Ocarina of Time Dungeons: Water Temple

Alright, so now we’re onto the Water Temple. I’ll be honest here: Don’t expect a lot out of this. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t expect me to review it, because I’m totally going to do that, but I wouldn’t expect… well, what everyone generally expects people to say about the Water Temple. I know last week I wrote “come back next week, as I’ll be discussing the infamous Water Temple” — and to be fair you really can’t write about the dungeon properly without using the word “infamous” — but the truth is I don’t really see anything wrong with it. But I’ll save that for the review itself. Let’s get started, shall we? First up, I’m going to create a little suspense follow the format of my previous dungeon reviews and discuss the Water Temple’s themes and atmosphere before getting into the gameplay (read: meat) of the dungeon.

The Water Temple, at first glance, has pretty straightforward architecture and a very nondescript appearance. However, I’m inclined to say it has a vaguely middle-eastern, Arabian feeling to it, but given that I have absolutely no detailed knowledge of architecture, I have no way of knowing if that’s accurate. Honestly, I think the reason I get that impression is more from the music rather than the visual design itself. It’s that flute, primarily, that gives it that Arabian feeling for me. But as entertaining as it probably is to listen to a guy who’s nothing close to an expert in cultural aesthetics talk about them, I have a bigger point about the music. Several, actually.

The Water Temple is good proof of what I said about the Fire Temple last week: The Fire Temple doesn’t have impressive architecture or visual design, feeling incomplete on its own, but would have been great if it had a good, unique song (as it did in the original version). The same is true of the Water Temple, though it replaces the stone faces with enigmatic dragon statues and replaces fire and reddish lighting with misty air and beautiful water reflections on the walls and ceiling. But I think it’s the Water Temple’s song that really completes the atmosphere, just as the original Fire Temple music did.

And it’s a very mysterious, eerie song. I find it to be the creepiest song in the game, though in a very subtle way (this includes the Shadow Temple music). It has an air of eeriness, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a mysterious tune for a mysterious dungeon. Nintendo displayed a fascinating take on the concept of water here. Instead of simply making it about water itself — purely the environment found therein — Nintendo took two much more interesting meanings out of it: Reflection, and the unknown. The Water Temple uses the idea of a reflection in water as its main theme, and extends past that into a sense of the unknown, of the mysterious.

The reflection of the water on the walls and ceilings is ever-present throughout the dungeon, visible throughout most of its rooms. The ringing, tinkling sounds (I’m not really music literate either) in the music seem to fit and represent this constant motion of water, while the fact that they sound like an auditory representation of shimmering reminds of the light reflecting off the water, like light off a mirror. The mirror theme is most obvious in Dark Link, a boss who literally forms out of your stolen reflection in the water (watch closely; Link’s reflection disappears upon crossing over the center island, not his shadow). This stolen reflection brings to mind somewhat cliche stories of evil doubles in mirrors, mirror worlds, etc., and works will with the Water Temple’s theme of the unknown, as does the eerie aspect of the dungeon’s music.

There is a strange sorcery present in the Water Temple, in the form of the unexplained mechanism that changes the water level, but more importantly in the strange illusion that overtakes Dark Link’s chamber and dissipates when he’s vanquished, and in Dark Link himself… clearly another illusion. A mere spell. People like to treat him like his own character, but in every appearance he’s ever had — this being the chief example — he’s no more substantial than magic itself. He’s sorcery. Could this be the work of Morpha, a seemingly simple being of living water that yet was able to freeze all of Zora’s Domain? The theme of eerie, unknown menace is also depicted in Morpha, a living mass of the dungeon’s element set out to drown you.

The relevance of reflection to water is obvious; I’m more impressed by the correlation drawn between water and the frightening unknown, which is very real with water as shown by the fact that that the deep sea is one of the most enigmatic and terrifying places on the planet, that, prior to being explored, was thought to be impossible to support life, despite sporting an extremely significant amount of life. I really doubt Nintendo intentionally put this much thought into the Water Temple’s ideas, but even so, the end result is an impressive experience.

With that all out of the way, now we can get onto the dungeon’s infamous gameplay.

As I’ve said several times now, the Water Temple is a very infamous dungeon. It takes a lot of heat for being “confusing”, “impossible to complete if you do things in the wrong order”, and “so totally hard”… and I’ve also seen people say its map makes no sense. Certainly, the dungeon is challenging, but people drastically exaggerate this.

You can’t accidentally make the dungeon impossible to complete, the map makes plenty of sense as long as you compare the ends of hallways to other floors, and the layout is pretty simple if you take things one at a time and remember the locations of the flood switches. The flood switches are a big thing people complain about, but I find it odd that Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple gets criticized so much for this despite that so many other games employ the same mechanics. Perhaps they were considered too far apart in this game specifically, but they’re not in any way difficult to find; I don’t think it’s in any way compelling for someone to say it’s too difficult to find the same place using the same route several times.

There’s the repetition aspect, and I’ll admit that changing boots can be annoying, but regarding the flood switches, it still seems like a strange complaint. With a little planning and intuition, you can figure out what level the switch needs to be at, and even if you turn out to be wrong, what’s the most you can criticize the dungeon for? Having a challenging puzzle? Maybe they could have made it easier to get from switch to switch, but this would have removed the navigational challenges of trying to figure out how to get from switch to switch, and it should be unnecessary considering that the Water Temple has one of the tightest layouts in the game; it is not hard to get from one wing of the dungeon to another, especially not if you use Farore’s Wind. It’s ridiculous that Eiji Aonuma apologized for the dungeon’s design and that they added glowing light paths leading to each of the flood switches in Ocarina of Time 3D. There was no good reason for either.

Of course, this isn’t to say the dungeon isn’t tricky. It requires a bit more thought and planning to get through smoothly than other dungeons in the game do, especially since it forces the player to really think in three dimensions; unlike many other moments in the game, the Water Temple constantly requires you to be aware of what’s above and below you. The Forest Temple required some aiming with the Fairy Bow, and the Fire Temple made you concerned about falling to lower floors and occasionally required you to look up to find a ladder or wall you could climb, but otherwise you could accomplish most of the same ideas in a 2D game (and the fact that there was a regrettably canceled project to recreate the game in 2D is a testament to this). The Water Temple is one of the biggest examples in the series, let alone Ocarina of Time, of an area that requires total awareness of your environment. And while its enemies are all simple, they are made far more difficult within the water-filled environments, and either way are made up for with a mini-boss that’s almost universally considered the hardest (notice no one complains about this with Dark Link), and a boss who, at least for me, is one of the game’s most difficult.

I think this all makes the Water Temple an enjoyable challenge. We look to the game’s overworld and towns for casual questing and sightseeing; in dungeons we expect a challenge, and the Water Temple delivers. In all honesty, when I played through the Water Temple for the first time, my final thoughts on it consisted of “that dungeon was a bit challenging” and… that’s it. I thought it was a dungeon. Maybe a little trickier than most, but nothing more and nothing less, and certainly nothing resembling the criticisms it doesn’t deserve. It’s one of Ocarina of Time’s more challenging dungeons, but I don’t see how that makes it bad. With surprisingly complex — though likely unintentional — themes, and clever puzzle design, it manages to be a thrilling experience, and I look forward to it whenever I play Ocarina of Time.

But how about you? Do you think the Water Temple deserves a break like I do, or do you agree with its reputation? How do you feel about its atmosphere and themes? Tell me in the comments! And I know I skipped the Ice Cavern, so check back next week when I review all of the game’s mini-dungeons together!