The Adventure of Zelda

Zelda relationships

I think my sweetest gaming memory, though now faded, is playing Zelda 1 for the first time. The game offered a living world to explore, and because I didn't understand the limitations of games back then it felt like anything could be beyond the next corner. I still remember walking into the first dungeon by chance (No, I didn't actually use the guide in the manual). It was such a strange and atmospheric place to stumble into.

When people hear that I still prefer Zelda 1 over the sequels, they probably figure that I'm wearing nostalgia googles. I won't deny that there's an element of nostalgia present, but the truth is that Zelda 1 is fundamentally different from its sequels (the same is true for Metroid 1). I see it more as liking a completely different type of game which just happens to look like a Zelda game. The game is certainly not without flaws, but let's leave those for another time.

Some time ago I took the time to research some of Zelda's possible precursors, like Adventure, Ultima (which seems to have been hugely influential on the RPG genre so it has to be mentioned), Dragon Slayer/Xanadu, Tower of Druaga and Hydlide. Upon playing Zelda 1 again, I got this funny next-gen feeling, because Zelda felt so polished in comparison. It felt like it was 1987 and the future!

I'm not sure what to think of Zelda 2. As a kid I thought something wasn't right about it, but I forced myself to play it anyways. It really felt like a chore to play through - a quality which grew stronger in the games following. Talk, errands, and a set path. The combat was quite enjoyable though, especially duelling the knights and skeletons.

2011 art

I decided to draw some Zelda creatures because I hadn't done that in years. The Zelda games change the story, style and monster designs a lot in every game (and the manuals have their own style too), so I decided to just use the sprites from the original games as a base and ignore the newer games. I drew these roughs over the course of a few days, taking it somewhat easy due to lingering RSI (wrist) problems.

A lot of the Zelda 2 monsters are sort of based on the ones in Zelda 1. Because I like Zelda 1 more I gave it override priority in the case of say, Octoroks and Moblins. In some cases I mixed and merged, but there are some confusing designs like... Scorpion = Ghoma? Fire Lizard = Zora? I don't know why the mono eye looks so similar to the... other floating eye, so I made its eye-white into teeth instead, just to separate the designs.

It would be cool with some idle behavior and equipment differences to make the creatures seem more like living characters. Zelda 2 did this a bit with the skeletons and lizard guys if I'm not mistaken. It's an aspect which I want to explore more in the future.

Not sure what to do about the slime. The Z1 slimes are tall with no eyes. In the manual they're coated with slimy drippings, and in Z2 they are closer to the DQ slimes with eyes.

The Zelda "Wizrobe" is all... KKK so I changed it into a new kind of... hattifnatty creature.

I found notes by Miyamoto, suggesting that Zelda 2 was supposed to be a "Mario Adventure" game. Thinking about it now... there are the boomerang guys and the red hammer brother flail throwing beast... In Link's Awakening there are some enemies right out of the Marioverse. It feels like a violation, but I can't say no to Chain Chomp.

Zelda concepts

Had to split the sheet up. I'm not happy with all of these designs, but I'm beginning to feel like I've "solved" some of them after many years of trying.

Zelda concepts

Zelda Moblin concepts

I like the chunky-boar-fish feel of the Zelda 1 Moblins.

Hobbit Goblin Moblin Sprites from Zelda 1

I'm thinking the Moblin design might have come from the old Hobbit cartoon movie, and/or Disney's Sleeping Beauty cartoon movie (the Goons).

Zelda Ganon and company (bosses)

Ganon. G face on E body would be the best I think. Bosses are starting to feel pretty close to the sprites. Polsvoice redesign improved but Wizrobe design remains unsolved. Wanted to do a bird-rhino-knight from aLttP as it's one of the few designs I like from that game. Darkworld octorok trees were fun too. Somewhat unrelated: Clu Clu land had a few proto-Zelda sprites.

Not-Bikini Zelda

One way to lessen the monotony of a game is to offer multiple playable characters. In Psycho Fox you can switch in and out at any time (using a consumable), whilst in SMB2 you select character during intermissions. In both cases, which character that you choose has more to do with play-style than solving puzzles, and I like that. In TMNT, the turtles act as lives, making you use all of them.

Three characters seems right for a Zelda game, of course. They could each embody a triforce piece - Wisdom, Bravery, Strength. You'd start the game as any of the characters, setting out to find the others in the early game. Like in Zelda 2, you'd level them up, but they each have slightly different proficiencies (Diablo 1 style?).

Left to right: Wisdom, White Mage, Rogue - I wanted to draw something more "girly" to balance the other characters which I had already drawn. The outfit is based on traditional white-pink/purple-gold Zelda from the "newer" games (anything >Z2 is newer games to me).

Bravery, Warrior - Started out as a redesign of the old future/bikini Zelda concept art piece, but I ended up putting some more clothes on for some reason. The design is a nod to 80's hair and pauldrons (e.g. Leda's Yohko).

Strength, Brute/Barbarian/Ogre - Fuzelchomp. Influence should be obvious, but there's a little Sheik in there too.

"Hey, Fuzelchomp, how'd you lose your arm?"

*Chain Chomp's eyes widens with a jerk*

Game thoughts

In a top down game like Zelda 1 you have symmetry to the up-down and left-right directions, enabling you to walk around stuff. Manoeuvring in Zelda 1 is pretty clumsy. The movement is locked onto a grid of sorts, perhaps a legacy from maze games like Druaga. In a sidescroller like Zelda 2 you have gravity linked to the up-down axis. You can still explore a 2D plane (world), but you have the added benefits of deeper combat and jumping puzzles.

The story in the Zelda games never sat well with me, so I decided to rewrite it. Hyrule almost has a garden-like terrain in the first game, and there are these strange rocks and statues standing around in formations. The dungeons feel technological and otherworldly with their smooth clean walls, though that was changed in BS Zelda and later games. I hadn't heard of Lovecraft in the 80's, but that's sort of the feel that I got. What strange ancient race had built the dungeons, and perhaps also the overworld? The Great Race of Yith? The Elder things? The... Like-Likes (whom have since then regressed to a more primitive state)? That's something I'd like to play around with.

I always wanted to make art for an isometric "topdown" version of Zelda 1, but since this turned into a Zelda 2 project, it'd have to be a sidescroller with a topdown worldmap. I wonder how that would play if combined with Roguelike? It's sort of unusual to see, and I like unusual.

So, a random world map, with palaces/dungeons, towns and NPCs who generate quests (e.g. a fetch quest NPC would create a cave/dungeon on the world map and toss a kidnapped kid into it). The dungeons should probably be generated from finished rooms though, to ensure enemy placement is fun and suitably challenging.

The weapons, armour, spells and items could be random, and before you drink that potion, you might want to identify it...

And then there's permadeath. I don't like it, but it does fix some problems. For example, without anything at stake, it sometimes feels like the opposition put up by the game is futile (especially if one spawns close to the point of death). If too much progress or XP is lost, then it's frustrating as a player to redo the same thing again.

But wait, isn't permadeath even more frustrating since you have to start over from the beginning? Perhaps not, since you won't have to replay the same area over and over. It does take a certain mentality to play permadeath games though, as you have to accept that you may not ever finish the game (*eyeballs Nethack*). It's of course harder to build a solid, story based universe when doing random generation too, so this game would cater to a different demographic.

Alternatively, a well crafted, Z2 style game with Z1 openness would work for me too. Could be a hybrid, similar to how you get different bosses every time you play Diablo 1.

And now some random sprites

GBC 4bit sprites

The GBC (Capcom) Zelda games were pretty nice. I liked seeing the like-likes looking close to their old selves, but some of the other sprites looked a bit odd. I decided to see if I could make them look more like the Zelda 1 originals, but with black lines... i.e. one color less than the NES versions, because there's a 4 (3) color limit.

The slime has stripes in the manual so I added that to make the design more unique. A lot of games have slimes, and recently it has been popular to suggest transparency by doing an ellipsoid imprint of the ground at the bottom... but I'm thinking the Zelda slimes are more opaque. I like to omit some of the outlines, especially where the ground plane connects to the body.

A black bottom line (under feet, or at the base of a mountain) can make the sprite look like it hovers a little. With only 16 vertical pixels, every pixel is valuable so I'd rather use it for something else. Besides, here I'm using the blacks to create a chiaroscuro type of separation. It's a bit of a trap to start consistently black-lining every detail anyways.


Zelda sprites

Every time I try to do assets for a Z1 game I run into a dead end - I do not know how to tackle the perspective issues. Z1 had no problems because the graphics were quite abstract, topdown and sideview at the same time. My Octorok here really doesn't like being flipped upside-down... Also, 3 colors + trans per sprite is too tight. I much prefer my Famicube restrictions, which is 4 palettes of 7+1 colors as it stays in the NES era feel and I like the graphical clarity it promotes. Never really liked the SNES era, too much pillow shading and fuzzy AA with all of the extra colors.

Zelda sprites

Zelda 2 sprites edited to look more like Z1's as I prefer the look of those. Could possibly be patched into game, but I can't be arsed to do a full, animated set.

Zelda sprites

Also, the map data structure in Z2 makes it difficult to modify. If I could, I'd do something like this, with Z1-style dirt ground and trees. It'd could be a procedural, post-RLE unpack manoeuvre of some sort, which means new ASM. The other approach is dumping RLE for raw data, which is also extra ASM.

Zelda 2 map

The story in the case of this Z2 map could be set in another universe where Link was killed by Ganon's goons, thus resurrecting Ganon (I think they needed his blood). Zelda awakes, covered by cobwebs. Civilisation fell long ago... centuries? People have abandoned their cities and hidden in caves. The many mines, ruined cities and cemeteries, some sunken, suggest that people were worked to death. What was Ganon looking for, and where is he now? It's now up to Zelda to find Ganon and free Link's soul.

Zelda 3 enemies

Zelda 1 had an unreal feel to it, with many strange monsters and no signs of ordinary life or earthly culture themes. The desolation, with old people hiding in caves suggested that something had gone down, perhaps long ago. The bustling towns in 2&3 undermined my narrative, though Z2 still had an exotic feel to with with the Cambrian(?) monster designs.

Z3 monster designs comes off as kind of knee-jerk goofy and haphazard. I also thought that the Arabian(?) influence felt out of place. This kind of culture theme'ing is common in many of the newer Zeldas and screams "design meeting". Too derivative and earthly - I shout as I jump hysterically in my hermit pit, beard bobbing, clutching a dirty Zelda 1 cartridge with a long dead battery.

So I was thinking... how would Z3 look with Z1&2 enemies? Here's my experiment. I knew the SNES could do 16 colours per sprite, but was surprised to find much less used. Supposedly the devs wanted to save ROM space by storing the graphics in 8 colours instead, meaning only 4-7 colours usable per sprite commonly. Aside from the skeleton, I've used only the colours available on the reference sprite. Some of those appears to have been poorly ripped and might not be accurate. I haven't played a lot of Z3 (too artificially puzzly), so I had to guess which optimizations were used (mirroring, split-ups).

It would be a lot easier to work with 16 colours and custom palettes of course. Colours are very important when it comes to identity so I worked with the few colours that would fit, often resulting in an even tighter palette, but 4-6 is enough to build a proper (colourful) figure in many cases (3 like on the NES is too harsh). I paid attention to pixel clustering / de-noising, avoiding the pillow shading present in the originals. I think the original terrain is quite a bit better than the original sprites.


Byline: Niklas Jansson, 2011-2012