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January 9, 2012 7:09 AM   Subscribe

An analysis of the design of the first dungeon in The Legend of Zelda.
posted by Edogy (40 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool! Thanks! (Bonus points for giving us the print link that has the whole article on one page)
posted by Frobenius Twist at 7:39 AM on January 9, 2012


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.

I totally don't remember that. But it explains why I never used it much.
posted by pwnguin at 7:42 AM on January 9, 2012


Wonderful! Gamasutra has a way of really hitting it out of the park when it does.
posted by griphus at 7:49 AM on January 9, 2012


Oh that's neat. Thanks for posting!

It always amazes me how many NES-era maps stick in my memory. I loaded up a ROM of the original Final Fantasy a couple years ago, after having not touched it for probably eight or ten years, and I still new the optimal path through the volcano with almost no backtracking. That stuff is, like, encoded in my DNA now.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:09 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


It always amazes me how many NES-era maps stick in my memory.

Yeah, it's kind of crazy. I'm struck now and then just in general by how potent my memory of game worlds, old-school and modern, can be.

I think it'd be fun to try and get people to draw NES era map layout from memory. Just get a whole bunch of those collected as a sort of collective memory of these fictional worlds. Zelda overworld; Super Mario Bros 1-1; the opening of Metroid; Final Fantasy's world map; etc. Just a whole bunch of napkin sketches, look at the commonalities between different people's fractured memories.
posted by cortex at 8:19 AM on January 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


If you like old school zelda, I can't recommend the Binding of Isaac enough. I've been playing it for a week now. It's kind of a Zelda rogue-like -- randomized levels, every play through gives you a different set of power ups, etc.
posted by empath at 8:32 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you like old school zelda, I can't recommend the Binding of Isaac enough. I've been playing it for a week now. It's kind of a Zelda rogue-like -- randomized levels, every play through gives you a different set of power ups, etc.

Be warned: the degree of randomization and the complete lack of explanation for what anything does means that success or failure is almost entirely out of your hands, the controls are godawful, and the game is really visually and aesthetically offensive.
posted by kafziel at 8:51 AM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm struck now and then just in general by how potent my memory of game worlds, old-school and modern, can be.

Very different story here. Played a lot of minecraft over the holidays and it's amazing how often I find myself lost once my own stuff is out of view.
posted by Hoopo at 8:54 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Be warned: the degree of randomization and the complete lack of explanation for what anything does means that success or failure is almost entirely out of your hands, the controls are godawful, and the game is really visually and aesthetically offensive.

I don't agree about the controls, I can see why you'd say that about the visuals, and the randomization and lack of explanation is one of the fun parts of the game -- you have to figure out what the best set of powerups, etc are... and you can always just reset if you don't like the way the game is going.. i usually finish it every 3rd game..
posted by empath at 8:58 AM on January 9, 2012


But that's something exceptional to Minecraft—it's a game without fixed landmarks, with terrain procedurally generated in such a way that it makes very pretty blockworld landscapes but doesn't emphasize revisiting and familiarizing yourself with any particular bit of that terrain.

I'm thinking more of designed worlds, of setting and path and architecture as a core bit of the character of gameworld. I remember Hyrule specifically in the configuration it was made; I remember the layout of cs_office from Counter-Strike 1.6; I remember the circular eight-door layout of the apartment complexes in KOTOR.

Minecraft (and to some extent very large designed worlds like Skyrim) has more of a character of type—the sense memory is as much of the feel of the terrain and moving through it than of specific landmarks. Same phenomenon but different sort of sense of space.
posted by cortex at 9:01 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm pretty sure "Eastmost peninsula has the secret" refers to the hidden passageway from P2, the easternmost peninsula on the world map, to P1, which has a cache of 100 rupees in it.
posted by kafziel at 9:01 AM on January 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think it'd be fun to try and get people to draw NES era map layout from memory. Just get a whole bunch of those collected as a sort of collective memory of these fictional worlds. Zelda overworld; Super Mario Bros 1-1; the opening of Metroid; Final Fantasy's world map; etc. Just a whole bunch of napkin sketches, look at the commonalities between different people's fractured memories.

This is a blog waiting to happen. Do it.
posted by empath at 9:05 AM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you enter the first room of the dungeon and then exit back to the world map and return to the dungeon, the door in the north wall will be unlocked. This is often referred to as a "glitch", but since it does not affect any other door in the game, I have to assume that it was included as a tiny bit of handholding for beginners who might abandon the whole dungeon entirely upon seeing a locked door in front of them. Once they've made it through the first dungeon, they will be more immersed in the game, and presumably will not give up so easily in the future.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:12 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is possible to achieve the feel of non-linear level design by taking a linear path and adding short offshoots.

Ramping encounters up along the critical path still allows you to have a good intensity ramp even if your level designs aren't all linear.


These two points are something that I recognized in Skyrim's dungeon design. For as much as I dislike about the game, they did a really good job with dungeons (apart from the fact that I'm absolutely sick of fighting Draugr, but that's besides the point). The dungeons have a linear flow which is a nice break from the go-anywhere-do-anything world map, each room tends to have its own theme and challenges, and the occasional secret or diversion lets you feel like you're doing more than being railroaded from set-piece to set-piece. Also, you get to the end of the dungeon and there's almost always a dump-back to the entrance so that you don't have to backtrack through chests you've already looted and monsters you've already slain.

Conversely to that, I'm replaying Half-Life 2 at the moment, and I think that I'm just about ready to quit since the whole thing is painfully linear. The offshoots (the Lamda supply dumps) are always pretty obvious, and there's no real reason to explore them since you generally get refilled with ammo and health at the end of each encounter. Areas also tend to be really samey in terms of the types of things you encounter. It's almost like the level designers picked a gimmick for each area, and by the end of it you're sick of whatever it is you've been doing for the past 3 set-pieces.
posted by codacorolla at 9:16 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


For example, in this first level, the bow is not on the critical path, even though you need it to beat the game. Why didn't the designers force you to get it? Perhaps they wanted you to revisit the dungeon later, if you forgot it?

They probably did this for the same reason the entrances to the labyrinths are hidden. Something magical about the original Zelda was that you could get lost and miss things. It made it all the better when you found something, sometimes without even looking.

Making you wander and look for things, of course, can be a huge source of game-ruining frustration. Zelda somehow walked this line between obvious paths and open-ended mystery perfectly. That's really hard to do, and it's why game designers, including new Zelda designers, have since run from this for the most part, erring on the side of being didactic, as the author sort of mentions later in the article:

One surprise was that the silver arrow is not technically on the critical path even though you can't beat the end boss (Ganon) without it. In a modern Zelda game, they would have put a gate in front of Ganon's door (and, for that matter, others throughout the level) which could only be opened when hit with a silver arrow. That way they could ensure you had to pick it up before you got there.

That's a safe bet, and I understand why you'd do that. However, I think there's a minority of players that are tired of predictability and getting walked through everything, though, and this is perhaps why roguelikes are picking up some steam. And from what I've been reading about Skyrim, the sense of tracklessness creates a real feeling of wonder in players.

This article, though, makes a very good point - that feeling of mystery and exploration can be created without that kind of heavy technology or even without randomly generating a level. Just one bit of backtracking and one optional branch (plus fog of war, actually) can do it. How stunningly elegant.

Thanks for posting this! I feel like some zen chime has been rung.
posted by ignignokt at 9:26 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The dungeon/level design for the Zelda series has got to be the most consistently excellent of any game series. I'm playing Skyward Sword right now and I recognize a lot of the same principles - linear dungeons that feel expansive and invite exploration.

Making you wander and look for things, of course, can be a huge source of game-ruining frustration. Zelda somehow walked this line between obvious paths and open-ended mystery perfectly. That's really hard to do, and it's why game designers, including new Zelda designers, have since run from this for the most part, erring on the side of being didactic

Honestly, and maybe I am a lazy modern gamer: There is nothing I hate more then having to go back and re-fight my way through a bunch of enemies to get something that I missed. I don't want to feel like I'm on a rail traveling through a level, but if I really need something to advance 6 dungeons from now, I'm going to turn off the game if I have to go back through each dungeon tapping on every wall with my sword.

I think that most modern Zelda games have a good balance - it's pretty easy to blow through the dungeons and miss 75% of the treasure, if you want to play it that way.
posted by muddgirl at 9:35 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that's something exceptional to Minecraft—it's a game without fixed landmarks, with terrain procedurally generated in such a way that it makes very pretty blockworld landscapes but doesn't emphasize revisiting and familiarizing yourself with any particular bit of that terrain.

That's interesting — I've been playing Minecraft very intermittently for about a year and a half now, and I almost always stick to a pretty small area (maybe a square mile or so) along with the caverns and mines that I find and build in that space. Even though I do tend to set up fields of torches to make sure I don't get lost, one of my favorite things has been the recognizable landmarks you do get. The tallest peak; the waterfall coming from under an outcropping; the cove that leads to a cave system — those very natural-seeming features have become very familiar, and keep pulling me back.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:42 AM on January 9, 2012


Which is a totally reasonable way to play. My statement maybe came off more normative than I meant it to, because you totally can and I think in general people building something in the world do tend to have a home base and neighborhood that they know fairly well. But there's nothing in Minecraft that insists this happen; there's no plot forcing you to visit town x or y, there's no predictable set of landmarks, there's no planned path or even set of optional paths. It's a world from scratch, every time, that just says, "okay, here you are, do whatever" and a map that, unlike even Skyrim's big big designed world, doesn't have edges.

Even roguelikes like Nethack or randomized crawls like Diablo have at least a sense of direction and destination, a procession along a thematically striated series of areas toward a specific final location of climax. With the exception of whatever dragon-related endgame content came into Minecraft with the recent 1.0 release (haven't explored that content yet), it's so far a game that tells you to do essentially nothing and gives you no persistent landmarks across world gens to do it in the context of.
posted by cortex at 9:52 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's interesting — I've been playing Minecraft very intermittently for about a year and a half now, and I almost always stick to a pretty small area (maybe a square mile or so) along with the caverns and mines that I find and build in that space.

I've been playing with the Better Than Wolves mod for the past few weeks and one thing it encourages is a lot of exploration for resources (especially clay now), as well as building a lot of specialized rooms and buildings. It gives your world a real sense of place. Right now I've hemp, wheat and pumpkin farms, pens with sheep, pigs and cows, a dog poop factory (okay the mod is a bit quirky), a windmill driving a grindstone and a saw, a kitchen, a pottery kiln, a tannery, a mossy cobblestone generator, etc... and now I'm getting to the point where I'm automating stuff with redstone and pistons. My world just keeps expanding and expanding as I add more stuff, and I'm building out infrastructure to get to all of it -- roads, railroads, elevators (yes, really)..


It actually gives the world a really organic, functional, natural feel that I think vanilla minecraft usually lacks, and also means that it's fairly easy to navigate. BTW is Minecraft the way I imagined it would eventually be when I first heard of it. I can't imagine going back to vanilla at this point.
posted by empath at 10:20 AM on January 9, 2012


I enjoyed Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was nice and long, with good action and ramping up of difficulty. However, whenever I think of a game that is aggressively linear, I think of Zelda 3.

For the most part, unlocking areas really is natural and logical. You need the fins to go swimming, you need bombs to blow up walls with cracks, the magic mirror can get you to parts you can't climb to on your own, and previous spelunkers have left brackets for you to use on your ascent of Death Mountain. It makes sense.

But when Zelda 3 missteps, it really missteps. Rocks you can't pick up yet don't seem like natural parts of the landscape; they seem like the landscape designer said "Oh, need something to make sure you can't explore here yet." Interesting areas are blocked by pegs!? that you have to hit with a hammer!? Yeah, I see that all the time in nature, medieval times, and the present-day.

I know Zelda 3 has side quests galore and nonlinearity abundant. It's great for completionists; it's great for speedruns. Those one or two oopsies really stick in my craw, though.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:22 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a blog waiting to happen. Do it.

I am having the same feeling. Anybody in this thread who feels like drawing up a map from memory (any game, any style, just do it from memory and no cheating), please go for it and send it my way.
posted by cortex at 10:36 AM on January 9, 2012


But when Zelda 3 missteps, it really missteps. Rocks you can't pick up yet don't seem like natural parts of the landscape; they seem like the landscape designer said "Oh, need something to make sure you can't explore here yet." Interesting areas are blocked by pegs!? that you have to hit with a hammer!? Yeah, I see that all the time in nature, medieval times, and the present-day.

That's Metroid-vania style level design. I loathe it because of all the backtracking, but a lot of people like it.
posted by empath at 10:38 AM on January 9, 2012


Anybody in this thread who feels like drawing up a map from memory (any game, any style, just do it from memory and no cheating), please go for it and send it my way.

I'll start with one of the Ninja Gaiden 2 levels -- it's going to have two platforms followed by "***FUCKING BIRDS***"

because that's as far as I got when I was 14.
posted by empath at 10:40 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anybody in this thread who feels like drawing up a map from memory (any game, any style, just do it from memory and no cheating), please go for it and send it my way.

Goddammit, now I have to. And there are too many choices!
posted by restless_nomad at 10:45 AM on January 9, 2012


And there are too many choices!

You can do more than one!
posted by cortex at 11:00 AM on January 9, 2012


Sent one for Quest for Glory I.

This is much harder to do (in general) when I'm not sitting in front of the game, and have all the little cues to remind me.
posted by curious nu at 11:18 AM on January 9, 2012


those very natural-seeming features have become very familiar, and keep pulling me back.

I notice similar "natural" features in minecraft as well, but as close as it gets me is "oh, that thing, I can't be far now!" Followed by aimless wandering for an indeterminate time. I should probably have said I get lost a lot IRL too.
posted by Hoopo at 11:57 AM on January 9, 2012


Everyone on irc/twitter were bothering me to draw a level, so I quick whipped out Level 1-1 from SMB

I think I'll do Prince of Persia next, since those are really burned in there (but just the first 2, since we only had the demo)
posted by hellojed at 12:05 PM on January 9, 2012


I was wondering how people would deal with the "Here Be Monsters" portion of the SMB 1-1 after that first warp pipe.
posted by unsupervised at 12:35 PM on January 9, 2012


I was wondering how people would deal with the "Here Be Monsters" portion of the SMB 1-1 after that first warp pipe.

I have literally never seen what's after that warp pipe.
posted by empath at 12:36 PM on January 9, 2012


Be warned: the degree of randomization and the complete lack of explanation for what anything does means that success or failure is almost entirely out of your hands, the controls are godawful, and the game is really visually and aesthetically offensive.

Sounds like someone isn't very good at Isaac. The controls are fine, the randomized gameplay means that success and failure is entirely in your hands to learn how to play with what you've got, and the visual aesthetic is exactly on par with Super Meat Boy in a creepy/silly/semi-juvenile way, which makes sense because it's the same design group.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:14 PM on January 9, 2012


For the record, I'm bootstrapping that game maps from memory idea:

Mapstalgia

There's a submit form for it if you want to add your own.
posted by cortex at 1:22 PM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


The mapstalgia idea is brilliant.

I wish I still had the old hand-drawn on graph paper maps that I had made for Metal Gear as well as the damned mazes in Golgo 13....

I remember having a lot of detailed notes and coordinates for Star Control 2 as well... The rainbow planets page was one of my most treasured possessions at the time. Of course, I still manged to find ways to make the game unsolvable.
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:57 PM on January 9, 2012


I used to love the map of Zelda:ALTTP because it even included the location of the trees. Guess which map I submitted.
posted by ersatz at 3:18 PM on January 9, 2012


I think we can just chalk this up as another epic cortex derail. Also I drew a map!
posted by Edogy at 3:36 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I must note, it was a bit surreal reading my RSS feeds for other sites and having Mapstalgia pop up as a "Look how awesome this is!" article. 'Wait. This sounds familiar... Is it? It is! I must rush home to Mefi to see if it came up in the thread!"
posted by CrystalDave at 1:31 PM on January 11, 2012


One surprise was that the silver arrow is not technically on the critical path even though you can't beat the end boss (Ganon) without it.

I've mentioned this in other threads, but that Zelda prototype that turned up a year ago shows that the Silver Arrow, shortly before release, was originally much harder to find, behind what was then the only dungeon walk-through-wall passage in the whole first quest. (In the release version it's in an unmarked room in the corner of the map in a somewhat convoluted path in the largest dungeon in the game, so it's still no pushover.) It shows that Miyamoto had misgivings about the difficulty of finding it just before release. I personally love it when there's stuff like this in a game, but only if the game is set up to be that kind of game, one that demands that players explore around themselves. So few games require that players show real curiosity anymore. It's terribly stupid.

Most games these days present themselves as linear experiences from start to finish, so if there is a secret of this nature that's required but off the path it feels terribly unfair. I know someone who likes just about everything about the Metroid-like Castlevania games except how, most games, there is a special trick you have to pull off at the end of the game to reach the real last areas, otherwise you get a bad ending.

I might contribute a map, but I have a problem in that in my favorite NES games, I've played them enough that the map would probably end up being fairly accurate, and what's the fun in that? I could probably reproduce 90% of Zelda's overworld screen connectivity from memory. Metroid might be good though, as the later areas are fairly fuzzy in my head.
posted by JHarris at 3:46 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I might contribute a map, but I have a problem in that in my favorite NES games, I've played them enough that the map would probably end up being fairly accurate, and what's the fun in that?

Lots of fun! I find the actually detailed recreations fascinated just as a feat of recall—I was saying over on mefightclub that as much as I know Zelda pretty well, I don't think I could actually do more than a really, really shit-poor job of mapping out the dungeons, but clearly some people have internalized them really well.

Also, I am keenly interested in the points at which otherwise pretty accurate maps fall down. There's something interesting in its own right about bits of a game that evade even a good memory.

I'd love to see your Zelda overworld. I'm going to do one too, and I know it's going to have problems even though I relatively recently spent way too much time building the damn thing by hand in Minecraft. But I also really want to see your Metroid.
posted by cortex at 4:09 PM on January 11, 2012


I managed to produce about a 95% accurate map of Zelda, I think, in terms of where you can go from where and important locations, but I can't immediately submit it to the site from the iPad I'm currently on. I'll send it later tonight.
posted by JHarris at 6:13 PM on January 11, 2012


(I should add, however, that it hasn't been long since I've refamiliarized myself with the game. Remember I did that Zelda FPP on Dec 26, although the map was already near burnt into my memory at that point.)
posted by JHarris at 6:15 PM on January 11, 2012


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