Posted on May 28 2022 by Mike Midwood
To me, The Legend of Zelda has always been a series of dungeon-crawling headscratchers rather than combat-focused action games. Except for the franchise’s earliest entries, figuring out what one is supposed to do is usually the primary challenge; the actual execution is often trivial. Whether it’s a specific puzzle, the layout of a dungeon, or a sequence of actions that need to be performed, the Zelda series has consistently delivered brainteasers that are both creative and memorable. What has often fluctuated is the level of expectation placed on the player to engage with these puzzles and the sense of rewarding accomplishment that can be reaped from them. This will be an exploration of how those dueling values have been addressed by different Zelda titles and how they correspond to gaming trends through history.
I was inspired to write on this topic by a recent rewatch of “Sequelitis – Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X” (great video, great series, bad language warning) by YouTuber Egorapter, probably better known today as Arin Hanson of GameGrumps fame. Before it becomes a Mega Man analysis, a basic thesis of this video is that newer video games, despite their inclusion of mature themes and more serious presentation, have been designed as “…catering more towards kids who don’t know what the [expletive] is going on…”. While I don’t know that it necessarily has to do with age demographics, I absolutely agree with the sentiment. To reveal my bias now, I also identify a trend in game development geared to accommodate players with less patience, less willingness to figure things out on their own, and more focus on a smooth experience over a satisfying challenge. Since my beloved Zelda series has existed since the aftermath of the 1983 gaming crash, I’ve naturally seen aspects of this same transformation there.
Please understand that while I will use factual information from various games below, they are ultimately used to support opinions. The Zelda community has a diverse set of tastes, and my goal is not to say that this game is bad or that game is good. I want to analyze the tendencies of these games from my own perspective and express what has and hasn’t worked for me based on my values. In my opinion, the Zelda series achieved a prolonged period of perfect middle ground, where the puzzle design was accessible enough for every player without being patronizing or insulting to their intelligence. My argument will essentially be for the superiority of the design ethos from that period. I will be highly critical throughout, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
WITH GREATER AUDIENCES COMES GREATER ACCESSIBILITY
Back in the 80s and 90s, video games were a niche hobby for nerds with too much time on their hands. As such, they were developed by and for people who would sink that abundance of time into mastering difficult, impenetrable games designed to be skill-checking, mettle-testing obstacle gauntlets. By the mid-2000s, on the back of mega-successes like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the medium started to achieve a degree of mainstream success. Today, video games are the most profitable entertainment industry in the world by a mile.
As budgets and audiences grew larger, achieving mass appeal became necessary to recoup costs. Video games were no longer made for people willing to dedicate an American work week to figuring out you can get the Varia Suit early in Metroid. Design started to center more around players with a more casual interest in video games and maybe only a few hours a week to spend on them. The default difficulty of most games was decreased, and more information was delivered in more obvious ways, often in the form of explicit tutorial segments. It’s understandable; if someone has limited time for video games, they’re more likely to treat it as a relaxing leisure activity, probably wanting the path from “Push Start” to “Have Fun” be as brief and unobstructed as possible.
During this time, game development became focused on the first playthrough experience. With improving technology came better graphics, more realistic presentation, and stories with characters that could be taken more seriously than before. To reference the catalyzing game above, Call of Duty 4 is also an excellent example. It was seen as a revolutionary step forward in video game presentation. Realistically rendered battlefields, professionally delivered voice work, and explosive cinematic moments made for an awe-inspiring and memorable experience. Even though I don’t like these kinds of games very much, I can still remember my experiences with it fifteen years ago. The reason I’ve never been compelled to revisit it is because all of that presentational gloss can’t hide the fact that it’s a game where you basically do two things; aim and shoot. Sure, the framing is sometimes different. Occasionally you set or diffuse explosives, protect a hostage, or storm a bunker, but the only mechanical engagement the game ever makes with the game is interminable aiming and shooting. If you don’t care about mechanic mastery and just want a fluid experience, this works perfectly.
If you’re like me, however, you care more that the game is consistently demanding on the mechanical and decision-making levels than that it have impressive presentation or compelling narrative. These things can be interesting elements of an already great game, but they can’t be the driving force behind my enjoyment of them. My least favorite Zelda games get this dichotomy backwards. I’ll call out specific titles below, but if a game is placing a lot of time and importance on things like story, presentation, or elements unrelated to my engagement with the gameplay, it runs the serious risk of losing my interest if not actively annoying me. I can only hear a story for the first time once. In order to truly love a game, I need to want to play it in the most literal sense.
Unfortunately, I think these design tendencies often go way overboard. I can sympathize with the desire to make your game enjoyable to as many people as possible. That’s what generates revenue, builds brand visibility, and creates a market for sequels. Too often, however, games rob all but the most unengaged players of any accomplishment by making challenges painfully obvious or offering an endless stream of cudgels to tease out the solutions. The Zelda series has been guilty of this more than a few times. You don’t need to be a Zelda turbo-dork like me to know that switch in the corner probably does something important.
EASTMOST PENNINSULA IS THE SECRET…..WHAT!?
I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the Zelda series often sinned on the opposite side of this spectrum during its earliest years. It was typical during the heyday of the NES for games to be outrageously cryptic to compensate for their meager amounts of content. Old coots will insist that information could often be garnered from manuals, official maps, or magazines which is a total non-starter to me. I’m a big believer in the value of textual continuity, the idea that all the information needed to understand a piece of art should be found within the text itself (this is a big reason why I don’t like the timeline, but that’s a conversation for another day). If it isn’t reasonable for the player to decipher the game’s expectations without the use of supplementary materials like a walkthrough, Nintendo Power, or schoolyard/watercooler rumor, there’s a problem. You may disagree with this standard, but there’s no debating that The Legend of Zelda repeatedly transgresses it.
The most egregious example is the location of The Lion, the penultimate eighth dungeon in the game. There is absolutely no hint, within or without the game itself, that indicates this tree hides a mission critical secret. Level 7, The Demon, is pretty bad too. There is an old man who tells you that “There are secrets where fairies don’t live”, but even if you’re able to interpret this to mean the lake adjacent to the one with the fairy, it doesn’t at all suggest what actually needs to be done there. Good luck trying every conceivable option before realizing the whistle drains the lake. This is to say nothing of the myriad caves that house valuable collectibles with no external hint to their existence. Even required acts that do have hints are either far too hidden or require adventure game moon logic to decipher. The hungry Goriya comes immediately to mind.
While most consider Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to be less cryptic than its predecessor, it has its own collection of unintelligible moments of mystery. While there are hints given on how to find Kasuto Town, how to enter the Hidden Palace, or how to find Bagu, they require interaction with very specific villagers and even then, require further interpretation with no assistance. Entering the Hidden Temple is especially frustrating, as there is no indication that a specific tile of the overworld must be stood on. Despite the fact that impenetrable design like this was common for the era, I don’t think the Zelda series should be granted a pardon for these offenses.
I DETECT A 98% CHANCE THAT YOU SHOULD OPEN THIS DOOR
In more modern times, however, the Zelda franchise has frequently committed the opposite offense, a ridiculous level of developer handholding. While A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild have taken some steps to rectify this, I consider the period from The Wind Waker through Skyward Sword to be the series’ weakest, and this is the prime reason why. Games from this era go to insane lengths to ensure that every player, regardless of engagement level, has a smooth journey, even if it can no longer be considered an adventure. Struggle is an integral part of any adventure worth going on and it’s a shame to see these entries done a disservice by eliminating any possible moments of roughness.
I submit that the absolute worst puzzle in the entire Zelda series is found late in The Wind Waker. In many ways, I’m inclined to give this game a break. Obviously designed to be more laid back, I can appreciate that the developers shied away from including anything too arduous for players to overcome. That said, this example is too egregious not to drag across the coals. There’s a puzzle in Ganon’s Tower that allows you to open a point of return to the Great Sea before the final boss. Two rooms flank a central room. One contains four candelabras and the other has four crystal switches in analogous positions. Each candelabra has a different number of lit candles on it from one to four. There’s no accounting for taste, but I imagine you can guess the solution to this puzzle by now even if you haven’t played the The Wind Waker. Nintendo didn’t agree apparently, as the camera will pan to each of the candelabras in the proper order. As if this weren’t enough, it will then do the same exact thing in the room with the switches. Astoundingly, this will happen even if you didn’t enter the candelabra room, essentially giving away the solution without even knowing what the puzzle is. Keep in mind that this is for an optional benefit at the very end of the game, five minutes before the final boss. There might as well have been no puzzle at all. Even in The Wind Waker, the patronizing philosophy behind this puzzle speaks volumes to Nintendo’s expectations for players at the time.
Of course, I can’t end this section without touching on the patron saint of handholding, Skyward Sword. While the HD version somewhat reduced the crazy amount of interruptions that plagued the initial release, the ones which hint or outright reveal the method of progression remain present. In fact, Skyward Sword’s commitment to babysitting the player is so prolific that it’s difficult to select a few specific examples. It’s a series standard for item pick-ups, especially key items, to show a blurb of text explaining its use. Skyward Sword sees fit for Fi to regale you with the exact same information again, and usually the explicit solution to the next puzzle. Entering practically any new room in practically every dungeon triggers a camera pan to a point of interest, dialogue from Fi, dialogue from some other character like a Mogma, or a tablet with obvious information on it. Sometimes more than one of these will happen. There’s a notable room in the Ancient Cistern where all of these things happen. Nothing in Skyward Sword is as bad as the example from The Wind Waker, but it’s unrelenting here. The game is so constantly terrified that a player might experience a moment of confusion, frustration, or delay, that it would rather just hand out the answers. I find it impossible to gain any satisfaction from progressing through Skyward Sword because I always feel like the game basically did it for me.
THE EUREKA MOMENT
My apologies if this has all seemed very negative. It’s important to establish what I think wrong is so that I can explain what right is for a Zelda puzzle. Thankfully, the series has gotten plenty right and, at its best, is a paragon of excellent puzzle design. The best Zelda puzzles are those that make the player feel like a genius, even if it wasn’t that complex in retrospect. This is impossible to achieve when answers are simply divulged up front, but the path to success can’t be so obtuse that it feels unfair. I think the Zelda franchise, its puzzles and overall, hit its stride and peak between A Link to the Past and the Oracles. In particular, the two N64 games are masterworks of puzzle design, a key factor in them being my absolute favorites.
Everyone may not think that Ocarina of Time is the greatest game ever and the crowning achievement of human artistic expression, but one of its puzzles is frequently referenced as a standout in all of gaming. In the deepest depths of the Forest Temple is a chamber with a single door leading in and out. Inside is a platform with a lit torch, four platforms orbiting it, and a frozen eye switch high on a wall. At first glance, this may seem similar to the puzzle I mentioned from The Wind Waker. Anyone familiar with Zelda will probably understand what to do immediately and even those unacquainted will probably notice the clues. The difference is presentation. Even if putting the pieces together is simple, the player must place them all themselves. The eye switch, the recently acquired bow, the ice, the fire, and the platforms are all allowed to be clues for the player’s evaluation, not shoved in their face. There are even two alternative cheese strategies for this puzzle. The player can use the fire arrows or Din’s Fire, both optional at this point, to activate the eye without interacting with the platforms. This isn’t a difficult puzzle, but no element of is spoiled for the player by the game.
I’ll admit that Majora’s Mask occasionally boarders on problematically cryptic like The Legend of Zelda. However, this is usually restricted to optional content in the overworld of Termina (looking at you, Shiro), rather than the dungeons, where I feel this issue is more important. In my opinion, Majora’s Mask has the best dungeons in the series, regardless of how many there are. Besides Woodfall Temple, they’re all essentially giant puzzle boxes that give out their hints in ways that are subtle, yet decipherable. Snowpeak Temple’s pillar and variably elevated hallways, Great Bay Temple’s water wheel and color-coded pipes, Stone Tower Temple’s inverted rooms and perspective; all of these are examples of subtly guiding the player to interact with and understand the dungeon’s central mechanic. I’ve often heard the dungeons of Majora’s Mask described as confusing or tedious. They certainly require more spatial comprehension than most other dungeons in the series, but this why I consider them so well-designed. If the player pays attention, all the clues are there to grasp the complexities of these immaculately designed dungeons.
The two most recent, “traditional Zelda games”, A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild, give me hope that my view on this subject is seeing a resurgence. The dungeons of Lorule have a design reminiscent of Majora’s Mask. They aren’t as complex, but they focus on interactions with a central, dungeon-encompassing mechanic that must be understood to succeed. Despite my issues with the many Sheikah Shrines, they channel the spirit of an Ocarina of Time puzzle. They present the player with a puzzle and trust that they can derive the solution from the elements presented. Most aren’t particularly difficult, but the success is the player’s own. They’re also open to a plethora of alternative solutions.
Other, non-Zelda games have also risen to prominence on the back of this sense of design. Triple-A games like Elden Ring and indie titles like Tunic have both proven that there is a substantial market for games which are willing to give out scraps of information while leaving the puzzle-solving to the player. My hope is that the Zelda series will go back to this minimal guidance approach, and in some ways, it already has.
LOBBY FOR MY HOBBY
This has been my plea for a more hands-off, player-driven approach to puzzle design in the Zelda series. If I took some shots at your favorite game, please don’t take it personally. People play games for different reasons and that applies to Zelda as well. I require a decent degree of rigor and resistance to enjoy most games, but other’s play specifically to avoid those things. If you like to have smooth experiences without much push-back or if your time is too limited to accept anything else, that’s totally fair. I feel my rejection of it is justified, though. As explained in the opening paragraphs, most games are already designed with this approach in mind. Even if it’s fruitless, I will defend the design philosophy I want to see in my favorite series.
I fell in love with these games because of the sense of mystery and discovery that they instilled in me. For me, this is hard to experience in games that are constantly telling me where to go, what to do, and how to do it. I also don’t like feeling aimless and lost. There’s a balance that can and has been achieved by the series many times before. I think there’s reason to believe we’re headed back to that golden land in the future.
What about you? What do you look for in a Zelda puzzle? What level of guidance do you want from the developers? Let us know in the comments below!
Hi, I’m Mike Midwood and I’m a Senior Editor at ZeldaDungeon! Video games and literature are my greatest joys in life. An avid Zelda fan, some of my other favorite games include the Resident Evil and Dark Souls series. I hope you enjoy my content here on ZeldaDungeon!
“The sword has no strength unless the hand that holds it has courage.”