The Legend Of Zelda games feature a mixture of action, puzzles, adventure/battle gameplay, exploration, and questing. These elements have remained constant throughout the series, but with refinements and additions featured in each new game. Later games in the series also comprise stealth gameplay, where the player must avoid enemies while proceeding through a level, as well as racing elements. Although the games can be beaten with a minimal amount of exploration and side quests, the player is frequently rewarded for solving puzzles or exploring hidden areas with helpful items or increased abilities. Some items are consistent and appear many times throughout the series, such as bombs, which can be used both as weapons and to open blocked or hidden doorways, boomerangs, which can kill or paralyze enemies, keys for locked doors, magic swords, shields, and bows and arrows, while others are unique to a single game. Though the games contain many role-playing elements (Zelda II was also the only one to include an experience system), they emphasise straightforward hack and slash-style combat over the strategic, turn-based or active time combat of games like Final Fantasy. The game's role-playing elements, however, have led to much debate over whether or not the Zelda games should be classified as action role-playing games, a genre on which the series had a strong influence.
Every game in the main Zelda series has consisted of three principal areas: an overworld in which movement is multidirectional, allowing the player some degree of freedom of action; areas of interaction with other characters (merely caves or hidden rooms in the first game, but expanding to entire towns and cities in subsequent games) in which the player gains special items or advice; and dungeons, areas of labyrinthine layout, usually underground, comprising a wide range of difficult enemies, bosses, and items. Each dungeon usually has one major item inside, which is usually essential for solving many of the puzzles in that dungeon and often plays a crucial role in defeating that dungeon's boss as well as progressing through the game. In nearly every Zelda game, navigating a dungeon is aided by locating a map, which reveals its layout, and a magic compass, which reveals the location of significant and smaller items such as keys and equipment. In later games, the series also included a special 'boss key', that would unlock the door to battle the dungeon's boss enemy.
In most Zelda games, the player's life meter is represented as a line of hearts. The life meter is replenished a number of different ways, including picking up hearts left by some defeated enemies, fairies or springs located in specific locations, or using an item such as a potion. Most games feature "heart containers" or "a piece of heart" as the prize for defeating the final boss of a dungeon and also for completing certain side quests; these extend the life meter by one heart.
The games pioneered a number of features that were to become industry standards. The original Legend of Zelda was the first console game with a save function that enabled players to stop playing and then resume later. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduced a targeting system that simplified 3D combat.