The Nintendo rumor wheel is always turning, churning out seemingly credible rumblings of dream games day in and day out. And since Nintendo has offered few specifics about what the year has in store, these rumors are whirling with tornado-like frenzy. In honor of new year’s dreams, the left-field games Nintendo sometimes throws our way, and whispers of a sequel to this legendary game, I will be analyzing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening dungeon-by-dungeon. As I have The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, each entry in this series will focus on a particular dungeon, delving into the intricacies of various aspects of design. Because it adds color and an additional optional dungeon, I will be looking specifically at the 1998 re-release The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. In this entry, I will be examining Link’s Awakening’s fifth dungeon, Catfish’s Maw.
The path from Angler’s Tunnel to Catfish’s Maw is mercifully brief and straightforward. Shortly after emerging from Angler’s Tunnel, a ghost starts following Link, asking to return home. After Link brings him to an abandoned house at the southern end of the island, the ghost asks to be brought to his gravestone. After reaching this gravestone, Link can again head south to Martha’s Bay and enter the next dungeon. After the last lengthy inter-dungeon sequence, this curt interlude is a welcome change of pace. But at the same time, it feels a bit haphazardly strung together. Who is this ghost and why does he follow Link? Why does he block access to Catfish’s Maw? Why wouldn’t bringing him to his gravestone at least earn a key that unlocks the next dungeon? It’s all a bit stilted and disconnected from the game’s plot as well as its pre-dungeon gameplay logic up to this point. But at least the short diversion leads to one of the coolest dungeon entrances in the game, a literal catfish maw (reminiscent of Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly in Ocarina of Time).
Catfish’s Maw is a sprawling maze of forty screens divided into thirty-one rooms. Because of this low screen-to-room ratio, most players will likely have no trouble discerning the layout of any individual room. Instead, the biggest navigational issue comes from the ways in which these rooms tie together and the incessant backtracking this encourages. Indeed, the dungeon’s winding shape and four sets of staircases can make it difficult to determine exactly what path leads where at any given moment. This confusion is further exacerbated by a mini-boss who shows up at four different locations throughout the dungeon at specific times, requiring even the most perspicacious player to backtrack repeatedly and often somewhat aimlessly. Streamlining some of this navigation through a more detailed dungeon map (ideally earned before defeating the mini-boss), cutting off access to staircases before they become worthwhile routes, and further indication the mini-boss’ location could have made the dungeon much more enjoyable. As it stands, Catfish’s Maw drowns a bit in its openness. And its bizarre lack of puzzles, combined with a surplus of rooms that lock the player inside until all its enemies are defeated, makes for a remarkably repetitive experience in several regards.
Unfortunately, Catfish’s Maw also suffers from its theme, which is essentially nonexistent. Although one might initially assume it to be centered around water, based on its name and location, it features very little aquatic gameplay and takes place right after the game’s actual water dungeon. Its shape is supposedly of an eel, and its final boss is an eel, but eels are otherwise unrepresented. In terms of gameplay, it could be argued its theme is exploration because the dungeon asks the player to trek through the dungeon multiple times to discover the mini-boss at several locations, but the tedious backtracking and difficulty actually exploring the dungeon would make this dungeon a botched attempt at such a theme. Most likely, the dungeon is lacking a theme, as it is torn in a few different directions and in many regards acts almost as a sequel to Angler’s Tunnel.
Just as in almost every Zelda game, the Hookshot is a fantastic item that completely changes traversal and combat. Although some more Hookshot-specific effects, like removing the masks off Iron Masks, would have been a nice addition, the Hookshot is almost always a viable offensive item, although perhaps sometimes it is too practical. The Hookshot’s grappling ability also makes for some of the most gratifying movement in the entire game, though the dungeon would have benefited greatly from at least a couple puzzles based around its item.
Catfish’s Maw’s ten enemies are identical to those of Angler’s Tunnel, minus the Thwomp. While these enemies are generally placed fairly and used well enough, they certainly support the notion that Catfish’s Maw lacks its own identity. At least the optional Gohma mini-boss (accessible only with purchase or theft of the Bow from the shop in Mabe Village) isn’t repeated, but this battle against a pair of one-eyed mantis-like creatures is an exercise in random attack patterns and waiting. The fight is a blight on the dungeon that requires minimal skill, and curiously offers no meaningful reward either in-game or experiential.
The dungeon’s less optional mini-boss is Master Stalfos, who Link fights multiple times throughout the dungeon. Exhibiting basic sword-and-shield attacks, Master Stalfos is easy to defeat with enough bombs, and isn’t particularly deep or engaging. What makes him stand out is that Link fights him four times in nearly identical rooms, differing only in the number of purple corner blocks (which hint at the order he appears in these rooms). Stringing this fight throughout the dungeon is a fantastic idea, but locating the next room can be aggravating since most players probably don’t take note of how many blocks are in each room until they understand the significance of those blocks, probably in the second or third battle. Having either a marker on the map or an audio cue to alert the player in what general direction they should head next could have made this entire process much smoother and more enjoyable.
Meanwhile, the final boss battle against Slime Eel is essentially what I suggested the first final dungeon boss battle in Tail Cave should have been. Here, Slime Eel peeks his head out of one of four holes, and the player must Hookshot his head to pull him out and slash him. Throughout the fight, Slime Eel spins his tail in a circle around the room, making the player balance defense with offense by ensuring they stay on the move and keep their eyes peeled for their next opportunity to attack. This boss inspires great use of the Hookshot, and is one of the most impressive bosses so far in the intricacy of its design, the balance of its difficulty, and the breadth of strategies with which he can be tackled. Though Master Stalfos may be more conceptually ambitious, Slime Eel is certainly the dungeon’s most polished fight overall.
Catfish’s Maw simultaneously redefines what a Link’s Awakening dungeon can be while also adhering too strictly to past dungeons. Its design is so open and its Master Stalfos mini-boss so demanding of exploration, that backtracking is more essential to Catfish’s Maw than any other dungeon so far. Sometimes this works well, such as how backtracking with the Hookshot encourages players to reinterpret spaces in terms of the item. But more often than not, this backtracking is just the player blindly searching for their next objective. Meanwhile, the dungeon is completely lacking of theme, and elements of its design (such as its art design, semi-aquatic architecture, enemy selection, and lack of puzzles) are all so evocative of Angler’s Tunnel that Catfish’s Maw lacks its own identity.
For deep dives into other levels from Link’s Awakening, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.