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In commemoration of Goomba Stomp’s second anniversary staff list champion, our Level-by-Level feature will be diving into The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, dungeon-by-dungeon. Although Breath of the Wild is utterly superb, its reimagining of the Zelda formula is noticeably lacking classic dungeon design. This continuing series will take a look back at the entry that established the 3D dungeon template, in turn altering dungeon design in ways that would dominate and define the series for nearly twenty years. And since the 2011 3DS remaster makes a wide variety of changes to the original but remains equally masterful, I will be looking at that version alongside the 1998 Nintendo 64 release. In this entry, I will be examining Ocarina of Time’s fourth dungeon, the Forest Temple.
The path from Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly to the Forest Temple is one of the most significant in the game. From a narrative perspective, Act I comes to a close with the completion of the childhood portion of the game and the start of Act II introduces a future Hyrule torn asunder by Ganon. These plot points would not only split the canonical Zelda timeline, but are sprinkled with unforgettable moments that would leave their mark on the series, such as rescuing Epona and meeting the enigmatic Sheik. Between riding horseback, traveling through time, and using the hookshot, gameplay significantly broadens and deepens in the first hour of Link’s adulthood. But once the player acquires the hookshot, the path to the Forest Temple, as any path through a corrupted Kokiri Village and the Lost Woods would, culminates in a hedge maze filled with Moblins. Although entering the Forest Temple proper lacks the dungeon-specific narrative weight of Inside the Deku Tree or Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, it feels like the first step on a momentous path within the larger context of Ocarina’s sweeping narrative.
Deep within the Lost Woods’ Sacred Forest Meadow lies the Forest Temple, an overgrown haunted mansion in a classical architectural style. Lengthier, tougher, and more complex than past dungeons, the Forest Temple opts for a more traditional setting than the ancient tree interior and fish innards of Link’s childhood journey. But it explores its space with equal commitment, featuring both art and design more intricate and diverse than any dungeon so far. Creeping ivy scales the walls, Roman columns verge on crumbling, and subversive wraiths make things go bump in the night. It is an arena lost to the natural and supernatural processes of time — future ruins in their death throes.
A central plaza connects six routes on the main floor. Most of these routes loop back into this central space, not unlike the basic layout of Dodongo’s Cavern. But these routes branch and intermingle in surprising ways, crafting to a less linear space where getting lost seems to be part of the mansion’s ploy. Each room offers its own specialized puzzles and combat scenarios, while the two outdoor courtyards connected via aqueduct offer a reprieve from the dark, confining interiors. Upon first entering, the player can venture in any of several directions, likely finding one of the dungeon’s myriad keys at the end of it. This key can then be used to open up another path, where the player will likely find another key. Eventually, these possible routes siphon down to one path in the dungeon’s latter half, leading to a more linear but equally compelling trek. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the dungeon’s design is how the layout can be affected by decisions the player makes, namely rotating a pair of hallways and the rooms attached to them. By rotating these rooms, the player can gain access to new parts of the dungeon, and thereby progress through intentional manipulation of the dungeon’s architecture (a dungeon-as-meta-puzzle technique previously seen in Eagle’s Tower from Link’s Awakening and subsequently seen in Stone Tower from Majora’s Mask). Both the nonlinearity and player-influenced architecture offer a sense of purposeful navigation, asking the player to develop a sophisticated understanding of the dungeon’s layout. The downside is that if the player lacks this sophisticated understanding, progress can be a series of trial-and-error through the same set of rooms, since the dungeon lacks shortcuts or checkpoints that might streamline the experience.
As previously alluded, one of the dungeon’s core themes is residuum — that which is left behind in time. Stalfos, Poes, and Phantom Ganon all evoke a life once lived but now corrupted. It is a brilliant motif that encapsulates the dilemma Link finds himself in, having been hurled through time to a ravaged but recognizable future. The world has moved on without him, and remnants of the past cast a dreary shadow. One can imagine Link and the Forest Temple asking the same question of the worlds they once lied at the center of: What could have been? But while Link attempts to buck this timeline, by systematically going from dungeon to dungeon and ultimately battling Ganon, the Forest Temple remains stuck as a corrupt relic of a bygone era, an inward-looking fallen space on the brink of collapse. Link’s journey through the Forest Temple is an exercise in exorcism, not only due to its undead inhabitants, but also because this is the first step toward extinguishing the dystopian zeitgeist (time ghost) plaguing Hyrule at large.
Illusion is another key theme of the Forest Temple. The entire dungeon is steeped in enemies, obstacles, and level design components that seem to bend the rules of space and time. A ceiling falls, a floor is invisible, corridors spiral, rooms rotate, and so on, making the actual architecture feel like a malleable optical illusion. Meanwhile, Poes and Phantom Ganon move between the real world and paintings, as if a proceduralized trompe l’oeil. This sort of trickery is so fully developed and densely concentrated that it’s hard to believe it was accomplished in a game from 1998. Although some misdirection can feel underbaked or detracting — such as a room where the player rotates in a shallow “puzzle” or a fake-out chest that baits players down to the ground floor for a measly heart — most of the dungeon is a stunningly innovative fun house that fractures spatial norms to form a wholly unique experience unlike anything else on the Nintendo 64.
The Fairy Bow is a Zelda staple, rendered in 3D as nimble and empowering as it ever was. As the first dungeon item of Link’s adult life, it is a fitting evolution of past items. It’s more dependable than the boomerang, more powerful than the slingshot, and faster than the hookshot. The only concern I have is that the recently introduced hookshot and the bow are often interchangeable in combat, meaning that if the player prefers one over the other, they might both not have adequate time to shine. It’s a minor gripe, but since each of these items could easily carry an entire dungeon on its own, it’s a bit disappointing there aren’t a few more enemies that require using one of these weapons (or perhaps one and the other in tandem). That said, switches triggered by arrows and climbable surfaces Link can hookshot ensure both weapons are used frequently for traversal or puzzle-solving.
Although many of the Forest Temple’s highlights revolve around its widely varied but thematically consistent puzzles, its enemies are also worth closer examination. Wolfos and Stalfos offer minor behavioral depth requiring some degree of forethought and pattern recognition. They could demand a deeper tactical strategy, but they are decent evolutions of Lizalfos if also underwhelming mini-bosses. Skulltulas as a perfect thematic fit, but are stationed in random corridors in throwaway fashion while Gold Skulltulas seem much more deliberately placed. Enemies that impedes progress by slowing it down, like Skulltulas and Bubbles, present an opportunity to meaningfully differentiate between the offensive capabilites of the hookshot and the bow. If the hookshot merely stunned them but the bow one-shot them, the quickened pace at which the player can navigate the dungeon could make the bow feel like a more special offensive upgrade. Meanwhile, the Poe Sisters feature fantastic visual design and animation, but can be a bit slow-going due to their sluggish animations and substantial health pool. Finally, the Floormasters are worth mentioning for their creepy appearance and punishing maneuver that sends the player back to the dungeon’s start. Although this severe penalty makes them especially nerve-wracking, a slightly more prominent shadow could have made them a bit easier to avoid. As it is, they are tougher to dodge than those in A Link to the Past, but more punishing because Ocarina’s more linear dungeon layouts generally require the player to follow a long but narrow path. This is all to say that although the Forest Temples enemies are thematically consistent while also being behaviorally diverse, small adjustments to their design and placement could have elevated the Forest Temple’s combat scenarios to the heights of its puzzles.
As a battle and character, Phantom Ganon is one of the most beguiling and unforgettable enemies in the entire game. Traveling in and out of pictures is wildly innovative as a concept and finely-tuned as in practice. This tinkering with spatial norms makes the small room feel like a gateway to other worlds and perfectly suits the Forest Temple’s obsession with (mis)representation. Both the notion of existing on a wall as well as capturing life through mimicry would forms the backbone of A Link Between Worlds, but they were introduced here. The second phase, wherein the player and Phantom Ganon juggle electric orbs through sword swipes, establishes a mechanic that recurs throughout the game, and is possibly even more mechanically enjoyable than the first phase. Although today we might ask for more complexity in the first half (like increasing the number of faux Phantom Ganons travelling through paintings after each round or gradually changing Phantom Ganon’s features so he becomes increasingly difficult to identify), the setting, ambience, character, thematic relevance, tactical depth, and general enjoyability make for an astounding battle.
The Forest Temple is not unimpeachable. I have gripes about some enemy designs, the hookshot and bow not always being as meaningfully differentiated as they could be, and the way the dungeon’s concern with misdirection can lead to profuse backtracking, and how the lack of unlockable shortcuts can make that backtracking unnecessarily aggravating. But ultimately, the Forest Temple is so ambitious, densely realized, and deliberately constructed, that few early 3D spaces rival its design. It is one of the expertly-crafted spaces in one of the most expertly-crafted games ever made, and an experience so ahead of its time that contemporary gamers can still find it astonishing. And it’s a perfect first dungeon for our aged hero of time — as he had matured, so had gaming.
For deep dives into other dungeons from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario 64, click here.
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