What Is The Zelda ‘Formula’? We Break Down The Secret Recipe – Feature
Have you ever played a game and thought, “This feels a bit like Zelda?” Only the other week, we described the excellent Eastward as “quite a bit like a 2D Zelda game”, and the PC/Xbox game Death’s Door — a title that our sister site Pure Xbox called “a 2021 GOTY contender” when awarding it a 10/10 score back in July — evoked a similar response in reviewers. It’s an influence that goes across all platforms, which is unsurprising due to the extraordinary history and prestige of Nintendo’s series.
But what exactly do we mean when we say a game is ‘Zelda-like’? The question brings to mind 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 feels like Zelda”, but trying to define why is a tall order.
The task [of finding a ‘formula’] is complicated by the fact that Zelda games have changed remarkably over the past 35 years
Yet for game designers attempting to build on Zelda’s success, working out exactly what constitutes the Zelda formula is essential. So we spoke to Acid Nerve’s Mark Foster and David Fenn, the designers behind the Zelda-like Death’s Door, to get their take on what exactly makes a Zelda game feel like a Zelda game.
The task is complicated by the fact that Zelda games have changed remarkably over the past 35 years, from top-down 2D affairs to 3D roam-a-thons, with a little bit of side-scrolling thrown in (hello, The Adventure of Link). Then there’s Breath of the Wild. “There’s a discussion in the Steam forums for our game where someone was saying, ‘This isn’t anything like Zelda, you can’t cook food and can’t climb up stuff’,” says Mark. “They’re coming at it from a perspective of Breath of the Wild being what they know as a Zelda game.”
But perhaps there are some common ingredients that link all of these games together. Let’s see.
Zelda ingredient #1: Dungeons
Already we’re struggling to fit in Breath of the Wild, unless you count shrines. But it’s fair to say that dungeons make up a key component of the traditional Zelda recipe. “Other than Breath of the Wild, I think all of the others follow the same kind of structure, with this overworld and dungeon separation. 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 hookshot, you’ll need specific items to get past certain obstacles and open up the world of Hyrule. You might not always find these items in dungeons, but using them is essential to making progress. David says that Acid Nerve didn’t initially set out to make a Zelda-like game – the change came when they were working out the structure and progression of Death’s Door, which ended up being linked to unique items. “I think that’s where Zelda is such a useful reference point”.
Zelda ingredient #3: Teasing and rewarding level design
You know when you’re in a dungeon and you can see a treasure chest on a ledge but you can’t quite get to it? That teasing level structure is an indispensable element of Zelda games, trailing rewards that you might be able to snag later on if you grab the right item or find a hidden route. Getting this level structure right was essential when they were working on Death’s Door, says David. “That was quite a big focus for us, and it’s something that we put a lot of time into. I probably spent about 80% of my time on level design, because it is just such a big task to make levels in that way, and to make sure you have that satisfying level of deeper exploration if you want to find all the secrets.”
Zelda ingredient #4: Bosses that require specific items to defeat them
In most Zelda games, the bosses act as a sort of tutorial in how to use the item you’ve just acquired in a dungeon. Mark says this was something Acid Nerve aimed to mimic in Death’s Door: “For all of the core bosses, we tried to have something that would be tied to the power you got in that area. The frog boss was a straight reference to King Dodongo, where you throw bombs into its mouth to stun it.” But Acid Nerve deviated from the formula slightly by making it so all bosses can also be felled using just your sword, with some items simply providing an easier way to defeat them. “So it’s something you discover if you pay attention, but without doing it you can still get through the fight,”.
Zelda ingredient #5: Quirky (and sometimes unsettling) characters
Zelda games are packed with memorable people, from the songstress Marin to middle-aged man-fairy Tingle. “One of my favourite characters is the Happy Mask Salesman,” says Mark. “Just the way he’s animated with frozen frames, and when the camera cuts [back to him] he’s in a different position.” Mark reckons the general tone of Zelda was certainly an inspiration “on a subconscious level” for the characters in Death’s Door– and Pothead certainly reminds us of some of Hyrule’s stranger citizens.
Zelda ingredient #6: Short dialogue
The characters generally don’t speak that much in Zelda games – instead the design does the heavy lifting of characterization. “Every element of a character design has so much attention to detail,” says David, “even if they only have a small amount of phrases. That is 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 maintain that pace, and not overwhelm you of having too much text on screen at one time. I think that’s something Zelda excels at.”
Zelda ingredient #7: Simple, crunchy sword combat
Link starts and ends each game with a sword, and the combat is kept incredibly simple, usually with just taps to swing your sword and a charge attack from holding down the button – but combat always feels satisfyingly crunchy and responsive. Death’s Door likewise has simple, one-button sword fights, and Mark says they poured a huge amount of into getting it right from the beginning of development: “That was the very first thing we did – getting the combat feeling good.”
Zelda ingredient #8: Polish on every surface
“As you add more stuff in, you break the old stuff, and you have to come back and polish it all over again.”
Scrappy, janky games can be fun, but to make something truly feel like a Zelda game, you need to give it that Nintendo polish. Mark says that they were constantly polishing Death’s Door whenever they added new elements, but it was an endless process: “As you add more stuff in, you break the old stuff, and you have to come back and polish it all over again.” The final touches also took a long time, as outlined by David: “We finished the whole game about six months before it actually launched, then from that point on we had a big list of everything that we wanted to polish.”
Zelda ingredient #9: Unique quests and collectables
Generic fetch quests have no place in a Zelda game. “I feel like Zelda is really good at making all of the content in the game bespoke,” says David. “You always have this big collectathon thing, but it feels like every single one of the items you find is a satisfying discovery.” Mark explains that it’s a format they tried to reflect in Death’s Door when it comes to collectible items: “If you’re gonna make someone do that much work, you’ve got to at least give them a reward.”
Zelda ingredient #10: Stylized graphics
Each Zelda game looks a little different, but Zelda wouldn’t be Zelda if it had photo-realistic graphics. Death’s Door follows a similar approach of avoiding too much realism. “There’s not a focus on realistic detail,” says David. “It’s not super cartoony, but it’s stylized, and we focus on a colour scheme in each area.”
Zelda ingredient #11: Accessibility
David explains that “Zelda games are never intimidating to me. You always know that you can make progress without messing up your journey or missing an item or making the wrong build.” No matter how long it’s been between playing sessions, you can easily pick up a Zelda game and get stuck in without having to remember complicated controls or plots. “There’s definitely a cosiness to it”.
Zelda ingredient #12: No levelling up
Generally, there’s no levelling up in Zelda games – the only real level-building is done through collecting hearts. This is one area where Death’s Door deviates from the formula slightly, says David: “We have a bit of a minimal build creation, because I think in general we do have more of a combat focus, so we wanted to develop that side of it a bit more.” Even so, grinding for levels is definitely not a feature of Death’s Door – and grinding certainly has no place in a Zelda title.
So what do you think of our list? Is there anything we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.