VR Zelda Month: Top 10 Pseudo-Dungeons

VR_Zelda_Month

The word “dungeon” means something quite different to a Zelda fan than it does to a player of most any other RPG/action adventure franchise. To the latter, a dungeon might consist of any decently sized enclosed area where enemies are fought and/or puzzles are solved. For a Zelda fan though, a “dungeon” is one of a handful of self-contained areas separate from the game overworld with an obtainable navigational device or two hidden within it, as well as an item that directly furthers the progress of whatever Link happens to be exploring it. It finishes with a boss and that boss relinquishes a heart container. Such is the Zelda dungeon equation.

Other decently sized enclosed areas where enemies are fought and/or puzzles are solved do exist in Zelda games as well, though. Some are entirely optional, others required to move along in the story. The word “mini-dungeon” is often thrown around to describe such places, but I’ve gone for the slightly less used “pseudo-dungeon” for the purposes of this list because some of these entries are actually larger/longer than the average regular dungeon. These are my ten most memorable.

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VR ZELDA MONTH DISCLAIMER
This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s scary. Respectful disagreement is welcome.
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10. Cave of Ordeals – Twilight Princess

The Cave of Ordeals is the most regularly used defense against the well worn “Twilight Princess is too easy” argument among Zelda fans. Consisting of 50 floors of increasingly more difficult enemies, the desert-bound pit is certainly not for the faint of heart visually speaking and it isn’t exactly a cakewalk either. The grimy cave, found in the TP version of the Gerudo Desert, throws waves of already encountered enemies at you in groups. Even notoriously tough opponents such as Darknuts, who usually only appear by themselves elsewhere in the game, are allowed to gang up on you here. The cave only grants an opportunity for rest and recovery once every ten floors, so it isn’t a bad idea to bring a few potions with you when you attempt the challenge.
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9. Ice Ring Isle – The Wind Waker

The 3D Zelda games in general are shockingly devoid of full-on dedicated ice dungeons. If you want to be really technical, none of them had a pure ice showpiece until Spirit Tracks. Still, there are places like the Ice Ring Isle from The Wind Waker to fill the cold niche. There is no fluff in this short mini-dungeon – the whole thing is over quicker than most, if not all, of the other entries on this list – but it stands out from the rest of the game surrounding it for three reasons: one, it pays homage to the next entry on this list, the Ice Cavern from Ocarina of Time, in that it houses the versatile Iron Boots item; two, the race-against-time refreeze mechanic that governs Link’s first visit is intense; and three, it looks absolutely amazing. The cel-shaded cartoon style of The Wind Waker suits the Ice Ring isle to a tee and I always find myself wishing there was more to do there as a result.
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8. Ice Cavern – Ocarina of Time

I’ve already waxed lyrical about the beautiful final room of the Ice Cavern in a previous list, but the rest of the mini-dungeon deserves special mention of its own. Obviously it presents the opportunity for some traditional Zelda (and puzzle game in general) icy block moving puzzles, but the game’s designers go beyond that, making the block puzzles serve a greater purpose and fit into a larger and more complex picture. The Ice Cavern is chronologically the first time you encounter the mechanics of the Silver Rupee in Ocarina of Time, a sneaky spin on the collect-em-all blue coin system introduced in Nintendo’s own Super Mario 64. The introduction is super smooth and makes your later encounters with the oversized fake currency a little less frustrating. A little.
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7. Ancient Castle of Ikana – Majora’s Mask

Ikana Canyon is already difficult and arduous enough to navigate without the inclusion of the Ancient Castle of Ikana, but Eiji Aonuma and his Majora’s Mask development team put it in there anyway. The castle is strangely majestic and even beautiful, with regal multicoloured banners lining the giant hallways, fully realised courtyards and a real sense of grandeur throughout. It seems like there was an awful lot of design effort put into the castle given its odd positioning in the story, where it is just another thing to be slogged through between the game’s third and fourth temples, but hey, anything with Mirror Shield light puzzles is a winner in my book. Oh, and this room pretty much justifies the existence of the entire castle. Brilliance.
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6. Gerudo Fortress – Ocarina of Time

A very cool (not literally of course – living in the desert would suck) late change of pace from the rhythm of Ocarina of Time‘s gameplay, the Gerudo Fortress is an oft-forgotten part of the game that puts alternate focus on stealth and blade-to-blade combat to great effect. After getting spotted and captured by the all-female and inherently distrusting Gerudo tribe, Link is thrown into a pretty ineffective prison cell cut into a cliff face. Using his trusty Hookshot to escape, our hero must make his way through some pretty narrow corridors while avoiding detection by hiding behind boxes and using Z-Targeting to look around corners. These stressful segments are all in the name of finding and freeing a series of carpenters from their own cells, which need keys to unlock. These keys are won by defeating a number of dual blade wielding Gerudo warriors, each of which is a blast to take on. And of course, there’s that music.
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5. Bottom of the Well – Ocarina of Time

It’s over rather quickly if you know where to go and is torturously confusing if you don’t, but either way the Bottom of the Well is straight-up the most disturbing location in all of Ocarina of Time. In terms of sheer overt horror value it even outdoes anything in its notoriously dark successor Majora’s Mask. Bricks are stained with blood and gunge, unexplained chains hang from the ceiling, bones are everywhere and almost nothing actually is what it initially seems to be. Link cannot trust his sight in this deceptive hell-hole, relying on trial and error as well as smarts to reveal the right path to the mini-dungeon’s ultimate prize: the Lens of Truth. Before obtaining the magical item you’ll of course have to get past Dead Hand and afterwards you’ll probably want out just about as soon as possible.
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4. Pirate’s Fortress – Majora’s Mask

Majora’s Mask is well known for repurposing the assets of its N64 predecessor to achieve things with a very different feel and the Pirate Fortress from the Great Bay region is a great example of that phenomenon. Reimagining the Gerudo tribe as a gang of murderous pirates and placing them in a watery bastion rather than a sun-baked one makes for an exciting infiltration sequence that feels fresh, and perhaps even more fully realised than the original as a concept, despite making use of the same stealth mechanics engine as Ocarina of Time. The ability to use the Zora Mask to swim underwater as a way to avoid detection and the option to stun the patrolling pirates from afar using Link’s bow make the sequence even more fun to play, but it’s the personal touch to Link’s motivation for infiltration that really ices the cake here. No-one messes with the Indigo-gos and gets away with it. No-one.
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3. Forsaken Fortress – The Wind Waker

This is probably the most hotly debated pseudo-dungeon in the Zelda franchise. Some fans argue that it deserves to be called a full dungeon, because it features a full boss, takes a while to complete, contains a major item required to complete the story and comes from a game rather starved of full dungeons in general. Others, myself included, point out its heavy story focus, the fact that you visit it twice and its lack of a hidden Tingle Statue to discredit this classification. Regardless, the fortress is a triumphant piece of typical Nintendo storytelling through gameplay. The first time Link visits it serves as a harsh reminder of his vulnerability and insignificance, as he has to skulk around stealthily to get through it, but upon his kitted-out return it becomes a study in cathartic wish-fulfillment and personal vengeance. It is an even more powerful marker of Link’s progress towards the legendary Hero of Winds status than the game’s fantastic Hyrule Castle sequence, which is really saying something.
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2. Inside the Moon – Majora’s Mask

As pseudo-dungeons go, Inside the Moon is kind of small. It really only has four sections of dungeon-esque gameplay, after all. It also makes next to no sense. Why, exactly, do the innards of the scariest lunar object ever resemble a heavily colour-saturated, picturesque picnic location? And why are there creepy faceless children frolicking around wearing masks that represent the demonic forces preventing Termina’s four peaceful giants from saving the land? Explanations clearly meant very little to the designers of the game’s insane finale when they were putting it together; all that mattered was that they got the atmosphere right – and that they most certainly did. Rest assured (or, alternatively, don’t rest at all) that once you’ve been to the inside of the moon in Majora’s Mask, you aren’t going to forget the experience in a hurry.
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1. Tower of Spirits – Spirit Tracks

Possibly the longest entry on this list completion time wise (depending on your skill level when tackling the Cave of Ordeals of course), the Tower of Spirits is a pseudo-dungeon that frequently outshines the excellent regular dungeons found in Spirit Tracks. Link must climb a little further up the tower after each major plot point, but he is never alone – the player essentially controls both Link and the ghostly Princess Zelda (in the form of a possessed suit of armour) in tag team fashion in order to navigate some of the absolute finest puzzles the fabled series has ever seen. Unlike its DS counterpart, the Temple of the Ocean King from Phantom Hourglass, there is no constrictive time limit on Link while he explores the Tower of Spirirts. What’s more, once a segment has been cleared it never has to be visited ever again. The design team behind Spirit Tracks very clearly listened to fan feedback from their first DS outing when they put together this enormous structure for the sequel, resulting in a truly wonderful achievement.

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Honorable Mentions
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Savage Labyrinth – The Wind Waker
A prototype of sorts to the Cave of Ordeals, the Savage Labyrinth predates that Twilight Princess challenge by a few years and is just as much fun to make your way through. The enemy gauntlet certainly looks better than its sequel, with a warm torch glow illuminating every floor, wrapping ominous shadows around weak mooks and fearsome Darknuts alike. If anything, there’s a little less enemy variation here than in the Cave of Ordeals, but otherwise both are indistinguishably enjoyable.

Gerudo Training Ground – Ocarina of Time
Infamous for being the home of the completely optional and near-useless Ice Arrows, Ocarina of Time‘s Gerudo Training Ground is still a favourite among Zelda dungeon purists for its complex multi-key design. The main room of the desert complex comprises a gigantic, labyrinthine cage riddled with Small Key locks, while the individual puzzle rooms can be tackled in varying, if not quite any, order. For some people this non-linearity is the best thing a Zelda dungeon can do and, even if I personally don’t quite agree, it’s hard not to appreciate the tight design on show here.

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