Not twelve hours after I began this draft on August 11, I received the devastating news that Robin Williams, one of the most talented American film actors and a personal hero of mine, had taken his own life at the age of 63. Williams, on top of being an actor and stand-up comedian whose talents defy my own ability to describe them, was also a huge fan of anime and video games. Knowing that as a kid made me feel like a legitimate person for being so consumed by these things. Williams was in particular a fan of The Legend of Zelda and even named his daughter, Zelda Rae Williams after the titular character. This piece and more to come are dedicated to his life and his legacy.
Ocarina of Time is among the most beloved games ever made, arguably the most beloved, and yet it features also one of the most hated dungeons of any videogames as well: The Water Temple. And sure, it’s easy to accept the surface level criticisms that the dungeon is long, tedious and such, but what do those statements actually mean? What is actually wrong with the Water Temple?
I think I know why, but before I jump into analyzing the temple directly, I think we need to ask ourselves a few questions about how Ocarina of Time is designed.
The most recognizable pattern in the level design of Ocarina is a sense of partitioning. The dungeons are not linear in a traditional sense, but unlike the Water Temple, the other dungeons are designed in such a way as to insure that after Link has completed every task in a certain part of a dungeon that he need not return to that section. This makes it easier for players to parse out the dungeons and contributes to the smooth challenge curve that makes the game so pleasurable and memorable.
The first part of the Deku tree consists of ascending floors while collecting the dungeon map, the compass, and the slingshot. At the top, Link kills one of the big skulltulas then falls down the center of the dungeon and breaks a thick spider web with his weight and velocity. Then the dungeon becomes a fairly linear progression of rooms that circles back on the room you fell down in (which when completed do not require returning to), then Link solves a puzzle in that room to access a new set of rooms that lead to the boss.
(The original version of the above paragraph originally said it was impossible to escape the Deku Tree after falling down the center and breaking the spider web. This was brought to my attention by @Invisifool on Twitter, and I thank him.)
In Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, after Link picks up Princess Ruto and is able to carry her up to the entrance level of the dungeon, there is no reason to return to the lower floors where we found her. After we finish the set of five rooms that end in Link obtaining the boomerang and clearing out some of the nasty tendrils, there is no reason to return to that set of rooms either.
In the Shadow Temple, acquiring the Hover Boots is a self-contained challenge that, after completion, totally ends it’s portion of the temple. This leads into a middle section that has a forking path that eventually ends with Link taking a ride on something resembling a Hylian warship to the final section of the dungeon. Once Link jumps off that ship, there’s no returning.
It’s not so much that the dungeons in Ocarina are linear so much as they write a peace treaty between linearity and non-linearity by breaking up something of a linear progression into multiple smaller, linear parts. (Worthy of note: we can see a similar design philosophy in, of all things, the Silent Hill games that debuted only a year after.) This makes the temples flow really well. So how does the Water Temple contradict this design philosophy?
Put it this way: The Water Temple, largely as a result of using the rising/falling water mechanic (an element I despise far less than my fellow fans and peers,) ends up being something of a Rubik’s Cube dungeon. You can’t approach the dungeon in large chunks, you have to solve the entire dungeon/puzzle at the same time. The biggest parts of the dungeon you can ever leave behind after completing is basically individual rooms, and given the proclivity the temple has for locked doors (more on that later), even these individual rooms can cause one to backtrack very, very often.
Whereas the previous temples are all laid out as a sort of steady horizontal progression, the Water temple is laid out as four rooms in each cardinal direction on three different floors that have different types of accessibility based on where you have the water level at, and most of those 4 rooms branch off into complex sets of rooms themselves.
This is honestly a minor problem that I think time has overemphasized because it’s easier to recognize than more severe design problems, but it is a problem nonetheless.. (It’s more “surface-level” as FilmCritHULK would say.) Using the Iron Boots to progress through flooded areas is tedious for a lot of players. Most point out how equipping and unequipping them requires a full pause to perform, interrupting forward progression, but to me, the more severe problem is that equipping the Iron Boots prevents Link from moving in any particular direction while we waits to fall to the ground, as opposed to being allowed to shift his weight forward to allow continuous movement while engaging with the various bits that require the equipping and unequipping of the boots.
The 3DS version of the game made a big step towards fixing this problem by allowing the Iron Boots to be equipped as a “quick item” a-la sub weapons like the Hookshot or Bombs, but I’ll have to find footage of the 3DS version to see if the game also fixes the problem forward movement while falling.
This is another thing I don’t find nearly as annoying as many others. Resetting the water level isn’t the bad part to me, it’s that there are only a few places to do it. Specifically, there are only three areas in the temple where the water level can be reset.
Now this could be solved by allowing the water level to be reset to anywhere inside the temple, but this would likely require creating three new songs for the Ocarina, which would require, among other things, scenarios for those songs to be taught, and a redesign of the user interface to make room for those extra songs. This is ineloquent.
The problem to me is not so much that the water level can only be reset in certain places, but rather that requiring the player to backtrack to where the water level can be reset often causes the player to lose track of where they were in the first place. This could be solved with a system that allows the player to mark the map with personalized markers a la Borderlands, but again, that would also require a redesign of the user interface.
Both of these seem ineloquent when compared with the solution that would make the most sense: restructuring the dungeon to be similar to the other dungeons such that it was structured in portions. Make the dungeon such that you reset the level once when you enter to get to the bottom, then have the water climb and follow Link as he approaches the boss room. This would merely require reconfiguring a few rooms, and makes the dungeon much easier to approach.
LOCKED DOORS AND SMALL KEYS
The reasons that the Water Temple requires so much backtracking is in part because players who are unfamiliar with the dungeon often find themselves gaining small keys at one point or the other, and then progressing into parts of the dungeon with said keys that then subject them to more locked doors, thus requiring them to go back and find more small keys. A particularly egregious example of this is when I progressed into a large room with a waterfall that contained hookshot platforms steadily going down the waterfall that I had to steadily shoot upward. It was a small, fun challenge, but my reward for completing it was to discover that I did not have the small key required to leave the room on the other side, and thus I had to backtrack out, find a small key, complete the task again, which was now more tedious than fun, then enter the next room.
There are examples of this in other dungeons, but there isn’t nearly as much of it, and it isn’t nearly as egregious, seeing as to find the key one is looking for often requires backtracking through multiple rooms and resetting the water level.
Thus, the structure of the Water Temple varies greatly from the design philosophy that permeated the dungeons that came before. How did this happen? My personal guess is that there were small teams each working on the game’s individual content chunks and that the game’s somewhat rushed production schedule led to a possible lack of oversight. Because the thing is that the Water Temple isn’t even necessarily bad, but it is totally contrary to the rest of the game. Both in terms of design and enjoyment, it stands out for it’s unfortunate unique qualities.
So: the design of the Water Temple is incredibly flawed on both large and small scales. But perhaps this also achieves an effect that matches up with what the Water Temple is trying to achieve in the context of the game’s narrative? I’m going to cut this off for now, but I’ll try and return soon enough with some more on how the temple exists in the context of the game’s narrative.
Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014