Try and tell me otherwise
We are less than a week away from the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that has been in development since around 1895. It’s been a long time but in a few short days, we’ll all finally be able to see just what this team has been doing since Skyward Sword and finally figure out why they missed the initial launch date by more than a year and a half. I’ve personally avoided as many spoilers as I could leading up to its release to go in as fresh as possible, but what I have heard so far has greatly piqued my interest.
I’ve often said The Legend of Zelda is my religion, and if that’s true, then the dungeons are my New Testament. These lovingly crafted labyrinths are the best part of my bible and I am greatly looking forward to whatever tricky tests await me in Breath of the Wild. More so, I’m very interested in seeing if any of them can even come close to matching the magnificence that is Twilight Princess’ Snowpeak Ruins.
The greatness of Snowpeak Ruins starts before you even open the door to this dilapidated mansion. In order to get to this frigid fortress, you have to snowboard to it on a frozen leaf, which was a nice palate cleanser after all the shit you had to go through to get to the summit of Snowpeak. And the snowboarding here is way better than that garbage from Final Fantasy VII.
What is easily my favorite thing about Snowpeak Ruins is how it takes an instantly recognizable building and makes a dungeon out of it without going out of its way to over exaggerate its size and proportions. Up until this, I think all pervious Zelda dungeons had been big, hollowed-out trees or caves or castles or other types of buildings that didn’t really exist around me. Making this dungeon out of a mansion brought a sense of verisimilitude to the game. As I defeated the various ice creatures found within, grabbing all the necessary ingredients for the soup being brewed, I would often stop, look around and imagine what this building looked like in its prime. It was the first time I ever traversed something in a Zelda game that felt familiar and recognizable, something that would be repeated with the Sandship in Skyward Sword.
Not only is it well designed, but the dungeon itself has a wonderful little story about love woven into it. Peter touched on it when we wrote about our favorite gaming love stories and he’s on point. The bond between Yeto and Yeta brings warmth to this frosty manor with its iced-over puzzles and challenging lack of hearts. Plus, the item you receive here is the goddamn Ball and Chain, which is just awesome.
Twilight Princess isn’t in my top five Zelda games, even though it has so many moments I love, but this dungeon is bar none the best the series has ever produced and I dare anyone to tell me otherwise. I dare ya, I double dare ya, I triple dog dare you to tell me I’m wrong.
Skyward Sword had a lot of problems (and I mean a lot), but its dungeon design wasn't one of them. I mean, Fi would try her darndest to ruin them by spoiling every solution she possibly could (something that thankfully isn't repeated in Breath of the Wild, which I put a good chunk into), but try as she might, some of them were just that great.
Zelda tends to have a formula for let's say, half the dungeons in any given game (usually elemental based), but the other half is typically comprised of unique settings and concepts. The Buddhist imagery of Ancient Cistern wasn't just something that felt new for Zelda, but for dungeon crawlers in general. Just like the classic Water Temple, it has a central setpiece, and although the surface is full of aquatic puzzles, the underbelly rears its ugly head eventually, teeming with poison lakes and undead enemies -- the obvious duality of heaven and hell just adds to its allure.
At the end of it all, you also get the bonus reward of fighting Koloktos, one of the most entertaining bosses in the history of Zelda. It's menacing enough when it's stuck in the ground, but after it pops up and goes full General Grievous (but in the style of the god Asura, and not the mustache twirling villain Lucas morphed him into in the films) it gets real. The ability to use Koloktos' own weapons against it is a nice touch, and the promise of fighting it again will sway me into playing Skyward Sword again if it gets a remake or remaster.
My favorite dungeons in Zelda games tend to be the final ones of any individual game. Having every ability unlocked and at your disposal allows the developers to not hold back with their puzzle logic. You enter a room and you have literally everything in your possession, so the only roadblock is your own mental ability to piece together what is in front of you.
When asked to contribute to this question, though, my immediate thought went to Stone Tower Temple from Majora's Mask. While the game isn't my favorite solely for having the least amount of dungeons in any Zelda title, it does contain some exceptionally well-designed ones that all do something unique with their respective themes.
Stone Tower Temple not only throws in every trick in the book from an item standpoint, but it also starts screwing with gravity. Each room is designed in a way where being flipped still makes logical sense and Link has to utilize each of the transformation masks he has earned thus far. Not only that, but Link even gets the Giant's Mask for the boss fight, despite it being pretty lame in the N64 original (basically being a remake of Lanmola from Link to the Past).
The 3DS version definitely improves that final battle, but it really is the only blemish on an otherwise amazing dungeon design. It ticks off almost everything that could happen in a Zelda title, featuring parts with lava, water, bottomless pits (skies?) and block pushing all while asking you to think laterally. Oh, and the opening ascent to the dungeon is incredible.
The right answer is Thieves' Hideout from A Link to the Past, for all the reasons that Chad told you about.
Asking me about my favorite anything in the Zelda series is just asking for trouble. I have played all but three games in the series, watched Let's Plays of those missing few, and loved essentially all of it. When it comes to the dungeons I can think of excellent examples from many different games. The Water Temple from Ocarina of Time (it's the best dungeon in the game, fight me), the Sandship from Skyward Sword, the Palace of Winds from Minish Cap, Mutoh's Temple from Phantom Hourglass; the series is chock full of good times.
But Twilight Princess stands out to me in terms of dungeon design. Almost all of the dungeons in this game were fun and memorable to me, from walking on the ceiling of Goron Mines to escorting a statue through the tower of the Temple of Time. I can't even argue with CJ about Snowpeak Ruins because it would easily be a close second for me too. But my favorite in the game, and therefore favorite in the series, is the City in the Sky.
What I find interesting about this dungeon is how surreal it feels. Link hops into a cannon in Hyrule and suddenly ends up in this sky fortress occupied only by weird creatures straight out of M.C. Escher's Another World, who defy gravity just as nonchalantly. The design of the dungeon really stands out as well, with its gaping holes, weathered look, abandoned gardens, and abundance of Clawshot targets.
Then you have to weave your way through the dungeon's inside and outside, dropping down and climbing up different floors at the drop of a hat. The Hookshot/Clawshot has always been my favorite Zelda staple, and the City in the Sky makes you use it more than ever for getting through this fortress on the brink of collapsing into the void below.
After a while, you finally fight the mini-boss. The enemy itself isn't that special, but your reward is....a second Clawshot! For about 10 seconds, this sounds like the stupidest thing ever. But then you realize that with two Clawshots you can essentially Spider-man your way throughout the rest of the dungeon, zipping from place to place without having to touch the ground, and it suddenly becomes the greatest thing. Top it off with my favorite boss in the game, and you have a dungeon for the ages.
Neat visual design, unconventional layout, cool boss, and one of the most fun and interesting items in the Zelda series make the City in the Sky the dungeon to beat.
Even though everyone claims to hate the water dungeons in Zelda games, I'm of the opinion that one of the best dungeons ever was full of water. A Link to the Past was a huge game, and it set the standard for Zelda games for 20 years. There were more than ten distinct dungeons to explore, plus a massive overworld that you could traverse more efficiently with every item you found.
It's my opinion that the best part of a dungeon in a Zelda game is discovering a tool or item, and learning how to use it in new and unexpected ways. And while Shade is correct that wielding two Clawshots is pretty badass, I still have some special affection in my heart for the Clawshot's progenitor, the Hook Shot.
The back half of Link to the Past involves traveling between two versions of the same world, discovering that making changes in one can have an effect on the other. The Swamp Palace in the Dark world is blocked off by heavy water flow until you figure out how to reduce the pressure in the Light world. Once you do, you can paddle your way inside and begin exploring. Eventually, you'll come across the Hook Shot, and I feel like that's the point at which Link to the Past really opens up.
From the moment you earn the Hook Shot, you can use it to grapple over impassible terrain, unlock shortcuts, get an edge on enemies, and grab stuff from halfway across the screen. It's also required to take down the last boss in this dungeon, Arrghus. Arrghus is surrounded by little floating puffs called Arrgi that you have to draw in with the Hook Shot, then slash with your sword. This fight was so cool that a version of it has appeared in nearly every Zelda game ever since.
The Swamp Temple was remade and upgraded in A Link Between Worlds, but I have to give it to the original version out of respect to the design team. A lot of what they did back then has become standard and expected, but in 1992 everything was brand new and mindblowing.
When this week's question rolled around and CJ just went immediately with Snowpeak Ruins, I initially just thought, "Game over man, game over." Snowpeak Ruins is the defacto standout dungeon for in the Zelda series. But when I actually took a step back and thought about it, having a choice for best Zelda dungeon is all about impact and atmosphere. It doesn't necessarily have to be incredible in terms of design, just a memorable experience that sticks with you because of its impact.
Everyone takes note of Ocarina of Time as their favorite game or the best game. But overall, the dungeons can be pretty non-descript from at a glance: the forest one, the fire one, the terrible one (water). But the Shadow Temple comes out of left field with its horribly oppressing atmosphere and morbid settings.
This is a Zelda game we're talking about. The legendary hero who slays evil monsters travels across a colorful land, and all the action is vaguely PG-13 without so much as a drop of serious blood. Then comes along the Shadow Temple: walls made of skulls, guillotine traps, and eerie moaning thanks to the resident ReDeads. Remember the room with the giant, rotating scythe blade? That was a tall glass of nope right there. It was a psychological letdown to realize you could pass through the blade with arguably minor damage but the thing looks like it would instantly kill Link by bisecting him instantly.
And speaking of psychological gut punches, the Shadow Temple is all about testing you psychologically. Think about the first time you played this dungeon. It's hard to play it for the first time again. But the first time around, this temple is all about deceiving appearances and putting a bit of trust in the Eye of Truth to do the heavy lifting. Improbably huge gap? Maybe, or maybe there's an invisible platform. Damage out of nowhere? Actually, it's an invisible scythe blade. And of course, there are the strangely named Wallmasters who are invisible and descend from where else but the ceiling.
Seeing as my favorite Zelda title is Link's Awakening, it only makes sense to choose a dungeon from there. While I truly do love them all, I always think back to Eagle's Tower as one of the best dungeons in the game and even the entire franchise. It's the game's introduction to the Mirror Shield, yet you don't even need it to complete the dungeon! How many of these other dungeons can say that? It feels like a "Greatest Hits" version of the game; it has all the classic enemies like Anti-Kirby, Goombas, and those cool playing card guys.
It's also a dungeon that requires a lot of spatial awareness from the player. A big part of what sets Eagle's Tower apart from other dungeons is destroying the pillars with the wrecking ball to physically change the layout of the dungeon. Players have to throw the ball towards certain areas and then figure out how to get Link there to continue their progress. Link literally destroys the support pillars to the top floor to merge it with the one below it -- so cool!
Even the boss fight is interesting, as the biggest threat comes from falling off the tower instead of dying. Falling off restores Evil Eagle's health and resets the fight, forcing players to figure out the best method to stay on the platform or else fight the first phases of this boss forever. Everything about this dungeon is wonderful, from the music to its demands of the player.
Okay, so we may not all see eye to eye on which temple is the best, but can we all agree the Temple of the Ocean King is the absolute worst?