Hi. I’m Mark Brown, and this is Boss Keys – a game-by-game analysis of the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda series. Except… this game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, doesn’t really have dungeons. Instead, the game’s massive overworld is terrorised by gigantic divine beasts. There’s Vah Ruta, which is a mechanised elephant found in Zora’s Domain. Vah Rudania, a weaponised salamander crawling on death mountain. Vah Medoh, a robotic bird soaring above Rito Village. Vah Naboris, a hulking great camel found in Gerudo Desert. And if you have the DLC, the Shrine of Resurrection opens up to reveal a secret, fifth divine beast. The game has Link disable these beasts in an epic showdown, and then crawl inside the robots so he can wrestle control of them – and have them help fight off Calamity Ganon.
And wandering around inside these beasts, you’ll soon realise that they are indeed Breath of the Wild’s take on dungeons: you’ll find a map, solve some puzzles, fight a boss, and win a heart container. The similarities, though, end there. And in all other ways, they don’t play like Zelda dungeons at all. The divine beasts are completely open, with no individual rooms, no delineated floors, and not even any doors unless they’re part of a puzzle. There are also no key items to find.
All of Link’s powers, like magnesis, stasis, and his bombs, are received at the very beginning of the game. While bows, rods, and special types of arrow are now just consumable goodies. And the structure is completely different. Inside each beast, you simply need to find the map terminal, then find a handful of other terminals in any order you like, and then activate the main terminal to fight the boss. That’s it. No keys, no locked doors, no obstacles to come back to when you find new items.
No sequence of events or anything like that. You might as well chuck my graphs in the ocean for this game because they’re useless. But. With all that being said, these dungeons aren’t completely new. You see, what makes these beasts interesting is that they move. In Ruta, you can move the trunk into 10 different places. In Rudania, you can rotate the entire salamander 90 degrees. In Medoh, you can tip the bird left or right, or return it to a flat position. In Naboris, you can rotate three chambers inside the camel’s belly.
And in the DLC dungeon, you can make a central axel rotate clockwise or counterclockwise. You do this to get around the dungeon, perhaps tilting the bird to make a cart run down a rail or using the axel to create a spinning elevator. And you can also use the movement to solve puzzles, like using the elephant’s trunk to rain water down onto a flame, or tipping the salamander to roll a ball down a tunnel. This makes them feel closest to the puzzle box dungeons that I’ve highlighted in past episodes of Boss Keys. Dungeons like the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, Lakebed Temple in Twilight Princess, and Sky Keep in Skyward Sword, among others. These dungeon are about solving puzzles by thinking globally. They’re about considering how pieces interlink, how rooms connect, and how mechanisms work.
As an example, from Lakebed Temple, water from this drain will rush into this central room, and if you move the staircase in the right way it can pour into a completely different room again – meaning that water from one side of the map is being used to lift a platform on the complete other side. Zelda had some stuff like this in the earlier games – I’ve talked about Eagle’s Tower in Link’s Awakening, where you send one floor crashing down into another – but they really started to appear in Ocarina of Time which was not only the first 3D game but also the game where Eiji Aonuma was appointed as dungeon director.
Aonuma – who is now the Zelda series producer – used to make Karakuri puppets which are these finely crafted wooden dolls that use motors, cranks, and springs to move about. He brought this fascination for clockwork mechanisms into his Ocarina dungeon designs – and it’s been a key part of Zelda ever since. But Breath of the Wild’s take on the concept has two significant differences to anything we’ve seen in the other games. Number one: the movement happens in real-time. In, say, Majora’s Mask, flipping the Stone Tower Temple upside down happens in a cutscene.
But in Breath of the Wild, the salamander will tilt up while Link is still running around on top of it. Now there aren’t too many puzzles where you specifically have to do stuff while the beast moves. I can think of one – there’s a puzzle in Medoh about tilting to bird to send a hammer flying towards a gong, but tilting the bird also moves this fan – which shuts this door. So you’ll need to use magnesis while the bird tilts to keep the fan in place. That’s about it in terms of puzzles, but letting the player walk around while the dungeon shifts does allows for some interesting player movement. In Rudania, you can flip the lizard to catch Link before he falls into Death Mountain. And in Naboris, you can balance on the camel’s chambers while they spin to get to higher ground. This really adds to the freeform feel of Breath of the Wild – something that makes the other games feel rigid and stiff by comparison. I mean, in Ruta, the only way to reach this terminal is to leap off from a high point and sail down, which would be impossible in the other games where rooms are carefully separated by doors – and, more importantly, Link can’t jump.
The other major difference between Breath of the Wild’s puzzle box dungeons, and those in previous games, is that you can manipulate the dungeon from anywhere you like because you make these changes from the game’s map screen. That’s not the case in a dungeon like Skyward Sword’s time-travelling Sandship where you transition the dungeon between the present and the distance past by physically shooting an arrow into this time stone. And that has some interesting consequences. Like, for one, you need to decide what era the dungeon needs to be in – before you go below deck. Because it takes time and effort to change timeline, you don’t want to just set the era randomly and hope you stumble upon the solution. Instead, you want to think ahead and make an intentional plan like “I’m going to go into the present so I can stop this fan and hit this switch”.
It’s about encouraging the player to truly understand the layout and mechanisms of the dungeon, so they can make considered decisions about how and why they’re changing things in other parts of the dungeon. Consider, then, how much easier the Sandship would be if you could just travel through time at any moment you like. Consequence two of the distancing the switch from the mechanism it controls, is that puzzles can be derived from this setup. In my Skyward Sword video I talked about a puzzle in the Sandship that’s based on the fact that you need to be in the past to open a door into a room, and need to be in the present to open a door that’s inside the room – but because the time stone is outside the room, we can’t open the second door without shutting off the first door! That’s a puzzle! The solution, by the way, is to realise that you can actually see the time stone through a cheeky grate in the ceiling.
But, consider how this puzzle simply wouldn’t exist if you could easily swap between the past and the present while you’re standing in the room, just by going into the menu. So, in some ways I do appreciate this change in Breath of the Wild – to put the dungeon controls into the menu. It makes the dungeon much faster to complete and entirely removes backtracking. And it gives you that feeling of manipulating a massive location – without really making you put in the legwork or the brainwork. But it does mean that some puzzles are made much easier than they could be, and others can be solved by having you just kinda fiddle around and see what happens.
I had this issue in Fez where I overcame a lot of the perspective shifting puzzles by just hammering the trigger a few times until things lined up. There are some exceptions in the divine beasts, of course. Because, some puzzles do require Link to be in a specific spot before the beast moves – which requires a bit of that all-important planning. Like, Naboris’ three chambers can line up to create a powered electrical circuit, which makes the camel’s tail rise up. There’s a nice puzzle where you need to intentionally break the circuit to lower the tail, then position Link onto the tail, and finally fix the circuit to make the tail lift up, with Link on it. Also, the camel dungeon is generally just tougher because the three chambers can be in four different spots making for, what, 64 combinations? So just fiddling around won’t do much – instead you need to think logically about what you’re moving and why.
I like this dungeon a lot, it’s probably my favourite one in the game. And it has a bunch of good puzzles. I like this one where a terminal is inside this cage, and so the puzzle is to rotate the chamber so that the cage lines up with one of the four giant windows on the side of Naboris, and then you can get to it from the outside. And then a special shoutout to this puzzle. So, the goal is to place these two electric balls on these switches to get access to the terminal. But if you can’t find the second ball – it’s here, by the way – you can actually use metallic objects like chests, swords, bows, and shields to send the current over to the other switch.
I mean… that’s pretty awesome. And it also goes to show that not every puzzle is related to the grand mechanism of the divine beast. There are plenty of self-contained conundrums. like this one where you use cryonis to stop a water wheel at the right time. Unfortunately, though, puzzles are basically the only thing these dungeons have going for them. Because there are no keys and no locks, there’s not much in the way of classical navigation gameplay. And combat is almost non-existent, with divine beasts hiding a few guardian scouts, a few floating skulls, and just one boss – no mini-bosses or the like.
And, yeah, we gotta talk about the aesthetics. This is something that I have never really talked about much in Boss Keys and I have neglected to mentioned things like the weird atmosphere of the City in the Sky, the stunning architecture of Skyward Sword’s Earth Temple, the freaky music of Ocarina’s Forest Temple and, yes, the sheer originality of Snowpeak Ruins. I do admit, I might have given that stuff short shrift in my singleminded obsession over structure and gameplay. But Breath of the Wild has proven just how important that stuff is. Because while the divine beasts themselves are striking and unique, the insides are almost indistinguishable from one another. All five dungeons use the exact same murky brown textures and unappealing stonework patterns, and the music is… well the music is actually quite good but it’s very understated compared to other Zelda games so it doesn’t get a chance to shine. So, of course, you are right. the way a dungeon looks and sounds does massively contribute to its overall quality and this is something that Breath of the Wild clearly stumbles on.
Another stumbling point, though, is pacing. Most dungeons have a sort of narrative or flow to them. The way you slowly climb up The Tower of the Gods. The way you zig zag back and forth through the centre of Arbiter’s Grounds before unlocking that big door. The way a dungeon is completely recontextualised after you finally grab the key item. And moments of completely open exploration that coalesce into a more linear rush towards the boss. There’s very little of this in Breath of the Wild’s divine beasts. Ruta has the best flow of the bunch, where you start down here, then get the water wheel moving and ride that up. And then ride the trunk up until you’re on the elephant’s head. But for the most part the divine beasts are completely open and completely non-linear. And yes that can be a bad thing. Sure, I have criticised a dungeon that’s structured like this for being too rigid – but on the opposite extreme, I will criticise a dungeon that’s structured like this for being too open ended.
You can’t say I’m not fair in my endless Zelda moaning. And maybe this open structure fits the open style of Breath of the Wild – but it doesn’t always make for the most memorable or well-paced dungeons. And perhaps, the divine beasts could have provided more structure to present a nice contrast to the free-form overworld? I dunno. But what I do know, is that you’ll often find better pacing in the shrines. So, alongside the divine beasts, Breath of the Wild features a whopping 120 different shrines which are small, self-contained, underground challenge rooms. Many of these focus on a single idea, and explore it from different angles, or escalate the complexity over time.
Classic Nintendo level design that I’ve talked about a lot on this channel. Take a look at Joloo Nah Apparatus, which focuses on spinning a block in the middle of the room. We start with an easy puzzle: just turn on all the lights. Then it’s more complex, as we try to blast four fans at once. Then even harder, as we must light six torches while avoiding these two streams of water. Another shrine, Blue Flame, offers lots of small, escalating challenges about moving a blue flame – either by torch or by arrow. Unfortunately, this does highlight one annoyance with shrines where you can run out of arrows, or have weapons break during the shrine. That’s a pain. I also think two bombs is a really clever shrine, but the solution is unfortunately made rather obvious by its name. Who made this shrine. Was it you Fi?! I bet it was! So some shrines actually feel closer to traditional Zelda dungeons than the divine beasts. Take Trial of Power which is a slightly longer, and rather eclectic shrine with lots of different challenges and puzzles, and it even wraps around on itself at one point, like a real dungeon.
Shrines are also the only place in the game where you’ll find small keys. I’ve missed you, buddy. But more often, the shrines will feel like a single room from a Twilight Princess or a Wind Waker dungeon. A quick blast of puzzle solving before you move on. A cheeky two-step puzzle about scooping orbs out of a pool of water. Or a room where you connect up electrical circuits. The vast majority of shrines, 70 of them, are puzzles. But there are also 29 blessing shrines – which is basically just a single treasure, as a reward for finishing something in the overworld. And 21 combat shrines, where you fight a guardian robts. But what they have in common though is that they have the exact same visuals and music. I think they look and sound amazing but anything’s going to get repetitive after a while. Plus, they just feel so disconnected from the rest of the game. On top of all this, there’s one more area in the game that feels like a dungeon – and that’s Hyrule Castle.
It’s the ultimate goal of the game, and is actually a winding, maze-like structure with lots of things we’d expect from a dungeon. There’s loads of combat encounters, there are small puzzles, there are branching paths and secret rooms. It’s still not very dungeon-esque because there are no keys, locks, or items, but it might just scratch that itch if the divine beasts didn’t do it for you.
It’s also very open in how you tackle it. There are multiple entry points, from the front door to a secret cave down by the moat. And you can take a somewhat linear path up through the castle, which will take you through two fights against Lynels and lots of battles with guardians – or you can find your own route, by climbing and exploring. I especially like the fact that the dungeon is completely different if you have played a bunch of the game. Revali’s Gale lets you skip huge chunks of the castle, and if you’ve got the Zora costume then you can swim up waterfalls and basically just skip the entire castle. Which maybe, should have been toned down a tiny bit. But let’s wrap it ip, and get back to the main event: the divine beasts.
And I must say, I’m quite mixed on them. The puzzle box aspect totally appeals to me – and the general feeling of manipulating these massive locations to move around and solve puzzles is just aces. And I had great experiences solving puzzles in all five of the divine beasts. I won’t soon forget puzzles about giant water wheels, spinning rooms, massive fans, and electric currents. But the dungeons have lots of issues. They’re short. They’re not very attractive. Many of the puzzles are easier than they could have been. And the pacing is just way off – both due to their completely free-form nature, and the lack of combat or navigation to mix things up.
Plus: all of the dungeons are of the puzzle box style which means I’m in heaven – but other games have done a better job of having a mix of more straightforward and more complex dungeons throughout the game. So the divine beasts have some of my favourite things about Zelda dungeons – but they just don’t nail the concept like I would hope. I’m glad Nintendo tried something new, to fit the bold and ambitious stylings of Breath of the Wild, but they didn’t quite stick the landing.
So… I guess that’s it boys and girls. 16 games and 130 dungeons later and Boss Keys is finally finished. If you were wondering, that was 30 temples, 19 palaces, 9 levels, 8 towers, and 7 castles, plus a bunch of turtles, crypts, mines, bellies, sanctuaries, divine beasts, trees, woods, and plenty of other things. We’ve seen dungeons that are a straightforward gauntlet of combat and puzzles. Those that are a complex maze of keys and locks. And a special handful of massive moving puzzle box dungeons. There have been terrific bosses, clever puzzles, memorable moments, and Fi. Ahem. As for Boss Keys itself, well this has been a weird, interesting, and largely enjoyable project.
It’s far from perfect and I would start it from scratch if I could. But, ultimately, I think I learned a lot about the construction of non-linear, interconnected level design. And that should prove useful in the future… Because, of course, Boss Keys is far from over. Zelda is not the only series with this sort of world layout. So I will be back, with my graphs, for season two. More on that in the coming months. Also, I will endeavour to make an episode of Game Maker’s Toolkit that wraps up everything I learned from Boss Keys. That was the whole point of this ridiculous project, after all.
Plus, there’s a Dropbox link in the description, which is where you’ll find loads of graphs and notes and other bits and bobs. I don’t know what to do with them yet. But all that’s left now is for me to collect the heart container, and warp out of this dungeon. Thanks for watching. Boss Keys Season 1 has been made possible thanks to the generous support of my Patrons..
As found on Youtube