Ura Zelda: A Brief History
Following the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto tasked his development team with remixing the game’s dungeons for Ura Zelda– an expansion set to be released for the ill-fated Nintendo 64DD. Eiji Aonuma, one of Ocarina’s Game System Directors, was personally chosen to repurpose the dungeon design into a proper game, but quickly hit a roadblock. In particular, Aonuma felt that Ocarina of Time’s dungeons weren’t in need of improvement as they were already made to the best of the development team’s abilities. Aonuma only “hesitantly obliged,” carrying a lack of enthusiasm into the project.
In an Iwata Asks focusing on Spirit Tracks’ (and by extension the franchise’s) development, Aonuma reflected on how his role as a dungeon creator for the series kept him from being “excited over making a flip-side,” specifying that he couldn’t “see it turning into a new The Legend of Zelda, either.” As Eiji Aonuma went on to direct Majora’s Mask alongside Yoshiaki Koizumi in place of Ura Zelda, it’s safe to assume what exists of the game– now formally Ocarina of Time Master Quest– was Aonuma’s impassioned brainchild. But this isn’t quite the case. In that same Iwata Asks, Aonuma clarified that his feelings on the matter were in spite of another team ultimately handling development.
As it stands, it’s unlikely Aonuma contributed much to Master Quest’s dungeon design other than what was already present in Ocarina of Time. All the same, it’s important to note his hesitations– especially since he would later leave his fingerprint on MQ when choosing to include it alongside Ocarina of Time 3D. Likewise, it should be stated that Master Quest wasn’t reworked into Majora’s Mask. Rather, both games were in development alongside one another as Ura Zelda and Zelda Gaiden respectively. The former would continue development on the N64DD while the latter would become a proper cartridge-based game.
Since both titles share quite an intimate & close development history, it’s easy to assume Ura Zelda was worked on up until the development of Majora’s Mask started, but Ura Zelda was actually completed sometime in 2000. In a pre-release interview with IGN for The Wind Waker, Shigeru Miyamoto specified how he sought opportunities to release Master Quest, but couldn’t find one until the GameCube began using discs over cartridges. Ported over with Ocarina of Time, Master Quest’s GameCube release marked the first time Ura Zelda was available for audiences.
When it came time to remake Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 3DS, Eiji Aonuma interfered in regards to Master Quest’s inclusion. Perhaps reflective of his initial feelings, Aonuma saw OoT 3D as a chance to make MQ harder. Master Quest 3D isn’t a port of its GameCube release, instead, implementing double damage to better capitalize on more aggressive enemy variety and a mirrored map to throw off series veterans. More curious, however, is how working on Ocarina of Time 3D changed Aonuma’s perspective on Master Quest. In regards to the merits of Master Quest’s enhanced challenge;
“The main game is the main game and the Master Quest is the Master Quest. Clearing each one results in a completely different memory. Being able to brag is important. I realized all over again how important that is for a video game.” – Eiji Aonuma
It of course makes sense that Aonuma’s enthusiasm for Master Quest would improve now having left his fingerprint on the project, but something does need to be said for how well MQ 3D’s contributions bolster Ura Zelda’s original design philosophy. Miyamoto’s decision to develop Ura Zelda was rooted in a desire to incorporate cut ideas and offer another layer of challenge. The fact enemies did so little damage was always a flaw in Ocarina of Time’s otherwise well-designed combat. It only makes sense to round off harder dungeons & puzzles with harder combat. The base Master Quest does do this to an extent through revamped enemy placement & variety, but MQ 3D’s double damage only strengthens the core design.
There’s value in a challenge for challenge’s sake, and it’s why Master Quest exists at all. In many respects, Aonuma was right to push back against Ura Zelda. Majora’s Mask is not only a far superior game, Master Quest’s dungeons admittedly don’t match the same level of quality present in Ocarina of Time. At the same time, Master Quest is not a failed experiment by any stretch of the imagination. More than a remix, Master Quest serves as an opportunity to make fuller use of Ocarina of Time’s items, puzzle concepts, and mechanics. The game’s final staff ultimately approached the title with a different mindset than that of Ocarina’s.
With exceptions, dungeon items are now found relatively early– often featuring a greater volume of puzzles centered on said items. Ocarina puzzles are abundant, with players needing to play music rather frequently in order to create makeshift pathways. Master Quest requires a level of lateral thinking unfound in Ocarina of Time, even going so far as to abandon conventional and (mostly) sensible level architecture in favor of cows that act as switches, Dodongos nesting deep inside the Water Temple, and the Spirit Temple defying all logic by having Link’s actions in the future influence the past.
Master Quest lacks Ocarina of Time’s sophistication when it comes to dungeon layouts or even just puzzle pacing, but the level of creativity at play is admirable. Even at its most obtuse, Master Quest makes some degree of sense. There are a number of frustrations throughout and set pieces that border on unfair– a problem OoT doesn’t have– but the “ah-ha” moment is almost always worth it. If anything, Master Quest pushes its puzzles to such extremes that conquering every revamped dungeon & defeating Ganon is arguably more rewarding than in Ocarina of Time. At least superficially. If nothing else, diving headfirst into Master Quest’s dungeons makes for a refreshing return to the Hero of Time’s Hyrule.
The Child Dungeons
The Deku Tree is quite the iconic introduction through concept alone. Link braving the interior of an ancient tree on the cusp of death is a powerful set-piece, but what elevates the dungeon is how it uses vertical space to teach players how to navigate 3D level design. Every room of the Deku Tree helps convey the core concepts that define Ocarina of Time’s level design– from one on one combat to eye switches, block puzzles, and torch lighting. The Fairy Slingshot is the player’s first major item, and its first-person aiming is a staple that’s shared with Link’s most essential tools.
The first dungeon in the game, Inside the Deku Tree is naturally quite easy, but its atmosphere & level design keep it engaging even for veterans. Master Quest instinctively plays off this, capitalizing on the opportunity to offer a surprising degree of challenge out the gate. The Deku Tree can feel like a sucker punch, especially in MQ 3D where Link’s initial three hearts can be drained in seconds. As Master Quest expects you to have played Ocarina of Time beforehand, the Deku Tree’s design goal pivots from conveying easy-to-parse level design nuances to instead focus more closely on combat and “outsmarting” the player.
Enemies are found in abundance, with Keese swarming Link almost immediately. Gohma Larva appears both in greater numbers and in greater frequency, leading to potentially hectic encounters for those caught off-guard. A Big Deku Baba even guards the entrance down to Gohma, serving as a mini-boss of sorts. It all lends to a fuller, less tutorial-esque dungeon. Notably, the puzzle leading into Gohma’s boss door no longer has a referenceable code in Master Quest. Players need to now guess which order to hit Gohma’s three Deku Scrub guards in. The simplicity of the puzzle makes this a non-issue, but it’s an interesting trick to play on a design level. It’s almost Master Quest’s way of formally tossing traditional design conventions aside.
All things considered, MQ’s Deku Tree makes a strong first impression. The fact it’s more dangerous than its Ocarina counterpart alone makes it quite a compelling reintroduction. That said, the precedent the codeless Deku Scrub trio set is something of a double-edged sword and exactly what holds Master Quest’s dungeons back. Information is often conveyed poorly, or not at all. Players are tasked with examining their surroundings on an incredibly intimate level, with quick scans usually punished. There’s certainly value in such thorough exploration yet frustration comes quicker in Master Quest than the average Zelda. It’s meant to, of course, but it’s hard not to miss well-telegraphed puzzles at times.
Dodongo’s Cavern doesn’t follow up the Deku Tree with much grace, reorganizing the order in which Link tackles the floor and in turn stunting the original dungeon’s fluid progression. Bombs are found far earlier and see more puzzle-use, but exploring the cavern simply isn’t as fun as it once was. The Deku Tree’s meticulous touch is all but absent, with enemies scattered throughout the dungeon with no rhyme or reason. The presence of Gohma Larva, Poes, and Mad Scrubs should all offer combat variety, but they’re included for the sake of it– not to offer greater challenge and not to accentuate the dungeon.
Jabu-Jabu’s Belly follows a similar approach– notably swapping out switches in favor of partially digested cows– but this plays off the already absurd nature of Lord Jabu-Labu’s labyrinthine body. Master Quest also shows restraint with the belly of the beast that it lacks with Dodongo’s Cavern. The only notable enemy inclusions Master Quest makes are Lizalfos, Keese, and Like-Like– all of which do an excellent job at challenging players in tight corridors, making use of the boomerang, and catching the unattentive off guard respectively. These are fairly important additions as Jabu-Jabu’s Belly actually takes a back seat as far as complexity is concerned.
The original Jabu-Jabu’s Belly notably features Link escorting Princess Ruto around, using her to push down switches and make headway through the dungeon. The layout itself actually isn’t that complicated, but it can be difficult to navigate and understand how to properly proceed. Master Quest only uses Ruto when absolutely necessary, progressing like a more traditional dungeon where Link linearly solves puzzles and defeats waves of enemies. Jabu-Jabu is less ambitious in MQ than in OoT, but between cow switches & plenty of action, the dungeon still serves as a compelling send-off to the child portion of the game.
The Adult Dungeons
Acquiring all three Spiritual Stones and pulling out the Master Sword is a major turning point for Ocarina of Time. Link awakens seven years in the future and is immediately tasked with saving a now Ganondorf-ruled Hyrule. Although players are free to explore at their leisure, Sheik points out Kakariko Village and the Forest Temple as hotspots worth getting around to sooner rather than later. Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple might very well be the best-designed dungeon in the game, balancing thoughtful puzzle design with a consistent stream of action, detailed oriented exploration, and some of the best 64-bit atmosphere of its generation. Just the hunt for the Poe Sisters makes the Forest Temple a series standout.
Like in Ocarina of Time, the Forest Temple is when Master Quest takes the training wheels off. There’s a considerable spike in puzzle difficulty coming from Jabu-Jabu’s Belly. Puzzle cues are very much present, but they’re far more subtle. Players have to be careful to spot hidden torches, and incredibly well-hidden switches. Lowering the water inside the courtyard’s well now requires peering into the well to spot an eye switch, something few players will instinctively think to do. MQ’s Forest Temple is unforgiving when it comes to conveying information, perfectly content to let players wander until they stumble upon the solution themselves.
The Forest Temple also marks the first major time Link needs to create a makeshift staircase by playing the Song of Time. These puzzles show up a few times throughout the adult portion of Master Quest, but they’re not always handled gracefully. The Forest Temple’s implementation of the puzzle is novel & well handled, but the more it’s used throughout Master Quest, the worse it becomes. Unlike block-pushing puzzles, song staircase puzzles require quite a bit of busywork. Link needs to position himself properly before playing his ocarina, a process that often has to be done multiple times before the puzzle is over. This naturally takes uptime, and a single mess-up can be costly.
The Forest Temple is a strong opening to the second half of Link’s journey, but it’s actually one of two possible starting points once players reach the future. In Ocarina of Time, you can start with either the Forest Temple or the Fire Temple– the Fairy Bow only needed in the latter for the dungeon map. In Master Quest, however, the Water Temple takes the Fire Temple’s place as an alternate first dungeon, no longer requiring the Bow to proceed. Notably, even the Ice Cavern has been remixed, a mini-dungeon Link needs to complete before tackling the Water Temple.
The Ice Cavern sees a recognizable change, but it’s not particularly memorable outside of the final fight and a switch hidden under the ice. Master Quest’s Ice Cavern doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from its original counterpart, and if the rooms present are evidence of Ocarina of Time’s cut Ice Temple, Nintendo was clearly in the right to switch gears towards designing the Water Temple. At least the Stalfos at the end of the mini-dungeon makes for a great surprise. Wolfos were always a bit too easy, and Master Quest cleverly holds off, often replacing the beasts with skeletal warriors. A one-on-one duel against a Stalfos for the Iron Boots is a great cap off, and even serves as some impromptu training for the battle against Dark Link.
Master Quest’s Water Temple isn’t better than its Ocarina of Time counterpart but is certainly more palatable. The Water Temple can be confusing, demanding a level of attention OoT seldom does. It’s by far the hardest dungeon in the game, and while it has a reputation, on a design level the Water Temple is also one of the series’ best. With less emphasis on lowering & raising the water level, Master Quest chooses to focus on Longshot related puzzles, challenging how well players can use their new toy. Likewise, there’s a greater emphasis on combat– and not underwater.
One room in particular features Link fighting three Stalfos at once where they were once non-presences in the Water Temple. Dodongos also serve as enemies, defying a bit of logic but offering a surprise in the process. While simpler, Master Quest’s Water Temple is still well designed and would actually fit in well enough in the base Ocarina of Time. Like with Jabu-Jabu, easier navigation doesn’t necessarily make the dungeon better, but it’s an important change that helps keep the Master Quest dungeons distinctive. For many, MQ’s Water Temple will have undeniably greater appeal for that very reason.
Master Quest’s Fire Temple isn’t as well-put-together as the Forest or Water Temples, but its design shines a fascinating light on a Master Quest quality that’s easy to ignore: the Gold Skulltula Tokens. Master Quest goes crazy when it comes to Gold Skulltula placement. They are consistently harder to find than their Ocarina of Time counterparts and often make use of tougher puzzles than those forced for progression. In fact, only the first three and a half floors of the Fire Temple are mandatory in Master Quest. The rest of the dungeon is reserved for hunting down Tokens.
Interestingly, this is a concept The Legend of Zelda would go on to play with in later 3D titles. Majora’s Mask features optional Stray Fairies, The Wind Waker has Treasure Charts, and Twilight Princess hides away Pieces of Heart. Granted, Ocarina of Time’s dungeon Tokens were already similar in concept, but the majority lack the constant hunting present throughout Master Quest’s dungeons. There are two keys in the Fire Temple specifically tied to finding Gold Skulltula Tokens, along with a Flare Dancer mini-boss players outright miss if they go straight to Volvagia.
It should be pointed out that the mandatory path through MQ’s Fire Temple actually introduces an early Iron Knuckle. Appearing as soon as Link reaches the Spirit Temple in Ocarina of Time, Iron Knuckles are the hardest mini-bosses in the game. They have a considerable amount of health, get a speed buff when they’re near death, and can cut through Link’s hearts. In Master Quest 3D, a single axe strike will do eight hearts of damage, offering a nice spike in difficulty as players prepare to take on Master Quest’s final set of dungeons.
The Final Dungeons
As was the case in Ocarina of Time, Master Quest’s Shadow Temple can only be accessed after the Forest, Fire, and Water Temples are cleared. New, however, is the quality time players must now spend inside the Bottom of the Well, the Shadow Temple’s mini-dungeon lead-in. In the original Well, players could make a beeline directly to the Lens of Truth if they knew what they were doing. Experienced players can easily plow through the Well in minutes, which Master Quest naturally wants to prevent. The majority of puzzles now have to be done, and anyone looking to get out fast best get comfortable. The Bottom of the Well is much denser now, closer in length to young Link’s introductory dungeons than the average mini-dungeon.
The Shadow Temple was Ocarina of Time’s most action-oriented dungeon, to begin with, so it would make sense to switch gears and instead focus on puzzle solving, but Master Quest curiously doubles down on the Temple’s core level design to the point of being almost identical to its Ocarina counterpart. On one hand, the familiarity makes the even greater emphasis on action easier to appreciate, along with what new puzzles there are. On the other hand, what new puzzles there are tend to be incredibly simple and Master Quest’s non-enemy related additions clash rather jarringly with the Shadow Temple’s otherwise untouched design. The Deadhand fight inside the torture room which requires Link to use the Lens of Truth & bombs to fight back is genius, but it’s out of place amidst the rest of the dungeon.
Master Quest’s Spirit Temple doesn’t have this problem, one of the most remixed dungeons in the game, but it introduces an issue the original Spirit Temple had enough foresight to avoid. Ocarina of Time requires Link to visit the Spirit Temple three times. The first is in the future as an adult– during this visit, players discover there’s nothing they can do inside the Temple and learn the Requiem of Spirit. The second time is in the past– by playing the Requiem of Spirit as a child, young Link can visit the Spirit Temple and find the Silver Gauntlets. The final visit once again takes place in the future– now equipped with the Silver Gauntlets, Link can access the meat of the Spirit Temple and complete the dungeon in one, uninterrupted go.
Notable is that the first visit requires no effort on the player’s part while the second makes use of the game’s signature time travel mechanic for puzzle solving. Master Quest demands a minimum of five visits from the player, greatly lengthening the Spirit Temple. Anyone who instinctively leaves the Temple right away will similarly be punished as MQ makes use of two-way time travel– what Link does in the future also affects the past. The back and forth quickly becomes frustrating, especially since the remixed puzzles and set pieces are some of the best in Master Quest. If the Spirit Temple followed the same structure as in Ocarina of Time, only with new challenges, it would stand out so much better.
As is, it’s admittedly difficult to appreciate everything MQ’s Spirit Temple has to offer when you’re trying to make sense of when to travel back in time and why. This is especially a pity since the Spirit Temple’s new set pieces are consistent highlights. Young Link has to fight a Stalfos on a spinning gear surrounded by fire & bottomless pits, making for a nailbiter of an encounter. Dinolfos who were previously exclusive to Gerudo’s Training Ground & Ganon’s Castle now wander the Temple and can throw off players mistaking them for Lizalfos. A Club Moblin and a Giant Leever serve as environmental mini-bosses in the player’s path. There’s even a Wallmaster cruelly waiting for Link to kneel down in front of the Goddess’ statue with his Mirror Shield.
It’s understandable why Master Quest would want to amplify time travel in this regard– it is the Spirit Temple’s defining gimmick, after all– but the dungeon goes too far and sours its finer qualities in the process. Not to the point where they aren’t enjoyable, but there’s a fair amount of tedium between all those high points. Bizarrely, the Gerudo Training Ground (Ocarina of Time’s optional mini-dungeon) is substantially easier. There are only three small keys, the puzzles aren’t nearly as hard, and the only real challenge comes from the new enemies. It makes nabbing the Ice Arrows a much easier task, giving a rarely used weapon more opportunities to shine.
Ganon’s Castle makes for quite a final exam, going all in to test how well players understand Master Quest’s obtuse level design. Players even need to find keys in the Forest, Shadow, and Spirit in order to gain full access to the Light Sage’s chamber. Those who see the Castle’s many wings as a one & done deal are in for a rude awakening. Likewise, the Golden Gauntlets have been moved from the Shadow to Spirit room– now hidden amidst a wall of sun panels. In terms of puzzle quality, however, the rooms are hit or miss.
The Forest & Fire rooms are mainly unchanged, and they suffer for it. What few additions they have served in making their parts of the dungeon all the more frustrating. Beamos now litter the Forest room, ready to zap Link into a bottomless pit, while the Fire room now challenges how well players can control Link to the point of frustration– throwing hazard after hazard at the poor Hero of Time, ready for him to plummet into the lava. The Water Room is technically different from its Ocarina of Time counterpart, but the changes are so minor and really only exist to force players to empty another bottle.
The Shadow room is likewise fairly similar to its OoT variation, but mandatory use of the Fire Arrows makes for a nice curveball for anyone who chose to ignore the weapon after clearing the Water Temple. The absence of the Golden Gauntlets can also be quite a shock to those who still haven’t wised up to Master Quest’s tricks. Thankfully, the Spirit and Light rooms close out the first half of Ganon’s Castle on a high– the former is filled with great action and a very cheeky Mirror Shield puzzle at the end, while the latter explicitly plays on how well you can read Master Quest’s absence of visual cues (which in itself has become a cue of sorts by Ganon’s Castle.)
As disappointing as it is strange, the staircase climbs up towards Ganondorf’s chamber is completely unchanged. So much effort is put into revamping Master Quest– to the point where the game almost serves as Ocarina of Time’s dungeon antithesis– only for the last stretch to just give up. Perhaps this is Master Quest’s designers respecting Ocarina of Time’s iconic finale and leaving it as is, but with all the added focus on combat, the fact the second half of Ganon’s Castle doesn’t have any more Iron Knuckles or Stalfos to get in Link’s way is underwhelming. Doubly so during the Castle escape and the same old Stalfos show up in Link’s path. It’s a great moment in Ocarina of Time, but an Iron Knuckle would have been appropriately Master Quest.
But this is where double damage and the mirrored map come in to save the day. As right as he was not to touch Master Quest, Aonuma’s desire to fortify MQ 3D with some “artificial” difficulty does go a long way. There aren’t any new enemies leading up to Ganondorf, but they hit much harder– the Iron Knuckle tag team liable to kill careless players. Flipping the map also makes descending Ganon’s Castle a bit tougher, stepping all over muscle memory while bringing back some tension to Link & Zelda’s escape. The base Master Quest may not stick the landing, but Master Quest 3D certainly does. Or at least comes very, very close.
Recontextualizing Ocarina of Time’s dungeon design to offer a fresh experience for series veterans, Master Quest is not a standalone adventure nor is it a replacement. MQ is an extra challenge, a little bonus for franchise fans yearning for more difficulty. Master Quest lacks a considerable amount of grace, faltering and failing to truly improve upon Ocarina of Time. But the level design present is philosophically different enough where Master Quest does feel like its own experience– albeit framed through Ocarina’s skeleton. There’s merit in the franchise taking a look back at Master Quest to see what worked and what didn’t.
The Legend of Zelda could stand to handle enemy placement & variety like Master Quest. Not all new enemies were included sensibly, but those that were added to their dungeons. It’s thrilling running into Stalfos and needing to suddenly fight for your life. Likewise, there’s merit in playing Master Quest, if only for those bragging rights. MQ was a challenge specifically catered towards those who had felt they had conquered Ocarina of Time. It isn’t a better game by any means, nor does it offer a truly comparable experience to that of OoT’s, but why should it? More importantly, MQ 3D actually manages to bolster the original design with a deeper layer of difficulty, selling the idea of Master Quest as a gauntlet for Zelda experts. Master Quest is no Ocarina of Time, but it’s a challenge worth embarking on.