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Sand is an environmental element that has been a staple for The Legend of Zelda series. Over the course of the decades, sand has served numerous roles in the games, including an environmental role and being an obstacle to beat.
Role in the Series
Sand as a symbolic element
Sand is the signature characteristic of certain kinds of locations, such as Deserts and beaches, and it's thus associated with hot environments. As in the case of other elements, such as fire and water, sand is symbolically represented by the various desert dungeons built in Hyrule and other landmarks of the World of The Legend of Zelda. In particular, the Spirit Temple from Ocarina of Time is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sand, to whom it shows tribute not only through the exterior, but also within the central and biggest room. The Spirit Temple itself is also guarded by the Sage of Spirit (by the moment the events of the game take place, Nabooru fulfills this role, and also guards the Spirit Medallion until she gives it to Link), and the Requiem of Spirit gives its player instant access to its whereabouts. Other landmarks in the series, such as the Sand Sanctuary and the Sand Temple, both from Spirit Tracks, follow a similar trend.
Unlike the other natural elements, there is no definite race that is associated with deserts or sandy areas, with some exceptions (such as the Gerudo race in Ocarina of Time, and the Zuna tribe in Four Swords Adventures). The majority of these places, in fact, are devoid of any civilization, and are instead overrun by enemies, some of which even use the sand as a refuge to hide from Link's attacks, as well as to attack him in turn from strategic spots. Leevers, Lanmolas and Ergtoroks are only some examples.
Sand as an obstacle
As mentioned before, sand is used in favor of the enemies that are native of deserts and other places. In some cases, however, it's the sand itself that hinders Link's navigation. Sometimes, if Link stops moving, his feet will gradually sink within the sandy platform, which will damp his motion significantly; in some games, sand will always slow Link's motion. Quicksand is a more extreme obstacle that will instantly suck Link within and make him lose health.
In the Haunted Wasteland (Ocarina of Time) and the whereabouts of Twinmold (Majora's Mask), sand also makes sight more difficult due to the wind blowing it. In both cases, Link must keep an eye for where he is heading to, in order to avoid falling accidentally into quicksand. In the case of Spirit Tracks, only quicksand will sink Link, but all Phantoms (including those possessed by Princess Zelda) are vulnerable to all types of sand, likely due to their weight.
Sand as a puzzle device
To date, only Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, Skyward Sword, and A Link Between Worlds have involved sand into puzzle solving. In the former, the Sand of Hours has the magical property of protecting those venturing into the Temple of the Ocean King from losing their Life Force. When a certain amount of this sand is stored into the Phantom Hourglass, the explorer will be protected from the place's course during a given time limit. The more sand is collected, the longer this time limit will be. Sand of Hours is collected after boss battles and some treasure hunt in the ocean, and can be recovered by yellow pots located in strategic parts. In the same game, Bombchus are immune to quicksands, making them valuable to hit switches that Link cannot physically reach to.
In Spirit Tracks and A Link Between Worlds, there is an item that makes use of sand to solve puzzles, the Sand Rod. With it, blocks of sand rise wherever Link aims with the wand, allowing him to move or stop heavy objects, unveil sunken treasure, and rise to a higher platform. In Spirit Tracks, it can even help Princess Zelda cross sand terrain that would otherwise sink her. The Sand Rod is also used for combat, as it stuns sand-made enemies such as Gerune, Ergtoroks, and Geldmen.