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November 2011 was a monumental moment for Nintendo as they released The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on the franchise’s 25-year anniversary. The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular gaming franchises in the world, and it is one of Nintendo’s hallmarks; every game in the series has achieved commercial and critical success, and Skyward Sword was special because it was touted to be a major departure from every game that came before it with the introduction of motion controls for Link’s sword movements. For the occasion, YouTuber Austin Hargrave (AKA Peanut Butter Gamer), started a series of videos where he talked about various things in the Zelda franchise for the entirety of November, dubbing the series "Zelda Month." He has since continued the tradition, and several other YouTubers, among people across the internet, have taken up the initiative of making Zelda-themed videos every November.
The Legend of Zelda is a very special franchise to me. The Wind Waker was the first video game I ever played, and every Zelda game I've played ranks within the best games I've played so far. As such, I felt that I can do my part in acknowledging how great this franchise is by writing four Zelda-themed articles in the month of November, starting with my personal picks for the top five dungeons in the Legend of Zelda franchise.
I do need to preface this with a couple of points though. Firstly, I have not played Breath of the Wild (yet) so this list will not include any dungeons from that game. Secondly, I'm only focusing on the 3D Zelda games, because they are the ones I know best and I think that I'll be able to provide more insight as to why they appeal to me. This goes for all of the articles I'll be writing for this month, by the way. On a final note, this is in no way definitive as these dungeons are MY personal favourites. If you have your own, that's great, and I totally respect that. With all that being said, let's jump on into it. In order from five to one, here are my top five Zelda dungeons!
5. Sandship from "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword"
Kicking off the list is the fifth dungeon in Skyward Sword, the Sandship. This enormous vessel served as the house of the second Sacred Flame that powered the Master Sword, and it is, without a doubt, one of the more unique dungeons in Zelda history. For starters, like the other dungeons in the game, there is a lot to do in order to get to it, involving tracking it down in a sea of sand using the unique properties of the Timeshift Stones. After that, once you reach the actual ship, it becomes a quest to open the doors to the control room, where the Sacred Flame is kept. In order to do this, you need to thoroughly explore the ship, which is lost in the annuls of time. However, when you discover the Timeshift Stone on the mast of the ship, the dungeon transforms into, quite literally, something living in two worlds.
Having to hit the Timeshift Stone from various points in the ship leads to some of the most unique puzzles the franchise has ever seen. Since the item of choice is the bow as well, it requires you to work in different angles to hit the stone from, which was a delight to play through and figure out. After a point, however, it became rather tedious to do this, and the dungeon felt a tad too long. Once you gain access to the control room, you're greeted with Tantalus, who, to be honest, is a little underwhelming. His obvious weak spot makes the fight less intense than it should be. The mini-boss on the other hand is a very engaging fight and its one of the highlights of the dungeon. However, overall, this goes at number five because the more tedious aspects of it overshadow the fun, innovative use of the Timeshift Stones. It's still a great dungeon, and one that I have a fun time playing through whenever I pick up Skyward Sword, but its not perfect.
4. Hyrule Castle from "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess"
The final dungeon in Twilight Princess was unlike any other dungeon in any Zelda game to date, as usually you would go through it with this unmistakable sense of anticipation as you march towards your final confrontation. When I first played through Hyrule Castle, I found it hard to focus on the impending battle because of how empty and desolate the castle was. The total lack of music immediately set me off, because it felt like I was walking right into the middle of the boss fight. But nothing happened, and I went about my business of completing puzzles like normal. The more I played through it, the more I realised how much it fit the atmosphere that Twilight Princess had been trying so hard to capture, and suddenly, I didn't want the dungeon to end.
When I walked into the dungeon, I was greeted with a much more mellow rendition of the theme from Ganondorf's Castle in Ocarina of Time, and that's when this dungeon became one of my favourites. Twilight Princess tried too hard to be one of the darker Zelda games, as was evident by the way that enemies like the Darknuts were designed and the incorporation of the Twilight Realm. For a majority of the game, it came off as forced (there was one other dungeon that did it perfectly, but I'll get to that in a bit). In Hyrule Castle, Nintendo hit the mark perfectly in crafting an intricate dungeon (albeit somewhat simplistic) that exuded atmosphere and incorporated the toughest enemies in the game for the player to take down, and for a game like Twilight Princess, it was the perfect final challenge for the player to grant him access to the boss.
3. Arbiter's Grounds from "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess"
I played Twilight Princess relatively late as I, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, couldn't manage to get my hands on a copy of the game when it first released, and then I subsequently forgot about it in the wake of Skyward Sword. However, I saw enough clips of the game on YouTube to be more than familiar with the basic premise of it. One of the clips I watched the most was the boss fight with Stallord, because it looked so intriguing and dynamic. When I played the game for myself, as soon as I looked at Arbiter's Grounds, I knew that this was the place I would face Stallord, and I hoped that the dungeon was as fun as the boss.
Boy, was I in for a ride.
Part of what makes Arbiter's Grounds a great dungeon is once again, the atmosphere and the desolate state of the place. Looking around at all the torture devices, you can't help but wonder what the heck happened in here, and with the entire area teeming with ReDeads, Stalfos, and ReDead Knights, its not that hard to figure out. The fact that there is a theory that this place played a heavy hand in the genocide of the Gerudo tribe also makes for great speculation as you meander through the traps and torture devices.
The dungeon also functions well as a transition to the second half of the game, in showing that the dungeons will only get more morbid and the challenged even harder as you press on in your quest to stop Zant. The item of the dungeon, the Spinner, is extremely fun and I'd be lying if I said I didn't play the Sonic theme in my head when I was on it, although its a shame this dungeon is literally the only place you can use it to its full effectiveness. While the puzzles in the dungeon aren't the most creative (the first major puzzle is a rehash of the Forest Temple puzzle from Ocarina of Time regarding the Poes), the atmosphere and the design make it an enjoyable ride. On an additional note, in case it wasn't clear from the introductory paragraph, Stafford was an amazing boss and one of the most engaging fights of the entire franchise. Having the music be a remix of Volvagia from Ocarina made it all the more enjoyable, and added to the adrenaline rush I got when I was zipping from line to line, avoiding the bursts of energy emerging from Stallord's mouth. All in all, a great dungeon—albeit a little derivative in some parts.
2. Stone Tower Temple from "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask"
Ah, Majora's Mask. Truly one of the most intriguing video games I've ever had the pleasure to play. While the reduced number of dungeons made for a slightly more straightforward and compact story, there was so much emotional weight to it that made it unforgettable. To this day, my thoughts on this game remain a somewhat garbled mix of praise and assurances that all the things said about its dark storyline are 100 percent true. And I think the best example of these mixed feelings is the Stone Tower Temple, the fourth and final dungeon in the game.
There's so much to talk about with respect to this dungeon that I don't even know where to begin. Earlier, I spoke about how the atmosphere at Arbiter's Grounds and Hyrule Castle made them stand out from the rest of the dungeons in the game. The Stone Tower Temple takes that concept, and utilises it so completely that you begin to feel sombre just by listening to the background music of the dungeon while playing through it. The imagery the player is presented with prior to entering the dungeon throughout Ikana Valley is extremely vivid, with several pillars showing pictures of the Triforce being licked while on the crotch of gargoyle like creatures, a giant face for the main entrance to the temple, a hand pointing upwards with the tip of the finger covered in flames, and all of it adds to the mystery behind the Stone Tower Temple, making its lore some of the most interesting in all of Zelda history. I'll be touching more upon this in a subsequent post about Majora's Mask later this week, so for now I'll focus on the actual dungeon.
The dungeon incorporates all the transformation masks the player has gathered up till that point, making it one of the more comprehensive dungeons on this list. It even requires the player to use almost all the items in the inventory in different ways, which gives a real sense of how far along in the game you really are. The puzzles are unique and varied, and the enemies are tough and uncompromising, testing the player thoroughly. The newly acquired Elegy of Emptiness is often used to create statutes with different weights to solve puzzles, with the Light Arrow (the item of the dungeon) being absolutely essential to finishing the dungeon. Speaking of finishing it, the boss, Twinmold, is a rather easy fight and kind of boring, despite having an amazing concept of Link turning into a giant and slashing him up. The 3D version changed it up a little, with Link actually using his fists to damage Twinmold, and it makes the fight a little less dull. The main allure of the Stone Tower Temple is the atmosphere, which fits right in with the sombre environment of Ikana Valley and the pessimistic tone of Majora's Mask as a whole, and it is done with just the right amount of care that vaults it over Arbiter's Grounds.
1. Sky Keep from "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword"
At long last, the title of my favourite Legend of Zelda dungeon can go to none other than Sky Keep from Skyward Sword. When I first played this dungeon, I was completely blown away at how ingenious the idea of moving the dungeon around was, and I was even more impressed with the fact that all the rooms in the dungeon were composed of environments that you had previously gone through in the quest to stop Demise and Girahim. Of course, this isn't the first time the Zelda series has tried to implement this in the final dungeon; both version of Ganon's Tower from Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker come to mind, but what sets Sky Keep apart is the fact that storyline wise, it was designed as a final test for the hero chosen by the goddess, which I feel ensured that the challenges would be a lot tougher. And they were, to a great deal.
The puzzles in Sky Keep are tough to crack. They're definitely the most difficult out of everything that came up to that point within the game, and like the Stone Tower Temple, you're forced to use every item in your inventory, as well as all your combat skills to advance past each stage. The Ancient Cistern stage, in particular, doesn't have many puzzles and is a test of skill with your sword, involving a battle with hordes of Bokoblins, Stalfos, and a Stalmaster, which I think is great in a game like Skyward Sword, which focuses heavily on combat.
Another thing the game focuses on is story, and that is what truly makes this dungeon stand out as it doesn't really have a boss, and is actually the final stepping stone in order for you to reach the finale of the game. Finishing the dungeon has a tangible consequence that directly affects a key area in the game, which in turn makes for an interesting twist in the story as it builds to a crescendo. The importance the dungeon holds as a story element makes it more memorable than most dungeons, which is why it gets the top spot on my list.
And there you have it! My top five Zelda dungeons, which kicks off Zelda Month from my end (albeit, a little late). I'll still be doing four posts this month though, with the second one scheduled to come out later this week, so stay tuned for that. Over on my blog, Mea Sanctum, I've already started it with a little segment on The Wind Waker, along with a story I wrote based on its ending, so check that out as well.
See you guys later this week!