Although the Forsaken Fortress is first visited before Dragon Roost Cavern, I’m starting this series off with this dungeon and reviewing all the Forsaken Fortress portions at the same time during its revisit. Dragon Roost Cavern is the first full-on dungeon of The Wind Waker, with its predecessor being essentially only half of a dungeon, and one that deviates from the format of the rest of the dungeons in the game at that. As a result, while it falls prey to some of the problems present in later dungeons — primarily, it’s extremely easy — it’s in a position where most of those “problems” aren’t actually problems at all; they are strengths. It’s because of this that I believe Dragon Roost Cavern is an easy pick for the game’s best dungeon.
Initially the dungeon seems pretty nondescript, consisting of little more than a series of volcanic caverns and tunnels. With a quiet and atmospheric remix of the Dodongo’s Cavern music from Ocarina of Time for its dungeon theme, it really does seem like a retread of the volcanic cavern concept. This would seem to be a major pitfall — after all, I criticized the fairly similar Goron Mines for its lack of thematic diversity — but in my eyes, Dragon Roost Cavern actually performs fairly well.
The Wind Waker separates its “generic lava cave dungeon” from others in a couple of important ways. To start, there’s a matter of visual flair. At base, The Wind Waker’s visual design is so superior to many Zelda games that — whether or not you like the artstyle in and of itself; I don’t personally — it adds a fair amount of flair through colors, lighting, and animation. More specifically, while Dragon Roost Cavern would normally be just a series of boring lava rooms and boring dark rooms, both have impressive visual and lighting effects to make them worth revisiting; there are alarming heat wave effects in the lava rooms and cool lighting visuals from the cel-shading in the dark rooms. These effects help to make those moments different than they would be in another game, and thus well worth revisiting.
It also avoids the primary problem of the Goron Mines, which is an excessive amount of sameness. Dragon Roost Cavern has three primary room themes, which are the darker standard caves, the heat wave lava rooms, and the exterior cliffs. However, almost none of the rooms that share room themes actually feel alike; through level design, every single room looks and feels unique in its challenges, navigation, and just general shape, so at no point do the dungeon’s rooms feel like padding; every room in the dungeon is something new. Finally, while its quiet and atmospheric tune seems underwhelming when compared to the epic main Dragon Roost Island theme (and admittedly it could have been a lot more interesting), I’ve always liked it because, while it is basic, the percussion sounds lend it an unusual flavor, and more importantly they directly impact the actual psychological feeling the player gets from the dungeon; perhaps I’m only speaking for myself here, but to me all the drumming and tapping noises felt right at home with the lava dungeon and its fiery eruptions, actually giving it a sense of pressure to go along with its volcanic themes. I’ve usually forgiven minimalist, atmospheric themes when they manage to drastically impact my experience, and the music that plays in Dragon Roost Cavern does.
Of course, the fact that every room in the dungeon looks and feels unique despite overlapping themes is a boon to its gameplay design as well as its thematic design; as I said, every room is navigated a little bit differently, for the most part, meaning that the basic traversal of the dungeon never really gets old. Dragon Roost Cavern’s dungeon item, the Grappling Hook, is also a solid addition to the dungeon’s gameplay, and while I feel it should have been used a lot more often and creatively throughout the rest of the game, it’s excellent here and lends some cool moments and unique navigation to further enrich Dragon Roost Cavern’s diversity.
However, where Dragon Roost Cavern’s level design truly shines is not in its basic navigation nor its dungeon item, or even its battles. It’s strongest aspects are its simple puzzles, how it constantly introduces new minor elements for them (many of which have never been seen before), and best of all how dynamic and interesting the puzzle design feels despite being forced to not play off a single major item until well past the dungeon’s halfway point.
This dungeon is one of the only parts of The Wind Waker that makes any real use of the enemy weapon mechanic; this mechanic is used for a number of puzzles, ranging from familiar Deku Stick puzzles to breaking down wooden boards with a larger sword than your own. Dragon Roost Cavern introduces other neat mechanics, too, such as hardening sections of lava into platforms with jugs of water, or feeding rats bait in order to access your first usable potion shop. There’s often skillful hint design at play in Dragon Roost Cavern as well; rather than having a partner tell you what to do — although this does happen with the rats — you’re often lead to a conclusion in subtle ways, such as how you watch an enemy with a big sword bust through those wooden boards, giving the player the means to figure out that they should use that sword to get through later boards without telling them outright.
And finally, the dungeon makes use of gameplay ideas that should have been more common throughout the entire game. Sidling along walls in the outer cliff areas, picking up new weapons to navigate certain rooms, finding allies like the rats within dungeons if you’re clever or have the bait, and even fighting tricky and precarious battles on rope bridges without breaking them… these are all awesome ideas that could have been used more frequently throughout the rest of the game and made for some awesome moments. It’s sad that these concepts are primarily dropped after Dragon Roost Cavern, but at least one dungeon made great use of them.
Of course, the puzzles are all very simple and very easy for the most part, as are the dungeon’s fights — though the enemies are cool and the Magtails are one of my favorite Zelda creatures ever — but once again, this is the first dungeon of the game; this is the point where the dungeons should be pretty easy. And even with the low-difficulty in mind, Dragon Roost Cavern does still challenge the player with never-before-seen concepts and a few particularly tricky moments throughout. It’s excellently executed. Even its short miniboss gauntlet manages to feel at least a little epic and serves as a form of revenge, since it’s your first real fight against one of the Moblins who plagued you during your stealth journey through the Forsaken Fortress.
Sadly, there is one moment where the dungeon falls flat, although thankfully it’s the only one. While it has some epic cinematic presentation with its visual effects, monster design, two phases with two different variations on its epic theme, as well as the all-around coolness of seeing a very familiar boss monster with a very new design, the boss battle against Gohma is really badly executed. The puzzle element — swinging from Valoo’s tail to drop the ceiling on the boss and break its shell — is actually a neat idea, and, to be fair, it’s also hinted at pretty well by the constant discussion of Gohma doing something to the tail, while even showing said tail before the fight starts. That said, if you don’t catch on quickly, the battle is obnoxious and frustrating. And as soon as you do catch on? The battle is a cakewalk; Gohma really provides very little challenge, and can be bested in seconds as soon as the puzzle is solved. There is, sadly, no real combat component here. Part of me also wishes the wooden platforms on the walls also came into play, but that’s a small point. The real problem is simply the poor balance of action and puzzle-solving; most good Zelda bosses balance the two, and this one just doesn’t. Easily one of The Wind Waker’s worst fights, although once again, the presentation is still excellent. Had it been designed so that the second phase was longer and more action-packed, or Gohma could deter you from swinging much more effectively and thus force you to wait for openings, it would have been a much better fight. I don’t mind it being easy, since it’s the boss of the first dungeon, but at the very least it could provide some form of real interplay between the player’s actions and the boss’s; as it stands, the fight is just not stimulating.
So all in all, I think that Dragon Roost Cavern is a pretty awesome dungeon. If they’d tightened up its boss fight, it would have been virtually perfect, but as it stands now, it’s still an especially well-designed dungeon and one of The Wind Waker’s best. To my surprise, I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly on my most recent replay. I’ve always found this dungeon fun, but I think it’s only after really analyzing it here that I’ve realized how well-designed it is. It’s a little obnoxious to backtrack after getting the Big Key, and Gohma sucks, but neither of these things change how well-designed the dungeon is overall. Dragon Roost Cavern has new ideas, fittingly-low difficulty, and good room and puzzle diversity with enough excellent level and visual design to set it apart from other, similar dungeons. It’s a great dungeon, and I look forward to it every time I play The Wind Waker.
How about you guys? Do you think the dungeon is boring, or do you think it has enough variety? Did you think its gameplay and its level design were brilliantly designed like I did, or do you think they fell short? Tell me in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review the Forbidden Woods!