As this series of long-dated observations about The Legend of Zelda nears its conclusion, it’s time to circle back around to the very first post on the topic and look at the overworld design again. Zelda admirably points players in the right direction from the very beginning and “teaches” you how to play as you advance through the dungeons, but the entire overworld layout speaks of a thoughtful design process.
To begin with, the overworld works on a macro scale, as you can see here when it’s all strung together. If we continue accepting the assumption that up equals north, what we have here appears to be a land on the east-southeasterly edge of a landmass. It’s bounded by impassable mountains to the west and north, ocean to the east edging around the southeast corner of the land, and (somewhat less convincingly) impenetrable shrubbery to the south. This forms a perfect rectangle broken into a perfect grid, but whatever, it’s a game. Roll with it.
Within the boundaries of Zelda‘s Hyrule, we have forest occupying nearly the entire south half of the land. The centerpiece of Hyrule is a large, oblong lake fed by a mountain stream and flowing to an unseen sea to the south. A few other ponds appear throughout the land as well. The coasts are appropriately rocky, with some thoughtful little details; I’m fond of the narrow, rocky passage due east of the starting point, which suggests the elevated forest giving way to a more treacherous path to the coastline. To the west, further from shore, the forest is brown and dry, conterminous with a cemetary that serves as the sole entrance to the mountains prior to Link acquiring the ladder that allows him to ford the river and approach the mountain from the east. There’s also a bit of desert at the foot of the mountain to the north — not much, just a small enclosed valley.
Anyway, the interesting thing about the map design is that, technically, Link can go anywhere he likes from the very beginning. Reaching the northerly peaks isn’t easy at the beginning, since the one path forward is blocked by the Lost Woods, which you’re almost guaranteed not to be able to navigate your first time through; but for subsequent adventures, the land of Hyrule is wide open. This is likely the reason Nintendo built health requirements into acquiring the advanced weapons; by making players track down some Heart Containers in order to wield the better blades, they prevent you from skipping straight ahead to the top weapons before ever entering a dungeon. (Though technically, you can snag the White Sword before attempting your first dungeon if you know where to look for upgrades.) Knowing the route through Hyrule from the very beginning serves as a sort of keystone for speed runs and wacky superplay efforts, including the infamous “reaching Ganon without ever finding a sword” endeavor.
Like much of the rest of the game, Zelda’s overworld teases you with intriguing possibilities, enticing you to explore, then rewarding you for seeking out its boundaries. For instance, while wandering around in search of the second dungeon, which has been tucked away in a dead-end nook in the main forest, you’ll probably notice this Heart Container sitting enticingly on a dock. All you need to reach this is the ladder, but you wouldn’t know that at the time; so you wonder, “How do I get that?” Later, once you have the ladder in hand, you’ll probably remember that one upgrade you couldn’t reach before and head over to find it. And from there maybe you’ll use the ladder to cross the river to the north and explore Death Mountain a bit.
The overworld presents a natural sense of progression as you venture to the north. Creatures grow deadlier as you stray further from the opening area, with Moblins to the east and deadly Lynels patrolling the area around the final dungeon in large numbers. The “proper” path to Level-9 takes you through forest, dying forest, a cemetery, foothills, and finally the peaks of Death Mountain: A clear and coherent journey.
Ah, but we get ahead of ourselves.
Zelda’s overworld also operates on an important unstated rule: Every screen of the map can contain a single hidden door. Not every screen does, but no screen contains more than one. (And every once in a while, you’ll find a screen with both an obvious door and a hidden one, though to my knowledge that only happens at the entrance to dungeons, where the secret door serves double duty as the dungeon’s entrance.) Since so many secrets can only be revealed by bombing or burning the scenery, knowing this limitation saves much time and frustration: Once you find an area’s hidden secret, you don’t need to look further.
Secret doors can be just about anywhere.
Touch an Armos statue to bring it to life and you may reveal a door.
Bomb a rock wall and you could open one.
Burn a bush (a breezy task once you have Level-7’s Magic Candle) and a door can appear.
Shove a tombstone, and if a Ghini doesn’t appear to beat you up for disturbing its mortal remains, you just might have found a door.
Move one of those curious rock formations you see scattered around the land. Perhaps they’re related!
There’s even a direct instruction given in the in-game text: Walk into the waterfall.
There’s even a really deviously hidden door in the Second Quest desert that can only be revealed by blowing the Whistle.
This constant detonation and arson can grow wearying if you do it all at once, but hunting for secrets in Zelda works best if you attempt it in dribs and drabs. Have some spare bombs on hand while walking through a screen with no visible doors? That one tree standing by itself in the forest seem a little suspicious? Take a few seconds and poke around. Because most of Zelda’s best secrets — the rarest items, the hidden Heart Containers, the cheapest shop deals — only reveal themselves to those who take the time to look.