November 21st, 2023 marked the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Japanese launch. To celebrate this historic Hyrulean occasion, we’re running articles throughout the week dedicated to the game, our memories, and its legacy. In this final feature, we’re closing with an opener as Jim explains why the game’s first dungeon is one of his all-time faves…
I have mentioned it a few times during this week’s anniversary celebration, but I’ll say it again just in case you haven’t been keeping up with the Ocarinaversary content (tut tut tut): The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was my introduction to gaming. And what an introduction it was.
There was, however, one issue. When you start your gaming journey with what many consider to be the greatest of all time, where do you go from there? The answer, it seems, is back to Ocarina of Time. Regularly.
I have managed to get a good number of games under my belt in the ensuing 25 years, a handful of which even preferred to Ocarina, but my introduction to Hyrule still dominates my list of favourite gaming moments. The title screen, the time travel, finally defeating Phantom Ganon after a particularly tear-inducing grind session, this game is packed with GOAT moments. But above all of these sits the immovable dungeon, Inside the Great Deku Tree. My beloved.
“You can’t pick an entire dungeon as your favourite gaming moment of all time!” you may cry, and that’s fair enough. Coincidentally, it just so happens that several of my top moments come from this very location, so I think it’s fair enough to group them together under a singular umbrella.
Rather than run through a step-by-step guide of the dungeon, I’ve decided to narrow it down to just a handful of my best bits. Some ‘Deku Delights’, you might say. I can’t honestly say that the dungeon is the best in the series — the Forest Temple holds together much better as a whole, if you ask me — but tell me this: Does the Forest Temple have a wicked jump off a ledge that builds up so much power you can break through the floor itself? I don’t think so.
Well, I’ve said it now, so why not start there? In the years before Tears of the Kingdom got us all used to the majesty of jumping from a high platform (okay, Assassin’s Creed sold me on it years prior, but let’s stick to the Zelda theme here), my little mind could not comprehend just how cool it would be to see such a feat of fantasy athleticism in action. The web flooring caught my eye from my first steps into the dungeon, and the excellent placement of the immediately visible heart just out of reach from the first platform — requiring you to jump off it and onto the web, testing its strength — encouraged me to put two and two together. I would have to jump from higher up.
Prior to that very moment, my childhood had been filled with “get down from the top of that tree,” “maybe we shouldn’t burn things,” and “let’s not jump into that hole, even if it is just for fun.” Now I’m a boring grown-up, I see that these are all sound pieces of advice, but at the time, the leap from the top of the Deku Tree, through that web mesh and into the water below gave me a rush of adrenaline that no Sky Island dive has been able to match.
So, let’s leap into some of the dungeon’s puzzles, shall we? Because (surprise, surprise), I think they’re brilliant.
I honestly don’t know if there has been a moment in gaming that has made me feel smarter.
The way that the Deku Tree gradually introduces you to the wonders of lighting torches. Wonderful. How you learn to cross the flooded floor while keeping your flame alight. Brilliant. But the one that stays in my mind as the best of Nintendo’s ‘let’s make these kids feel like geniuses’ is the 2-3-1 Deku Scrub brothers.
Just in case you don’t remember, a Deku Scrub at an earlier stage in the dungeon informs you that you will have to defeat his brothers by remembering that “twenty-three is number one” (a Michael Jordan reference, perhaps? Could this game be any more ’90s if it tried?). You have to hold onto this knowledge for a good long time, too.
It is the simplest of codes and I don’t think twice about it when I return to the dungeon in my old, #ProGamer age, but at the time, I felt like Sherlock. It’s a puzzle that begs you to get it wrong the first time around. All three of the Scrubs freeze only for them to come back to life?! What is this witchcraft? When it finally dawned on me, I honestly don’t know if there has been a moment in gaming that has made me feel smarter. I have since spotted destroyable walls in Metroid Prime, solved the meatiest puzzles that Professor Layton has thrown my way, and I even cracked the level-changing system in the Water Temple for crying out loud! But no, 2-3-1 takes it.
And so you progress through to the dungeon’s final room and into my favourite moment of them all: Gohma. I didn’t know what a boss fight was — heck, I probably didn’t really know what ‘boss’ meant — but I do know that as I walked into that pitch-black room, I was terrified.
It’s a credit to the designers that this zone still chills me today. Inside the Great Deku Tree’s music isn’t the most memorable on the soundtrack, but boy, can you feel its absence. Those long notes that had accompanied me throughout my first Zelda dungeon suddenly faded to nothing. I was left in a black room with only a faint scratching sound for company.
I walked, gingerly into the room, expecting something scary to jump out from behind one of the surrounding pillars. Nothing. The realisation that the scratching was coming from above left me frozen, unable to look up for a good few moments.
The gruesome spider-like body and rolling eye were one thing, but then it drops to the ground and screams?? Nuh-uh. I turned off the game and took some time away from it, my little mind unable to process the horrors that I had just seen.
When I finally was brave enough to return (I had recruited my Dad to watch the ceiling above me while I played this time around), I took such pleasure in working it all out that — however obvious it is to me now — I still remember and appreciate it for the tutorial it provided, priming me for the encounters to come. Big spider thing has a giant bulging red eye and you have a slingshot. Join the dots, genius.
Much like the aforementioned puzzles, I have since torn my hair out over Elden Ring beasties and damn-near pulled a muscle taking on some of the things that Hollow Knight threw my way, but if you asked me which boss left the biggest impression on me, Parasitic Armored Arachnid Gohma is still queen bee.
As I said at the beginning of this love letter, I do think that there are better dungeons, puzzles, and bosses out there, but my love for the Deku Tree’s best bits trumps all else. Even with the barrage of GOTY contenders that 2023 has thrown my way, nothing has come close to toppling my beloved top gaming moment(s), and I don’t think that anything ever will.
What do you make of Ocarina of Time’s introductory dungeon? The best first dungeon in the series? Let us know in the comments.