The Dungeons. As I mentioned in my last article, Overworlds: The Land Between, these tend to be the areas of the Zelda series that fans discuss the most, and in particular, when measuring the length of the game it’s usually measured by how many dungeons it has, whether that’s truly the best gauge or not. This article is about the dungeons in the Zelda series, about what they are, how they should play, and what they should be like. The term “dungeon” itself, like the term “overworld”, is widely used throughout the Adventure and RPG genres. Wiktionary defines “dungeon” as:
So within a video game, at least of a genre similar to Zelda’s, there are typically three different kinds of area. The overworld, discussed in my last article, the town, a safe area largely composed of shops and NPCs, and the dungeon. The Zelda series dungeons are always filled with enemies, puzzles, and of course end with a boss battle. Within there are chests, containing Rupees, the Dungeon Item, and so on, as well as the prize at the end of the dungeon which is nearly always related to continuing the main plot. The definition fits nicely to what we’re familiar with in the Zelda series. The dungeons are the main gameplay areas, where you overcome the greatest challenges and reap the greatest rewards, they are the game’s “levels”.
The early, stereotypical image of a dungeon is… um, pretty much that of a dungeon, as in the real-world definition of the word, which is basically a castle’s underground prison. Generally when you think “dungeon”, you literally picture an underground stone structure, dark and dank. This was true in the original Legend of Zelda, in which every dungeon was, well, exactly that. It was changed up a bit in Adventure of Link, in that the dungeons were palaces, but within them, for all intents and purposes, they were pretty much exactly the same. A Link to the Past, despite its added variety with names and themes and locations, also did not deviate from this, with the possible exceptions of the two Towers and Hyrule Castle… well, except that Hyrule Castle contained an actual dungeon… wow, that’s pretty weird. A dungeon within a dungeon.
Link’s Awakening was again the same, but then along came Ocarina of Time. With Ocarina of Time, they finally started to mix it up. By this time the term “dungeon” itself had definitely broadened past the underground stone tunnels of yore, and Zelda was following suit. You had dungeons like Inside the Deku Tree and Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, the interior of living creatures. Since Ocarina of Time, the series has continued to implement variations on the standard, generic underground halls, even if we do still see that plenty. For a long time now, even outside the Zelda series, dungeons can be basically any kind of location as long as it meets the definition of the word I gave above. While they still tend to be structures or interiors of some kind, they can also include totally out-door areas. Zelda has embraced this expanded concept of the term.
At the same time, the series has embraced a new standard concept for its dungeons in the form of the temples… or has it? Two noteworthy WordNet definitions of the word “temple”:
Noun: an edifice devoted to special or exalted purposes
Edifice roughly meaning “impressive fricken’ building”, this basically means that a temple can be any cool building that is devoted to a specific, important purpose. It doesn’t need to be religious, though it often is. Ocarina of Time was the first game to use the term for a dungeon (that’d be most of its dungeons, then), and it likely used it because the areas were places of spiritual importance. They were places for the sages to commune with their element, areas tied intimately with that element… areas entirely of that element. These days, Nintendo tends to make many of the dungeons into temples, buildings that are in one way or another significant, and while there are dungeons that differ from this standard, it definitely is the standard now.
So that means we’ve regressed, right? We’ve gone back to all dungeons just being kind of the same thing? Yeah, no. Not entirely, anyway.
One thing that’s severely underplayed about dungeons in the Zelda series is their themes. And I mean that in the plural. A Link to the Past was arguably the first Zelda game where the dungeons would carry a specific theme, good examples being the Swamp Palace with its water theme and the Ice Palace with its ice theme. Yet as stated above, A Link to the Past didn’t deviate much from the standard of every dungeon being the same thing thematically. And, at least in my eyes, this is primarily because they took the same concept (underground structure) and just gave it one or a small handful of additional themes (like water or ice). This changed with Ocarina of Time, though. The dungeons had multiple themes, ranging from standard elements and gimmicks, what the dungeon actually was (a temple, the interior of something), to how it was shaped or laid out, like how the Water Temple had a central area with many corridors branching off, or how the Fire Temple was a tower, a constant climb.
To illustrate my point completely, let’s take the Forest Temple, my favorite dungeon of the game and arguably the most thematically diverse dungeon in the series. It was a temple, a forest, a mansion, a fortress, it was surreal, it was a place of beginning revisited, it was the first step on a new and more dire journey, it was mysterious, it was haunting. That’s already a huge number of themes, and that’s only naming some of them. Other dungeons in Ocarina of Time are much the same, even if they perhaps carry less themes. You can’t simply describe the Fire Temple’s main theme as “fire” and convey a perfect understanding of what the dungeon is like. There’s way more to it than just fire. This was true of all the other dungeons in the game as well. Thus, despite many being “temples”, the dungeons in Ocarina of Time and the rest of the series are still amazingly diverse and unique locations because they don’t simply bank on a handful of basic concepts like earlier games did. Though, I’ll admit it would be nice to see Nintendo branch out more, to not rely on them all having to have the name “temple”, and broaden into other kinds of areas, perhaps even outdoors. Bottom line is that there’s more to a dungeon than just one concept slapped onto a bunch of rooms; dungeons are and always must be far more thematically complex than that.
Another thing about the dungeons that seems to come with the territory of them being in a Zelda game is the standard concepts that are always used in them. A Dungeon Item, which is the boss’s weakpoint. A miniboss. A Map and Compass. Keys that can only be used within the dungeon and then the Big Key to open the boss door. People just accept these as the standard format. It’s cool to have a recurring setup, it keeps things familiar and its just a fun setup to begin with. It shouldn’t be changed, many Zelda fans would say.
But why is it important?
Let’s think back to the series’ early dungeons. The original Legend of Zelda had the Map and Compass, and only in this game, keys could be used in any dungeon and could even be bought. Adventure of Link had neither the Map nor the Compass. A Link to the Past brought back the two items but added the Big Key, which unlocked the boss room and also the big chest, which contained the dungeon’s main item. But in many cases the item wasn’t needed to beat the boss, or even the dungeon itself. Link’s Awakening dropped the big chest idea and instead just gave you the dungeon item in a normal chest. Now the dungeon item was more often needed or at least useful against the boss, and the Compass sounded off whenever there was a key in the room. And then there was the Stone Beak, a fourth dungeon item used to hear hints from Owl Statues. This also marked the introduction of the miniboss concept.
Bottom line is the dungeon gameplay format has never been standard, ever. Since the beginning, it’s changed from game to game. It arguably changed very little between Ocarina of Time and some of the later games, but even now games have switched it up. In The Minish Cap, several times you acquire the Big Key long before the dungeon boss chamber is unlocked, instead using it to unlock a flashy door partway through the dungeon. In Twilight Princess, in the Goron Mines you had to collect three pieces of the Big Key, and nearly always the Compass was given to you towards the end of the dungeon so you had to backtrack for hidden chests you missed. Phantom Hourglass and Spirits Tracks didn’t even have Maps or Compasses, and the Big Key had to be carried like a rock or pot, making you vulnerable.
This is a good thing. There’s no reason for each game to have the same dungeon format, and similarly there’s no reason for each dungeon in the same game to follow it exactly. They should continue to mix it up. Hell, they should mix it up more. What if the Map is needed to navigate a floor (or entire dungeon) that’s almost mazelike, with hard to navigate and similar-looking rooms? Or using the Compass to located cleverly hidden chests? They could invent new items, new concepts, on a dungeon-to-dungeon basis. That said, it’s good to have some stability, to keep the basic concepts in place and to make the dungeons in the same game have some aspects in common, but it shouldn’t be nearly so static.
Interestingly, with what we’ve seen of Skyward Sword’s so-called Sky Temple, the first dungeon of the game, it seems like the thematic and gameplay diversity might be present even if it is another temple. It’s hard to say for sure because what we’ve seen is only a portion of the dungeon, not the the dungeon from start to finish. We see Link collecting a strange Gold Sculpture and then fitting it into a slot with a brief Wii Motion Plus-based puzzle, which would almost seem to imply it replaces the Big Key. But at the same time, since the demo doesn’t start at the beginning of the dungeon it might not stop at the dungeon’s completion either, so the Big Key could be acquired later. It’s hard to say if this item replaced the Big Key just for that one dungeon, if it or things like it replace the Big Key for all dungeons, or if it will alternate between different formats for every dungeon. A wait and see scenario. The Sky Temple itself certainly doesn’t seem to scream “sky” as its single theme, so clearly it will follow the example of the temples in other Zelda games and be at least somewhat thematically intriguing. We’ll have to see how much they do with the themes and format of the dungeons when then game comes out.
So, in summary, in terms of themes, gameplay, and design, dungeons should be diverse, multilayered, and interesting; they should not be uniform. The dungeons are essentially one third of the game, so they should be as compelling as any of the other thirds. Not simply a bunch of objects thrown into a gameplay space, but a fully realized part of the world, and one that differs from other parts like it. Dungeons are important to the Zelda series, they are the areas that challenge you, the regions where the story advances, where you find the best items, and where you fight your greatest battles. Hopefully Skyward Sword will do well in regards to the dungeons, and it will end up having some of the best of the series. But what do you think of this article, of dungeons as a whole, of my explanation of them, and of my thoughts and assessments? Tell me in the comments!