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‘Ocarina of Time’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Dodongo’s Cavern



In commemoration of Goomba Stomp’s second anniversary staff list champion, our Level-by-Level feature will be diving into The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, dungeon-by-dungeon. Although Breath of the Wild is utterly superb, its reimagining of the Zelda formula is noticeably lacking classic dungeon design. This continuing series will take a look back at the entry that established the 3D dungeon template, in turn altering dungeon design in ways that would dominate and define the series for nearly twenty years. And since the 2011 3DS remaster makes a wide variety of changes to the original but remains equally masterful, I will be looking at that version alongside the 1998 Nintendo 64 release. In this entry, I will be examining Ocarina of Time’s second dungeon, Dodongo’s Cavern.

Dodongo’s Cavern provided food for the nearby population of Gorons until Ganondorf sealed its entrance with a boulder and and placed King Dodongo inside. After coaxing Darunia, the Goron patriarch, into giving Link the Goron’s Bracelet, Link is able to blow the entrance wide open and confront King Dodongo inside. Although serviceable, this dungeon’s prelude is underwhelming next to Inside the Deku Tree’s grace and gravity. Compared to the profound plight of the sagacious but decrepit Great Deku Tree, the path to Dodongo’s Cavern feels tonally uneven. Plus, it begs questioning why a Goron hasn’t already cleared the entrance with a bomb of their own plucking.

Dodongo’s Cavern’s defining feature is its massive central room, from which all other paths branch off and often wind back into. A Giant Dodongo skull serves as the room’s formidable centerpiece, framed by overhanging bridges and lava flooring that project a fierce and fiery ambience. Coupled with the rainbow aurora borealis-like “lighting” of the N64 version, it sets an aesthetic precedent the rest of the dungeon struggles to live up to. Meanwhile, the 3DS version tones down coloration in favor of naturalism. It emphasizes shades of brown I find less inspiring and less evocative of the mystical power affecting the cavern. Regardless of color, looping back into this room through various pathways allows the dungeon’s inward-turned design to offer a sense of progress, providing a home base the player will return to time and again.

Four linear paths lie connected to this central room, each presenting the player with a set of challenges before ultimately spitting them back into the central room, though sometimes on a different floor. In moments like this, height is used quizzically, as a means of obscuring and confounding as well as empowering and enabling. Though less vertical than Inside the Deku Tree, verticality is more central to Dodongo’s Cavern mechanical identity. Here, the player drops bombs into the eyes of the aforementioned skull from a bridge above. They battle two sets of mini-bosses in what turns out to be different floors of the same room. They solve a puzzle by collapsing a staircase from the second floor to the first. Through this emphasis on verticality and more complex traversal, Dodongo’s Cavern is able to offer multi-step puzzles that require more forethought and kinesthetic skill than their counterparts in Inside the Deku Tree. The only major downside is that these open spaces can occasionally feel vacuous — a bit less taut than the intricate room design of Inside the Deku Tree.

Much of Dodongo Cavern’s design is premised around rocks, bombs, and intense heat. It houses the unforgiving ecosystem one might expect inside Death Mountain, the sort of arena where rock-solid Gorons cut their teeth. Unfortunately, these themes don’t always feel fully developed. Rocks and bombs go hand-in-hand of course, with bombs used to destroy stone walls. But little else is done with the rock theme outside of justifying disappointingly uniform art from room to room. The intense heat, meanwhile, provides some eye candy in the form of lava flow and rising smoke, but is never used mechanically in any deeper way than in most games — touch the hot floor and suffer damage. Perhaps this simplicity goes hand-in-hand with the dungeon’s general ease, which seems to pick up from where Inside the Deku Tree left off. Although its paths are more winding and interconnected than a simple A Link to the Past dungeon, the replacement of keys with destructible rock walls makes the journey more linear. I don’t find this heightened linearity to be intrinsically good or bad, but it is worth noting how much Ocarina of Time has thus far focused on intra-room puzzles rather than inter-room puzzles, or the classic Zelda leitmotif of turning the dungeon into one large puzzle.

These intra-room puzzles frequently impose limitations on the player by way of obstacle, itself a design theme of Dodongo’s Cavern. While Inside the Deku Tree limited mobility through barred doors and spiderwebs, Dodongo’s Cavern often architecturally obstructs the path to a room’s exit, asking the player to find their way out via puzzle. The player will push and pull blocks in one room, warily skirting around a Blade Trap in another, and bomb so many walls that bombable walls essentially function as doors. Meanwhile, strategically placed fire pits ensure the player is more fluent in basic traversal than they ever had to be in Inside the Deku Tree. For the most part, these obstacles successfully require the player to assess and reassess the space they are in while planning interaction with and between various objects. Unfortunately, the sticky camera can make Blade Traps a bit harder to spot around corners than sometimes feels fair, and pushing slow-moving blocks feels tedious. Despite their blemishes, these simple obstacles act as a tutorial for basic interactions with objects, alerting players of the various ways they can manipulate a scene to suit their needs. Although not every room is thrilling, it sets the stage for more complex and consistently satisfying puzzles in later dungeons.

The bomb bag is a notably disappointing dungeon item. Although it allows Link to access numerous locations around the overworld that were previously inaccessible, it is ultimately nothing more than storage space for an item the player has already obtained. And though it is an upgrade, it does not meaningfully add to the gameplay — it just makes a particular item more accessible. Even a minor shift, like allowing players to throw bombs further, quicker, or more accurately could have enabled more specialized puzzles than those designed around the bomb bag. That’s because there aren’t really any puzzles designed around the bomb bag, just puzzles designed around bombs in areas where there are no naturally-occurring bombs. Perhaps the player shouldn’t have been able to throw bombs until acquiring this dungeon’s item. Then the throw mechanic could have been used to provide a boost in combat and expand upon puzzle possibilities. It would have also been better match for the King Dodongo fight that requires players to throw bombs into his mouth. But as it stands, the bomb bag is a lackluster item, despite how satisfyingly bombs themselves are used throughout the dungeon.

In general, enemies in Dodongo’s Cavern feel thematically united like they do in Inside the Deku Tree, but they are also more diverse and engaging. The Dodongo-type enemies ramp up from Baby Dodongos, to Dodongos, and finally King Dodongo, all of which feature a similar look but encourage increasingly intricate battle tactics. The explosion Baby Dodongos and Dodongos emit upon defeat is a brilliant thematic tie-in to the rest of the dungeon, and if the player discovers that they can use that explosion to destroy a wall in an early room, it feels like a stroke of tactical genius. Meanwhile, Keese offer a welcome opportunity to use the slingshot throughout the dungeon, but the camera can be a hindrance if the player tries taking them on with sword and shield. It is fun to see how they, along with Beamos, transition into 3D so successfully. Armos, meanwhile, feels overpowered compared to the rest of the enemies. And compared to later entries in the series, they don’t successfully telegraph their vulnerability to bombs through their design. The real highlight, though, are the four Lizalfos, who act as mini-bosses requiring skill and pattern recognition to defeat. More than any enemy so far, the Dark Souls-lite ebb and flow of battling a Lizalfos in close quarters reminds the player of how Ocarina’s combat would go on to heavily influence action-adventure games for decades.

Although King Dodongo is preceded by multiple other types of Dodongo, the dominant strategy for defeating King Dodongo is less intuitive and satisfying because these types of Dodongo are feel united in name and aesthetic, but not in design or behavior. That said, besting King Dodongo is still a simple feat, requiring a bomb toss into his mouth and subsequently lashing. In taking turns between offense and defense and requiring a small puzzle component, he acts as a more typical 3D Zelda boss than Queen Gohma. But falling into the arena, briefly seeing Link through King Dodongo’s perspective, and watching the particularly gruesome death animation (it’s almost guilt-inducing, like Shadow of the Colossus) all craft an indelible atmosphere that overshadow the simple repetitious battle.

Although Dodongo’s Cavern is enjoyable enough, it suffers from a handful of noticeable flaws. From gaining access to the dungeon to earning an underwhelming bomb bag, it feels as though bombs are not optimally introduced and upgraded throughout the dungeon. By adding either one new bomb ability with the bomb bag or pushing bombs back so the player unlocks bombs as the dungeon’s item, bombs could have been more meaningfully integrated into the overarching experience of progressing through the dungeon. Additionally, the various shades of brown and grey that defines the dungeon’s art style (at least on 3DS) feels like a step back from Inside the Deku Tree, which seems more inspired and thoroughly considered if also drab. Finally, some items and areas could have been relocated so that players’ efforts better match their rewards. Spending time and hearts to access a room with only Deku salesmen seems like a waste of a good battle. Throwing a Gold Skulltula in there, instead of in a region the player won’t even be able to access until later in the game, could smoothen progress through the dungeon while also eliminating pointless backtracking.

Despite these complaints, 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.

For deep dives into other dungeons from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario 64, click here.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.