Ocarina of Time Dungeons: Shadow Temple

Ah, the Shadow Temple. It’s now time to review this infamous dungeon. Now, mind you, it’s not nearly as infamous as the Water Temple. People complain about the Water Temple’s design and say it’s repetitive and overly confusing, whereas the Shadow Temple just scares people. Horror is meant to scare, and for some people that’s not fun, so some people won’t like the Shadow Temple (or the Bottom of the Well, by extension), but for others that’s the fun part!

But all is not well in the pit of shadows and death… well, aside from the shadow and death part. I have a number of problems with the Shadow Temple, and I’ll be going over them. Just note ahead of time that I don’t hate the dungeon at all; I still had fun with it.

I think the Shadow Temple suffers because of the Bottom of the Well’s presence. Now, I discussed last time that the Bottom of the Well is the only mini-dungeon in Ocarina of Time that I would call great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was unique, it was well-designed, it was scary, and it left a big impression. As a result, however, the Bottom of the Well ends up overshadowing the main Shadow Temple because the latter doesn’t add anything to the pot.

This bothers me a lot because out of every dungeon in Ocarina of Time, barring Ganon’s Castle, the Shadow Temple has the most buildup; you see an epic sequence in which the dungeon’s boss breaks out from the Well, and then you must locate the dungeon in the shadows of the graveyard, an area you’ve probably visited several times already. Even the entrance of the Shadow Temple is an unusually impressive area, an unnerving seal that must be opened by lighting many torches. This all bred an unusually high amount of anticipation, which for me at least was only whet by my journey into the Bottom of the Well. After all, if the mini-dungeon was this unique and terrifying, what horrors lay in wait in the Shadow Temple itself? What could be worse than the Dead Hand?

The answer is, of course, the Dead Hand.

……Oh.

The Shadow Temple recycles the Well’s music, which is the most forgivable thing it copies. Then it recycles the Dead Hand without any explanation, which is notably less so. It’s still cool, but it lacks a lot of impact fighting them back to back, and the second battle really is a shadow of the first because it lacks its shock and freshness, though this could have been amazing if they handled it better, perhaps giving it more explanation and had the boss return from its supposed death in a more challenging battle. The recycling problem extends to other areas of the dungeon, where it borrows visuals from the Bottom of the Well and recycles the core gimmick of the Lens of Truth without adding much more; the Hover Boots are arguably the least noteworthy dungeon item of the game, and possibly among the least noteworthy of the series. Had it been used more often and more creatively, perhaps that would not have been the case.

When the dungeon does originate concepts beyond what’s found in the Bottom of the Well, they tend to be uninspired and random. The Bottom of the Well, while it made only marginally more sense, had a coherent idea: It was an evil-infested, bizarre torture chamber and tomb built into a waterway hidden in the shadow of the Well’s bottom.

Meanwhile the Shadow Temple is a random assortment of “spooky” enemies and traps, built into a set of nondescript passages and caves, with an occasional unique-looking room with bone designs. To me, it feels like the Shadow Temple is a scary dungeon only in aesthetics; Nintendo took everything they could think of that people identify as spooky and put it into the dungeon in an attempt to accomplish a broad scary feel, but in being scary it’s only a shadow: Pooling conventionally scary ideas into a single area doesn’t automatically make it scary (not to mention trying to combine too many different things just makes it seem like you’re trying too hard, like it’s the Smash Brothers of scary themes).

I have never found the Shadow Temple scary. The Bottom of the Well manages some of the core tenets of horror — immersion and atmosphere — but the Shadow Temple feels too much like it’s just a game level to me. Maybe some of that simply falls on level design, which involves lots of traps that require timing and maneuvering rather than brooding passages and intimidating foes. This is a dungeon designed to whittle at your hearts and magic, and honestly it’s the most likely dungeon to force you to retreat to refill your bottles. While they might have intended this as a sort of misguided attempt at the resource management you see in survival horror games, I think it could potentially be a distraction from the dungeon feeling legitimately scared. Overall, however, I think Nintendo just overfilled the dungeon with horror tropes instead of spending time fleshing out its core ideas — delving deep into the earth to a spirit world ruled by the angry dead — to be truly terrifying.

Maybe that’s a good thing; as I said, a lot of people don’t like getting scared, and if you made the Shadow Temple into a truly terrifying dungeon, you could turn them off from the game. Ocarina of Time’s strength is its wide appeal, so maybe the softness is appropriate. If that’s the case, though, then I question why it can’t at least match the Bottom of the Well’s terror. And beyond that, if a dungeon is not going to be permitted to maximize its core concepts and be an actually scary scary dungeon, then it’s just a shadow of what it could have been, and falls in with other dungeons that didn’t make maximum use of their ideas.

Then there’s Bongo-Bongo. This is the Phantom Shadow Beast (???) that emerged from the Bottom of the Well in the awesome scene I mentioned earlier, and is responsible for much of the dungeon’s buildup. I do feel he’s somewhat anti-climactic for the dungeon, being a more goofy enemy than I would have anticipated; when I first played Ocarina of Time, I expected an epic monster to cap off the Shadow Temple and kind of just gaped like an idiot when I saw Bongo-Bongo.

Then again, his goofiness masks the true nature of his disturbing appearance (a man with a severed head and hands, who’s open neck has peeled back to form a macabre eye), and ultimately I think his concept gives him more personality. They could have expanded on him and his battle to make both far scarier, and I think they should have, but he’s still a fun and challenging boss battle (one of the game’s trickiest).

And that’s the key here: The Shadow Temple is still essentially a fun dungeon. It’s like a spooky obstacle course that’s meant to test your caution and resource management. For players like me, who play aggressively, it can be a bit of a nightmare, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad. I feel like it could have been less painful to get back to the entrance (the dungeon often takes you far away from the entrance rather than gravitating around it, making retreating a pain even if you use Farore’s Wind, because you still have to walk half the way), and that would probably be the core flaw I’d note in the Shadow Temple’s level design.

Also, while I might complain about the scary themes not meeting their full potential, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them. Even if they’re generic and not scary, I love spooky visuals, and certainly the dungeon is more harrowing that any other in the game; among Ocarina of Time’s varied areas and dungeons, this one still manages to cast the most intimidating shadow.

So I didn’t hate the Shadow Temple. It wasn’t scary enough and borrowed too much not only from its predecessor but from horror in general, without building the right atmosphere, but it was still spooky and still managed to be a fun, if flawed, experience.

So how about you? How did you feel about the Shadow Temple? Do you think it was scary enough? Should it have been scary at all? How do you feel about its relationship with the Bottom of the Well and other dungeons in the game? Tell me in the comments, and next week we’ll discuss the last of the main dungeons before the finale, the Spirit Temple!

P.S.: Can you count how many times the word “shadow” was uttered in this review?