This is a continuation of our Ocarina notes project. You can see all the parts here. Part 12: Ganon’s Castle
Perculia: Returning to the main storyline, the six mini-puzzles in Ganon’s Castle left an impression on me–I liked picking out which signature elements from each temple were used in each puzzle to create a distinctive atmosphere in just a handful of rooms, and where the atmosphere felt muddied due to mixing up elements from different temples.
Hamlet: Like I mentioned in the Spirit Temple post, it’s the final dungeon where you expect to find a recapitulation of everything that came before. But I always found the layout of this one a little uninspired: here are 6 mini-dungeons, now go do them. Zelda is about exploration, and dungeons in particular are meant to be explored. A final dungeon that presents you with a few disjoint tasks and then opens up a linear path to the final boss, with a few combats, doesn’t feel like a summary of what Zelda is about at all. Link to the Past had a large and complex final dungeon that built on the puzzle elements in the dungeons that came before it. In Ocarina, by the time you get to Ganon’s Tower, it’s more of a trip down memory lane than a final challenge.
P: Forest Barrier: This puzzle heavily relied on wind tunnels, which was puzzling as wind tunnels were really only used in the Shadow Temple and core elements from the actual Forest Temple were missing, such as the Fairy Bow and hostile paintings (H: You really liked the paintings; I remember when I said that Phantom Ganon was pretty disconnected from the dungeon he was in, you pointed out that “shooting at paintings” was a thematic link). The second room also relied on Hoverboots and Hookshots to maneuver around floating islands, which was challenging but not thematically related to either the Forest Temple or the maze in the Sacred Forest Meadow. The rooms were brown and stark, without any greenery or jeweled windows I had come to love in the Forest Temple.
P: Water Barrier: This was the other puzzle which initially confused me, as the elements related to those in the Ice Cavern by Zora’s Domain, instead of to the submerged mechanics in the Water Temple. In the first room, I avoided icicles, killed moving ice-beasts, and acquired blue fire from a bottle–none of which were in the Water Temple. In the second room, which was more complex, I had two minutes to perfectly slide icy cubes into an arrangement that would let me melt a special ice block with my blue fire. This puzzle also included smashing a rusty button with the Megaton Hammer, which was first introduced in the Fire Temple and felt a bit jarring amidst the cool blue surroundings.
At this point, I was really curious as to why these puzzles were unrelated to their Temples. After some googling, there’s some evidence to support the idea that originally the Forest and Water Temples were Wind and Ice Temples on the Ocarina Conspiracy Theories page by Flying Omelettes. First, the icons for each temple don’t really make sense, but the windmill and snowflake icons do line up with Wind and Ice concepts. Each part of the world also progressively gets saved as you finish a Temple, but Zora’s Domain remains thawed, so Flying Omelettes suggests this is because the thawed realm is tied to a completed Ice Cavern, and that phasing was cut when the elaborate Ice Cavern was removed. The Conspiracy Theories page also covers a few more neat oddities–there’s evidence to suggest that Medallions were planned as teleportation devices, for example.
H: That’s pretty neat. And moreover, here’s an interview with Miyamoto where he discussed an initial conceptualization of the game that took place entirely within Ganon’s Castle.
P: Light Barrier: This was particularly interesting to play through, as the Light Temple was not an earlier instanced area. Flying Omelettes has speculation that there were some plans to include the Light Temple as a stand-alone instanced area, as the Light Medallion and Prelude of Light graphics are quite similar, plus some of the light puzzles in the Spirit Temple seem out of place. It also makes sense that the Light Arrows could have been a reward for completing this dungeon. Regardless, the Light Barrier is the first time the player comes across puzzles specifically tied to the Light Temple.
The Lens of Truth plays a large role here–in the first room, it’s used to spot a Skulltula, and in the last room, you must use it to see the end of the dungeon. Part of the puzzle seems a bit repetitive in acquiring silver rupees and hookshotting to reach the last one–perhaps utilizing the light-based puzzles in the Spirit Temple would have made more sense–but there is a nice touch in having to actually play Zelda’s Lullaby to open a locked door. It’s the only barrier puzzle that requires you to play the Ocarina, reminding the player of their time spent acquiring and playing the Ocarina in Hyrule, and it’s the longest puzzle which makes it a bit more atmospheric than the rest.
H: Continuing the speculation, the Lens of Truth would also have been perfect as the main item of the Light Temple, and it might explain why it was not the main item of the Shadow Temple even though it was the most prominent puzzling element there.
Shadow Barrier: This one felt thematically strongest to me. It makes use of the Hoverboots and Lens of Truth, the two items that are indelibly linked to the Shadow Temple. It relies on other tools like the Hookshot, but you never lose the sense that your items acquired from the Shadow Temple are the most important. The mood of the puzzle relates pretty strongly to the atmosphere of the Shadow Temple as well. For example, one of the centerpiece rooms of the Shadow Temple involved using Hoverboots in a room with lots of invisible floors and a guillotine for extra creepiness. In the Shadow Barrier puzzle, you must use the Hoverboots to navigate ghostly rocks, which are only accessible as long as a brazier is lit.
Fire Barrier: This puzzle also did a good job in preserving the essence of its Temple. It relied on acquiring 5 silver rupees to unlock a door, which is used in other Barrier puzzles, but the obstacles felt specifically related to the Fire Temple, unlike those in the Wind or Light puzzles. You ran around on molten rocks, dodged fiery monsters, and jumped over lava. This area required you to wear the special Fire Tunic as well, which was the signature item from the Fire Temple. While this puzzle does not require you to use the Megaton Hammer, which was acquired in the Fire Temple and used in other areas of Ganon’s Castle like the Water Barrier, you do have to throw a boulder, which is in the spirit of smashing things with a hammer.
Spirit Barrier: The Spirit Temple is a challenge to replicate in a handful of rooms, since the puzzles in the temple encompassed a variety of time-based and light-based techniques, not to mention separate areas for Child and Adult Link. The first room features bouncing harmful disks guarding silver rupees and movable statues, which was seen in the Spirit Temple, but didn’t feel like a defining element. The second and third rooms are more promising. In the second room, you find yourself seemingly trapped behind iron bars, mimicking an early puzzle in the Spirit Temple. To solve this puzzle, you’ll need a Bombchu–and Bombchus were only really needed once before, again in the Spirit Temple. In the final room, you’ll use your Mirror Shield to reflect light onto suns on the wall, which is visually striking and is an iconic aspect of the Spirit Temple. (Lighting up the wrong sun summons “hands”–they’re definitely scary, but felt a bit odd here as Hands were the signature creepy boss of the Shadow Temple.)
H: I didn’t say too much about the individual Trials, but they embody both the best and worst of Ocarina. I mentioned already that the aspect of Zelda they ignore–exploration–is terribly conspicuous. But the puzzle rooms are good, and they rightly recognize that the various puzzle rooms scattered throughout the dungeons of Ocarina are one of this game’s greatest strengths. Ocarina actually set the tone for the 3D Zelda games to come, where the dungeons were increasingly noticeable as the high points of the gameplay. I want to revisit this in the conclusion, but one way of summarizing what the 3D Zelda games left behind is that the overworld itself used to be more dungeon-like. The six trials do provide a callback to the strong thematic identity that each dungeon had (with, as you noticed, some confusion due to the fact that list of Temples seemed to change during development). But, for example, a reprise of Child Link would have been better placed in the final castle than in the Spirit Temple.
P: There’s not too much to say about the spiral staircase leading up to Ganon, except that it provided a good review of all the various enemy mechanics from each dungeon. I did have to laugh when I got to the chest that contained the boss key–it was such an elaborate chest, far nicer than any other chest previously encountered.
H: The sequence of escalating combats as you climb the tower is familiar from past games, but it’s a little more flat here. As I mentioned much earlier in this series, Ocarina never totally solved the problem of meaningfully fighting more than one enemy at once, so the best combat lived in the boss encounters. Hard combat rooms in past Zelda games would have multiplie enemies roaming around in a one-screen room so you actually keep track of all them to dodge everything. And projectile attacks became more common with harder enemies, giving sort of a bullet-dodger feel. Ocarina barely even has enemies with projectile attacks, and this final escalation is just a sequence of Stalfos-like monsters: Lizalfos, then Stalfos, then Iron Knuckles.
P: The Tower fight with Ganon is a good example of how interesting architecture can enhance a fight and initially hide some of its flaws. When first entering the room properly, I was struck by how classically beautiful the room was–it was very different architecturally from the sparse grey rooms I had grown used to on the ground floor. Ganon is even playing the organ, in contrast to Link’s simple Ocarina. At this moment, the contrast between Ganon, the sophisticated villain, and Link, the earnest brave hero, is heightened.
H: Why is he playing an organ anyway? It goes to back to the whimsical Zelda characterization we’ve talked about before. It doesn’t fit with anything we’ve ever seen from him, but you don’t notice is as weird or wrong because they somehow get away with the characters not obeying any particular rules to begin with. They’re really good at that.
P: The fight itself is pretty simple and uses the spell reflect mechanic from the Forest Temple’s Phantom Ganon fight, which was a neat touch. It did take me some tries to get the sequence of moves down though, especially as I had to constantly stop to equip Hoverboots. I found Ganon destroying the floor fun to watch, and when I was first knocked down to the bottom floor, I enjoyed discovering that the room was more intricate than I initially thought. Finally, when the fight ended, it was satisfying to watch the walls get smashed to bits, the last vestiges of Ganon’s classically-scupted castle gone.
Falling down to the bottom added an element of risk to the boss mechanics–instead of simply missing a spell reflect and losing life, I would most likely be knocked down to the bottom floor. However, the presence of pots at the bottom made the situation less dire, as I could essentially prolong the fight indefinitely with a steady stream of consumables. Likewise, climbing up the ladder was a great way to add suspense, but being greeted by Ganon potentially knocking me down as soon as I reached the top was discouraging–falling back down again wasn’t tied to a lack of skill. On its own, the fight seems a bit repetitive, in addition to the clunky addition of Hoverboots. However, on my first playthrough, it felt fast-paced due to the clever uses of architecture. Watching later videos have made me reevaluate my thoughts on the actual fight mechanics, although the architecture is still used to dramatic effect.
H: The setup is very cool. And one can appreciate the design idea of taking the familiar final boss mechanic of bouncing a projectile back at the boss and adding and removing things to make it work in 3D. Link to the Past introduced that idea, and that boss (Agahnim) had some complications like mixing reflectable and unreflectable bolts, and a later version of him that split into three. But in the 3D version you can’t do instantaneous aiming (it’s all handled by target lock), so they instead added the repeat bouncing between you and Ganondorf that’s purely a timing challenge. They did make up for this in another way though–part of the sequence of damaging Ganondorf involves stunning him with a Light Arrow. That works well in a lot of ways (it fits the lore, since you got the Arrows from Zelda), but in particular, it adds a 3D aiming challenge. So in this way the boss successfully tests you on a key new skill of Ocarina by making you aim your bow in a short time window. Since, as I mentioned, you can’t aim in this game at the same time that you’re doing anything else, they have to effectively pause the action by stunning him for a moment while you do nothing but try to get that shot off. So it’s a little contrived, and the sequence of four things you have to do to damage him (bounce a bolt, shoot him, jump the gap, sword) is longer than usual. But just that few-second sequence is a nice microcosm of what a “final exam” of this game’s combat should look like.
So it’s hard to say, after all that, why the fight is a little boring. Ideally the boss would have had something a little more interesting as far as mechanics to dodge on your end, and it would have been very solid.