What’s a Zelda game without labyrinthian dungeons? Well, okay, it’s Breath of the Wild. But until the Switch game came and turned convention on its head (in a good way), every game in the series was home to usually eight or nine dungeons, usually built around a theme — there’s often “the fire one,” “the ice one,” and, to borrow from many a gamer, “the terrible one,” which usually includes water. We won’t cover every last one here, but these are some of our favorites, for so many reasons.
Ice Ruins (A Link Between Worlds)
By Stephanie Sybydlo
A Link Between Worlds offers something a little strange to commend: A perfectly moderate difficulty. No dungeon is difficult enough to be this game’s “Water Temple.” No puzzle will leave you clueless for too long, and there’s no giant pillar to break down, ghosts to catch, or series of complicated riddles to solve. Heck, the Ice Ruins are barely unique even for an ice-themed dungeon: You’re still slipping and sliding around areas and the giant frozen boss is hurt by — gasp — fire damage! But I feel I need to say all this to explain why the Ice Ruins is a favorite for this game: It’s long, it’s fun, and it’s just the right amount of difficult so it never feels like it has overstayed its welcome. These ruins offer a single central elevator, numerous floors, secrets, enemies, puzzles, indoor/outdoor segments, and clever use of ALBW’s wall merging mechanic. Throw in some fire to thaw against the cold scenery, and you’ve got a solid Zelda dungeon.
Palace of Twilight (Twilight Princess)
By Peter Triezenberg
An excellent Twilight Princess dungeon is the penultimate Palace of Twilight, where Link and Midna prepare for their impending confrontation with Zant. I love the atmosphere in this dungeon: when you first arrive in the Twilight Realm, the music is peaceful and ethereal, accompanied by the mournful cries of the Twili people. But once you step into Zant’s domain, a palpable sense of dread sets over the whole experience. Soon, you’ll find yourself avoiding pursuit from this game’s equivalent of the Wallmasters, helplessly clinging to the Sols you need to carry, and avoiding toxic mist that automatically reverts Link to his wolf form. It’s one of the best dungeons in Twilight Princess and among my favorites in the series.
Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time)
By Alana Hagues
The Forest Temple is your first real test as Adult Link in Ocarina of Time. Hidden away in the Lost Woods, the temple looks more like an abandoned mansion, left amongst the foliage to rot away. Now, populated by all manner of strange creatures, Link is tasked with saving his childhood friend Saria. The Forest Temple is so memorable because it absolutely nails atmosphere — I went in expecting an overgrown temple populated with strange insects and plants, and while I got some of that, I was greeted with haunted chanting and eerie rattling. The walls of the manor were cold and bare and the vines that crept through the windows and cracks were dying. Even the courtyard is barren save for a few Octoroks. This was not the Forest Temple I was expecting. The section that gets me every time is around halfway through the dungeon. Navi advises to “watch the shadows,” and at first I thought she was referring to a puzzle. I left the controller idle for a few seconds, unaware of the looming shadow over me grow bigger and bigger, until suddenly a Wallmaster grabbed Link with its spindly fingers and took him back to the beginning, screaming. I was horrified, but this was the moment I fell in love with the Forest Temple. It set the standard for 3D Zelda dungeons and so few have bested it in terms of style, atmosphere, and setting.
Swamp Palace (A Link Between Worlds)
By Stephanie Sybydlo
This is probably going to be the Zelda “water dungeon” that you struggle the least with. Offering a calming atmosphere (definitely not what I pictured for a swamp) and some clever puzzles…well, new ways to deliver water drainage puzzles…this palace was a fun experience in a series that often makes you tense up when you see big bodies of water inside a dungeon.
Goron Mines (Twilight Princess)
By Peter Triezenberg
Twilight Princess‘ dungeon design ranged from “meh” to “outstanding,” and unfortunately, the Forest Temple the game opens with falls firmly into the “meh” category. Fortunately, the Goron Mines aren’t too far away. While I wouldn’t argue that the Goron Mines are one of the best Zelda dungeons, I certainly feel as though it is a damn well put together one. It’s got clever puzzles, a solid central gimmick utilizing Link’s iron boots in conjunction with the rotating magnet at the dungeon’s center, and an epic confrontation with the Balrog-wannabe Fyrus. It’s a big improvement over the lackluster Forest Temple and provides a nice, relatively straightforward dungeon crawl before the Lakebed Temple shenanigans begin.
Stone Tower Temple (Majora’s Mask)
By Stephanie Sybydlo
One of the most intimidating final dungeons in one of the Zelda series’ most intimidating installments, The Stone Tower Temple is long even against the game’s three-day countdown. It requires a sharp mind to trump this dungeon’s many puzzles, and a sharp blade to take down its many foes. Utilizing all three of Link’s transformation masks (and with the help of some of the creepiest statues ever), the Temple is difficult enough in its first half only to require you to literally FLIP the dungeon to and explore a different side of it. Fortunately, the Temple’s boss, Twinmold, has Link use the recently acquired Giant’s Mask to pick a fight with an enemy his own size — and it’s a good bit of fun after everything else!
Ancient Cistern (Skyward Sword)
By Stephanie Sybydlo
The Ancient Cistern is probably one of the Zelda series’ most beautiful and fully realized dungeons. Beautifully inspired by Eastern and Buddhist art, construction, reliefs, and motifs, the “dungeon” appears as a tranquil grotto with embossed florals and stunning statuary lining the inside with shades of gold amidst crystal clear waters and tiled floors. Well, on the surface anyways. Venturing deeper into the dungeon reveals a cavernous bottom level, which is dark and deadly and contains cursed waters. The Zelda series has been able to beautifully and creatively adapt existing cultural art and design and do so with a great attention to detail. The Ancient Cistern may be one of its best explorations in both aesthetic and applicability into its dungeon design.
Misery Mire (A Link to the Past)
By Nilson Carroll
Maybe it’s just the alliteration, but there is something truly chaotic and schizophrenic about Misery Mire, a late Dark World dungeon in A Link to the Past. A sprawling mass of rooms (is that a dead fish-shaped room in the upper corner of the map?) cluttered puzzles, and Beamos (a nod to the Desert Palace of the Light World), Misery Mire itself might not be the most clever (Thieves’ Hideout) or satisfying (Ice Palace) dungeon, but its overwhelming quality has stuck with me nonetheless. Featuring one of the game’s best color palettes (a turquoise/emerald tile set), the dungeon introduces Wizzrobes, a mystical Zelda staple enemy, and the Cane of Somaria, a sacred item that allows Link to create blocks out of magic—an item that should appear more in the series. It also has a gross boss (a plus) and the coolest dungeon entrance in the game.
Thieves’ Hideout (A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds)
By Michael Sollosi
One of the most endearing features of A Link Between Worlds is the world map, adapted from A Link to the Past (read: borrowed almost wholesale, given this game is a sequel to the SNES classic). It’s fun and rewarding for players to notice the similarities and subversions of the map from one game to the next, with one of the most interesting features being one dungeon located at the same spot in LTTP’s Dark World and LBW‘s Lorule: the Thieves’ Hideout. On the SNES, Link rescues an imprisoned maiden only to discover that the lady in red is the thieves’ ringleader Blind in disguise. On the 3DS, Link cooperates with a daring (and non-evil) thief girl to escape imprisonment and defeat a 2013 version of Blind. The Thieves’ Hideout represents an evolution of gameplay ideas 20 years apart, and both the 16-bit and 3D handheld versions are dope dungeons.
Snowpeak Ruins (Twilight Princess)
By Mike Salbato
Easily one of the most unique dungeons in the series, atop Snowpeak sits the “ruins,” or more accurately the labyrinthe mansion inhabited by an adorable Yeti couple. The setting alone makes it unique, and interacting with Yeto and Yeta (yes, those are really their names) makes progression different from typical dungeon fare too. Clever puzzles, progression, characters, and a majorly-satisfying new weapon and boss battle make Snowpeak Ruins memorable.