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 fifth and a half dungeon, the Ice Cavern. Since the Ice Cavern is a mini-dungeon, and its official status still disputed amongst fans, I have written a mini-analysis to suit its stature.
After beating the Fire Temple, the player can proceed directly to Zora’s Fountain behind Zora’s Domain, jump across some spinning ice floats, and hop straight into the mouth of the Ice Cavern. Depending on whether one counts the Ice Cavern as a dungeon or merely a pit stop on the way to the Water Temple, the path to the Ice Cavern could either seem nearly nonexistent or the start of a deeply developed dungeon prelude.
The Ice Cavern is a brief, sleek, slick mini-dungeon comprised of small- and medium-sized rooms connected via narrow passages riddled with icicles. Per usual, each small room contains an isolated challenge, usually incorporating the dungeon’s icy setting. Aesthetically, the 3DS version is heads and shoulders above the N64 version, featuring more intricate and diverse textures that make the dungeon feel more varied and palpable. One notable downside is that falling into a pit sends players back to the dungeon’s entrance, likely because there aren’t any doors to segment spawn points. Since the dungeon is so small, however, this isn’t a terrible setback. And the lack of doors makes for a more free-flowing experience that emphasizes the naturalistic cave setting. It is also worth noting that the Ice Cavern’s small stature renders the map and compass meaningless. Replacing them with more contextually meaningful rewards or just removing them entirely could have either contributed to a sense of progression or cut some fat.
Unsurprisingly, the Ice Cavern’s central theme is…ice. This is reflected in nearly every aspect of the dungeon’s design, from its slippery surfaces, to its enemies capable of freezing the player, to its wintry art. The depth with which the dungeon integrated its theme into its design is especially commendable given its brevity. Indeed, nearly every room takes advantage of its iciness in one way or another. The room with a spinning blade, for instance, is made more interesting and challenging because of the slippery surface the player must navigate while dodging the blade. Another room demands the player solve puzzles by pushing blocks across an icy surface, where a pushed block will continue to slide until it rams into an obstacle. This not only justifies an entirely new form of block puzzle, but feels like an improvement upon the sluggish block puzzles of past dungeons. In both of these instances and more, ice is implemented in a fairly typical, intuitive manner, but also in a manner that shakes up (and sometimes improves upon) basic mechanics. It is also worth noting that both of these rooms incorporate five scattered silver rupees the player must collect to proceed, ensuring the player explores the surrounding space and engages with the room’s core concept in multiple ways. This fleshes out each room while providing minor checkpoints, a bit like a small-scale version of the imprisoned Gorons in the Fire Temple.
In a sense, the Ice Dungeon introduces two new items — the Iron Boots and the Blue Fire. The Iron Boots act as a typical dungeon item, being permanently added to Link’s inventory so he can use them any item to overcome an obstacle. Specifically, these boots allow Link to sink to the bottom of a body of water and walk around there as he would on land. But because the Iron Boots are earned at the dungeon’s tail end, the Blue Fire feels more structurally poised to be the dungeon’s item, as it is earned partway through and opens up traversal throughout the cavern. That said, it is expendable, takes up a bottle, and is only used to melt red ice within the dungeon as well as two instances outside the dungeon, detracting from the sense of it being an actual item. And while some might fault the Blue Fire for taking up valuable bottle real estate, I feel it’s a clever way to reward bottle collection since additional bottles allow for more efficient progress. This is a rare and crafty way to reward extra-dungeon accomplishments within a dungeon while also lending a sense of cohesion between inner- and extra-dungeon actions. As a side note, it is strange that arrows can’t be shot through Blue Fire to melt red ice the same way they can through normal fire to melt normal ice. The placement of some Blue Fire torches seem to tantalize the player into attempting this solution, and it can feel puzzling and inconsistent when it doesn’t work.
Enemies in the Ice Cavern incorporate the dungeon’s ice theme more purposefully than the enemies of some fully-fledged dungeons. Compared to the Fire Temple, say, where the only new baddies are Torch Slugs that integrate fire, the Ice Cavern features Freezards and Ice Keese, both of which freeze Link. Although being frozen only minimally impacts gameplay, it at least feels more deeply considered than being burnt by a Torch Slug. The White Wolfos boss is only a buffed version of a regular Wolfos, but its unique frosty art makes it appear an endemic subspecies living within a stunning celestial arena, especially in the 3DS version. This is all to say that although the Ice Cavern could have made freezing a more potent and nuanced status ailment, it does more with its elemental enemy design than some dungeons twice its length.
“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.
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.