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 fourth dungeon, Angler’s Tunnel.
The path from Key Cavern to Angler’s Tunnel is laden with minor issues. After Key Cavern, Link must head southwest to the Animal Village to discover a giant sleeping Snorlax… no, walrus, blocking the path forward. From there, Link has to fetch an Ocarina in Mabe Village, learn Marin has gone to the beach, locate Marin, and bring Marin back to Animal Village. Finally, she can wake the walrus and Link can continue on his quest to find the Angler Key. With the Angler Key, Link must head north to Tal Tal Heights, drain the entrance to the dungeon with the key, take a path through the mountains to the top of the dungeon, and drop down from there. The problem with all of this is that there are so many steps that have to be completed in proper sequence, despite the player never having much information about where to go. Amidst this aimlessness, Link is supposed to progress in the game-long trading sequence, which ties into whether or not he can access Angler’s Tunnel. It all asks too much of the player, and goes to show how tedious it can be when designers shoehorn extremely linear gameplay into a semi-open world while offering very little direction.
Fortunately, Angler’s Tunnel is more much finely-tuned than the path leading up to it. This partially flooded labyrinth initially seems tricky to piece together because it branches in several directions from dungeon’s second screen. However, some trial-and-error exploration debunking this assumption, as four out of five of the paths shortly dead-end at either a chest or nothing at all. In fact, much of Angler’s Tunnel conveys an openness the dungeon actually lacks, as even when it seems there are multiple paths forward there is often only one true path. Although this might seem to walk the tightrope between open and closed level design, it can result in the wild goose chases for a specific key, which might lie at the end of any of several paths. Furthermore, a couple routes are completely superfluous, begging the player to explore them only to find nothing of value. Combined with a few instances backtracking, especially through water, this dungeon’s layout can inspire annoying guesswork if the player’s has difficulty mentally mapping the dungeon’s extraneous spaces, sizable rooms, and long corridors that sprawl across many screens. Indeed, twenty-eight screens comprise the dungeon’s mere sixteen rooms (and this is with a lenient definition of “room”), making the screen-by-screen scrolling more of a detriment here than in any previous dungeon. Yet were some spaces tidied up, the scrolling made fluid, and perhaps the Flippers found a bit earlier to streamline water navigation, the dungeon’s fundamentally clever layout could have been front-and-center.
Angler’s Tunnel’s theme is water, which is successfully integrated into the dungeon’s design in several ways. For one, the dungeon is partially flooded, with different floods containing bodies of water of varying sizes, thereby lending the dungeon a sense of depth as well as a naturally integrated navigation roadblock. Such roadblocks can only be bypassed after attaining the dungeon’s water-themed item, the Flippers. Even the dungeon’s sidescrolling areas and final boss contain underwater gameplay. Finally, some regular baddies as well both bosses are all water-based. The only notable downfall is the dungeon’s layout, which might be in the shape of an anchor or fishing hook, but is difficult to discern. Some water-based puzzles would have also been a nice inclusion, though the dungeon is evidently most concerned with navigation and combat. All in all, Angler’s Tunnel thoroughly and deftly integrates its aqueous theme without being bogged down by it, ultimately making for some of the most enjoyable water-based gameplay in the series, and much more triumphant experience than Ocarina’s infamous Water Temple.
The Flippers allow Link to swim in deep water and dive under the surface. Like the Power Bracelet in Bottle Grotto, the Flippers aren’t so much an item for combat or puzzle-solving as a way to bypass barriers. Because of this, the Flippers aren’t really remarkable one way or another — after a short time, they’re not that noticeable. That said, swimming in Link’s Awakening’s sidescrolling sections can be surprisingly fun, and certainly more empowering and exciting than swimming in many Mario games.
Angler’s Tunnel houses eleven enemies and obstacles, including five from past dungeons, three more past Zeldas, and three new to the series (though two of those are borrowed from Mario). The three from past Zeldas are the Peahat (The Legend of Zelda), Iron Mask (aka Helmasaurs in A Link to the Past) and Water Tektite (also A Link to the Past) and though they all look quite different than in their first outing, they all behave more or less the same. Likewise, Thwomps and Cheep-Cheeps behave essentially the same as in Mario, which works well enough since they only appear in the Mario-like sidescrolling sections. Star is the only enemy not from any previous game or dungeon, and its erratic movement makes it difficult to track but fairly enjoyable to fight. All said, Angler’s Tunnel has a wide-ranging set of well-placed enemies that build solidly off the water theme.
But perhaps the single best enemy in Angler’s Tunnel is Cue Ball, the dungeon’s fantastic miniboss. Cue Ball chases Link around the perimeter of a room, vulnerable only on its fleshy backside. While Link can use the Pegasus Boots to try to outrun Cue Ball, the most effective technique might be to attack its sides when it rounds a corner or leap over it with Roc’s Feather. Though it would have been great to use the Flippers to have the option of diving under Cue Ball, there is still an admirable openness to how the player can approach this fight despite its narrow spaces. Unfortunately, the underwater skirmish against Angler Fish is pathetically easy for a final boss fight. Apparently, Angler Fish can rush at Link and knock boulders into the water, but many players will never experience this since the battle can easily end before Angler Fish has time to attack. That’s a shame because Angler Fish is otherwise surprisingly interesting given it is the series’ first underwater boss.
Angler’s Tunnel is a deeply thought-out dungeon that suffers from minor design decisions. Its theme is superbly integrated, but water can also act as a frustrating barrier when the player is asked to backtrack without the Flippers. Its layout is intricate and imaginative, but its unnecessary dead-ends and only partially-used screens can make navigation a game of chance. Its miniboss is among the best battles in the entire game, but its boss fall on its face because of its ridiculous effortlessness. All in all, it is a dungeon that works best on paper, though it benefits greatly from its thematic unity and sunken ambitions.
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.