Collecting heart pieces and slashing at stalfos in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are some of my fondest childhood gaming experiences. Even now, I’m still able to lose myself in the SNES version of Hyrule as if it was my first time playing. There’s just something special about A Link to the Past’s take on the action-adventure experience that has not quite been surpassed despite Nintendo releasing dozens of excellent sequels.
As a game designer, it’s experiences like this keep me up at night wondering how a tiny cartridge can produce so much magic. It’s not enough to enjoy the game. I want to know how the sausage is made, which is why I set out to discover the secret to A Link to the Past’s success and learn how I might add to that success. To keep my goal tightly focused, I decided to focus on a single core element of A Link to the Past’s gameplay: dungeons. So in this two-part series, I will start by dissecting the intricacies of good Zelda dungeon design and then take a stab at designing a dungeon of my own.
Help the player build a “mental map” of their surroundings
Setting aside the actual Map item that can be acquired throughout each dungeon, a “mental map” is the player’s intuitive understanding of their environment. The formation of a mental map signals a certain level of comfortability that a player might have within a dungeon; they know just enough to give them a sense of progression without spoiling all of the dungeon’s secrets. When creating an enjoyable experience for the player, it can be argued that mental maps are more useful than the Map item itself despite being less precise. There are multiple ways that A Link to the Past helps the player form a mental map.
In the game’s first main dungeon, East Palace, the player is forced along a straight forward path until being confronted by a large room with multiple memorable aspects. First, there’s a massive treasure chest in the center of the room, triggering the player’s reward drive to want to reach the chest. Next, the north most door is textured differently from every other door the player has seen until this point in the game. That is because it requires a Big Key to open it. No other room throughout the entire dungeon has these two elements. Although the player can’t meaningfully interact with them just yet, seeing them early on will help to solidify this location in their mind as they progress.
Another important aspect of this room is that it is located in the near center of the dungeon’s layout. East Palace takes the Disneyland “spokes on a wheel” approach of having a main hub with multiple offshoots. Instead of a castle, players utilize the large chest to orient themselves in the center of the dungeon as they weave in and out of the six potential pathways connecting to this single room. While playing, I dubbed this the “lobby formation” because of how often you return to a centralized area, and I found it to be a commonly utilized approach throughout multiple dungeons in the game.
Even if the player completely neglects to pick up the map item in East Palace, this one room is doing enough heavy lifting to solidify itself in the player’s mind while continually aiding the player in their discovery of where to go or what they have to do.
There are other ways to help players form mental maps, including making lower floors visible, creating distinctive room layouts with items/enemies/decor, and connecting unfamiliar paths to familiar ones.
Reward players for being curious
This one might seem self-explanatory, but you would be surprised how often it is overlooked. A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game to truly establish that anything in a dungeon could be a puzzle. Pushing a certain block, killing a particular enemy, lighting a torch, or avoiding an obstacle. Everything that can be interacted with in a dungeon will likely need to be interacted with to progress forward at some point in the game. Because of this, it’s important to keep the player in the state of mind of being curious and willing to experiment with the world around them. A good way of doing just that is by rewarding players for their curiosity- even if that curiosity is not required in any way.
There are just about endless ways that Zelda dungeons can do this. Hiding rooms filled with rupees for the player that likes to bomb walls, placing fairies in pots for the player that likes to pick up items, and tucking away teleportation rooms on lower floors for the player that likes to fall into every hole. The examples I mentioned might be necessary to beat a dungeon, but they help to reinforce the idea that there might be more to a player’s surroundings than meets the eye.
An example of how not doing this can cause frustration for the player shows up in A Link to the Past’s Desert Palace. The Desert Palace is littered with torches- many of which are unlit. As an experiment, the player might decide to light one of these torches with their lamp item, but doing so will repeatedly prove fruitless. Even in a room like this:
There are six torches, and two of them are unlit. In between the two unlit torches, there is a gap that can coincidentally fit the size of a small chest. The other pairs of torches do not have a gap like this. One might guess that by lighting the two unlit torches, a chest could appear in between them. Instead, lighting these torches has no effect. The puzzle is solved by picking up the nearby pot and standing on the switch it was covering to make the chest appear.
Time and time again, the Desert Palace presents the player with torches that provide no value. That is until the player makes it to the final room before the boss. The game expects the player to light the nearby unlit torches to reveal the door. It’s easy to see how a player might have gotten stuck at this point. The dungeon spends all of its time teaching the player that torches are unimportant background noise until it decides on a moment’s notice that they aren’t. The Desert Palace might have avoided this confusion if it rewarded the player when they decided to light a torch. Even if the reward was a modest handful a rupees, this connection that torches have some value increases the odds that a player will notice them later when they have a ton of value.
Scale the difficulty to match the player’s current skill set
Another potential “no duh!” tip that requires a mention despite seeming like common sense. As players progress through A Link to the Past, they are sure to see an array of familiar enemies, obstacles, and trap designs throughout each dungeon. However, the game takes care to track the familiarity that the player should have with each of its challenges so that subsequent dungeons can offer something appropriately difficult.
Sometimes this progression is blatant. You fight a group of blue Stalfos, in a later dungeon you’ll fight the more threatening red Stalfos, then a Stalfos which can throw its head at you, and then finally a Stalfos Knight.
Othertimes the increase in difficulty arises from two separate things that the player has conquered individually but is now presented as a unified challenge. By the time the player has arrived at Misery Mire, they have had multiple opportunities to utilize the Pegasus Shoes on falling bridges and the Hookshot on steel blocks. Misery Mire takes these two skills that the player has mastered and combines them to raise the stakes.
In the room above, the player cannot get to the bridge in time to use their Pegasus Shoes. This situation has not presented itself before in any previous dungeon. Curiously, there is a steel block placed near the start of the bridge. To solve this obstacle, players must forgo trying to run to the bridge and immediately Hookshot the steel block to make their way across the gap before switching gears and using the Pegasus Shoes.
Regardless of exactly how, the best Zelda dungeons are keenly aware of the player’s current skill set and carefully construct their challenges to push that skill set forward.
Regularly change the pace to match the dungeon structure
When I initially set out to deconstruct the mysteries behind A Link to the Past’s dungeon design, one of the things that confused me the most was how it was decided what the challenge should be for each room. In any given dungeon, you’ll have a room with no obstacles, followed by a room that requires you to kill a group of enemies, followed by a room where you have to push some statues around, and finishing with a dead-end where you need to dodge rolling balls of doom. What appears to be a haphazard mishmash of design choices hints towards a necessary quality of the best Zelda dungeons: good pacing.
Each Zelda dungeon can be thought of as having its little structured narrative with rising action, a midpoint, and a climactic finish. Taking a step back from the specific layout of a dungeon and thinking about it at this higher level can give you a clue as to what the pacing should be at any given moment.
In Watergate Dungeon, the path leading up to the Big Key is covered with dangers like water blobs, rotating walls made of fire, and statues that shoot fireballs. It’s a high-pressure moment that forces the player to be quick on their feet. The retrieval of the Big Key rewards the player with the Hookshot and puts them in a position of needing to learn a new tool. In response, the pacing abates to a calmer intensity to allow the player to shoot back and forth on platforms with little to no risk.
Each room in a dungeon is an opportunity to match and vary the pacing. Doing so can help build towards the overall gameplay narrative that a dungeon is attempting to convey.
Find clever ways to teach, guide, and prepare the player
As a fan of the Zelda series since childhood, it has been vigorously entrenched into my brain that running towards ledges will cause Link to hop over them, pots can be flown to via Hookshot, big chests require big keys, and eyes should be shot with arrows. However, for a first-time player, A Link to the Past has the challenge of introducing these concepts without throwing up walls of tutorial text. As you would expect, the game does a fantastic job of finding clever and organic situations to teach the player the rules of each dungeon.
The Tower of Hera is the first Zelda dungeon in the franchise to include floors that can be fallen through to lower levels. To beat the dungeon, the player must understand this concept and make use of it to reach the big treasure chest guarding the Moon Pearl. However, there are no tutorials that let the player know that falling through the floor is something that they should or even could do. Instead, the dungeon introduces a new enemy type: the Hardhat Beetle. The Hardhat Beetle makes use of a “bumper car” combat technique, which pushes both the player and itself around when being attacked. Throwing a handful of these enemies in a room with multiple falling points creates an environment where either the player or the Beetle has a high likelihood of being bumped into a floor hole. If the player falls, they will begin to understand that falling is a viable means of transportation to lower floors. If the enemy falls, it is still helpful for the player to see the floor falling technique right in front of them.
Smart enemy design and placement are just a couple of the ways that A Link to the Past is able to prepare the player for the task at hand. The best dungeons in the game are aware of the rules it’s asking the player to understand and are designed to teach players these rules through natural gameplay.
Introduce new mechanics and challenges within a non-threatening environment
Another concept first introduced in the Tower of Hera is the Red/Blue switch. The color of the switch corresponds to whether or not the corresponding colored barriers are blocking certain areas within a dungeon. This mechanic is presented to the player immediately upon entering the Tower of Hera in a situation where there is absolutely no pressure or danger for the player. Just three switches and multiple blocked doorways. In this way, the player is incentivized to familiarize themselves with the switch mechanic without the fear of failing.
Good dungeons follow in these footsteps to ensure that a player learns a vital mechanic or rule set before moving forward. Otherwise, if a player is forced to learn something new while under duress, they may only learn exactly enough needed to relieve the pressure.
This technique is used over and over again throughout A Link to the Past’s dungeons and in other Zelda games as well. Watergate Dungeon gives the player space to get used to swimming before throwing Tektites in the water. The East Palace gives the player as much time as they need to observe the rolling balls of doom before attempting to run past them. The Palace of Darkness blocks the path towards the player’s first encounter with a falling bridge so that they can see the bridge falling before deciding how to defeat it.
You may have noticed that many of my examples from the previous section physically stop the player from moving forward until they have understood a particular mechanic. Having “hard stops” like this is an excellent way to make sure that the player is prepared for upcoming challenges in a dungeon.
A Link to the Past uses hard stops even in situations where the player isn’t necessarily learning something new. The very first room in Misery Mire includes a sizeable gap with two steel blocks at either end. It’s not a complicated puzzle. All the player has to do is aim the Hookshot at the steel block on the far side- something that they’ve had to do multiple times in the past. However, there is a time-sensitive Hookshot puzzle later in the dungeon that demands that the player has a firm grasp on what these steel blocks are for. By stopping the player upfront with a basic Hookshot puzzle, the dungeon can safely assume that the player truly understands how to use the tool while also casually reminding the player of how it works.
Offer something unique
Dungeons don’t make a lot of realistic sense when we think of them as actual “places.” Thieves’ Town is as much a place as the inside of your refrigerator. That’s because Zelda dungeons are typically more concerned with testing the player’s wits than creating a viable Hyrulian habitat. It’s ok if a web of interconnecting rooms with fireball shooting statues, floor spikes, disappearing ghosts, and breakable pots isn’t realistic because it’s not trying to be.
However, there is a downside to this. The number of dungeon-like experiences in A Link to the Past tops the double digits. So without conscious effort being placed into giving each dungeon its sense of individuality, the game risks making all of its dungeons feel the same- the best dungeons in A Link to the Past offer some unique change-up to avoid this slump.
The Watergate Dungeon is the first dungeon to force the player to solve puzzles via swimming and other water-related mechanics. The Skull Dungeon weaves in and out of the Lost Worlds, forcing the player to repeatedly exit the dungeon to solve it. Thieves’ Town subverts the expectations that the game has previously established by allowing the player to visit the boss room before the finale. It’s also unique because the player needs to partner up with an NPC. The Ice Palace introduces enemies that jump out of walls causing the player to be cautious of the edges of the room for the first time. There are also more subtle changes that A Link to the Past’sdungeons employ to keep the experience fresh like different architectural layouts, environmental textures, enemy types, and soundtracks.
Tell a connected gameplay narrative or theme
Partially an extension of the previous section, great dungeons appear to have a thematic throughline that keeps them easily identifiable in the player’s mind. Watergate Dungeon is thought of as “The Water Dungeon.” The Tower of Hera is remembered as “The Falling Dungeon.” These themes give a sense of purpose to the experience and help to avoid the feeling that a dungeon is randomly cobbled together. Having a theme is not the same as carrying some unique trait or quality.
Take The Palace of Darkness, for example. The Palace of Darkness introduces the hammer to the player and even has a boss that requires the hammer to defeat it. Yet, I rarely find myself looking back at my time in The Palace of Darkness, thinking that it was the “Hammer Dungeon.” It’s one of the most forgetful experiences in the game. The reason is that the core of its design is centered around being a slightly more difficult version of what the player has already seen before.
The majority of the dungeon involves bombing walls, stepping on switches, shooting eyeballs, falling through floors, and lighting torches- all things that the player is intimately familiar with at this point. It isn’t until the last act that the hammer is introduced, and it serves as a glorified key since its primary use is to open a pathway to the final boss. Pair this with a recycled soundtrack and a subdued “forget me” green color palette, and what you get is an experience that feels too formulaic.
The best dungeons offer something unique AND allow those unique aspects to help define a purpose or theme.
In the next part of this project, I put these lessons learned to the test by creating a dungeon of my own. You can check out Part 2 here.