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 the first dungeon, Inside the Deku Tree.
After acquiring sword and shield, Link is granted access to the inside of the ailing Great Deku Tree in an attempt to cure it of a death curse cast by Ganondorf. From the moment Link enters the tree at the base of the trunk, it becomes immediately clear the art is built around two conflicting aesthetics — innocuous naturalism and decrepit corruption. Although much of the dungeon is green, woodsy, and covered in climbable vines, copious cobwebs, enemies, and dark corners defile a space of innocence. In this way, the Deku Tree is an atypical entry point — it has already succumbed to the evil that will soon penetrate the entire game world. Though its shell is that of a typified Nintendo starting area, sylvan and simple, it is also a space of illness, an aged, deadening, cancerous body the player will learn is beyond cure. In this way, Inside the Deku Tree embodies one of Ocarina’s dual-edged central themes — that the passage of time can be liberating and life-affirming but also ruthless and amoral.
The layout of the Deku Tree fittingly gestures toward the basic topography of a tree. The first half of the dungeon takes place in a tall central trunk with connecting sets of rooms resembling branches. After climbing this trunk and plummeting through a cobweb in the floor, the player accesses the dungeon’s second half, a water-trodden interconnected series of rooms resembling roots. By structurally mimicking the dungeon’s setting, this layout provides a topographical sense of a hollowed tree, further deepening the sense of place.
The Deku Tree features a total of only twelve rooms, most of which are small, straightforward, and built around a single puzzle or combat scenario. This simplicity is one of the Inside the Deku Tree’s core themes, as it enables the dungeon to act as a tutorial. As the first Zelda game in three dimensions, Ocarina turns series and genre tropes on their heads through the use of first-person perspective, vertical traversal, and Z-targeting. With this in mind, Inside the Deku Tree is responsible for introducing players to an entirely new way of moving through space, fighting, and solving puzzles. But what makes this dungeon so impressive is how seamlessly it teaches brand new ways of thinking through taut, subtle design. One room manages to introduce falling platforms, the slingshot, and a second treasure chest by using its small stature for clear communication. Meanwhile, the central trunk teaches several essential movement mechanics including climbing, auto-jumping, and swimming. By keeping spaces visually tidy and easy to traverse, Inside the Deku Tree teaches and tests a multitude of core mechanics in a space easy to comprehend and move through.
This simplicity, however, is a double-edged sword. Though it teaches a great deal without feeling like a tutorial, it also sets a precedent for simplified, streamlined dungeon design some Zelda fans deride. Predecessors A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening feature complex dungeon layouts where rooms interconnect like cells on a chess board, divided by doorways that require keys to open. But Inside the Deku Tree is less labyrinthine and more linear, with no keys and minimal interconnection between rooms. Though this criticism can be applied to many dungeons in Ocarina, Inside the Deku Tree would only be burdened by greater complexity as an introductory dungeon in a particularly divergent and innovative game. That said, it is a more shoehorned experience, built less around strategic traversal than many 2D Zelda dungeons, though even in those games the first dungeon is typically very linear.
A perfect first item, the slingshot plays a large part in introducing the three-dimensional play. On one hand, it mandates the use of the first-person perspective, and in doing so encourages the player to aim in three-dimensional space and solve three-dimensional puzzles revolving around gravity and spatial reasoning. But it also acts as a half-step toward the bow and arrow, allowing the player to stun enemies from a distance and rush in for an attack. In this way, the slingshot deepens puzzles and combat in a manner that suits the dungeon’s themes while pushing gameplay unequivocally forward.
The enemies of Inside the Deku Tree’s are equally carefully selected and stationed. Like the ordering of rooms, enemies are ordered in a manner that gradually ramps up difficulty and complexity while building off past knowledge and skills. For example, the dungeon contains four types of Skulltula, each a separate but related enemy type placed so their difficulty and behavioral complexity escalate. This ultimately culminates in a boss battle against Queen Gohma, who thematically channels these Skulltulas as well as the Gohma Larva introduced a couple of rooms earlier. The only other enemies are Deku Scrubs, Deku Babas, and Deku Brothers, who are likewise placed in a manner that increasingly demands more intricate play.
While some might write Queen Gohma off as a thirty-second piece of cake (as she may be for skilled players), Ocarina’s first boss battle is conceptually genius. Instigating the battle requires the player look up in first-person, spurred by the sounds of her scuttling across the ceiling. On its own, this is a meaningful employment of the third dimension that both accentuates the game’s emphasis on tactical observation and explores how three-dimensional space can use the z-axis to surprise players and craft atmosphere with newfound nuance. While the battle is simple, it introduces the dungeon-item-as-boss-weakness trope while asking the player to plan ahead and multi-task by fighting Gohma and her larva simultaneously. It is a logical extension of the dungeon’s enemies and the key skills the player learns throughout the dungeon, but it is also climactic and unpredictable. And since Gohma can be beaten before she climbs back to the ceiling, skilled players can demonstrate adequate mastery in the first round, so they don’t need to have the full range of their skill tested in subsequent rounds.
As a whole, the Great Deku Tree is an unconventional and memorable first dungeon that primes players for new forms of three-dimensional gameplay. Strangely enough, it establishes Ocarina as a bildungsroman, as a journey through time and the darkness that accompanies its passage. Though it might feature a bland color palette and overemphasize climbing, it somehow manages to teach more in twenty minutes than most Zelda’s (or any games, for that matter) do in their first hour. And it does so effortlessly, through artful design, while also conveying an unsettling ambiance as well as complex narrative and gameplay themes of transience and purposiveness.