Posted on January 19 2015 by Theodore Homdrom
Hello everyone! For those who don’t know, this article is a continuation of a series about level design in Zelda games. I’ll be looking at every single dungeon in these Zelda games: Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and A Link Between Worlds, seeking to find which dungeons are examples of excellent level design, and then bringing that analysis to you fine folks. Today, we’re taking an in-depth look at a fantastic dungeon from Link’s Awakening.
How about that title? Talk about a lot of apostrophes! Anyway… time for some true confessions. Link’s Awakening was my very first Zelda game, and yet I never actually beat it until two weeks ago. My little brother also had a copy, and when I played as a kid, I got about as far as Eagle’s Tower. He was faster at beating the game (yes, my little brother is much better at video games than I am), so I watched him beat the game, and then Ocarina of Time was out and that absorbed all of my Zelda attention. Link’s Awakening was, sadly, quickly forgotten.
Now that I’ve finally finished it (I played through the DX version on the 3DS Virtual Console), I’m reminded of why I loved it over a decade ago. It’s a fun, quirky title, full of mysteries and secrets. It has that undeniable Zelda charm, a real sense of adventure, and some very cool uses for its items.
Although the dungeons were enjoyable enough, many of them were, unfortunately, forgettable. Eagle’s Tower, the dungeon I’ll be analyzing today, is the only dungeon I’ll be exploring from Link’s Awakening in this article series. That doesn’t mean the other dungeons are bad, they’re just not up to par with my standards for “brilliance” in level design.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Link’s Awakening’s Puzzles
Since Eagle’s Tower is the only dungeon from Link’s Awakening I’ll be analyzing, I want to take some time to go over some of the excellent puzzles that seem to be unique to Link’s Awakening (or if not unique to it, done well throughout this particular game).
Owl statues can be found inside dungeons. In fact, there’s a third dungeon item beyond the map and compass to find here – a stone beak! Every dungeon has one, and it allows Link to speak to the owl statues and get advice.
Another true confession: I’ve always liked Kaepora Gaebora. The “wise old owl” archetype is one I’ve always enjoyed in fantasy stories, and I never found that owl in Ocarina of Time to be as annoying or long-winded as people make him out to be. Plus, he gives you an awesome first-person aerial ride from the top of Death Mountain! That’s cool, right?
Sorry, I’m getting side-tracked. Anyway, there’s a similar owl in Link’s Awakening, and not only does he gives you advice in the overworld, but statues within the dungeon modeled after him give you dungeon-specific guidance. With how vague some of Link’s Awakening’s dungeons can be, I found this to be a welcome addition; plus, you don’t have to talk to the owl statues. You can ignore them, and even avoid getting the stone beak entirely if you know where it is. Even if a player does take advantage of this assistance mechanic, it’s far from what I would call “hand-holding,” as it is 1) optional, and 2) spoken in riddles. If this is hand-holding, it’s hand-holding done right.
Beyond the owl statues, there are also one-way doors in every (or almost every) dungeon in the game. These are clearly marked by a section of wall that had the outline of a person. Step into these sections, and a door swivels around, carrying Link into the next room, but barring the way back. It’s a fun mechanic I haven’t seen in other Zelda games (granted, I haven’t yet played the other two Game Boy Color entries in the series), and offers the player a question: advance to the next room and risk potential annoying backtracking because you don’t have the right item yet, or wait and come back to this door later?
A special type of enemy in Link’s Awakening is the Three-of-a-kind. These enemies always appear in threes, and have a symbol flashing on their bodies. This symbol rotates through the four suits used in playing cards: club, spade, diamond, and heart. A sword slash freezes the enemy in place, locking its suit to whatever it was the moment it was hit. The way to defeat these enemies is by getting all three to show the exact same suit. It’s a clever type of enemy that’s a puzzle within a combat situation, and I can’t help but love the cleverness on display here.
A strange puzzle mechanic in Link’s Awakening arises with the horse heads (question posed to you lovely readers: do you think these are meant to be chess pieces, or a reference to the horse head boss from Zelda II? Let me know in the comments). There are always two of these in a room, and Link has to throw them around until they both land standing up.
Is it a good puzzle? Well… not really. It can actually be a bit tedious if randomness is not on your side. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace, and once they both land standing up, you’ll unlock a door or reveal a hidden treasure chest, so it’s always worth it.
Although bombing walls to reveal hidden passageways is nothing new to the Zelda series, Link’s Awakening makes great use of it in its dungeons. There are rarely obvious cracked walls showing where you need to place a bomb. A mechanic I’ve always loved in Zelda games is having to slash and poke the walls with your sword and listen for the sound. It seems to have been abandoned in recent entries in favor of more obvious cracks, and I feel that lessens the excitement of discovering these hidden caves and passageways. Link’s Awakening does sometimes point out where to place a bomb with torches on the wall or an arrow on the floor marking a spot, but these don’t always designate a hidden passageway, so Link’s Awakening keeps the thrill of discove
ry alive, even within the dungeons.
I may not have covered every unique puzzle mechanic from Link’s Awakening, but that’s because the ones above are those relevant to Eagle’s Tower. Now that we’ve explored the general puzzle designs that are used within the tower, let’s dive into the more dungeon-specific elements.
It Earns Its Name
When you think of a dungeon called “Eagle’s Tower,” you probably expect some verticality to it, right? And probably some use of the Roc’s Feather item, which evokes a bird and lets you jump over pits and obstacles, right?
Well you won’t be disappointed. The Roc’s Feather is used to great effect here, with numerous spike traps in the floor and pits to jump. Yet those same pits will drop you down to an earlier floor, emphasizing the vertical nature of the dungeon.
The mini-boss emphasizes the avian theme as well. The Grim Creeper plays a flute to command small birds (are they birds? I don’t know… they look pretty strange. Weigh in in the comments section with your opinions!) to attack Link. Eagle statues are placed for decoration throughout the dungeon as well.
One thing I can’t quite understand is that the dungeon item is the Mirror Shield. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Mirror Shield every time it appears in a Zelda game (speaking of which… it’s been a bit too long since its last appearance, hasn’t it?). But with so much of the dungeon driving home the theme of birds and soaring, the Mirror Shield feels a bit out of place. It is put to great use against the boss, but otherwise, its inclusion is a bit head-scratching.
The main focus of this dungeon is not the avian theme, however, but a very unique method of progressing. It’s a vertical dungeon, with the boss fight taking place on the top of the tower, but rather than taking stairs or a ladder up to the top, Link must carry a giant wrecking ball through the dungeon and smash pillars, causing the tower to collapse, creating a way to climb it.
In the words of the always hilarious Peanut Butter Gamer: “It kinda sounds like an idea a four year-old would come up with, and I’m okay with that.” I’m in the same boat. It’s a hilarious, simplistic, childish concept, but I love it.
The way this plays out is quite puzzling and mind-bending, and in the best of ways. While the first pillar to smash is in the very next room from where you find the wrecking ball, the other three pillars are scattered throughout the dungeon. The player will have to carry the ball across traps, throw it across gaps, and sometimes toss it into one room to eventually come back to it later.
I had a blast going through this process. It wasn’t as simple as the initial concept, and often I found myself progressing through several rooms before going “oh!” and realizing where I would have to leave the ball to come back to later. The player will use quite a few of their items, especially the Roc’s Feather and Hookshot, to cross treacherous gaps, avoid traps, and find their way back to the wrecking ball.
I try to be pretty objective with these analyses, but I’ll fully admit that I was giddy throughout most of this dungeon, and every pillar smashed brought a childish grin to my face. It’s just so much fun! And you know what? That’s a part of great level design. It’s not just about all the factors I’ve listed above and in previous articles; it’s about fun. And Eagle’s Tower is loaded with fun moments.
The boss fight takes place outside, which already adds a feeling of excitement at the unique location. The previously mentioned theme takes effect here as well with a giant eagle boss. The Grim Creeper mini-boss from before returns and climbs on its back to control it in battle against Link.
How the Mirror Shield has a similar effect to the Iron Boots (it helps Link stand his ground against mighty wind gusts which otherwise send him flying off the tower), I will never know. But by making use of the Mirror Shield to defend against wind gusts, and carefully watching the Eagle’s diving attacks to time sword swings correctly, Evil Eagle honestly goes down pretty quickly.
He may not be a difficult boss, but he is a lot of fun, and perfectly fits in the established theme of the dungeon, helping to tie together all of the elements of the journey from the tower’s entrance to its summit.
For those curious about what makes the points above marks for “brilliance” in level design, here’s sort of how I look at the levels, in a series of questions I ask as I play through these dungeons:
- Is the dungeon layout intuitive? (i.e. will the player get unnecessarily lost or confused because of poor level design?)
- Does the dungeon teach the player?
- How does it match up with the game as a whole?
Great levels, in my opinion, are fair. Unnecessary difficulty, like needing to memorize the dungeon to avoid deaths, are not okay in my book. They should also teach the player, introducing new concepts in controlled environments, but then combining them in interesting ways later on or placing them in more dangerous environments to challenge the player to expand on what they’ve learned. They should also fit within the themes and progression of the game, building on what has come before that point, and preparing the player for what comes next.
What more can I say? I already gushed about just how hilariously fun it is to smash pillars to collapse a tower. The theming of this dungeon is excellent, and the boss fight, while easy, is one of my favorites in the entire Zelda series. If you haven’t played Link’s Awakening before, Eagle’s Tower alone is enough reason to give it another shot.
Author’s Note: All of the screenshots you see here were taken during my playthrough and posted to Miiverse. Feel free to comment on the fact that I have the blue tunic (halves all damage) and yet clearly take quite a bit of damage throughout the dungeon. Yeah… I may not be that great at video games.
Previous dungeons analyzed: