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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 seventh dungeon, the Shadow Temple.
From the Bottom of the Well, the trek to the Shadow Temple is nearly nonexistent. Merely play the Nocturne of Shadow to arrive at the entrance and use Din’s Fire to light myriad torches strewn around a small room to open the door. Of course, the journey to the Shadow Temple lengthens dramatically if one considers the Bottom of the Well part of that journey rather than its own adventure, but otherwise this is the pithiest inter-dungeon segment in the game.
The Shadow Temple is a sprawling, cavernous, subterranean ossuary. From its chilling atmosphere, to its setting below Kakariko Village, to its heavy usage of the Lens of Truth, it often feels like an extension of the Bottom of the Well. But while the first half of that mini-dungeon is spent stumbling through faux floors in search of the Lens of Truth, the Shadow Temple almost always ensures the player has the necessary item to proceed, in turn making navigation more intentional and punishment more justifiable. It is also less cluttered and dense, with rooms housing hugely varied set pieces including spinning blades, a guillotine gauntlet, multiple Lens of Truth mazes, and a spectral ship. Almost every one of these set pieces succeeds on its own merits, but strung together amidst bleak decor like gallows, ancient catacombs, and bloodied torture instruments, they act as diabolical trials that help explain the dungeon’s original Japanese name, “Palace of Darkness.”
This gauntlet-like design is apparent in the dungeon’s sprawling but linear topography. In fact, both in layout and execution, the Shadow Temple is among the most linear dungeons in the game. This proves to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, this set-piece-to-set-piece linearity offers a sense of constant progression, always pushing through one new cluster of tricks and traps unto the next, delving deeper and deeper into the dungeon’s core. On the other, it can feel a bit like a hodgepodge mishmash of disparate parts, since these tricks and traps are typically constrained to a single room (unlike the Bottom of the Well or the Water Temple, where the decisions the player makes in one part of the dungeon impact other parts) and never lead back to a central chamber marking progress to draw these parts together (unlike the Forest Temple, where challenges are also room-by-room, but progress is marked by four torches in the foyer). Fortunately, the Shadow Temple’s constant barrage of new challenges is perpetually thrilling, even if they don’t coalesce into something greater.
This also holds true for the dungeon’s death theme, established by the new grisly and phantasmagorical elements introduced in nearly every room. Unfortunately, it also often feels like a straightforward and less thematically unified expansion of the Bottom of the Well. Here, death is interpreted both grander and less intimate than in the Bottom of the Well, which focused on smaller-scale illusions and macabre detail to surprise and revolt the player. In the Shadow Temple, this personalized fear mixes with the more generic spookiness of the Forest Temple, making for a less consistent and impactful interpretation of its theme, and one that feels borrowed and blended from multiple sources.
The Shadow Temple’s item are the Hover Boots, though nobody could be blamed for forgetting that. These boots are a nifty idea, but too slippery and short-lasting in execution to act as anything more than the shallow gimmick they are, useful only in a few specific instances. They beg for more elaboration — more playing with air current, verticality, or even crossing simple gaps — but instead feel shoehorned in to a dungeon designed more around the Lens of Truth than its own item. And indeed it is. While the Hover Boots are barely necessary, some of the dungeon’s most compelling puzzles and traversal segments are premised on the Lens of Truth. This seems to come at the expense of the Hover Boots, which remain minimally useful and generally underdeveloped throughout, and perhaps also detracts from the dungeon as a whole, which is left feeling too similar to the Bottom of the Well in its item usage.
In regards to enemies, the Bottom of the Well’s specter also looms overhead. Indeed, there are technically no new enemies here, and even the mini-boss encounter with Dead Hand feels copy-pasted, sorely lacking any meaningful differentiation. Still, the enemies are well-suited to the Shadow Temple’s setting and theme, and their intelligent placement, integration into puzzles, and centrality to certain set piece offer some memorable encounters, like battling two Stalfoses atop a moving “Ferry to the Other World.” A wealth of obstacles including spikes, spinning blades, and guillotines add to the persistent danger and oppressive mood, layering peril on top of what the enemies alone provide.
Despite a disappointing lack of unique baddies, Bongo Bongo brings the noise. After falling from tall tall heights onto a drumhead, Link finds himself face-to-hands with the evil spirit who previously escaped the well. This is Bongo Bongo, a musically-gifted apparition who bounces Link around by drumming on the arena. Once again, the Lens of Truth feels more essential than the Hover Boots, as the boots only reduce bounce while the Lens allow the player to see Bongo Bongo’s weak point. Conceptually, Bongo Bongo ranks alongside Phantom Ganon as one of the most innovative and inspiring fights in the game. In practice, though, aiming the bow as Bongo Bongo swirls around the room can be wonky, and the boss’ large health pool (the largest in the game) but single phase can make the fight go on for slightly too long. As it stands, the novel battle against Bongo Bongo is very good, though some minor improvements to aiming, more meaningful integration of the Hover Boots, and an additional phase or two (perhaps revolving around some sort of musical element, like having to mimic his percussive rhythms with your attacks) could have made this the best fight in the game.
As a whole, the Shadow Temple is one of the most unforgettable portions of Ocarina of Time. And this is despite having a mini-dungeon right before it that parallels it in several regards, and arguably integrates its theme more meaningfully while also featuring a more interesting item. Although many of the Shadow Temple’s individual parts can feel rehashed or underdeveloped, its incredible set pieces provide hugely varied gameplay that never bores or frustrates. It is a string of highlights, in spite of itself, due to consistently clever, diverse, astute design, room after room.
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.
Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he’s not playing video games, he’s probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn’t always playing video games.
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