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‘Super Mario 64’ Level by Level: Course 7 – Lethal Lava Land

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Super Mario 64 Featured

Over twenty years later, Super Mario 64 remains a top-notch example of bravely innovative and masterfully fluid game design not only for its groundbreaking three-dimensional gameplay that was a tipping point for the entire industry but also for the design of its intricately crafted and sweepingly diverse fifteen courses. In this continuing feature, I will examine each of these fifteen courses in detail, attempting to pick apart each course and evaluate its accomplishments and inadequacies. With the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey being only the third Mario game in the same vein as Super Mario 64 (following Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine), it is high time to reexamine one of the evergreen staples of the video game canon. In this installment, I’ll be taking a look at Course 7 – Lethal Lava Land.

lethal lava landUnlocked alongside Hazy Maze Cave and Shifting Sand Land after beating Bowser in the Dark World, Lethal Land Land is Course 7 in name only. As the most accessible course of the three, it will likely and should be the first course of the second part of Super Mario 64 many players play. Simpler than Course 6 and structurally similar to Course 8, Lethal Lava Land is an excellent introduction to the second of the four sets of courses in Princess Peach’s castle. Hop inside its portrait of a fiery flame to begin.

The bulk of Lethal Land Land is comprised of about thirty disparate platforms floating in a lava sea. While some of these platforms are flat and fixed, many rise, fall, twist, spin, or tip under Mario’s weight, making for diverse traversal that keeps the player on perpetual edge. It’s an open but orderly layout as if Big Boo’s Haunt’s room were stripped down to bare essentials and sprinkled on tiny islands surrounded by lava. Yet while Big Boo’s Haunt’s tight quarters constrain player movement, Lethal Lava Land is as open as the player is willing to play riskily. In part for this reason, and in part because the course nearly demands it, mastery of the long jump is essential for optimal on-foot traversal, as shortcuts abound when that skill in tow. As a result of this openness, stars can, and likely will, be obtained totally out of order. While the same can be said of Hazy Maze Cave, the more visually clear course layout gives players a clearer sense of the paths they have not yet traveled, translating to minimal backtracking and blind exploration.

lethal lava landNear the center of this lava sea lies an active volcano the player can spring inside. This volcano is more linear than the rest of the stage, but its vertical orientation and direct pathways confront the player with some unique challenges built around precise, deliberate, well-timed movement on foot and pole. It’s almost as if the course’s exterior portion were a jungle gym to train on and the volcano is a set of two undeviating Ninja Warrior-ish obstacle courses.

One central motif of Lethal Lava Land is constant engagement through constant threat. The lava flooding the course is essentially the level’s sole threat, as even the bully baddies cannot directly harm Mario but deal damage by bumping him into the lava. Yet lava always lurks nearby, requiring deft movement and timing to avoid it, so the player never feels totally secure. This constant danger suits the short star length and the level’s open design, as the course doesn’t provide sweeping emotional arcs, but rather a consistent suspense that ebbs and flows depending on the situation, often crescendoing as platforms tend to become smaller and more mobile the further they are from the course entrance. The diverse challenges and platforms ensure this tension never grows stale, instead of enticing the player to take different pathways, keeping navigation fresh and the player on their toes.

lethal lava landBullies (who are both bully-like and bullish) rush toward the player with abandon, placing Mario in the role of a matador who must judge how to position his opponent for an optimal counterattack. The bull-y play on words is not incidental: though they look and move like bulls, they embody the brute force of a schoolyard bully, bested through strategy. Their design mirrors that of the stage — a focus on deliberate control and timing, on striking with precision when the iron is hot. In this way, the course is not only about endangerment, but intelligently and courageously confronting it head-on. The Big Bully boss battle is essentially a David and Goliath tug-of-war of brains versus brawn. In almost every enemy encounter, on almost every platform, the player subconsciously risk-assesses, knowing the path forward is uninviting but necessary.

And with the course seemingly designed around the long jump, the braver the player, the greater promise of mobility. Many shortcuts lie a risky long jump away, rewarding the player for taking risks but punishing error. Fitting in with this theme of careful movement, lava is no longer the insta-death it was in Super Mario World, but will instead propel you upward afire, allowing for the possibility of recovery if the player can maintain adequate enough control of Mario, a punishment the player can minimize through skill. Lethal Lava Land is about patience, planning, and persistence. Its Chinese translation, “Lava Hell” is telling — this is an aggressive level best countered by playing it cool.

lethal lava landStar 1, “Boil the Big Bully,” leads the player through the course by placing a boss battle far opposite the entrance. Upon spawning, a text box reads “Don’t be a pushover! If anyone tries to shove you around, push back! It’s a one-on-one, with a fiery finish for the loser!” The narrator has been spunky, but never so accusatory. This sets a confrontational do-or-die faux aggressive tone that matches the level’s volatile setting. Though the player can take any of several paths to reach the boss arena, they will almost certainly encounter several platforms demanding punctilious jumping and timing. The boss battle pits the player against Big Bully, a large version of the course’s bully enemy. As the toughest boss fight so far, it demands precise and well-timed maneuvering, like the rest of the level. There is an equal focus on opportune offense, with jump kicks being the most effective tactic for besting the bully and earning the first star. Star 2, “Bully the Bullies“ lies just right of Star 1’s boss battle and features three small bully enemies along with a rehash of Star 1’s boss battle. Though undeniably repetitious, it gives a reason for the player to venture toward the back of the course on a different path, and the thoughtful design of the bully enemies make for a pair of unexpectedly strategic tug-of-war-like battles.

“8-coin Puzzle with 15 Pieces” is an innovative take on the red coin leitmotif that is also an undercooked cinch. Though red coins placed atop a sliding puzzle feels ingenious enough to foreshadow elements of Super Mario Galaxy, its implementation is a bit out-of-whack. On one hand, the puzzle pieces move too briskly for the player to make a meaningful premeditated decision about their next move. On the other hand, the pieces are too small to pose a threat, as the coins can easily be collected in fewer than ten seconds. While a red coin challenge in the form of a concise puzzle is a welcome change of pace, larger, slower puzzle pieces could have upped the challenge while empowering the player, smoothing over the star’s overall frivolousness. “Red-Hot Log Rolling,” on the other hand, is an ace example of a physics-based puzzle demanding careful, strategic movement through its delicate design. Here, the player must roll a log across lava by standing on top of it and using Mario’s weight to propel the log forward. It borrows from the lead screw platforms of Super Mario Bros. 3 but emphasizes the world’s physics while amply testing movement timing and accuracy. The log’s size and speed along with the length of the track it rests on coalesce to form a brief but rewarding physics puzzle with a tangible sense of weight and momentum. It is unfortunate nuanced physics-based challenges of this sort are few and far between.

lethal lava landStars 5 and 6 are both earned inside the volcano in the stage’s center, each requiring a series of platforming challenges. Hiding the stars inside the volcano helps organize the star order in an organic way, without feeling stilted. While stars 3 and 4 each ask the player to tackle discrete unique challenges, the course’s final two stars each ask for careful traversal of several smaller challenges. Star 5 winds the player upward around the volcano’s perimeter, throwing bullies, a falling platform, and some pole-jumping at the player. On the whole, limited camera movement can be a hurdle, but its run-the-gauntlet style offers a change of pace still built around scrupulous platforming. Star 6 has the player ride a pair of platforms, pole jump, and hop along a few tiny platforms to the star. It is more tense and thrilling than Star 5 but also feels truncated. Finally, the 100 coin star is optimally acquired Star 5’s and Star 6’s loadout because the player is given access to a crucial koopa shell. This koopa shell can be used to swiftly surf around the overworld, helping procure as many coins as possible in a fast and fun fashion. It’s a fantastic 100 coin challenge, in part because the level is so enjoyable, but also because shell shredding is arguably the most kinetically engaging form of movement in the game.

I have few complaints about Lethal Lava Land, none too scorching. The inconsequential warp sends the player to a location two long jumps away and only one long jump away from the course start. Warping across the level might be more worthwhile, but a level this open and accessible doesn’t need a warp. Star 3 is severely imbalanced and Stars 5 and 6 are very short, but none aren’t enjoyable. The level also seems to think it’s more difficult than it is, being placed after Hazy Maze Cave, featuring eight 1-up mushrooms, and placing a spawn point and spinning heart in the volcano. I wish the coin that bullies drop homed toward Mario because it often arcs into the lava, irretrievable. Finally, more enemy variety could spice up combat and character. The NPCs that populate Cool, Cool Mountain are so endearing and smartly linked to the level’s theme, an appropriate equivalent would be fun.

lethal lava landOn the flipside, Lethal Lava Land accomplishes its objectives admirably. It fully integrates its fiery theme into the course layout, obstacles, enemy design, and overall tone in imaginative and deeply realized ways. It’s a fantastic example of how to thoroughly proceduralize an elusive theme like “heat” from several angles. Little touches, like allowing the player to restart from inside the volcano if they perish inside, betray the course’s foregrounding of player experience through its design. For example, it would have been easier to make lava the deathtrap it was in the 2D Marios, but it instead works as a stepping stone toward Shifting Sand Land’s more punishing quicksand terrain.  It smooths a difficulty curve while also being a brilliant solution to the problem — if you weren’t moving carefully enough to star on the platform, we’re going to make you especially tough to control for several seconds to see if you can earn your recovery. The level is also admirably open — you can reach almost anywhere via any of several paths, on foot, shell, or wing. Even objectives can be tackled in different ways, such as flying to Star 4 to bypass log-rolling or using any number of moves and tactics to take down Star 2’s bullies.

Lethal Lava Land is an obvious course. It doesn’t take long to figure out, see most of its sights, or encounter most of its challenges. But it’s also genius — so secretly genius it can be deceiving. Its cunning lies in its intricacies, like the perfect placing of its platforms or the finely-tuned speed at which its log rolls. And it’s built with an openness in mind that embraces taking your own path, in any direction, on foot, shell, or wing. Despite the potential for its hostile terrain to limit mobility, it embraces the openness of the third dimension more wholeheartedly than any other course so far. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Jolly Roger Bay and Big Boo’s Haunt in its artful design. Even if it might not seem as blatantly distinctive as those two courses, it plays as its own unshakable beast, subliminally perfect.

View all the entries in this series 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.

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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: The Moon

In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s fifth and final semi-dungeon, the Moon.

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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 fifth and final semi-dungeon, the Moon.

The moon

Upon entering the Moon, Link finds himself on a large grassy field with a single tree, four masked children running around, and a fifth child sitting by the tree. It’s a beautiful but eerie sight, with overlit lighting and and a surreal minimalism that feels like Eiji Aonuma may have taken some advice from David Lynch. While the scene betrays some obscure metaphor I can’t pretend to fully comprehend, its practical implications are far more tangible. Each of the four active children can be paid masks so Link can access their corresponding Breath of the Wild shrine-like mini-dungeon that primarily revolves a single mechanic, while talking to the sedentary fifth child triggers the game’s final boss fight.

meadow on the moon

Costing only two masks, the most accessible mini-dungeon is the Odolwa path, which is comprised of several Deku Flowers that Link must use to reach the end. Since most of these Deku Flowers are placed on moving platforms, traversing the path requires some precise timing and maximally efficient routes through the air. If Link falls, he’ll have to start over again from the very beginning, which can grow tiresome but is never too annoying because this room is ultimately fairly easy. Instead, the room is weighed down by how tedious and slow it can be, since the player will spend as much time waiting for the right time to launch themselves as they will actually controlling Link. And since the mini-dungeon contains no other challenges, this decent mechanic ends up feeling milked dry by the end.

The Goht mini-dungeon is similar in several ways to the Odolwa. While it uses Goron Link instead of Deku Link, it too is solely comprised of platforming challenges premised on its transformation’s unique movement mechanic (in this case, rolling). This is a much tougher challenge than the Odolwa path in part because it is longer and more intense. But the camera can be a unresponsive after ricocheting off treasure chests, and it can get especially frustrating on the 3DS since the system’s nub-stick feels too imprecise for the sensitive rolling controls. Though initially inventive and heart-pounding, the Goht mini-dungeon ends up feeling drab, repetitive, and frustrating after a few minutes.

Fierce Deity Mask

The Gyorg mini-dungeon is similar to the previous two mini-dungeons in that it requires Link to traverse a path from start to finish that is designed around its constituent transformation. However, here the challenge is less about controlling Link than finding the correct path forward, as the mini-dungeon’s layout is essentially a one-way water current maze. That means the entire experience is based on monotonous trial-and-error navigation, with the only exception being when Link has to jump out of the water at the end of each section, which is really difficult to consistently pull off. The blind pathfinding combined with an inconsistent (though theoretically enjoyable) move makes this part of the Moon especially obnoxious and not remotely skill-based.

Finally, the Twinmold mini-dungeon is a combat gauntlet where Link fill faces several of the game’s toughest baddies back-to-back. Though it doesn’t channel any individual mask, the smart selection of enemies makes for consistently engaging combat, even if the fights can be made a bit too easy with the Great Fairy sword and ample heart containers. This mini-dungeon features by far the the most vibrant and varied art, which result in some of the best-looking spaces in the entire game. After each battle, Link must lay down a Bombchu to explode a hole in the wall. This is a fun challenge, though it would have been nice to have a few extra Bombchus since correctly timing and placing them can be a hit-or-miss endeavor. As a whole, this mini-dungeon is by far the best of the bunch, and the only one that dabbles in more than one mechanic and feels like an expansion of its dungeon.

Majora in Majora's Mask

The game’s final boss fight is a three-phase epic of outstanding variety and character. The first phase, Majora’s Mask, has two phases in itself. While the first phase mostly just has Link wait for an opportunity to fire arrows and attack after it falls, the second phase is especially clever as it has Link reflect a beam with his Mirror Shield to attack not just Majora’s Mask but three transformation masks which have joined the fray. In practice, aiming the beam can be tough, but it’s a wonderful concept. The second major phase, Majora’s Incarnation, just maniacally runs around, moonwalks, and sometimes fires balls of light. He poses no real threat and has the most shallow moveset of any boss in the game, but he exudes character and embodies the Dionysian chaos that defines the game’s titular mask. Finally, Majora’s Wrath is a comparatively deep fight against a giant humanoid Majora with whip-like tentacles. Though he initially presents a threat and is tactically deep compared to Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath can be easily bested with the Fairy Sword in a surprisingly short amount of time. And if the player has access to the incredibly powerful Fierce Deity mask, any challenge this boss fight may present is quickly nullified, making the final battle a complete and utter cakewalk. 

In terms of presentation, the Moon may be my personal favorite part of Majora’s Mask. Its surreal, eerie, seemingly metaphorical setting feels mysterious despite cutting to the game’s thematic and narrative core. From the moral quandaries about identity the children pose to the gorgeous-but-uneasy field Link arrives on, the Moon is overflowing with quirk and oddball charisma. But in terms of design, the Moon is almost inarguably the most monotonous and least refined of the dungeons. Several of the mini-dungeons that comprise the Moon are trial-and-error slogs built around the subpar platforming mechanics of the transformation masks, and they completely ignore those masks’ other traits. This is especially problematic in the 3DS version of the game, where swimming as a Zora and rolling as a Goron feel in need of adjustment. Meanwhile, several of the mechanics these mini-dungeons test are barely required previously, such as hopping out of the water as a Zora or bouncing off corners as a Goron. Furthermore, much of the art in these mini-dungeons is drab and characterless, while some areas require an undue amount of magic use. And while the game’s final boss trio is vivid and vivacious, it also lacks depth and difficulty. As a whole, both the multi-phase final boss and the dungeon itself feel reminiscent of the final dungeon in Link’s Awakening, which is fitting given that I’m writing this in anticipation of the upcoming Link’s Awakening remake. It is short, aesthetically singular, and heavily reliant on a varied final boss, but as a dungeon is woefully underdeveloped.

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.

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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Stone Temple Tower

I will be looking at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This week is Stone Temple Tower.

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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 third dungeon, Stone Temple Tower.

Stone Temple Tower

Stone Tower Temple’s name is a bit misleading, as it is more of a temple at the top of a stone tower than a stone tower itself. In fact, Stone Tower Temple is the least vertical of the four main dungeons, consisting of only nine rooms across three (but essentially two) floors. Aesthetically, the dungeon is premised around its stone theme, which is admittedly less inspired than Woodfall Temple, has less potential than Snowhead Temple, and is less vivacious than Great Bay Temple. Most of the dungeon dabbles in greys and browns which can get a bit bland, however they do lend the dungeon a visual clarity that is absolutely essential given Stone Tower’s unique navigational complexities. For example, a drab color scheme makes hidden elements, such as a treasure chests on the ceiling the player can grapple to, stand out from the backdrop. While occasional flourishes like wall sketches and the giant face in the main room lend the dungeon a bit more character, it would have been nice if this character came through more prominently in at least the rooms where visual clarity isn’t a necessity.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

The dungeon’s layout may be where it shines brightest, as it plays equally well rightside up and topsy-turvy. This is a magnificent design feat that bests the previous year’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night at its own game in several regards. Aside from this famous inversion mechanic, the dungeon holds up incredibly well on a room-by-room basis. It houses some of the toughest puzzles so far, the most difficult and intentional platforming, and the most intricate combat scenarios. Moreover, the dungeon features some surprisingly varied use of the Mirror Shield in its first half (though angling it precisely can get tricky in a couple rooms), as well as fairy placement that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Great Bay Temple. The only downside to the fairy placement here is that since a couple are placed in well-hidden nooks and crannies, the player may have to flip the dungeon a couple extra times to find their last fairy or two, and that flipping process is grating. The aforementioned treasure chest grapple points should also be noted, both in how they ask the player to reconsider the salient properties of treasure chests, and in how they act as both a platforming mechanic and a reward. All of this said, it can sometimes be difficult to find the way forward when the player has to transition between levels, as the dungeon map doesn’t much help the player navigate its intricate layout. This is another instance of where the game could have benefited from a 3D map that more clearly gave the player a sense of how the dungeon’s different levels connect. In a couple moments, such as locating the upside-down treasure chest needed to reach the final boss door, the treasure chest is so well-hidden that many players probably hit a wall. It should also be noted that having to play the Elegy of Emptiness to weigh down switches so many times gets tiresome, makes backtracking especially obnoxious, and never feels like it is used to its full potential.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

This flipping mechanic is the dungeon’s central gimmick, and while it is an incredible accomplishment in its own right, it also plays into Stone Tower Temple’s concern with perspective. Indeed, the player will find themselves actively searching almost every room of the dungeon multiple times from multiple angles, asking themselves what a room might look like upside-down or mentally bookmarking something currently out-of-reach knowing there may be a reward to reap there later. On a deeper level, this flipping mechanic instills an increased spatial awareness in the player that in turn inspires speculative, curious, perspective-conscious thought. It takes the dungeon’s three dimensions and adds another dimension to it, rewarding players who are especially observant and attuned to abnormalities. In many ways, the Zelda franchise has not seen this form of inspired dungeon design since, with even Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts failing to match the poignancy and immediacy of understanding how flipping a space upside-down impacts layout and traversal. Almost twenty years later, Portal is the only game that come to mind as matching Stone Tower Temple’s ability to recontextualize interior space in such a way that the player has to reevaluate that space from a totally unique perspective in order to play most meaningfully. While flipping is used expertly for navigation, it would have been great to take this one step further through enemy types, bosses, and more puzzles that integrate this mechanic (though this was likely technically infeasible on the N64).

And while the dungeon does not feature its own unique transformation mask, it uses the three from previous dungeons as well as those dungeons ever do. Actually, Goron Link is used to withstand heat (along with rolling), which many players may not even know is one of its unique abilities because it’s not required in Snowhead Temple. Meanwhile, Zora Link is used is for both swimming and underwater combat in areas more spacious (and therefore more suitable to the mask) than Great Bay Temple, and Deku Link is brilliantly integrated into a room with air currents of various power. On the whole, each mask is arguably used better here than in their respective dungeon, though not nearly as thoroughly (especially in combat, where masks are almost never required to fight a specific enemy). Having one multi-stage mini-boss that utilized all three mask types, for example, would have further integrated these transformations cohesively, and having them relate more directly to the dungeon’s flipping mechanic (such as swimming Mario Galaxy-like in a floating pool of water) could have pushed the masks and the dungeon’s central gimmick one step further (though again…technical limitations).

light arrow in the Stone Temple Tower

The dungeon’s item are the Light Arrows, which are yet again just another variation on the basic Arrows earned in Woodfall Temple. Fortunately, their strength and high-rupee rewards upon defeating an enemy make them especially useful in battle, and they are also the key to flipping the dungeon. It’s unfortunate, however, that there isn’t much use for them outside Stone Tower Temple, and that they essentially nullify the Mirror Shield by allowing Link to always have access to light. Combined with heavy mask usage, the Light Arrows can also be a magic drain, meaning players unequipped with some form of magic restoration may have to occasionally farm magic. While the player gets more mileage out of the Light Arrows here than in Ocarina of Time, a couple more unique properties could have made them feel more like a distinct item rather than just powered-up arrows that nullify the Mirror Shield.

Stone Tower Temple is home to a whopping fourteen enemy types, which represent the best enemy selection in the game as a whole. While the dungeon may be lacking a distinct theme, each of these enemy types somehow feels at home, and is almost always placed in a manner that synergizes with a room’s architecture and specialized challenges. Furthermore, some enemies, like the Eyegore, are unusually formidable, while others, like the Death Armos and Hiploop, require forethought and strategizing uncommon in normal baddies. Overall, this is a fantastic enemy palette that represents the pinnacle of Majora’s combat.

Link firing a light arrow.

Fortunately, the three(!) mini-boss fights play only substantiate Stone Tower Temple as having some of the best combat in the game. The Garo Master and Gomess, the dungeon’s first and third mini-bosses, are intricate Souls-lite swordplay scuffles that emphasize defense, timing, and pattern recognition. They are some of the most fully-realized enemies in the entire game and each is far more satisfying, interesting, and enjoyable than some of Majora’s actual bosses. And while Stone Tower does feature another Wizzrobe fight, it is at least slightly more difficult than past incarnations because his warp points are harder to target and his attacks deal more damage. Still, if Wizzrobe were one of two mini-bosses instead of one of three, he would have been supremely disappointing. 

Majora's Mask combat

The boss fight against Twinmold is certainly grand and climactic, but it is also clunky and boring. The first phase has the player shoot at the eyes of a giant flying centipede while dodging another giant flying centipede. While it has a Shadow of the Colossus-like vibe and premise, it can be incredibly difficult to track both bosses at once due to the game’s camera, so Link is often pummeled from off-screen at seemingly random intervals. Unfortunately, the second phase of the fight, which sounds cooler, is even more aggravating. After donning the Giant’s Mask, Link grows massive in stature and learns wrestling moves that allows him to smack, grab, spin, and throw the remaining flying centipede. Unfortunately, a mix of slow movement, shoddy hitboxes, and a far-too-large health bar ultimately make this fight incredibly slow and repetitive. In the end, Twinmold is not the worst boss in the game, but it ends up feeling the most disappointing because its potential is so obviously sky-high.

As a whole, Stone Tower Temple probably features the most consistently satisfying, varied, and innovative gameplay in Majora’s Mask. While fans primarily remember it for its fantastic flipping gimmick, it is just as remarkable for its vast array of combat scenarios, tricky navigational puzzles, and shrewd use of all three transformation masks. Its aesthetic and boss fight might not live up to their potential, but in terms of sheer level design, Stone Tower Temple remains one of the most ambitious and remarkable dungeons in the Zelda franchise. If Great Bay Temple was an inspiration for the Divine Beasts of Breath of the Wild, we can only hope that Breath of the Wild’s inevitable sequel takes a cue from Stone Tower Temple and makes a similarly remarkable evolutionary leap forward.

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.

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‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Great Bay Temple

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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 third dungeon, Great Bay Temple.

great bay temple majora's mask

After hookshotting onto a tree on the back of an adorable giant turtle (which is still too cool twenty years later), Link is chauffeured to the entrance of Great Bay Temple. Upon arriving at Great Bay Temple, things quickly go from surreal to industrial. Indeed, Great Bay Temple is less a temple than a massive flooded apparatus with functioning elevators, waterwheels, and pumps that together represent the most advanced technology in all of Termina. While this setting would seem to encourage drab steampunky greys and browns, Great Bay Temple’s art is actually the most vibrant so far, with shrewd use of color that livens up the environment, creates a distinct sense of place, and clarifies which architecture is most relevant to the player. The heavy use of golds and yellows in giant mechanical architecture might also remind contemporary players of the Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild, which Great Bay Temple seems to have influenced in myriad ways.

great bay temple

The layout of Great Bay Temple is difficult to describe in traditional terms, as many of its rooms and floors seamlessly flow into each other without a door to differentiate between them, almost like an elaborate mouse house. Given such caveats, the dungeon is comprised of roughly thirteen rooms across three floors, with many of those rooms spanning multiple floors. While the general layout can be tough to completely memorize because of its free-flowing nature and rooms of various heights, the flow of the water current (which the player dictates) helps break the dungeon into two main paths — the red and the yellow — which streamline navigation. Unfortunately, since certain rooms can only be accessed when the water is flowing a certain direction, the player might need to walk through the same series of steps multiple times to get where they want to go. Another potential downside is that the dungeon is not as open as it initially appears to be because the the red stream rooms must tackled before the yellow stream rooms. This makes the dungeon a little more faux-pen than open, which might actually be a positive given how cumbersome open underwater navigation might be. On the flipside, it can be aggravating to have to change the current when searching for a final fairy or two.

great bay temple

However Great Bay largely avoids this potential problem because its fairies are so perfectly placed. Compared to the excessively hidden fairies of Snowhead Temple and the stumble-upon fairies of Woodfall Temple, Great Bay’s fairies are essentially mini-puzzles that demand some degree of strategizing to attain. In this regard, they are like the optional treasure chests in Breath of the Wild’s shrines and Divine Beasts — yet another cue BotW takes from this dungeon’s design. It’s also worth noting that Great Bay Temple’s design makes exceptional use of both the Hookshot and the various forms of Arrows, with obstacles such as seesaws asking the player to puzzle-solve using combinations of multiple items. Unfortunately, the 3DS version slightly changes Link’s jump so that certain jumps in throughout the dungeon are frustratingly distanced, making it easy to overshoot so that the player ultimately has to restart the room. For a game that isn’t a platformer, and in which the platforming is arguably crude, it feels like disproportionately harsh punishment.

Unfortunately, Majora’s Mask 3D also makes other changes to basic gameplay that dramatically impact the player’s experience of this dungeon, namely the Zora Mask. While Zora Link could indefinitely dash through water in the N64 version of the game, dashing in the 3DS version requires the use of magic. This means the game introduces a deterrent from practicing the single move that makes Zora Link most enjoyable and unique, which in turn means that by the time the average 3DS player reaches Great Bay Temple, they will likely be far less practiced than the N64 player and the underwater portions of the dungeon will be that much more difficult. Furthermore, the dungeon never calls for Zora Link’s boomerang attack and almost never for his dash, so many players likely have very little practice with Zora Link’s moveset when they fight the dungeon’s final boss, designed around that moveset. Close-quarters combat with Zora Link can also feel inelegant because of the awkwardness of transitioning between his swim controls and his combat controls. Merging the two control schemes could have made a huge difference, and it’s especially disappointing given how cool his boomerang attack and dash attack are that trying to use them can be so tedious. On top of this, the underwater camera can get insanely spastic and unwieldy, so much so that it can feel like a totally different game. So, on the whole, what should be a ridiculously fun and interesting transformation is instead entirely botched in the 3DS version. 

Zora link

Unsurprisingly, almost every aspect of Great Bay Temple is somehow concerned with water. From its central meta-dungeon puzzle, to its item, to its enemy selection, to its boss fight, the dungeon is completely absorbed in its aqueous theme (and for once in a Zelda game, that’s a good thing). Coming off Ocarina of Time’s miserable Water Temple, it seems as if the Zelda team rethought what properties of water would be most fun to engage with. While raising the water level in Ocarina could be tedious, slow, and full of backtracking, changing the current here is simple and results in speedy and empowering movement. While Ocarina of Time’s Iron Boots literally and figuratively weighed the player down, the Zora Mask gets players from here to there in a jiffy, with style to spare. While the Water Temple has Link wade through the same areas time and time again, Great Bay requires minimal backtracking. As a whole, Great Bay emphasizes different properties of water (currents, freezing, and three-dimensional freedom of movement) than those in Ocarina while also more thoroughly understanding what makes water-related gameplay so despised in many games. While swimming can undoubtedly be a chore, specifically in the 3DS version, Great Bay Temple redefines and re-energizes its oft-maligned theme.

Despite being an Arrow derivative, like the meddling Fire Arrows of Snowhead Temple, the Ice Arrows fully realize their potential as a unique item. For puzzles, Ice Arrows prove more satisfactory than Fire Arrows because they enable the player to create a solution rather than simply melting away an obvious obstacle. Moving from one side of a body of water to the other, for example, has the player shoot at sparkling spots on the water’s surface that harden into temporary platforms the player can walk on. While the sparkle is a tad on-the-nose (Breath of the Wild updates and improves upon this with its Cryonis Rune), they still require the player to spot something secondary to the scene and use it to forge a path forward. Further differentiating themselves from normal Arrows, Ice Arrows freeze many enemy types, which are sometimes used for puzzle-solving that masterfully blends puzzles, combat, and platforming. For these reasons, the Ice Arrows are the best dungeon item in the game, and the only ones that feel fully fleshed-out and meaningfully integrated into their respective dungeon.

Great Bay Temple is home to ten enemy types, two of which (Bio Deku Baba and Dexihand) the player has likely not yet encountered. Despite the lack of new endemic enemies, the enemy selection is strong not just because they are more strategically deep than the average foe (for example, the Bio Deku Baba is a rare multi-phase enemy the player can interact with in a surprisingly wide variety of ways), but also because they are especially well-suited to the dungeon. In terms of theming, this is by far the most suitable enemy selection yet, with eight of the ten enemies marine-themed and the other two appropriately placed. But it’s even more impressive how enemies are integrated into each room, often acting as perfectly-positioned obstacles or the solution to a puzzle. The only downsides to the enemy selection is that underwater enemies require underwater combat, which, at least in the 3DS version, is subpar.

great bay temple

The first mini-boss battle against Wart is enjoyable and impressive. Numerous strategies work against Wart, a giant eye surrounded by bubbles, so playing experimentally is hugely advantageous. In fact, seasoned Zelda players may be at a disadvantage if they default to using  the Hookshot, which is actually less effective than bombs or arrows. Wart’s bubble surfeit might make the first phase of the fight slow-going, but discovering, strategizing, and battling him is one of Great Bay’s highlights. The second mini-boss fight against Gekko and Mad Jelly is also surprisingly fun. Though freezing the Jelly in the second phase of the fight can get repetitive, it’s incredibly clever that the game asks the player to equip Fire Arrows before entering the fight. This ensures the player will have to deliberately equip the Ice Arrows during the fight, thus making the battle more about conscientious strategizing than simply trying out whatever item is on hand. Unfortunately, the final fight against Gyorg is a major letdown, with the first phase focusing on shooting the masked fish with arrows, and the second on underwater combat and traversal. Both phases go on far too long, and while the first phase is incredibly easy, the second is can be tedious and touchy given the finicky swim controls and camera. On the whole, this makes Gyorg is one of the most disappointing fights in the entire game. 

Gyorg

Great Bay Temple is an exemplary Majora’s Mask dungeon because it wholly embraces its water theme and the intentionality-driven gameplay that comes with it. In fact, the entire dungeon seems designed around intentionality. Its second mini-boss, for example, has the player unequip the weapon they will need in the battle before entering, so that the player has to intentionally equip it. Meanwhile, the dungeon’s visual clarity and use of color strengthen the water current meta-puzzle and make the player’s decision to change the current more deliberate. And Ice Arrows’ multiple uses involve foresight and conscious decision-making compared to other Arrow types. This all combines to form Majora’s most conceptually genius dungeon so far, even though it is significantly weighed down by its subpar underwater combat, controls, and camera. And if any dungeon in the series inspired the Divine Beasts, this is it — from its gold mechanical setting to its dungeon-altering central gimmick. Even though the 3DS version makes several unfortunate changes that harm the overarching experience Great Bay Temple provides, its delicate, intricate, brave design ensure it holds up shockingly well after almost twenty years.

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.

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