The structure standing before you is immense, ornate, and ancient. Imposing statues flank the entrance. The flames from the nearby torches flicker as if they had been lit only recently. Inside lays the next key to your quest, guarded, no doubt, by a myriad of monsters and puzzles that would repel even the most daring of adventurers. As you begin to climb down the stairs, a great rushing noise begins to fill your ears.
“Oh, great,” you groan. “Water.”
For any game whose primary challenge is dungeon crawling, it’s obviously important for each dungeon to be properly designed. A dungeon that is too easy provides little satisfaction. Too difficult, and the player can become discouraged, perhaps quit the game entirely. Design flaws or awkwardness disrupts the flow of the game and instead just frustrates players.
The Legend of Zelda is nearly always a textbook example of how to properly design and execute dungeons that give both an enveloping atmosphere and an adequate challenge for even the most seasoned adventurer… with the exception of the water dungeons. For some reason, the aquatic levels in Hyrule have consistently annoyed Zelda players. Whether it’s the objective, the puzzles, or the boss, Nintendo just can’t seem to adapt its dungeon-diving formula to wetter climates. While Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple is the most famous for driving players crazy, nearly every water-themed dungeon starting from A Link to the Past to the present has something about it that literally puts a wet blanket on your adventure. Well, sometimes it’s several somethings actually.
Getting your feet wet
What never disappoints with any Zelda dungeon are the overall ascetics. No matter which game you play, the actual architecture and decorations of the dungeons are wonderfully designed and rendered. Each temple or cave’s design is perfectly fitted to their environment and to the element that is the dungeon’s theme. But while volcanoes and catacombs will impede your progress with their respective element, a water-themed level means you have to literally surround yourself with that element. To do that in any other dungeon means setting yourself on fire or literally falling into an endless abyss.
Although surrounding yourself with water doesn’t cause death, immediately it does make you slow down. Getting wet means restricting your movement to a fraction of your running (or rolling) speed, and, when you’re trying to get through an area, especially when you’re backtracking, that reduced velocity is just frustrating. That frustration can turn to near panic if there’s anything else in the room. As you swim along the surface, you aren’t just slow but significantly slower than any enemy that may be above or below you. And without any means to defend yourself, you are very aware of everything around you.
No one likes being forced to slow down, and jumping into the water GUARANTEES it.
As an occasional obstacle or puzzle, it’s not a bad concept. There is a plethora of ways that a purposeful slowing down of your character can provide a good challenge. The issue with the water levels lies in its constant presence. There isn’t necessarily an object or a purpose to your reduced speed. It’s just there; and as your continual exploration of the dungeon will inevitably require jumping in and out of pools frequently, you’re forced to endure seemingly endless episodes of slow going for no reason at all.
Hang on, let me pause…again…
Any time you have to deal with an extreme environment, you are often given an item or two that permits you to endure the elements and explore the unforgiving terrain. From tunics to footwear, those items nearly all work automatically or at least can quickly be equipped and forgotten.
Dealing with a location that you can’t breathe in and can’t maneuver around will of course require a means to navigate, and the Zelda series has come up with a pretty creative list of items that can do that. But while most environmental obstacles are a constant danger in whatever dungeon you are in, the in-and-out nature of water means you don’t necessarily need that special item all the time. Unfortunately, that often means taking the item off. Manually. Every single time.
The Iron Boots are the most common culprit in this affair. Filling a place with water allows for the exploration of multiple floors without needing stairs or an elevator. Buoyancy restricts that normally, and the obvious solution is to put on some extra weight. So you pause, put the Boots in an item slot, equip them, and start sinking. Slowly. For three floors. Then you realize that you forgot something. So you take them off and start rising. Slowly. For three floors. Rinse and repeat a dozen times, not including the instances you switched out the Boots for another item and have to go back in and bring them back. To make matters worse, being underwater severely limits the items you can use, and so you often have to pause again just to make any of those items a viable option.
Ocarina of Time is the worst offender. They don’t just give you the Iron Boots, but they put it on the equipment subscreen. You’re then forced to not just put the Boots on and off repeatedly, but you have to pause and switch menus every time! Clearing the Water Temple requires an almost incessant amount of floor changes and, consequently, an almost countless amount of shoe swapping. The endless use of the pause button is sometimes unbearable, and can really take you out of the game.
Admittedly, this is something that was largely fixed with the modernization of the game in Ocarina of Time 3D, but it still leaves you slowly bobbing up and down for ages.
In these situations, the 2D Zelda titles are the most streamlined; making the flippers an automatic item that are just put on whenever you get into the water. Oracle of Ages arguably did it the best with the Mermaid Suit. It’s automatic, lets you dive with just one button press, still lets you use a sword, and it’s right up there with the Zora Mask in terms of speed.
Wait, where am I going?
You’re going to want that speed in selecting the requisite item because getting anywhere in water dungeons seems to take forever. While water dungeons aren’t necessary larger than your typical dungeon, the general use of water creates a unique set of roadblocks that grow frustrating after a short while.
The general use of drains and dams have been in Zelda since the first water dungeon in A Link to the Past. Since then, water has repeatedly been filling up and draining from water levels, and the differences between an empty chamber and a flooded one can be substantial. So substantial, in fact, that it in effect multiplies the size of the dungeon. You have to constantly be aware of where the water is and how adding or subtracting more will affect each room.
Moving water is a common feature in these dungeons, and they force you to take specific routes a ridiculous amount of times.
Adding to that complexity is the challenge of being swept up in that moving water. The swift currents in various areas can provide an engaging challenge, particularly if they lead to something dangerous. What taints that enjoyment, however, is when those currents instead become one-way roads. As fun as a water slide may be, having to run around an entire dungeon just to get to back an adjacent room that you accidentally missed is extremely tedious.
Even more tiresome are the means by which you change the water’s flow or level. They are always situated in one particular spot, and accessing them is usually a main objective in that dungeon. Then you have to come back to it over and over again, going through the same motions repeatedly just to get to one specific area of the level, and that process happens a lot. Water dungeons always seem to be filled with more keys than other labyrinths, and, if you miss just one, you are forced to go back, change the water flow a couple times, get the key, and restart the same process to return to your original location.
You expect me to fight that?
After all of that exhausting swimming around and water manipulation, you’d at least hope for a boss good enough to make up for it. Sadly, these foes have been very hit or miss. While some bosses have been adequate, the track record for aquatic foes is lacking. Half of the time you are completely submerged, which dramatically limits your maneuverability and item options.
While this sounds like a good challenge, it usually ends up you just sitting in one spot and letting the monster just swim into range. Any difficulty is thereby reduced to annoyance and a lackluster waiting game.
Despite the adaptability and literal fluidity of the aquatic environment, the bosses show no real creative flair besides the fact that they live in water. Two of them have literally just been large fish! Both of which have been depressingly weak and easy to defeat.
Arguably the best water demon has been Morpha (a good make up for the Water Temple nightmare), and that is due to its brilliant manipulation of its watery lair. It’s an active battle, keeps you constantly aware of what is happening around you, and is a very creative take on how water can be used.
Filtering the water
So, what is to be done? The potential is there. The basic outline for the puzzles and challenges unique to the aquatic realm have been presented in a variety of ways. How can Nintendo improve its marine labyrinths and provide a more immersive (pun intended) experience for its players?
The main problems with these levels boils down to what can be called tedium. A relentless droll of repetition and backtracking that eventually stops being a challenge and instead becomes a chore. Whether it’s moving around the entrance or fighting the boss at the end, the best way to improve Hyrule’s water temples is to streamline the processes it takes to accomplish those tasks. A difficult task to be sure, but I trust the Zelda team has the fluidity to adapt to the challenge.