Sunday, 8 July 2018

Gaming's Best Levels #6: Water Temple - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

A journey through some of video gaming's greatest levels. Or, the ones we like at least.

For many, Ocarina of Time's Water Temple sits alongside Waterworld, Watergate, and water boarding as terrible things with water in the name. And I can sort of see why. The Water Temple is labyrinthine, confusing, difficult, and slows the game down even worse than the fat fish-king in Zora's Domain.

But that's why I like it, you know? Ocarina of Time brought Nintendo's flagship Zelda franchise to the N64 and, by extension, the realm of 3D graphics. The high-fantasy series' iconic dusty, foreboding temples and locales had never been so immersive. And for a game packed with masterful level design and fantastically imagined dungeons - which ranged from spooky catacombs to Arabian tombs - it was the Water Temple which stood out a cut above the rest.

If you play the levels in the 'proper' order, then this will be the sixth dungeon you tackle (Kid Link's 3 dungeons, and the Forest and Fire Temples as Adult Link). At this point it is likely that the only level the player will have encountered which comes close to the scale and complexity of the Water Temple, is the Forest Temple. The Water Temple itself is not surpassed until the timeline-spanning penultimate level, the Spirit Temple.

The level itself takes the form of a maze like temple located deep below Lake Hylia. Oh yes, they don't call it Water Temple because it's where Ganondorf goes for a shit. As is true Zelda quasi-open world style, the Water Temple is visible from the earliest points of the game but you have to do some leg work to get there. You can only access it in the adult Link timeline for a start - which is the final two thirds of the game. You'll also need to obtain the Blue Tunic to enable Link to breathe underwater; also vital are the Iron Boots so he can sink to the bottom of the lake like Rocco Perri.

Once inside the Water Temple, you'll immediately understand just what it is about this level which makes people treat it like the smelly person on the bus. There's a whole lot of swimming involved. The Temple itself is structured over several floors, and it's flooded. A series of switches can lower and raise the water level, allowing access to different parts of the dungeon. But here's the rub: mess it up, and you'll have to start from the very beginning of the level. It's all the tedium of a practical experiment in chemistry class.

That very tedious process is precisely what makes the Water Temple Ocarina of Time's best level. Mastering this bitch requires patience, a logical head, and a willingness to experiment and explore. This 'leave no stone unturned' mentality harkens back to the complexity of the NES and SNES Zelda games, and is something which I can certainly appreciate all the more after playing games like Dark Souls.

Visually the Water Temple is one of the least interesting Zelda temples. It's just a host of samey, grey corridors and chambers which serve to establish the confusing maze-like vibe. The developers do try, but really the only decor the level has are statues and wall garniture, lending a vague ancient bath house aesthetic to the temple, which is nice if you happen to be Asclepiades of Bithynia.

There is one standout room, however. A seemingly infinite room of reflections and illusions which plays host to a brilliant mini-boss fight with Dark Link. He has exactly the same move set as you and mirrors your actions. Defeating him is actually extremely easy if you have the Biggoron Sword, or utilise exploits such as crouch-stabbing. Battle him on proper terms, and it's a thrilling fight of equals. It's a far more fitting encounter than the dungeon's actual boss: some water monster which was rejected from James Cameron's The Abyss for being 'too penisy'.

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