Function Creates Form: A Look at the Zelda Series Unifiying Design Philosophies
Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 9:41AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Story, Zelda

Form fits function: The cornerstone design philosophy of all of Nintendo’s greatest games. However, for two of my favorite Zelda games, a new phrase must be coined about the relationship of form and function found within their core design. For the purposes of this essay, I will examine how “function creates form” in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and in its spiritual sister game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

True to what has now become classic Zelda form, both Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass share many of the same functions between them and all other Zelda games. The main character is a youthful, mute, sword wielding, adventurous tike who risks life and limb to overcome the challenges set against him and/or the world he currently occupies. When I say “function creates form” I am looking past these obvious similarities and zooming straight to the core gimmick of each game. The first thing that pops into any gamers head when Majora’s Mask is mentioned is probably Clock Town and how the game repeats itself in a three day cycle. Likewise, for Phantom Hourglass, controlling the game via the Nintendo DS touch screen, drawing on the maps, and the Temple of the Ocean King are the unique identifiers. I should mention I use gimmick in a strictly positive sense. When I do, I don’t refer a mechanic intended to deceive or trick, but rather a sometimes hidden innovation intended to attract attention and increase the unique value of a product or work. To the conscious gamer, many gimmicks are identified after they have failed in their deception. I assure you, Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass are on the highest level of design for the use of their gimmicks of repeated time and drawing on maps respectively.

Both Majora’s Mask and Phantom Hourglass use repeated time to continually expose the player to the same information and scenarios that transform over time. Majora’s Mask features the bustling city known as Clock Town. For three days, everyone in the city, and for that matter, then entire game world is busy doing something specific at every moment. Some are building structures in the town, others are working in the local inn, and others still are simply living out their days. Over time, the player is exposed to more and more characters that simply cannot be experienced in one 3 day period. This design in itself, is quite remarkable. Essentially, after 3 days the world is reset, and the player is brought back to the beginning of the cycle. Every 3 days the world repeats, yet time and progress for the player continues to grow. This is because, though time may repeat, the player carries the experiences, knowledge, and items he/she has gained previously. And, in true Zelda fashion that unifies the gimmick and the core gameplay, with every upgrade, piece of knowledge, or new ability that is gained, Clock Town transforms. With every repeated cycle, the player knows where more characters are, what their doing, and how to help them. With every race transformation, new dialog options between characters are opened, and with each transformation comes a new way to traverse the diverse world. With each of the game’s 20 masks comes a new perspective on the world that literally transforms the player’s physical appearance and the way they look at the world. All of Majora’s Mask’s themes, character, locations, and mechanics mostly revolve around Clock Town. It’s the center target for life and the target for the central conflict.

Likewise, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass shares a mechanically analogous design to Majora’s Mask. During the first few years of the DS’s life, many raised complaints that the second screen in the dual screened device was only used to display maps while the game screen was displayed on the other screen in a very ordinary and uncreative fashion. Though these top screen maps were convenient in games like Casltlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Kirby Canvas Curse, when the designers wove the design into the core gameplay experience like in Mario Kart DS and Phantom Hourglass, all disappointed retrospection disappeared. Some even made exclamations like “how could I have played a racing/Zelda game without this feature.” The heart of Phantom Hourglass is still the heart of any great Zelda game. But the primary gimmick isn’t touch screen controls, rather it is drawing on maps.

At its finest use, drawing notes on the maps in Phantom Hourglass function as a message left for yourself from the past that transforms the way you view the world around you presently. But before I speak on that level of design, I’ll start with the lowest most “gimmicky” use of Phantom Hourglass’ gimmick. The lowest used of map scribing is drawing picture or jokes that have nothing to do with the solving puzzles. I only mention this because of how the form of a pen and paper coupled with the function of infinite ink and infinite erasure appeals to the average player. Being neat, efficient, and only scribing relevant material on one’s maps comes second to freely expressing oneself. Pictochat can attest to that fact. Such a form creates a freedom that instantly personalizes one’s maps and one’s gaming experience.

Moving upward in map drawing design is writing notes as a substitute for using one’s short term memory. In other words, just because you can. When a towns’ person told me I could find something interesting in a particular tree on Mercay island that was really only a few steps away, I went ahead and jotted it down on my map. Puzzles that require levers to be pulled in a specific order fall into this category as well. Such elements ease the player into using the touch screen to write notes without forcing them to do so. There are some cases where the game takes out the maps for you or when characters remind you several times to jot the information down. But even in these cases, the player is hardly forced. In this way, drawing on maps becomes a easy and natural extension of the players thoughts and memory.

On the next level are the spatial and image puzzles. In order to find the right location to dig a hole in order to enter a secret base on Molida Island, players are told to draw lines from specific land marks that they must search out on for themselves on foot. After locating each landmark and marking it on the map, the player must draw lines between them to find the “x” that marks the spot. Such a puzzle is difficult to solve without the bird’s eye view of the area as well as the ability to “connect the dots.” Additionally, some puzzles require players to remember specific shapes. To quickly travel around the ocean, the player can summon cyclones to transport them. In order to determine one’s landing site, players have to draw specific shapes on their Cyclone Slate that correspond to locations on the ocean. These shapes are abstract to the English and Japanese alphabet making memorizing all 6 symbols difficult. For these puzzles, the touch screen functions as the paper you would have had to find and write on in order to solve them without stress. Though the game never tells the player specifically to write each symbol on the map at the location where they would be transported, at this point in the game, identifying one’s location and marking the relevant information accordingly is second nature. Unlike many of the puzzles described in the previous level of the drawing on map design, these puzzles emphasis writing notes relative to specifics locations or areas found on the map. This design feature alone takes the player from note taker to cartographer.

All three of the previous design levels work together to give the player the abilities needed to be their own instrument that independently powers their transformation of the game world. By going through the previous levels, the player is now used to jotting down information whether or not it seems pertinent to any future puzzle, using the touch screen as a supplement to their own memory, and being aware that the map helps them visualize a given area as a unified space that exists beyond what can be seen at any one time in the frame of the game’s view. If something looks suspicious, the player takes a note of it. If the player wonders of future possibilities, they jot that down as well. By writing on the maps, the player catalogues his/her thoughts which reflect their current understanding of the game world. And by revisiting these areas, the past is met with the present bringing together the two different states of the player. What looked like a strange hole before, becomes an opportunity to discover a secrete now that the player has a new item that can squeeze through such holes. True to Zelda fashion, with each item comes a new way to move and explore the game world that was virtually invisible and unreachable to them before. So when the player finds out that bombchus (little explosive robotic mice) can fit through these strange looking holes, if they marked other places they saw holes, then it’ll be easy for them to go back to previously visited areas. These areas will be new for the player because they have a new way to interact with the environment. This is the essence of the way the worlds in Zelda games transform but enhanced using Phantom Hourglass’ gimmick.

Unlike in Clock Town, where players reset to the same place and time every 3 day cycle and where the majority of the characters interact in a single location, Phantom Hourglass is much more open. The sea is yours to conquer and it’s pretty big especially considering it’s all on the Nintendo DS. In Phantom Hourglass, players can visit some islands once and never return. This makes all the notes left on that island’s map forgotten things of the past. Though the game does a good job of giving the player compelling reasons to revisit some areas, it’s still not enough to ensure that the most player would reach the highest level of design found in the map drawing gimmick. In other words, having the player revisit Mercay and Molida island throughout the game isn’t enough to develop a meaningful and satisfying transformation for the player. Also, these islands don’t have much going on (except the Temple of the Ocean King, which I’ll get to shortly). I can imagine the designers needed to find a way for players to continually revisit a single area without being able to exhaust it in a few passes. Furthermore, this area can’t bog down players who have a desire to linger in order to explore on their own. This is where the Temple of the Ocean King comes into play and why its design is reflective of the highest level of genius known to the Zelda series and subsequently to all videogames.

Instead of having time repeat to force the player to go through something again (hopefully with a new perspective), The Temple of the Ocean King was design with a time limit. According to the fiction, the Phantom Hourglass keeps Link protected from the evil forces that seek to drain away his life upon setting his first step into the temple. True to the form of an hourglass, time drains away steadily in the temple. When it gets to zero, the player’s health starts to drain away. If the player dies, it’s game over. This feature in itself is a way for the designer to control the players time in the Temple keeping the player‘s exploration time as short as need be. Throughout the game, players can get more time for their hourglass so that they can delve deeper into the temple. The more the player plays, the more the items and weapons they acquire on their adventure dynamically transform the temple. When before, players had to run completely around a Basement level 2 avoiding obstacles and hazards, now they can simply bomb a hole in the wall making a convenient shortcut. By the time the player enters the temple for the 4th time, it’s a completely different experience. Finding the short cuts and understanding how the temple changes dynamically over time can only be done once parts of it are played straight. This in itself creates momentum and a deeply satisfying sense of progression that makes returning to the temple an exciting opportunity for players to show the game, and themselves, how much they’ve learn and grown in such a short time.

Clock Town and the Temple of the Ocean King would not have been created if the designers weren’t looking for a unified way to bring together their unique gimmick and the core game play the Zelda series is well known for. These perfectly designed game areas cannot be duplicated even in other Zelda games. They’re a product of each game’s unique vision, gimmick, and refined gameplay. It never ceases to amaze me how important function is for the developers of the Zelda series. In an interview with Miyamoto, he described how Midna was created so that players have something to focus on when playing wolf Link. To him, staring at the tail end of a running animal wasn’t too appealing. Knowing how well integrated and pivotal Minda, the Twilight Princess, is to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is evidence that form is secondary to function.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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