Posted on January 10 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.
The Zelda series often has a great intro dungeon in each game, but to me, Dragon Roost Cavern is the very best (though Eastern Palace in A Link Between Worlds comes darn close). This dungeon isn’t about difficulty, but about setting the mood for the entire game and preparing the player for the challenges that lie ahead. Let’s dive in.
Wind Waker does not have very many dungeons, and because of this, it’s important for the very first “real” dungeon to prepare the player for the many types of tasks they will have to undertake throughout the course of the game. Dragon Roost Cavern is designed brilliantly for this purpose, with a number of different puzzle types being showcased.
First of all are block puzzles. These aren’t anything new for Zelda series veterans, but it’s important for a first dungeon to set the stage for newcomers to the series, as well as veterans. The very first room has a simple block puzzle. Later on, a more intricate block puzzle appears, forcing the player to think vertically and examine the puzzle before jumping in and moving blocks around. This is something important for good level design: introduce a type of puzzle in a very simple, controlled environment, and then build on that later on with more intricate challenges. While the block puzzles presented in Dragon Roost Cavern aren’t what I would call challenging, they do show the player what to expect and help train his/her mind to analyze puzzles to search for the solution.
Next is the use of torches and fire. Wind Waker introduced a new mechanic where Link can pick up enemies’ weapons when they drop them or are defeated. The second room of Dragon Roost Cavern has two bokoblins wielding flaming Deku Sticks. Once defeated, the player has the chance to look around the room, and notices two torches that are unlit, and one that is lit. The dropped Deku Sticks don’t stay lit, but burn out if left on the ground for a while. These clues work together to give the player the idea to pick up a dropped stick, light it, and then use it to light the unlit torches. Doing this reveals a chest with a small key, necessary to progress.
Soon walls are encountered that are cracked. Link can break these with a simple sword swing, but later there are wooden walls without noticeable damage. The first occurrence of these, Link encounters an enemy with a giant sword that can be used to smash the wall.
The second time the player encounters these sturdier walls, however, there is no enemy with a giant sword to bash it down. Instead, there are Deku Sticks and a lit torch. The dungeon design has already taught the use of lit Deku Sticks to set things on fire, so this provides a clue for the player to try and burn down the sturdy wall they now face. This wall-burning puzzle is then later built upon with a path that involves both burning down walls and lighting torches to eventually unlock the door at the end.
Each step of this torch-and-fire combination has taught a single new idea in each occurrence. First, the player just had to light a torch. Then, they learned to burn down a wall. And finally, the two are combined. What a great example of the dungeon teaching the player how to do what’s required of them, without the necessity of a fairy companion telling you how to do things. Sure, these puzzles aren’t challenging, but remember that this is a beginning dungeon. Also bear in mind that great level design does not require major difficulty. Easy levels can be just as brilliantly designed as very difficult ones (and often some of the most difficult levels are difficult because of bad design).
The third type of puzzle mechanic shown to the player is the use of bomb flowers to destroy giant boulders. This actually builds on what came before, as bomb flowers were necessary to progress up through Dragon Roost Island. I also like that Wind Waker gives the player bomb-based puzzles with throwing, dropping, and setting off chains of bombs before Link has even acquired bombs in the game! With the lack of dungeons to Wind Waker, it’s important for the player to learn as much as possible of the game’s mechanics in each dungeon.
“Stealth” maneuvers used in the Forsaken Fortress are also used here, outside of a stealth-based level. This gives the player the clue that Link’s different abilities and maneuvers can be used in multiple different ways. Sidling along ledges while avoiding geysers of lava gives a different kind of tension than sneaking past enemies.
Speaking of building on what has come before, the Grappling Hook item acquired in this dungeon perfectly builds on the “pirate tutorial” with Niko on the pirate ship. There, Link was jumping and swinging from ropes already planted in the level. This same mechanic carried over to the Forsaken Fortress, but now Link has his own rope that he can carry with him and use to grab onto parts of the environment and swing from them! He can even stop swinging and climb up and down, and while this part of the Grappling Hook isn’t used at all in Dragon Roost Cavern, it does see some use in optional islands and one of the later mini-dungeons.
Having this freedom with the Grappling Hook isn’t just for traversing the environment, however. The Grappling Hoo
k is also used to grab onto a dragon’s tail-shaped switch, pulling it down and opening a door. The fact that all of the grappling points, including the switch, are shaped like dragon appendages with the same color scheme as our unhappy dragon Valoo, comes into play later in the dungeon in a fantastic way.
One final gameplay mechanic that is taught through the design of the level is the use of rope bridges. The player crosses several of these throughout the level, probably paying them little mind. Then comes a room where a bokoblin is hanging on the edge of the rope bridge, desperately clawing its way back up. Link can slash it and knock it into the lava below, but this sends a subtle message that maybe there’s something below the bridge. That possibility is further supported when a chest appears in an alcove below the bridge. But how to get to it?
Well, if the player wasn’t fast enough, that dangling bokoblin managed to get back up onto the bridge. A fight would then ensue, and probably some errant slashes would have hit the ropes holding up the bridge. The player would notice that these ropes showed some damage, or even were completely severed. Even then, the fact that walls from earlier could be damaged with a sword swing lends the player the idea that, hey, maybe this rope bridge can be cut down!
Sure enough, slashing the ropes will drop the bridge, but this mechanic isn’t just used for dropping bridges. Later, a circular platform is held over a lava fountain, connected to the ceiling by just three ropes. A simple spin slash will sever all three ropes, and Link has made an elevator, Hylian style! Now the fountain of lava will carry Link up and down. That mechanic is quickly reinforced with water jars that create platforms in the lava, and can even be used to create impromptu elevators on other lava fountains!
I have to say, as I was playing through this dungeon for the purposes of this analysis (all of the screenshots you see in this piece were ones I took and posted to Miiverse), I was constantly awed by how wonderfully put-together this dungeon is. Is it easy? Yeah. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s the first real dungeon in the entire game. But the way it introduces so many different concepts in terms of puzzles and other game mechanics to the player in a way that is so intuitive and player-friendly is brilliant.
3D Zelda titles have gained some notoriety for their use of a companion character constantly holding the player’s hand and telling them how to solve puzzles or teaching them game mechanics without the player getting a chance to try and figure it out for themselves. Dragon Roost Cavern has only one instance of the King of Red Lions interjecting into your quest (and it’s for something completely inconsequential to your progress), but for everything I listed above, the player figures it out all by themselves. The level design is so intuitive and fun, and never for a moment confusing, that no companion character or outside influence is necessary. This makes the success of the player that much more rewarding, and that’s what you want from a great level: that sense of “I did it!”
Friends Are Important
A big part of Wind Waker that may be a love-it or hate-it thing, but I personally loved, is the inclusion of ally characters. Medli and Makar are two wonderful characters who will aid Link later in his journey, actively aiding in puzzle-solving in later dungeons.
Dragon Roost Cavern introduces this idea to the player, with Medli playing an important role. This starts before Link even enters the dungeon, when he has to help Medli access the cavern to decipher what went wrong with Valoo. Later, the player finds Medli held hostage by bokoblins and has to rescue her, and she gives Link the Grappling Hook.
Gaining the dungeon item from a character, rather than from a chest, adds to that sense of caring about the characters in this world. A hero’s quest can get lonely, but at least for this quest, Link has friends there for him, starting with Medli. When Medli becomes even more important later in the game, and has to travel with the player to a dungeon, the foundation is already laid for Medli’s place in the player’s heart.
On top of the two most important side characters, Medli and Makar (well, after Tetra, of course), the entire dungeon and its boss are designed around Valoo. The mighty dragon is in pain from something tugging on his tail, and it’s up to Link (with some assistance from Medli) to save the dragon. The dungeon isn’t just an obstacle to be overcome for a treasure; it’s also a task of saving a character that will be important in the game.
This all ties into a big theme of Wind Waker, which is the importance of the characters in the world and their impact on the story. Dragon Roost Cavern then becomes more than just another dungeon; it becomes a place where you meet friends and help out an entire race of people – and to top it all off, a dragon!
Wind Waker is a game with an incredible sense of adventure and spectacle. You can see for miles around on the Great Sea. Music swells with excitement and fervor when sailing. The sights you’ll see and the challenges you’ll face are big, powerful, and keep a sense of peril surrounding the player at all times.
Just look at the first dungeon – it’s a freaking volcano! Fountains of lava shoot up from the floor, and you can even make platforms to ride the lave up and down. Blasts of magma shoot out from the walls as Link sidles his way across a narrow platform. Sparks and ash hang in the air in areas. The boulders you blow up with bombs? Yeah, those are gigantic.
The dungeon is also quite large, with big open spaces giving views across lava pools, and even outdoor areas where the ocean stretches out for miles, reminding the player of just how big this game world is. There are collapsing staircases and a surprising variety of enemies. Swinging from ropes to leap across lava adds a sense of danger and excitement. Dragon Roost Cavern just captures the feel of Wind Waker in an incredible way, so that even when entering a cavern in a mountainside, the player is always reminded of just how grand in size and spectacle this adventure is.
That’s the First Boss?
Finally, the boss fight. Entering through the big door, there’s just a s
imple pool of lava, and Valoo’s tail hanging from the ceiling. Okay… now what?
Suddenly, the ground rumbles, the lava comes to life, and a gigantic flaming armored insect bursts up in a blast of ash and sparks and burning magma! I don’t know about you, but I about jumped out of my seat when I first saw this scene as a kid. I had already played a few Zelda games, and none of them had prepared me for such a gigantic boss in the very first dungeon. Add to the fact that Wind Waker has a cute, colorful, art style, and this was probably the last thing any player expected from the first dungeon.
Not only does Gohma capture the spectacle and size of the dungeon, but the fight itself is cleverly designed to build on cues the player gained from before. Remember when I mentioned how all of the Grappling Hook points were shaped like dragon appendages, and had that same color scheme as Valoo? Well, that makes Valoo’s tail an immediate tip-off. Throw forth your Grappling Hook, and swing from the ceiling, dropping a boulder onto Gohma’s head! Three times, and the armor shatters, and Gohma is wide open for a Grappling Hook to the face.
It’s a simple boss fight, but it’s cleverly designed and builds on the themes and mechanics introduced earlier in the dungeon. And let’s be honest, if they were going to go big with the first dungeon, this was a heck of a way to do it.
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 wasn’t expecting much when I replayed this dungeon for this analysis. I knew I loved playing Wind Waker (I played the HD remake for this analysis), and that it was full of fun and adventure, but I never really found Dragon Roost Cavern memorable.
For whatever reason that was, I certainly find it memorable now. It sticks out as an amazing dungeon, perfectly preparing the player not just for the gameplay challenges ahead in the game, but also for the themes of the game: adventure and spectacle, size and grandeur, and the importance of friends.
I had so much fun replaying this dungeon. Maybe part of that is because my expectations were low, but I actually played through it twice for this analysis: once to take notes, and another time to take screenshots and get a better sense of the dungeon and commit details to memory. Both times were exhilarating. This dungeon just fits with the game it’s in so perfectly.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this analysis, and please let me know your agreement or dissent in the comments below! Not only that, but also feel free to leave any requests for future dungeons in this article series, or just gush about your favorite levels. Until next time, thanks for reading, and enjoy your dungeon-crawling adventures!
Previous dungeons analyzed: