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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 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 Instead of finding something outdated with a ton of nostalgia value, I found an excellent primer in the fundamentals of non-linear game design.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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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