The Legend of Zelda formula used to be simple: find the dungeon, solve the dungeon, gain a new power, and repeat until it’s time to defeat Ganondorf. Link’s more recent adventures have swapped complex, puzzle-filled dungeons for an open world full of smaller bite-sized challenges, but 25 years ago, one Zelda game nailed that classic formula.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the most famous adventure games ever made, and in the twenty-five years since its release on the Nintendo 64, a particular dungeon has also become one of the most infamous.
The key to Ocarina of Time’s landmark success lay in it being such a complete package. The graphics were distinct and atmospheric, Hyrule was charming and mysterious, the score was undeniably catchy, and the instantly recognizable characters were distilled to their most essential elements. Combined with gameplay that granted players free range over their journey (at least by late ‘90s video game standards), you had a title that was destined to become a classic.
Of course, the dungeons in Ocarina of Time are also spectacular… for the most part. The Great Deku Tree is one of the most beautiful tutorial-esque levels ever designed. The Shadow Temple is bizarre and just the right amount of scary. The Forest Temple offers such a fun array of puzzles and new enemies that it feels like the game is reinventing itself mid-way through your journey. And then there’s the Water Temple.
Almost immediately, the Water Temple quickly becomes a slog. The key to its traversal involves raising and lowering water levels and the use of the Iron Boots, which allow you to walk underwater but also slow your movement significantly. Add in the fact that Link isn’t a particularly strong swimmer and the entire level suffers when it comes to pacing.
The game’s director, Eiji Aonuma, cited his real-life love of diving in the sea as his inspiration for the temple, but that clearly failed to translate into the actual gameplay. Instead, the Water Temple is mostly a reminder that one is, indeed, playing a game. The constant switching in and out of your inventory to put on or take off the Iron Boots players to break a rhythm that, in other areas of Hyrule, almost felt inherent. Traversing the dungeon is a repetitive process that shakes you loose from Ocarina of Time’s fantastic sense of illusion. It was easy to get lost in Ocarina of Time’s massive, explorable world. The Water Temple was a reminder of reality.
It’s not all bad, though. The Water Temple’s visual design and color palette are moody and entrancing, and composer Koji Kondo’s enigmatic score is among his best work in the game. But that’s not enough to save an altogether frustrating experience.
The backlash to the Water Temple stuck out all the more amid the great reviews and subsequent legacy that Ocarina of Time amassed, leading Nintendo to course-correct during re-releases. Aonuma spoke of its annoying features with regret and admitted that one of the reasons he was eager to work on Ocarina of Time 3D for the Nintendo 3DS was to rectify the experience. The ability to put an item (like those Iron Boots) on the lower touch screen and access it immediately simplified an action that even Shigeru Miyamoto regarded as a pain, while other changes made the entire experience easier to navigate.
But considering what the original Ocarina of Time meant to a generation of gamers and the fact that it is inextricably tied to its initial, mega-popular release on the Nintendo 64, the Water Temple’s rough reputation will likely loom for as long as there are Zelda games to play. That’s nothing to worry about, though. Twenty-five years has turned Ocarina of Time from a revolutionary title into one of the medium’s finest achievements. Not even a pesky pair of Iron Boots could weigh it down.