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 sixth and a half dungeon, the Bottom of the Well. Since the Bottom of the Well is a mini-dungeon, and its official status is still disputed amongst fans, I have written a mini-analysis to suit its stature.
After conquering the Water Temple, Link heads to a blazing Kakariko Village, where an evil spirit emerges from the well and knocks Link unconscious. Upon waking up, Sheik teaches Link the Nocturne of Shadow, which warps Link to the entrance of the Shadow Temple. But before entering the Shadow Temple, Link must find the Lens of Truth at the Bottom of the Well, located at…the bottom of the well from which the evil spirit emerged. A rock wall blocks the entryway as an adult, so Link must return as a child, play the Song of Storms to drain the well, and crawl through a small opening at the bottom to gain access. Although the cutscene of Kakariko on fire is gripping, travelling through time is unnecessarily cumbersome since playing through the dungeon as a child adds nothing meaningful to the experience. Meanwhile, neither the rock wall that mysteriously blocks the entrance nor the relationship between the windmill and the well is adequately explained, making for a tedious and unintuitive inter-dungeon sequence.
The Bottom of the Well is a blotched, rusted, corpse-ridden pit; a cross between desecrated burial grounds and an abandoned torture chamber drab in color, dreary in art, and thoroughly putrefied from wall to wall. Even the layout of this forsaken ossuary evokes the eldritch — topographically, the top floor vaguely resembles a skull, and the bottom an arthritic hand. But this uneasy setting is occasionally undermined by some uneasy design. Falling through illusory floors leads players to a lot of monotonous backtracking on a bottom floor with enemies and obstacles sloppily scattered about. Similarly, draining the water feels remarkably underdeveloped given this directly follows the demanding Water Temple. Fortunately, the central floor is much more compelling, especially after locating the Lens of Truth, which makes navigation less trial-and-error. Structurally, it resembles the Ice Cavern in its brevity, small stature, and mini-boss-as-boss. But the Bottom of the Well’s more open design makes for an experience both more self-motivated but also less finely-tuned. If, for example, the player locates the Lens of Truth right away, the remaining chests offer little reason to stick around.
The Bottom of the Well’s main theme is fear of death. While death as a natural process bodies was already explored inside-out in Inside the Deku Tree and Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, the Bottom of the Well depicts death as a state of eerie otherness opposed to life. In these neglected catacombs, bodies rot, liquid stale and grow noxious, and six coffins suppress weary undead (notably disparate from Super Mario 64’s similarly-arranged coffins, which move as if animated themselves). Here nothing is sacred, and nothing is as it appears. Some walls are not walls, some pits are floors, some treasure chests hide in plain sight. Piles of corpses can be blown up in search of rupees and small keys (notably, this works better in the N64 version, where those skeletal stockpiles hiding something are marked, making a particular troublesome chest on the second level easier to locate). This is death presented as a collection of the fears it inspires: death as decay, death as lack, death as alien, death as hidden, death as unknowable.
Given this, the Lens of Truth is a perfect fit for the Bottom of the Well. As one of Ocarina’s few entirely original items, it feels built around the Bottom of the Well’s densely littered traps and secrets, not to mention surprisingly innovative and well-executed in its own right. Stumbling around the mini-dungeon can be irksome at first, but discovering the Lens of Truth is a watershed moment because it suddenly recontextualizes traversal to make it purposeful and deliberate. Unlike many items, the Lens of Truth meaningfully breathes new life into the dungeon by impacting how the player plays moment-to-moment. Although some additional functionality (i.e. the ability to speak with skeletons, spot enemy weak points, reading hidden text on the plaques throughout the dungeon) could have been cool, the Lens of Truth is such a boon that some players might feel its absence in later games. Compared to the similarly tidy Ice Cavern, where the map and compass feel superfluous, cross-referencing the map, compass, and Lens of Truth makes basic navigation strategic, thoughtful, and enjoyable — that’s an accomplishment in itself.
The enemies in Bottom of the Well synergize with their surroundings to craft an eerie, dank atmosphere. But the only new baddie is the Gibdo, a mummified and slightly more difficult ReDead weak to Din’s Fire (but curiously not to Fire Arrows). Gibdos’ and ReDeads’ vague vision radius can be a bit irritating, but their ability to freeze Link in place makes for some memorably tense moments. Dead Hand, the mini-boss, is even more evocative in this regard. In order to lure Dead Hand close enough to attack, Link must intentionally get caught in hands that reach up from the ground, leaving him completely vulnerable for several seconds as a tumorous, bloody, dead-eyed monster lurches toward him. It’s a sinister sight to behold, and a shrewd way to tie the inherent vulnerability of risk-reward decision-making into horror.
As a whole, the Bottom of the Well is a freakish mixed bag. Much of the time the player spends here can feel like a trial-and-error slog to avoid invisible floors and fight lethargic enemies. But it packs a variety of trials and secrets into its tight space, and its item and boss are among the most distinctive and thematically apropos. The experience the Bottom of the Well provides is undoubtedly memorable from start to finish, but its open design, occasionally frustrating illusory floors, and relatively complex layout ensure both mileage and moment-to-moment enjoyability could vary significantly from player to player.
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.