Have you ever played a game and thought, “Sounds a bit like Zelda?” “Just the other week, we were describing the excellent Eastward as” kinda like a 2D Zelda game “, and the PC / Xbox game The door of death – a title our sister site Pure Xbox called “a 2021 GOTY competitor” when it rated it 10/10 in July – drew a similar response from critics. It’s an influence that crosses all platforms, which is not surprising given the extraordinary history and prestige of Nintendo’s series.

But what exactly do we mean when we say a game is “Zelda-style”? The question is reminiscent of that famous quote from a judge trying to sum up what constitutes obscenity in a 1960s trial: “I know it when I see it”. It’s easy to say “this game looks like Zelda”, but trying to define why is a tall order.

Task [of finding a ‘formula’] is complicated by the fact that Zelda games have changed remarkably over the past 35 years

Still, for game designers trying to build on Zelda’s success, figuring out exactly what makes up Zelda’s formula is critical. So we spoke to Mark Foster and David Fenn of Acid Nerve, the designers behind the Zelda-type Death Gate, to get their take on what exactly makes a Zelda game look like a Zelda game.

The task is complicated by the fact that the Zelda games have changed remarkably over the past 35 years, from top-down 2D business to 3D roam-a-thons, with a bit of side-scrolling (hello, The Adventure of Link). Then there is Breath of the Wild. “There’s a discussion on the Steam forums for our game where someone was saying, ‘It’s not like Zelda at all, you can’t cook and you can’t assemble stuff,'” says Mark. “They approach the subject from the point of view of Breath of the Wild being what they call a Zelda game.”

But maybe there are some common ingredients that tie all of these games together. Let’s see.

Breath of the Wild differs from previous Zelda titles by its lack of traditional dungeons
Breath of the Wild differs from previous Zelda titles by its lack of traditional dungeons (Image: Moby Games)

Zelda Ingredient # 1: Dungeons

We’re already struggling to fit into Breath of the Wild, unless you count the shrines. But it’s fair to say that dungeons are a key part of the traditional Zelda recipe. “Other than Breath of the Wild, I think everyone else follows the same kind of structure, with this separation of the overworld and the dungeon. That’s a big part of it, ”says David.

Zelda Ingredient # 2: Items That Help You Explore Further

Whether it’s a boomerang or a grappling hook, you will need specific items to overcome certain obstacles and open up the world of Hyrule. You might not always find these items in dungeons, but their use is essential to progress. David says Acid Nerve didn’t initially intend to make a Zelda-like game – the change came when they worked on the structure and progression of Death’s Door, which ended up being item-tied. unique. “I think this is where Zelda is such a useful point of reference.”

Some items open up more areas in Zelda games, like here in A Link to the Past, where you need the hammer to progress
Some items open up more areas in Zelda games, like here in A Link to the Past, where you need the hammer to progress (Image: Moby Games)

Zelda Ingredient # 3: Teasing and Rewarding Level Design

Do you know when you’re in a dungeon and you can see a treasure chest on a ledge but you can’t quite get it? This tease level structure is a must-have part of the Zelda games, tracking rewards that you might be able to snag later if you grab the right item or find a hidden route. Having this correct level structure was essential when working on Death’s Door, David explains. “It was a pretty big goal for us, and it’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on. I’ve probably spent around 80% of my time on level design, as it’s a huge task to create levels this way, and to make sure you have that satisfying level of deeper exploration if you do. want to find all the secrets.

Zelda ingredient # 4: bosses requiring specific items to defeat them

In most Zelda games, the bosses act as a sort of tutorial on how to use the item you just acquired in a dungeon. Mark says this was something Acid Nerve aimed to emulate in Death’s Door: “For all the main bosses, we tried to have something that would relate to the power you have in this area. The Frog Boss was a direct reference to King Dodongo, where you throw bombs into his mouth to stun him. But Acid Nerve has deviated from the formula slightly by making it so that all bosses can also be taken down using just your sword, with some items just offering an easier way to defeat them. “So it’s something that you find out if you pay attention, but without doing it you can still get through the fight.”

Zelda ingredient # 5: original (and sometimes unsettling) characters

The Zelda games are packed with memorable characters, from singer Marin to middle-aged fairy Tingle. “One of my favorite characters is the happy mask salesman,” says Mark. “Just the way it’s animated with frozen footage, and when the camera cuts out [back to him] he’s in a different position. Mark believes that Zelda’s overall tone was certainly an inspiration “on a subconscious level” to the characters in Death’s Door – and Pothead certainly reminds us of some of the alien citizens of Hyrule.

Happy mask seller
Image: Nintendo

Zelda ingredient # 6: short dialogue

Characters don’t usually speak much in Zelda games – instead, the design does most of the characterization work. “Every element of a character’s design has so much attention to detail,” says David, “even though he only has a small number of sentences. It’s a really focused way to build a character without a huge script. Acid Nerve used a similar approach in Death’s Door, keeping dialogue to a minimum. “We really wanted to keep that pace and not overwhelm you with having too much text on the screen at the same time. I think that’s something Zelda is good at.

Zelda Ingredient # 7: Simple and Crispy Sword Fighting

Link starts and ends each game with a sword, and the combat is incredibly straightforward, usually with just taps to swing your sword and a charge attack while holding the button down – but the combat is still crisp and responsive. Death’s Door also offers simple one-button swordfights, and Mark says they put a lot of effort into getting it right early on in development: “It was the very first thing we got. made – make the fight feel good. “

Zelda Ingredient # 8: Polish on all surfaces

“As you add more stuff, you break the old stuff and you have to come back and polish everything again. “

Scrappy and janky games can be fun, but in order for something to really look like a Zelda game, you have to give it that Nintendo polish. Mark says they were constantly tweaking the Death Gate every time they added new stuff, but it was a never-ending process: “As you add more stuff, you break the old stuff.” and you have to come back and polish everything again. The final touches also took a long time, as David pointed out: “We finished the whole game about six months before it launched, and then from that point on we had a great list of. whatever we wanted to tweak. “

Zelda Ingredient # 9: Unique Quests and Collectibles

Generic recovery quests have no place in a Zelda game. “I feel like Zelda is really good at crafting all of the bespoke game content,” David says. “You still have that big collectathon thing, but I feel like every single item you find is a satisfying find. Mark explains that this is a format that they tried to reflect in Death’s Door when it comes to collectibles: “If you want to make someone do so much work, you have to at least give them a reward. .

Like the Zelda games, Death's Door eschews realistic details in favor of more stylized graphics.
Like the Zelda games, Death’s Door eschews realistic details in favor of more stylized graphics.

Zelda ingredient # 10: stylized graphics

Every Zelda game is a little different, but Zelda wouldn’t be Zelda if it had photo-realistic graphics. Death’s Door takes a similar approach of avoiding too much realism. “The emphasis is not on realistic details,” explains David. “It’s not super cartoonish, but it’s stylized, and we’re focusing on a color palette in each area.”

Zelda Ingredient # 11: Accessibility

David explains that “Zelda games never intimidate me. You always know you can progress without ruining your trip or missing an item or doing the wrong build. No matter how much time has passed between game sessions, you can easily pick up a Zelda game and get stuck without having to remember any complicated controls or plots. “There is definitely a cozy side”.

Zelda Ingredient # 12: No Level Up

Typically, there is no leveling up in Zelda games – the only real level of building is by collecting hearts. This is an area where Death’s Door deviates slightly from the formula, explains David: “We have a bit of a minimal build creation, because I think in general we focus more on combat, so we wanted to develop this aspect. a little more. ”Even so, grinding for levels is certainly not a hallmark of Death’s Door – and grinding certainly doesn’t have a place in a Zelda title.

So what do you think of our list? Is there something we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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