Posted on December 23 2014 by Theodore Homdrom
Hello everyone, and welcome to a new series of editorials where I will be talking about level design in Zelda games! Here’s how this series will work:
Each week (roughly, there’s not a set schedule for these), I will highlight a single dungeon in any given Zelda game and talk about its level design. The title of the series should clue you in that I’m focusing on “brilliant” level design. I’m looking for unique ideas, great ways of teaching the player without spelling it out, character progression, clever item usage, mind-bending puzzles, and memorable boss fights.
This is an extremely subjective topic, and while I will do my best to remain as objective as possible, sometimes I just have to fanboy about this stuff. I’m a level design nerd, as well as a Zelda fan, it’s bound to happen.
So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this series! Maybe it will give you a fresh perspective on a dungeon that flew under your radar, or inspire you to replay a Zelda game that you might not have given much of a chance the first time around.
Today, I’ll focus on one of my favorite dungeons from one of my favorite Zelda games: A Link Between Worlds’ Dark Palace.
The lead-up to the Dark Palace is a perfect mood-setter for what’s to come. You travel through a hedge maze, avoiding patrolling sentries with weird laser beams coming out of their eyes. If you get caught in the beam, you’ll be spotted and thrown into a really shoddy prison (seriously, you can break out in less than a second).
Stealth is no new concept to Zelda titles. This section closely resembles Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Castle section as Young Link, when you travel through the gardens, avoiding patrolling guards. However, the mood is completely different. These sentries are frightening and very unfriendly. Very little light gets into this hedge maze, giving everything a gloomy and dark atmosphere. Enemies pop up in areas, meaning you’ll have to fight at times, while still evading the sentries.
A heart piece and a Maiamai (little critters that lead to upgrades for your weapons) can be found within the hedge maze, encouraging you to explore a bit and not just take the straightforward path.
No Kiki the monkey and a much darker lead-up sends a clear message that this Dark Palace is drastically different from its counterpart in A Link to the Past. Instead of requiring simian assistance, the entrance to the Dark Palace is a cracked wall. With A Link Between Worlds’ item rental system, it isn’t always obvious what items you need going forward, and this cracked wall is a non-intrusive indication that this dungeon requires the use of bombs.
Light and Dark
The first room has only one lit torch and several other unlit torches. Any seasoned Zelda player will have the instinct to light every unlit torch burned into their mind, but as the level goes on, you quickly discover that’s not the best way to go.
The second room immediately shows new and unfamiliar level design and puzzle-solving. Strange glowing symbols are on the wall, but they disappear if you light up the room or approach them with your lantern equipped. A switch drops a key onto a glowing floor, but standing on that floor with any light source hitting it makes it invisible. What’s going on here?
This is part of the brilliance of this dungeon. Light-based puzzles in past Zelda games pretty much come in two types: use the Mirror Shield and other mirrors to reflect light onto switches or panels, or light all the torches in the given room to illuminate it.
A Link Between Worlds throws both of those concepts out the window for this dungeon. You will frequently want to have the lights off, extinguishing torches with your sword and often leaving your lantern unequipped. Rooms with glowing floors offer precariously narrow paths over bottomless pits, and turning the lights on leaves you walking blind.
But turning out the lights also presents challenges. You can’t see some enemies well or at all with the lights out. Invisible walls appear when the lights are off in some rooms, and you’ll have to wall merge to navigate them, but fire-breathing enemies atop them can easily torch you with your limited visibility. Ghosts float back and forth in areas, and come in two varieties: those that you can only see in the light, and those you can only see in the dark. You’ll often encounter both types in the same room. While they aren’t difficult to defeat, you may find yourself running into them as you wander blindly, trying to navigate the dark interiors of the palace.
A piece of Master Ore (an item you’ll need to upgrade the Master Sword) is hidden away in this dungeon, and the light and dark theme comes into play with finding it. A secret passage through a wall is marked by a glowing symbol, but you can only see that in the darkness.
Throwing out old, familiar conventions of light-based puzzles for a completely fresh take on the idea of light and dark makes this dungeon instantly stand out. It requires the player to think counter-intuitively, teaching you that sometimes turning out the lights, though it may be frightening and leave you blind, could be the better option.
The other key component to the puzzle of this dungeon is accessing the Boss Door, which is blocked by a massive rotating cylinder of pillars. Four eye switches are only activated when light shines on them, and you’ll have to illuminate them all for the path to the Boss Door to open.
The Dark Palace teaches you in the very first room about these eye switches with a simple puzzle where you have to destroy boards blocking a window to let light shine onto an eye switch, unlocking a door. Now, you have to do this four times, but it isn’t nearly as simple.
Two of the eye switches are illuminated by windows in the same room as the Boss Door, but the other two switches need you to travel up a floor, merging with walls, avoiding ghosts, and navigating narrow platforms to destroy boards and let the light shine down.
The combination of the multi-floor puzzles (I’m a sucker for these types of brain-benders) and the way the level teaches you about this new type of switch – and then proceeds to complicate the originally simple idea – makes for brilliant level design. Great levels teach the player how to complete them, introducing concepts and then progressively making them more challenging and adding more layers to them. You don’t need a fairy companion telling you what to do or offering hints; the level design itself does it for you, giving you all the clues you need.
That extra layer of player independence adds to the brilliance of this level. The fact that you alone solv
e the puzzles and complete the dungeon makes it that much more rewarding when you complete it and save the Sage within. No companion character told you what to do. You learned by doing, and progressively got smarter and savvier as you went deeper into the dungeon.
The Boss Fight
Ah, the Gemesaur King. I love this boss fight so much.
The room starts dark, and the boss doesn’t show himself. Naturally, you look around the room, and find two unlit torches. Light those, and a giant roaring beast jumps out of the wall to attack you! The boss fight is on.
If you’ve played A Link to the Past, then this boss fight is initially very familiar. Blow up the Gemesaur King’s mask with bombs to reveal the weak spot on his face. A cool effect is added to this fight: the King is coated with gems that turn out to be rupees, so when you blow up his mask and hide, currency flies off of him onto the floor.
Once the mask is destroyed, you start thinking this is a straightforward boss fight. You revealed his weak point, now slash it a bunch with your sword and win! Well, the Gemesaur King has other plans. Once you hit him a few times, he roars, blowing out the torches in the room. Then he transforms into a shadow beast that charges through the room. You can’t hurt him in this state, so you need to light the torches again, but his quick movements and large size means it’s easy to get hit while doing this. Light the torches, and he reforms, and you can smack him in the face some more.
This boss fight just is a great capper on what, to me, exemplifies what A Link Between Worlds does so well. It’s remarkably familiar, especially if you’ve played A Link to the Past, and yet it assaults you with the unfamiliar and surprising. You’re taking on a brand new type of light puzzle, encouraging you to do something counter-intuitive to a seasoned Zelda veteran: turn out the lights. Then, the boss fight starts seemingly straightforward, but adds both interesting twists, and exciting visual aspects, to make it truly fresh and new.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at one of my favorite dungeons in the Zelda series, one that I feel embodies some truly brilliant level design. In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring other dungeons from other Zelda games, as well as a few others from A Link Between Worlds. The focus is on their level design, looking for the ones that stand out as being, like the title suggests, brilliant.
The games I will focus on are those that I own a copy of and am very familiar with. Feel like I’m missing a gem of a Zelda game? Well, I haven’t played them all, and a few that I have played, I don’t own a copy of anymore, hence their exclusion. Here are the games I will be including:
I may include A Link to the Past, as I’m currently playing through it for the first time, but my lack of familiarity with it may exclude it from the list.
So there you have it, the first piece in this series looking back on the most well-designed dungeons in Zelda games. Level design is a big thing for me in video games, and the games that do it well stand out the most to me. Zelda games have no shortage of clever, mind-bending dungeons, so I look forward to sharing more of these analyses with you in the future. Until then, let me know: what did you think of A Link Between Worlds’ Dark Palace? And what are some of your favorite Zelda dungeons?