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 third dungeon, Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly.
The prelude to Jabu-Jabu’s Belly sends Link scrambling up a stream to discover Zora’s Domain, discovering a letter from the missing Princess Ruto at Lake Hylia, and using a fish to entice Jabu-Jabu to open his mouth so Link can search for Princess Ruto inside. It is the most involved pre-dungeon sequence so far, but these small quests tie into a coherent and charming story, in turn shaping a smooth narrative arc that dots gameplay with story and vice versa. Fortunately, this steady melding of gameplay with narrative continues within the dungeon, where Link discovers Princess Ruto and navigates through the dungeon alongside her. Because of this narrative throughline, the escort mission feels as much like a driving narrative force as much as a one-off gimmick isolated from the rest of the game world. The only downsides are occasional logical gaps the player has to speak to a certain NPC to fill, like having to speak with a specific NPC to learn Jabu-Jabu likes fish. Outside of that, the pre-dungeon quests frame the dungeon nicely, begetting a fantastical sense of disbelief necessary for a dungeon that takes place inside a fish.
Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, like Inside the Deku Tree, takes place entirely within the body of a living creature infected with a life-threatening malady. But while the Great Deku Tree feels like a vacant space already resigned to quietus, Jabu-Jabu is a space of grotesque corporeal suffering, a pulsating hunk of meat attempting to cleanse its bowels through uncomfortable churning. This is a place of disgust and unease as much as it is illness, and there is nothing elegant about the animalistic intensity of its suffering. Whether playing on N64 (which features blunter meat-like textures) or the 3DS (whose smoother surfaces and more vivid colors evoke more specific organs), Jabu-Jabu’s Belly is perhaps the most stomach-churning place in the game. Writhing sinew and throbbing internal organs offer a unique sense of place, and in spaces like the first room, which takes place between teeth and the opening to the esophagus, the dungeon uses anatomy to help the player construct a mental map. Climbing on percolated walls reminiscent of areolar tissue and walking through doorways that open and close like aortic ventricles make Jabu-Jabu feel like a living, breathing arena. Though some deride the dungeon’s locale, I think it is grotesquely memorable and the kind of imaginative environment gaming benefits from. That said, its large size can be jarring since Jabu-Jabu doesn’t seem nearly as big on the outside and the N64 textures can get monotonous.
Like an actual cluster of bloated organs, the dungeon’s layout is the most labyrinthine so far, with numerous stubby branches connected to a series of rounder central rooms. Indeed, the dungeon seems to be aiming for some degree of disorientation — after all, it introduces the escort mechanic and dungeon item before the map and compass. The strange thing is that despite its pointy multi-directional layouts, it is just as linear as Inside the Deku Tree and even more linear than Dodongo’s Cavern. Throughout the entire dungeon there is only one path forward at any given moment, which means this mazy layout is more of a trial-and-error exercise in tedium than an opportunity to carve your own path. At its worst, such as deciding where to go and what to do upon first discovering Princess Ruto, the player ends up blindly poking at possibilities, often weighed down by slow traversal. Though there aren’t many opportunities to be totally lost, the few that do exist can be time consumptions that significantly detract from the overall experience. Though I appreciate the desire for a more complex layout than past dungeons, the dungeon could have benefited from some streamlining instead of constantly hiding behind its guise of non-linearity.
Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly’s central mechanical theme is escorting Princess Ruto. In theory, this aforementioned mingling of story with gameplay is genius, but in practice it is a mixed bag. When the player is granted the opportunity to make a meaningful decision about using Princess Ruto to solve a puzzle, having her in tow can be unexpectedly fulfilling. For example, triggering a cut scene by tossing her toward the Spiritual Stone integrates gameplay with narrative in a subtle, organic way rarely seen in Zelda. And transferring knowledge garnered by using Ruto early in the dungeon to solve a later puzzle without Ruto is among the most satisfying feats in the entire dungeon. But since Ruto acts only as a means to weigh things down, using her as a puzzle-solving mechanic gets repetitious after a couple rooms. Meanwhile, her sudden disappearances and unpredictable respawns can make dealing with Ruto an immersion-breaking deadweight.
Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly’s special item is the boomerang, a medium-range weapon that stuns some enemies, damages others, and collects items. While using the boomerang in combat works well enough, scooping up an item with it is a minor revelation. Although Gold Skulltulas aren’t always expertly placed (two are right next to each other and one is in an obvious, uninteresting location), nabbing your reward with the boomerang makes up for it. The boomerang’s major drawbacks are that it renders the slingshot mostly obsolete and that it can be hard to judge whether or not an enemy is within the boomerang’s modest range.
The enemies of Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly almost universally lack depth and personality. Bari, Biri, and Tailpasarans feel more lifeless than the actually lifeless Parasitic Tentacles the player monotonously battles three times in a row and the bubbles (Shaboms) that bounce around like gastrointestinal bouncy balls. The best baddies are probably the series-standard Octoroks, a procedural evolution of the Dekus, and Stingers, flying stingrays that aren’t too interesting but at least have somewhat dynamic behavior. These are the only enemies that feel more like enemies than hazardous obstacles moving about at random. Some of this lifelessness might be justified by stimulus-response behavior of the organisms these enemies imitate (jellyfish, amoeba, etc.). But they are still forgettable, blasse manifestations that don’t feel wholly developed. Fortunately, the mini-boss is an evolution of the King Dodongo fight that requires more meaningful decision making and tactical skill, even if the battle overstays its welcome and the camera spasms from time to time.
While I mentioned Queen Gohma and King Dodongo offered memorable experiences but quick, effortless battles, the opposite is true of “bio-electric sea anemone” Barinade, who looks like the love child of an amusement park ride and Kirby’s beam hat. But what Barinade lacks in personality and ambience it makes up for with a multi-stage fight involving pattern recognition, on-the-fly tactical decision-making, and multiple uses for the boomerang. Despite a subpar appearance and the dungeon’s generally mediocre enemy design, Barinade manages to be Ocarina’s most demanding and intricate battle thus far.
Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly is a contentious dungeon among Ocarina of Time fans, primarily because of its off-the-wall setting and heavy emphasis on escorting. Personally, I find the location a welcome change of pace and the escort mission mostly well-executed. But I do feel certain core moments (like deciding where to go right after discovering Princess Ruto, or navigating the five-fingered portion of the upper floor) are limited by their extreme linearity despite a confusing pretense of being open. If the player knows exactly what to do, the dungeon is actually quite short. But if they don’t know what to do, they could be in heaps of unnecessary frustration. And though I appreciate the difficulty jump in the mini-boss and boss fights, the raised difficulty throughout the dungeon is sometimes expounded by having to aimlessly wander in search of the path forward. Although I generally enjoy Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, its faux labyrinthine layout and half-hearted enemy design feels equivocal of the experience they want to provide.
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.