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 only optional dungeon, the Color Dungeon.
Added in the DX version of Link’s Awakening, the Color Dungeon becomes accessible after earning the Pegasus Boots in Key Cavern. Once the player has that item, they can knock a book off the top off a bookcase in Mabe Village’s library. This book hints at the solution to a gravestone puzzle in the graveyard northeast of Mabe Village, a puzzle that unearths the Color Dungeon upon being solved. While this inter-dungeon sequence is on the short size, it ensures the Color Dungeon remains easily accessible from early in the game. Furthermore, it offers a break from the trading sequence and the need to go through a lengthy series of scripted events to unlock a dungeon, both of which can feel repressive.
After an odd first room where skeletons ask Link to identify the color of their garb, the dungeon presents a mostly linear string of rooms that consistently feature color-based mechanics. Since only two of the dungeon’s twenty-two rooms have more than two exits, there are very few opportunities to get lost (though on the flipside, there are also few opportunities to make meaningful navigational decisions). Combined with the fact that each of the dungeon’s rooms is comprised of only one screen, the Color Dungeon may be the most navigable dungeon in the game. But its only puzzle type is a common one, wherein the player hits a switch that turns it and adjacent switches into the same color, with the goal of matching the color of all switches. There are other color-dependent gameplay elements like bouncy tiles that change color when the player jumps on them and throwing an enemy into holes of the same color, but neither is truly a puzzle. One more actual puzzle type, along with more difficult versions of the type already included, could have added more depth and color-specific gameplay.
Unsurprisingly, the Color Dungeon’s main theme is color. At its best, the dungeon’s use of color lends the dungeon a vibrant aesthetic and sometimes shrewdly implements color in its puzzles and obstacles. Much of the time, color is used to show states of varying degree, such as the bouncy floor tiles that turn three different colors before disappearing, or the final boss whose color gets hotter the closer as it takes damage. At its worst, the dungeon doesn’t totally fulfill its promise of thematically integrating color as thoroughly or gracefully as it could. For example, brightly colored floor colors in a few rooms might seem at first as if they play some part in a puzzle when in fact they are only there to poorly camouflage an enemy. Or how the aforementioned boss that changes color several times but doesn’t use color to communicate meaningful information. Yet despite these misfires, the dungeon certainly integrates its theme in more varied and memorable ways than the vast majority of dungeons.
The dungeon’s items are Red and Blue Clothes, which the player gets to choose between. The Red Clothes increase Link’s damage output while the Blue Clothes halve his damage intake. It’s a cool concept that calls back to the tunics of the original The Legend of Zelda, and it could allow for less skilled players to gain an upper-hand — a sort of easy mode for the game’s latter half. However, since the player doesn’t have the option to unequip the Clothes after receiving them, they can just as well be interpreted as an imbalanced, game-breaking item that makes the game too easy for many players. In this regard, the Red and Blue Clothes can either be a major boon or bust depending on the individual player. Either way, at least it’s nice to not have to select an item from the inventory every time the player wants to use it (though the player should be allowed to unequip it).
The Color Dungeon technically houses eight types of enemies, only one of which is not new (Zol). But since the Green, Red, and Blue Camo Goblin as well as the Green, Red, and Blue Orb Monster are identical in all but color, it’s more appropriate to say it features three new enemy types. Camo Goblins are shallow, bothersome enemies that rapidly rush the player from colored tiles they are supposed to blend in with (though they are actually very easy to spot). Orb Monsters are like beetles Link must slash to have them roll into a ball, which Link can then throw into a hole of matching color. While combat against these enemies is nothing to write home about, tossing them into the right hole can be an enjoyable, especially in rooms with somewhat complex layouts. Finally, Bone Putters fly around the room dropping bombs in their first phase, and in their second phase lose their wings and hop around destructible tiles. While each of these enemies is unlike any other in the game, only getting four enemy types throughout the entire dungeon makes combat a bit monotonous.
In terms of bosses, the Color Dungeon focuses more on quantity than quality. Its first mini-boss, Stone Hinox, has the player attack a giant golem in a room full of spikes and falling rocks. It’s an intriguing idea, but in practice it is repetitive, spammy, and thematically misplaced. The second mini-boss is Giant Buzz Blob, a big blob Link has to pour magic powder on to defeat. Again, it doesn’t meaningfully use color, it feels thematically disconnected from the dungeon, and it requires no strategy. Yet despite its shortcoming, getting a second mini-boss is an unexpected delight. The final boss fight against Evil Orb is also more about spamming an attack than strategizing. It features an annoying text box that pops up every time the boss recovers his health, and since it can be tough to land attacks without a Bow or Magic Rod, many players will have to clicks through this text box many times. But at least it attempts to implement color in a somewhat meaningful fashion.
As a whole, the Color Dungeon is a brief but enjoyable jaunt through a space and mechanic that feels largely divorced from the rest of the game. Its item may be broken, some rooms are lacking in imagination, and its color gimmick could have been utilized a bit more deeply in puzzle, enemy, and boss design. But it is still optional content that offers a change of pace from the rest of the game while taking its theme more seriously than nearly any other dungeon. It’s an understandably divisive dungeon, deserving of some of the flack it receives, but in its deep integration of theme, multiple mini-bosses, and comprehensible layout, it also improves upon some of the other dungeons’ most glaring weaknesses.
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.