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

January 3, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


If Miyamoto's intent was truly to give the players the feelings associated with exploration, then this design is a masterful execution of that intent.

The linear layout of the critical path was very interesting to me, because when I played the level, it felt much less linear. I often re-traversed rooms I'd seen before. I tried to visit every room, and I tried to collect every item.

What I found out was that the Zelda development team was able to create the illusion of very open level design by using a few very clever tricks:

  1. As I've mentioned, the critical path is almost entirely linear. This means that it's much easier for the player to find her way through the dungeon without getting hopelessly lost.
  2. Rooms branching off of the critical path make the level feel less linear.
  3. A small bit of room re-traversal at the beginning of the level makes the level feel less linear, but because it only includes a small number of rooms the player probably won't get lost.
  4. Giving small, hidden shortcuts through the level allows the player to feel clever, and allows the designer to disguise the linearity of the level.

In short, the optional paths and shortcuts give the feeling of exploration, but the linear critical path means that as long as the player visits every room in a dungeon she should be able to find her way through.

It would seem from analyzing the flow that the level design strikes an excellent balance between giving the player the feeling of exploration and keeping them from getting too lost.

Intensity Ramping


When analyzing intensity ramping, I generally look for two things:

  1. The enemy encounters should usually ramp up in difficulty over the course of the level.
  2. No encounter should be repeated twice. This gives a greater variety, and also keeps the player constantly answering new questions as she goes through your level.

When looked at in the correct order, the enemy setups ramp up in difficulty well and never repeat (click for full size).


Once again, my initial impressions were WAY off. When I was just looking at the maps or wandering through the dungeons -- or remembering them -- the assortments of monsters and the layouts of the room seemed to be fairly arbitrary. They didn't seem to ramp up intelligently, and I was SURE encounters were repeated.

When I started analyzing the encounters, it initially looked like I was right. However, when I looked at JUST the encounters on the critical path, a pattern emerged. The monster sets and room layouts ramp up VERY clearly along the critical path.

For example, the player fights five Stalfos in Room 3, but the two blockers in the room make it much easier to avoid them. Then, later, when she fights three Stalfos in Room 4, the setup is harder, because there is only one large blocker in the center of the room, which obstructs your movement more than the enemies'.

Basically, it's clear that the design behind these encounters and their placements in the levels were intentional, subtle, and very well executed.



As I mentioned above, none of the encounters are ever repeated. The combination of level design elements (blocks) and monsters are always different.


One criticism I would lay, however, is that there might be TOO much monster variety. In the 10 rooms that contain monsters, the developers use six different types of monster and a boss. In most modern games, there would be fewer enemy types and the rooms would ramp in intensity by combining monster types together. For example, if the dungeon contained only Stalfos, Bats, and Moblins (and the boss, of course) some of the later rooms could contain all three types, and would be more difficult because of those combinations.

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?



Training is a prominent feature of most modern games. Back in The Legend of Zelda's day, though, you had to read the manual if you wanted to have any idea of how to play the game. By the time the SNES era came around, many AAA games were including training in their designs, but it seemed very rare on the NES.

Interestingly enough, the original Legend of Zelda does contain some training -- though it's much different than it is in modern games. In The Legend of Zelda, training is accomplished mainly by the "black rooms" where an NPC gives you a hint.

Not the most helpful of hints, unless you're playing the Japanese version.

In the case of the first level, for example, the hint is "eastmost peninsula has the secret," which tells you you need to get to the end of the dungeon. This is not a particularly helpful hint.

I did a little research and discovered that in the Japanese version of this game the hints were different than the American version. For example, the Japanese version of the message in Level 1 tells you that you need money to shoot arrows. This is a much more useful bit of training.


This finding surprised me more than the others. I remembered the black rooms, but I'd never considered them to be training, since they were fairly useless.

Once I found out about the translation issue, that all changed. It's clear that Miyamoto and his team were trying to guide the player, and to train them on important things they need to know.

The black room method was not very successful, which is why I think they eventually abandoned it in later games.

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