It’s impossible to have a conversation about the Zelda series’ dungeons without having an entire list devoted to the 3D games in the franchise. While most longtime fans associate their memories of the series with the franchise’s 2D origins, the truth is that The Legend of Zelda is charting 25 years since its first 3D entry, with only 12 years spent as a strictly 2D title. Simply put, most of the defining moments in the series history have quantifiably come from the 3D entries, which are both numerous and some of the best games in the entire Zelda franchise, regardless of when you became a fan. The fact that the majority of the Zelda series’ sales come from its 3D games speaks to both the shift in the gaming industry and the success of The Legend of Zelda in making the transition to the third dimension.
Beginning with Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda games adhere to a similar formula of featuring their own unique rendition of the iconic Kingdom of Hyrule, with various complex and intimidating dungeons and temples dotting the landscape. Until Breath of the Wild, the 3D Zelda games were practically defined by their dungeons, with players basing their favorite game in the series off of the design of these spaces, the utility of their items, the ingenious nature of their puzzles, and the challenge of their bosses. The dungeons in this list include the best in the series that represent the pinnacle of each of these criteria.
10. Forsaken Fortress (The Wind Waker)
As the first proper dungeon in the game, Wind Waker starts with a bang and doesn’t let up. Not only is the Forsaken Fortress an excellent display for the sheer agility and combat prowess of “cartoon Link”, it completely flips the script on the traditional dungeon experience in its first half. As players make their way up the heavily guarded fortress, they are initially without a sword. This forces the player to rely on learning the enemy sentries’ movement patterns and staying to the shadows, avoiding the continually searching spotlights. The Forsaken Fortress takes The Legend of Zelda and mixes it with something akin to Metal Gear Solid, all to fantastic results.
That the Zelda series doesn’t often dabble in stealth is a shame, as the Forsaken Fortress proves that its a potent mix. That players eventually return to this location later with the Master Sword in tow is a great thematic moment in Wind Waker. When Link begins his journey, he’s lacking in experience and ability. When he returns, it’s a triumphant moment showcasing just how far he’s come in his journey. In terms of the design and layout and the relevance to Wind Waker‘s plot, the Forsaken Fortress is basically a perfect dungeon.
9. Snowpeak Ruins (Twilight Princess)
Another dungeon that blends elements of other genres with the Zelda formula, Snowpeak Ruins is almost like the setting from a Resident Evil game. This creepy dilapidated mansion and its unique dungeon design rank among the series best. That’s saying a lot considering some of the dungeons that exist throughout the series, and even within Twilight Princess. Part of the brilliance of the Snowpeak Ruins comes in the fact that simply getting there is a challenge. That, and once Link is there, it leaves players with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation akin to a Metroid game. It has some moments that are incredibly silly and a break from Twlight Princess‘ overall serious tone, yet it still retains the dark feeling that the game exudes. An excellent location, and one that players have good reason to return to time and again even after completing the dungeon.
8. Lanayru Mining Facility (Skyward Sword)
Some of the absolute best dungeons in The Legend of Zelda series (many of them on this list) cleverly implement new mechanics that require players to engage with newly acquired key items or the dungeon’s treasure. Lanayru Mining Facility is one of these dungeons, and it’s a perfect playground for Skyward Sword‘s Timeshift Stones. Players are already familiar with how the stones work on their way into the Mining Facility, but entering the dungeon places a whole new element of puzzle design on the table. You don’t just need to consider how to approach each of the dungeon’s rooms in three dimensions. No, the Lanayru Mining Facility requires you to consider each puzzle and encounter in four dimensions, folding in the ability to instantaneously flip between past and present.
Beyond the excellent use of the time travel mechanic and its excellent implementation in both the game’s visuals and audio, the Lanayru Mining Facility gives stakes to what Link is doing in the game. Being able to see a once prosperous civilization now laying in ruin speaks to what could potentially happen to Skyloft if Girahim and Demise are to succeed. Not only is the dungeon mechanically complex, it serves as a reminder of what’s at stake in Skyward Sword‘s plot.
7. Tower of the Gods (The Wind Waker)
If there’s one dungeon that surpasses the Forsaken Fortress in Wind Waker, it’s the Temple of the Gods. This incredibly imposing location literally sticks out of the ocean like a sore thumb, serving as a warning to any who would dare to enter its confines. When the time comes for Link to actually enter and complete the dungeon, you’re far enough alon in your journey that there’s little the game can throw at you that you couldn’t reasonably handle. Even still, the Temple of the Gods manage to provide a significant challenge thanks to its water level mechanic, requiring players to essentilly always be aware of the natural rhythm of the ocean and judging their movements accordingly.
Again, this dungeon isn’t just important from a mechanic standpoint (especially since it’s where players earn the bow), it’s also hugely important to Wind Waker‘s narrative. By the time players complete the Temple of the Gods, there are plenty of revelations to consider regarding the fate of Hyrule, who built the structure, and the identity of the King of Red Lions. Thematically resonant and highly impactful from a lore standpoint, completing the Temple of the Gods is one of Wind Waker‘s tipping points.
6. Spirit Temple (Ocarina of Time)
When it comes to dungeons in a Legend of Zelda game designed around an environmental biome, there’s one simple rule of thumb. Water = bad, Desert = good. All joking aside, the Zelda series does feature some incredibly polarizing water-based dungeons and temples, while its desert-themed locations are near universally loved by longtime fans. For whatever reason, the minds behind Zelda simply know how to make a dungeon set in a desert feel both worthwhile and unique. The Spirit Temple from Ocarina of Time continues a trend of excellent desert-dwelling dungeons that begins with A Link to the Past‘s Desert Palace, and runs with it.
For starters, players complete half of the dungeon as child Link and the other half as adult Link. That wrinkle in and of itself would be enough to land this dungeon on the list, but the implementation of some of the game’s best enemy encounters and getting to earn and use the Mirror Shield to its full utility make this one of the all-time best dungeons in the series. Ultimately, the Spirit Temple is the penultimate dungeon of Ocarina of Time and a test of everything that players learn throughout their adventure, making sure that they’re ready for the final showdown with Ganon.
5. Sandship (Skyward Sword)
The Sandship takes what’s already great about the Lanayru Mining Facility and perfects it, providing the best use of the game’s Timeshift Stones and the time travel mechanic. To sweeten the deal even more, the entire dungeon takes place within the confines of a massive dilapidated ship, incorporating the audio/visual design shifts between past and present while simultaneously highlighting the brilliance of its artistic direction. Sometimes a Zelda dungeon doesn’t need to be overly complex or feature incredibly difficult but rewarding combat encounters. No, sometimes it just needs to embody the nebulous feeling that players associate with the series’ best “A-ha!” moments from solving a cleverly designed puzzle. In that regard, it’s hard to beat the Sandship.
It might not feature the best combat encounters in Skyward Sword (see later in the list for that prize), and it also might not require players to use a variety of the mechanics at their disposal. Instead, the Sandship is one of those rare dungeons that rewards players with an incredibly useful key item (the bow, in this case) and integrates its puzzle mechanics perfectly within the context of its use. The Sandship exemplifies all of the brilliance of The Legend of Zelda‘s dungeon design in one location through its narrow focus and perfect execution.
4. Stone Tower Temple (Majora’s Mask)
If there’s one dungeon in the entire series that requires players to use their best sense of spatial awareness, it’s the Stone Tower Temple from Majora’s Mask. This brilliantly-designed location takes the act of dungeon-crawling and literally flips it on its head, being the only dungeon in the entire series to offer players the opportunity to traverse the whole thing upside-down. Again we have a mechanic that is so ingenious that it would almost single-handedly land the Stone Tower Temple on a “best-of” list, but the hits just keep on coming. On top of the excellent puzzle mechanic thanks to the need for players to consider how each of the dungeon’s spaces work when completely flipped, this location features some excellent mini-boss and boss encounters.
3. Arbiter’s Grounds (Twilight Princess)
Before even delving into the reasons why the Arbiter’s Grounds are the best dungeon in one of the series’ absolute best 3D entries, it’s important to consider the thematic importance of this location from Twilight Princess. This is the spot where Ganondorf is unsuccessfully executed, sending the Seven Sages into a panic and forcing them to banish him to the Twilight Realm as a last resort. That the events occuring here centuries before Twilight Princess takes place set the plot of the entire game in motion is not lost on players as they traverse this dungeon, as everything about this dungeon’s atmosphere screams its importance loud and clear.
Beyond its thematic and narrative relevance, though, the Arbiter’s Grounds is one of those few dungeons that takes its key item awarded to Link in its confines and uses it to its full potential right out of the gate. The Spinner is absolutely one of the best items in a long and varied history of important and iconic treasures that Link acquires, and its use in the Stallord boss fight is the best kind of introduction to a new item’s full suite of abilities. Players need to use the Spinner for offense, defense, and traversal to successfully come out the other side of the Arbiter’s Grounds, making this one location that was almost the tomb of both Ganon and Link.
2. Ancient Cistern (Skyward Sword)
If it weren’t for the number one dungeon on this list (and arguably the greatest dungeon in the entire series, 2D or 3D) the Ancient Cistern from Skyward Sword could easily rank as the best dungeon across any of the 3D Legend of Zelda games. For starters, this is one of the few examples of a waterlogged dungeon that Zelda gets right. Rather than have Link swim through treacherous depths of water, players must instead use water as a means to move through the dungeon thanks to some clever puzzles and use of fountains for traversal. Additionally, the design of the dungeon as a Buddhist temple ties in perfectly to each of the dungeon’s floors, with them all representing the various states of enlightenment as Link progresses through the structure.
Aside from its excellent art direction and cleverly implemented water mechanics, the Ancient Cistern features the best boss battle in Skyward Sword and maybe the best boss battle in the entire Legend of Zelda series. Whether playing the Wii original or the HD version on Nintendo Switch, the final showdown against Koloktos pushes players’ mastery of the sword to the test. By the time this dungeon is complete, it’s hard to not feel like you can handle anything that the game throws at you, imparting a sense of accomplishment and skill that few other games provide.
1. Forest Temple (Ocarina of Time)
It’s 1998. You’ve just completed the first three 3D dungeons in the Zelda series’ history and collected the Spirit Stones. Heading to Hyrule Castle, you make a detour to the Temple of Time and pull the Master Sword from its pedestal. Suddenly, the Link you’ve grown acquainted with is no more, replaced by a time-displaced adult version of himself, and you slowly realize that the real game is actually just beginning. By the time you enter the first adult Link dungeon, the Forest Temple, it becomes clear just how revolutionary a leap forward Ocarina of Time is for the franchise.
The scenario outlined above is one experienced by millions of Zelda fans the world over, as entering and then completing the Forest Temple is nothing short of one of the most important moments in the history of video games. The initial dungeons of Ocarina of Time serve as somewhat of a proof of concept — that the Zelda fans know and love still works within the confines of a 3D game. The Forest Temple, on the other hand, is a paradigm shift the like sof which only occurs rarely within video games. This location has everything that future 3D Zelda games would replicate in their dungeons.
Clever puzzles, including several that require the use of a variety of key items? Check. An engaging and entertaining side story that both connects to the lore of the space and helps Link progress through its floors? Check. An incredibly tense and rewarding boss encounter that prepares you for what’s ahead? Check. There are dungeons that come after the Forest Temple that may do many of the same things, but no one single dungeon executes them as flawlessly as Ocarina of Time‘s abandoned and haunted forest mansion.