The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Sometimes, approaching a game for the first time with a multitude of force-fed preconceptions is not a good place to be. “It’s the best game ever” they cry. “10 out of 10 – perfect“. “If you don’t enjoy this, you may as well be dead!”
…I’ve just checked my pulse and I couldn’t feel anything…
On paper I should really enjoy the latter Zelda games – I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre across all mediums, and I’ve been enjoying games not dissimilar to this for the better part of two decades now (including some of the 2D Zeldas). And yet, after trying to play through OoT on two separate occasions spaced over a couple of years and putting in a guesstimate of 30 – 40 hours’ play, I am still finding it labourious and it’s leaving me feeling cold and uninterested.
Perhaps I just missed the boat on this one. I was never a huge N64 gamer, besides Goldeneye, Mario Kart 64 and a couple of fairly average Rare games like Diddy Kong Racing and Blast Corps. My first proper OoT experience was when I bought my GameCube after the release of Wind Waker, and thought it would be best if I started with the legendary N64 title first (helpfully included on the bonus disc along with the enhanced version Master Quest, as you may know).
Retrospectively, I can fully appreciate what kind of impact this game would’ve had back in 1998. It heralded so many firsts in gaming, and laid down a lot of principals other games have adopted, and we take for granted so readily today. Small but hugely significant additions like a melee lock-on were pretty much pioneered [and arguably perfected] in OoT. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first game to feature a proper day/night cycle. And it featured a huge, unbroken and cohesive gameworld with literally dozens of side quests and intricacies for the keen explorers out there. The console world had never known anything like it.
Perhaps as expected with any retro review, we reach the part where we should consider how to approach a nine-year-old classic. Do we judge it by the things it achieved almost a decade ago, giving merits for inclusions which are featured in most games these days? Or should we critically analyse and deconstruct it at the same level as today’s releases? Lacking the presence of any rose-tinted spectacles, I’d like to take a look at how a game which is largely considered the ‘Best Game Ever’ holds up in today’s market.
The plot in OoT concerns a young elfin boy named Link, who lives in a forest amongst the Kokiri people. Summoned by the ruling entity the Great Deku Tree, Link is told of a darkness which threatens to cover the kingdom of Hyrule, and that he is destined to stop it. Over the course of his adventure Link meets many characters, including his faithful faerie companion Navi, the titular Princess Zelda and his nemesis, the dark sorcerer Ganon. There’s a fair bit of conversation and plot progression, and there’s usually a little cutscene after each dungeon area is completed. The premise is essentially the same ‘Hyrule in peril’ theme explored and reiterated in many Zelda titles, but the characterisation and plot help build a far move developed narrative and more of a solid structure to the world than previous games in the series.
The real meat of the game is the numerous and imaginative dungeons. There’s about fourteen of them, and for the most part they are vast and well-designed, and feature some cunning environmental puzzles, as well as some thoroughly excellent bosses. Basically, for reasons you will discover you have to go through each dungeon to retrieve something, and in each you’ll find a new weapon or item and have to deal with an assortment of new enemies and boss monsters. The layout is generally ingenious and although I began to tire of what I felt was essentially a game about protracted dungeon crawling, you can’t take anything away from Nintendo for some excellent designs and astute puzzles. Don’t forget your thinking cap.
Discovering and using new weapons and items makes a huge part of the experience. Link starts the game with simply a sword and shield, but along the way he finds dozens of aggressive weapons and useful support items such as a hammer, a grapple, a bow and arrow, bombs and glass jars (to preserve things in). He also collects a few magic items such as a fire wand and a looking glass that allows you to see through trick walls. As mentioned, the level design is inspired and you will need to fully utilise all these items to beat the cunning dungeons and the tough foes therein. There are also several side-quests where you can discover and exchange items until your heart is content, such as the mask shop owner whom you become a sales rep for, or to-ing and fro-ing with all manner of items such as delivering rare mushrooms to the witch who concocts a potion with it, and destroying the numerous secret Gold Skulltulas to help a woeful family. There’s tons to do and you could easily sink hours and hours into just spending time on the mini-games and side quests.
Graphically, it was damn good for the hardware, and with the debatable exception of a couple of Rare titles, no-one really squeezed more out of the Nintendo 64. For its day, it managed an unprecedented amount of detail and variety, coupled with the fact there is a completely uncompromised draw distance – an admirable feat that even some PS2 games still have not managed. It is also home to an excellent soundtrack, with a wide assortment of catchy, enjoyable tunes. Nintendo have done a great job of creating atmosphere through the score, and it’s still just about as memorable as any other soundtrack which springs to mind. Sound effects are also good, although as per all Zelda titles there is no speech (excepting a few words for Navi). All in all though, the sound is absolutely first class, although I feel it can be slightly tinny at times compared to today’s big releases – granted though, this is totally understandable given the age of the game.
Link controls pretty well and he’s got a nice line in agility and grace. Your sword is used via the B button and you can use the X, Y and Z buttons to allocate up to three support items at any one time. There’s no jump ability, but he automatically leaps off ledges and over small fences well enough. Many individual moves such as roll, pick up, throw, etc, are all assigned to the A button (depending on Link’s actions at the time), which can unfortunately lead to annoying instances where you perform the wrong action and get injured or fall off a ledge, or something similar. Generally combat is blissful and includes a superb lock-on, although it can be a bit annoying at times due to the fact you take damage simply by touching many enemies. That said, if you are duelling against another sword-wielding foe (like the skeletal Stalfos) the fights can be genuinely excellent, with parrying, blocking and attacking back and forth.
Enemy designs are generally good, and the bosses in particular are excellent. There’s at least one to every dungeon (often there are sub-bosses half way through), and rather than a straight fight, you will have to work out their weakness and how to damage them, as it’s not usually as simple as just striking them with your sword. The Zelda games have always been something of a leader in terms of boss design, and this title is no different.
I’m sitting here trying to think of what would be considered a ‘problem’ in this game, and genuinely not having much luck. At a stretch, I’d say the camera can be a little irritating at times (generally it sticks behind Link a la Tomb Raider, but it sometimes goes awry), and the lock-on can sometimes be a little suspect (something like favouring a rock over an enemy from time to time). I feel a little ungrateful for moaning about the length of a game, but going through all the dungeons can feel draining and onerous, especially when some of the puzzles are so vague and frustratingly difficult (I still have damn nightmares about the Water Temple). Best have GameFAQs on standby.
So, OoT clearly has all the elements of a good game; I can fully understand why people love it and why it’s so revered, but I just couldn’t warm to it. When I try to describe how I felt whilst playing this game, the words arduous or labourious spring to mind most often. There are some elements which are outstanding – ‘liberating’ Epona (a horse) and galloping around Hyrule Field on her is great, and duelling against some of the bosses is superb. And yet, I spent much of the time being bored, running from one dungeon to the next and cursing the game’s sometime lack of direction and often vague ‘hints’. Not that it’s not enjoyable enough, but there are several games in the same genre that do certain things better than this which I’d much rather play, such as Okami, Drakan: The Ancient’s Gates and Dark Chronicle (aka Dark Cloud 2). I wouldn’t necessarily say that these are all better games, but I certainly enjoyed playing them more.
As a hardcore gamer it feels slightly wrong – slightly dirty – not loving Ocarina of Time, after hearing how wonderful it is for so many years. At its best, it is a superb 9/10 game, with thrilling combat, excellent, taxing puzzles and buckets of charm and original features. At its worst, it’s a boring dungeon crawler with a total lack of characterisation, some intensely annoying features and a whiff of vagueness in parts; an average 5/10 title. I guess I’ll have to sit on the fence and go middle of the road between the two. I wanted to love this game, but at the end of the day I just didn’t, and after more than half a decade of hearing how legendary it was I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.