The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons need no introduction. If you’re aware of GB Studio Central, there is a strong chance you have played, finished and love what many consider to be the best games the Game Boy Color has to offer. It’s hard to argue otherwise when either game alone offers some of the best game play and story in any top-down Zelda game to date and when combined using unlocked passwords from one title to the next, plot points are changed or expanded upon to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts. The Oracle series really is a remarkable achievement.
Released simultaneously in 2001 (only one month prior to the release of the Game Boy Advance), the Oracle series was ultimately the end result of a failed attempt to port a version of the original Legend of Zelda to the GBC. Flagship, a subsidiary of Capcom, had been asked by Nintendo to produce six Zelda games for the handheld system, and a modern take on the classic NES title was a way for them to prove they had what it took to create a successful addition to the franchise. However, it wasn’t long before they realized that the Game Boy Color’s 160×144 pixel screen was vastly smaller in size than the NES’s 256×240 pixel resolution. As a result, players would not be able to view entire dungeon rooms or over-world screens without scrolling the view, and could therefore overlook important game progression elements and clues. Interestingly, the Oracle series would later end up with many dungeon rooms larger than the screen size – but the difference is they were designed with that in mind (a single screen would feel very cramped during a boss fight for example). Furthermore, to suit a modern audience, many changes to the over-world map were deemed necessary in order to reduce the average player feeling directionless when it came to exploring Hyrule. In the end, the team at Flagship scrapped the port and moved straight on to developing what would later become the Oracle series.
It’s no secret that the Zelda franchise experienced a shift away from the design philosophies seen in the original Legend of Zelda. That feeling of complete freedom to go pretty much wherever the player wanted at the outset, even if it meant finding a dungeon that could kill Link in an instant or becoming hopelessly lost, was part of the magic in playing the original game. The developers started moving towards holding the player’s hand more and more as the series went on (at least until tLoZ: A Link Between Worlds let the player off the chains once more). While this certainly caused some distress to many die-hard Zelda fans, it was with good reason.
As video games were becoming more mainstream, developers saw that many new players to the series found themselves experiencing feelings of frustration when it came to exploration. Naturally, these concerns needed to be addressed, but at the same time the veteran players, those who loved the sense of freedom with all its pros and cons, needed to be considered too. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. The developers could go one way and end up overtly pushing the player down narrow corridors as seen with the companion character Fi in tLoZ: Skyward Sword. Or they could forget about hand holding all together and alienate beginner level players who may want to get into one of the best franchises gaming has to offer.
Is there a happy medium somewhere in the middle though? I think so. And the Oracle series does a fantastic job of providing an engaging experience to both veterans, beginners and everyone in between. Let’s take a look at tLoZ: Oracle of Seasons overworld map design in more detail and explore how the developers at Flagship managed to successfully cross that extremely challenging tightrope. Strap on Zora’s Flippers because this particular deep dive is a big one!
Link, the hero of time, is teleported to the land of Holodrum, falls from the sky and is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, the player is given immediate control and can navigate through only 3 screens. Paths are blocked by bushes and the only interactable elements are six NPCs that constitute a traveling troupe of performers.
In these first moments of game play, the amount of information available to the player has been reduced to almost nothing. The game is basically a walking simulator at this point as the player is asked only to learn the basics of movement and how to interact with NPCs, directing them straight towards a story cut-scene that will further the plot. In other words, the developers have created a very narrow corridor for the player to walk down, so to speak, in order to highly control the flow of information and ease beginners into the game. This is in stark contrast to the original Legend of Zelda, which gives the player access to 126 of the 128 over-world map screens right from the get go (the last two require the raft item to access). Let me say that again: 126 screens versus 3! That is a huge difference in the level of control the developers are exerting over the player. It’s no wonder many players were finding themselves getting utterly lost when attempting to play the first title in the series.
With a measly three screens to explore in the prologue of Oracle of Seasons, you may be thinking, “This isn’t going well for those veteran players.” Luckily, once the cut-scene has played out and the game begins in earnest, the developers expand the corridor to give the player an extended period of exploration. Additionally, Impa (one of the members of the troupe) tells Link to search for the Maku Tree in Horon Village, a mystical tree that will aid him on his quest to save Holodrum.
The map has opened up with 31 additional screens and the player is now free to explore Horon Village and the Western Coast. Unlike the first in the series, the player has been given some direction by an NPC too. In this way, beginners are further eased into the exploration elements of a Zelda game. There is a goal to strive for – find the Maku Tree! Notice Impa doesn’t say what literal direction to take, only that it’s in Horon Village. The developers are encouraging the player to go in any direction rather than specifically south east (straight to the Maku Tree).
The player will soon head south, but once in Horon Village, they can choose to head to the right (leading to the Maku Tree entrance) while traveling to the left will have Link exploring the Western Coast. While 31 additional screens seems pretty generous, ultimately the player gets to choose between these two directions. But hey, that’s considerably more freedom than the narrow corridor provided during the prologue. The important take-away here is that the player feels more free to explore.
Say the player decides to head eastward. They could explore Horon Village as much as they like, and most probably come to a large gate that makes mention of the Maku Tree but, to gain passage, one must “show courage”. Hmm… a clue. But without the ability to show courage, the player can only move on and continue exploring.
If the player is the type that likes to interact with NPCs as they explore, they will likely come across a painter by the town’s central fountain (which is very close to the locked gate). Here is what he has to say:
“Do you know of the Hero’s Cave near the Western Coast? The Hero’s Sword is said to be hidden there, but no one has ever found it.”
And if the player heads one screen south of the painter, they will find an old man by a cliff. He says:
“Our Guardian, the Maku Tree, stands beyond the gate to the east of town. It’s said a hero with a sword will come to speak with him. I wonder if it’s true…”
Pretty strong clues, huh! But even if the player doesn’t feel like talking to NPCs, the expanded corridor is contracting with every screen explored. It’s just a matter of time before they stumble upon the Hero’s Cave by the beach, complete a mini-dungeon and find the requisite item.
Now, what if the player didn’t go east to begin with but decided to go westward instead? In that case, it’s highly probable they would discover the Hero’s Cave by themselves and end up with the Hero’s Sword anyway. Then the narrowing corridor of exploration would contract in the opposite direction and end up subtly pushing the player towards the Maku Tree gate with the Hero’s Sword in hand.
Let’s recap what has just happened here on the macro scale of the over-world map design. We begin with a very narrow exploratory corridor of just 3 screens. That corridor expands to allow the player to explore 31 additional screens. As the player explores, finds the necessary items to progress and where those items can be used, the corridor begins contracting once again – no matter which directional choice is made – until they achieve the goal set out by Impa of finding and talking to the Maku Tree. This formula allows a veteran player to experience freedom of choice when it comes to exploration and, once the corridor begins to contract as the player explores, ensures beginners don’t find themselves getting too frustrated. In fact, if done really well, the player won’t even realize they are walking down corridors in the first place – it will feel like they have discovered everything for themselves organically!
At this point, the player is given the Gnarled Key and given a new goal – find a “Giant Root” (the entrance to the first dungeon of the game).
In this way, the process is renewed again and again throughout both of the Oracle games. A new item is collected and the area of exploration is expanded to some degree as a result. In this case, only 4 more screens are available when the sword is found (two of which the player can’t do anything with until later in the game). It’s a small expansion this time and a return to a similar situation as the prologue, funneling the player towards the first of the dungeons. It’s no coincidence the map loosely resembles an arrow pointing up, with the Gnarled Root Dungeon close to the tip. The developers are less interested in having the player explore at this point. Instead, it’s time for the player to experience some of the more action oriented game play – to which Oracle of Seasons is known for. By using ‘locks’ and ‘keys’ in this way, the player experience can be subtly regulated. In other words, an area designed with exploration in mind can transition to an area with action, story elements or down-time by locking it behind a collectible progression item.
These periods of exploratory expansion and contraction is the Oracle series’ solution to the problems beginner players faced in the original Legend of Zelda. To put it simply:
The more additional screens/areas the developer gives the player at once, the more difficult it is for the player to manage periods of exploration.
Therefore, difficulty curves (and even the player’s feelings) can be regulated throughout an entire game’s timeline by controlling the number of additional areas the player unlocks at any one time. Do you want a section where your game is focused more on story or action? Then unlock a very small amount of additional areas (or none at all!). Want the player to feel relatively lost or hopeless, perhaps for a narrative reason? Then unlock a large area all at once, pepper that area with some hints as you see fit and let them off the leash for a period of time!
Like the ups and downs of an ocean wave, this repeating pattern of expansion and contraction can be applied to genres such as Adventure games, RPGs, Metroidvanias and Platformers. In fact, any game that has periods of exploration in it can benefit from this design strategy.
In Part 2, we will explore how this design strategy evolves beyond the first hour of gameplay and take a look at a second overworld design strategy too. There is much more to be discovered!