Zelda Fast Travel

What’s your favorite dungeon from the Legend of Zelda series?

Nothing beats a classic dungeon

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Dungeons are the time-honored challenge of many Zelda titles. Whether it’s a giant mechanic contraption, a hidden temple, or the literal insides of a giant fish, the Zelda series has many dungeons we remember, fondly or not.

As part of our Zelda Week coverage, I asked the Destructoid staff to choose a favorite from among the many, many dungeons of The Legend of Zelda series, and to write a little bit about why. Whether it’s the contraptions, tools, or boss fights therein, there are plenty of reasons to love a dungeon here. Let’s dive into it.

Zelda Forest Temple Dungeon
Image via Longplayarchives

Eric – The Forest Temple, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Nothing really sets the tone for a dungeon quite like the Forest Temple theme in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is probably the first dungeon you’ll encounter as an adult, and it starts with that haunting percussion jingle, those eerie tones, that dancing synth that floats along the top. Oh, sorry, I got lost in the music and forgot about the Wolfos waiting to tear your face off at the entrance.

Seriously, the tone of the Forest Temple feels unlike most other Zelda experiences. From getting in the front door to navigating its winding, and sometimes literally twisting, hallways, to its ghostly Poe Sisters. And then, finally, a bout with Phantom Ganon that feels like Link coming to terms with his own nightmares. The Forest Temple was the area that assured me, we were no longer a kid, and things just got a lot more serious.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Timothy – The Deku Tree, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

In the past, I’ve expressed some potentially controversial opinions about Ocarina of Time. While I do really like the game, I simply wasn’t in the time or place for it to have an impact on me the way it did on so many others. I don’t say this to ruffle feathers, as I don’t enjoy being a contrarian. Rather, I want to establish that even I recognize that the Deku Tree is a perfect way to start an adventure.

Previous 2D Zelda games relied on very dungeon-y looking dungeons. While they’re fantastic in their own ways, the reuse of tilesets made many of them visually blend together. Meanwhile, the Deku Tree immediately hits you with distinct wooden walls and vertical level design that shows just what the series can do with its new 3D graphics. It’s such a playful use of space, but it never felt gimmicky to me either. Seeing that web on the floor the minute you enter and breaking it once you gain enough altitude was a total thrill in 1998. In fact, it’s still fun today.

Honestly, aside from the very well-known Navi interruptions, I’d consider the Deku Tree a perfect tutorial dungeon. It constantly teaches you new mechanics as you get deeper into its depths. Yet it still feels like you’re in a full-fledged Zelda dungeon. There are puzzles to solve, enemies to defeat, and a fun boss waiting at the end. Better yet, all of this is within a handful of minutes of starting the game. Even the staunchest of Ocarina of Time naysayers can’t deny this is a great dungeon.

Zoey – Snowpeak Ruins, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

I can’t say I’m really a fan of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I found it to be a drab and disappointing follow-up to Wind Waker, but it wasn’t without its high points. One, in particular, is Snowpeak Ruins.

Someone really got creative with the dungeon format. While it still contains all the same puzzle-solving that you’d expect, it’s framed in a way that makes it stand out. You’re making soup with a yeti. That’s an amazing sentence. While you plumb the dungeon, you gather ingredients for this abominable snowman to throw into a pot. Then when it’s finished, the soup looks delicious.

Time will eventually atrophy all the parts of my brain that remembers the specifics of Twilight Princess, but I can guarantee you that I’m always going to remember that soup.

Image via Longplay Archives

Steven – Tower of the Gods, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

After much back and forth I’ve decided my favorite Zelda dungeon has to be Tower of the Gods from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. This dungeon is epic in scale from the start when it rises up out of the ocean after forming the Triforce by placing the three sacred pearls in their respective statues. From there, entering the actual dungeon via boat was a fun change of pace compared to the ground-based entry of nearly every dungeon in the game’s history.

Inside, the roman temple inspired aesthetic mixed with the constant reminder that this dungeon is a challenge for Link intended by the gods. Finally we encounter the boss of the dungeon: Gohdan. The boss fight itself was rather simplistic compared to some others in the game, but was still pretty colossal in scale for this deity-crafted dungeon.

Defeating the boss and thus completing the dungeon gives us perhaps one of the coolest moments of the game. We climb the bell tower and ring the bell with our grappling hook to unveil a new castle. A temple that is entirely gray and completely devoid of color. As we continue through the castle we realize this is no ordinary castle, but Hyrule Castle. Hyrule Castle frozen in time. The Master Sword awaits us. Man, what an epic moment.

skull woods link to the past zelda dungeons

Chris Moyse – Skull Woods, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

I will be the first to admit that I do not have quite the field of reference for Zelda dungeons, in fact, I’m not generally a fan of the dungeon-design template favored by many of the series’ titles (all of which remain excellent, regardless). But one venue that does stick out in my Sertraline-clouded mind is the Skull Woods of SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past.

Simplistic though it may seem in these post-Wind Waker, Breath of the Wild times, Skull Woods felt new, intriguing, and delightfully creepy when compared to the sunshine and color of 16-bit Hyrule. In addition, the fragmented overground, underground nature of Skull Woods’ layout felt different, even groundbreaking, while adding a distinct twist to many of LttP‘s other dungeon venues. This dark and Gothic map preys upon the childhood fears of the forests we’d be warned never to visit as children, before revealing to us that the reason for said warning was probably a giant moth firing laser beams from its eyes.

A simple choice, but a nicely nostalgic one, which would pave the way for the many labyrinths to come.

Holmes – Sky Keep, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The problem with Zelda dungeons is after you’ve played through them a few times, they no longer give you that disoriented-but-curious feeling. Venturing into the unknown, trying to get your bearings, preparing for the worst while hoping for the best; a good Zelda knows how to ride that line between exciting and scary on a consistent basis. But after you know the layout of a Zelda dungeon, and have the best course through it committed to memory, it’s not so risky anymore. The mystery is replaced with predictability, the honeymoon makes way for routine. That may sound dull, but it’s not all bad. Replays of Zelda games can be a cozy, nostalgic treat. But ideally, playing an old game feels both climactic and comfortable at the same time.

That’s why the Sky Keep dungeon of Skyward Sword is my favorite. It plays like a greatest hits of the game, requiring you to push your understanding of how to best utilize the bulk of the items you’ve collected thus far. But best of all, it forces you to physically rearrange the layout of the dungeon, making the floorplan of the place a tool in and of itself. Strategically changing the location of certain rooms is the only way to get to the end, so even once you know each part of the place by heart, it constantly asks you to look at it from a different perspective. I’ve played through the dungeon at least four times now, and it felt like the first time, every time. It’s continually the best of both worlds, old and new, fresh and familiar.

The Forsaken Fortress
Image via Nintendo

CJ – The Forsaken Fortress, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

I’m getting a curious sense of deja vu as I write my entry for this staff post. Didn’t we do a favorite Zelda dungeon article just days before Breath of the Wild was released?

Yes, we did, but considering the massive change in staff since then, I’m totally cool tackling this subject again. And while my overall choice remains the same since last time—Snowpeak Ruins, as covered above by Zoey—this is a good opportunity for me to highlight what I think is the second-greatest dungeon in Zelda history: The Forsaken Fortress.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is pretty famous for its torrent of cut content that was excised in favor of a speedier development cycle. While I still consider the end product to be a near masterpiece, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t pay good money for all that cut content to find its way back into a Director’s Cut of the game. While that is unlikely to ever happen, I can rest easy knowing my second favorite Zelda dungeon, The Forsaken Fortress, remains a magnificent mix of design and art direction. Nintendo really stepped up its visual game with The Wind Waker, leaning hard on that cel animation style to give personalities to Link, Tetra, Aryll, and the bevy of foes he faces. The Forsaken Fortress feels like a tech demo for all that brilliant animation, whether it’s Link’s eyes peaking to the side as he shimmies around corners or the look on the face of the Moblins when they spot him in the corridors.

And the lighting. Nayru almighty, that lighting.

Beyond its beautiful shell, The Forsaken Fortress is just a wonderfully put-together dungeon that is a blast to play through every time you visit it (as long as you don’t mind a little stealth action). It’s always fun to fight Phantom Ganon, and the boss battle against the Helmaroc King is riveting. Plus, just like Snowpeak Ruins, The Forsaken Fortress feels like a real place that was converted into a dungeon rather than just being a dungeon for the sake of being a dungeon. So yeah, I love it.

Image via Nintendo

Chris Carter  – Ancient Cistern, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Over six years ago I expressed my love for the Ancient Cistern in Skyward Sword, and that sentiment hasn’t changed. In fact, its cachet has only gone up since the release of Skyward Sword on Switch: which alleviates a lot of my control issues with the original. How’s that for a fortuitous port?!

I had a blast going back through nearly all of the game’s dungeons with a Switch control scheme (including Sky Keep, good shout Holmes!), but the newly-minted crispness of the Ancient Cistern still took my breath away. The bright lights, the unique underground area, and the haunting yet engaging Koloktos boss fight: all add up to a unique combination of sights and sounds that not many other dungeons pull off. It also hosts a great array of abilities required to trek through the dungeon, including the oh-so-satisfying whip.

You could argue it’s the best “water temple” of the series. I know it’s a low bar for some, but this raises it!

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Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.