Scary settings are not at all new to Zelda, and there tends to be a dungeon or area with a spooky theme in the majority of Zelda games these days. But, at least from what I can see, most scary locations in the series tend to gravitate toward the same idea: Underground structures or graveyards that are infested with the undead. Usually these areas are based on pretty basic horror tropes, which is fine, but Zelda tends to be at its best when it tries out new ideas from game to game, so I think it’s about time we saw a little more variety with its scary moments. Not all of these setting ideas are going to be brand-new to Zelda; some of these are going to be ones we’ve seen before, so this article isn’t exactly about settings that we need to see, but settings we need to see more of. I think that some of the concepts we’ve seen before could use a major expansion since their previous appearances were minor, but there are definitely some fresher ideas in here too.
While this is another list article, it’s going to be less about the strict order and more about the ideas themselves, so the order is less important here than on my Top 16 Most Annoying Zelda Characters or Top 16 Most Disturbing Zelda Characters articles. These are not all of the possibilities for new scary settings — I’m sure there are many others — these are simply eight ones I would like to see. Now let’s get started (and yes, I know that first image is of Luigi’s Mansion).
8. Mansion or Castle
I mentioned just yesterday on Mailbag #100 that I would love the idea of exploring a “haunted mansion” type of scenario in a Zelda game, especially for a dungeon. It’s definitely another horror trope, but it’s a different one than we typically see in the series. Yes, there are mansions in Zelda, some of them not scary, like Snowpeak Ruins in Twilight Princess, and others definitely a bit eerie, like the mansion-like Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time. With this entry I’m talking about a very specific depiction that’s somewhat different from either of those, the kind you see in stories like Dracula or Frankenstein: The scary mansion or castle at night, set back into the woods or at the edge of town. Gothic horror.
It’s that rural and/or gothic horror aspect that makes this unique, and it helps when the location feels isolated or is at least the home of a sinister outcast or exile (which could tie into its boss and make it into one of those few dungeons where a particularly notable character is fought for its boss battle). Other gothic settings could work just as well, too; churches and cathedrals work. I’d just love to see a really grand, gothic kind of setting for a scary dungeon, a fanciful or fantastic setting that is still scary or unsettling in one way or another. The Forest Temple definitely got close to this in some ways, but it was very different, too, with its surreal atmosphere and Escher-like design.
It could easily be populated by the standard sort of undead that are commonly seen in the existing scary dungeons, or any number of other dark creatures, just as long as there’s something under the beautiful surface of the dungeon that’s dark and threatening. An excess of traps, or silent animated knights, would also work. There’s a lot of ideas that could be used.
7. Sewer or Waterway
There have been a lot of underground tunnels in Zelda, and even a few sewers. For example, Twilight Princess had a sewer area beneath Hyrule Castle that, during the beta, seemed to be the home of some horrific undead as opposed to the cowardly soldier spirits found in the final version, and more importantly, the Bottom of the Well is also a waterway of sorts. Even The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword have brief spooky sewer portions. So the concept does exist in Zelda, but I’d like to see more of it, and in bigger areas with a lot more emphasis on them.
This kind of setting has claustrophobia going for it, and the tight spaces could become unnerving even to those that aren’t claustrophobic if they’re populated with enemies. They’re also dirty places, giving them almost the opposite horror aspect as the mansion; instead of being a grand and pristine setting, it’s a foul, dirty one, but that opens up a lot of opportunities for both art design and game design; the metal pipes and blackened water, constant dripping, and just constant sense of wetness would make the dungeon distinct as far as the art goes. Meanwhile, having enemies lurking in the pipes and water, and forcing the player to navigate through those alongside grates and a maze of tunnels, would do the same for the dungeon’s gameplay.
The water itself, presented in such a claustrophobic and dirty environment, would be a lot of fun just on its own. Nintendo could play around with murky water, water flow, things lurking below, just the added claustrophobia of navigating tight spaces underwater, or simply the effect it would have on the visuals and audio of the area. Ambient lighting or light from your lantern could reflect off the water of a tunnel, making the dark passage look surreal with a bright floor, and there would be the constant sound of running water and dripping.
A sewer would also be ideal for any kind of part of the game where a town or other settlement is being plagued by something, like some creature or organization, because they could be lurking in the sewer underneath the settlement. A story like this would work really well if the sewer was a dungeon, but it would work just as well if the sewer was a transition area to another place or a dungeon located past it or within it.
Okay, again this is sort of something we’ve seen in Zelda, it’s just not emphasized enough for my tastes. Tombs appear in Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap, Twilight Princess, and probably more I’m not thinking of. But, again, there’s a specific style and mentality I’m looking for here.
Take for example The Wind Waker’s Earth Temple or Twilight Princess’ Arbiter’s Grounds. Both are supposed to resemble or actually be tombs, but the Earth Temple only has a handful of tomb-like portions and otherwise is just a… temple. Whereas Arbiter’s Grounds deviates from the tomb concept a lot and gives the feel of a sandy ruin much of the time.
Again, I’d like to see a setting dominated by claustrophobia, with tight corridors, lots of hidden trap doors and fake walls, to the point where a huge part of dungeon navigation — since this will obviously work best for a dungeon — would involve squeezing through scary passages, trying to avoid setting off traps, and breaking down cracked walls with bombs or perhaps another tool. Discovery would be a big part of this kind of area, but in a negative way as well as a positive one.
What’s the scariest part about a tomb setting in horror? It’s about unearthing the remains and it not being something you want to see. I’d love to see sections of the dungeon where you randomly uncover zombies and ReDeads, or coffins within the walls, or huge passages lined with sarcophagi with no way of knowing which ones are just part of the background, and which ones are going to open for a nasty surprise. Introducing a lot of freakish or unnerving surprises along the way in a dungeon like this would be excellent, especially if there were a lot of new and scary enemies introduced gradually throughout the dungeon up until the end.
Tombs are about the dread of discovery coupled with either the perverse desire to press on and see more, or at least the necessity to (due to survival or a necessary goal). This concept could work for other settings too, like a lab of sorts, though I’m not sure most would agree that something like that could work in Zelda. It could be any form of tomb, though. An Egyptian pyramid, stone catacombs, a mausoleum… anything would work as long as there’s scary stuff to unearth.
5. Hellish Underground
Having underground areas and caves in Zelda is also not new, and of course, having something like this for a significant and large area or dungeon might seem like a bad move, but hear me out. In a lot of cases, trying to make a scary location is going to be about making it identifiable, like it’s a real place that you could find yourself in: That’s one of the reasons I like the mansion and sewer ideas so much: Because they feel grounded. And a cave would be like that. That said, I don’t mean any normal underground cave here.
Dark caves are one thing, but something I’d like to see in a Zelda game is something closer to the concept of Hell, although obviously this probably wouldn’t be an actual depiction of the underworld of the Zelda world. But having a twisted system of tunnels and caverns, perhaps with sinister decoration like skulls and monster faces in the rock — perhaps often dark but periodically lit up by lava and flames — would be really cool and stand out in the series.
In some ways the Ancient Cistern’s basement was a concept of Hell, but more of the Buddhist or at least Eastern concept of one. Specifically I’m imagining a more fiery Western concept of Hell, although any version could be used, really.
Of course no Hell is complete without demons, and these could be approximated in a dungeon or area like this in the form of particularly fierce and bestial enemies. These could perhaps be rare, jump out in sudden ambushes, or even be powerful foes that the player would want to sneak around much of the time, either because they have to or simply because it’s easier than fighting them. Implementing stealth elements like that would make a lot of areas more nerve-wracking, and it would definitely work here. At the very least, having particularly powerful foes would force the player to do more preparation and resource-management, making them more personally involved in navigation and therefore more susceptible to being scared or startled.
That’s the best word I can figure out to title this entry with, but it will obviously need more elaboration. What I’m talking about is an expanse of empty space around an area. A good example is the Palace of Twilight in Twilight Princess, situated on floating rocks in the midst of a sky-like abyss or, well, void. The idea here is that it’s scary not only to have empty space but to have it below you. Almost like a fear of heights, but a lot weirder than that. It’s involves a fear of the unknown, and even a sense of hopelessness, or being trapped; what’s down there, if anything, and what would happen if you fell?
This doesn’t always have to be in the form of a supernatural void like that of the Twilight Realm. This could come in a variety of forms. Perhaps the void is illusionary, and you’re simply high up? Or, maybe cut out that visual for it entirely, and simply have an area that’s so high up, there are pits all around that you can’t see the bottom of. A mountain pass with treacherous pathways filled with enemies, perhaps taking place at night during a storm, or an underground area with trenches stretching down into the rock, would also work. Maybe you could be navigating the ledges and walkways of a tower in the middle of a dark night, or maybe once more you could be in a strange supernatural space with an unnatural emptiness all around you. There’s a lot of ways to do it and get the same effect.
I’m not sure if these are things that disturb other people, but ever since I saw the void concept in Metroid Prime 2, it’s disturbed me quite a bit, and I think something like this would make for a fascinating scary environment in a Zelda game. Though the implementation would be tricky, and the area would need good atmosphere and a sense of danger to actually be scary, I think it would be worth it just for how unique it would be.
3. Mundane But Deserted or Derelict
There’s another way an empty space can be scary without it being a freaky void, and that’s when it’s an area that you don’t think should be empty. Like I said before, when you do the right things with a location that feels real, it can be a lot scarier than something outlandish, and having a Zelda area that’s deserted but otherwise a mundane location would be really freaky if done right. One part of me wants Nintendo to make it so you suddenly have to trek through a totally empty town or building, and nothing happen, as some kind of buildup to another part of the story. But that sounds more like a full-on atmospheric horror game and not an adventure game, unless the area was still filled with things to explore… like raiding houses…?
In a Zelda game, it would probably have to resemble a more traditional Zelda area, and therefore be complete with secrets, puzzles and enemies. But that’s okay; the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time is one of the most empty-feeling locations in the series, and it’s filled with enemies; the enemies in the Forest Temple are often bugs and plants, or even ghosts, and don’t really qualify as people by normal standards. Something like them would work in a deserted area like I’m proposing, because it would still feel devoid of life. If it were ghosts it could double as a literal ghost town or a haunting. Hyrule Castle Town in the bleak future of Ocarina of Time kinda fits in with the idea, but it’s really only a very brief transition area with nothing to find or do within it… although maybe it qualifies as something close to the minimalist approach I first suggested? Ikana Canyon in Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, might actually be an existing example of what I’m talking about, although Ikana Village is so small it tends to not actually feel like one to me, and it is inhabited by a few people. The Ancient Castle of Ikana and Stone Tower Temple are both empty except for the undead, but some of those undead (Igos du Ikana, his knights, and the Garo Master) still talk and play roles as characters, so there’s obviously still a lot of room to work on this concept and have a truly deserted area.
Something like this would also give a nice sense that something really bad happened in the area before, which is something that plenty of Zelda’s scary locations — particularly the Bottom of the Well and Shadow Temple — have also done. It could be a really nice addition the subplot of the given area, or even the overall game’s story if they wanted to do that.
2. Total Darkness
This is a really big one for me. While it’s definitely a cliche within horror to use darkness (or just low visibility) in general, it’s a cliche for a really good reason, and it’s something we’ve yet to really see in Zelda, even in a dungeon literally called the Shadow Temple. Twilight Princess is the main modern Zelda game to revive the lantern concept and give you that tool to light dark areas, but the dark areas were never actually dark enough to require it except to light torches and solve puzzles; the darkness itself never required it. The Minish Cap used the idea of utter darkness and the lantern, but the effect isn’t quite the same in 2D.
I’d like to see a Zelda game with this concept in general, one that makes use the the lantern in a way that makes it truly necessary, with areas that have virtually no visibility at all without it. This would be compatible with almost all of the settings already listed, and could be used to make them notably more disturbing.
Trudging through complete blackness is a good tool for mystery, exploration, and resource-management, making secret-hunting more difficult and rewarding, but it’s also a good tool for horror, making you fret about what else might be there in the blackness and making enemy encounters a lot more harrowing. It would be cool to see a Zelda game really play this up in a dramatic way in at least one dungeon.
1. Deep Sea Abyss
Water dungeons have constantly appeared in the series — even very deep water dungeons like the Lakebed Temple in Twilight Princess — but they’re never scary dungeons. The Ancient Cistern had scary parts, but they had nothing to do with the water portion of the dungeon. I’ve written before about how my claustrophobia is particularly acute with water and caused Pinnacle Rock in Majora’s Mask to be one of the scariest moments in Zelda for me, but the idea of the deep sea abyss is way more terrifying than that. It’s also scary in a much broader way that should scare a lot of people, whether they have a particular aversion to water or not.
It combines a lot of things I’ve already talked about. The deep sea abyss is dangerous, filled with weird and predatory creatures. It’s claustrophobic, being difficult to escape, and within its trenches, closed-in. And it’s black, with no visibility. Using its base concepts for a setting in a Zelda game would create one of the scariest areas of the series, almost guaranteed.
Obviously the chances of it actually taking place in the deep sea would be unlikely, but you can still do a black, enclosed, underwater area filled with monsters in a more believable location. Underwater caverns, lake bottoms (again), you name it. Like the aforementioned total darkness setting, you’d have some kind of lighting source to get through the area, and along the way you’d fight scary fish and other monsters, while navigating a claustrophobic area. I’d love to see something like this in Zelda; it would seriously deviate from tradition for both underwater dungeons and scary dungeons, while still feeling like it belongs in a Zelda game by encouraging both exploration and combat.
All in all, there are a billion ways for a location to be scary, and I’d like to see the Zelda series be more creative with it. It’s fine for Nintendo to reuse the same tropes, but I think a lot of new ideas can be brought forth and old ones expanded to make new and creative areas befitting of such a great adventure series. Obviously not everyone wants to go through a really terrifying area, especially if they didn’t sit down for a horror game, but Zelda’s always had these scary areas, and they don’t necessarily need to make the areas as scary as something you’d see in a true horror game; despite differences in concept, any of these settings could be made as mild as the Shadow Temple (if you consider it mild, that is), so there’s no reason for Nintendo to not try out ideas like these and more. Here’s hoping we see some more variety in Zelda’s spooky areas in the future.