What are the best dungeons in Legend of Zelda, and why?

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There’s a true science to level design, especially for a series as focused on puzzle-filled dungeons as The Legend of Zelda. What’s the right degree of complication? How can developers hide the rails characters ride on? Is linear gameplay ever as rewarding as the non-linear variety? The average gamer doesn’t dwell on such questions, and isn’t meant to. However, anybody with aspirations of making games, or a curiosity about what specific qualities separate a fun experience from a tedious one, will find these video essays fascinating. Throughout “Boss Keys,” Mark Brown re-examines each Zelda title and shares highly-detailed diagrams showing exactly how its dungeons work. Here are a few.

Ocarina of Time

“Dungeons” are more-or-less synonymous with “levels” in these essays, as Brown analyzes portions of Ocarina of Time that aren’t always basements with bars and chains. Deeper appreciation of level design brings higher scrutiny, of course. So, while he marvels at the variety of settings in this iteration, and the ingenuity with which Nintendo first updated the Zelda experience for 3D, he does voice disappointment at the frequent linearity. Most levels simply require Link to pick up a key and find the lock it belongs to in the next room. Most… save for the Water Temple.

Yes, Brown plays devil’s advocate for one of the most infamously hard levels in gaming history. While I personally found this part to have a poorly-planned difficulty ramp-up (walking away from the game in frustration for a month, actually) Brown sees it as a return to the rich complexity of previous games’ dungeons. He does still acknowledge a number of flaws in the level, though, and details the ways Nintendo would eventually correct and clarify them in Ocarina’s 3DS remake.

Majora’s Mask

Brown expounds on the appeals of non-linear dungeon design here, regarding a game that might as well be a feature-length version of Ocarina‘s Water Temple. In Majora, every level takes full advantage of the complications that Z-axis motion enable. There’s a far greater puzzle focus, and the time travel conceit affects the entirety of the game, as opposed to essentially just one level. There are also layers of added complexity in Link’s three creature forms, which allow a whole host of variables throughout.

Oracle of Ages & Seasons

This couplet brings the notion of non-linear dungeons outside the very packaging of the games themselves. Beat Seasons, and you’ll get a code that’ll change the entire experience of Oracle of Ages whenever you start playing it. And the opposite also applies, offering a good 300% extra replay value. It might evidence a differing company design philosophy, actually, as Nintendo licensed the Zelda brand out to Capcom here. Indeed, since both games came out after the franchise’s 3D outings, the developers doubled down on the nuances of 2D gameplay, taking the general set-up of previous dungeons and finding subtle tweaks to improve on them. As Mark observes, this is especially true for Link’s of weapons, which are similar to other tools, but just different enough to make their usage almost off-beat.

Agree with Mark’s takes? Which Zelda is the best designed, in your book? Drop all your thoughts in talkback.

Featured Image Credit: Mark Brown

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