Zelda Dungeon Marathon 2019:

Oh, this is gonna have a fun comments section.

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: 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 exploring an oft-despised dungeon from Ocarina of Time.

No, it’s not April Fool’s Day. I really am analyzing the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time and telling all of you why it’s a fantastic example of great level design. Don’t believe me? Well, assuming you didn’t skip right to the comments, read on, and maybe I’ll convince you.

Also, we’re doing something a little interesting this time around (and something I wished I’d thought of when I covered Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple), and that is including notes on the Master Quest version of this dungeon and how it differs from the original. Also on that note, I got so absorbed into my Water Temple playthrough during my regular run that my only screenshots here (posted to Miiverse) are from the Master Quest version.

Yeah, I got absorbed into the Water Temple. I can’t help it, this dungeon has grown on me every time I’ve played it since it first released. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Patience is a Virtue

This is the meat of why I admire this dungeon so much, and really, all of the temples from Ocarina of Time: they aren’t straightforward. The Water Temple gets a lot of flack for being tedious or confusing, but if you are patient and really use all of the tools at your disposal, you shouldn’t have a difficult time.

The key to this dungeon is to go everywhere. Explore every passageway, make a note of areas you can’t access right away so you know to come back to them later, play with the different water levels, and take your time. The dungeon map is a particularly handy tool in this dungeon.

The Water Temple, I believe, hearkens back to older Zelda games, including the original. The dungeon requires exploration and experimentation, and feels like an extension of the entire concept of a Zelda adventure: exploration is rewarded, and there is no straight path to the exit. That might turn some off from this dungeon. And maybe I’m blinded by… something (can’t see how nostalgia would be a part of it), but I don’t see this dungeon as being any less straightforward than, say, the Forest Temple.

The water level plays into this. You can lower the water level all the way to the floor of the central area (another hub room, how about that?), have it down to the second level, or all the way up to the third level. The Iron Boots help you explore beneath the surface, and in the Master Quest version, there’s even a time where you want the water level all the way up, but want to sink down to only the second level to enter a door into the central tower room. Talk about a mind-bender!

Maybe I like this dungeon so much because it’s like a water park. Well, more like a sadistic water park with enemies out to kill you, but yeah, like a water park. There’s an elevator of platforms on a waterfall. There are rooms where the water is flying by in a current, and you have to navigate it carefully to avoid getting hurt by enemies or trapped. There are swirling vortexes in an underground river that suck you up and spit you back to the start of the room! That’s… okay, that’s not so cool. Good thing they’re easy to avoid!

One theme of the Water Temple is to search for the clues. No stone should go unturned. I love this aspect of the dungeon. There are cracked walls and floors waiting for a bomb to blast through them, grates that open and close, torches to light, wall panels to strike (more on that later), switches to hit, and Hookshot targets galore. Speaking of the Hookshot…

I’m Like Batman!

You guys get a Batman vibe when you use the Hookshot, right? No? Just me? Okay, then.

The item of the Water Temple is the Longshot, an upgrade to your Hookshot that’s chain is, well, longer (bet ya didn’t see that coming!). In the Master Quest version of the Water Temple, you get the Longshot incredibly early, but in the regular dungeon, it’s quite a quest to obtain. Up until then, it’s clear that the Hookshot is a necessary item. Hookshot targets are everywhere, some switches even raise Hookshot targets (especially in the Master Quest version), and there are a number of items that are “Hookshottable” (that’s not even a word!), like wooden crates. Add in that your Hookshot is the only usable item when underwater in your Iron Boots, and there’s going to be a lot of Batman action. Sorry, Zelda action. Hookshot action? Something like that.

The vertical nature of the Water Temple clues you in to this before you even take out the Hookshot. There are three levels, plus a basement, and the central hub room is essentially a tower. When exploring underwater, there are vertical shafts you can swim up, but if the water level is lowered, they often have a Hookshot target to allow you to climb up them. There’s a room with spikes that you need to Hookshot over, Hookshot targets on the ceiling, and even a freaking Hookshot-based series of descending platforms on a waterfall!

Almost every puzzle is designed around the Hookshot, and several expand on the Hookshot’s usefulness in interesting ways. There are times where you hit a switch to open a gate, but it’s a timed opening, so the gate isn’t open for long. Use the Hookshot to pull yourself through before it closes! There’s a room of statues that raise and lower when a switch is hit, and when raised, they reveal Hookshot targets, allowing for navigation through the room.

If you don’t like the Hookshot, then I can see why you might find the Water Temple to be tedious. Plus, in the Nintendo 64 version, the Iron Boots

could only be equipped or un-equipped in the pause menu, and you might find your patience thinning. But if you get the same awesome Batman vibes as I do from Hookshotting (that’s a word, right?) all over the place, then the Water Temple is like a really confusing, submerged playground.

Although it’s not really confusing. Like in the first section, as long as you take your time and explore your environment, you should be able to find your way.

There are some changes in the Master Quest version. There are wall panels throughout the Water Temple, and at least in the original version, they don’t do anything. However, in the Master Quest, if you hit them with your Hookshot, they will often act as switches, revealing chests or raising Hookshot targets. They can sometimes spit out rupees, hearts, or even fairies! That and the waterfall with moving platforms from the original now just has shorter Hookshot targets, meaning you have to be very careful about how you plan your ascent. Also, the underground river with vortexes has added Hookshot targets in the Master Quest… making it easier… I didn’t know that was the point of the Master Quest.

Slay the Darkness!

Dark Link. Pretty sure I can’t stir up controversy here, since Dark Link is frequently cited as the Water Temple’s lone redeeming quality. And what a redeeming quality he is! This fight is really quite excellent, with so many different ways to defeat him. So let’s talk strategy.

I know as a kid, the only way I managed to beat him was using Din’s Fire, but since then I’ve found tons of strategies. You can Z-target him and slash away, hoping you hit (just don’t stab at him, unless you want to see him do something cool). You can slash away without Z-targeting, which is a bit riskier but is a little more effective. You can smash his face with the Megaton Hammer! Which… actually is far from an ideal strategy, and will take forever. I thought it was a good idea at the time… Speaking of strategies, the oft-used “crouch-stab” technique from the Dark Link fight in Adventure of Link works here as well! It’s not as fast or overpowered as in the NES game, but I tried it out and was amazed when it worked.

Of course, you can throw all that out if you have the Biggoron’s Sword, as that makes this fight child’s play.

Beyond the myriad of ways to defeat Dark Link, the idea of a room of illusions and reflections fits in a water-based dungeon better than anywhere else. Theming is a great way of tying together a dungeon. Water before this point is often showing its raging, dangerous side, with currents and vortexes and waterfalls, but this room shows water’s placid, calm side, where it most easily reflects images.

Lots and Lots of Enemies

I’ve covered a few of Master Quest’s differences, but let’s go over the rest. First of all – and this seems to be a theme in every dungeon in Master Quest – there are a lot more enemies. Lizalfos appear out of thin air in the narrow corridors. There are two different occasions where Link has to do battle with three Stalfos at once. Combat is a big deal in Master Quest. Heck, the Fire Temple features the introduction of the Iron Knuckle in Master Quest, which is a lot earlier than its usual introduction in the Spirit Temple.

Another theme of Master Quest’s dungeons is the constant use of Din’s Fire. The magic spell is required to even get past the first room of the Master Quest’s Fire Temple, and it’s necessary for a puzzle in the Water Temple’s central tower room. There is a point where you will see that there are four unlit torches at the top of this area. Din’s Fire should do the trick! But you can’t get high enough to hit all four torches with the spell. The Song of Time reveals a time block, but it’s too high for you to jump to it. What to do?

Well, the solution to this puzzle is a delightfully crafty one. Raise the water level to the top, then sink down, but not to the bottom of the dungeon. Instead, maneuver your way to the walkway of the second level of the tower, and enter the central room through the door there. Floating to the top, a wooden crate will be high enough on the water level to jump from there to the time stone, and use Din’s Fire to light all the torches. I loved this added use of the different water levels, which challenges players to think differently about the dungeon than they had in their first playthrough of the original game.

I’ve already mentioned the use of wall panels as hidden switches, and there are a few other puzzles that are different from the original version. One involves a hard-to-reach room that has a ton of pots and small crates in it. What could these be for? First instinct: destroy all the pots and crates, of course! However, there is also a switch out in the central hub area that requires something to be placed on it to hold it down.

In comes this room of breakables, where the player will need to navigate past spikes and through corridors while holding a wooden crate to carry it to the blue switch. It’s one of many “aha!” moments in this dungeon, which are even more prevalent with the Master Quest’s more mind-bending puzzle solutions. Also, here’s a funny side note: if I’m remembering correctly, there is only one Small Key in the entirety of the Master Quest version of the Water Temple, while there are at least four in the original dungeon.

Getting Strangled by Water

Yup, it’s boss time. But first things first. There’s a slanted pathway with spike traps sliding back and forth along it.

This is my one giant gripe with this entire dungeon. Link can only ascend the walkway at a very slow pace, and if hit by the spike traps, he’ll fall back down to the bottom. It’s not even a puzzle, really. It just takes good timing, and a bit of luck, because even great timing won’t guarantee a safe ascent. It’s tedious, pointless, doesn’t fit with the rest of the dungeon, and is just downright silly. It’s not hard, it’s just frustrating.

Thankfully, that’s all fixed in the Master Quest version. A switch will activate Hookshot targets at the top by the Boss Door,

so no painfully slow walking up a hill is required.

Now it’s really boss time!

I have to admit, I love Morpha. For whatever reason this boss’ design and the fight itself made a massive impression on me. Like many of Ocarina of Time’s boss fights, it isn’t a hard one, but it sure is memorable. The opening scene sets the stage, with Navi warning that the water isn’t normal, and then a camera pans through the water, ominous sounds issue forth, and then Link turns around to see… a giant tentacle of water!

That sure doesn’t sound scary reading it, but I always found Morpha to be frightening. Maybe it’s the fact that when she attacks you, she strangles you and then throws you against the wall. That’s a pretty frightening boss attack (used again in the Shadow Temple’s boss fight). Still, if you know what to do, Morpha isn’t all that hard. Stay near the edge, let her attack but miss, Hookshot the core, slash it up, rinse and repeat.

All easiness aside, the opening and closing moments of this fight really fit the theme of the Water Temple. The boss is made of water! The opening cutscene is meant to inspire a fear of the water. And the death animation has Morpha dissolving into the ceiling, trickling away until nothing is left. It left an impression on me, and perhaps one on you as well.

Now that we’ve come to the end of the battle, and thus the end of the dungeon, there’s one last thing I want to say about the Water Temple: it’s rewarding. There’s a sense of accomplishment to this one that is even bigger than other dungeons, at least to me. There’s more exploration involved, craftier puzzles, a sense of confusion and lack of linearity that can make it difficult to know where to proceed. But with a bit of patience, a well-trained eye, and perseverance, you will prevail, and it feels like more of an accomplishment than any dungeon before it.

Conclusion

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.

I can see the comments section attacking my “will the player get unnecessarily lost or confused” statement. But like I said, as long as you are patient and use the tools available to you, you won’t get lost. The level’s design, to me at least, won’t be the reason a player gets lost. It only takes a few wrong turns to realize, “hey, I should probably take my time in this one, use my dungeon map and make sure I have my bearings.” At least that’s what happened with me.

The Water Temple is often criticized, frequently derided, and the source of hilarious memes across the Internet. But if you take your time and explore this dungeon, you may well find a gem here. I feel it hearkens back to the original title in a lot of ways with its level design, and is similar to many of the dungeons in Link’s Awakening, which frequently require use of the map and have some head-scratching puzzles. To be honest, the way many people feel about the Water Temple is how I feel about Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly. I don’t know why, but that place drives me up a wall every single time.

I hope you enjoyed this installment of “Brilliance in Level Design.” Love it or hate it, the Water Temple is here to stay. Maybe this article has inspired you to give it another shot. And hopefully the next dungeon won’t be quite so controversial a choice…

Previous dungeons analyzed:

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