Dungeons have been a key component of the Legend of Zelda games since the beginning. Or at least they were up until Breath of the Wild in 2017. It’s not that Breath of the Wild didn’t have anything like a dungeon, but more that they went in a completely different direction, confining that experience to exploring the innards of the Divine Beasts and solving short puzzles in numerous Shrines. With Tears of the Kingdom right around the corner, it will be interesting to see if dungeons return to the game in a substantial way, and if they do, we have some ideas on how they would work.
The problem with dungeons in the Age of Calamity
One of the key matters that seem to affect the traditional dungeons Zelda players might be used to seeing is the sheer difference in freedom and traversal in the current era of the franchise. The Stasis Rune ability alone has been the focal point of numerous cheese tactics that allowed players to outright skip sections of the game. That’s likely why instead of doing a bunch of proper dungeons, Nintendo instead splintered Breath of the Wild’s “dungeons” out into Shrines. These were bite-sized dungeons that were usually confined to one or two puzzles, teaching players how to use the Sheikah Slate to alter the world and its rules. However, because they were so small, you couldn’t really break the game even if you found a funny way around them (you could break the game in numerous other ways, but not really this way).
Not that there weren’t more elaborate setups in Breath of the Wild. The Divine Beasts and Hyrule Castle essentially serve as the lengthy puzzle lairs you would otherwise have in a mountain cave or a giant fish belly in other Zelda games. Even so, the Divine Beasts didn’t really feel like proper Zelda dungeons either because, despite their varied challenges and the means of successfully clearing them, you didn’t collect a key item to traverse them and each of the beasts had the same aesthetic - there wasn’t much visual variation in their theming.
As far as Tears of the Kingdom goes, it seems highly unlikely that we’re going to be put through the bellies of the Divine Beasts again, although Shrines feel far more likely to make a comeback. That said, it also feels very unlikely that we’re going to see traditional Zelda dungeons make a return as well. Space traversal has changed too much in these latest Zelda games, especially in regards to verticality and personal freedom of playstyle. Many Zelda dungeons in the past had distinct routes they wanted you to take and puzzles you were forced to solve. However, the versatility you can bring to nearly any location in Breath of the Wild and seemingly Tears of the Kingdom as well make restraining the player to a certain path or keeping them out of a certain area look like a distinct challenge. Ultrahand, Fuse, Ascend, and Recall are the big new abilities we know about now, and each of them looks like they could be used to heavily alter the world’s physics, just like in Breath of the Wild.
Ultrahand and Recall in particular look like they could be used for some fine cheese, with the former allowing you to build vehicles out of various natural components and Recall allowing you to reverse time on a singular object. Ascend can also probably be used in tricky ways, considering it allows you to jump into ceilings and come out through floors. That said, Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma also mentioned there are restrictions on the way we can use these abilities, so ceilings you simply can’t Ascend through seem like a no-brainer. Either way, these tools seem like the main things we’re going to have to traverse the world. The days of Hookshots, Mirror Shields, and other Zelda dungeon staple items feel like they’re behind us, and while the new tools like delightfully fun, their sheer versatility make them look like they present real challenges to building a Zelda dungeon that can’t be trivialized with some creativity.
Can dungeons be done in Tears of the Kingdom?
All of the above points aside, we shouldn’t consider traditional dungeons in Zelda games a thing of the past. After all, Breath of the Wild had plenty of ways to use the tools to circumvent challenges, but it still had its own forms of dungeons. Tears of the Kingdom looks to be very similar. In fact, many of the trailers, including specifically a recent Japanese commercial posted to the Nintendo YouTube, seem to show segments of puzzle platforming that look very much like they could be part of a bigger challenge. The difference between Breath of the Wild and here is that none of the possible dungeon elements we’ve seen in Tears of the Kingdom so far look like they’re confined to a Divine Beast or Shrine. Some of them look like they’re out in the open space, in a mysterious underground lair, or far up in the splintered lands in the sky.
In fact, I think the skylands in Tears of the Kingdom present an extremely valid opportunity for interesting dungeons. You essentially have three worlds in Tears of the Kingdom between the ground floor of Hyrule, underground sections, and the floating masses of rock in the air. If we do get Shrines again in Tears of the Kingdom, it seems more than likely that many of these chunks of floating rock could be used to house numerous challenges, battles, and treasures worth pursuing. In particular, there are sections in the trailer that show jumping between floating platforms, using a bubble machine to traverse large gaps in the islands, and even a lengthy tunnel section where Link must navigate between lasers. All of these seem like the kind of fun and interesting things we’ve seen in traditional Zelda dungeons in the past.
Of course, that’s not saying we wouldn’t have Shrines in the first place. I think those served a very important purpose in Breath of the Wild. Each of them had a different way of teaching the player what they could do with Sheikah Slate powers. Yes, they were numerous and somewhat tedious if you went after all of them, but I also think they served as valuable tutorials that increased player skill as we learned to think with Stasis, Bombs, Cryo, and Magnesis in different ways. Given that we have a full new array of powers in Tears of the Kingdom, I look forward to seeing if Nintendo also teaches us to think with Ultrahand, Ascend, Recall, and Fuse in a similarly developing manner.
The laser tunnels, bubbles, and floating platforms give me pause, though. What if we get dungeons somewhat like the good old days? What if we get to romp around labyrinthine halls of a Death Mountain maze or rediscover the innards of Jabu Jabu? Given that Tears of the Kingdom seems to have some increasingly high levels of proximity to Skyward Sword, would it really be that outlandish to see reworked forms of the Earth Temple at Eldin Volcano or the Lanayru Mining Facility? The Mining Facility in particular could be very interesting. If players recall, it was defunct in Skyward Sword with the robotic inhabitants having turned to stone and dust. By interacting with time crystals, you could bring pockets of the area back to life. It would be interesting to see a different era of this section, perhaps even when it was active and thriving.
As for the powers and how they could affect dungeon design, recall above that Eiji Aonuma said that there would be restrictions on the new abilities in some areas. You might not be able to just Ascend through any old ceiling, especially if it has some sort of magic on it or is made of a special material that keeps Link from passing through. These kind of restrictions could be applied thoughtfully throughout Tears of the Kingdom. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too inhibiting as to stifle the creativity of the player, but maybe just inhibiting enough to make us think in a different way to get around an obstacle. Nintendo has been pretty good at doing that, and sure, players may find a way to cheese and shortcut these sections (speedrunners will never stop speedrunning), but Tears of the Kingdom’s take on Hyrule feels like a great chance to traverse dungeon areas we’ve seen in previous games in new and exciting ways.
Unraveling the Kingdom’s secrets
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom looks to be an incredibly exciting and varied adventure full of freeform gameplay and discovery, just like Breath of the Wild was, but I also think it’s a good chance to blend familiar elements of past games with the current era of Zelda. Every time we get a look at the landscape in Tears of the Kingdom, it treats us to a number of familiar sights that make me giddy to find out what kind of Easter eggs Nintendo has stuffed into this game.
I just don’t think we should expect to return to tracking down small keys and chests with The Item You Need again anytime soon. That said, if the puzzles, platforming, and uses of new powers in the trailers so far are any indication, Nintendo wants to make us think and adapt our tools in all new and fun ways. I hope the Shrines return to teach us to think differently, but things like the laser tunnel and bubble platform also make me hope there will be gauntlets of puzzles and challenges that perhaps lead up to an epic boss battle.
TJ Denzer posted a new article, How dungeons could work in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom