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@Play 84: The Rescue of Meta-Zelda

An article about the fan-made game scrambling tool Zelda Randomizer, and how it adds an air of the roguelike to The Legend of Zelda. Previously published on Kotaku.

This originally went up, in all places, at Kotaku!  While there's six or so other new pieces in the book (Amazon!! okay I'm shutting up about it now) that have yet to go up on the site, for various reasons I wanted to spotlight this one again, as I think Zelda Randomizer is really something special.

So, what does it really mean to be a roguelike game?  My contention, repeated often, is that turn-based tactical combat on a grid and basic randomization are not enough, and may not even be essential, that these things, while part of the basic definition of the term, don't get to the core of what makes the genre interesting from a play or design standpoint.  My thesis is that some element of greater discovery, like item identification, is required, and that there needs to be some consequence to the player's explorations, some cost to searching.

By this measure, one of the most awesome roguelikes of recent memory?  I'll tell you.  It's called The Legend of Zelda.

(Zelda secret tune plays off-key)

Well, not just the Legend of Zelda.  There is an important modification to it, or rather, a program that systematically makes modifications.  That program is fcoughlin's Zelda Randomizer.

It was originally developed for the speedrunning community, which had to deal with an interesting problem.  Speedrunning a known computer game is not really the same thing as speedrunning a game you've never seen before.  You learn where everything is, or refer to FAQs, for the first few plays, but after that it's all about optimizing a known world.  Zelda is amazingly resistant to such optimization; the game seems almost designed around the idea that players should be able to use many different routes and approaches to completing it, to the degree that every enemy can be defeated by at least one weapon other than the player's sword until the very final boss of the game.

But despite this, and the fact that we're still not absolutely sure what the fastest way to complete Zelda is, the game is still a static thing.  The use of randomization in the original Legend of Zelda is interesting (look up, some time, the algorithm used to determine what items enemies drop, that's a rabbit hole for you), but, ultimately, each room still contains the same enemies, the dungeons are all laid out the same, and the tough rooms and treasures are distributed the same way each game.

That is where Zelda Randomizer comes in.  It is a fairly simple program, nothing more than a bunch of checkboxes really, that takes an unmodified ROM of The Legend of Zelda and, depending on what you check, scrambles it and basically makes a new quest for it.

The Legend of Zelda (Famicom/NES), described

Starring Leslie Nielsen as the Helpful Old Man

While The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming's longest-running series, not as many people these days are not actually that familiar with the game in its original form.  A brief description follows.

The Legend of Zelda (1987) is fundamentally an exploration and combat game, somewhat like Metroid in that regard, although it's an overhead view game instead of a side-scroller, and exploration takes place across a wide and deep landscape instead of in a series of cross-sectioned tunnels like a huge art farm.  The player guides an elf boy, Link, who gets his clothes by way of Pan of Neverland, through a large overworld, divided into 128 screens.  Most of the screens have challenging monsters who try to kill Link.  Scattered throughout this overworld are nine dungeons, also divided into screens, and containing even more challenging monsters.  In each dungeon is at least one item, which allow Link to increase his combat ability and exploration power.  Some important places in both the overworld and underworld cannot be reached until the necessary items have been obtained.  Also in the overworld are shops, where some additional items can be bought.  A very few items are just given to Link outright, though he may have to prove himself first.

Also in each dungeon is at least one boss, and one of the bosses in each guards a "Triforce piece."  The ultimate object of the game is to get eight Triforce pieces, which unlocks the way into the ninth and last dungeon.  In there is Ganon, the hardest boss, who guards Princess Zelda, the aim of your quest.  Defeating a dungeon's boss also awards Link a heart container, extending his maximum health by one unit.  A few heart containers can also be found in secret places in the overworld.  So, in a manner somewhat similar to Brogue, player character improvement comes from finding items instead of gaining experience points, and you don't always have to slaughter and slay to get them.  But unlike roguelikes in general, Zelda is a real-time, action game.  In fact, it's action is pretty sharp.  There are enemies (especially the so-called Darknuts and Wizzrobes) that will kill Link pretty easily no matter how strong he's become if his player isn't skilled at attacking and dodging.

The Game That Defined Nintendo Hard

When The Legend of Zelda came out, it was kind of a sensation.  Both Sega and Hudson Soft produced thinly-veiled clones of it, for the Sega Master System (Golden Axe Warrior) and PC-Engine/Turbografx 16 (Neutopia), and Compile's Golvellius, also for the SMS, has some pretty strong similarities too.  If you unfocus your eyes a bit a whole genre of Zelda-likes from around the time can be recognized, containing games ranging from Legend of Valkyrie, Crystalis, Faria, StarTropics, SoulBlazer and many more.  And of course the Zelda series itself continues to this day.

The weird thing about a game this so copied, however, is how obscure it is.  Not in the sense of being unknown, certainly not that, but in the sense of being unclear.  To modern tastes it seems undirected.  You spend a lot of time in the early going of The Legend of Zelda roaming around just looking for things.  Most of those clones I mentioned split the overworld up into smaller regions to help narrow down and direct your exploration, but The Legend of Zelda's Land of Hyrule is one humongous, homogeneous world, and you can explore 98.5% of it from the start.  Although the eight dungeons you have to find are numbered, they are not strongly ordered.  Some can be done out of order, and the only clue besides the number that one dungeon follows the other is just that, a literal clue, a cryptic message in each dungeon giving a vague area to look in for the next.  Players are just as likely to find dungeons by wandering around and looking than by going to a specified place.

This is not a good room to find with three hearts.

And finding things just by roaming the map casually is difficult, because Zelda's enemies are not trivial to overcome.  Even the weakest ones can do a number of poor Link at the start of the game, when it only takes six hits to kill him.  The original LoZ doesn't use item-based gates to ward the player from advanced areas, but enemy difficulty: if you're in an area where the enemies make you sweat, you probably shouldn't be there yet.  One class of enemy, called "Lynels" in the manual, very frequently shoot swords that do two-thirds of Link's starting health in damage in one hit, and the mountain areas that hide several later dungeons are infested with them.  Large-scale sequence breaking in Zelda is possible but requires nerves of steel, and even advanced players often leave those areas for when they've gained some power.

There is a strong sense in Zelda of being dropped in a world and told to sink or swim.  And many players sink, and sink often, and some eventually give up.  There is a tendency, among some players, to lament the weak spine of current players.  Truthfully, I am kind of like that, but when I think about it I waver in my confidence.  No one is naturally good at these kinds of games; some skills can only be acquired through practice, and I've had lots of practice.  Instead of pointing at a losing player, laughing and saying GIT GUD, I try to say: oh, you died.  Ah well, try again? 

The problem here is fear of failure, that is, thinking that lack of success at a game is a judgment against the player, and that dying just means you suck.  These players don't suck.  This happens to everyone.  I'm better than most, but what skill I have comes from practice, and even so, still, sometimes I'm awful!  And compared to roguelikes, LoZ is pretty darn forgiving: when you die you don't lose any items or money, and if you're in a dungeon you just get put back at its entrance.  The worst that happens to the player is that he comes back without much health in his meter, which can be frustrating later on, but the game gives players ways to remedy even this.

Now, about this Randomizer thingy

Some of the things that Zelda Randomizer can do:

  • Move around the contents of caves in the overworld.  The cave that contained a Heart Container may contain money, a shop, a text message, or other things.  It may even be a Door Repair Charge.  Since dungeons, where are hidden both essential items and the Triforce pieces that are the primary objects of your quest, are moved around too, you will have to do a lot of searching to find them.  The Randomizer can even be set to leave its own cryptic hints as to dungeon locations!
  • Move the enemies around in the overworld.  The same general enemy groups are in the game, but their locations are mixed up among all the regions.  The dangerous “Lynels,” the sword-throwing centaurs from the mountains, can make appearances in other places, and must be dealt with carefully if encountered early.
  • Move the rooms around each dungeon.  While each dungeon keeps its original shape, the rooms and internal layout of each dungeon are remixed.
  • It can use the game’s Second Quest (a long story) as a resource to take further dungeon layouts and enemy groups from.
  • It can even be used to construct challenge games, that take the ubiquitous Wooden Sword you’re ordinary given at the start of the game and hide it somewhere randomly around the world map, or even put it in the room before the final boss (the only enemy in the game that requires a sword to defeat it).

Under some, most or all of these, and other, mixing operations, playing through Zelda regains some portion of the wonder that it had back when people first explored the land of Hyrule, back in 1986.  More recent gamers may not understand what playing a game like the original NES Legend of Zelda was like in the days of its original release.  It was rather a deeper and more complex adventure than most were used to at that time, so hidden was its secrets.  While nothing essential is hidden without some clue of its presence (usually an old man or woman to cryptically pointing you towards it), the games produced by Zelda Randomizer expect the player to know where all the secrets are already.  Everything hidden by the Randomizer is where something had been hidden before, but when there's only around ninety such places to look, that's not as much help as it might be!

Random Zelda can be really random.  I found a Triforce piece in the third room of this dungeon!

So, Zelda Randomizer’s output is mostly an additional challenge for diehards.  Speedrunners are interested in this because it brings an aspect of the original game, the element of discovery and exploration, into play in a realm where those things are usually long vanished.  People who play games over and over to improve their times come to know their prey very well.  There is usually no aspect of them too obscure to be known.  Randomization returns to play some of that aspect of mystery.

Zelda Randomizer was inspired by an earlier tool, a ROM randomizer for Super Metroid, which also somewhat interesting.  But Zelda is an unusually resilient game when scrambled.  Since most enemies can be defeated in multiple ways, yet are still usually vulnerable to swords, the strategic implications of there being, say, the Bow, the Wand, the Red Candle or even just a lot of Bombs going forward from there are great.  Also, one of the problems with randomizing a game like this are keys, which usually requires a complex algorithm to make sure the player always has enough to open all the locked doors he finds.  All later Zelda games would require such an algorithm.  The original Zelda, however, contains more keys than are needed to win the game, and has an item that eventually makes all other keys obsolete.  Even when you're using normal keys, they aren't even dungeon-specific! They can be taken from site to site and used wherever.  You can even buy keys in stores; they are expensive, but available to help the frustrated player.

That is not to say that Zelda Randomizer doesn’t take steps to ensure the game is winnable.  A number of items (specifically, the Bow, Ladder, Raft, Recorder and sometimes the Power Bracelet) must be found during play, and the program must ensure whatever result has a solution.  It’s just that not stressing out about the location of keys makes the job of randomization easier.

But this article isn't just about the joys of randomizing a beloved game into a new experience.  Because strangely, The Legend of Zelda takes to being mixed up very well.

Random Zelda Is HARD, But Strangely Fair

Zelda's overworld was meant for getting lost in, and part of the strange joy of the game is getting lost and yet kind of getting rewarded for it anyway.  The game's secrets are set up in such a way that the player will probably find one or two accidentally during the game.  Bombs that break open secret cave are also one of the strongest weapons against monsters, the flames from candles both damage foes and burn trees, and once you discover you can push certain statues it's only a matter of time before every statue in the game has felt Link's sweaty grip.

In a properly randomized game though it's not just the secrets that have been moved around, but the monsters: you might have to spend this game tiptoeing around Lynels in central Hyrule!  And the rooms in the dungeons, and the locked doors and the keys that go to them: since keys can be bought in shops in the original LoZ, the game doesn't need to make sure you can fully explore every dungeon without buying them.  And the required items, and the shops that sell some of those items.

Only seven or so of Zelda's many items absolutely must be found to win, but certain items make the process much easier.  For instance, one of the game's many secret areas hides a guy who will give Link a letter that, if shown to the old women who hide in some of the caves, will cause them to offer to sell Medicine to Link, that will fill up all his health whenever he wants up to twice.  Finding the Letter is crucial to having a good game, but there is only one in the entire world, and the player may never find it.  It's not needed, but it's greatly desired.

Well well, what do we have here!

Another example.  Only one of the shops in the game sells an item called the Blue Ring, which cuts all the damage Link takes in half.  Again, you don't need it, but you'll be glad if you find it.  Also, in five locations in the overworld there are hidden heart containers, permanent health extensions.  You don't need any of them, but you'll want all of them.  And there are enough of these really nice bonuses to find that you'll probably find a few of these helps regardless.  They will likely not be found in the same order as the original game, but that just compounds how different the game feels when you find strange and useful things like the Recorder or the Wand in the first dungeon, or even outside of it.

The aspect here that connects this back to roguelikes is the tension between two opposed qualities, emphasizing the consequences of a player's decisions balanced with keeping those consequences balanced.

Most rooms in the original Legend of Zelda are difficult, but not impossible, to clear with three hearts and a Wooden Sword.  I've cleared rooms of Blue Darknuts with that before.  That is the outer edge of its difficulty; 99% of its rooms can be handled this way, but even skilled players would find such a run to be tiring, if they were about to do it at all.  Because of that, even if a randomized game put the player into a situation where his starting location was surrounded by Lynels, he still has a chance of breaking out of it.  The ultimate fairness of Zelda's gameplay is insurance, here, against malicious whims of the dice.

But the game also doesn't hand anything to the player on a plate.  The player still must search for items and dungeons, some of which may be hidden in incredibly obscure places, and while it's possible for all a dungeon's best things to be placed close to the entrance of each labyrinth, practically, the law of averages limits the likelihood of that occurring.  The possibility that a required mobility item (something that gives the player an ability that lets him cross formerly-impassible routes) may be hidden behind a barrier that requires it is there, but that's where the Randomizer tool comes in, giving the resulting game a solvability check and rerolling it repeatedly until it passes.

The conceptual field of probability into which Zelda Randomizer casts its dice is rich enough that the situations produced are interesting even after many attempts, challenging but different, but generally not individually overwhelming so much that the player has no way to proceed.

It takes something like the Zelda Randomizer to demonstrate how meticulously the game is instructed, really.  You only need a scant few items to complete the game, but it's challenging enough that you still want everything you can get, and yet unlike in your more traditional games, skill and practice open the door to advanced play much more readily than grinding.  If that doesn't feel essentially roguelike to you then I don't know what to tell you.

You will come to hate this guy.

If this sounds more fun to watch than necessarily to play, you're in luck!  The website Speed Runs Live hosts frequent races between players playing with the same seed and flags for your spectating enjoyment!  Also somewhat along these lines is Speedrun Bingo, available for many games.  Game randomization tools are an exciting frontier in the romhacking community — there also exist randomizers for Super Metroid, Zelda II and Dragon Quest. 

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