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Zelda Classic [GCS]: Sculpting the World

Assuming you have your general story and progression of events in mind when you fire up Zelda Classic, your first inclination might be to begin constructing an overworld of some sort. Indeed, this is what most ZC designers will do, because most games go the typical overworld-filled-with-dungeons route. By default, any “map” (basically a grid of screens) will allow for the creation of an area (indoors or outdoors) that measures 8 screens vertically and 16 screens horizontally, totaling up to 128 areas. Yet, is this truly the best place to start?

Well, before I get into that, let’s talk about this: at first, 128 screens seems like a pretty large overworld and, to be fair, it is. It takes a decent amount of time to create 128 well-crafted screens, but this is simply the basic size of the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. When you put it in that perspective, it isn’t all that big. A lot of quests end up creating at least two overworld maps that connect to each other and give the seamless illusion of making a much larger area, and naturally that takes even more time to do.

When I first got started with Sword of Moria, I decided that I wanted the game to start in a village called Saria in the far south of Northern Hyrule. This was done for plot reasons, since in the opening I designed later, it specifies that Link, Zelda, and a few escorting soldiers traveled to the south to prepare to venture to Calatia (across the western mountains) on a diplomatic mission. Saria represented a canon town and would serve to connect the player with the realms they already visited in previous NES installments. Then, once I was finished there, I wanted to design the region right outside of town, but how would I do this? I considered the task at hand and then decided that the best way to design Sword of Moria, given its overall scale, was to create the overworld as a series of regional maps that would all connect in complex and interesting ways to give a grand sense of the world around Hyrule itself.

So, to start out, I had a separate map for Saria Town and then created a map called “North Death Mountain.” While this Death Mountain map started out as only a handful of screens that Link would visit on his eventual journey to Calatia (more on that soon), as I expanded the game later on it came to contain a much wider breadth of areas to explore, including a maze-like series of passes that you access from Eastern Calatia, a volcano area with a dungeon called Eldin Shrine, and later a pass to the south that will eventually (I haven’t gotten nearly this far with development yet!) take the player south, to the region called “Old Hyrule” where the original Zelda and most other games take place.

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So, at this point, my game consisted of two “maps:” The Town of Saria and North Death Mountain. This would facilitate the beginning of our new adventure. In Saria, the game starts out with Link going to find Princess Zelda so they can take a boat down the river, through the mountains, and to Calatia, only to find out that she has gone missing. This brings him to wander into the hills in search of her, only to finally enter a dark cave, fall through a broken bridge, and discover that some sort of sinister version of himself has purposely misled him so that he can track her down at Eldin Shrine (where supposedly she has gone to pay homage to the gods) and make her his prisoner. No longer able to return to Saria, Link has no choice but to press on through a cave that leads him to yet another map: Calta Canyon.

Okay, so…Still with me, I hope? That gives us three “maps” that are explorable, but in reality, we actually end up with six maps. Why is this? Well, generally, for each map I design, I create a secondary map where all the doors and such lead to. So, as an example, Map 1 might be “Town of Saria,” but then Map 2 will be “Saria Interior.” What this does though is help me organize things in a much easier fashion. If there is a house on Screen 34 of “Town of Saria,” I will place the inside of that house on Screen 34 (if possible) of “Saria Interior.” This makes things much easier to keep track of on a basic level. Of course, then you have to get into the idea of how you link the two maps (which itself is done through tile warps or side warps), but this might need to be a discussion for another time.

In any event, with a game of this scope, where there are multiple maps to keep track of, a lesson I learned very early on in the development of Sword of Moria was that having at least one sub-map for each major map will keep things simple in the long run (which ultimately is very important!).

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Of course, here we’ve really only talked about the main design concepts behind map creation and haven’t gotten into the nitty-gritty of tiling, secrets, enemies, warps, or any of that stuff which actually constitutes the creation of any given “map,” but the fundamental concepts are almost equally as important. I think a lot of quests and projects go unfinished because the designers lose focus on what they are doing, get bogged down with far too many things to keep track of, and a lot of the joy of design gets lost in the frustrations of trying to figure out what you were doing last time you were using the editor.

Now that we’ve gotten some of that out of the way, next time I’ll get into the basics of tiling a basic screen, setting up “warps” that will serve as staircases and doorways, and placing enemies and putting in basic NPCs with dialogue. Meanwhile, stay tuned next week because Warren will be getting into some more RPG Maker XP as he continues his adventures with his new project!

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Jessica Brown

Jessica Brown

Jessica "Allahweh" Brown has been a gamer since the '80s and loves modern, indie, and retro games alike. Feel free to follow her adventures at GamingGoddess.net.