In my last article, I discussed some of the most basic pieces of the Legend of Zelda “core”, and this time I’m going to begin looking at some of the larger pieces. I’m going to begin with one of my favorite piece of The Legend of Zelda: puzzles.

At a glance, The Legend of Zelda appears to focus on combat above everything else, and in some games in the series that is true. However, puzzle solving has been a part of the Legend of Zelda series from the beginning, and a large portion of the series’ fans play the game primarily to experience new challenging puzzles.

I often see fans debating whether combat or puzzles are more important to the Legend of Zelda series. Fans on both sides claim that their favorite aspect of the game was the focus from the very beginning, but the truth is that both combat and puzzles are a part of the “core” that makes The Legend of Zelda. Whatever the intentions of the developers happened to be in the eighties is no longer relevant today. The Legend of Zelda never stops changing, and even the core aspects of the gameplay have evolved over time.

Basic puzzles and hidden secrets

In some cases, combat is the puzzle.

When you compare the latest Legend of Zelda game to the original, it is obvious that the puzzles have come a long way. The Legend of Zelda contains a few different puzzles that are repeated countless times, but all of the basic ideas are still prominent in newer Legend of Zelda games. While playing Skyward Sword, it doesn’t take long to find a wall to blow open with a bomb or a door to unlock with a key. The walls may look fancier now, but the basic idea of finding new passages with bombs has remained intact for twenty-five years.

Combat also plays a role in puzzle solving. Many doors in The Legend of Zelda will not open until all of the enemies in a room have been defeated. The same “puzzle” can be found in every other Legend of Zelda game.

The prominence of these simple ideas in The Legend of Zelda and all of the games that have followed make it clear that the developers have always been interested in adding puzzle elements to the games, but prior to the emergence of fully 3D worlds, hardware limitations kept the developer’s creativity in check.

3D changes everything

The release of Ocarina of Time changed everything. We could talk for hours about the importance of this one video game to an entire industry, but I’m only going to write about Ocarina of Time changed the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda series. Simply put, when you move from 2D to 3D it opens a lot of new opportunities. Today, 3D is the norm, and an increasing number of gamers do not remember the time when 3D did not exist.

The addition of a 3D world started what you might call a “second era” in puzzle design. One of the biggest differences is the ability to precisely aim weapons like the bow and Hookshot instead of only being able to shoot “straight”. It doesn’t take long to find applications that were impossible in a 2D world: a switch could be hidden on the ceiling, and bombs could be dropped onto targets below. These new possibilities shifted the focus from environment-based puzzles to item-based puzzles.

In early Legend of Zelda games, the primary means of solving puzzles were environmental hazards or obstacles. You might need to move a block or defeat a group of enemies to find a key. Inventory items have always had an important role in the series, but it is clear that as time has passed those same items have become much more important.

Item-based Puzzle Design

Ocarina of Time and 3D may have given a much-needed boost to item-based puzzle design, but that didn’t stop 2D games from benefiting as well. While every Legend of Zelda game has contributed to the increased prominence of item-based puzzles, the release of The Minish Cap made it clear that this was where the Legend of Zelda series was headed.

The dungeon designs of The Minish Cap are based entirely around the inventory item you find inside. The same items are used heavily outside of dungeons as you explore the overworld. One year later, Twilight Princess continued the trend with creative new items like the Spinner, and Skyward Sword’s compact overworld take item-based design to the extreme.

I believe that item-based puzzle design offers a greater variety of puzzles than the environment-based design, so I don’t expect its prominence to diminish any time soon. The ability to create a brand new item, like the Spinner, and then create new puzzles that use it is much more appealing than dealing with a fixed environment like a forest or mountain.

Without the unique inventory items, The Legend of Zelda would be missing another part of its core. I’ll be looking a little closer at inventory items and combat in part three of this series.

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  • gravyfan

    Great look at the types of puzzles in the Legend of Zelda. The challenge of the puzzles has done much in setting the LoZ apart from other video games.

    Just a note on environment vs item based puzzles. It is great that they design puzzles around items now (tracks for the spinner, hooks for the hookshot, eyes/buttons for the bow, etc.), but I think it is great when a puzzle is designed with both the environment and items in mind. One example of this would be the Dominion Rod in Twilight Princess. The Temple of Time was one of my favorite dungeons because it was built around the Dominion Rod which has no power on its own, but relies on the different statues in the environment. Thus, your capabilities were limited by the type and placement of the statues. Maybe you'll write about this in future articles, but I thought it was interesting to note.

  • Totaldeath

    There is not one Zelda game without at least one block puzzle.

    • TheMaverickk

      Skyward Sword?

      • Banooru

        You had to push boxes.

        • TheMaverickk

          But they weren't really box puzzles. It wasn't like "re-arrange these boxes to get through this path or access this area".

          Most boxes simply served as backtracking options.

          Not really puzzles.

  • kaepora21

    Two quick things:

    1. I would say Link's Awakening pioneered item driven puzzle standard found in so many dungeons today. Many parts of a dungeon in LA were completely inaccessible until the player defeated the mini-boss and acquired that dungeon's item. It really was unparalleled for its time and preceded MC by a long shot.

    2. Excellent article overall. I would love to see some expansion on this topic. I have applied to be a write before but never received a response, so if you are looking to expand your repertoire, I'm more than willing to contribute.

  • Heriod77777

    Lets me make this more interesting with simple terms. What Zeldas core is would be search/ use/ search/ use. You go on and find keys for locked doors and a weapon to activate a secret switch. BUT, what makes Zelda so unique is the different types of performing gameplay. It becomes strategy when you have a stamina bar in Lanayru waiting for it to be full. ( Not RPG, sense you had to wait for it to be enough for what ever you were gonna do.) It becomes a first person shooter when you take out the bow, its simulating with little of any Bombs or Arrows and Magic. And your life, almost forgot that simulation. It even contains quite a bit of platforming. Using these with out getting it in between the action or adventure has made the series much greater. What Zelda game am I targetting for such a great job? Majoras Mask. It went beyond the call of duty ( Sorry I had to., lol.) it had a simulating time mechanic, and emptied your wallet of rupees and other such things. Why has this game not been called better than Ocarina of Time from those never changing fans? All they want is action, they don't care much toward these other elements that make it so unique. They just want to fight in the games, do puzzles, ect. Nintendo works their ass of to bring an amazingly designed Zelda game, and they don't give a fuck after they play it….

  • Wat

    Some of the things you attributed to later games in the series were actually seen in the the first game already – like item-based puzzle design. This is a good read:
    Infact, except for the jump to 3D which simply added accuracy requirement for puzzle solving, the Zelda formula hasn't evolved very much over the years (with the exception of some stuff like Majora's Mask). And dare I say it – after 25 years it's becoming a bit stale…

    • TheMaverickk

      Zelda's game design and formula is still ahead of it's time.

      A lot of people like to talk about games like Mega Man, Super Mario, Zelda, and others as being stale, but the reality is that modern games (especially western) have yet to duplicate or really build upon game designs created 20 years ago.

      Freedom in video games has gone one of two ways… either there is so much freedom that it's merely a sandbox to do as you wish, with little direction… or so linear that you can barely deviate from the laid out path… making repeated play throughs un-rewarding.

      Zelda is a game series that can't drastically be mixed up due to it being so tried and true and with such a large fan base. Instead they focus on incremental changes to the mechanics of the games. Whether it's using wind to solve puzzles in dungeons, or motion controls to solve puzzles and defeat enemies… the Zelda formula is refreshed in a balanced way.

      Also if people really are tired of the coat of paint on Zelda, and the characters, they can simply play other titles that have been built on the Zelda formula, such as Okami, Darksiders, 3D Dot Game Heroes and even the Binding of Isaac (although I don't really consider the Binding of Isaac that great a game).

  • Jean R

    <img src=>Oh boy i still remember the old way of solving puzzles. <img src=>

  • Allie Vitalis

    Hi there! I know this is a little off topic, but because everyone here is Zelda fans, I was wondering if you guys would watch my new video? It's a Zelda AMV. 🙂

  • TheMaverickk

    This article completely downplays the absolute genius of the puzzle design from Link to the Past.

    Writing off puzzles before Ocarina of Time as being "simple" and being about nothing more then obstacle by passing.

    Completely ignoring the fact that Link to the Past made use of intricate switch puzzles, switching water level puzzles, navigation puzzles (finding routes through dungeons, falling from one floor to the next), using the Pegasus boots to move and navigate timed puzzles, puzzles involving the use of darkness and light… so much more then simply obstacles.

    Ocarina of Time had amazing puzzles, but a lot of the puzzle designs roots actually still lie in Link to the Past, even if now you are thinking and moving in 3 dimensions.

    This article series is proving to be very shallow in it's discussion of the series. Again so much more depth to be talked about and more important aspects that are being completely and utterly ignored. Take some time to review and even replay the games and really think about the experience you get from each one.

    If a retrospect of the series is going to be done, you really need to delve deeper into the original games.

    Heck this article doesn't even mention magic and how it influenced item design for Adventure of Link, Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker. The items that used magic were some of the most unique and influential in design aspect.

  • I have to admit, I feel that zelda is more of a puzzle driven game, with more focus on gameplay than storyline. I think that it honestly gives it better production values, because it allows for more creativity with the gameplay and allows for a more immersive experience. Incidentally, I just started a blog, with the first post involving zelda gameplay. CHECK IT OUT!!!