WARNING – THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
In preparation for my review of The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time 3D I’ve compiled a topical top ten. Exploring the diverse and beautiful lands woven for you in the Zelda series is a joy with no equal but the real heart and soul of the games can be found in the dungeons. The innumerable dungeons spanning the Zelda series are famous for their design and atmosphere. Entering one is like stepping into another world, one overrun by dangerous monsters, and full of fiendish puzzles and Indiana Jones style adventure and mystery. Usually designed around some kind of elemental theme the dungeons often exhibit a unique conceit such as rescuing caged monkeys or adjusting the water level in a flooded fortress. The following ten stand out as the most memorable examples in the series to date in terms of clever design, addictive puzzles and immersive atmosphere. A good Zelda dungeon should transport you and amaze you. This was a tough list to compile and some great dungeons such as Ice Palace, Fire Temple, Tower of the Gods, and Arbiter’s Grounds didn’t make the cut. Here are the ten best.
10 – Turtle Rock (A Link to the Past)
The final standard dungeon of the behemoth that is A Link to the Past, still the game with the most dungeons in the series, is a suitably challenging affair that really tests your ability to keep track of your surroundings. In several rooms you must create moving platforms on rails using the Cane of Somaria and allow them to transport you to new areas. With some such courses fraught with hazards the dungeon can get pretty challenging and it’s a sizeable one with a lot of dangerous enemies. Oh, and you’d better have some green potion to replenish your magic meter because you’ll run out of magic in the blink of an eye.
9 – Eagle’s Tower (Link’s Awakening)
Link’s Awakening featured some terrific dungeons such as the head-scratching Face Shrine and the scarily-scored Key Cavern but the standout is Eagle Tower, the only dungeon in the game with multiple levels. It’s a great test of spatial awareness in which you have to work out where you are in relation to what’s on the floors above and below as you transport a heavy wrecking ball used to demolish pillars and bring half the tower down. It’s made doubly taxing when you factor in the heavy use of blocks that are raised or lowered from the floor by hitting switches which are designed obstruct your path in many places. It’s also noteworthy for featuring Kirby of all things as an invincible enemy you just have to sneak past before he can inhale you.
8 – Snowpeak Ruins (Twilight Princess)
Situated in a frozen mountainous region at the end of a giant snowboard run in Twilight Princess stands this crumbling mansion, one of the remotest and most inaccessible dungeons in the series. It stands out by subverting the form slightly and having NPCs to meet inside the battered old building in the form of a pair of friendly yetis who make their home there. The female, Yeta is sick but wants to help you find the Mirror of Twilight shard you’re looking for and gives you directions that only lead you to new ingredients to add to the soup her husband is cooking. The frozen theme of the place means you can expect plenty of slippery surfaces and icy enemies that can freeze you solid as you carry heavy cannonballs around to launch at obstacles but the most memorable thing about the place is that you’re essentially just exploring somebody’s house complete with kitchen, dining room and bedroom.
7 – Snowhead Temple (Majora’s Mask)
This brilliant dungeon, which combines fire and ice for its elemental theme, is designed around a huge central room in which a vast pillar rises up to the ceiling simultaneously blocking and opening routes in higher floors of the dungeon. It’s possible to adjust the height of the pillar by punching out fragile segments as Goron Link with whom you must make some pretty huge jumps by rolling at high speed into ramps in other places in the dungeon. Snowhead Temple gets extra points for climaxing with the most enjoyable boss in the entire series, Masked Mechanical Monster Goht whom you must pursue as Goron Link, rolling at maximum speed as you dodge various traps the boss tries to hinder you with.
6 – Great Bay Temple (Majora’s Mask)
Ocarina of Time‘s Water Temple is infamous as a confusing, tiresome labyrinth that hampers progress by necessitating frequent use of the Iron Boots and backtracking to adjust the water level despite featuring some rather clever level design and one of the best mid-level bosses ever. It’s so derided by some quarters that Grezzo made significant design choices for the interface of their 3DS remake to make the dungeon easier to manage. Lakebed Temple in Twilight Princess involved a similar theme of manipulating water by having you reroute water courses to drive water wheels and open new areas but the best aquatic themed dungeon in the series is Great bay Temple from Majora’s Mask which you can only access by riding on the back of a giant turtle. The brilliant premise of the dungeon surrounds a central room where a huge device resembling a clockwork key, power by a massive waterwheel creates an underwater whirlpool, the flow of which determines which of the many underwater passages in the room you can access. You have to explore the dungeon activating and changing more such wheels and opening passages with water pipes to find your way. Although it’s another brain-bending challenge the process is made enjoyable and, dare I say, fluid by transforming into the nimble-underwater Zora Link. This immersive and demanding dungeon is made all the more memorable for containing some unique minor bosses and a dangerous end-of-level boss.
5 – Shadow Temple (Ocarina of Time)
This is by far the scariest dungeon in the entire series thanks to its dark lighting and colour schemes, twisted music, invisible death traps and long, crushing descent. It’s quite possible to get into this dungeon without finding the Lens of Truth in the Bottom of the Well mini-dungeon but you’ll immediately be stumped by a dead end that gives you creepy messages – you need the mysterious lens to see that the wall isn’t really there. The brooding, spine-chilling soundtrack taunts you as you gradually delve deeper into what feels like a descent into the underworld complete with ferry crossing, surpassing huge, open rooms that give you a colossal sense of scale and dodging wallmaster enemies as they drop on you from above after their terrifying shadows appear with a horrible rushing noise. Scariest bit? Walking into a large, apparently empty room and marching forwards into an invisible pair of massive statues of Death revolving with their humongous scythes that shred you to pieces. The design of the dungeon isn’t the most ingenious; it’s pretty linear, but the atmosphere of dread and cool boss encounter go a long way to making this one of the most memorable dungeons in the series’ greatest game.
4 – City in the Sky (Twilight Princess)
City in the Sky is a remarkable dungeon long before you get to the main reason it’s so high on this list. Firstly, it’s a city in the sky, which, frankly, is cool enough. Home to the slightly odd Oocca people the dungeon sees you using the bird-like creatures to float around as you explore this mysterious old fortress to a somewhat unhinged soundtrack. Things get really good when you get your hands on the dungeon’s item although you might be a bit confused at first since you already found it in Lakebed Temple. City in the Sky gives you a second clawshot, Twilight Princess‘s updated version of the hookshot which allows you to shoot for another point to grab on to with one clawshot whilst already hanging from one with the other. In this way you can do a pretty effective impression of Spider-man even lowering yourself by extending the chain when hanging from a ceiling to line yourself up for the next shot. It makes for some imaginative and highly enjoyable level design and makes City in the Sky stand out as the best dungeon in the game.
3 – Spirit Temple (Ocarina of Time)
As the last standard dungeon of Ocarina of Time, Spirit Temple, the game’s most remote dungeon, found inside a colossus located at the far side of a vast desert, needed to do something truly special to not disappoint players already in raptures over the magnificent game, and it did exactly that. The twist here is that when you enter the first room your progress is impaired by a block too heavy to move in one direction and a hole too small to fit through in the other. In a game in which you’ve already failed to save the world you are forced to admit defeat and leave the dungeon. Only then will Sheik appear and teach you the melody that will allow you to warp back to the area as young Link and fit through that claustrophobic hole. Spirit Temple demands you explore it as both young and adult Link, both of which getting unique rooms to traverse against a brilliantly atmospheric background tune. The temple also features the most challenging enemies in the game and one of its most epic boss battles, not to mention a number of superb puzzles the best of which make awesome use of the Mirror Shield to deflect beams of light.
2 – Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time)
Located deep in the Lost Woods’ Sacred Forest Meadow where you learned Saria’s Song as a child, Forest Temple is the first dungeon you explore as adult Link in Ocarina of Time and it soon announces itself as the most atmospheric and mysterious not just in the game but probably the whole series. As you explore the slightly hazy temple in search of the four Poe Sisters and the flames they’ve stolen from the central room you are bewitched by a strange, echoing melody that enthrals you at every turn. The place oozes mystery and surprises with ceilings that collapse as you cross a chessboard floor, open-air gardens that mirror one another, enemies and a boss that emerge from paintings, and, best of all, twisted corridors leading to rooms with doors and treasure chests stuck to the walls waiting to be untwisted allowing you to enter said rooms from another angle. It’s a brilliantly inventive design that transports you more capably than any other in the game into the fantastical playground.
1 – Stone Tower Temple (Majora’s Mask)
Located at the top of a fortress tower designed to repel armies and only accessible by playing the Elegy of Emptiness to create multiple copies of yourself to move giant floating blocks, Stone Tower Temple is unforgettable before you’ve even set foot inside it. Once you do cross the threshold your fist question is ‘why is the tile that transports you to the boss room on the ceiling?’ It’s a running theme as you soon notice treasure chests glued upside down above you and doors that don’t reach the floor. The open-air temple fells like an epic, imposing place as you traverse it, filled with puzzles that test you in every way, forcing you to use all of your transformation masks and make varied use of your items throughout but after you discover the Light Arrow by beating the very cool Garo Master mid-level boss you are cued to take a step outside the dungeon and use the new weapon to blast a red emblem and turn the whole place upside down. It’s an unadulterated joy to explore the temple a second time inverted in this way. Mysteriously the dungeon isn’t flipped over like a pancake but translated like a mirror image meaning the map for both versions is the same asymetrical shape. Nintendo have made the most of the concept; rooms in the normal temple feature pools of lava, the same rooms in the inverted dungeon drip the red hot liquid from the ceiling. Some rooms are completely unrecognisable, one such that’s waterlogged the first time round seems to have dumped its water out of the open roof in the inverted version. You can even repeat the trick by using light arrows to turn Death Armos enemies upside down, rendering them helpless. After a long, complicated search for all of the stray fairies and an awesome battle with Gomess, a minor boss that can only be described as a manic grim-reaper who wears a cloak of bats, you eventually find your way to the boss chamber. The entrance is in the same room where you fought the Garo Master. A circular opening in the ceiling that gave way to the heavens becomes nothing but a hole to jump into in the inverted dungeon leading to a huge desert where you fight the biggest boss in the entire series, in fact you fight two of them. These double bosses, Giant Masked Insect Twinmold which can only be fought if you turn into a giant with the Giant’s Mask, found in the temple after beating a lethal Eyegore monster. Stone Tower Temple has everything, an epic journey to reach it, a cool background tune, tough enemies, challenging puzzles, deep exploration and a fantastic central theme. It takes its place as the best, most inventive and downright most enjoyable dungeon in the Zelda series.