The dungeons of the Zelda franchise are some of its most talked-about locations. Whether or not they’re actually more important than the overworld or towns Link explores, they stand out as distinct realms full of their own challenges, separated from the rest of the game world by their entrances, their concepts, and their very design.
In this series I will review the dungeons of A Link Between Worlds, looking at them individually and touching on battles, puzzles, navigation, and even themes and presentation. I’m taking the time to do this mostly because I think they’re super neat. We’ll start at the beginning with the game’s introductory dungeon: The Eastern Palace.
…And I’ll be honest, right off the bat I wasn’t expecting to be able to write much about it, but boy was I wrong. I’ll confess I avoided most of the 2D games when I wrote this series in the past for Zelda Dungeon because I was worried about how much I’d be able to say; a lot of my favorite parts to write have been theme analysis, and the gimmicks and theming of Zelda’s dungeons always seemed to be more prominent in the 3D games, and three-dimensional though its graphics may be, this game’s soul is that of 2D Zelda. But after returning to the Eastern Palace, I’m getting a little eager to dig in and replay those 2D titles.
This dungeon, much like the overworld, is a revisit of the first dungeon of the same name from A Link to the Past. If memory serves, that was one of the more basic dungeons of the series, and I expected this one would be too. Unlike the overworld, A Link Between Worlds’ dungeons have new designs even if they sometimes (or I guess pretty often) borrow ideas from their predecessors. The game’s overworld stays fresh with new abilities like wall-merging that change how you look at or approach it, and generally the dungeons have original layouts. But I like how crafty the Eastern Palace is; it likes to have it both ways. It does this using a theme it expands on from its predecessor, along with the aforementioned wall-merging power.
The dungeon begins with an entranceway very similar to the original with three paths and doorways to go down but where all but the central one lead to ledges you hardly do anything on. This begins — though in a small way — the classic misdirection having a main path through the dungeon, but the game giving you multiple choices of both dead-ends and optional goodies like rupees and fairy fountains (what Mark Brown would call “follow the path”, and later, “lock & key” dungeons).
This style continues throughout the dungeon (and indeed much of the game) where you have to figure out where you need to go to find the key or puzzle solution needed to progress. The dungeon retains this layout and progression style from the original Eastern Palace, making it initially feel a lot like the overworld in its similarities to the classic game, but as soon as you get to the familiar room with rolling boulders — …cannonballs? — the obvious parallels end.
Unlike the original dungeon, which was something like a series of simple rooms with enemies, all of which branched out in a sort of two-wing layout from a central chamber with the Big Chest in it, the “central room” of this incarnation is actually the hallway with the rolling cannonballs/boulders… which is a good place to center the dungeon around because, for this game, the Eastern Palace decided it wanted to be trap-central.
There are no ifs ands or buts about it; A Link Between World’s Eastern Palace is “the trap dungeon”. Where A Link to the Past was content to mostly just set a winding path ahead of you and sprinkle a few enemies here and there, A Link Between Worlds saw that “cannonboulder” room and, with a devious twinkle in its eye, just got all kinds of ideas.
This trap-happy dungeon expands the cannonboulder idea and adds arrow traps everywhere as well. It also really loves the idea of locking you in a room and ambushing you with enemies.
This dungeon’s vibe is essentially “you don’t belong here.” It’s a point which it drives home with traps and ambushes designed to keep you from making it through.
This is a cool theme to have for the first dungeon of a game; overworlds are usually by and large mild areas you can explore without being in too much danger. Dungeons however are challenging places filled with dangers and trials to overcome. The opening sections of this game are very relaxed, so it’s pretty cool that the second you enter a new kind of area — one of our beloved dungeons — it winds up being such an unwelcoming place. It’s almost as though while appealing to our thirst for classic Zelda, A Link Between Worlds exclaimed “Did you miss me?!” with open arms, before slipping a dagger out from its sleeve and whispering in our ear: “Did you really?“
It’s almost as though while appealing to our thirst for classic Zelda, A Link Between Worlds exclaimed “Did you miss me?!” with open arms, before slipping a dagger out from its sleeve and whispering in our ear: “Did you really?“
I’ve praised dungeons like the Forest Temple from Ocarina of Time for being multilayered and having a combination of various themes, something that can make for some of the most interesting dungeons. But the new Eastern Palace has taught me something else: Equally as cool as that is when a dungeon explores even just a single theme in exhaustive detail.
I’ll probably touch on this point a number of times as we go through the game, but while most consider A Link Between Worlds an easy game, I feel like that stems largely from how much power it hands you. Having all of the key items gives you so much versatility, and your strength grows quickly with all the upgrades it throws at you. But just about none of that applies to the Eastern Palace.
This dungeon isn’t extremely hard, but it is thrilling thanks in large part to how few hearts you’re liable to have, your lack of any special item except the Bow, and how giddy it is to take your few hearts away via the many traps and enemies. It requires you to stay on your toes at the very least. It has a certain elegance: bringing the mystery of a first dungeon, your lack of an arsenal, and its trap theme into something that I think winds up being kind of special. The Bow serves as a good item to center the dungeon around, where you can use it to preserve your precious few hearts by fighting enemies at a distance.
Even its music, which plays in all of the Hyrule dungeons, feels like it’s especially fitting here. Its mysterious and ominous opening foreshadows your first journey into true danger and its oddly quick tempo suits just how much dodging you’ll do.
While it’s easy to think that the Thieves’ Hideout is the only dungeon in the game with a traditional dungeon item (the Sand Rod you get after beating it), I think that the Eastern Palace has one too. I would argue that while all of the dungeons require a Ravio item to enter, the Bow is the only item you’re allowed to have at this point in the game and so, unlike the other Ravio items, even just getting it from him is intrinsically tied to entering this dungeon; you have to try to enter the Eastern Palace for him to give it to you after all.
While the dungeon mostly only asks you to shoot far-off switches with the Bow, I like the extra connection of there being so many arrow-traps throughout the dungeon. (Get it? It’s a bow dungeon!) Almost makes it feel like the item literally comes from the place. You could say that this dungeon likes to have its item and use it too. (I’m sorry!)
That said there is actually another item more central to this dungeon, one that, like the Sand Rod, you actually acquire in it: While Ravio’s Bracelet is acquired earlier it doesn’t actually become a usable item until after beating Yuga, and it even replays a modified versions of the “duh-na-na-na” to tell you its new effects. But we’ll get to that.
What’s really cool about the Eastern Palace is that it doesn’t deviate from the open dungeon order of the rest of the game and become a mandatory first-dungeon without a reason. It ties directly into the opening story in some really neat ways, turning this otherwise plain dungeon into a pretty epic event. First Osfala goes ahead of you only to be defeated by Yuga. Then, much like Ghirahim in Skyward Sword, Yuga himself confronts you as the first dungeon boss.
The battle with Yuga feels as flavorful as a fight against a mage as Ghirahim did as a fencing duel; Yuga keeps his distance, evading you with magic most of the time and pummeling you with spells and summoning minions. The fight is a lot like the dungeon: Not the most challenging, but filled with many deadly moving parts that can drain your health and force you to keep moving — keeping that good thematic tightness intact even as you fight the game’s villain.
The visual and audio effects here are especially effective in making Yuga feel powerful and threatening; each spell feels overwhelming and gigantic, elevating your sense of proportion of this otherwise low-to-medium difficulty boss.
I also like how this fight first illustrates one of my favorite liberties A Link Between Worlds takes with its predecessor’s material: Unlike the mind-control afflicted knight enemies in A Link to the Past, this game’s knights are summoned by Yuga. They initially appear as graffiti painted onto the castle, then are seen being summoned by Yuga during this fight, and the next thing you know they’re all over Hyrule. I will always wonder if they are purely creations of Yuga’s, or soldiers from Lorule being brought over. Either way, this attack of Yuga’s is an excellent way to tie the pre-dungeon Hyrule and the later knight-infested version together.
Of course the fight ends with Yuga turning Link into a painting, before Ravio’s Bracelet — the true “dungeon item” — activates and allows Link to escape Yuga’s… “trap” (hey how about that) and the dungeon itself through an escape sequence along its exterior, finding himself back at the beginning. What’s awesome is these exterior areas are hidden from you until you enter them, making them a welcome surprise not revealed by the dungeon map, and the well-merging even allows you to get one more chest when in the first room. I absolutely love this section.
It’s a nicely multilayered bit of design: The overworld is familiar, the opening dungeon at first seems to be the same but then does new things while still taking after the original. Then you fight a plot-based boss before the story progresses to unveil a new power. You use that power in an escape sequence that doubles as a tutorial, allowing the dungeon to make one of the coolest uses of the wall-merging power in the game while also telling you in no uncertain terms: “This ability changes everything. Now you can explore the world. Go nuts.” Genius stuff.
The opening of A Link Between Worlds is actually a little annoying to me, not for being too long but because it forces you to slingshot between destinations — even taking you to the Eastern Palace before turning around, getting the Bow from Ravio, and then coming back — but the Eastern Palace is where my annoyance turns to joy. I love how this place is set up. It’s simple since it’s a beginning dungeon, but it has a lot of little things to keep it fun and even manages to provide a better challenge than some later dungeons because of its position in the game.
But even more than that, it rises from fun to brilliant in how it plays off the rest of the game. It subverts your existing expectations and then hints at how the rest of the game will work, all while carrying the through-line of the game’s story and the introduction of Yuga and Ravio.
Could it be better? Probably. The perspective tricks of not seeing a tunnel under a floor because it has a southern entrance and is invisible from your camera angle is a neat idea but one that I don’t think the game prepares you for ahead of time; collecting all of the dungeon’s chests was frustrating for me because of it. Though at least it’s used mostly for optional goodies.
It also inherits a bit of strangeness from the old Zelda games of having “dungeons” simply being nondescript danger-places with no cohesive purpose or explanation behind their name. This is a “palace” but doesn’t necessarily feel like it; it feels like a trapped series of chambers. Perhaps filling at least the ambush rooms with knights, to connect them to Yuga, or giving some kind of explanation of this being Yuga’s hideout in preparation for his attack on Hyrule could have been cool.
Even putting the stained-glass-depicted backstory and explanation of the historical battle against Ganon in here as opposed to Hyrule Castle might justify its importance as a “palace” and also explain why it might have been a place Yuga would go back to; perhaps this could have been where he learned about Hyrule?
Overall, though, the dungeon strikes a near-perfect cord with what it adds to the game. I couldn’t be more excited to see what the rest of this game’s dungeons have in store upon close analysis.
What are your thoughts on A Link Between Worlds’ Eastern Palace? Do you find it plain, or like me do you think it rose above its parts and created something just a little special? How do you feel about the Yuga moments and how the dungeon makes use of the wall-merging ability? Tell me in the comments, and stay tuned for the next review when I tackle one of the game’s few completely original dungeons — and hopefully don’t find quite as much to say! — the House of Gales!