Ah, Ocarina of Time. The first 3D Zelda, and probably the most respected. Ocarina pioneered target-locking, context-sensitive controls, and other modern features, lifting the core gameplay into wider spaces with no loss of playability. It hit shelves in 1998, earning perfect scores from IGN, GameSpot, Edge, Famitsu, and numerous other sources. In that day, it probably deserved them. Countless developers cite it as an influence. At the time of writing, it continues to hold the highest Metacritic rank of any video game.
I first played Ocarina of Time in second grade. My parents ordered a GameCube from eBay, which shipped with a copy of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. It also shipped with a PlayStation 2 AV cable, which proved mostly incompatible. The screen rendered in sickly gray tones with lines of wavering static, as if struck by some digital pathogen. After placing yet another order for the proper AV cable, I popped the disc in around a week later. I tried all four games, but Ocarina was the first I made any progress in. The NES titles killed me too fast, and Majora’s Mask was too complicated. I got stuck at Death Mountain for several months, but a guide helped me enter (and beat) Dodongo’s Cavern, and I woke up early the next morning, trying to make up for lost time. When we moved the system to my room, I often played late at night with the speakers muted, sneaking paranoid glances down the hallway. I often turned in homework late, as well, but you don’t get that focused without making sacrifices.
Despite that, when Edge, IGN, or other sources called Ocarina the best game ever made, I never agreed. I considered it very good, and I still do, but “best ever” didn’t make sense to me. The story was a little too thin, the combat was a little too easy, and the Water Temple was a little too irritating for that award.
Ocarina of Time deserves great respect, for influence and design. But to be crowned above all others, mere influence is not sufficient, at least in my eyes. It must excel in every area, even patches of relative weakness. And even if we ignore the outdated textures, there’s one realm of glaring weakness: character development.
The plot is a simple tale of good versus evil, with little deviation. The most interesting event occurs when Ganondorf conquers Hyrule. After gathering the eponymous Ocarina and the three Spiritual Stones, you open the Door of Time and draw the Master Sword, expecting it to grant you the power to stop him. Instead, he follows you into the Sacred Realm, and you’re sealed away for seven years, emerging as an adult in the blackened rubble of Castle Town. Darkness swirls through the sky, and the NPCs have been transformed into walking corpses with a taste for your flesh. It’s a heavy blow.
When you return to your home forest, monstrous, man-eating plants grow alongside houses, and Octorocks float through the pond, firing rocks at your skull. It’s another rude awakening, although I’d prefer if they attacked the other forest dwellers. In the next area, Ganondorf imprisons the Gorons in the Fire Temple, planning to feed them to an ancient dragon. He isn’t a complex villain, but he serves well in his role as destroyer.
Unfortunately, he’s probably fleshed-out better than everyone else. Zelda develops your strategy throughout the game, switching forms in a way that keeps her somewhat dynamic. The rest of the cast is largely hollow, including the Sages. They have a handful of amusing lines, but they change little, rarely interact with each other, and suffer less than you might expect. Most of Ganondorf’s actions are also reversed by the end, even in the adult timeline.
It’s better than, say, Mario 64, but even in Ocarina’s era, deeper writing existed. Fallout 2 came out the same year, FreeSpace 2 was released in 1999, and Final Fantasy VI reached shelves in 1994, to name three I’m personally familiar with. Hell, Majora’s Mask came out in 2000, and it did a better job.
Combat is also simpler than later Zeldas. There are only a handful of sword techniques, and few enemies require tactics more complex than “raise your shield until you see an opening”, if that. It handles well, but there’s no Flurry Rush, Mortal Draw, or Parry Attack. One moderately challenging combo allows you to quickly perform enhanced spin attacks, and you can stab rapidly by kneeling behind your shield. That’s the extent of things. It’s not a bad system, by any means, but it’s been surpassed many times since.
The overworld of Ocarina is a mixed bag. On the one hand, dungeons are revealed quickly, without the protracted fetch quests of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, or (dear God) Skyward Sword. On the other hand, there aren’t nearly as many side areas. Hyrule Field is a vast, open expanse with relatively little to do. There are Big Poes as an adult, Peahats and Stalchildren to fight for money as a child, and two evil golden spiders that can be found by bombing your way into simple caverns. It’s (other than the day-night cycle) largely painless to navigate, but the most interesting part of the area is how it connects to other places. Termina Field is larger, richer in side quests, and simply easier on the eyes, and Twilight Princess‘s version of Hyrule Field is superior in similar ways. Even the Great Sea, as tedious as it can be, packs a lot more content, with numerous caverns, platforms, and submarines, many entirely optional.
Compare the areas in Ocarina of Time to their counterparts in Majora’s Mask. Romani Ranch reuses character models from Lon Lon Ranch, but it adds dog racing, replaces Ingo with a pair of corrupt rival ranchers, and attaches an early-morning attack by aliens (or possibly ghosts) who want to steal your cattle. Castle Town has quite a few side quests, but Clock Town has even more, and it changes as the three days pass. Zora’s Domain is smaller than Great Bay, the Gerudo’s Fortress is simpler than the Pirate’s Fortress, and so on. I say this not to brag about Majora, but to show how limited Ocarina’s world really is.
Perhaps the greatest contrast occurs in the phase of the quest involving large numbers of undead. Ocarina of Time gets the Kakariko Well, the Shadow Temple, the Kakariko Graveyard, and adult Castle Town. Majora’s Mask gets Ikana, a unified area much larger in scope. The spectres also exhibit greater humanity. ReDeads dance, Gibdos speak, and Flat teaches you the Song of Storms.
Ocarina is known for excellent dungeon design. The Forest Temple is among the finest levels I’ve encountered, no matter the genre. The Fire Temple, Spirit Temple, and Shadow Temple are almost as good, and they play quite differently. Ganon’s Castle is easier and less unified, but it makes for a nice change of pace before the final battle. Even the Deku Tree is a good tutorial area, and the Master’s Quest version is lethal.
And then the Water Temple appears. It, too, is lethal, like waiting in line at the Social Security office, or debugging a program in machine language. Dark Link and Morpha are interesting, but the dungeon revolves around raising and lowering the water level, which can only be accomplished by playing Zelda’s Lullaby in front of certain crests. By itself, this might be tolerable, but the Iron Boots transform the area into a horrible slog with countless visits to the pause menu. Every switch between water and air is punished by an interruption, and if you change the water incorrectly a few times (you will), you’re interrupted even more. Add in the usual sluggish block puzzles, and it begins to feel more like homework than gaming. The 3DS remake fixes it, but every other version still suffers.
In a game with nine primary dungeons, a single misstep is easily forgiven. Unless it’s the best game ever, in which case the Water Temple doesn’t belong here. Or the ancient textures. Or Hyrule Field. Or the clumsy arrow controls.
Ocarina of Time wrote the book for action adventure titles. Even today, the 3DS remake earned several perfect scores. I’d give it a 9 myself. But it’s not without fault. In the end, nothing is.
Link vs. Ganondorf
April 14, 2011.
Nintendo Press. April 15, 2011.
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