest one (though I would have to admit even the first quest is pretty much the greatest game ever made for me).

  3. What an excellent read! I’d never really thought about the Second Quest this way, but the last time I played through it was before I’d really explored my ability to process code and understand what it was. My synaesthesia combined with my knowledge of programming allows me to see algorithms floating in front of my vision as I play games, so I’ve long understood that games are games in the sense that they are a set of rules, even those not ordinarily perceived by the player, so the mindset is not a problem for me. In any case, it’s certainly interesting how the developers attempted to corral players without the use of text, which was a luxury that they could not afford at the time. Mega Man has long done much the same, though things are much more straightforward in a 2D Platformer than in an overhead Action-Adventure, and Zelda came first.

  4. I was trying to burn the bush where level 7 in the second quest is without having the candle, but I had the magic rod and book. I just kept trying to send fire into the bushes to see if i could open up level 7. After a few tries the level 7 bush burned, and i was so happy I did not have to buy a candle.

  5. It’s pretty funny that I stumbled upon this article. I recently started rehashing my love for Zelda and realized as a kid that I never actually completed the second quest. Although I remembered where quite a few things were. I’m currently working on Dungeon 9. Dungeon 7 was a bitch to find, I might add. But I wanted the experience to be genuine, and I didn’t want to rely on a walk-through, so trial and error it was. The most disturbing part about your article (not your fault, and articulated to perfection) is how this generation of gamer is somehow put-off or annoyed with the trial and error process. In my opinion, that is what makes games so enjoyable. There is a thought process involved, and somehow you have to trek your way through and gain knowledge as you go. Now days it is just so easy to google LOZ Quest 2 Level blah blah blah and you’ll get step by step instructions on how to get there, and what rooms you need to go through the dungeon to eventually reach the boss. It pretty much defeats the purpose of even playing. Too much hand holding these days in general. With that being said, great article! It made for an awesome read.


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