Anatomy of a Game: Zelda XII

Just a couple last wrap-up pieces on The Legend of Zelda and then we’re on to, I don’t know… Zelda II, maybe? (Whereupon cartman414 will respond to every post to tell me why I love the game insufficiently.)

We’ve looked at Link’s powers, the lay of Hyrule’s land, and the structure and purpose of each dungeon. But we’ve only touched on the enemies that populate the world on a surface level, which can’t be left unaddressed; for a game of its vintage, Zelda features an extraordinarily diverse and — more unusually — well-defined and implemented bestiary.

Look back to other home console and computer games from 1986 (and even in following years) and the bad guys are almost always one of the main weaknesses. Either they’re too repetitive, too simplistic, too aggressive, or too sketchily programmed. If they didn’t bore you, they’d frustrate you by overwhelming you unfairly or inexplicably glitching themselves to power. But not in Zelda. While the enemy roster had a few issues, by and large I think it’s fair to say the game had the single most impressive lineup of monsters yet seen in an action game.

Even looking beyond the bosses, whose patterns and weaknesses were covered in their respective dungeons, Link’s foes are both numerous and thoughtfully designed. While certain foes do overlap in general design and behavior (and many monsters appear in palette-swapped versions), even the more similar creatures bear distinguishing traits. Today, those who live aboveground.

Enemies in the Overworld

Octorok: The first creature you’re likely to encounter in Zelda, the Octorok is appropriately unchallenging. It moves around more or less at random, occasionally spewing rocks from its snout. Sometimes it’ll aim the rocks at Link, particularly the more powerful blue variants, but otherwise the only real danger it poses is in its aimlessness. Until you have a sword capable of killing a blue Octorok, you’re likely to take a smack to the kisser when one of them glides right on through your initial head-on attack.

MoblinThe hog-like Moblin (actually, it mostly looks like a Gammorean Guard) is a sort of variant on the Octorok. It moves more slowly, but its behavior is also more intelligent. Moblins fire arrows across the screen (and unlike their counterparts’ nose-boulders, these can pass through on-screen obstacles) and, while they meander a fair amount, they tend to aim at Link more often than not.

TektiteTektites lack projectile attacks, but they make up for this lack of offensive capabilities with their quick, unpredictable movements. These spider-things leap around in series of leaps, both quick and large, punctuated by moments in which they sit stationary on the screen. Generally, this amounts to them bounding right through you to the other side of the screen, forcing you to chase after them… only to have them jump away when you finally reach them. Not a grave threat on their own, but like many of Zelda’s enemies, they’re made more challenging when they appear in tandem with hazards that behave with different patterns.

ZoraThe Zora is the first of many overworld enemies whose primary tactic revolves around momentary invincibility or intangibility. These guys pop out of the water to harass Link by spitting a fireball at him. Then they duck below the water’s surface only to appear elsewhere a moment later. The fireballs aren’t terribly dangerous — especially once you buy a better shield — but Zoras become dangerous in tandem with other enemies, peppering you from well out of reach while you dodge more imminent hazards. You need a ranged weapon to beat Zoras (for the most part; they do occasionally pop up right next to shore if you’re lucky), and they can’t be stunned with the boomerang. Most of the time, fighting them is more trouble than it’s worth, and on screens where they represent the only threat they’re more easily ignored.

GhiniGhinis live in the graveyard area and move around randomly. On their own, they’re not too tough… but if you touch a headstone, another one will appear. And another. And another. You can practically fill the screen with Ghinis, if you like! And the ones you spawn, unlike the “default” Ghini, are immaterial as they move. The upside is that if you kill (re-kill?) the original Ghini, all the ghost spawn you’ve created will vanish, too.

LeeverLeevers appear to be plants (tiny Manhandlas, maybe?) that pop up from below ground in sandy areas, moving toward Link before sinking back below the sand again. Like Zoras, you can’t hurt a Leever when it’s below ground. There are some neat details to these enemies: Even when they disappear, the game tracks their movements, so they reappear a few moments later they’re still moving along their previous path. Some Leevers move directly toward Link, while others drift about randomly (this is determined by color, naturally). And finally, these guys only appear in sandy areas — so the small “desert” toward the central portion of the land, and along the shores of the sea lining Hyrule. While not particularly challenging enemies, Leevers do a nice job of demonstrating the care that went into the creation of Zelda. Miyamoto and Tezuka put a lot of thought into creating a consistent world.

PeahatWhat makes the Peahat interesting is its general intangibility. With its little leaf propellers, the Peahat is meant to represent a flying enemy (though the game’s forced 3/4 perspective admittedly makes this a little hard to sell from a visual standpoint). As it flies, it’s beyond Link’s reach, even with arrows or the boomerang. Only when the Peahat slows and alights on the ground can it be damaged. Naturally, though, it can smack into Link even when Link can’t hurt it. So I guess you could say Miyamoto and Tezuka put a lot of thought into creating an almost consistent world.

ArmosUnlike the game’s other foes, Armos don’t inherently represent a threat. In fact, unless you touch them, they’re completely inert. They differ considerably from the Ghinis you can spawn from grave markers, though; whereas the ghosts issue forth from permanent bits of the scenery, the Armos itself is part of the scenery. When you touch these statues that litter the countryside, they awaken and attack, moving either slowly or quickly (I’ve never figured out a way to determine how speedily they’ll act). The space they formerly occupied becomes vacated, which is very important in a few spots: The Bracelet that allows Link to push rocks is located under one of these guys, and several of them obscure the entrance to shops or rooms where Moblins in hiding give you payola for your silence. A few of them even cover secondary dungeon entrances, though this is completely pointless as they hidden doors they guard function exactly the same as the main door. Weird, but interesting.

Lynel: The big bad dudes of the overworld. Lynels exclusively occupy Death Mountain and the western run-up to that area. As such, they’re far deadlier than any other overworld foe. As lion-centaur hybrids, Lynels patrol the peaks and fling sword beams exactly like Link can fire. They’re strong, durable, and pretty smart: Their random-ish patterns generally draw them toward Link so they can put him in their crosshairs. And no, the upgraded shield doesn’t block their attacks. A screen full of Lynels is easily the greatest threat Zelda’s overworld poses, so naturally that’s what you find all around the final dungeon’s entrance (though the game does offer a touch of mercy by placing a shop in which you can buy health potions two screens west of Spectacle Rock).

7 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Game: Zelda XII

  1. Yeah, the original Zelda pretty much had my favorite enemy roster of all time ever so slightly besting Kid Icarus’. (with Castlevania, Super Mario Bros 2 and Mega Man 2 nipping at their heels) I used to spend countless hours as a kid drawing the baddies and then even making pixel versions on graph paper. . . .sigh I miss those days.

  2. It’s really is amazing how detailed and consistent Zelda’s enemies were when you compare it to most other NES games at the time, which generally had “random crap wants to kill you” enemies that seemed to have very little rhyme or reason to them. I especially love how the first game let you get basically anywhere in the world from the moment you start but use scaling enemies as a sort of “level gate” to keep you away from Death Mountain until you are ready. I always enjoy in replays now seeing how early I can survive a sprint to the power bracelet, which makes moving around so much easier.

  3. You know, given that Armos cover an alternate dungeon entrance here and there (Particularly in Level-6), I get the impression that at one point during development, those staircases were intended to serve a purpose. But, as they are in-game, they’re a hint that there can only be one hidden door or staircase on a screen since there isn’t the memory to handle multiples. Makes secret hunting easier when you realize this.

    Ghinis can make for great grinding spots. Stab one to near-death, summon nine more by defiling graves, and use the boomerang or its upgrade to keep track of and kill the one stabbable one.

    But yeah., for a game made in 1986, The Legend of Zelda has a pretty interesting and varied cast of baddies.

  4. I still don’t find the game that fun to actually play, but these write-ups only increase my appreciation for its nuances. Nice article.

  5. Nonono, the next game you need to cover is Castlevania 3. With 4 different characters and a shitload of branching paths, that should last you quite a while.

    • CVIII is in the works, but that’s going in the next GameSpite Journal. Once that’s published I’ll post the CVIII stuff online.

  6. I always did enjoy the bestiary of the original Legend of Zelda, especially because they named and told you about each enemy, sometimes including details beyond mere gameplay. Such info can be trickier to find these days.

    These are also the iconic versions of many enemies in my mind, as some have had rather strange permutations over the years.

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