THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (NINTENDO EAD) – 1998
Wherever Ocarina Of Time (OOT) is mentioned, the words that follow usually comprise of any combination of the following words and phrases: ‘wonderful’… ‘timeless’…‘masterpiece’. The first 3D Zelda experience has racked up so many plaudits and awards over the years that it has become hard to keep count – nearly eight million copies were sold worldwide, and at release it earned over fifteen perfect review scores from various gaming publications (resulting in a sensational average of 99 out of 100 over on Metacritic). Since then, critics and gamers alike have regularly hailed Shigeru Miyamoto’s classic as ‘the greatest game ever made’, a benchmark which has rarely been touched.
Time to play devil’s advocate: I reckon Ocarina Of Time is actually somewhat quite overrated, and people have become a tad blind to some of its obvious faults.
It was only recently that I actually got round to playing OOT when I inherited a N64 and a copy of the game from a close friend, and I decided the best thing to do would be to play through and see why this particular game has earned such a high level of praise. The process was…drawn out. Corrupted save files (TWICE) and a subsequent lack of desire to retread the first five hours again means that it has taken me close to two whole years to finish, but now I find myself in a position where I can hopefully swim against the enormous tide of gamers who will defend OOT to the hilt and explain some of my bugbears with the supposed ‘greatest game ever’.
For those interested in the lore of the Zelda universe, the story of OOT is vitally important as it is the point where three whole new timelines are created. A kid called Link from the Kokiri Forest is told that he is destined to save the land of Hyrule from the evil King Of Thieves, Ganondorf, with assistance from the young Princess Zelda. After acquiring the three artefacts needed to reveal the Master Sword in the Temple Of Time, by taking the sword Link opens the Door Of Time and inadvertently causes Ganondorf to acquire the Triforce Of Power. Link awakens seven years later as a young adult to find Hyrule in ruins, and with the help of the mysterious Sheik aims to knock Ganondorf from his newly found position as the King Of Evil.
The fact that you spend the large part of OOT trying to save a world that you personally doomed to an early demise (a similar plot device is used to great effect in Final Fantasy VI) is a narrative masterstroke and quite risqué for a game aimed primarily at youngsters; seeing that the smiling, happy people of the Market town have turned into shuffling zombies as you change from child to adult is horrifying in a way that you only truly appreciate as you yourself get older and become more wise to the world. However, I couldn’t help but feel that more could have been made of the change in atmosphere – outside of the Market town, the world and its inhabitants go about their lives in pretty much the exact same way, and thus Ganondorf’s evil rule feels nowhere near as threatening as say, the ever-looming face of the Moon from Majora’s Mask. I’m also not exactly sure I buy into the whole idea of Link and Ganondorf in particular being such iconic characters as they have become; Link for example blindly follows instructions from just about anyone (Zelda, the Sages, a big owl…even a damn talking tree!) and is thus more simply a paragon of the light in the battle against darkness rather than someone whom the player can identify with via actual character development. But I digress, if you don’t mind some slightly bland characters then OOT is a good old fashioned tale of good vs. evil accessible to all ages.
So now to that most important of areas; gameplay. OOT famously introduced several ideas that have become staples of many different games, including context sensitive buttons (allowing you to for example push or climb a block with the same input), a day/night cycle with an active effect on the world and the Z-targeting mechanic, allowing you to keep an enemy in your sights at all times. For the most part, the controls in OOT are razor sharp with an excellent use of the C-buttons on the N64 controller to allow the quick selection of items; essential for solving many of the games trickier puzzles. Occasionally, the context system will cause Link to do something you didn’t want but moments like this are brief. What cannot be ignored however is the unwieldy menu system, which is painfully slow and cumbersome. The worst offender in this case is the selection of boots, as anyone who has tackled the Water Temple will no doubt have cursed; if the designer knew that puzzles were going to be based around taking the Iron Boots on and off, why not just pop them on the C-buttons with everything else? It just strikes me as a bizarre design decision and spoils an otherwise excellent setup. Same thing goes for the simple things like the unspecified range of Z-targeting and text speed – you can have either turtle pace or skip everything and risk having it repeated for your impatience (here’s looking at you, hilarious time-wasting owl).
The heart of OOT is to be found in its various dungeons, which with their brain taxing puzzles and well implemented use of new equipment provide the biggest moments of joy. Each moment of success, be it opening a chest or clearing a room of enemies, is celebrated with a jingle and a quick cut scene spurring you on to the next challenge. I must admit I’m not the most sensible man in the world when it comes to puzzle solving, and so the less obvious traps had me crying out in frustration sometimes (how was I supposed to know the wall in the well was fake without bumbling randomly into it?), but the elation of completion is still well worth it so many years after the game’s initial release. The decision to incorporate the music and time traveling qualities of the titular Ocarina within puzzles is also much welcomed. I find that the dungeons offer a strange difficulty curve however; the early adult temples can be obnoxiously hard whereas the latter dungeons can be breezed through with minimal fuss. The enemies and bosses you face as well offer a similar sliding scale in quality; there’s some inventive scraps (whack-a-mole with Volvagia and that surreal encounter halfway through the Water Temple…), an awful lot of fights which devolve into simple shield and parry tactics, and some which are quite repetitive including sadly enough the final bouts with Ganondorf. It’s an adventure perhaps best experienced one dungeon per play session so you don’t burn yourself out on Ocarina’s occasionally repetitive nature. Outside of the dungeons, Hyrule offers plenty of distractions for the keen adventurer. Link can make a small fortune selling masks, go bowling with exploding rat-things, release a curse placed on a family by eliminating Golden Skulltula’s, go fishing, attempt to defeat the fastest distance runner in the universe, practice archery and of course, tame and ride his trusty steed Epona.
Whatever reservations I may have had about OOT¸ the one thing that has always kept me at least moderately interested is the soundtrack, composed by Nintendo’s resident musical genius Koji Kondo. The use of the Ocarina aside (which can be played in game complete with pitch changes by holding certain buttons while playing a note) OOT has a somewhat evergreen soundtrack with some of the most instantly recognizable tunes from the Zelda franchise; the Song Of Storms, the celebratory jingle of opening a chest, the jaunty theme of The Lost Woods and the flamenco inspired Gerudo Valley are just a handful of the fantastic songs Kondo managed to squeeze onto the N64 cartridge. It’s not just the songs however, as the ambient sounds of wolves howling as the sun goes down and water trickling downstream into Lake Hylia all combine to create an atmosphere rarely found in other games of the time period.
But now one must highlight the area of OOT that I’ve always felt its biggest fans are ironically blind to; never mind that it has aged pretty badly, OOT wasn’t exactly the prettiest of games to begin with. Credit where it is due, the actual world of Hyrule captured in 3D is still pretty damn impressive; seeing Death Mountain for the first time and then realizing you can cross the world right up to the top of the peak demonstrates the vision the developers had. But the price they paid for such scope means that on presentation OOT isn’t a patch on say, Banjo Kazooie which was released a couple of months earlier. The frame rate is absolutely shocking at times, and the textures of walls and surfaces pale into comparison with the sort of environments one could find on a Playstation title. Character faces are a particular problem in OOT; they put a lot of effort into capturing the emotions on Link and the main crew, but the common folk and especially the fairies look downright terrifying at times. And sure, having a big open Hyrule Field is great and all but…there’s simply nothing there. Compare this to the taut map design of say, A Link To The Past, where every screen was small but felt like there was a hidden secret waiting to be discovered. It’s the price to be paid sometimes for aiming big – the attention to detail is often overlooked.
I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m bashing Ocarina Of Time for the hell of it; even if I have my deep reservations about it being the finest game ever made, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this review I will happily admit that it does a lot to make itself stand out not only from the games of its time, but even from games of today. The combination of clever puzzles and thoughtful design still shine through, and the soundtrack will remain timeless for years to come. But let’s be honest; in other vital areas such as story, graphical design, and poise of control OOT has simply been surpassed and refined by its successors (it is notable for example that my problems with the menu system are cleared up in the 3DS version with its dual screens). Nostalgia is one of the strongest forces in the known universe, and for those who played this upon its release in 1998 I can understand why they would appreciate it so much – perhaps I’m just immune to that charm in 2013. It’s certainly a great game, up there with Super Mario 64 as the best the N64 had to offer the world. But the greatest game ever? Not for me.