Considering its long and illustrious history, The Legend of Zelda series is one that, perhaps more than any other, I wish I could say I’ve enjoyed since its genesis. I wish the sum of its parts would grasp my nostalgic memories of childhood like it does for so many of our kind. But no, my first Zelda game was Twilight Princess, a significantly late start by any standard.
Despite this, I would consider myself to be a fan of the series. While it’s true that I never grew up with the games, and it’s also unfortunately true that I’ve played less than half the titles in the series to their completion, Twilight Princess left me with such an impression of perfection and ecstasy that I can’t help but feel like there’s something fundamental in the formula that I’m completely enamored by. With that being said, much of what captured my heart in that title has to do with it’s ascetic feel and sheer depth (I believe my first playthrough culminated in around 200+ hours, for reasons I can no longer remember), not to mention Midna, who I still consider to be one of the most likable and interesting side characters in gaming.
So can Ocarina of Time, a title that likely tops more best of all time lists than anything else in creation, illuminate my soul with the same magic I felt back in middle school when Twilight Princess graced my shiny new Wii? Even without the fresh mind of a child and without playing it in its intended context?
EDIT: Check out our review of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D here.
Admittedly, this is not technically the first time I’ve attempted a playthrough of Ocarina of Time. I’m embarrassed to say that it’s actually my third. But it is the first time I managed to complete the game from start to finish, and, perhaps more importantly, not allow myself any huge gaps of time between play sessions (the latter occurred with my second attempted playthrough, and I soon lost focus and the will to continue). This time, I concentrated my efforts on the recent remake on 3DS, which I found to have far superior controls than either the original N64 layout or the Wii VC version with either classic controller pro or Gamecube pad (although that’s a matter of personal preference, of course).
Picking Ocarina of Time, has been something I’ve been putting off for a while simply out of entirely understandable (I hope?) fear. This is, after all, an extremely high profile, much beloved game with raving lunati… I mean, completely wonderful and fun-to-be-around bunch as its central core fan base. No game has touched a generation of impressionable minds quite like Ocarina of Time, and that’s definitely something that made me weary of introducing the very concept of design flaws in the same sentence.
But to be fair, it is quite amazing that Ocarina of Time was good enough to receive such universal praise, and absolutely proved that Nintendo was, at the time, at the forefront of the industry’s massive shift into the third dimension. They had a number of seamless transitions from 2D to 3D with many of their major franchises in rapid succession, all of which becoming the standard that those franchises would continue to swear by. Mario went into 3D and the formula shifted drastically. Mario Kart rose from its near unplayable roots and turned into something absolutely must-own for its system. And even though Zelda had always been about dungeons, Rupees, and mini-bosses, Nintendo deserves all manner of praise for transforming its boxy, multi-roomed dungeons into palaces of depth and intricacy.
To say that Ocarina of Time established a legacy is to a diservice to everyone involved. It built itself a high tower, grounding itself in the tough rock of its established formula while reaching for an idealized paradise of new ideas, greater story power, and endless possibilities in further entries. It might be most accurate to say that Ocarina of Time carries the biggest legacy in gaming.
I had always heard that this was a near-perfect game. This was, of course, always coming from those who had played it long ago when it was the newest, freshest thing on the market. Their childhood memories, tainted with a rose tint and the soft smell of cookies, could not be changed even by replaying their favorite games from the past today. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and reliving deeply-cherished childhood emotions is exactly why playing objectively faulty titles can still maintain in me the same wonder and amazement they did when I was much more impressionable (hence, perhaps, the love I have for KotOR 2 and Kirby Air Ride).
So it’s perhaps safe to say that I was not terribly optimistic about the time I’d spend with this one. With a few noticeable exceptions I often find that playing relatively ancient games with no childhood attachment terribly tedious, especially if I’ve played titles further along in the series. In short, I assumed that it would come up short behind Twilight Princess, since that was a game that I already formed a deep connection with.
Playing Ocarina of Time, though, forced me to look again at this preemptive assumption with a little doubt. For one, the game doesn’t control nearly as poorly as I would have assumed, although this is perhaps helped by the aforementioned refining of the controls for 3DS. Just as in Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (the only two 3D Zelda titles I’ve played to completion), the lock-on targeting provides a fairly elegant way to combat the lack of dual analog sticks, and I found it a lot more imaginative than the clicky cam found in Super Mario 64.
Progression has a fairly ingenius implementation thanks to the element of time, and it definitely forced me to break out of my conventional concepts of direction to figure out just where to go next (or when, rather). Is the next stage something for adult Link to solve, or young? Only sometimes does the game literally tell you when time jumps should be done, and the game generally stays vague about direction.
This one fact does culminate in the game’s greatest source of frustration for those used to more linear, modern design. You’re often left to your own devices to guess where the next step of the grand puzzle hides. This is perhaps the truest connection to the original Zelda design philosophy I can think of, and it’s not really one that functions well in today’s age of internet and instant information accessibility.
Back in the 80′s when the first game in the series was released, there was no forum for which public game dissection could take place. If you were lucky, a magazine might outline the secrets of whatever game you might be playing. But more often than not, you were left to find out secrets entirely by yourself, and, of course, your circle of friends. You see, I’m a firm believer that a lot of the downright cruel passage hiding found in the first Legend of Zelda doesn’t constitute for solid game design in the context of itself. But the genius of this was that it allowed for the information of certain secrets’ whereabouts to spread mouth to mouth on playgrounds everywhere. In the world before the internet, this strange title was a grand social experiment played out my Nintendo, and it seems the legacy of this design lived on. I actually had to consult my friends to figure out a couple of tricky situations, like how to obtain the fire arrows. That specific example would have been nearly impossible as even with the knowledge of where to find it, I had no idea that summoning the morning sun with the sun song would negate the arrows’ appearance (insanity!).
Of course, Zelda games are nothing without dungeons, and 9 out of 10 doctors say Ocarina of Time has a few of those. Thing is, where I’m usually excited by the prospect of a new dungeon in a Zelda game, I was usually disappointed and occasionally infuriated by the design found this time around. There’s simply too much backtracking (also a problem found in Skyward Sword), and too great a reliance on locked door design (also a problem in Twilight Princess). Too many times, I found that I had accumulated three keys for four locked doors (plus or minus on each depending on the situation), and I would sigh in agony that it meant another round through the water level adjustment in that horrendous Water Temple level, or another trip up to the top floor in the Fire Temple.
Mechanically and formatively, Ocarina of Time felt a little like Twilight Pricess beta-version to me. I was constantly being force-feed reminders that this is a very old game, and perhaps, in a way, that makes it a lot less timeless than many seem to think it is. Just look at the animation quality and how much that’s grown over the years.
But behing these two areas in which the game shutters a bit in the light of this new day, there is an emotional core at the very center. The dynamic between Link and Zelda is a truly powerful one that did pull a few heart strings within my dreary black-hole of a chest. And, to be fair, this is likely where Zelda storytelling shines brightest and the forces of good and evil are at the most central core of the plot. With Twilight Princess, the conflict centers on realms beyond Hyrule, and in Skyward Sword, the plot remains fairly vague as to who or what it is that you’re fighting against. But Ocarina of Time makes its conflict essential to the game, putting it’s villain, and his roots and goals front and center.
Ocarina of Time is vague when it needs to be vague and straightforward when it needs to be straightforward. It creates a powerful, rich atmosphere that just makes me feel like I’m experiencing brilliance even if it’s hiding behind some obtuse (or maybe young) design.
Even though it’s undeniably a piece of the past, this is a game that defines adventure and yet does so much that no games had before or have done since. And even though I still hold Twilight Princess up to a greater pedestal thanks to that overpowering force of nostalgia (you always love your first), this was a truly eye-opening experience into our medium’s rich and wonderful history.
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