Ocarina of Time Dungeons: Mini-Dungeons

Alright, so as promised I’m going to review all of the mini-dungeons in Ocarina of Time as part of one editorial. I’ll be covering the Ice Cavern, which comes before last week’s dungeon, the Water Temple. We’ll also be tackling the Bottom of the Well, which comes before next week’s, the Shadow Temple. Finally, I’m throwing in the Gerudo Training Grounds simply because it fits some of the aspects of a dungeon even if its status as one is questionable in my eyes. While this editorial will be a little long as I will cover all three, what I have to say about each individually is rather brief.

First up is the Ice Cavern. This is typically not considered a very noteworthy dungeon, but among the mini-dungeons of Ocarina of Time, it’s actually the most unique. Its appearance is completely different than any other dungeon or area in the game (barring the water area in Ganon’s Castle), and it boasts many unique obstacles, including the falling icicles, Freezards, as well as one of the game’s few uses of its bizarrely sparse Silver Rupee puzzles.

And then, of course, there’s the red ice. The blue fire found in this dungeon is a bottle item needed to clear away the red ice blocking most of the dungeon, and honestly I’ve always found this to be a really obnoxious mechanic. It does lend the Ice Cavern a unique design, but at the price of adding in a need to monotonously refill your bottles and do away with more ice. You can purchase it in shops outside the dungeon, but that’s of no help with the refilling problem. The dungeon is brief, so it’s an unoffensive flaw in an otherwise great game, but it’s still an obnoxious dungeon in and of itself.

Artistically it is intriguing though. It did give us one of the series’ recurring enemies, the Freezards, and it has an interesting appearance: The floors are often ice, but they didn’t just make it simple white ice like on the ice floes outside the dungeon. There are strange patterns in the ice, often in the form of hexagons. It’s a strange idea and it vaguely reminds me of the Palace of Twilight from Twilight Princess with its glowing patterns. Either way, an interesting design choice and a visually interesting dungeon with a fitting song that always makes you think of cold, glittering ice, even if it’s not that thrilling. Some believe the Ice Cavern to be what remains of an Ice Temple that never made it into the game, and if that’s true, it explains the unique visual elements that the Ice Cavern has over other mini-dungeons.

Next we have the Bottom of the Well, which is my favorite of Ocarina of Time’s mini-dungeons. This dungeon is actually seen often throughout the early portions of the game, being a simple well in Kakariko Village, and there’s always a suggestion that there’s more to it. It has a sign and ridiculous name (“Well of Three Features”), in the future you can go down to the bottom, and there’s a man who speaks of it:

A long time ago… There was a man in this very village who had an eye they said
could see the truth! Now usually, you have to train your mind’s eye most strenuously to actually see the truth… But this fella, no, they say he had a different way of doing things…

His house stood where the well is now…

It’s given a remarkable amount of attention and buildup without making you think it’s buildup. You might get the sense that you’ll do something with it later, but I doubt most would ever think it would be as prominent as it was, for after clearing the Water Temple, Kakariko Village is plagued by flames and an evil spirit that emerges violently from the well, which Link and Sheik unsuccessfully fight off in one of my favorite scenes from Ocarina of Time. And then of course, Link must journey to the past to enter the well.

And what a place! This eerie set of chambers clearly served a different purpose than that of a simple waterway. They are hidden catacombs, even complete with burial chambers and, more alarmingly, torture devices. This disturbing place has an eerie song, frightening foes, and an insidious and unsettling gimmick in the form of fake walls and floors. Poor navigation drops you into the poison-filled lower chamber and pits you against frightening ReDeads, and until you find the Lens of Truth, navigating the dungeon is extremely dangerous.

Not that finding the Lens of Truth is any less disconcerting. The dungeon item is guarded by the immensely disturbing Dead Hand, widely considered one of the most scary and disturbing beasts of any Zelda game. I’d wager this freak caught virtually every player by surprise, and I know he did me… even on my second playthrough when I’d forgotten about him. He’s an alarming and unexpected monstrosity and all the better for it.

It’s unfortunate that the Shadow Temple shares so many elements of the Bottom of the Well, particularly its music, but I’m not sure which dungeon to blame that on. Either way, the Bottom of the Well is an excellent mini-dungeon, one that makes maximum use of its limited time in the game; it’s a necessary stop to progress in the game, but, while its design concepts could be annoying, they are appropriate within a dungeon this brief, where the player doesn’t spend enough time with them for things to be too grating. And of course, it sets up the Shadow Temple quite nicely. I always find it much scarier than the Shadow Temple because of its claustrophobic design, unsettling foes, and navigational challenges. The Bottom of the Well was handled with care by the developers, and it was an excellent ride.

And finally that brings us to the Gerudo Training Grounds. This “dungeon” lacks a number of the defining characteristics of the other dungeons in the game, lacking a dungeon map, compass, or any form of boss or mini-boss, which even the other mini-dungeons have, but regardless some people still think of it as one so I’ll go over it briefly.

If this were a necessary dungeon I’d have found it annoying. People complain about Skyward Sword for padding the game with unneeded content, and even other Zelda games can receive that criticism, but honestly the mini-dungeons in Ocarina of Time are the earliest example of this, and it was an irritation with the Ice Cavern and a benefit to the game with the Bottom of the Well. Given its totally unoriginal design, I’d say that it would have been an irritation with the Gerudo Training Grounds, but thankfully it isn’t necessary and actually serves as an optional obstacle course for an extra weapon that is rather powerful. In that role, its re-use of ideas makes sense, and while perhaps it could have done more of its own thing, I don’t think anyone will really complain about some of the side-content being less spectacular than main content.

The Gerudo Training Grounds has the interesting lion statues in the beginning, but otherwise it looks visually similar to the Spirit Temple and Fire Temple. It does manage to somewhat accomplish the feeling of a gladiatorial arena, which is good as that’s effectively what it is. Within this dungeon you must seek out keys to unlock the way to the Ice Arrow, and many of the keys are well-hidden, turning it into a challenging hunt. It’s a well designed challenge befitting of an optional level, not really a finely crafted experience of its own. It’s worthy of the game, however, and fun to go through.

So to recap, I found the Ice Cavern to be visually interesting but obnoxiously designed, and it functioned as unneeded padding (though I would feel differently if its design was better). The Bottom of the Well, however, had excellent atmosphere, excellent presentation, and a gimmick of its own that isn’t as annoying until you do it at length, which the dungeon’s shortness prevents from happening. Meanwhile the Gerudo Training Grounds — if it can be called a dungeon — provides nothing new but still functions as a fun side experience for an extra weapon. All in all? Solid dungeons and very fun diversions from the game’s main challenges.

So how about you? What are your opinions — positive or negative — about the Ice Cavern, Bottom of the Well, and Gerudo Training Grounds? Do you consider that last one a dungeon at all? How do you feel about the idea of mini-dungeons in general? Tell me in the comments, and look forward to next week when I discuss the Shadow Temple and, in particular, its relationship with the Bottom of the Well!