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I think it would be reasonable to suggest that the core of any great game is its gameplay objectives — and those objectives come in many different forms. If you’re playing a first-person shooter, they’re missions: explosive linear fights from start to finish, usually with the express goal of 1. Killing everything in sight, and 2. Living to tell the tale.
On the opposite end of the scale, we have something like a walking simulator or point-and-click adventure. These games pair an intriguing narrative with engaging puzzles to keep you hooked to the core gameplay.
Then there are games like The Legend of Zelda — a series that wrote the book, so to speak, on an ensemble of gameplay elements.
The series provided the blueprint for the lock-on targeting system, and it set the precedence for the concept of the modern open world. It’s been refined over the years, but the core mix of gameplay objectives remains across a 30-year history.
So what makes for that quintessential Zelda gameplay? And what do you need to know going in to navigate the game’s richly detailed yet often punishing arenas?
The series has been a big part of my life as a gamer since I first picked up a controller, and I’ve played through every mainline title to date (multiple times for some).
As such, I’m intimately familiar with what makes these games tick, and present this guide as your one-stop source for navigating the Zelda gameplay blueprint.
We’ll dive into the make-up of a classic Zelda quest and will enlighten you on the key components — both in terms of the physical prowess and mental agility you need to survive.
Bottom Line Up Front
In this guide, I’ve done my best to strike a balance between providing insight into the core workings of the game’s challenges, and keeping things succinct enough so as not to overwhelm you.
There is, of course, a great deal more to learn beyond what is disclosed here, but that’s part of the fun of the series — puzzling things out and having the satisfaction of doing so.
If you’re interested in the specifics of how dungeons and side quests work: the sections below provide an overview of what you can expect so far as structure. You’ll also find some general tips for taking on a dungeon, and a rundown of what I consider the most challenging quests in the series!
The Zelda Blueprint: Differences and Similarities Across Games
Over its long reign as one of the most famous action-adventure franchises of all time, The Legend of Zelda has honed and refined its own particular brand of gameplay.
With the series being such a huge influence, you’ll see many similarities in the style of quests and objectives that you’ve played in other games.
There’s a core gameplay style that’s present across all Zelda titles, and the series is often thought of as a Jack-of-all-trades. There’s a mostly equal focus on narrative, combat, puzzle solving, and open-world exploration.
Like most modern games of this type, overarching gameplay objectives can be thought of as quests. Quests are a series of tasks and challenges the player must overcome to advance in the game, and can be split into two camps. There are:
- Main quests: These objectives encompass the core challenge of the game and must be completed to progress the story. They are considered the main element of the game and are usually the most intricate and challenging portions.
- Side quests: These are smaller, lighter peripheral tasks that are not essential for advancing the story. You don’t have to complete them, but doing so offers rewards in the form of extra gameplay and in-game rewards (usually in the form of items or money).
The core element of Zelda’s main quests are dungeons. Below, I’ll cover the differences between what I’ve dubbed ‘classic Zelda’ and Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild saw a lot of changes so it makes sense to discuss them separately.
Both styles of game, however, contain the same core elements of main quests and side quests — they just handle them differently.
These games feature relatively small, focused open worlds which encompass several plot-centric hubs. The main quests in classic Zelda are completed through an array of intricately designed labyrinths or Dungeons.
Think of Dungeons as stepping stones for progressing the main quest; they’re crucial to beating the game and furthering the story, and they represent the main gameplay element and the inherent challenge of a Legend of Zelda title.
They’re not the only quest you’ll encounter in classic Zelda, however. As you explore the world, talk to NPCs, and visit new places, there will also be several extra tasks you can engage in as side quests. Side quests, dungeons, and traversing the map make up the trifecta of Zelda’s gameplay.
Classic Zelda also utilizes the concept of ‘mini dungeons’. Thankfully, if you’re familiar with how dungeons work, you also know the score with mini-dungeons.
These are usually much smaller, plot-centric environments that encompass one or more dungeon-type challenges, such as puzzles, bosses, or combat sequences. They’re used to break up the overall game into more manageable, varied segments.
Breath of the Wild
In Breath of the Wild, there’s a much greater emphasis on the organic nature of the open world. This game’s depiction of Hyrule is far larger than any that have come before it — in fact, it’s even a lot larger than Bethesda’s Skyrim.
Rather than exploring a select few large, sprawling dungeons, Breath of the Wild opted for many smaller dungeons embodying the same core concepts of combat and puzzle solving. These are known as Shrines, and they’re liberally dotted around the map to complete at your leisure.
In a series first, Shrines often revolve around physics puzzles. You’ll manipulate your environment using the powers of the Sheikah slate — a powerful ancient artifact that gifts Link telekinetic, time-bending powers. You’ll also find shrine environments to be more open.
There’s less of a focus on the linear progression through distinct, self-contained chambers, and more of a shift towards one large, open environment you can observe at once.
The main difference between Breath of the Wild and classic Zelda is the latter’s focus on a more non-linear style of play. As opposed to a set, ordered arrangements of main dungeons you need to work through to progress, objectives unfold organically.
You can even go straight to fight the final boss if you want to (not that you’ll have any chance of surviving, mind you). Even though Breath of the Wild differs a fair bit from classic Zelda, the shrines still operate under the same core ideas of classic Zelda.
Finally, Breath of the Wild is the first game to offer the sorts of dynamic combat encounters we’ve come to expect from modern open-world games.
As you traverse the vast planes of Hyrule, you’ll come across monster camps: these areas are guarded by various native species, and can be tackled in a variety of ways — either head-on, stealthily, or by using creative, physics-based environmental methods.
Defeating the monsters of the camp will grant access to a Skull Chest: a type of chest specific to this game but that functions similarly to small chests in the items they reward the player with.
The Architecture of a Zelda Dungeon
As I described earlier, Breath of the Wild’s Shrines are, in essence, a microcosm of their classic sprawling counterparts.
They may be more self-contained, but they offer the same premise. You’ll need to be proficient in combat, steadfast in your witts, and be able to orient yourself across often quite complex interior maps in both styles of games.
The general premise of a Zelda dungeon or shrine goes as follows:
- You’ll enter the place with a vague idea of what you need to achieve, and will be greeted by a basic puzzle or combat situation.
- Completion of this task will enable you to open up more of the shrine or dungeon, and you’ll be presented with increasingly more difficult combat/puzzle challenges.
- Dungeons, and sometimes Shrines, are split across several different rooms and floors. Particularly in classic Zelda dungeons, recollection of previous sections, as well as the interior map as a whole, become increasingly important. You may need to backtrack to a previous section to solve the situation ahead of you.
- Classic Zelda dungeons usually culminate with a boss fight at the end. Having disposed of this boss, the player is presented with whatever key item they entered the dungeon to acquire.
After beating a shrine’s puzzles, you’ll meet an ancient monk who will present you with a Spirit Orb — artifacts that can be used to upgrade Link’s health and stamina.
Nearly all boss battles in The Legend of Zelda rely on linear pattern memorization. Bosses usually have a weak point you must exploit to beat them, and one weak point may become multiple.
You’ll also find that boss fights tend to revolve around the relevant special item in that dungeon, so bare this in mind if you’re struggling.
As such, bosses usually represent their own puzzle — the final challenge of wits and combat as it relates to that particular dungeon. It may be that your mind is just as important as your proficiency with the sword.
Alongside the final boss, some dungeons also throw a mini-boss at you. You’ll usually find them halfway through as the main challenge of a particular chamber. Cleverly, these smaller bosses often resemble what’s to come regarding the final boss. They’re Nintendo’s way of acclimatizing you to the larger challenge.
On Treasure Chests
Chests are a crucial aspect of the Zelda dungeon formula. They’re usually always the end goal or reward for any given puzzle or combat challenge, and they come in a few different varieties.
There are many more game-specific chests beyond what I cover below, but the following four are the ones you’ll encounter the most across all games.
- Big chests: Big chests form the backbone of your progression through a dungeon. More often than not they’ll contain the key required to progress to the next section, and sometimes, they’ll give you an important item required for your progression. Occasionally, they contain non-essential items such as a bounty of rupees, ammunition, or a piece of heart. You’ll often spot these chests hidden behind a locked gate or obstructed area. When you do, you know gaining access to it is a priority for beating that chamber or room.
- Small chests: Small chests rarely contain essential items for progressing through a quest or dungeon. They usually contain a modest amount of rupees or ammunition, although sometimes they also provide you with a floor map of the area. They’ll sometimes contain a small key that will unlock a bonus room you may have come across in a previous chamber.
- Boss key chests: These chests serve one purpose — to provide you with the key that unlocks the boss room. You’re usually able to unlock these chests after completing either the last puzzle of the dungeon or the main overarching puzzle. Boss key chests are easy to distinguish from big or small chests due to their jewel-encrusted design.
- Trap chests: Rarely, a chest will be a trick. Trap chests masquerade as regular chests, and when opened, harm the player in some way. There’s no real way to tell these chests apart.
Side Quest Structure
As I touched on briefly above, there’s plenty to do in a Zelda game besides the main quests and dungeons. Again, the way side quests work depends on whether you’re playing a classic Zelda game or Breath of the Wild.
Owing to its more modern, larger open world, Breath of the Wild has a lot more side quests than you’ll find in the classic games, and they’re of a broader scope.
In this game, side quests may consist of something mundane — such as gathering a local farmer’s escaped chickens — to traversing the entire map to take pictures of specific artifacts.
Classic Zelda’s side quests are usually confined to the hub you start them in. They most often consist of helping villagers for a small rupee reward or non-essential items.
Alongside traditional main and side quests, Zelda games also feature many mini-game challenges. These aren’t quests as such, but they are part of the hierarchy.
Mini-games come in a wide variety but usually consist of a simple, easy-to-understand challenge that enables you to win some sort of item or a bounty of rupees.
Sometimes, they’re essential to complete: you may need to achieve a high score in a mini-game to acquire a crucial item or to extract important information from an NPC.
They’re also a great way to accumulate rupees. If you run out, you can systematically rack up a large amount of cash by getting good at the game at hand.
10 Tips for Succeeding in Zelda Quests
In this section, I’ve boiled down ten great tips for effectively progressing through a Zelda dungeon. These are either commonly known pointers or stuff I’ve learned through trial and error, so if you bare these in mind on your first run, you’re sure to have an easier time!
1. Study the Dungeon Map Closely
One of the most frustrating things I remember as a kid playing Zelda was getting lost. Some of the dungeons are absolute labyrinths in the classic games, and because I didn’t take the time to use the maps, I often got stuck in a loop of endless backtracking.
Locating and utilizing the dungeon maps should always be a priority; take the time to plan your route and recall where you’ve already been to prevent getting lost!
2. Always Think of Your most Recently Acquired Item
In both classic Zelda and Breath of the Wild, a dungeon or shrine puzzle will usually revolve around a recently acquired item or power.
When you’re in the middle of a challenge, it’s easy to forget this; try to focus your theoretical solutions around those new powers and items, and more often than not, you’ll reach the solution.
3. Look Up!
It sounds simple, but I can’t count how many times the answer to a puzzle has been right above me. This was particularly the case with Ocarina of Time due to the lack of dual analog stick control.
A classic instance where this is important is with Eyeball Switches. These switches are used liberally throughout the series, and to find them, you’ll need to scan your environment from all axis.
4. Be Mindful of Your Resources
Generally, you’ll always be able to replenish necessary items within whatever dungeon you find yourself in — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of your stock.
Item replenishment is usually strategically placed at one or two set points in an area, meaning that if you run out, you’ll need to backtrack. Not only is this annoying, but in an already confusing dungeon layout, this can serve to disorientate you further.
5. Don’t Ignore Small Chests
There’s always one main goal within a dungeon — usually to unlock enough doors to get to the boss — but there will often also be several smaller puzzles you can find along the way. Completing these most often grants you access to small chests containing useful items.
They’ll commonly house a piece of heart (collecting several of these allow you to increase your overall maximum health), a dungeon map, ammunition, or rupees. It’s easy to ignore these in favor of the larger puzzle at hand, but the small chests are always worth perusing.
6. Conserve Your Rupees
Rupees are the main form of currency in the franchise, so they’re abundant throughout the land. Even so, if you’re careless with your spending, it’s easy to run out fast.
You can always require rupees easily, but sometimes, the main quest will require you to spend a large amount to gain entry some where or acquire a special item.
It always helps to have a stash of at least 500 rupees for situations like this; it can be a pain to have to stop what you’re doing to go hunting for the extra cash, so save some for a rainy day!
7. Slow Down and Talk to the Locals
In any given hub area, there will always be a large variety of different characters to talk to. Not only is this the main wayside quests unfold, but making sure you talk to everyone teaches you important aspects about the world.
In Majora’s Mask, for example, NPC conversations form a huge part of world-building. To ignore them would be to miss out on the game’s interesting philosophical undertones.
8. If You Can, Stock Up on Health Items Before Entering a Dungeon
Not all Zelda entries feature consumable health items, but with those that do, it’s best to stock up before entering a dungeon. Dungeons are difficult and disorientating enough without worrying about your hearts, so dying and having to restart makes the whole thing more daunting.
I often recall making it halfway through a dungeon, getting killed, and then completely forgetting how I got to that point after I respawned. If you can, don’t put yourself in the position of tentatively creeping around with one heart left! It’ll make your time with a given dungeon much smoother.
9. Don’t Forget About Your Guide!
While this isn’t the case in every Zelda game, the majority feature a companion that’ll stay with you throughout the game. In Ocarina of Time, for example, you have Navi — a fairy that will give you hints along the way.
Usually, you can ask them for help at the press of a button. Their advice won’t always be super helpful, but Navi, Minda, and Ezlo have gotten me out of a few sticky situations. They’re there to help you, so don’t forget about them!
10. There’s no Shame in Using a Walkthrough
It’s understandable to want the satisfaction of beating a dungeon or quest on your own, but sometimes, you might need a little help.
I used to find it difficult to concede to walkthroughs, too, but for those moments when you’re eternally stumped, there’s no shame in using the internet once in a while!
Not every dungeon is brilliantly designed from start to finish, and you don’t want to ditch the whole game out of frustration.
10 Infamous Zelda Quests You Might Struggle with
As with any game, some missions or quests are more challenging than others. As we’ve established, Zelda’s objectives are usually on the more difficult side. Having suffered through some of the series’ biggest brain-teasers, here’s a heads up on ten of the more difficult quests!
1. Death Mountain | The Legend of Zelda (NES)
The original game certainly set the precedence for the challenge the series is known for.
Arguably the biggest obstacle to overcome in this title is the one of navigation: the game is notorious for its entirely ambiguous rendition of Hyrule, so a guide is a must. Its dungeons are notably brutal, too, and Death Mountain is the hardest.
The difficulty does make sense. With the final boss being Ganon, this is the last dungeon of the game (which is a particularly hard fight even for a final boss), and the journey to him consists of a grueling pilgrimage across fifty separate rooms.
- Quick tip: Find the Magic Key in dungeon 8. It’ll allow you to unlock any door in Death Mountain
2. Stone Tower Temple | The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)
I remember Majora’s Mask is better known for its philosophically-charged characters rather than its dungeons, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy ride. Again, it’s the final has you wanting to throw your controller.
The Stone Tower Temples requires some next-level feats of multi-tasking, and you’ll frequently be swapping out masks for the necessary tools to beat its complex puzzles.
It’s hard as nails, but it ingeniously packs everything you’ve learned so far into one mammoth challenge. Because of this fact, this particular dungeon became my most satisfying to beat.
- Quick tip: Make sure you have the stone mask going in. This will make your time with the Black Boes much easier!
3. The Wind Temple | The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (Game Cube)
Wind Waker is one of my favorites, but it’s certainly one of the easiest games in the series. That said, the aptly named Wind Temple had me stumped on more than one occasion.
Due to its emphasis on verticality, the temple doesn’t follow the traditional formula. This goes a long way in throwing you off if you’ve beaten your fair share of dungeons.
With each floor revolving around a large central tunnel, following the map can also get pretty confusing, and the boss, Molgera, I found to be the most challenging in the game.
- Quick tip: When fighting Molgera, the smaller sand worms will give you trouble. But remember: you can target them with the hook shot even if you can’t see them.
4. Water Temple | The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64)
Of course, no manuscript containing difficult Zelda dungeons would be complete without mentioning the Water Temple. Ocarina of Time’s labyrinths are a tough bunch, but this particular one takes the biscuit.
For many, the challenge presented here crosses the line. A lot of its challenge comes from the confusion of navigating the complex array of interconnected chambers.
It’s so easy to get lost, and the difficulty is accentuated because you need to backtrack multiple times. To top it off, there’s a killer mini-boss battle against Shadow Link — a foe designed to be your combat equal.
- Quick tip: Only save at the beginning. It’s considered better to restart the Water temple entirely, rather than to become disastrously lost having come back to it the next day.
5. Battle with Molduking | The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
More often than not, Breath of the Wild’s biggest challenges come with its epic boss battles.
The fight against four gigantic sand monsters known as the Molduga represents stand-out points in the game, but it was the quest to slay Molduking — the biggest Moduga of all from The Champions’ Ballad — that had me pulling my hair out.
The tactics for beating it are reasonably simple: toss a remote bomb in its mouth, and while it’s injured, attack with your weapons as quickly as possible until it recovers. The problem is, the Molduking’s devastating attacks deplete your health instantly, and its own health feels infinite during the fight.
- Quick tip: Secondary to using bombs, a well-placed arrow to the stomach will leave Molduking stunned and open to attack.
6. City in the Sky | The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Game Cube/Wii)
City in the Sky is uniquely difficult due to its truly three-dimensional layout. As well as traversing the map linearly, you’ll also be required to master the complexities of its vertically positioned islands to make it through.
If the layout wasn’t mind-boggling enough, getting around usually requires attaching yourself to spinning platforms that spin you around. Clinging onto your claw shot for dear life isn’t the only difficult aspect, either: a grueling fight with boss dragon Argorok is the cherry on top.
- Quick tip: If you get lost, remember you can always summon Ooccoo to warp you back to the entrance.
7. Ice Palace | The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo)
Ice is always a pain to deal with in video games, whether its the constant sliding about getting in the way of precise platforming or the bitter cold zapping your health bar.
A Link to the Past’s Ice Palace throws many of those tropes at you alongside the pressure of ruthless enemies and deadly traps.
This is a very well-designed dungeon — but its interconnecting rooms and multiple levels will have you scratching your head on several occasions. It’s a hell of a dungeon and a hell of a challenge!
- Quick tip: The Cane of Byrna can be used to defeat the boss, Kholdstare. You won’t take any damage if you use the cane and then quickly attack with your sword.
8. Great Palace | Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (NES)
To most fans of the series, Zelda 2 is an outlier. You either love it or you hate it, and one such feature that polarises fans is its immense difficulty.
Realistically, I could fill an entire list with Zelda 2’s harrowing list of challenges, but if I had to pick, Great Palace has to receive a mention.
This dungeon has not one, but two ridiculously difficult bosses (Thunderbird and Dark Link), one of the most complicated level layouts I’ve ever come across in the series, and to top it off, there are no save points.
- Quick tip: Your best chance at beating the Great Palace is to be a high level. Use the weaker enemies in the earlier dungeons to level-grind.
9. Palace of Winds | The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance)
The GBA’s The Minish Cap was the first Game Boy game that truly got me invested in the system, and the game has come to garner a special appreciation over the last few years.
That said, I had one heck of a tough time at the Palace of Winds — a merciless dungeon that’ll test the wits of any series veteran.
Its switch block and gate puzzles are particularly vexing, and with difficult platforming sections and an unusually long length, this dungeon is a test of endurance above all else.
- Quick tip: Not all breakable walls are visible. Hit a wall that’s suspect for an audio cue, then destroy it with a bomb.
10. The Mirro Shaz Shrine | The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
Colloquially dubbed The golf shrine, this shrine has become a huge talking point amongst fans for how tricky it is.
The premise revolves around using Link’s time manipulation abilities to hit a large metal ball into several holes.
Each goal increases in complexity, and you have to calculate both the angle and trajectory of your swing perfectly to make it. Make no doubt: unless you get very lucky, it’ll take many attempts to beat this shrine!
- Quick tip: Your stance before you hit the ball is crucial. Carefully walk up to the ball, and set yourself up slowly and methodically before thinking about taking a hit.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: These Dungeons Sound Pretty Daunting! Which Game is Best to Start with?
Answer: Zelda dungeons can indeed be pretty difficult. I’d say you have two options so far as easing yourself in: top-down Zelda games or Breath of the Wild. As we’ve discussed, Breath of the Wild’s shrines are smaller, shorter, and more manageable than most dungeons from the classic titles.
While featuring more traditional dungeons, I’d also recommend The Legend of Zelda: A Link’s Awakening for Nintendo Switch. Its dungeons aren’t as difficult, but still, acclimatize you to the formula.
Question: I’ve Heard People Refer to ‘The Master Quest’ when Discussing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. What is that Exactly?
Answer: The Master Quest is a reworked version of the original game for those looking for an extra challenge. Naturally, the most notable modifications are made to the game’s dungeons.
Enemy placement has changed to add extra difficulty, and even many of the puzzles have been altered to surprise the player.
This mode was originally released alongside the Game Cube re-release of Ocarina of Time, and you can also play it if you own Ocarina of Time 3D — the 3DS remaster of the original game.
Question: I’ve Noticed many Zelda Games have been Re-released. Should I Go with the Original or the Newer Version?
Answer: Nintendo tends to do a lot of porting with the Zelda franchise, which is great for new fans as it’s easier to play the old games than ever. If you’re new to the series, I’d say go with whatever is the latest version of the title you want to play.
For example: playing The Ocarina of Time on an original N64 would be a challenge with a modern TV, so playing the game through Nintendo Switch Online or on the 3DS is usually a better option.
That said, if you do have one of the old consoles set up and ready to go, sometimes you can find a cheaper deal for older copies of the software.
Zelda’s quests can be quite daunting for the new player, so I hope this guide helps you on your journey. I highly recommend checking out The Legend of Zelda community on Reddit.
Here you’ll be able to explore an extensive wiki for more information on what has been discussed above, and you can also ask your own questions. Good luck!