Top o’ the Lot: Top 5 3D Zelda Dungeons

Hello, and welcome to another installment of Top o’ the Lot! This is Taylor filling in this week to shift the focus to video games, and what better way to do that than to shine the spotlight on a series near and dear to my heart, the Legend of Zelda. More specifically, we’ll be taking a closer look at one of the central features of any Zelda game, the dungeons.

Before we get started, though, a little bit of clarification is in order. Because 2D and 3D dungeons each present their own sets of challenges, I’ve decided to consider them separately. Also, I will be trying to judge each dungeon as a whole, meaning that I’ll be considering puzzles, boss fights, aesthetics, and any story elements that might be in play when making selections. In some cases, a dungeon might exhibit one of these elements exceptionally well, which could push it further up the list, but I’m mostly going to try to make my choices based on which dungeons combine these elements, executing all of them at least fairly well.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the bit!

Honorable Mention: The Moon (Majora’s Mask)

Starting things off, we have the locale of Link’s final confrontation with the malevolent Majora, the Moon. Now, admittedly, as a dungeon, there isn’t actually a lot going on here; the entire ordeal is comprised solely of four quick challenges using your gear and transformation masks, and the final boss battle. Honestly, you’ll almost certainly be able to conquer the whole thing in about half an hour, if that. With this in mind, I couldn’t possibly justify putting it in the Top 5. But I still felt compelled to give it an honorable mention because of the way it provides an excellent and appropriate ending to the darkest and most atmospheric of all Zelda games.

One aspect that makes the Moon such a memorable experience was all the build-up that took place. Ever since you took your first steps into Clocktown, the Moon has been there, grimacing at you, watching your every move, inching closer and closer to destroying Termina. Over the course of the game, after clearing the four dungeons during numerous repeating time cycles, you are finally able to confront the Skull Kid, summon the Giants, and stop the Moon…only for Majora’s Mask to abandon its meat puppet and escape into the Moon itself. Link follows, ready for a final battle, only to find…

…a perfectly serene field with a lone tree, under which frolics a group of children, each one wearing the mask of one of the bosses.

Huh. Didn’t see that one coming.

Finally entering the inside of the Moon is a very bizarre experience, finding something beautiful hidden inside something grotesque, something so seemingly innocent inside something so foreboding. With this juxtaposition and the aesthetics of the place, you are put fairly on edge, especially with each of the children asking you piercing and somber questions. But really, how could Majora’s Mask have ended any other way? Throwing that one last curve ball, giving you one last surreal experience to think over is perfectly in step with the rest of the game. This final sequence makes you think, challenges your assumptions, and perhaps provides insight to how the villain views itself. All and all, a very compelling experience.

But like I said, as a dungeon (that is, as a collection of puzzles and challenges), there’s not much to talk about. It’s very short and it’s pretty easy, challenging your grasp of the story moreso than your gaming skills. Heck, it hardly qualifies as a dungeon at all. If this were a list of Zelda settings, I would put it pretty high, but as a dungeon, it’s just an honorable mention. Oh well.

5) Palace of Twilight (Twilight Princess)

Of all the Zelda games that have been released over the years, I would argue that Twilight Princess has the highest overall quality in terms of dungeons, with a number of engaging, memorable challenges. It seems appropriate, then, that our countdown starts with one Twilight Princess’ many great dungeons, the Palace of Twilight.

Within Twilight Princess’ narrative, this dungeon represents an important milestone, marking the culmination of Link and Midna’s quest to gather the shards of the Mirror of Twilight, and by extension their conflict with Zant, the usurper king of the Twilight Realm, who has been wreaking havoc and hounding our heroes for the entire game. After many hardships, we finally arrive at Midna’s lost realm, which has been corrupted by Zant’s influence to become his stronghold.

The first thing you’ll notice about the place is the strange, dark beauty it possesses. The way that light and shadow are contrasted and blended makes for a striking effect, as the do the haunting melody and sounds (especially the yelps of the Twili). Speaking of darkness and light, this mechanic has been played with many times throughout the Zelda series, and here we have one of its most visceral implementations as you move light orbs to keep the shadows at bay before empowering the Master Sword itself with light, allowing you to literally cut through the darkness. As you take back the Twilight, you are constantly hounded by bizarre, unnerving enemies, most notably those damn hands.

At long last, you make your way to Zant for a final showdown. And what a showdown it is, as Zant transitions from enigmatic creepiness to utter madness. While the scene does perhaps take away from his Cool Factor to some degree, it does remain a poignant conclusion to your long-running animosity, especially with the fight itself moving you through a highlight reel of past boss arenas.

All of this adds up to an engaging experience filled with beautiful imagery, enemies that put you on edge, and a good send off for a compelling villain. Not to mention new insights into Midna and her background. True, the dungeon is relatively short, but it was fun while it lasted.

4) Arbiter’s Grounds (Twilight Princess) 

Up next, we have yet another standout dungeon from Twilight Princess (it really did have a lot of great dungeons). That’s because we have the Arbiter’s Grounds taking the #4 slot.

Representing the start of a new leg in your quest (the one concluded in the last entry, in fact), this temple has you delving into Hyrule’s darkest corners to bring the fight to Zant. Considering that this place is supposed to be an ancient prison, the Arbiter’s Grounds dungeon is appropriately dark, grimy, and intimidating. As you move through the dungeon, you’ll quickly find out that this is not a place where mortals are meant to tread, filled as it is with ruins, shadows, and the foul things that live in them. The enemies of this dungeon, from the mooks to the bosses, all fall on the spectrum of the undead and supernatural, which is a roundabout way of me saying that they’re creepy as hell.

Even beyond the unnerving vibe, though, the dungeon is filled with strong puzzles and action. In the game’s story, this is the first dungeon in which Link can transform into his wolf form at will, allowing for new possibilities in dungeon design. But the thing that really puts this dungeon is its boss, Stallord.

Making novel use of the dungeon’s Spinner item, this battle has you surfing across the sand to crack the monster’s spine, but just when you think you’ve won (with victory music and everything), Stallord resurrects itself (or its skull, at least) for one last round. It is at this point that battle moves into another gear, with you using the Spinner to bounce across walls at high speeds to chase Stallord until you finally finish it off. When the dust settles, you stand victorious over one of the best bosses from the entire Zelda series, one that fills you with adrenaline and takes what is otherwise a mostly useless item and makes it, for a fleeting, sublime moment, the coolest damn thing in the game. This fight, along with the great atmosphere and solid array of puzzles, make the Arbiter’s Grounds one of the series’ best.

3) The Tower of the Gods (Wind Waker)

Claiming the Bronze Medal, we have Wind Waker’s Tower of the Gods. Serving as Link’s final test before he can claim the Master Sword, the Tower of the Gods serves as an important milestone in the narrative, one that had received a good deal of build up. Ever since the King of Red Lions began guiding your quest, we had been gathering the Goddess Pearls in order to open the way to this proving ground. And when it does finally appear, it is quite the show.

There’s just something imposing about the Tower, if not exactly menacing; the sense of scale to the thing can feel overwhelming as it looms over the horizon from miles away. And that’s just the outside. On the inside, you have an array of ancient guardians standing in your way, as well as a number of harrowing obstacles and pitfalls.

The atmosphere here is one of sterility, as though you are the first person in centuries to disturb the Tower (because indeed you are). There are no signs of decay or overgrowth, there are not deep shadows to delve into, and the structure is not falling apart around you; it is as though you walked into a pristine, hermetically sealed environment, where monsters were preserved so that they could try to kill you.

The Tower of the Gods is a real standout from Wind Waker, filled with solid puzzles, including its signature “possession” puzzles, and long chasms that must be scaled both horizontally and vertically. The boss, Gohdan, was decent enough, though perhaps only noteworthy for being one of the few Zelda bosses that bears you no malice (and is in fact rather polite). But really, the things that sticks with you the most about the Tower is the way it enhances the narrative.

To give some context, Wind Waker is considered by many to be the most cinematic and emotionally driven of all Zelda games, and one of the places where this is most apparent is in the Tower of the Gods. As seen above, the scene where you summon the Tower is quite the bombastic affair, epic in scope while still maintaining a touch of humor. Once you step inside, the comparison between the solemnity of the Tower and the more homespun nature of your tasks in the earlier dungeons really makes you feel the weight of your current efforts; whereas your earlier labors were centered around more intimate objectives such as helping a child find his confidence and searching for a lost forest sprite, this dungeon puts the trial to claim the Master Sword front and center with nothing to draw your attention away from the fight against evil, making the task seem all the more dire.

For me personally, though, the most memorable moment comes at the very end. After defeating the dungeon’s enemies and overcoming its obstacles and perils, Link ascends to the top of the Tower to demonstrate his completion of his challenges by performing a very simple task: ringing a bell.

After all the fighting you’ve done, it felt very powerful for the final step in the process to be something so pure and hopeful to offset the gathering gloom of the evil you face. Like much of Wind Waker’s storytelling, the moment invokes a powerful emotional response with a fairly subtle yet clever prompt, one which might just be my favorite celebration for besting any dungeon from the series. All of which went a long way in cementing the Tower of the Gods as my #3 pick.

2) Stone Tower Temple (Majora’s Mask)

A while ago, I wrote a post about Majora’s Mask and what an awesome, haunting experience it is. One of the things I mentioned, though, is that a major flaw in the game is the lack of dungeons; there are only 4 not counting the Moon, and the first 3 range from passable-yet-forgettable to horrendously bad in the case of the Great Bay Temple. But then you come to the Stone Tower Temple, and it does its level best to compensate for the other three.

As the last of the major dungeons, the Stone Tower Temple comes at a point where there are no more Transformation Masks to serve as the dungeon’s central focus. This allowed for the developers to get more creative and throw in everything at once, bringing back challenges centered around the old Masks while still adding new elements the player hadn’t seen yet.  Among these new elements, one of the most noteworthy ones is the collection of switch puzzles which force you to use your newly acquired Elegy of Emptiness to leave doubles behind. But the one that really takes the cake is the way in which you flip the temple itself to finish your exploration.

Flipping a landscape is a mechanic that has been used to great effect in a few games over the years, and this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Not only is it impressive from a layout perspective to make it so that the player can travel across both the dungeon’s floor and ceiling, in this particular case, there is also a provocative mythological element to the dungeon-flipping.

To set the scene a little bit, the Stone Tower Temple is located in a region of Termina known as Ikana Canyon, where the only structures are ruins and the only residents are creatures long dead (and a small family that studies them). As you play through the setting, you encounter a number of vengeful spirits, including the ghost of Ikana’s king, who hint at the kingdom’s decline. At no point, however, is it ever expressly stated what actually caused Ikana to fall to ruin. In the years since the game’s release, though, many gamers have come up with compelling theories tying the Stone Tower in with the fall of Ikana and the doom placed over all of Termina. Basically, the idea is that the Tower is in fact a deliberate symbol of blasphemy as the builders climbed their way to the heavens to place themselves equal to the gods, decorating the structure with symbols of mockery, including the Triforce getting licked and even a statue pointing a confrontational finger towards the heavens.

Given this context, the dungeon being turned upside down is given an all new meaning, as the tower intended to pierce the heavens instead leads straight to hell. This, then, is what makes the Stone Tower Temple such an impressive accomplishment: not only is it filled with fun and engaging puzzles and a strong layout, it might just be the most clever thematic experience in the entire Zelda series, one that was executed with impressive subtlety. So while Majora’s Mask doesn’t have consistently strong dungeons, when it got one right, it REALLY got it right.

1) The Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time)

Standing atop the pinnacle of Zelda dungeons, we have what is widely considered the most iconic dungeon from what is perhaps the most iconic Zelda game: The Forest Temple from Ocarina of Time. Now, I’ve listed several dungeons on this list that have outstanding puzzles, scenery, bosses, symbolism, or narrative importance featured in them. But in my opinion, none of them quite compare to the Forest Temple, because it simply has it all.

One of the most important factors that makes the Forest Temple so memorable is the way in which the music, scenery, and enemies work in concert with each other to create a unique, supernatural atmosphere. From the moment you step in, the Temple has a bewitching quality to it with its muted colors, long shadows, and music that is reminiscent of something strange and unfamiliar, close but just out of reach. All of this is complimented perfectly by the denizens of the dungeon, an assortment that includes ghosts, ghouls, and howling wolves. Overall, the dungeon exudes an impression of decay, of a structure that was once pristine and civilized that has been overgrown with wilderness, reclaimed by the forest and the frightful things that live in it. And their influence has seeped into the architecture itself, twisting the hallways in a truly bizarre manner.

Yet not only does the dungeon layout give it a distinct aesthetic quality, it also compliments the Temple’s puzzles, which force you to think 3-dimensionally. And to be sure, this dungeon has some impressive puzzles and challenges, including the hunt for the Poe Sisters which bar the way to the Temple’s deepest depths, a sequence that remains quite memorable in the minds of players almost 20 years after the game’s release.

After delving through darkness and fighting many outlandish creatures, you finally reach the Forest Temple’s boss, Phantom Ganon, the foulest of the dungeon’s specters, and one of the most iconic and prominently remembered bosses from the entire Zelda franchise. In addition to the often used Tennis of Doom mechanic in which Link and the villain deflect spells back and forth, the battle also works in harmony with the Temple’s supernatural motif as the Phantom jumps in and out of paintings in attempts to ambush Link. All told, a very strong and appropriate conclusion to a very engaging and spooky dungeon.

Even  beyond this, though, the Forest Temple holds a very special place in not only Ocarina of Time, but in the Zelda franchise as a whole. This dungeon marks your first destination in your quest to free the Six Sages, and is thus your first major challenge you’ll face as an adult Link. In light of this, it takes on new meaning that the dungeon was created to be so ominous; if Ocarina of Time is a tale about growing up, the Forest Temple best represents conquering our childhood fears. It’s no accident that this Temple is located where your journey first began, tasks you with saving your childhood friend, and pits you against a boss that is a literal manifestation of your nightmares.

This theme of maturity also translates into puzzles and gameplay which are far more taxing than any you faced as a child; certainly, those first 3 dungeons were engaging and had their clever moments, but in retrospect, they were far simpler than what you would face in the latter stages of the game, starting with the Forest Temple. Your trial to rescue the Forest Sage, then, is an important benchmark in your journey. This is the moment when the training wheels came off and we got to see what 3D Zelda dungeon could really be like. And since this was the very first 3D Zelda game, this makes the Forest Temple arguably the most important 3D dungeon of all.

With this prominent place it holds in the franchise along with its haunting atmosphere, clever puzzles, and memorable foes, the Forest Temple gets my pick for the Top o’ the Lot in 3D Zelda dungeons.

So that’s my list! As always, these selections were based on my own opinion, and will likely differ from your own. What would you have put on yours? Please feel free to comment below, and thank you for reading!

3 thoughts on “Top o’ the Lot: Top 5 3D Zelda Dungeons”

  1. Thanks for the amazing analysis. Atmosphere really is the most important component of a dungeon. Inside the Moon and the Forest Temple both nailed it. They have a haunting, twisted feeling to them. Something is not quite right.

    Ganon’s Castle also deserves credit among the quasi-dungeons like Inside the Moon. The rainbow bridge and rainbow barrier; the music that builds in volume; the winding staircase; the grand piano; Zelda’s crystal; the stained glass; and, of course, the horrifying collapse. It echoes Ganon’s nature so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s definitely a great one as well. There’s so many awesome dungeons in Zelda that it was a tough call to pick just 6. Guess that’s a silly thing to complain about though


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