This year is the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, and as a game designer, what better way to celebrate than with a short study on how a Zelda game is made. There are many factors that make a Zelda game great, but I’m going to try and focus only on the dungeons, which represent in my opinion the very core of the level design. The goal of this study is to understand the structure of a Zelda dungeon as a source of inspiration for designing levels.
What is the core gameplay of a Zelda game?
Before understanding what a Zelda dungeon is made of, we must first understand the core gameplay of a Zelda game. Most people will agree that a modern Zelda game is a third person action adventure game. And they are right. But this does not satisfy me in regard of describing the core gameplay of a Zelda game. Allow me to make an hypothesis and describe a Zelda game as the following: A blocked path to Princess Zelda; the player needs to use his combat and puzzle solving skills in order to unblock this path. In this case, Princess Zelda is the goal, but it and can also be the Trifoce or something else depending on the game. At any point in the game, the path to this goal is blocked by one way or another and the player needs to find the “key” to proceed.
Keys and Doors
The main mechanic of a Zelda dungeon is something that I call “Keys and Doors”. It’s simple; a door is blocking the player’s progress and he needs to find a key to open it. This often forces the player to take alternative paths in order to find the key. A good example that shows that mechanic is the very first dungeon of the original Legend of Zelda game as show in the next picture. As we can see, the players needs to explore alternative rooms in order to find keys and proceed to the locked rooms.
The many shapes of a key
The “Keys and Doors” mechanic is very common in games, but what makes a Zelda game unique is the many shapes that can take the key. In fact, the” key” is nothing more than an analogy. A “key” can be a simple small key, but it can also be a newly acquired item. For example, as shown in the next pictures, at the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the player cannot go through the forest of Outset Island because the path is blocked with trees. Only after training with the old sword master, the player can get the sword and use it to clear the path. In this case, the trees are the “locked door” and the sword is the “key”. Items like the hookshot, the boomerang and the candle will all become the “key” at some point in the game.
Items are not the only “keys”; sometime the key has another shape or no shape at all. The “key” can be:
- A puzzle to solve on the spot (moving crates and pressing switches)
- A room that need to be cleared of enemies (defeat all the skeletons to open the door)
- A room that requires agility skills (jump from platform to platform to reach the next room)
Those are all “keys” in a way. Once we understand the “Keys and Doors” mechanic, we can better understand how to make a dungeon.
What do you need to make a Zelda dungeon?
The following is a recipe that includes the basic ingredients I found to make a Zelda dungeon.
The entrance is the room that connects the dungeon with the overworld (world map). Usually, the player had to also deal with the “Keys and Doors” mechanic in the overworld in order to gain access the entrance of the dungeon.
The spider body
After passing through the entrance, the player usually ends up in a central area that I would like to call the “spider body”. This area connects the multiple main paths of the dungeon and can even be connected to the locked boss room.
The spider legs
In the spider body, the player can take on multiple paths that I call “spider legs”; some of those paths are locked and some are not. If the player does not have the necessary “key” to open a path, he will need to explore the paths that are unlocked in order to find it. Remember, a “key” in a Zelda game can have many shapes.
A room with a key
A spider leg path consists of a series of room. Some room holds a “key” that enable the player to proceed in the dungeon. The last room of a spider leg is often a room with a “key” that enable the player to explore a new spider leg.
A new item
A dungeon usually holds a new item, which is basically a new “key”. The player needs to figure out how to use it in order to unlock new paths.
The spider head
The boss room or the “spider head” is the location of the dungeon’s boss. Often this boss needs to be defeated with the newly acquired item (weapon) found in the dungeon. Defeating the boss usually clears the dungeon. I noticed in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess that mid-level bosses are introduced in the middle of a dungeon to probably give a better pacing to the gameplay.
This concludes my depiction of a Zelda Dungeon. I hope that my little personal study helped you better understand the level design in a Zelda game and that it can inspire you for your own game projects.
I love your comparison of a Dungeon to a Spider! I know that as far as I live, I’ll never be able to shake this fitting imagery … not that I would want to!
Awesome first entry Salim! I can’t wait to read your future posts!
I like the spider comparison. The best Zelda dungeons feel like this IMO, like the Forest Temple and Water Temple from Ocarina of Time. They both have a central room that all the “legs” grow off of.
As an aside, yes, I said the Water Temple is a good dungeon. The problem with the Water Temple in OoT is not that it’s badly designed; it’s very well designed. The problem is that the gameplay demands of swapping the Iron Boots on and off constantly were incredibly annoying because you had to go to the equipment subscreen since they weren’t technically an “item” that you could assign to a hot button. They changed this in the 3DS remake, and it makes a huge difference to how enjoyable that dungeon is to play through.
But I digress. I would also argue that the best Zelda dungeons also have some kind of central “gimmick” or hook to the design of the place. For example, the Forest Temple has you chasing down the four Poe sisters to relight the torches in the central room. The Water Temple has you changing the water level in the central room to access different areas of the dungeon. Majora’s Mask makes incredible use of this for its limited number of dungeons. The Snowpeak Ruins has you knocking pieces out of the central pillar in order to access different areas (plus this is the “body” of the spider), the Great Bay Temple has the giant turbine in the central room that changes the water flow to block or open certain tunnels (again, spider design), and the Stone Tower Temple flips the entire thing upside down! MM is seriously underrated IMO and has some of the best dungeon design in the entire series.
I think the best dungeons all have something like this. The ones that I feel are weakest in the series seem to lack both of these features (I’m reminded of the twilight realm dungeon towards the end of Twilight Princess, blech). My theory on this is that a central mechanical or thematic hook is something that serves to make the dungeon memorable. And the spider design works well because the problem with Zelda dungeons is that they’re inherently linear, but you want the player to feel as if they’re exploring in a non-linear fashion. The basic spider design serves to mask the linearity because of the multiple branching paths.
The Twilight Realm dungeon is exactly what you describe as a good dungeon though. There is a central hub and you advance through it by completing each of the legs of the dungeon, which had a theme of “reclaiming light” from each of those legs. The puzzle required to get the light orbs back wasn’t overly hard but still created a sense of urgency. The boss fight there was really fun too, as it incorporated similar concepts to older boss fights without actually making you redo those fights as so many other games have done (A Link to the Past, many Megaman games, etc.).
The problem people had with the Water Temple (OoT) was that while having those great design elements, their implementation was sub-par. For example, yes, the water level changing mechanic was there, but if the water was at mid-level and you needed it lowered, you had to first raise it to the max before you could lower it again to the lowest. This added unnecessary tedium and back-tracking. And if you didn’t know this fact, it made the dungeon very cryptic.
I personally never liked the Forest Temple (OoT) because of another form of tedium that kinda spits in the face of your “different radial spokes coming off of a central room” mechanic: You didn’t do the directions in any particular order, and when you started on one, you’d end up on another through some long passage that connects them, so you didn’t just “finish a spoke and move on to the next”. As a result, finding where your next key you needed was located was a huge, back-tracking ordeal. That dungeon always took me longer than the others just because I had to find a key I was missing.
These are some cool insights. I like your spider model! I think the dungeons that work best are generally the ones that force you to visit each legs in a certain order, with a key at the end of each leg like you said, because otherwise you can end up with a lot of backtracking. I also like that you mention the key isn’t always literally a key. I already think of items like the hookshot as a key, like a lot of Zelda players, but you’re right that even those challenging platforming sections are keys in a sense, too. Very interesting post.
This makes me want to collaborate with some boffer players and try to create a live action zelda styled boffer game.
Adam! I am here right now for that very purpose! I am trying to make a live-action outdoor link puzzle!