There’s nothing quite like a Zelda dungeon. The creative catacombs combine combat and puzzles effortlessly, the mid-dungeon mini-boss testing your limits before offering up a world-altering item as a conquering reward. Although not every Zelda game is jam packed with carefully crafted caverns and boisterous bosses, those that do stand the test of time as pinnacles of game design. There’s just nothing like the euphoria of solving a particularly prickly puzzle or the rush of adrenaline when slaying a monster who stands between you and your princess.
In an effort to celebrate the recently passed 30th anniversary of the legendary A Link to the Past, and as always drum up hype for the forever anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild, Paste presents the top 10 Zelda Dungeons.
The sole 2D entry on the list, Lorule Castle perfectly caps off the bonkers adventure of A Link Between Worlds. All of your skills are tested, as you face off against harder versions of bosses you’ve conquered. Even the puzzles are challenging, asking for precise control of both the movement system and the wall-painting gimmick to solve. Whether you’re throwing around bombs to trigger switches or lighting torches to erase the ground beneath your feet, the rooms exquisitely remix the challenges you’ve faced and make you feel like a true master conquering them all over again. Even the Yuga Ganon, while easy, remains fun and creative the entire time.
Taking to the skies years before Skyward Sword, the City in the Sky launches Link (and the chicken-like warp bird Ooccoo) to a derelict and run down society. The game builds up the mythical city throughout the story, making its exploration feel almost like a holy pilgrimage to a civilization long forgotten. The temple itself is large and sprawling, making it a bit tedious until you lay claim to a second Clawshot after beating the mini-boss. The increased movement capability opens up the dungeon to vertical limits never seen before or since. And although he may be a bit of a push-over, killing Agorok — a LITERAL dragon — by shooting around the battle area is simply too badass to overlook.
Not everyone may have the fondest memories of the Forsaken Fortress, but I think the anger of early-game stealth sours what is ultimately a cathartic experience. You happen upon the Fortress twice: once as a powerless, scared child trying to save his sister, and the second as a confident hero there to rescue everyone who the avaricious avian the Helmaroc King kidnapped. Returning with bombs, swords, and three dungeons under your belt, there’s an unmatched feeling of superiority as your rid the fortress of its impish inhabitants. Couple that with literally smashing the Bird who took your sister to death and a terrifying introduction to this games’ incarnation of Ganondorf, and you have an absolute classic on your hands.
Consisting solely of eight rooms, each one themed after dungeons you’ve visited along your journey, Sky Keep is the culmination of everything that came before it, pushing beyond the limits of what a traditional Zelda dungeon can be. The dungeon’s main gimmick relies on rotating the rooms freely on a grid, changing what connects to where as you try to track down three pieces of the Triforce. I can’t think of a harder dungeon within the series, which makes your inevitable conquest all that more rewarding.
You know you’re in for something special when getting into the dungeon requires a mini-boss fight (you suck, King Bulbin). Once a prison for the worst of Hyrule — including war-criminal Ganondorf — the guards have long left, the prisoners rotted away in their cells with their spirits and reanimated bodies haunting the halls, and rats have infested everything. Accompanied by Midna, the best sidekick in the entire series, Link travels through the shifting sands to uncover what exactly happened to destroy this place. Arbiter’s Ground has the distinction of being one of the few desert-based temples in the series, and while it recycles the Forest Temple’s Poe hunt mechanic, the real gem of the place is the Spinner. Almost a true one and done item, the Spinner allows Link to grind along tracks, providing a sense of speed unheard of in a Zelda game. It truly shines in the fight against Stallord, forcing you to strategically break bones before going on a rollercoaster ride so intense that it would make Michael Bay happy.
In terms of pure atmosphere, it’s hard to top the Forest Temple. You must hunt four Poes through a haunted mansion reclaimed by nature, one full of killer plants and trippy, surrealist hallways. The Forest Temple is likely the first one players tackle as adult Link, and it sets up the macabre tone perfectly. As you wander looking for the Poe Sisters, there’s always the scutter of skulltulas or the nightmare-inducing shadows of the floormasters threatening to hunt you down. It takes the haunted forest aesthetic and bumps it up to 100. The dungeon caps off with a fabulously inventive fight against Phantom Ganon, and the music swells as he runs in and out of paintings to hunt you down. It both sets up the final confrontation of the game and caps off the eerie dungeon perfectly.
Never before has a dungeon been so unified in design. The Ancient Cistern is a nigh perfect experience: a moveable center vestibule with treats below and throughout, a calm and stunning art direction, and even a moral taken from Japanese myth. The Cistern is the singular water temple that everyone loves, probably because the liquid never takes center stage and the swimming is minimal. The dungeon’s item, the whip, increases Link’s mobility and adds beautifully to his combat kit. Koloktos, the automaton boss, is one of the best in the game and has what may be the creepiest laugh in the series. There’s even the iconic Spider’s thread to get the puzzle key, which launches a horde of Cursed Bokoblins to chase you out. Nowhere else is as equally serene (I’d get a massage here) and heart-racing as this.
Time travel has long been a staple of the Zelda franchise, but nowhere has done it quite as well as the Sandship. Lodged deep within the sandy oceans of the Lanayru Desert lay the Sandship, a brilliantly constructed puzzle box that tasks Link with navigating its wooden intestines by shooting the Timeshift Stone within its mast. By containing itself to the small bounds of the ship and focusing solely on the timeshift mechanic, every room within the dungeon smartly builds on one another and forces the player to be acutely aware of their surroundings. You even get to push a robot pirate off the plank AND blind a kraken. Talk about a win-win.
One of the biggest criticisms of Breath of the Wild is its lack of traditional dungeons in favor of the bite sized Shrines, but that just means when a true dungeon arrives, it’s all the more impressive. You can go to Hyrule Castle as soon as you leave the Great Plateau, but I don’t recommend it. As you quest through this post-apocalyptic Hyrule, the Castle stares you down from the dead center of the map. When you do eventually tackle it, you’re in for a treat: the dungeon perfectly mixes the open-world freedom the game is known for with a crafted experience. The entire castle is open for exploration should you feel like it, and challenges await these curious minds. Seeing the dilapidated dining hall and rusty swords, it really hits home that so much time has passed while Zelda has been fending off Calamity Ganon for a century. She’s been waiting for a hero all this time.
By the sheer amount of entries on this list, it’s almost inarguable that Twilight Princess has some of the best dungeons within the series — and Snowpeak Ruins takes the cake. After a wildly entertaining race with the yeti Yeto, he invites you into his house to allow you to find a shard of the Twilight Mirror. His wife Yeta is sick, but they both treat you with open arms. It’s clear that the yetis don’t venture out of their main room much, as the entire manor is filled to the brim with frosty foes and tricky block puzzles. As you slip and slide blocks around the ice, the entire house rumbles with a baroque dread—something is simply not right here. It all comes to a head when Yeta leads you into their bedroom where she gets possessed by the Twilight Mirror, turning her into Blizzeta. Seeing Yeta’s transformation from kindly soup giver to ice demon makes the boss instantly memorable, and a satisfying fight with the supremely underutilized Ball and Chain make the entire dungeon the cream of the Superb Soup.