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Ability use frequency vs. payoff in the original Legend of Zelda

My friend Douglas Underhill wrote an interesting article about game design, dealing with the frequency of an ability’s use with its reward payoff. Doug’s question comes down to, given that there are hundreds of abilities to potentially pick from in character design, and that certain abilities are either useful much more often and in a much wider range of situations, or else provide a much greater payoff than others, what can be done in designing the rules system and/or world to encourage diversification in putting a finite amount of skill points into skills that are useful less often, or which provide a lower expected payoff.

Underhill asserts that, ideally, less-used abilities should be higher in their payoff, in order to encourage players to put character building points into them at all, while frequently used abilities should be low in payoff, to offset their wider applicability and to prevent the game from falling out of balance. But it’s an inherent problem because the feedback of high reward will encourage the use of an ability.

Essentially, though, game design encourages the use of abilities that grant a high reward, and the higher the reward, the more likely the player is to use and rely on that ability (barring some other limiting mechanism that mitigates or suppresses over-use).

But beyond unbalancing the game, or making the player’s strategies predictable and boring due to min-maxing, the reward weight/use frequency of abilities in a game’s design will determine and shape what the game is about. Dungeons and Dragons is nominally about role-playing and fantasy adventure, but its rules systems make it a game largely about dice rolling and fantasy medieval combat.

Tabletop RPGs are inherently flexible, though, so a given group of players might opt to make their game (or at least a particular game session) about negotiation and barter in a fantasy medieval economy, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But it’s much more likely that the typical group of D&D gamers will spend most of its time fighting and questing for objects and abilities that make them ever better at fighting and surviving in exotic, hostile fantasy environments.

After reading Doug’s article, it got me thinking about how this principle applies in video game design.

Ability use frequency vs. reward is one of those areas in game design in which there likely is not a single way to get it right. Douglas used D&D 5th edition as his example, but I recently revisited the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, and I’m stuck with how well this aspect of game design in particular is handled in that game.

In Legend of Zelda, the player’s abilities in the game are tied to items the player finds throughout the quest, and the reward payoff is tightly coupled to each item. By “tightly coupled”, I mean that there are specific things that items can do, and most problems/puzzles in the game have only one solution, which is to use a specific item, in a specific way. By contrast, in a “loosely coupled” use-reward system, most or all rewards could be accomplished in multiple ways, by using different abilities in different ways. In a tightly coupled system, it’s assured that in order to complete the game, the player must use all of their abilities; in a loosely coupled system, the player could ignore certain abilities, accomplishing all goals within the quest using an preferred alternative. In LoZ, most combat is loosely coupled — most enemies are vulnerable to several weapons. But there are certain enemies who can only be defeated by a specific weapon or item, or who are especially vulnerable to a particular weapon or item. But outside of combat, most of the game’s secrets are accessed by using one specific item (such as the bomb, the candle, or the raft) and only that one item will suffice to pass the obstacle.

A tabletop RPG is much more open-ended, of course, and this loose coupling of abilities to rewards makes the design challenges for such game far more difficult. Players often come up with creative uses of abilities, and tabletop games can allow players to stretch definitions and rules in ways a computer cannot. As a result most problems in a tabletop RPG have an unbounded number of solutions, rather than a small, finite number. In LoZ, if Link encounters a locked door in a dungeon, he has only one item that can help: a key. In a tabletop RPG, a locked door can be solved in many ways: knocking on the door, picking the lock, breaking the door down, using any of a number of potentially useful magic spells, tunneling around the door through a wall, etc.

Tight coupling may limit the possibilities of play, but do not detract from the game design. My point is not that LoZ is inferior to D&D; they are merely different, and both are successful game designs. I think that Zelda games are well designed examples of tight coupling, and accordingly they can be instructive examples to learn from. The design of the original Legend of Zelda is a ripe subject for study. I decided to perform an analysis of the abilities that Link acquires in the game, how frequently they are used, and their reward level, which I present below.

This article will consider the First Quest only, since the items and their abilities are unchanged in the Second Quest. The only difference between the First and Second quest is that the standard ordering of item acquisition changes, and while this does impact the frequency with which certain abilities are used, there’s more than enough data to occupy me by analyzing the First Quest only.

I will also assume a more-or-less “typical” style of play, and ignore out-of-sequence play, speed running, minimal completion running, and novelty challenges such as playing through the game without getting the sword. Of course, anyone who’s studied the game already knows how flexible the design of the game is, making possible such feats. While such minimal completion runs are a fascinating area of study, they’re not the most common, obvious, or intended style of play. These approaches to playing LoZ are interesting in their own right as examples of creative play, but they are not what I’m interested in analyzing here.

Since we can’t anticipate or control how the player will choose to use the abilities they gain as they play through LoZ, we’ll have to rank their frequency in terms of how often they need to be used in the course of playing through the game, when it is completed in the “normal,” or “expected” way. Since use-reward is tightly coupled, we know that most creativity and experimentation will not be rewarded. The player may try to burn rocks with the candle, or lay a bomb on a shrub, to see if it does anything, but it will never reward the player (beyond the minimal knowledge gained by learning what doesn’t work.)

Legend of Zelda gives the player dozens of items, which confer a wide variety of abilities. Broadly speaking, these abilities break down largely into two groups: combat and exploration. Legend of Zelda has a lot of combat in it, with monsters on nearly every screen that you can (and often must) fight in order to proceed, but ultimately the fighting you do in the game is less central to the game than exploring and discovering secrets. On the Overworld, the player can often simply ignore enemies, running past them rather than defeating them all in combat. Loot drops encourage the player to fight frequently, in order to obtain items that will benefit the player in ways that contribute to survival and to further exploration and discovery. Breaking the two classes of abilities down, fighting is done more often, and has a lesser reward, while using exploring abilities leads to fewer rewards, but the rewards are of higher payoff.

Some of the items in the game are completely optional, and need not be used at all in order to win the game. But many items must be used in at least one point of the game to solve a puzzle or unlock or enable advancement into a part of the game that was formerly not accessible.

Many items in LoZ also provide secondary rewards, which stem from other uses that they can optionally be put to. This often helps to balance out the frequency of use for items that may have one use that is required to complete the quest, but other uses which are not necessary but are helpful.

Frequency of Ability Use

Apart from the most basic ability (to walk), all abilities in Legend of Zelda are conferred to the player by acquiring and using items.

Legend of Zelda presents a gradient of ability frequency, ranging from constant effects to items that may only need to be used a single time during the entire game.

Another way the game controls frequency of use is by how early or late in the game the player is likely to obtain them. Of course, LoZ is highly non-linear, but there are still locks that prevent items from being acquired until other items have been found. An item found in the Level 9 dungeon cannot be acquired until the first 8 dungeons have been cleared, but an item found in the Level 1 dungeon will likely be with the player for much of the game. Other items are well hidden, making it unlikely to be found until the player has spent much time exploring the world. More common items are found in various shops found in the overworld, or are found as loot drops in fights (rupees, hearts, bombs, and keys). The earlier, and more frequently, an item is found, the more frequently we may presume it is used.

Thus, we can rank the frequency of use by a combination of the typical number of times the item is used, and how early in the normal order of progress in the first quest it is obtained.

Constant Use Items

These items are in use constantly, simply by having them in your inventory they are active. Almost all of the constant-use items are defensive (shields, heart containers, the rings of protection), the others being exploration aids (maps and compasses for the dungeons). No weapons are constant-effect items.

The shields are the most common/easily found constant-use items. The next most common are probably the heart containers — there’s 13 of them in total. Eight are obtained by defeating the boss of one of the eight dungeons, so come periodically, early to late in the quest. The other five are found in the overworld: three by bombing, one by using the raft (locked until the player has obtained the raft from level 3), and one by using the ladder (locked until the player has obtained the raft from level 4), but the only heart container that is openly visible in the overworld — it serves as a tantalizing hint to the player of the possibility that there may be more out there, waiting to be discovered.

The blue ring is a high reward constant-use item, as it effectively doubles the players life meter, making them better able to survive difficult dungeon rooms and combat with enemies that deal higher damage. It is the most expensive purchasable item in the game, and is only found in one shop, hidden in a dead-end of the overworld, where it is likely to go undiscovered until the player has played through a considerable amount of the game. Even if the player does find the shop early, the high cost of the blue ring may put the player off from buying it until after they’ve bought other desirable items, particularly the large shield, blue candle, and arrows.

I rate Maps and Compasses as low reward items, in that they are only useful in the dungeon they are found in, and only while the player hasn’t cleared the dungeon. But in the short term context of when the player is in the dungeon and hasn’t yet cleared it, and especially if the player isn’t already familiar with the dungeon map from previous play, or due to having a strategy guide, they are of greater value.

Item Ability Reward weight Notes
Full Health Allows player to shoot beams from the sword for a long range attack. Medium Although not technically an “item”, the player is rewarded for having a full health meter by gaining the ability to fire sword beams. This makes the player significantly more effective in combat by increasing the range at which the player can do damage, and by allowing the player to employ more cautious tactics with enemies, engaging them from a distance and reducing the likelihood that the enemy will be able to hurt them.
Shield Defense (blocks certain projectiles) Low Starting equipment. Despite being a “constantly equipped” item, the shield blocks attacks coming from the front only, and only when Link is not using a weapon.
Shield, Large Defense (blocks most projectiles) Medium Purchasable at several overworld shops; expensive.
Blue Ring Defense (half damage) High Available in only one, secret overworld shop; the most expensive purchasable item in the game. Effectively doubles player’s life meter.
Red Ring Defense (quarter damage) High Obtained in L9 dungeon very near the end of the game.
Heart Container Defense (life up) Medium A total of 16 exist; 3 starting, 8 as a reward for defeating a Level Boss, 5 hidden around the overworld (3 bombable doors, 2 item locked by raft and ladder). Heart containers unlock access to the more powerful swords: 5 heart containers needed for the white sword, 12 for the magic sword.
“I bet you’d like to have more bombs” Increase bomb carrying capacity Medium There are just two points in the game where you have the opportunity to increase your bomb carrying capacity, from 8 to 12, and then 16 bombs. Being able to carry as many bombs as possible is very useful, if you are trying to explore every blank wall in every dungeon to see if there are secret passages, you will run out very quickly with just 8 bombs. The design of the later dungeons, particularly Level 7, necessitates a lot of experimentation with bombing. But once you can carry 12 or 16, you will run out of bombs much less often.
Map Navigation/Exploration Low  A total of 9 exist, one for each dungeon level. Each is only of use within its own dungeon.
Compass Navigation/Exploration Low  A total of 9 exist, one for each dungeon level. Each is only of use within its own dungeon.

Instant use items

These items are used immediately when picked up, and consumed. They cannot be held in inventory to be used when needed. Their reward level varies according to how low the player’s health meter is (if Link is about to die, the player will prioritize hearts and fairies much more highly, while if Link is at full health they’ll likely ignore them).

However, for the purposes of this article I am considering the reward level as “low”, as it merely aids survival and extends the player’s session. At times, avoiding death is crucial to completing some greater objective, such as a grueling dungeon crawl to obtain another item. Nevertheless, no matter how many times the player dies, they may start over and try again, and hearts are not needed to complete the game, so ultimately hearts are a low-reward item.

They are frequently dropped by enemies, and depending on the player’s skill, the player will need to heal pretty frequently throughout the game, especially in the dungeons. Hearts can also be purchased in shops, at 10 rupees the cheapest purchasable equipment in the game, which further bolsters the case for them being a low-reward item.

Item Ability Reward weight Notes
Heart Healing Low A common loot drop item. Also found in some overworld stores, the cheapest purchasable item in the game.
Fairy Heals 3 hearts Low An less common loot drop item, flies around the room making it challenging to grab.

Very frequently use items

By “very frequent” I mean that the item is likely to be useful in every screen of the game. After the constantly used items, the next most frequently used items are weapons: the swords and boomerangs.

The sword is a permanently equipped item, mapped to the B button, and typically the very first item acquired in the game. There are three swords in the game, each twice as powerful as the preceeding sword. These are all low reward items. Even though the magic sword does 4x as much damage as the wooden sword, I still rate all swords as low reward items. After all, the sword merely does some damage to an enemy, which in the scheme of things is not all that much of a reward. But through killing enemies, many other rewards are unlocked: loot drops, certain dungeon doors can only be opened once all enemies in a room have been killed, etc.

Of course, there are many ways to kill enemies, beyond using the sword. But none are as effective. Bombs, arrows, and the candle are limited in their use and/or range, which makes them secondary. The magic wand is a powerful ranged weapon, but by the time it is acquired the player will likely have the even more powerful Magic Sword, or be close to acquiring it.

After the sword, the boomerangs are the next most frequently used item. A number of design choices contribute to it being used more than any other B-button weapon:

  • They are found early in the quest, in the L1 and L2 dungeons.
  • It has unlimited use, no ammo to run out of.
  • And it compliments the sword well due to its ability to stun enemies, and to pick up loot drops when an enemy is killed.

The other B-button weapon choices, prior to Level 6, are the Bow and Arrow, Bombs, and the Blue Candle — both of which are limited by ammo and carrying capacity. When the player runs out of bombs, the secondary weapon selection automatically defaults to the boomerang.

The bow deals high damage, but each arrow fired costs one rupee, which effectively discourages its use until the player has purchased all the major shop purchases: large shield, candle, and the blue ring. At this point, the player will often have unlocked access to purchase medicine, which is a continual priority for many players, thus keeping the use of the Bow/Arrow limited to the situations where it is especially effective, or necessary.

Bombs are powerful and useful, but short range, and you have a low capacity. The Blue Candle can only be used once per room, and has a short range. While it can do damage, it is rather limited as a weapon. After level 6, the player acquires the magic wand, which does the same damage as the white sword, but at a distance. It cannot, however pick up loot drop items.

Item Ability Reward weight Notes
Wood Sword Combat Low Given to player at start of game. The player uses the sword on nearly every screen, very often multiple times in order to clear the room of enemies, making it the most commonly used item in the game.
White Sword Combat Low Soft locked (5 heart containers needed), hidden in a far corner of the overworld, a mountainous cave protected by a powerful Lynel. The earliest possible point at which the player can obtain the White Sword is after aquiring bombs, which can be used to find three of the hidden Overworld hearts. The location of the White Sword is out of the way, requiring exploration and finding several secrets to discover, making obtaining it a quest unto itself.
Magic Sword Combat Low Soft locked (13 heart containers needed), hidden in a far corner of the overworld, past a maze, and in a cave under a gravestone. The player is discouraged from touching grave stones, as most of them spawn ghosts when touched. Earliest it can be obtained is after all overworld heart containers are found and the first five dungeons have been cleared.

Despite being more powerful, even the more powerful swords return a low reward: they do increased damage to an enemy, and nothing more than that.

Boomerang Combat Low Obtained in level 1, this is usually Link’s first choice of secondary weapon. It is useful in two ways: it can stun enemies (or kill small/weak enemies), and it can pick up loot drop items. Obtained in Level 1 dungeon. It is acquired in a battle with three Goriya that Link isn’t forced by locked doors to complete. It is free to use, and compliments the sword well in that it stuns many enemies and enables Link to pick up loot drops at a distance, reducing his risk to harm.
Magic Boomerang Combat Medium Because it is such an early pickup, it is often thought of as Link’s main secondary weapon. No more powerful than the first boomerang, but has longer range. Obtained in Level 2 dungeon, in a battle with more Goriya. Again it is not a forced battle, meaning it is possible for the player to run past or avoid defeating the Goriya and still make progress, meaning they may miss one or both boomerangs.

Frequently used items

These items are frequently useful throughout the game, and are useful in many situations, not necessarily on every screen. The reward for using these is generally low.

Bombs are useful as a powerful, area of effect weapon, but they are more important for blowing holes in walls, opening the game to further exploration and the discovery of secrets.

The Magic Wand and Spell Book are a powerful secondary weapon combination, found late in the quest, and thus not used as frequently as the sword or boomerang.

Rupees, the currency of Hyrule, are found very commonly throughout the game, and are used to buy a number of important items: the large shield, blue candle, blue ring, arrows, bombs, medicine, and hearts. The reward value of a rupee is only a fraction of one of the items the player might purchase with it, so is the lowest of any item in the game.

Item Use Reward weight Notes
Bomb Exploration/Combat Low A powerful, but short-range weapon, but it’s more important purpose is to blowing open doors in dungeons and in the overworld. I regard exploration to be the bomb’s primary purpose.

Typical reward for using bombs is low (you spend a lot of time trying to bomb likely looking spots, hoping to find something, and often come up short) but when you do find a secret, the reward is usually well worth it. Bombs enable finding three of the five overworld Heart Containers, secret caches of rupees, and innumerable hidden shortcuts in dungeons.

After the first few levels, most dungeons have at least one room where there is a wall you must bomb through in order to complete clearing the dungeon. The bomb is also the only way to defeat Dodongo, the Level 2 Boss, and recurring mini-boss in later levels.

Frequency of use is limited due to the bomb being used up when it is exploded, and the carrying capacity. At first Link can carry just 8 bombs, but later can purchase the ability to carry 12 and then 16 bombs.

Rupee Money Low Rupees are the most common loot drop items, but actually using (spending) them is fairly infrequent, but is constant throughout the game. There are many items to purchase in LoZ: the Blue Ring, the Blue Candle, the Large Shield, Medicine, Bombs, Arrows, Keys, and Hearts can all be purchased in various overworld shops.

Rupees also serve as ammo for the Bow, once you have purchased arrows at a shop. Keys and hearts are in plentiful supply as loot drops and dungeon rewards, and don’t necessarily need to be purchased, but if you are stuck or desperate and have money to spare, you can buy them.

Overall the reward for spending rupees typically is pretty good, as most of the shop merchandise is valuable, but the value of an individual rupee is quite low, thus its reward weight is low.

Magic Wand Combat Low Not acquired until the Level 6 dungeon, the Magic Wand is a powerful secondary weapon. It does damage equivalent to the White Sword, and unlike the sword beam, it doesn’t depend on Link’s heart meter being completely filled to give Link a powerful ranged attack. Unlimited in use, it consumes no ammo, so is used often once found. The wand is not effective against certain enemies, so is not a full replacement for the sword, but is a great compliment to it, particularly when Link is not at full health and unable to fire sword beams.
Spell Book Combat Low Found in the Level 8 dungeon, the Spell Book enhances the magic wand by creating a flame equivalent to the candle flame when it hits an enemy, dealing extra damage equivalent to the wood sword. Like the candle flame, it will light up dark rooms. But because it is found so late in the first quest, it is not used all that frequently.

Infrequently used items

By “infrequently” I mean that the item is only useful in a comparatively small number of screens in the game. Candles are useful primarily in dark rooms and in overworld screens where there are secrets hidden under a bush. Ladders are useful only on screens where there is a narrow channel of water or lava. Since most screens in the game don’t have these features, these items are needed infrequently.

The Candles are used infrequently, but is useful in several ways. In dungeons, dark rooms can be illuminated by using the candle, making it easier for Link to see walls and navigate around them. In the overworld, the candle can be used to burn bushes, revealing secrets. These may be secret caches of rupees, or shops, especially medicine shops, or even a heart container. This is a medium reward for using an occasionally used item.

The candles can also be used as weapons, but are not terribly effective in this capacity. They deal damage equal to the White Sword, and the flame persists long enough to potentially hit an enemy more than once. But their short range, the single-shot nature of the Blue Candle, and Link’s vulnerability to his own fire make them a less desirable option.

The Blue Candle is limited to being used once per screen, which forces it to be used less frequently. It is not very useful as a weapon because of this limitation. To make the hidden overworld secrets a bit easier to find, late in the game the player may obtain the Red Candle, which is unrestricted in its use, which can speed up meticulous, tedious bush by bush searching on the overworld.

The ladder is a highly useful item. It is technically a constant-use item once found, but it is only usable in certain circumstances, where the player needs to cross a 1-tile wide river of water or lava, so its actual use is somewhat infrequent. The game makes certain parts of the world inaccessible without the ladder, making it impossible to complete the quest without it. But an important aspect of the ladder is that it can be used as a safe platform that puts the player out of reach from enemies who are stuck to walking on solid ground, making the ladder a defensive weapon. Thus while the ladder is used less frequently, and only useful in a narrow context, it is more rewarding when used.

Item Use Reward weight Notes
Blue Candle Exploration/Combat Medium The Blue Candle is purchasable at the overworld shop, and is usually one of the first items purchased. It has many uses: It can burn bushes to reveal secret caves that often contain money, it unlocks the hidden entrance to the Level 8 dungeon, it lights dark dungeon rooms, enabling Link to see obstacles and thus move about more freely, and it is a makeshift weapon. One of the hidden overworld Heart Containers is found with the Candle, and several shops are revealed by burning trees with it, including medicine shops, and the shop that has the best price on the Large Shield.

As a weapon it’s rather poor; it can be used only once per screen, has a limited range of just two blocks, can harm Link if he touches the flame, and only does damage equiavlent to the Wood Sword. On the other hand, it is better than nothing, and its ability to knock back enemies and deal multiple hits to them while the flame is burning makes it reasonably useful.

Still, the Candle’s main purpose is to reveal hidden secrets.

Red Candle Exploration/Combat Medium Removes the one use per screen limit of the blue candle, but still does only weak, short-range damage. Obtained in Level 8 dungeon, it comes too late to be of meaningful value in completing the main quest, and so will not be used more than semi-frequently. But it does make it easier for the player to methodically check the overworld for any hidden secrets they may have yet to find.
Ladder Exploration/Mobility Medium Enables the player to cross 1-tile gaps, unlocking the overworld and making Link more mobile in dungeons where there are water or lava filled moats. The ladder unlocks one of the five overworld Heart Containers. The ladder also opens up certain dungeons. Finally, the player can use the ladder advantageously in combat, using it to step out over water/lava where enemies cannot walk, giving them a safer platform to attack from.

Occasionally used items

These items are used in certain specific circumstances. These are items that have specialized use, and are not needed nor even useful much of the time.

Keys open locked doors. There are only so many locked doors in all the dungeons in the game. Each key can be used once, and then it is consumed. Additional keys can be purchased in shops, but this is never necessary if you complete the dungeons in order. The reward for unlocking a door is generally low; it enables the player to continue to further explore the dungeon. This may be necessary in order to find a needed item, or to find the boss room, and in these cases it is a higher reward. But not all locked doors are required to be opened in order to complete the game.

The magic key is an unlimited-use key. You don’t acquire it until Level 8, and by this point you’ve already encountered most of the doors you will ever need to unlock. It is a reward, like the red candle, that frees the player up from a previously existing resource constraint, in order to encourage them to fully explore the game. Once you have the Red Candle, you can burn every bush on every screen without having to leave and return. Once you have the Magic Key, you no longer need to worry about being a miser with using them. This means that there’s no reason not to unlock every door in the game.

Medicine is also used only occasionally, due to its expense, and low inventory count. When the player is low on health and has a need to press on in the quest, and not retreat to find healing through hearts and fairies, or visiting a fairy pond. Most typically this is when the player is far into a dungeon and can’t turn back without sacrificing the progress they have made. Most players will try to economize their use of the medicine, waiting until they are at very low health before using it. The reward for using medicine is Medium, since it enables the player to press on through a difficult dungeon where they otherwise would not have enough hearts to survive. This is important to keeping the player long enough to complete objectives in the quest. Many players would not be able to beat the later dungeons without using medicine.

The Whistle has certain specific uses, and the player cannot finish the game without it. The two necesssary uses are against the boss Digdogger, and to reveal the hidden entrance to the Level 7 Dungeon. Otherwise the Whistle can be used overworld to summon a tornado that will whisk Link away, taking him to one of the dungeon entrances.

The Bow and Arrow is generally a low reward item, but it is used less frequently due to the fact that it consumes rupees as ammunition, and the player is often trying to save up rupees in order to buy one of the items from the shops. The Bow is found early in Link’s quest, in the Level 1 dungeon, and Arrows may be purchased from several of the overworld shops. It is a powerful, long-ranged weapon, and the arrow can even be used to pick up items. But it is their consumption of rupees that discourages their use. By the time the player no longer has a need to save up money to buy items, they will most likely have the Magic Wand, which is just as powerful as the bow, and the Magic Sword, which is more powerful. However, there are two situations that require the use of the Bow, which makes it a Medium or even High reward item: The Bow is the only weapon that can kill Gohma, the Level 6 Boss, and (with the Silver Arrow) the Level 9 Boss, Ganon.

Item Use Reward weight Notes
Key Exploration Low Opens locked doors in the dungeon. Purchasable in stores, but enough are found in dungeons that purchase is never needed unless the player partially explores dungeons out of order. Keys are needed to complete the game, but not every door need be unlocked.
Magic Key Exploration Low The Magic Key unlocks all dungeon doors, and can be used unlimited times. But because it is not found until Level 8, by the time the player has it in inventory, the reward weight is low.

If the player breaks the normal sequence and liberates the magic key before taking on the other dungeons, it can enable the player to make it through those dungeons without having to stop to fight monsters who guard keys, which can help shave time in speed running the game.

But the main reason for the Magic Key to be so late in the game is to preserve the challenge value of the locked doors, to encourage the player to find and conserve normal keys. Then, once the player has beaten most of the game, the magical key is provided as a way to encourage the player to go back and fully explore all of the dungeons if they desire, unlocking doors that they may have skipped in order to avoid wasting a key that they didn’t absolutely need to use.

Medicine Healing Medium The medicine is a vital life extender, enabling Link to regain full health in the middle of combat. This makes boss fights much easier, as well certain dungeon rooms where Link must defeat a large number of difficult enemies. The game can be won without medicine, but it is much harder to win without it. Thus, medicine serves to open the game up to players of middling and lower kill, allowing them to progress further than they might otherwise. While hearts and fairies can also heal the player, the great advantage of medicine is that it can be stored in inventory and used when needed, effectively doubling or tripling the player’s life bar, making survival through long, difficult areas of the game more likely.
Whistle Mystery Medium The whistle serves multiple functions, all of which are a bit mysterious.

It is required to use the Whistle to defeat the Level 5 boss, Digdogger.

In the Overworld, the whistle serves as a form of teleportation, summoning a whirlwind that sweeps the player to one of the discovered Overworld dungeon entrances. This enables the player to traverse the overworld in a new way.

It is also required to drain the pond that hides the entrance to the Level 7 dungeon.

Bow/Arrow Combat Low/Medium Most players do not use the bow a great deal, due to the fact that each arrow fired deducts one rupee from the player’s inventory, making it an expensive weapon to use. Bombs also cost money, working out to 5 rupees per bomb, but also can be found as loot drop items, making them effectively free. But arrows always cost to use. So until the player has bought the blue ring, large shield, blue candle, they are unlikely to want to waste money using the Bow.

Arrows are highly effective against certain enemies, most notably Pols Voice, which take a great deal of hits with the sword, but can be killed by a single arrow, which can keep going and kill multiple Pols Voice in one shot.

Arrows are also needed to defeat Gohma, one of the dungeon bosses. And a silver arrow is needed to defeat Gannon.

Rarely used items

 Item Use Reward weight Notes
Silver Arrow Combat High Only needs to be used once, to kill Gannon, at the end of the game. Also it is not picked up until late in Level 9, so although it can be used many times, it is typically not used very much at all.
Monster Bait  Puzzle Medium Only needs to be used once, as an offering to get past the “hungry Goriya” puzzle in Level 7. Without this use, the player cannot beat the game.

Also has a secondary use, to attract (certain) enemies to where it is dropped, which can enable the Player to get around a crowded room full of enemies without having to fight them, at reduced risk. This could be useful in the event that the player is low on life and lacks medicine, but from a practical standpoint, most players hardly ever use the Monster Bait for this, since it consumes the bait, a rather expensive item to buy from the overworld shop.

Power Bracelet  Navigation Low The Power Bracelet allows the player access to the Secret Road, a network of four “warps” in the Overworld. These allow the player to travel far in a shorter time than otherwise possible. This is rewarding in that it eliminates a lot of tediuous, time consuming walking around in the overworld once the player has fully explored it and knows where to go.

However, the player need not ever use this ability in order to win the game. It is a feature provided more to encourage the player to explore the far corners of the overworld more completely, in order to discover whatever secrets might be found there.

Items used Twice

 Item Use Reward weight Notes
Raft Navigation High The Raft must be used to win the game, as it is the only way to get to the entrance of the Level 4 dungeon.

The Raft also unlocks the location of one of the overworld Heart Containers, which is a major reward.

By collecting all of the overworld Heart Containers, and clearing the first five dungeon levels, the player can obtain enough Heart Containers to be able to use the Magic Sword in time for Level 6, where large numbers of challenging enemies, such as Darknuts, Like Likes, and Wizzorobes, await. These enemies take many hits with the White sword, but only half as many blows from the Magic Sword. Level 6 is one of the most difficult levels in the game, and beating it with just the White Sword is much harder. This makes finding all the overworld heart containers, so that the player can unlock the Magic Sword before taking on the Level 6 Dungeon, a high value reward.

Items used Once

 Item Use Reward weight Notes
The Letter Unlocks the medicine shop High Without finding the letter and completing the mission to show it to the Old Woman, you cannot buy medicine from her. The only other way to get medicine in the game is to choose it instead of a Heart Container in one of the five overworld Heart Container rooms. Since Heart Containers are one of the most valuable power-up items in the game, opting to choose the medicine instead is a very poor choice. Being able to buy medicine is a much more economical way to obtain medicine, and is sustainable. Additionally, by always choosing the Heart Container over the Medicine, it allows the player to attain sufficient hearts to wield the Magic Sword prior to Level 6, which makes clearing Level 6 much easier.
The Triforce Unlocks Level 9 dungeon High The Triforce is needed in order to beat the game. It does nothing in terms of abilities, other than unlock the Level 9 dungeon. Without the full Triforce, Link cannot progress past the first room of Level 9, and therefore cannot win the game.

Types of Reward

There are many types of reward in LoZ. Link does a lot of exploration and discovery, and the game is full of secrets to be discovered, both optional and mandatory. I would argue that LoZ is more about exploration, discovery, and navigation than it is about combat and fighting. Secrets are found at a gradient of depths, from as shallow as laying out in the open, to hidden by a lengthy sequence of obtuse steps. While the game is presented as a quest to assemble the Triforce of Courage and defeat Ganon, the actual gameplay mostly involves exploring the world and discovering its secrets, finding clues and figuring out what they mean and how to apply them. Many of these secrets open hard or soft locks that allow further exploration and enable more discovery. By contrast, most of the combat challenges in LoZ are relatively easy, straightforward affairs.

Exploration leads the player deeper and deeper into the game. Yet, there are so many secrets hidden throughout LoZ — secrets that are not important or necessary to winning the quest, that the player is left with a sense of limitless potential for yet unknown secrets to reveal themselves. Most players who experienced LoZ as children when it was new may recall going about the kingdom of Hyrule, burning every bush and blowing up every rock, hoping to find everything there is to find.

Some have criticized the game for this tedium of exploration, but to me it serves as an indicator of the just how invested young players were with the game that so many of us were willing, or even compelled to do this seemingly tedious, repetitive work in the hopes of discovering something new that no one else had found. Particularly considering the fact that the Blue Candle is usable only once per screen, and that at most Link can carry just 16 bombs at a time, to exhaustively explore the world by brute force takes countless hours of meticulous, painstaking repetition, and virtually demands incredibly detailed note taking. A player does not do this unless they have a great deal of time and are deeply engaged with the game.

What can we learn?

Legend of Zelda presents the player with an extensive inventory of items to find, experiment with, and through experimentation, be rewarded by. These items often can be used in multiple ways, which gives them a greater depth and a greater sense of possibility that makes the game more engaging and real.

  • Every item should align to what the game is about (in the Legend of Zelda, this is exploration and combat).
  • Items are often useful for a combat purpose as well as an exploration purpose. The candle can light rooms so you can find your way, but the flame can damage enemies; the ladder can cross narrow gaps, but is also a defensive platform you can stand on where enemies can’t easily reach you.
  • Item discovery is timely. They are found at just the right time in the game when they are about to become necessary, or finding an item enables the next part of the game to be unlocked. This is tight design. When the player finds an item, it is useful immediately (although, the player may need to experiment a bit in order to discover precisely how) to advance to the next part of the quest or overcome some obstacle that the player has likely encountered very recently.
  • Many challenges in the game can be accomplished by multiple methods, but there are a few challenges that can only be overcome by one specific method, guaranteeing that that ability must be used.
  • Nearly every item in the game has at least one necessary use, without which the game cannot be won. The few exceptions are items that are so frequently useful that it is extremely unlikely that the player won’t use them (the shield, and boomerang, for example).
  • There are very few single use items. As a designer this makes sense; you don’t want to put a lot of effort into designing, developing, and testing some feature in your game only to have it go to waste by using it only once, or making it completely optional. In LoZ, the Triforce is necessary to win the game and questing after it is one of the main goals of the game.
  • Not every item equally useful or valuable, or as frequently useful or necessary. The items that are used less frequently need to be higher impact when they do get used, or at least have “their moment” where they shine: Monster Bait: Goriya puzzle; Whistle: defeat Digdogger, Level 7 entrance; Bombs: entrance to Level 9, defeat Dodongo; Bow/Arrow: defeat Ganon, defeat Gohma; etc.

Each of these aspects of the game’s design contribute significantly to its success.

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