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
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.