The Best Zelda Dungeons: Why Are Some More Memorable Than Others?
Once Upon a Dungeon…
Without dungeons, Zelda games would be boring. You would just explore an overworld, traveling from town town, hacking up any enemies that get in your way. Dungeons add variety to a Zelda game. The rhythm of Zelda is a constant shift from the light exploration and whimsical towns of the overworld to the intense focus and unrelenting battles of the dungeons. Light, heavy. Heavy, light.
When you hit the dungeon you know your days of free exploration are over. You are at the mercy of the obstacle path the dungeon’s creators have laid out in front of you. No more chatting up the townsfolk. No more prancing around on ponies. No more cutting down bushes for rupees. Actually, there’s still plenty of that. But, you know it’s time to buckle your seat belt and focus. Things are about to get intense. You will have to use your brain for headache-inducing puzzles. You will have to hone your reflexes for epic battles. And sometimes you’ll be doing both at once.
By my count, the Zelda series has 111 main dungeons and even more mini-dungeons, to boot. That’s a lot of dungeons fans have gone through. On average there are 6-8 dungeons per Zelda game. Some of those are very memorable and remain firmly implanted in the nostalgia “reserves” in our brain. But, others slip through the grasp of our memories, having made less of an impression in our minds. And still others are remembered notoriously, like Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple, for being absolutely infuriating.
So what are the elements that make one dungeon better than another? Let’s peer through the dungeon entrance door and take a deeper look.
A Dungeon’s Theme is its Identity
Name some Zelda dungeons you remember off hand. Jabu-Jabu’s belly? The Deku Tree? Dragon Roost? The Moon in Majora’s Mask? Most likely they were dungeons that focused heavily on a specific theme. Gamers don’t want a break in the middle of their Zelda game to play a game of chess. A dungeon is not meant to be a bland, abstract, logic puzzle. It’s meant to be a living, organic place with an identity of its own. The aesthetics matter. The atmosphere matters. And the “feel” of it matters.
The first Zelda named its dungeons after the shape of the map. Eagle, Moon, Snake, Lizard. But the themes were nondescript other than the what you would see from a bird’s eye view. Zelda II followed the first and featured dungeons that were even less theme-focused. Parapa Palace, Midoro Palace, Island Palace. In both games, the aesthetic difference between one dungeon to the next sometimes came down to nothing more than a color swap .
The focus on themes, to a limited degree, began in Link to the Past. Although dungeons like the Eastern Palace were mostly theme-less, the SNES was already capable of producing nice aesthetic differences between say, the Desert Palace and the Swamp Palace. But, the themes were mostly limited to the tileset and location in the game. Zelda games hadn’t yet learned to focus the elements of gameplay within the dungeon around a certain theme. That would happen for the first time in Ocarina of Time. Of all the evolutions in OoT, this seems to be one that people forget the most. Dungeons suddenly became very engaging. The Forest Temple, The Fire Temple, The Spirit Temple. These places are usually remembered with a fond grin.
So, what were the themes about? Mostly, the elements. From Ocarina and on, these seem to be recurring themes for Zelda dungeons:
And this brings us to the one complaint I have. It’s time for Zelda games to stop repeating themes. We’ve seen a Fire Temple enough times already that seeing one more in Skyward Sword, excuse me for saying it, doesn’t exactly set me on fire. The dungeons that really stand out in the series are the ones that try something unique. Stone Tower Temple: It looked like a Mayan Temple and you were able to flip the whole dungeon upside-down to solve puzzles. Thieves Town: You rescue a girl from a prison and lead her out only to discover that she is really the dungeon’s boss- the head of the thieves, posing as an innocent girl- and you just set her free from her cell. The Great Deku Tree: The dying Guardian of the Kokiri asks you to enter his body through his mouth and vanquish an evil scorpion living inside of him. He dies anyway. Snowpeak Ruins: You enter the (haunted) mansion of a loving Yeti couple who are plagued by unruly monsters. The wife, Yeta, is sick so her husband cooks her up a soup while you try and track down a key to the Master Bedroom, finding ingredients for the soup along the way. When Yeta finally recovers, she is possessed and transforms into the boss of the dungeon, Blizzeta.
In order for the Zelda series to remain fresh, Nintendo must make sure that the dungeons in Skyward Sword are unique in theme. Enough with forest, fire, and water. Let’s see something new. I’m sure no matter the theme the game will be great. But it would be nice to see a theme that’s truly creative.
So, what else makes a Zelda dungeon more memorable? Its difficulty level. The developers have to strike a delicate balance here. A dungeon must be hard enough to be rewarding but not so challenging as to become tedious. Once you have to fetch your notebook out and start taking notes due to the complicated and convoluted puzzles, you know that it’s too much. This isn’t math class; it’s a video game and it’s supposed to be fun. But, if a dungeon is too easy, then you end up breezing through it without giving a second thought. Many of the first dungeons in the handheld Zelda games have this problem. Remember Tail’s Cave in Link’s Awakening? Yeah, neither do I.
Some famous examples of really difficult dungeons are The Water Temple (changing water levels? ugh), The Great Bay Temple (changing water direction? ugh), and City in the Sky. The dungeon that I believe achieves the best balance in the series is the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time. Between its rewarding wolf battles, “let’s-pretend-the-dungeon-is a-carousel” puzzles, chasing the ghost sisters challenge, navigation through the underground tunnels, and haunting music– it remains my favorite dungeon in the series.
Important, but not Essential
There are two other elements that definitely improve a dungeon’s chance of being memorable but don’t alter it drastically. It’s nice to discover a wicked boss awaits you at the end of your journey. Something enormous, ugly, and terrifying. There’s a certain satisfaction in facing off against a boss that gives you a bit of a shiver down your spine- and then cooking its goose. Of course, you can have a dungeon that is panned by all gamers, despite featuring a well-liked end boss. And vice versa.
Lastly, the music in a dungeon won’t make it or break it, but will certainly add to the experience. When done right, the music could have you looking over your shoulder, anxiously, every few moments.
How Future Dungeons Can Evolve
I want to end this article by looking to the future. Many fans, despite adoring the series, have complained about the need for Zelda games to evolve and break out of their mold. I have an idea to present that might shake things up a bit. Don’t require the dungeon to be so different than a town– sometimes you can bring the town into the dungeon! What do I mean by that?
The element that we love about towns are the interaction with characters, the dialogue, and relationships formed. Think of the kids who get kidnapped in Twilight Princess. They bring an emotional connection and sentimentality to the game. I think Nintendo should add these human elements to dungeons as well. Zelda is not Metroid. Carving through a dungeon doesn’t have to be lonely experience. There should be more characters inside the dungeon itself. Maybe a friendly NPC tries to assist you in the dungeon, only to make matters worse. Maybe an oddball hermit actually lives in a room in the dungeon and asks you to clear his garden outside of all the monsters inhabiting it. Instead of getting the key from a treasure chest, this hermit rewards you with a key for doing his garden extermination. The whole experience becomes more personal. And the traditional formula gets shaken up.
What Are Your Favorite and Least Favorite Dungeons?
So, after reading this in-depth analysis of Zelda dungeons, I’d like to hear your thoughts. What dungeons make you swoon? Would you prefer doing math homework than being forced to play through other dungeons? What’s the most important element of a dungeon? And how do you think future Zelda dungeons should evolve?