One evening I was playing Link’s Awakening in the living room, my Switch docked so I could play on the television. My son and wife were both asleep, so it looked like a quiet evening to myself. Destiny (my wife) woke up and came into the living room to sit with me. She played on her phone while I played Zelda, and we talked back and forth while we sat together enjoying our separate games. I told her about how Link’s Awakening was whizzing by so quickly for me, and I was concerned that I would finish it way too fast. I explained how I was already halfway through the game based on the number of dungeons. I had just finished the game’s fourth dungeon, and within minutes was standing at the entrance to the fifth. At this rate, I said, I would finish in no time.
I’m sure you can guess how the next part of the story goes. Destiny spent an hour and a half watching me desperately stumble through Catfish’s Maw, listening to my harrowing gasps and more than a few expletives as I regularly found my hearts teetering at the edge of oblivion. I fell down chasm after chasm as I darted all over the dungeon, hopelessly lost, cut to pieces by shredding blades, and singed all over by whirling flames. Whereas the game’s other dungeons had all been simple enough for me, this one pushed me to my limit and put me in multiple situations where I was dangerously close to defeat. Even the boss challenged me more than any of the others, regularly outmaneuvering me and exhausting my fairy supply.
Once I finally finished the dungeon, I wanted to take some time to think about why it was that I struggled so much at the Catfish’s Maw. What about the design of this location challenged me differently than the other dungeons in the game? How did this place differ so much in difficulty from the other dungeons in the game, and was it an intentional difficulty spike or something related more to the way in which I approach games? Today, I want to talk about the Catfish’s Maw and its design, considering the ways in which it pushes the player differently than the other dungeons in Link’s Awakening so far.
Dungeons in Link’s Awakening all follow a few core design principles. Each dungeon has an item that expands your ability to navigate that dungeon and multiple rooms which require that item to progress. Other rooms are blocked by locked doors which require small keys. The end of the dungeon is protected by a Nightmare which can only be reached with the Nightmare Key. At some point you’ll also have to deal with a miniboss, a monster that more than likely protects the dungeon item you need to navigate the unique challenges of the dungeon. These core pieces are arranged in different ways in each dungeon, but they all work together to make sure that each dungeon follows a familiar logic.
What I’ve found to be unique about Link’s Awakening compared to dungeons that follow a similar logic in other Zelda games is the way in which you have more freedom to explore. Many Zelda dungeons have one clear and obvious path for you to take, and the blockades are such that it’s difficult to even attempt to move through the dungeon in a different way. Having more than one small key is a rarity in many Zelda titles. In Link’s Awakening, it’s normal to have a fistful of keys as you move from room to room. Even without the dungeon item you can tackle many of the obstacles in a dungeon in no particular order as you look for the miniboss. It feels in general like there are fewer barriers railroading you onto a specific path.
Catfish’s Maw has that openness in many ways, but what separates it from the other dungeons is the way in which it is less generous with the resources you need to overcome barriers. You encounter a significant number of obstacles that need the dungeon item before getting the item, there are very few keys and they mostly appear towards the tail end of the dungeon, and there are some blocked doors that only open from one side. If you don’t know this and assume that you need to defeat the enemies in the room, you can spend a long time (and hearts) trying to clear a room only for nothing to happen. In general, Catfish’s Maw felt as if it had fewer rewards compared to other dungeons, with a lot less reason to fight the monsters in any given room.
Part of the challenge of the Catfish’s Maw comes from the dungeon item itself – the hookshot. The hookshot’s main jam is to pull you across large gaps quickly, but the problem is that the game already has given us a tool for trying to cross large gaps: the pegasus boot jump or long jump. It can sometimes be unclear when the jump you’re looking at is one that’s too long for even the long jump to handle. Any effort to jump a gap meant for the hookshot will lead to lost hearts, but in many rooms I found myself trying to make it across at least once to see if maybe I could finally find one of the keys for the dungeon. There’s one particular obstacle where you can technically jump across using just the roc’s feather, but when you do so you’ll get cut by blades. I lost quite a bit of health trying to figure out how to jump through this section without getting cut, only to find out that it’s impossible to do so without the hookshot. This caused me to take lots of damage hopping across, then in the next room I definitely had to have the hookshot to progress, so I lost even more health hopping back to where I started.
Part of why I felt the need to test obstacles to see whether or not they were passable without the hookshot is because I had a difficult time finding where I was supposed to go in the dungeon. Everywhere seemed to be a dead end. This passage led to a sealed door that I couldn’t open, that one required the hookshot, this other one needed a key. The dungeon is structured as a long central passage with multiple side passages that split off. Many of these side paths end in dead ends requiring a key or the hookshot to progress, leading you trudging back down the hallway and trying the next fork in the road. By the time this had happened two or three times, I felt like I had to be missing something. Every path led to another location that I didn’t have the tools to explore further, so I found myself thinking that perhaps one of them was an obstacle that I actually could overcome if I just did it the right way.
As it turns out, the key to this dungeon is finding these dead ends in the proper order. Throughout the Catfish’s Maw there are rooms with a skull pattern in tile on the floor. One or more of the tiles will be colored differently than the rest. Originally I thought this was a hint to a block puzzle, so any room I found with blocks I tried to see if any of them were pushable so I could recreate the pattern on the first floor I had found (taking damage from other obstacles like enemies or blades in the process). In actuality the secret to these tiled rooms is that they have to be visited in a specific order, because these are rooms where you fight the miniboss.
There are four different rooms where you encounter the miniboss of the dungeon and each one has to be visited in a specific order. Often you’ll find these rooms out of order, meaning they will appear to be dead ends until you finally reach the point where the boss’s pattern is clear. Even when you know how to find him, it takes a significant amount of backtracking as you slog from one side of the dungeon to the other trying to visit these rooms in the proper order. Only by defeating the miniboss four times do you finally get access to the hookshot and gain the ability to navigate the various challenges in the dungeon.
Catfish’s Maw is a dungeon that you essentially run twice. The first time, you locate all the dead ends and the places where you need the hookshot or a small key in order to progress. Once you’ve been through almost the entire dungeon, you finally figure out how to get the hookshot and can claim it. At this point begins your second run – this time, you can use the hookshot to get the keys that you need in order to progress at every dead end. It’s satisfying being able to enter all the rooms that previously gave you hell and to overcome them, and it finally becomes clear that you were never really intended to try to navigate them in the first place.
This approach to the dungeon’s design – showing you the whole building first without the needed tools and then doing it again with the proper ammunition – is an interesting concept to explore. For me it was a significant enough change from the layout and design philosophy of the other dungeons that it actually caught me off guard and challenged me in a way that the other dungeons had not. Now that I know what to expect, in future playthroughs I likely won’t have nearly as much trouble with the Catfish’s Maw. I’ll be sure, too, to take the lesson of how it approached design into my experiences with the remaining dungeons of the game. As frustrated as I became at some points, it was nice to face a challenge in a game that had been pretty straightforward up to this point. It’s just one more thing that has me excited to finally reach the end of Link’s Awakening!