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Learning From The Masters: Level Design In The Legend Of Zelda

January 3, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

When going back to replay classic games I played as a kid to mine them for knowledge, I always fear that any games from the NES era or earlier are too old to learn much from.

I tend to assume that many elements of modern design will be missing: no training, bad difficulty ramping, haphazard level design, and so forth. Before writing this article, I was under the impression that many "good design principles" I've come to know and love were invented during the SNES era and iterated on from there.

The NES was the Wild West of game development, I thought, lawless and free.

So when I went back on Link's 25th anniversary to play the first Zelda game and maybe write an article about it, I was a bit gun-shy.

As it turns out, I was totally wrong! Instead of finding something outdated with a ton of nostalgia value, I found an excellent primer in the fundamentals of non-linear game design.

In an interview, creator Shigeru Miyamoto once said that with The Legend of Zelda, he wanted to evoke the feelings associated with exploration in the player:

"When I was a child," Miyamoto said, "I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this." – via Wikipedia

To achieve this feeling, Miyamoto and company invented a number of really clever tricks to create non-linear levels that are still useful today.

I can still hear the music in my dreams... MY DREAMS!

So What Are We Doing Here?

While going through The Legend of Zelda, I played each level and then did an in-depth analysis of the level on paper. This kind of analysis is pretty standard fare; I do it all the time on colleagues' level designs. There are a few things I'm always looking for:

  • Level Flow. How do the spaces in the level fit together? Where is the player supposed to go, and will she know how to get there?
  • Intensity Ramping. Does the intensity of the experience ramp up in a satisfying way? Do monsters get more difficult as the level goes on? Does the player get a chance to learn how the enemies work and then display her mastery later on?
  • Variety. Is there sufficient variety in the gameplay? Do enemy encounters frequently repeat themselves? Are the spaces varied in interesting ways?
  • Training. If the design requires new skills from the player, does it teach and test those skills appropriately?

In this article, I'll apply the same methodology to the first level from the original Legend of Zelda. Fortunately, this is made easier by the fact that top-down maps of the level designs are easily and readily available. I'm only going to cover the first dungeon in this article, but the principles apply to all of them.

If you'd like to check them out yourself, you can find the maps I used here: Mike's RPG Center. (By the way, Mike is awesome and gave me permission to use his maps in this article. Thanks, Mike.)

Level Flow


Based on my memories of the game, one of my assumptions going into this experiment was that the rooms in the dungeons were laid out haphazardly. I always remember getting the feeling that I was navigating my way through the rooms almost randomly, spitting in the designers' faces and getting to the end only because of my mighty gaming talents!

After analyzing the flow of the dungeons, I quickly abandoned this notion. As it turns out, the dungeon layouts are very carefully planned and the flow is very cleverly executed.

First, I analyzed the critical path. The critical path is the shortest path through a level without using secrets, shortcuts, or cheats. Basically, it's the path the designer intends the player to take through the level unless she gets really clever.

It's worth noting that the critical path often doesn't require a player to complete 100 percent of a level; it just requires her to complete the mandatory objectives within the level.

For each of the dungeons, the critical path is almost always linear. There are very few instances where the player is required to re-traverse ground she's already seen. The only exception to the linearity rule tends to be two or three rooms at the beginning of the dungeons that allow you to choose between a small subset of rooms.

The player begins in Room 1 and can choose to go to Room 2 or Room 3. Rooms off the critical path are faded (click for full size).

Optional rooms (and sometimes entire paths) branch off from the critical path and reward the player with bonuses. The levels are also full of shortcuts that cut across the critical path. If the player has bombs, for example, she can skip from Room 5 to Room 8 in the above diagram.

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Cary Chichester
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Great analysis! I didn't even know that Zelda was subtly guiding the player decades ago. You said that A Link to the Past fixed the design decision of not putting the silver arrow on the critical path, but I believe you're able to fight Ganon without it in that game as well, even though it's required to beat him. I think there were some hints that pointed you in the right direction, but I still needed a guide to find the location since I'm very impatient when playing older games.

Mike Stout
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Oh yeah, that's a good point. I was thinking of the bow and regular arrows that you get in the first dungeon of the game -- I think they make you grab those to get through.

Certainly by the time Ocarina of Time came along, they made sure all the required items are on the critical path, though.

I think... maybe...

Daniel Khim
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I'm no designer (I do audio), but my perspective on the silver arrows is this:

1) When you face Ganon without the silver arrows, you reach a point where parts of the floor drop away with the intent for you to fall down, upon which there is a Sahasrahla stone that tells you the necessity/existence of the silver arrows.

2) When you first reach the Dark World, as you descend the stairs there is a fairly obvious cracked wall that regular bombs will not open. This also happens to be in the same area where you have the final battle with Ganon, and when you exit from the above hole in the temple, you are placed right next to this wall, reminding you of its existence.

3) The super bomb required to open this wall is found in the Dark World equivalent of Link's home. Now this is just a guess, but I'm thinking the designer assumed the player would want to scope out the Dark World version and see how different it is, from whence the player discovers the bomb shop and is informed of a super bomb that will be available later (information that the player doesn't quite yet know is crucial, but hopefully will remember).

(It just occurred to me that both the beginning and the end of the game take place in the same manner and locations in the Light/Dark Worlds - you go from Link's house to the central castle/temple on the map - I think my mind was just!)

I think this is where the designer decided to leave out some hand-holding, and the player is left to discover all this on their own - the designer has to hope that the player sees a crack that regular bombs won't open, and that the player remembers there is a super bomb that is supposed to be available.

Again, I'm not a level designer here or anything, but that is my take on it.

On a different note, I'd love to see more articles like this on classic games. It's a lot of fun to read, even as a sound guy!

Alan Devins
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This is exactly how I played link to the past back when it came out. You see a big crack on a different wall face so you investigate. When you then get the super bomb you get that excited, "Oh I know where I can use this!!"

I remember feeling so frustrated with Navi (and her equivilant in later games) that I'm being told to "look at this" and given hints I didn't ask for. Too much hand holding removes the sense that you are solving the puzzles.

Michael Gribbin
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Thanks for writing this article! I love the study of the NES classics. I've read several on SMB or SMB3, but very few have been written about the designs of the first Legend of Zelda. If you ever go deeper into this, please share it with the design community. I think an article on dungeon placement in the overworld would be very interesting. I always felt as though I was wandering randomly -- but in light of this article, I suspect that was not the case.

I also think this game encouraged friends to trade secrets even more than those of SMB and the whistles of SMB3. The upgraded swords, the faerie pond, the burnable trees, the bomb walls, the damn lost woods.... you really needed to collaborate with some friends (preferably one with a strategy guide) to get the full experience.

Thanks for the nostalgia :)

Mike G

Mike Stout
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Thanks, Mike. Glad to hear you liked it. I've been thinking of doing some more level analyses on my blog, though I haven't gotten into them yet. Doing the overworld is a great idea, though. I also remember it feeling random, and I'd love to see them prove me wrong again.

Brandon Battersby
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Nice post. Linear design was one of the biggest pit falls of Rage in my opinion. I felt so restricted in the levels and the paths got repetitive. I went one direction through each level and then looped around back to the beginning. There wasn't even a chance to get lost or feel like one was in a non-linear game. ID should take some notes :-P

Mike Stout
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I didn't play Rage, but I've heard that from lots of people, yeah.

The really fascinating part to me with the Zelda stuff was that they didn't even really have to make the levels non-linear... they just had to make them FEEL non-linear. The game seems to really be linear with shortcuts and surprises, which gives you the best of both worlds. You don't get lost and overwhelmed as much and you get to get that feeling of exploration Miyamoto wanted.

Steven An
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What are some games that you would consider to be fully non-linear?

Mike Stout
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@Steven An

Minecraft, maybe? You're dropped in a world and left to set your own objectives and do whatever you want wherever you want.

The Elder Scrolls games also seem to me to be mostly non-linear. The quest lines and dungeons are mainly linear, but they go out of their way to let you take your own approach to the game, getting between points in a quest in whatever way you choose and choosing what order to complete the quests.

The interesting thing with the elder scrolls is that they leverage their quests to highlight their non-linear gameplay. I did a little analysis on the main quest lines one time. It's up at my blog, if you're interested:

Kenneth Blaney
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An interesting fact I always liked about the original LoZ is that all of the underground dungeons interlock. Back in the day before the internet and readily available maps, this single fact could help you figure out where levels might be located based only on their rough shapes (which were given in the manual). This was a vital skill in the Second Quest that changes the shape of the dungeons and the location of each except the first. That is, when starting the second quest, they want you to have realized that dungeons interlock from the first quest AND that the dungeons have changed shape by making level-1 easy to find.

I would actually compare this to, of all things, Grand Theft Auto 4. Both are, in modern terms, sandbox titles. However, due to the taxi system and maps clearly denoting where to go, I managed to get through GTA4 without ever actually exploring the city. In LoZ, I could play with my friends simply exploring the overworld and getting excited whenever we found one of those temple fronts, committing the path to get there to our tiny brains where things like history lessons should have been (ask me where Death Mountain is in LoZ, I can tell you how to get there... year of the American Civil War? Umm... some time in the 1800's?) Finding new equipment in dungeons thus became a means of transversing the overworld and exploring further. Although this happens a bit in the GTA series (finish missions to unlock new islands), there is one aspect of the game that fits this "explore and see the sights" mentality of LoZ exactly: the pigeons. These little birds were everywhere and there were few clues as to where they'd be. Finding all 200 would be impossible for a single player to do, however, and so people formed online communities to find them all and share locations... the same way I and all my friends would share tips, tricks and rumors about things we found in LoZ. (Hey, did you know that you can get through the forest if you keep going left, up, and down like this?)

Finally, an important thing about these old games is the manual. That is, the manual in Zelda told you how to get to the first level, it told you the basics of what you needed to know to clear it, and then gave you a small sub map of the overworld guiding you to level 2. However, in order to actually GET to level 2 you needed to briefly go off the edge of the given map inviting the player to see that the world was much bigger than simply this "known world" encouraging exploration. Also included in the box was a larger fold out map that showed the location of a few later levels, but massive blank sections for the more dangerous "higher level" areas. What does this all boil down to? In a game about exploration, the manual was used to provide challenges and exploration goals.

Michael Joseph
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"Also included in the box was a larger fold out map that showed the location of a few later levels, but massive blank sections for the more dangerous "higher level" areas."

I agree. This should not have been left out. Instead the article focusses on the dungeons. If Zelda's dungeon levels simply came one after the other without the outside world connecting them and the need for the player to explore that outside world, the open world feeling would disappear and the game would feel very linear indeed.

Critical to the open world feeling was the fact the levels were scattered about in.... the open world.

raigan burns
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@Kenneth Blaney: what?! I didn't know this about the dungeon screens tiling/covering like that. I can't find an image of this online, do you have any links you could share? That's really amazing/cool.

Robert Boyd
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EDIT: Not sure why the link is getting messed up but combine that into one line and remove the spaces and it should work. Talks about the Zelda dungeons interlocking and some other old NES games.

Kenneth Blaney
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Wait... turns out I was wrong and I was actually half remembering the awesomeness of these two.

This was probably done originally so that they could reuse all of the resources/code associated with map scrolling for both the overworld map and the underworld maps. So in code terms, entering a dungeon teleports you to the right x/y and flips a switch from "overworld" to "underworld". A hypothetical walk through walls game genie code could confirm this.

I don't know if there is much overlap if you matched up the overworld with the underworld, although it definitely isn't a neat covering as some of the levels would fall off the side of the overworld map. That said, I stand by what I said regarding using the relative size/shape of the levels to find the entrances to other levels if only because it gives you a rough clue about where to explore using all sorts of tricks you may have picked up... even if it isn't as elegant as I originally thought.

Bryson Whiteman
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The dungeon maps for Link to the Past are also seemingly constructed in a similar way. This glitch alludes to the fact that you can walk between dungeons if you can get through the collision barriers

raigan burns
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Awesome, thanks for the links!

Nicholas Muise
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I really liked this, thanks Mike.

Steven An
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I love stuff like this! How about more classic analysis...maybe DOOM? Though I suppose DOOM owes a lot of its design to earlier games...or does it? System Shock would be awesome as well.

Justin Leeper
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Am I the only one who noticed that this article, by a man I assume (Mike Stout), refers to the player with feminine pronouns? Just find it interesting.

Joel S
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I noticed too. I take it as a positive sign of maturing culture around video games.

Amir Barak
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Wait, are you saying that all prostitutes are BLACK; geez what a racist...

John Flush
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Well, except this line:

"This means that the player could potentially have to run around the level for a while if he uses the key from Room 3 in Room 2."

Honestly, I would prefer it if we would write gender neutral, like "the player" more than he/she. The true maturity would be to do this instead. Then the reader can decide.

CE Sullivan
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As a female, I prefer to see gender neutral writing as well. Honestly, just replacing "he" with "she" seems forced. Although it was emphasized as being incorrect when I was in high school, we were told that it is now considered okay to use "they" as a gender neutral singular pronoun when I took a college course in writing for the web a couple of years ago.

Problem is, grammar rules change so quickly now it can be confusing. I'm sure the writer was taught never to use "they" as a singular pronoun, like I was in high school but not in college. I was also taught not to use serial commas in high school, but I guess they were back in fashion by the time I took that class a couple of years ago (at least with that instructor).

Paul Boyle
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Cool article, and good to see an a name from the past cropping up.

I wonder how much of LoZ's seeming mastery of basic level design principles comes down to the fact that in that era, the core design of a level is so blatantly obvious to the player and designer. A lot of times, nowadays, I look at flash games on kongregate and thing "Wow, they really did a great job with mechanic X" (like the Shift games, for instance). However, what it really comes down to is that when your toolbox is smaller, and you're not trying make your shooter level occur in Manchester Cathedral, building a clear level design is much, much easier.

For example, when you look at the dungeons above - there's no effort at creating verisimilitude. No need to worry about where the player is looking and guide his attention - the camera literally sees every pixel of the area. There's no story telling in the dungeon, other than 'get the stuff, kill the boss'. And guess and check 'searching' rather than breadcrumbing for secrets is ok, there's just not that much real estate.

David Holmin
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Yeah. It's before game developers decided to make half-movies instead of games. Also note that despite the lacking verisimilitude, the game has tons of atmosphere and great potential for immersion.

Mike Stout
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What's up, Paul. It's been a while, huh.

Man, that Manchester Cathedral thing. On the plus side, it made Sony a lot of money. On the other plus side, I finally realized my goal of making a major world religion mad at me, so at least there's that.

Michael How
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Hands in the air if you tried to blag your way through a zelda 2 dungeon by using a key from another dungeon.... it never worked out too well.

Brett Stolz
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Mike, taking your position about NES game design and how you were impressed by Link, I was curious on your take of the game "Startropics"?

Mike Stout
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Man, I remember that game. I loved it when I was a kid. I pulled it down on Virtual Console a little while back, though, and it had me tearing my hair out. I guess I just had more patience back in the day.

Brad Venable
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Wonderful article. I see this opening the door for a series of classic games that were groundbreaking in its level design. Very well done.

One minor correction: Moblins were never in dungeons, those are Goriyas.

Thanks again. Great read!

Mike Stout
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Derp. Good point. They're totally Goriyas.

Wylie Garvin
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"I always fear that any games from the NES era or earlier are too old to learn much from."

The most obvious counter-example is Super Mario 3, a game that all designers should probably study. But it came near the end of the NES era, and I'm sure there were other earlier games worth studying too.

@Michael How:

"Hands in the air if you tried to blag your way through a zelda 2 dungeon by using a key from another dungeon..."

In Zelda 1, a nice thing was that if you missed a key somewhere in a dungeon, you could just buy one from a shop. You could buy a spare one early in the game and do some parts of the dungeons out-of-order if you wanted to, but I don't think there was any compelling reason to do that, since I always wanted to fully explore them anyway.

Michael How
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Yes I was getting a bit frustrated at one point and remember having the "I wonder" hat on. I figured at the time it would break the game and in some ways, I was happy that it did! I restarted and played more meticulously.

I do recall that from Zelda one, as I had played 2 first,(Sacrilegious) I was aghast the keys were up for sale.

John Flush
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and all I ever remember is once I knew there was a magic key in Zelda 1 I would always just skip up to that level and get it. Blue Darknuts take take a skilled link with 5 hearts right?

I was actually really thrilled in the fact that even the overworld had progressing level structure to it really... I would love to see analysis there too.

tony oakden
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great article. I too wish there was more analysis of earlier games about. But I want to point out that whilst Zelda is an early game it's by no means early when viewed with respect to other adventure games. appeared in 1977 and by the early 80s there was already a plethora of text adventure games which demonstrate many of the linear/open world constructs which Zelda uses. Zelda is a great game but I think you underestimate the amount of similar games around which Miyamoto was able to draw on for inspiration. What Zelda does supremely well I think is combine the sense of exploration and discovery which had been done for several years in text adventures with arcade elements in a way which was accessible to less hardcore gamers.

Matt Ekins
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Absolutely! Colossal Adventure on the BBC Micro was my first adventure game, 1981 I think. You had to sketch out your own tiled room map as you went along from the text descriptions :)

Wyatt Epp
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At some level, I'm inclined to say Robinett's Adventure on the VCS is more important to the canon of Zelda games. Consider the progression of that game and its layout against the analysis here (and the comments). I think it was pointed out in Racing the Beam that text adventures and their visual counterparts are pretty fundamentally different from a design standpoint.

Josh Foreman
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Great article. I really enjoyed it. I'm working on an homage remake of this game with my own art. I'm going to be photographing sculptures of the monsters for the sprites and building miniature sets for the background. I've got some pictures of a few of the creatures here if you're interested:

Nicklas Holmgren
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the link you posted doesn't contain anything remotely alike Zelda. I am disappointed. I'm a long time Zelda fan and I was expecting something atleast similar to Zelda, but all I could find was a bunch of monkeys.

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Not bad... I would show you my DA acc but its NSFW.

Chris Maury
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I would love to see this analysis done on the Water temple in Ocarina of Time. It's definitely deserving.

Great job.

Dan McCollum
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Nice analysis. :)

One thing I always found interesting about the Zelda games, which carries over into the modern era, is that the player always begins with 3 hearts. One consequence of this is that it causes a very precarious balance in the beginning of the game, since the player can easily die from mundane dangers that I think modern designers would be more eager to shield players from (such as holding a bomb over your head until it explodes). A game like Super Mario 64 accomplishes this by giving the player a very generous and constant amount of health and sprinkling the initial levels with plenty of coins to let the player heal (and thus also giving them something to take away to make the levels more difficult).

On the other hand, when the player has more hearts, taking small damage like that becomes almost inconsequential in later Zelda games. I think this Zelda game gets massive credit for employing the "energy sword" mechanic which only works when the user is at full health - a task which becomes harder as the game goes on, demonstrating its utility.

Gregg Tavares
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> In most modern games, there would be fewer enemy types

In most modern games there is 1 enemy type. That enemy is skinned with different graphics and its stats are adjusted (faster, does more damage, has more hit points) but otherwise it's the same enemy, the same AI, the same techniques needed to deal with it

In Zelda nearly every enemy is unique.

Jan Kubiczek
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maybe due to the fact that what youre talking about is simulations of humans. ;-)

Mike Stout
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Yeah, I see that a lot, too. I'm actually working on an article about that, since it's the problem I see most often when I work with other studios.

In Skylanders, we had that problem early on (kind of). The enemies all looked different, but were basically the same guy in terms of techniques to deal with it. They were all different, but not "asking different questions."

We fixed it eventually by considering the enemies to have 4 roles: Near, Far, Heavy, and Swarmer. We found that each role asked a different question, and combining them together made the questions unique and interesting.

Axel Cholewa
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This is pretty much the reason why I keep playing Skyward Sword even though I like neither graphics style nor story nor the motion controls: playing the levels just feels great because they are masterfully designed, especially when you consider how items acquired earlier are incorporated!

Kris Steele
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I very much dislike Skyward Sword because to me the levels feel completely linear, any sense of exploration that was present in the old games is gone.

Chris Sanyk
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"The game does this kind of mixing much more often in later levels, so it's hard to understand why the team wouldn't do it here. Perhaps technical constraints?"

I think the reason is certainly not technical -- clearly they had the technical capability if they chose to mix enemy types in dungeon levels later in the game.

Why didn't they mix enemy types earlier in the game? Precisely because it was early in the game! Mixing enemy types makes a room harder, and the Level 1 Dungeon is intended to be a very easy dungeon. Only very gradually do they begin mixing enemy types, as the player gets further into the game.

Robert Crouch
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It's always useful to look back at these old classics for inspiration.

The beauty of games from this era is that they are all novel. Not everything they do is right, but so much of what they do was innovative.

The current crop of games have taken existing concepts and iterated on them. But they are mostly derivative. You have classes of games; the FPS, the platformer, the RPG, the MMO. They all have certain do's and don'ts. But some features are set in stone as defining the genre.

When these games were made, the genres didn't exist. Zelda was if anything a derivative of space invaders or galaga on 2 axes, at least in terms of mechanics, and in it's own sequel it abandoned that form for a more standard platformer/RPG hybrid. But the original defined it's own genre.

Now games are mostly repackaging of concepts already well understood. Maybe an innovative game was a FPS with RPG elements. Maybe it was an RPG with puzzle minigames. Maybe it was a 3rd person shooter with platformer elements.

But there was a time when full motion first person games didn't exist, and when they sort of arrived in the mid 90s, they all came to market with very different takes on what exactly defined an FPS. Wolfenstein 3d/Quake/Hexen, TES: Arena/Daggerfall, Might and Magic 6, numerous space sims, and I'm sure others that were influential and unique that I've missed all took very different stances to the format. But the genre was still being defined.

Playing Arena now is pretty funny because of all the things you take for granted in an FPS as just being "the right way to do things". The control scheme for instance. In Arena, you can't remap keys. Your mouse will turn your character in first person view with the left mouse button at a fixed rate, there was no mouselook. The arrow keys were what you used to move the player, and key combinations like Shift-J was jump and C was cast, U was use made for very awkward hand stretching, especially considering you had to move the mouse across the screen to swing your weapon. These seem really stupid today, but there wasn't a right way defined to do it. Because of that, there were some novel features in the game. Things like the mouse slice to swing was a pretty unique feature which persisted until morrowind, but then was removed from the franchise (probably due to a move to controller based play). But that sort of device was reintroduced into similar games with the Wii-mote and Kinect in other games.

If you were to look back to a game like Arena (or Zelda) you can see pure concepts that were tried when there was little basis for derivation. They took big risks, and some of their ideas were bad. Some of them were good and stuck, and some of them maybe were good, but didn't fit in the landscape very well at the time.

Zelda does a lot of what it does due to technical limitations of the NES. In LTTP, (and even the Adventure of Link) they have the ability to break out of the screen-by-screen display and into a seamless world. In 1991, that was pretty awesome, but there are still things to be learned even from technical limitations. Binding of Isaac brought the format back, and did quite well for itself. I wonder if at the time there was any discussion about whether the screen-by-screen view of Legend of Zelda actually added to the game, or if it was just a technical reality of the limited memory of the NES that should be worked around as soon as possible.

It's easier to look at games objectively when they are so technically behind us. They were fun, and many are still fun, and you can see what we kept, and what we left behind. But their relative simplicity really bares the root of it all.

Kyle Jansen
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Your talk about how early games had to experiment to figure out the "right" way to do things reminded me of an interesting example:

Bungie's early shooter "Pathways into Darkness"

The interesting thing is the HUD, or rather, lack of it. UI elements were not overlayed over the 3d environment, but were split out into separate windows. So you had the 3D view window, the inventory window, the dialogue window, etc.

It wasn't a particularly effective solution, but as it was one of the first shooters to run in a windows environment (Mac OS, opposed to the DOS used by most other early FPS games), there were no conventions to fall back on. And I imagine technical limits may have played a role as well.

I think there are some early games that actually did things better than we do them now. The Lufia games (or at least the ones I played), for instance, used a sort of radial menu instead of the common text menu most RPGs then and now use. I always thought that was a good idea that never seemed to take off, for some reason.

Roger Hanna
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Interestingly enough, all the level you showed have shorter critical paths with the use of additional bombs.

Level 1: 5 -> 8
Level 4: 10 -> E -> 14
Level 9: 5 -> E -> E -> N -> W -> stairs -> W -> 13

Mike Stout
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Oh yeah, you can totally shorten up your path to the end with bombs. I didn't do that mainly because I felt that in those cases using the bomb was optional, and I was attempting to avoid the optional paths.

It would be really interesting, though, to see if those shorter paths also have a smooth difficulty ramp like the longer critical paths. I'll have to check that out sometime.

Maxime Binette
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I really miss the time when I enjoyed Zelda games. It still has tons of incredible creative designs, but the level of freedom is dropping. I gave up on the franchise when I first transformed into a wolf in Twillight Princess. That was such a linear experience it broke my heart.

Zelda 4 swords was also an incredibly fun game, but I was a little sad that it was made into arcade game instead of exploration. Although in the original Zelda the world map had a more cruel critical path than the dungeons, to me it always been the best and most important part of any Zelda game.

Tony Dormanesh
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Cool article... I think it's kinda funny that you seem to remember the level design feeling haphazard.

Essentially doubting the level design of one of the greatest games ever made. Hahaha...

But your article proved the point, they were masters back then.

Michael Williams
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Enjoyable article on dungeon design, but I was hoping to see some discussion of the overworld, since that's where most of the "real" non-linear exploration happens. (Topic for another article?) Still, it's something that I enjoyed reading, as the subject matter is important to me. You see, my friends and I are in the process of putting together an indie game that pays tribute to Zelda, and we study it intently; we're constantly finding ourselves impressed by how well the classic games were put together. It can certainly serve as a valuable lesson for contemporary designers.

Leonardo Nanfara
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Great analysis of a classic game...time to bust out the nes, sweep off the dust and play it again :]

Mike Engle
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The article feels a bit awkward or starry-eyed.

If I took Skyrim and drew a line through its critical path, you'd find it was just as simple -- and yet in both cases sketching out the linear critical path has almost no relevance to how either game is actually experienced. Very few non-linear games like Zelda or Skyrim can't have a line drawn through their critical path (the niche gamers who do speed runs of games basically spend all their time maximizing for that line.)

The article isn't devoid of interesting analysis, of course. It's great to understand the proportions of non-critical to critical paths. It's even fair to point out that Zelda's design technique at the time was far ahead of the curve compared with its contemporaries. I'm just suggesting we shouldn't go overboard with the praise...

Mike Stout
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Hi Mike,

I can definitely see your point about this being applicable to many types of non-linear or pseudo-linear games, but that can also be pretty useful -- especially if you're trying to understand how games like Skyrim acchieve the effect of feeling non-linear without feeling chaotic.

A few years back, I did a similar analysis of Oblivion and found similar results (the game's critical path masterfully guides the player and teaches them how to make the most of the game's openness).

I guess all I'm saying is that when you're making a sandbox or pseudo-linear game, there are some fundamentals from linear game design that will come in very handy. I've seen a lot of games try for the non-linear thing and miss the mark (and get cancelled or panned) because they didn't fully understand the principles that these types of games seem to be built on. The great games in these categories seem to understand this (GTA 3, Elder Scrolls, etc) and use it, and I think that may be why you can apply these principles just as easily to them.

~ Mike

Christopher Totten
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Great article! In all the writing I've done about level design, the Zelda series is one that I keep going back to as examples of great design and great teaching in level layouts. You've done some really great focused stuff here :-)

Mike Reddy
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I think the link (sic) you're looking for is in another castle:
Just completed Zelda on the 3DS. It still holds up to the passage of time :-)

Mike Reddy
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I know to my cost that the Silver Arrow is not on the critical path. My first play of Zelda, long long ago, had me get to Ganon, die after trying to beat him with regular arrows after playing hunt the thimble (swing sword wildly while wandering the room). A modern game would allow you the remote possibility to win this way if you were VERY skilled, as the normal arrows would still do some damage; just nowhere near as much. It took me a long time to retrace my steps through the final dungeon to get the Silver Arrow. Many many years after the game was released; the save game on the cartridge was just before the Ganon encounter, but was corrupted/lost by the time I revisited it. Hence, replaying recently on the 3DS; guess what, I STILL forgot to get it…