After diligently playing and writing about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time dungeon-by-dungeon, it’s time to siphon my thoughts down into the shallow, quantifiable, clickbaity realm of ranking. Below is my list of Ocarina of Time’s dungeons from worst to best. I devised the final ranking based on two ephemeral and subjective criteria: how good it is and how much I liked it. Feel free to praise or critique my list in the comments, but feel even freer to post your own list. Opinions are just opinions and I’d like to see how my thoughts and feelings compare to your equally valid ones! And check out longer analyses here.
As a whole, Gerudo Training Ground feels like a disconnected series of Spirit Temple B-sides not quite special enough to make the big leagues. Because Ocarina’s base gameplay is so solid, it is worth playing through Gerudo Training Ground simply because it is more Ocarina to play through, but it largely falls flat on its own merit. A couple of its rooms stand out as well-balanced and thoughtful, but most are at least slightly underbaked. And in a dungeon with only eleven small rooms, each room counts for a lot, and some completely fail to deliver. After the game’s most mature dungeon, Gerudo Training Ground is a noticeable step back toward superficiality. It is completely playable and often enjoyable, but also undeniably embryonic and carelessly tacked on — a polar opposite of the Spirit Temple’s design ethos despite their many surface-level similarities.
11. Water Temple
The Water Temple is an ingenious concept that fails in implementation. In a handful of rooms (often those with isolated puzzles or combat scenarios built around water), it momentarily feels like Nintendo succeeded in its lofty aspirations. But tying water level so centrally to navigation throughout the entire experience makes backtracking a tedious chore that taints the entire experience and arguably sets the low watermark for the entire game. And outside of this water level gimmick, the water theme doesn’t seem integral to almost any other aspect of the dungeon’s design, including the dreary mini-boss and boss fights. Although it is an ambitious evolution of the layered dungeon design featured in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, it is also a rare botch for Ocarina of Time that remains largely unenjoyable in the 3DS version despite several quality of life improvements.
The Bottom of the Well is a freakish mixed bag. Much of the time the player spends here can feel like a trial-and-error slog to avoid invisible floors and fight lethargic enemies. But it packs a variety of trials and secrets into its tight space, and its item and boss are among the most distinctive and thematically apropos. The experience the Bottom of the Well provides is undoubtedly memorable from start to finish, but its open design, occasionally frustrating illusory floors, and relatively complex layout ensure both mileage and moment-to-moment enjoyability could vary significantly from player to player.
Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly is a contentious dungeon among Ocarina of Time fans, primarily because of its off-the-wall setting and heavy emphasis on escorting. Personally, I find the location a welcome change of pace and the escort mission mostly well-executed. But I do feel certain core moments (like deciding where to go right after discovering Princess Ruto, or navigating the five-fingered portion of the upper floor) are limited by their extreme linearity despite a confusing pretense of being open. If the player knows exactly what to do, the dungeon is actually quite short. But if they don’t know what to do, they could find themselves steeped in unnecessary frustration. And though I appreciate the difficulty jump in the mini-boss and boss fights, the elevated difficulty throughout the dungeon is sometimes expounded by having to aimlessly wander in search of a path forward. Although I generally enjoy Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, its faux labyrinthine layout and half-hearted enemy design dampens the overall experience.
Despite a bland aesthetic and disappointing item, Dodongo’s Cavern is a consistently considerate and surprising space. It continues the tutorial Inside the Deku Tree sets into motion, but it also ups the ante by increasing the complexity of puzzles and combat through new enemies and obstacles. This leads to some clever riffs on interconnected spaces (like battling Lizalfos in two levels of the same room), as well as some memorable set pieces (like detonating bombs circumscribing a staircase). Although it might not be as awe-inspiring as Ocarina’s most vibrant and intricately-crafted dungeons, Dodongo’s Cavern is a solid second dungeon in theme, design, and difficulty.
7. Ice Cavern
“Dungeon” or not, the Ice Cavern is an astutely designed, concisely crafted, and especially ambient space, particularly on the 3DS. I suspect the criticism it occasionally comes under from Zelda fans is due more to its brevity than anything else. And fair enough — the late placement of the Iron Boots and unsatisfying mini-boss-as-final-boss make it feel as much like a dungeon’s first half as a mini-dungeon. But as a tiny, tidy, and generally elegant space, it also provides a happy medium between dungeon and non-dungeon gameplay, thoroughly embracing its core theme for the right amount of time, with the right degree of linearity, and a gratifying balance of specialized combat scenarios and puzzles.
Ganon’s Castle is a suitably grand finish to Link’s journey through past and future Hyrules. Although each of its paths could have better-integrated aspects of each dungeon to more effectively evoke the varying types of enemies, obstacles, and puzzles the player has overcome, every step forward effectively builds toward the incredible climax that Ganon’s Castle is primarily concerned with. It might lack a great item, or new enemy types, or the nuanced design of some dungeons, but it generally succeeds in turning the narrative and gameplay to eleven while intermingling them in a compelling and memorable way. Though not every element succeeds on its own merits, those elements add up to far more than the sum of their parts. In the end, despite its shortcomings, Ganons’ Castle turns out to be a final dungeon befitting Goomba Stomp’s greatest Nintendo game of all time.
5. Fire Temple
All things considered, I really enjoy the Fire Temple, but it’s hard to put my finger on why. From rehashed enemy design, to repetitive scenarios and architecture, to forgettable artwork, to a lackluster item, there seems to be a ton of room for improvement. Although its individual pieces are often rough around the edges, their placement, relation to each other, and sense of pacing they establish all synergistically craft a surprisingly delightful experience. It’s consistently rewarding, widely varied, and it intelligently takes advantage of its diverse spaces, from mazes to platforming gauntlets to a clever boss. It is less united in art, design, and theme than the Forest Temple, and less ambitious in nearly every way, but is still a delightful experience.
Inside the Deku Tree is an unconventional and memorable first dungeon that primes players for new forms of three-dimensional gameplay. Strangely enough, it establishes Ocarina as a bildungsroman, as a journey through time and the darkness that accompanies its passage. Though it might feature a bland color palette and overemphasize climbing, it somehow manages to teach more in twenty minutes than most Zelda’s (or any games, for that matter) do in their first hour. And it does so effortlessly, through artful design, while also conveying an unsettling ambiance, complex narrative, and gameplay themes of transience and purposiveness.
The Shadow Temple is one of the most unforgettable portions of Ocarina of Time. And this is despite having a mini-dungeon right before it that parallels it in several regards, and arguably integrates its theme more meaningfully while also featuring a more interesting item. Although many of the Shadow Temple’s individual parts can feel rehashed or underdeveloped, its incredible set pieces provide hugely varied gameplay that never bores or frustrates. It is a string of highlights, in spite of its linearity and reused theme, due to consistently clever and diverse design room after room.
There is a convincing argument to be made for the Spirit Temple as Ocarina’s greatest dungeon. Room by room it thoroughly integrates countless elements of Ocarina’s design into a gauntlet of thoughtful challenges. It feels fittingly mature, not toying with or fetishizing any individual element of its design, but allowing for intelligent, industrious, deliberate design to speak for itself. In this way, the Spirit Temple encapsulates its themes of growth and reflection, and imbues childlike wonder alongside an adult purposiveness. For these reasons and more, the Spirit Temple may be the “ultimate” Ocarina of Time dungeon. Indeed most of the elements that account for the game being heralded as one of the greatest games of all time are in full bloom here. Its major fault is that it sometimes doesn’t evolve these ideas as thoroughly as ideal, especially time-traveling. Despite this, the Spirit Temple just might be Ocarina’s definitive dungeon, and among the best-designed spaces in the entire series.
The Forest Temple is not unimpeachable. I have gripes about some enemy designs, the hookshot and bow not always being as meaningfully differentiated as they could be, the way the dungeon’s concern with misdirection can lead to profuse backtracking, and how the lack of unlockable shortcuts can make that backtracking unnecessarily aggravating. But ultimately, the Forest Temple is so ambitious, densely realized, and deliberately constructed, that few early 3D spaces rival its design. It is one of the expertly-crafted spaces in one of the most expertly-crafted games ever made, and an experience so ahead of its time that contemporary gamers can still find it astonishing. And it’s a perfect first dungeon for our aged hero of time — as he had matured, so had gaming.