The Original Zelda’s Incredible Game Design

Zelda Title ScreenI’ve played every game released in the Zelda franchise with the exception of the CD-I games. I’m a huge fan of the series. I love the exploration aspects. The feeling of being a hero. The story. The depth of the world. It’s always had all the recipes of a game franchise that if you’ve played it you’re probably going to remember it for a long time. There are, of course, people that don’t particularly care for the series, but every game has those. My favorite game in the franchise has always been The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The Super Nintendo era was one of the best that we’ve ever seen in gaming and that game stands tall, at least in my mind, above everything else during that time. It was then that the franchise really took off for me.

I remember playing the original Legend of Zelda on the NES after my 10th birthday. March of 1990 was when I got my original NES and I got a copy of the game sometime around the next January. I vividly remember being allowed to stay home from my parent’s weekly bowling night and I spent the entire time playing the game. It’s also memorable in that I skipped watching the Super Bowl that night because I was playing the game and I never missed a Super Bowl. It was the first of the Buffalo Bills four consecutive Super Bowl losses, but I didn’t care. I was in Hyrule.

The original Legend of Zelda game, more than any other game in the series encourages exploration above just about everything else. Mr. Miyamoto has talked about being inspired by walks in the woods near his house. The game drops you into the world and just lets you do whatever you want. You’re the explorer. You make the decisions. Yes, there is an overall progression to the game. Yes, there are some things you can’t do before reaching a certain point. Most of the game is just left up to you to figure out. There are secrets everywhere. It rewards people who think outside of the box. You don’t even know how to get to the first dungeon in the game. You have to figure that out by exploring.

Overworld 1If you think about it, though, it does make some sense. In a book people always know where to go. They never seem to get lost. If they do it’s only to serve some specific plot purpose. It’s never because the characters just chose to do something. You, however, have never been to Hyrule before. How would you know which direction to go if you wanted to get to dungeon #1? There are some design clues to help you along the way. For example in the very first screen you have four choices that you can make. Three of them lead to adjacent areas on the map, but one is a tunnel built into the side of a cliff. That seems different. Let’s go there. Oh, look. There’s an old man with some sage advice and a way to protect yourself.

Travel around a few screens. Maybe you go up. Okay, then you’ve got two choices; left or right. Which way do I go? I don’t know. I think I’ll go left. Hey, the scenery changed. Now I can go back where I came from or off on any of the other three directions. At some point you’ll come across a lake with a bridge on it. You know the one. It’s just north of the original spawn area. Take the bridge and you’re greeted to an ominous looking door. It’s the first dungeon. The game never told me anything. I figured this one out on my own.

What if I’d chosen to go right from the beginning? Well there are some red octoroks roaming the forest. Move past them, continuing right, and you’re now in a Cliffside area with some crazy looking jumping bugs. Continue to travel right and you’re now along the ocean with some crazy spiked creatures coming out of the ground. At random times enemies will drop items such as coins, hearts or bombs. Remember that first time you dropped a bomb along a wall just to see if something would happen and a door opened up? That probably blew your mind. What that did, though, was open up a brand new world of exploration possibilities. You bombed everything you saw. It didn’t matter what it was. Later in the game you got the candle. What purpose does it serve? Well, try it out and see. That bush just burned down and revealed a secret tunnel. Is there any place in the game that doesn’t have something hidden under it? Creativity, use of the items and a general sense of curiosity led to so much interesting stuff to be found in that game.

Zelda SecretWanna know a secret? You probably already know this, but maybe you don’t. It’s possible to get the second best weapon and second best tunic in the game before ever setting foot in a dungeon. Chances are good that it won’t happen, but if you know where to look it’s entirely possible. I’ll link to a couple of videos to show you what to do. It’s surprisingly easy and it completely changes the way you play the game. The first few dungeons are almost like a cake walk if you figure this out. How would you know this was possible? The game never told you anything about this. It doesn’t even tell you there are better items like these out there. You have to figure it out on your own.

Yes, the game does guide you at times. There are people in dungeons that will give you cryptic messages. Many times those messages won’t even relate to something you’re doing at the time. They’ll give you clues about other things in the world. “East most peninsula is the secret.” There’s no peninsulas in this dungeon. Write that down, it might come in handy later.

Everything about this game encourages you to figure it out for yourself. This kind of game wouldn’t be made today. Too many people want everything fed to them. They want everything you do to matter to what you’re doing at this moment. If the Legend of Zelda had been made today it would be filled with tutorials. Every secret would be mapped out for you. You’d even have a huge, detailed map with everything already labeled on it. Not that those are a bad thing. Sometimes you need those aids.

Other times people are showing that all they want is for a game to not treat them like they’re five years old. The Souls series is a prime example of that. That series worked because the community figured things out. You could leave messages for other players to find. The game didn’t hold your hand. It forced you to learn. It forced you to figure things out on your own. The original Legend of Zelda was the same way. That’s what made a game like that so special.



By the time Nintendo got around to making another game like that on the Super Nintendo even they lost sight of what made that first game so special. A Link to the Past spelled everything out for you. If they told you that you needed to go somewhere it was marked on a map for you. You didn’t have to get their on your own. Yes, exploration was encouraged to a point, and like the original game there were things hidden in just about every nook and cranny, but many of those would go unfound. The reason was because you didn’t have to explore and get lost to figure out where you were going. You had no real reason to visit every crook and crevice in the game because it told you exactly where you needed to go.

It may sound like I’m being critical of A Link to the Past. Far from it. I love that game. As I mentioned earlier it is my favorite game in the series, but even I can recognize that it went away from many of the conventions set up in the first game on the NES.

Now we’re hearing some of the first details about the next Legend of Zelda game. It seems like the directors and the people involved remember those early games and want to get you back to those in some form. They’ve shown off huge vistas and said, if you can see it, you can get there. Will this mean that we’re going to go back to the trappings of the first game? Maybe. I’m sure there will be plenty of tutorials along the way, but at least they’re making it sound like exploration will once again be rewarded and that’s a good thing. That first game made being a curious wanderer important. It’s something I think the series lost over time, but it’s something I think they need to return to in order to make the series more special than it already is.

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