Modern Zelda Dungeons Are Good, Actually
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Jim spreads some love for the modern-day Zelda dungeon.

Be aware that he discusses Tears of the Kingdom below (not in detail, but he references a specific dungeon), so bookmark this and come back at a later date if you're still on a media blackout...

It was two days before the official release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom that director Hidemaro Fujibayashi announced that a more "traditional" take on Zelda dungeons would be making an appearance in the game. Two days. After what had been months of watching each and every trailer frame by frame, picking apart the environments and speculating as to whether they would be 'real' dungeons or not, the developers confirmed it on a whim via an in-house developer interview with no fanfare, big announcement or spotlight trailer to speak of.

Looking at this, you would be forgiven for forgetting that over the past six years, dungeons were the series' hottest topic. Breath of the Wild's Divine Beasts introduced a fresh way of tackling Zelda's progression mechanic, where you could head to them in any order that you wanted and complete the puzzles within of your own accord.

So different was this from the traditional Zelda formula, that there are many out there who straight-up deny that dungeons even exist in the Switch launch title, placing the Divine Beasts more akin to overworld puzzles or a collection of shrine rooms than anything resembling a 'classic' dungeon.

You would think, therefore, that the implementation of clearly signposted elemental dungeons in Tears of the Kingdom might deserve slightly more fanfare, after having been an anomalous negative mark on Breath of the Wild's otherwise squeaky-clean record. But it wasn't, and after having got a couple of Tears of the Kingdom's dungeons under my belt, I can see why.

It's because the format hasn't actually changed all that much, demonstrating that, in fact, modern Zelda dungeons are really rather good.

Note: While I have stayed away from any major details, I will be discussing various dungeon aspects from both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom from here on out, so watch out for spoilers ahead.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Vah Rutania
Image: Nintendo Life

Before I get into what it is that I like about this fresh take on the tried-and-tested formula, let me first lay out exactly what I mean by "modern Zelda dungeons".

Traditionally, dungeons have been the closest thing that The Legend of Zelda series has come to structured levels. You enter a large area and, one at a time, solve a series of linear puzzles to progress, picking up a unique item from a big ol' chest along the way. Normally, you'll find a grotesque beastie hanging from the ceiling / under the floor / in the water / behind the curtains at the end, and use your new-found item to beat it in an elegant battle serving as the final lesson in using that item, which you then use to further progress in the wider world. It's formulaic, yes, but it works.

Or, it worked.

For the most part, getting to a dungeon required you to have first plundered the goods of another one previously. Several prior games in the series from The Legend of Zelda right up to A Link Between Worlds gave us the option to mix up the order in which we would tackle some dungeons, but Breath of the Wild was the first time that our options were truly open.

There was no requirement to visit Vah Ruta before taking on Vah Naboris. You could skip Vah Rudania completely if you so desired, and the final boss was always right there waiting for you to pop in whenever you felt ready. Zelda dungeons had to change, and they had to change fast.

Gone were the unique dungeon items, the linear puzzles, and the weapon-specific bosses. The Divine Beasts were less about solving a series of small tasks to progress and more about getting to grips with one large, overarching quest to trigger several terminals and gain control of the fortress.

And, of course, they had to be this way. You can't have a game where the USP is you can do anything, but then block off certain parts of the story because Link doesn't have the "correct" skillset yet.

Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Image: Nintendo Life

They might not have been 'traditional' in their structure, but Breath of the Wild's dungeons worked for the game that they were in and that is exactly the same with Tears of the Kingdom.

For the most part, the four main dungeons this time around have a very similar structure to what we saw previously. Instead of activating terminals, you are filling batteries, spinning wheels, or clearing fans, but the same principles are there nonetheless.

Yes, the elemental theming is made that little bit more obvious than it was in Breath of the Wild (though I hold onto the fact that BOTW's dungeons were just as pivotal to an elemental twist as any that have come before, albeit in slightly duller stone surroundings), but for the most part, these are modern-day Zelda dungeons wrapped up in 'traditional' packaging simply by having a fresh makeover and using the title format, '[Element] Temple'.

Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Wind Temple
Image: Nintendo Life

As I worked my way through Tears of the Kingdom's electrical-themed temple recently, I was struck by just how well this new dungeon structure works. It is vastly different to some of my favourites from previous entries in the series, but it still had the same effect of making me feel smart when my map study and puzzle technique paid off — plus, it has a really great boss to close it out. If you know, you know.

I am not suggesting that this new approach is necessarily better than that which we are used to, but it does suit the new style of gameplay perfectly and has proven that the Breath of the Wild dungeon structure actually worked quite well, despite the aesthetic tweaks here and there.

The open-world Zelda is here to stay — Eiji Aonuma has confirmed as much — so isn't it about time that we move on from the old dungeon format too? Collecting keys, maps, compasses, and unique items will always have a special place in our hearts (and still has the potential to stick around as more Zelda games inevitably get remastered in the coming years), but Tears of the Kingdom has proven that we all owe Breath of the Wild's Divine Beasts an apology.

These modern-day dungeons are sticking around, and while we might not be finding a boomerang or hookshot in any of them these days, they are pretty darn special nonetheless.

Where do you stand on the modern-day Zelda dungeon? Can you see its perks or would you rather see Nintendo try to go back to something more traditional? Let us know in the comments.