Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

May 1, 2016

Zelda 1

by Will Ross

Even for detractors of the series, there’s no reasonable argument I know of against the conventional wisdom that The Legend of Zelda is a totem of game design. The Zelda games, as a whole, are a prominent benchmark for adhering to strict but creative principles of design within a unique framework. Nothing else seems to offer an equivalent gameplay experience (short of the near-plagiarism of e.g. Star Fox Adventures), and this inimitability has been a major contributor to the franchise’s critical and popular durability. Almost every entry offers a reinvention or distinctive twist of the formula. Since the new millennium, they also introduce new story elements within a labyrinth of lore and timelines that purposely obscures the relationships between games. The totality of these merits is what makes Zelda a mainstay in arguments for gaming’s greatest series. But in discussing those merits of the series as a whole, it’s easy to miss the trees for the forest. Each Zelda game is, first and foremost, crafted as a stand-alone object that arcs in story, difficulty, and item accumulation, and as a necessary penalty for both the risks of innovation and the stagnancy of holding patterns, many games in the series have significant flaws that keep them from being the holistic experience they are so often shorthanded as being. What exactly is this holistic experience? I’d broadly argue that it involves a seamless flow between each game’s primary elements: combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Since Ocarina of Time, many games have also made the narrative/thematic element equally prominent, an addition that both elevates the potential of each iteration, and provides another variable that risks failure. Nonetheless, the former three are universal within the series, and its success or failure is often centered on how successfully they interlock. Together, they provide a deep and entertaining system of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts, a sort of “triple force” requiring power, courage, and wisdom. Ha, ha. As an example of how the Zelda games encourage this flow, consider their items. For instance: the recurring “hammer” item can be used to destroy certain obstacles (e.g. large rocks) and open up new rooms or even regions to traverse; it can be used to dislodge, depress, or otherwise alter the state of objects associated with a puzzle; it can be used in battle (often with unique functions, such as flipping over enemies with a shell). Not every item in even the series’s best entries features such broad application, but given that most of them are only a quick pause-screen selection away, and that using them with the push of a button is so fluidly incorporated with the isometric or 3D environments, it’s easy to see how the series has had a strong foundation to build on from its very first entry. As is natural for works of great breadth and ambition, it also has a lot of room to cock up, since it’s very easy for one of those three pillars to come tumbling down and destabilize the whole structure, screwing up the flow and pace of the game. Given that, it’s both remarkable how well the original Zelda game succeeds, and understandable how profoundly it fails. The Legend of Zelda is clearly the foundation for most of the series’s defining conventions, and is therefore also a good opportunity to define those basic traits and develop a critical understanding of them. Zelda 1 was produced parallel to and released within five months of the even more revolutionary Super Mario Bros., and it takes the momentum of that game’s design, makes the Y-axis as quickly navigable as the X, and more or less throws you to the wolves: other than the cave that is visible on the first screen — which, when entered, offers the player their sword and a warning of danger ahead — each bit of progress in the game requires copious exploration and experimentation within a world that is almost totally open from the start. Unlike the “side-scrolling” Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario Bros., the overworld of Hyrule is divided up into screens shown with a fixed camera. When the player’s character (custom-named at the start of every game, but generically referred to as “Link”) moves across the edge of the game’s displayed area, all movement briefly pauses while the isometric camera whisks over to show the new environs Link is entering, thus displaying a new “screen”. Each screen’s enemies are mutually exclusive, and therefore they cannot pursue Link when he moves from one screen to another. Rather than breaking the continuity of movement in Hyrule, this becomes a useful way to make the game world more comprehensible, as the player can categorize areas and measure distances by using screens as compartmentalized units. Displaying action through a series of interconnected screens was a well-established form for adventure games, but here the quick camera moves between them contributes further to the sense that the player is moving through a continuous world. Each screen has features of combat, puzzle-solving, or exploration, and in Zelda 1 those features were unprecedented in the collective strengths they brought to the table, but came with varying degrees of oversights, issues, and imbalances.
The full overworld map of Hyrule.

The combat in The Legend of Zelda is probably its least innovative feature and its least compromised success. Most combat involves maneuvering Link around an enemy monster and pressing “A” to have him instantly thrust with his sword. The central challenge of combat (here and in future isometric Zelda titles) is in positioning — the player must rapidly move Link around the screen to avoid enemy attacks while also looking for openings to counterattack. The game uses a number of tactics to complicate this formula, such as different combinations and positions of monsters, different layouts for each screen, and the presence of a shield for Link (which blocks projectiles when the player is correctly positioned). While the uncomplicated input-output of the game on two simultaneous axes leads to fast-paced, fairly complex swordplay, it can also be overwhelming and a bit frustrating at times. This being the 8-bit era, difficulty sometimes substitutes complexity, as some combat engages the player’s focus through the sheer volume of assailants and their projectiles rather than thoughtfully building on the rules of fighting. As the player becomes more familiar with the controls, this problem is partly mitigated by experience; engaging with a room crammed with semi-randomly moving enemies requires both precision and endurance in a way that offers the satisfaction of a “mastered” challenge. On the other hand, it requires so much repetition to master (rather than gradually training the player for the encounter beforehand) that it brings the game’s progression to a screeching halt. This interrupts any sense of adventure (i.e. a continuous movement through disparate spaces and thrilling experiences) and instead resembles a gauntlet. Thankfully, these roadblocks are mostly limited to self-contained areas intended to specifically challenge the player’s combat and puzzle-solving sensibilities, and even then, they are rarely as overwhelming as what I described above. These self-contained areas are present in every Zelda game, and are key to their structure: they provide opportunities for the player to focus on applying and further developing their repertoire of skills, while offering a tangible reward for completion in the form of new items and quantitative progression (the player must complete all of these areas to beat each game). These series hallmarks, discovered in but almost wholly separate from the overworld, are generically called “dungeons”, though this game’s NES-era instruction booklet calls them “labyrinths”. “Labyrinth” is a misleading term, as these areas often feature lengthy branches of rooms that have to be fully explored in order to find enough keys to unlock other areas, fight the dungeon’s boss, and collect the area’s reward (here, one shard of the mystical Triforce for each of the 8 dungeons). These areas, when executed well, are incredibly satisfying microcosms of the franchise’s pleasures: you discover your limits and boundaries as you explore, you complete the most accessible area in order to expand those limits and boundaries, then repeat until you have done this comprehensively and stand victorious over the boss’s smoldering corpse. Dungeons are room-by room affairs, where this route must lead to a key or new item that will let you progress past that wall you hit back there, and there must be a way to clear this room to open up the way further on that route. This approach benefits from the suspense of endurance, as the player’s hearts (the games’ units of health) are slowly whittled down over time. Losing is a merciful affair, as most Zeldas will simply warp the player to the entrance of the dungeon. The loss of time and enforcement of repetition stings, but dungeons are often designed to allow the player to reach their point of death within a couple minutes, keeping the experience enjoyable while still encouraging the tension of watching those hearts slowly disappear. When the player reaches the boss, their skills are tested against an especially powerful and complex foe — or not, in the case of several bosses which are simply repeated without upgrade from earlier dungeons. Nonetheless, while the dungeons in Zelda 1 are probably the high point of the experience, they show just how much lighter the puzzle-solving element is here than almost anywhere else in the series. Puzzles are frequently either so simple that they can barely be called puzzles (most dungeon rooms award keys by simply defeating every enemy, or pushing a single arbitrary block) or so obscure that they definitely can’t be called puzzles (more on that when I discuss the game’s exploration). A few are clever in a way that stand out; for instance, there is a forest called the “Lost Woods” that the player leaves by moving to the right of the screen (the east), but no matter how many times they move north, west, or south, they don’t seem to progress, and can always leave by moving one screen to the east again. However, there is an old woman elsewhere on the overworld who simply says “GO NORTH, WEST, SOUTH, WEST”, which will lead the player through the woods and into a new part of the overworld map. Later, a similar area on a mountain provides a staircase upwards (north), a rocky plateau leading east or west, and a staircase downwards (south), but seems to loop no matter which way you go and simply leads you back the way you came if you go south. Another old woman advises you “GO UP, UP, THE MOUNTAIN AHEAD”, and sure enough if you climb the staircase north five times you’ll advance to a new area. No matter which order you solve these two puzzles in, the second one subverts your directional understanding of the overworld map (North vs. Up), and yet each solution is logical to the place (a winding path through the woods vs. a staircase up mountain).

These, however, are probably the most enjoyable puzzles in the game, and many others can be infuriating. For example, the “Level-7” dungeon features a harmless monster character who says “GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE…” and will not allow Link to pass, even if Link attacks it. From this dialogue, the player must surmise that
  1. The monster’s stomach is growling.
  2. Therefore, it requires food.
  3. The only equippable food in the game is bait that must be purchased in a secret shop in the overworld, whose entrance is not easily found.
  4. If they do not have the bait but have enough money to buy it, they must return to that shop in a distant part of Hyrule.
  5. If they do not have enough money to buy it, they must run around the world and kill enemies until they do, and then return to the shop.
  6. Once the bait is bought, they must return to the dungeon and use it on the monster and then advance.
This is all frustrating enough — each step is tedious or obscure — if you already know about the secret shop. If you don’t know about this particular secret shop, and therefore have nothing to even trigger your awareness of food or hunger within the game, and have no idea that you need to leave the dungeon in order to advance in the game, and refuse to ask the advice of a friend or internet walkthrough, then god help you, because you have entered the gravity well of a puzzle that is not a puzzle, and it is a black hole that has no end. Instead, this kind of scenario (an alarmingly common one) is a daunting task of sheer trial-and-error and catapults you — sometimes unknowingly — into the game’s exploration element. The Legend of Zelda requires you to explore, a lot. It requires you to walk all around the 128 screens of Hyrule until you know the place inside and out, it requires you to test your items and abilities on almost in multiple combinations on almost all of those screens to discover its power-ups, shops, and cryptic hints, and it requires you to run through even more combinations of each location and each hint and shop and item in order to get unstuck. This quirk of design is intentional (it is heavily referenced and encouraged in the instruction booklet), and it is not without its positive aspects. A few years ago, a very smart critic named Tevis Thompson made a spirited, well-circulated blog post that detailed his hatred of later Zelda games, explained his adoration of the original, and held the undirected quality of the latter up as one of its great distinguishing triumphs.

Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks…. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.
Thompson is effectively arguing that any guidance granted the player, any induction into a logical system that can be systematically solved in order to advance, is a compromise to the agency offered by unhampered exploration. He’s not wrong about that — it is an objective fact that the less a developer helps a player, the more agency they attain. But had Zelda continued down that path, its limited palette of satisfactions and discoveries would have become clear very early. There are limitations the what unsparing agency can offer a player, and The Legend of Zelda is an excellent case study in this. Thompson thinks that observably bombable walls are like showing a lock and telling the player which of their keys to use. I think that’s an oversimplification, but even if it weren’t, I think it’s far less tedious than Zelda 1’s alternative: the player is granted a massive number of keys on a single ring, shown a lock, and then asked to test every key on the lock until it opens. I’m sure that bombing every single viable rockface, burning every single bush, pushing every single statue felt like a rewarding adventure in 1986, but whatever thrill exploring an unguided video game world had (and make no mistake, this game kicked open its fair share of doors for the industry), it’s one dulled by the countless dead-end puzzles in countless games ever since, and there’s a reason those moments tend to be called “bad design” instead of “freedom”.


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