November 21st, 2023 marked the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Japanese launch. To mark this historic Hyrulean occasion, we’re running articles throughout the week dedicated to the game, our memories, and its legacy. Today, Jim looks back on one of the series’ most notorious temples…
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was the first game that I ever played. Yes, Little Jim had to use a guide for a lot of it and I’d be lying if I said that he was in any way a completionist about the whole thing (Gold Skulltula? Never heard of it, mate) but I do distinctly remember playing the infamous Water Temple for the first time. It’s a story that I’m sure many of us can recount but, here’s the thing, I remember taking no issue with it.
It wasn’t until I was a good bit older and was introduced to the big bad world of the internet and social media that I found out that I was somewhat in the minority when it came to the Water Temple. What, for me, was a well-designed romp with a fun gimmick and a kickass mini-boss (okay, I might be projecting some of those bigger thoughts onto my five-year-old mind), appears to have been torture for other people akin to repeatedly bashing your head against a wall.
From my understanding, it mostly boils down to the Iron Boots and the laboriousness of putting them on via the menu (something that the 3D remake would gloriously fix with its touchscreen inventory), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the reception to the Water Temple being a dark mark on the game’s otherwise pretty spotless record. Well, 25 years have passed and it’s about time that we change that. The Water Temple has its moments of tedium and puzzlement, but, in my opinion, it’s far from the hellhole that some make it out to be.
Let’s address the iron-weighted elephant in the room right from the get-go. Yes, having to enter the pause menu the best part of 50 times to change into and out of Link’s heavy booties sucks. It’s a design feature that even Eiji Aonuma has admitted isn’t the greatest and I am not going to argue that the 3DS version didn’t drastically improve it.
But this wardrobe malfunction was never enough to ruin my enjoyment of the Temple. After all of those changes, I had the inventory switching down to a fine art, opening, changing, and exiting the pause screen in what felt like one swift movement. I made the best of the inventory system I had and the muscle memory I developed was enough to let me forget that the issue was ever really there.
With that inconvenience out of the way, what remained was a dungeon that made me feel like a genius. The Water Temple is intimidating when you first walk in — the 14 different doors (by my count) that face you in the first room alone are excessive — but isn’t there something exciting about that? Only a very few are accessible from the get-go (wait, is the Water Temple and every other Zelda dungeon just a Metroidvania?), with the dungeon designed to send you first to the bottom floor and then to Princess Ruto and your first water level switch.
There are some areas that you can sneak your way into and change up the signposted order, but for the most part, the temple has a pretty clear tutorial where you are shown the ropes before being left to tackle the central puzzle on your own.
And come on, the central puzzle really is a beauty. A lot of Zelda dungeons would have you triggering the three water panels as the main objective (as is the case with the four Poes in the Spirit Temple), but by the time you have worked out what each of the Water Temple’s panels do, you are only just getting started. If backtracking isn’t your adventure game cup of tea then fair play to you, this bit must drag, but for me, unlocking a little more of the dungeon with each water raise and drop was exactly what I wanted. Good grief, it is a Metroidvania.
I don’t care to think about how many attempts it must have taken for me to finally trigger the panels in the right order, but it was a learning process and one that I actually think is more fun to discover in the N64 original than it is in the 3DS version. Those neon strips that signpost the way to each switch in the remake only take away from the exploration, if you ask me.
I would imagine that I spent more time getting to grips with this central mechanic than I did in any other dungeon that the game threw my way, but if you give me a choice between one overarching puzzle and fighting through hoards of tough enemies, I will take the former every day of the week.
As if to affirm that the water levels really are the be-all and end-all of this temple, the threats that you face along the way are far easier than you find in your average dungeon. The Shellblades, Spikes, Stingers, and Keese aren’t going to cause you all that much stress at this stage in the game, and that’s the point. Your mind needs to be on bigger, panel-themed ideas, not worrying about taking on some tough Lizalfos or, god forbid, any ReDeads.
At least, that’s what I thought. Because, yes, the dungeon is all about the central puzzle until, all of a sudden, it isn’t. The final boss, Morpha, is a bit of a pushover when it comes down to it, but the Dark Link miniboss is one of the series’ best in my eyes. After hours of puzzle solving, being suddenly thrown into an atmospheric, sword-swinging one-on-one against yourself felt like a slap around the face in the best way possible. Water Temple, you never fail to surprise me!
Oh! I can’t possibly wrap up without mentioning the music, now can I? Ocarina of Time is full of bops and atmospheric tunes alike. For every top-tapping Gerudo Valley, there is a Forest Temple and while the Water Temple’s musical accompaniment might not stand up to the chilling heights of that botanical banger, it is absolutely packed with mellow goodness.
The soft keys and chimes wouldn’t be amiss in a spa, but it’s those minor strings that play the main phrase of the theme that gets me every time I hear it. To many, this may be the soundtrack of frustration and anguish, but listening to it in isolation above, there’s no denying that — surprise! — Koji Kondo knows how to write a tune.
I’m not going to argue that the bottom of Lake Hylia is home to the best dungeon that the Zelda series has to offer, but I do think that the positives greatly outnumber the negatives. The Iron Boots are always going to weigh this one down (heheh) unfortunately, but there is so much quality on display here that I feel we all need to collectively give this one a break and see it for what it truly is.
Mind you, now that we have all that anger bottled up, let’s talk about Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly…
What do you make of the Water Temple? Is it unfairly judged or do you think that it deserves all of the criticism that it gets? Fill out the following poll and then take to the comments to defend or critique this 25-year-old piece of game design…