The Nintendo rumor wheel is always turning, churning out seemingly credible rumblings of dream games day in and day out. And since Nintendo has said very little about any releases after January, 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 third dungeon, Key Cavern.
After returning BowWow, Link must venture to Ukuku Prairie, where he eventually encounters a man named Richard living in a house full of frogs (he is originally from the Japanese-only Game Boy game, For the Frog the Bell Tolls, after all). In exchange for the key to Key Cavern, Richard asks Link to find the golden feathers he left in his villa to the north. Unfortunately, the villa is inaccessible and Link has to engage in the game’s tedious trading sequence to eventually find bananas to give to a bridge-building monkey in exchange for a stick and villa access. After the monkey builds the bridge, Link can explore the villa grounds for the five golden feathers, which are generally tied to defeating enemies. After completing this fun quasi-dungeon side quest, Link must return to Richard and make his way through a sort of hedge maze to finally find the Slime Key.
Key Cavern is the most circuitous and dense dungeon so far, with a uniquely high percentage of its screens containing keys, locked doors, and multiple possible paths. Since its branching layout can be slightly difficult to mentally map and many objectives have to be bypassed and backtracked to later, there are several opportunities to get lost. But if the player can accurately recall the dungeon’s layout and its associated challenges, it can be a fun dungeon to piece together and retrace once it has been recontextualized through acquiring small keys, triggering switches, and claiming the dungeon’s item. While it is more combat-heavy than puzzle-heavy, its bombable wall puzzles stand out from the pack, with floor tiles hinting at the solution to one, and another asking for the player to notice how two rooms might connect from a walkway above. Still, subdividing large rooms into small screens can make navigation tougher than it otherwise would be, and it also makes the spiral pathway at the dungeon’s core less impactful since the player cannot see its many keyholes at once. This screen-by-screen loading makes the nuanced design of this central region difficult to fully appreciate, which is especially unfortunate since it comprises twelve of the dungeon’s thirty-one screens.
Key Cavern is primarily themed around keys. Once again, a dungeon is shaped after its namesake, but this one is particularly noteworthy because one floor is a small key and the other a nightmare key — very cool! Yet Key Cavern more deeply integrates its theme through its constant barrage of small keys, room after room. There is even an extra key dropped right before the final boss fight, possibly to entice players to explore the parts of the dungeon they could have easily bypassed (or maybe it’s just for the sake of superfluidity). Either way, Key Cavern’s game of lock-and-key integrates its theme through level design more thoroughly than either Tail Cave or Bottle Grotto. And it seems to feature a slime mini-theme to boot, given its slime statues outside, many Zols, Slime Key, and Slime Eye boss.
Originally introduced in A Link to the Past, the dungeon’s item is the Pegasus Boots. While the faster travel the boots provide are a welcome change of pace, their lengthy charge-up combined with losing momentum across Link’s Awakening’s particularly small screens make them less powerful than they used to feel. Despite these caveats, they offer an often helpful speed boost and are particularly enjoyable when used in combination with Roc’s Feather to hop across especially long gaps (though this fantastic mechanic could have been more elegantly taught).
Key Cavern is home to a measly seven enemies, four of which were in past dungeons (Keese, Stalfos, Vacuum Mouth, and Zol). Two of the three new enemies are Red and Green Bombites, the first of which rapidly bounces about upon being hit and the second of which chases Link and explores on a timer. Both are clever concepts in need of refinement, as their timing and speed feel haphazard. The final new enemy is the Pairodds, which teleport and fire projectiles. Though they can be enjoyable in rooms with tossable bottles or certain moving floor layouts that give observant players an upper hand, they are more often vexing and repetitive. In general, the enemies in Key Cavern are ambitious but subpar, lacking thematic connection and in need of minor tweaking.
The Dodongo Snakes mini-bosses look like strung-together billiard balls that move like inchworms. Since they don’t have any attacks, the only challenge comes in dropping bombs in their mouths — bombs the player may run out of. A game of attrition rather than strategy, the fight against these Snakes is not so much a fight than an exercise in inventory management. Fortunately, the main boss, Slime Eye, puts up more of a fight. Demanding the player split the eye into halves with the Pegasus Boots, the battle makes decent use of the dungeon’s item and asks for fairly nimble reflexes. Still, the fight is short, lacking in depth after its first short phase, and conveys little sense of character or thematic consistency with the dungeon outside of its supposed sliminess.
Key Cavern is a flawed but ambitious space that might be the game’s most defining dungeon so far. Featuring a relatively complex layout including many branching paths and a plethora of keys and locked doors, the dungeon makes the most of its tidy stature by asking the player to make multiple trips through it in order to unearth all its secrets. While this is a shrewd design decision seen throughout several of the game’s dungeons, Key Cavern falls a little flat when it comes to its enemies and puzzle design, which generally feel rough around the edges and less nuanced than those of past dungeons. Still, its comparative complexity and thorough integration of its theme make for a dungeon where no space goes wasted despite many dead ends.
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.