A fine hidden dungeon can be likened to a fine wine. It is an experience that, while totally unnecessary for a simple life inside a game world, can, by itself, add a sweet final taste to be savored separately from the game. It is a chance to truly challenge the gamers. It's separate from the main story always, allowing it to be hard without frustrating players who want to know how the story goes. It is placed, almost without fail, at the end of the game, allowing for the player to have learned all the important stuff before walking in. It is a place to truly allow the creativity to flow and show what the game's design team is really capable of.
But... it so often isn't this. I was having a discussion a while back on awesome hidden dungeons. When I started it, I figured we could name a bunch. I mean, there are so many good ones out there. Well, it didn't go nearly as well as I thought, but it was pretty much agreed that the Morlia Gallery from Tales of Phantasia was quite awesome. Why was it awesome? We'll I'll get back to that in a bit.
A trend I've noticed of late is that most hidden dungeons are moving towards challenges of attrition. Slowly they've started stripping off the added flavor, commenting on how long and fearsome their dungeons are and keeping the emphasis on there being no way that you can get through here. Often they move to top their predecessors. Tales of Destiny sported a rather vicious hidden dungeon modeled after the Tower of Druaga. This dungeon was far more intense than its predecessor, lasting a full hundred floors with dozens of enemies. It was also not nearly as fun. Sure, it kept a good mixture of puzzle and dungeon, but, besides having the problem of it being possible to get stuck in an endless loop later in the dungeon, it simply was far too much. A hundred floors of the same general concept simply gets boring after a while of it.
If you asked me when I finished that, I would've agreed that it was at least the far point of that design plan. I would've been wrong, but I would've said that. Moving a generation ahead, I encountered the very game whose delightful music now fills my speakers: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Now don't get me wrong, I do quite adore the game. That is, with the exception of its hidden dungeon, Kokon Hore. Kokon Hore is found, for those that do not know, at the bottom of your little ant village, when they had dug as far as they could. Warning you of its great dangers, they offered to open the way so you could enter and find the delicious treasure within. What was actually inside was fifty rooms. Fifty rooms each with a single fight. There was no puzzle. There was no exploration. It was "enter, encounter, battle it out, get treasure, move on." Over and over and over again. I think they let you flee once per ten floors or something like that. It was quite terrible after a while, even with each fight being harder than the last. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year door used pretty much the same setup, only with twice the number of rooms. Not floors. One hundred single rooms, vertically stacked with a single enemy in each of the identical rooms. It at least had the decency to put a final boss at the end to reward players who went through all the tedium with something more interesting to fight. A pretty vulgar showing really though, as far as a level design. Something built more for being exceedingly simple to do than anything else. Wild Arms 3 used something similar, but had a bit of dungeon with its hundred floor setup.
You might notice something about these dungeons. They all are purely dungeons of attrition. They seek to wear down the player and provide a sense of fear by the sheer magnitude of them. They are a hundred floors long! That's ridiculously huge! No dungeon can be that big! I'd say…no good dungeon would be that big because a good designer would stop well before then. I said I'd get back to Tales of Phantasia and now is as good a time as any. The Morlia Gallery was ten floors long. It is also my all time favorite hidden dungeon. This isn't to say it is perfect so much as to say that it demonstrates the traits that go along with truly excellent hidden dungeon design. I can think of a fair number of others that did this well, but none that so superbly mixed the important traits without relying on one.
The first part of any hidden dungeon is atmosphere. Without setting up a good atmosphere, it is just there: A bunch of disconnected rooms sitting in the middle of nowhere. Paper Mario made this mistake; I literally just walked right into the hidden dungeon the first time. I could tell it was a hidden dungeon by experience, but really, it had no atmosphere, no pizzazz. It was just smacked right down in the middle of nowhere to fill a room and that was about it. Pretty much no one talked about it. There was no hint of this legendary dungeon existing except for a pipe and a trouble note. There was no pre-dungeon atmosphere, no sense of foreboding in its design. Contrasting, the Morlia Gallery is known as the former home of the dwarves in Tales of Phantasia. You briefly walk into it early on, exploring the easy upper levels. You're told, when you arrive later in the game, of the fearsome lower levels where people simply don't return from. You are warned by the huddled research team outside of the dangers that lie within, right beside the last save point before the dungeon. A few steps inside every single one of your holy bottles shatter. If you don't have them, it breaks your antidotes. Do you think they cared if you had holy bottles or antidotes when making the dungeon? Not really. It doesn't change the style of it significantly. Instead it was about atmosphere. Setting the tone for how the dungeon would work. A great hidden dungeon is every bit about how it is experienced as it is about the actual dungeon itself.
The next part is that it exercises the mind. Sure, you can make a hidden dungeon that's nothing but an endless army of orcs coming at the player in a long passageway, but it wouldn't be a good one. One trick ponies are never particularly interesting, whether they be enemies or dungeons. If a dungeon is a one trick pony, and a lot of them are, it shouldn't be the hidden dungeon and it shouldn't be very long. Tales of Symphonia used a fair number of these but also generally kept them limited to under ten rooms when they were reliant on such gimmicks. The best hidden dungeons aren't simply meant to be wandered through. They have puzzles, mazes, strange and unexpected settings, and possibly even brief rest areas meant to confuse the player by their presence. Regardless of how this is achieved, a good hidden dungeon needs to engage the player's mind. This is also why having a hundred floor dungeon for one of these is bad. A hundred floor dungeon of puzzles that engage the mind in the fashion of a good dungeon is not fun: It's exhausting. And this is with the assumption that the puzzles are not constant repetition. This is an area where less is often more. Providing a short delicacy of a hidden dungeon where every moment is exciting and involving is something that will provide a much longer lasting effect than a hidden dungeon that's simply a long endurance trial. Using Morlia gallery again, pretty much each floor of the dungeon provided a different experience. Some were simply early setup. Others were mazes where light was hard to come by. One was a positioning puzzle. Others yet were filled with poison or spikes or switches or word puzzles. They required actively paying attention. This wasn't a dungeon you could just waltz through while snipping at the occasional ridiculously strong enemy. Star Ocean 2's Cavern of Trials also worked a lot with this, using light, riddles, music, and inter-floor puzzles to keep the dungeon interesting and provide a layer of interaction above simply providing challenging foes.
Then there's also the finale. One boss, placed at the end either as a final rising action or as resolution. Tales of Phantasia on the Super Nintendo used the latter. It struck an odd contrast with the rest of the dungeon and really hinted at the philosophy behind it. The enemies weren't the fight nor was the guy at the end. You were there to tackle the dungeon. Much as the great epics of the naval faring age, the Morlia Gallery was built to tell a story of you versus this force of nature, this unyielding dungeon. The enemy at the end was simply a pushover, dramatic looking to be sure, but intended in every way to simply be obliterated by a player who's already traversed the real challenge: Making their way through the dungeon. Tales of Phantasia on the Playstation and Star Ocean 2 both utilized the former style; the enemy at the end was a reward. A tremendous final fight that provided closure with the hidden dungeon, a sense that it had brought everything it could against you. In general, this is usually best as a single boss. Lots of designers seem to like having five or ten, and while it can work, it's not better. It gives a factory feel when you encounter your fifth or tenth giant terrifying nightmare from beyond complete with all real sharp chomping razor teeth and dripping gore.
There's probably a few more I'm not thinking of, traits that are found among virtually all of the really good hidden dungeons. I hope though that I've successfully displayed how hidden dungeons can and should be more than they are becoming, that fifty rooms filled with giant enemies just doesn't cut it. It's lazy. Anyone can make it. Give us something meaty that's worth stepping into the dungeon on grounds more than just "There's nifty stuff there".