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Zelda Classic: Puzzled about Puzzles! [GCS]

The other day, while I was working on Zelda: Sword of Moria, an interesting revelation occurred to me: It’s a lot harder to design puzzles and challenges for games than it is to simply get through them. You see, I was working on a puzzle in a new dungeon I am creating called the Forgotten Sanctuary, and I wanted to make a challenging block puzzle that you’d need to complete in order to get a key you needed to progress. Yet, I was having trouble visualizing how I actually wanted the puzzle to look and operate, and I found that this was compounded quite a bit by the need to visualize what the player would experience and not want to make it too challenging for them (yet, at the same time, keeping it engaging and not far too easy either).

When it comes to the Zelda series, puzzles are one of its foundations. Yes, the games have always been about fun combat and lots of exploration, but after A Link to the Past a new element was introduced: puzzles. While I do indeed love the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, the fact of the matter is that most of the “puzzles” in the game consisted of killing all the enemies in a room, pushing the correct block, bombing a certain wall, or (in the second quest) taking a chance at walking through certain trick walls. In A Link to the Past, this was kicked up by a large degree because you had multi-floor dungeons and complex puzzles to solve in order to find all the items, keys, etc., and locate the lair of the boss. Even though I am going with what I call an “enhanced 8-bit” aesthetic with Sword of Moria, I have opted to make the overall gameplay much closer to that seen in the SNES entry in the series.

To be honest, I’ve actually found that designing the game’s dungeons is much harder and time-intensive than creating the overworld or even the towns. As discussed before, I’ve already got an overall map created for most of the overworld that the player will explore in the game, so it’s just a matter of taking that map and bringing it to fruition in the game. However, the dungeons are a different story. I want them to be unique and fun. Challenging yet not off-putting. And I certainly don’t want the game to be too easy or boring in any way.

In fact, since I’ve opted to have a much larger overworld, I wanted to keep the exploration concept true to form, yet I didn’t want the player to be annoyed with huge amounts of back-tracking. This was alleviated by including a “fast travel” system of sorts whereby the player can unlock the doors of staircases in different parts of the land that connect to an underground labyrinth that draws them all together. So, if Link enters Sheikah’s Passage in Eastern Calatia, he can go down some stairs, go through a few rooms of the underground passageway, and climb a different set of stairs to find himself in Western Calatia (provided that he has already been to that region and unlocked the door there). Also, of course, there are a few special items hidden in that map anyway, but I digress…

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Of course, as we know, not all puzzles are about getting through a particularly tough room of a dungeon. The second major dungeon of my project is a large pyramid that goes from 2F all the way down to B8. Getting into it though is about as challenging as getting through it. In order to gain access to it, Link needs two keys (called the Sun Key and the Moon Key). By following a certain exit from a mini-dungeon called the Roc’s Well, he finds the house of an archaeologist who tells him about the pyramid’s history and gives him one of the two keys he will need to get inside. As you might guess, though, the other key is missing. The NPC points the player to an old man in Marlin’s Village in the canyon who supposedly knows a bit more about the key, and when Link talks to the old man, he recites an ancient riddle. I won’t tell you here exactly what the riddle says or what the solution is (you can find that out in this video here), but although it may require some thought and a bit of frustration, once you realize the solution you’ll feel quite satisfied by the whole affair!

Really, I’ve discovered that a lot of it is about finding a balance. What is it that I find fun? What do I think the player will also enjoy? Of course, you can’t please everyone, and it’s true that no matter what I put in the game, no matter how perfect it is, no matter how great the story is, the fact remains that it still won’t be for everyone. And that’s okay, too.

Still, sometimes I get frustrated trying to come up with fun, original, and unique challenges to add in. I think that is part of the reason why this latest dungeon has taken me so long to complete. I want it to be fun, and I don’t want it to have a feeling to it that just makes you go, “Eh…I’ve already played this before.”

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In an effort to come up with something original, one of the challenges found later on in Forgotten Sanctuary is a raft puzzle. I recalled the fun challenge of the raft game in Zelda: Link’s Awakening and wanted to do something fun with it, yet I didn’t want it just to feel like something tacked-on and like it was a simple mini-game. I want all items you obtain in your quest to have a true purpose, not just a one-time use to get through something. Well, in order to obtain the boss key to the dungeon, the player will have to navigate a six-screen maze down on B1 of the dungeon. On a couple screens, there is a whirl pool that, if the player touches it, will suck them up and drop them off in a cave outside of the dungeon. Annoying? Yep. But then again, it adds to the challenge of figuring out exactly how you need to sail the raft in order to avoid that terrible fate!

So far, though, I don’t think I’ve put any unfair challenges into the game. And honestly, that’s a good thing. A lot of designers love throwing monster gauntlets at you that just aren’t fun to get through. Others like to make things so cryptic that you’ll likely just quit rather than trying to figure out the solution. Me? I just want you guys to have fun when you finally get a chance to experience a polished product!

Well, that’s it for me for Game Creation Station this week. Next week, look forward to Warren coming back to tell us more about The Search for Dave and his RPG Maker XP experiences!

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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.