Okay, so I've made a bold claim just now.
I'm replaying OOT for the upteenth time. I just beat Dodongo's Cavern. As usual, I breezed right through it. For anyone who has played the game more than a couple of times, it is an incredibly easy ride. It's linear. It has simple enemies and puzzles. It's not a complicated dungeon.
But, as I was playing, it occurred to me that Dodongo's Cavern is actually brilliant. Let's look at the from the perspective a brand new player. I am sure that no one reading this blog has been a brand new Ocarina of Time player for many, many years. I mean the game is 18 years old, and it is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time (it is certainly my favorite game of all time). But try to imagine what a new player might think and feel as they play through the game. Imagine how they feel as they play through Dodongo's Cavern.
The first dungeon, the Deku Tree, was incredibly simple. It is so extremely linear that it is impossible to get lost, for the most part. I remember that the only thing I struggled with as a kid playing through was figuring out how to wave a Deku stick toward the ground to burn through the second large floor spiderweb. That's about as complicated as it gets. Also, since you have so few items, the strategy to defeat the boss is incredibly obvious. Then, the whole world opened up. It is possible that a new player was lost for a long time before they found the second dungeon. Hyrule is a vast world with much to do and see. It could take a new player a lot of time to accomplish everything leading up to the second dungeon. Then, you enter the dungeon. The first room exists for one purpose. It teaches you that you use bomb flowers to open doors in this dungeon. Then, you enter the second room and see this:
What a haunting sight. A mighty skull gazes at you with its dead eyes. A bizarre statue spins in the center of the room. There is lava everywhere. There are platforms moving up and down. It initially appears that there are many directions one might go from here, and that is a half-correct statement. The art in the dungeon is beautiful and menacing. It is exciting and terrifying. It is also baffling to consider that this mine is the source of the Goron people's food.
Now to discuss a few things that make this dungeon great for a new player. I think the most important thing that this dungeon does is ramp up the enemy difficulty. The first enemy encountered is a Beamos. If you don't know what you're doing around one of these things, you will get fried. Also, the Beamos is a useful teaching tool. The primary way to defeat one is to throw a bomb directly at the head of the monster. Timing and correctly landing a bomb toss is a very important skill in OOT, especially in this dungeon. I would also like to mention the Fire Keese that seem to be everywhere in this dungeon. They are a much more challenging enemy than any skulltula. They are even more challenging than a regular keese. Most significantly, if you are foolish enough to keep your Deku Shield equipped, a fire keese will obliterate it. To me, this is a shocking experience. Hyrule is a lonely place. Your only companions are Epona and your faithful equipment. To lose a piece of equipment in Zelda is heartbreaking (this is one of the several reasons I struggled with Skyward Sword, I hated breaking shields).
Next we run into these little creepers:
Here we meet our first Dodongo. It might be surprising how small they are, given the size of the skill in the main chamber. It might also surprise a new player how easy they are to defeat. Then, it might surprise the player that these things explode!
Next we run into the Armos Statue, which is a much more comlex enemy than we have seen before. When we first encounter them, we don't even have our own bombs yet. We have to rely on any Bomb Flowers we can find to defeat them.
Then, we run into our first sword-based enemy, the Lizalfos. We face two Lizalfi(?) in a massive lava chamber. We repeat the exercise again in a few short minutes. This enemy operates completely differently from any other enemy we've seen so far. The only one that even compares is the Wolfos in the Sacred Forest Meadow. These enemies are incredibly important to master defeating. In essence, they work the same way as a Stalfos, which are some of the toughest enemies in the game. If a new player can learn to quickly dispatch a Lizalfos, they will be on their way to defeating any enemy the game throws at them.
Finally, we encounter adult-sized Dodongos. These guys are hard to defeat if you don't know what you're doing. They suck in air and breathe fire. Most importantly, they (unbeknownst to a new player) teach us how to defeat the dungeon's Boss.
There's just a couple of other things I would like to highlight. One is found here:
This is the massive exploding staircase. This is probably the largest explosion you can ever produce in this game and it is always satisfactory to blow this thing up. It makes you feel powerful, forcing the staircase that is so many times your size to bend to your will and stoop down to your level.
We get high-stakes platform jumping in this dungeon. It's really easy to accidentally fall of these bridges, especially if you didn't eliminate the Fire Keese in advance.
There is also a room full of Razor Traps. I believe this is your first encounter with them in the game. The first of many. You have to learn to manage the camera effectively to avoid these, and it is an invaluable skill.
Finally we have the greatest and grandest door opening in the entire game:
The dead eyes of the great skull crackle with life. It is frightening imagery. It is perfectly ominous to warn you of the danger ahead.
As Link sallies forth, he happens upon a hole in the ground. He drops in. The player is treated to a lovely camera angle where they see Link standing afraid of a gigantic hulking thing moving towards him. The camera is in first person with the giant hulking thing. Then, we see this:
The boss is a dinosaur. A freakin dinosaur. It is huge. It is just incomprehensibly large. And we have to kill it. We utilize all the bomb tossing skills we've learned so far. We think back to how the regular Dodongos inhaled and we make a connection. We give the King a King-sized heartburn and then we try to cut his throat. A new player would struggle with this, I am confident. A new player might really struggle with King Dodongo curling up into a ball and rolling toward them. Unless you know that you can very easily sidestep the beast by standing on the lip of land right next to the lava, you will have a hard time avoiding massive damage from this beast.
Finally, the dinosaur is killed. Little, harmless link killed a dinosaur.
We are left with this image of King Dodongo reaching toward the heavens, looking for one last glimmer of hope as he burns away from the massive lava pool. He has been rendered harmless and the player is forced ask themselves a hard question. Did I just kill an innocent creature? This King was large. He had to have lived in this cavern for dozens, if not hundreds, of years it would seem (unless Ganondorf just super-sized a regular Dodongo overnight). I broke in the Dodongo Caverns. This is the home of these creatures. Then I killed a bunch of them and destroyed their king. I think this is the only boss in the game that might give the player pause. The Temple bosses are manifestly evil infestations inside of Holy places. Gohma has infested a tree. Barrinade has infested a benevolent godfish. But King Dodongo is just a ruler in his natural habitat. And we killed him.
So there you have a few thoughts no why Dodongo's Cavern is the greatest dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!
(Credit to the incredible zeldadungeon.net where I stole all of these screenshots)