I like the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time. It’s neat and has nice aesthetics. But I’m in the minority. Most people list it as the hardest and/or most frustrating Zelda dungeon because of its complexity and labyrinthine nature. No one ever criticizes it for having enemies that are overly challenging, or for having puzzles that are especially hard to solve. The main gripe is that it’s laid out in a confusing fashion, not that it’s unfair. This isn’t the Zork maze we’re talking about.
For one thing, it gives you the map right off the bat. This lets you see that there is a tall central room that stretches across three floors. Each floor has rooms spoking off in cardinal directions. There’s also a central tower with some things to do inside it. The actual construction of the dungeon isn’t confusing at all. In fact, it’s pretty simple.
The only tricky parts are these: the water level has to be raised and lowered to access certain areas, and the Longshot (the big treasure) is required for others. Figuring out where you need to go next can be a chore, and it sucks to spend half an hour raising and lowering the water so you can check every room on every level to see where you missed a small key.
The thing is, I like a good maze. Yeah, they’re annoying at first, there’s something really satisfying about learning your way around and conquering a complex challenge. It’s the same reason I like Super Metroid so much. You can wander around lost for a while, and there are several paths to victory, but careful study reveals an elegant path of least resistance.
Most of the Water Temple follows the same pattern: you start with the water at the lowest level and move around the lowest floor in a clockwise order. Then you move to second level, raise the water, and do the same thing over again. Then you do the same thing for the third level. You wouldn’t really know this pattern if it was your first time, but it’s not so hard to figure out as you move your way through the dungeon. There’s nothing unfair about it; it just doesn’t hold your hand.
One trick I really like is using Farore’s Wind to set up a shortcut to either the first or last water-level point. Both of these are annoying to get to, but both have to be visited multiple times to set the water to either its highest or lowest point. If you know this in advance, you can set up Farore’s Wind to fast travel there from any point in the dungeon, thus saving some trips.
Personally, I think there are much harder dungeons in the Zelda canon. I’d rank both the Great Bay Temple and Stone Tower Temple from Majora’s Mask as more confusing. There are plenty of bosses harder than Shadow Link and Morpha, even in the same game, like Phantom Ganon. Several dungeons are more frustrating, like the repetitive Temple of the Ocean King from Phantom Hourglass.
The Water Temple only stands out in our memories because for many of us it was the first 3D Zelda dungeon that really got us lost, but it’s far from the most challenging. All the Water Temple is guilty of is being a tough maze. Is that really so bad?