Halfway through my analysis of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo unveiled an adorable chibi-clay “reimagining” of that game for the Switch. In celebration of its upcoming launch, I will turn my eye from the strangest, darkest, most surreal portable Zelda to the strangest, darkest, most surreal console Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask is arguably the Zelda game most open to hermeneutic critique, as its narrative themes run deep but somewhat vague, and it’s wholly original structure feels like postmodern art compared to the conservative story and character arcs of nearly every other Zelda. In this series, I will be looking specifically at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. While this version makes several changes to the Nintendo 64 version, some of which are rather consequential and controversial, I am choosing to scrutinize this version because it is probably how most players currently play the game (plus, it’s the version I own that isn’t hundreds of miles away at my mom’s house). In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s first dungeon, Woodfall Temple.
Rising from the center of a purple bog, Woodfall Temple makes an entrance both swampy and mythical, its two main aesthetic textures. As the first three-dimensional swamp in the series, it borrows from both Link to the Past (whose Swamp Palace is accessible in the dark world’s swamp area) and Ocarina of Time (from which it reuses some assets and in some ways feels like a successor to the Forest Temple). Yet as a dungeon, the Swamp Palace seems more water-based than swamp-based, and even Dodongo Swamp in Link’s Awakening has essentially no impact on its dungeon, Bottle Grotto. So, in a sense, Woodfall Temple is the first Zelda dungeon to take its swampiness seriously, which it does through twisting tree limbs, toxic purple water, torch-based puzzles, and swarming insect enemies. But at times this swampiness can feel at odds with the dungeon’s Mayan-inspired architecture. Indeed, many of the dungeon’s rooms feature seemingly ancient wall carvings, spiritual totems that lend the setting a mystical air, and elaborate manual contraptions like the dungeon’s rotating wooden flower centerpiece. While its swampy and Mayan components are both intriguing, neither is explored in great detail or elegantly blended with the other, which makes the dungeon’s identity tough to pin down. Of course, Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple pulls a similar trick by coupling classical architecture with overgrown ruins, but those two settings seamlessly merge to lend that space a sense of history while Woodfall’s dueling schemes sometimes clash.
In terms of layout, Woodfall Temple features twelve rooms across two floors, though the top floor is comprised of only two small rooms. After entering through an introductory antechamber, the player stumbles upon the central room housing a large mechanical flower that “blooms” when the player solves a puzzle later on. This room is sort of the dungeon’s central hub, as from here the player can enter five of the dungeon’s eleven other rooms. But its importance is negated a bit by the room directly to its east, which is similar in size, shape, and aesthetic, and also links to several rooms. While these two rooms are collectively the dungeon’s center, from which many paths seems to branch, the dungeon is deceptively linear, as the player rarely has a choice about where to go next. Fortunately, well-placed fairies allow for some meaningful navigational choices within individual rooms, and the dungeon’s linearity and small stature make for a pleasant introduction to Majora, as it helps ensure the player will not get lost or fritter away precious time.
Of the dungeon’s twelve rooms, five are dead-ends where Link battles enemies or a mini-boss for an item, and three test Deku Link’s glide ability in increasingly difficult scenarios. Wedging combat into these dead-end rooms makes the dungeon easier to navigate, but it also makes these rooms less interesting than they could be because it keeps combat largely divorced from puzzles and navigation. Indeed, only two rooms deign to mix puzzles with combat, and both are notably short and easy (including a box-pushing and torch-lighting puzzle which can scarcely be called puzzles). This ultimately means the dungeon tests Deku Link’s various abilities in a piecemeal manner, allowing for the mask’s various abilities to be explored, but rarely in a way that feels especially coherent or naturalistic. Furthermore, skipping across water in the 3DS version is disempowering and tedious, bubbles rarely accomplish a task more successfully than arrows, and gliding can sometimes result in slow-going trial-and-error. These critiques dovetail to make Deku Link an intriguing transformation that the dungeon rarely allows to live up to its potential, whether because its potential was nerfed in the 3DS version, made irrelevant by Link’s normal form, or never inspiring to begin with.
Woodfall Temple’s primary theme is its swamp setting. What that tends to mean, at least superficially, is checking the aforementioned swampiness boxes (toxicity, insects, etc.). But in practice, this also means acting as a subversion (or perversion) of Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple. Indeed, it borrows assets, architecture, structural components, puzzle motifs, and its central item from the Forest Temple, only to repurpose them in some fashion. This relationship runs parallel to the overarching relationship between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. While Ocarina is a traditional, purebred, quintessential Zelda experience through-and-through, Majora is a twisted, truncated, dark-world mirror-image of that experience.
The same can be said of forests and the swamps, especially in their representation in games. Indeed, forests are mainstays of Nintendo games, often as spaces of safety and familiarity (as in Ocarina), and in broader culture they are often regarded as a realm of lush growth and flourishing nature. On the other hand, swamps are comparatively uncommon in games, are rarely a game’s first level, and are more generally interpreted as malarial, mosquito-ridden, festering places of decay. But in reality, swamps are interstitial spaces as ecologically essential as forests, and are often shockingly biodiverse and are the linchpin to a region’s environmental well-being. Yet to us humans swamps have long been seen as disposable, and as such have been largely destroyed (“developed”) because they don’t conform to our preconceived biases what constitutes healthy natural space. And such is the parallel with Woodfall Temple and Ocarina’s more typified Forest Temple (and with Majora and Ocarina as a whole). Intentional or not, this is a complex interweaving of design, narrative, and misconstrued identity, where a relatively easy dungeon can feel uneasy and un-easy because it plays off of several layers of norms established by the Forest Temple, Ocarina of Time, previous Zelda games, the video game canon, and cultural (mis)conceptions of nature.
But along with reversing the natural order, Woodfall Temple is also concerned with transformation and rebirth. Throughout the dungeon, Link raises a temple from polluted water, purifies that water, and helps blossom a giant flower that serves as the dungeon’s centerpiece. While Majora’s other three core dungeons have a central mechanic that procedurally defines that dungeon, this flower serves a similar role. Though the flower’s integration could have been a little deeper (perhaps by having it grow in height twice to reach a third floor, or by its rotation to allow access to an otherwise inaccessible door), its blossoming parallels Link’s progress through the dungeon, feeling like more of a gradual process than a single act. In this way, the flower acts as a metaphorical centerpiece for Link’s progression, which in turn accentuates this transformation theme that is not only a central theme here but in Majora’s Mask as a whole. Finally, a couple of rooms feature imagery of a butterfly, a universal symbol for transformation and rebirth, including the final boss arena which contains a giant butterfly carving on its back wall. Though it feels slightly out-of-place in a swamp with aggressive moths, the consistency and placement of butterfly iconography lends further credence to the Woodfall Temple as not only a place of corruption, but also of the possibilities that might arise after purifying that corruption, enabling metamorphosis into something purer.
The Arrows are a series staple that have always been enjoyable, but never have they ever been so central to a game’s identity. This is in part because they are always the dungeon item, as each of the game’s four dungeon’s either rewards the Arrows or some variation (Fire, Ice, and Light). As such, the Arrows here don’t feel like particularly unique or memorable, but the dungeon’s enemies and puzzles ensure they are shrewdly integrated throughout the dungeon’s second half. Indeed, little touches, such as the way in which the game subtly encourages the player to move to a spot where they get a clear line of sight through a lit torch to an unlit torch, are brilliant ways to wordlessly teach through nuanced design. They betray the understanding of three-dimensional space with which the game was designed, which is almost comprehensively deep given that the team had only been working with the third dimension for a few years.
Woodfall Temple houses seven enemy types, including three unseen earlier in the game (Boe, Moths, and Venus Flytraps). While Moths and Venus Flytraps contribute to the dungeon’s sense of place, Boe feel less thematically apropos even though they are well-used in a dark room where Link must light torches. As a whole, this selection of enemies meshes well with the dungeon’s swampy setting, evoking the real-life reptiles and insects that characterize swamps. However, so frequently placing these enemies in bland one-off combat scenarios makes them feel disconnected from the rest of the dungeon to the point where they sometimes seem artificially shoehorned.
The first mini-boss is Dinolfos, who is pretty much identical to his Ocarina of Time appearance. Despite dealing extra damage to Deku Link, the fight feels superficial compared to the Lizalfos mini-boss in Dodongo’s Cavern because he goes down in just a few hits and his arena isn’t meaningfully incorporated into the battle. Fortunately, the Gekko and Snapper mini-boss battle is outstanding in how it asks the player to use Deku Link’s flower jump as an attack and then transform back into Link to fire arrows. It’s an enjoyable fight that effortlessly shows the versatility of the Arrows, which the player earns mere seconds before.
The main boss, Odolwa, is a pushover in the 3DS version. While Link can technically use his sword and bow to attack Odolwa, the most obvious and far more efficient strategy has Deku Link shoot out of a flower, drop a Deku Nut on Odolwa’s head, and slash away at his weak spot. This is a really fun strategy that takes advantage of Deku Link’s gliding ability tested throughout the dungeon and his otherwise entirely ignored ability to drop Deku Nuts in that form. But since both phases of the boss are each best tackled through the same strategy, it makes the multi-stage fight feel less nuanced than the single-stage Gekko and Snapper mini-boss.
Woodfall Temple is, in many ways, a bizarro Forest Temple that aesthetically estranges the player despite its relatively straightforward design. Nearly the entire temple is crafted around Deku Link, a divisive transformation that fundamentally alters movement in a way that requires deliberate planning and careful timing. This makes for a decent series of traversal-oriented “puzzles” but less interesting and differentiated combat. Despite its uneasy aesthetic and focus on mechanics that might seem traditionally un-Zelda-like, it is the most typical dungeon in the game in terms of its layout, linear progression, and room-by-room scenarios. Despite these traditional structural components and notable brevity, Woodfall Temple manages to etch itself into the player’s mind through fully exploring Deku Link’s mechanics and providing a wide array of scenarios aptly designed around Deku Link, especially regarding puzzles, traversal, and its mini-boss and boss fights that are not only mechanically, but metaphorically, potent.
For deep dives into other levels from Majora’s Mask, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.