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Why Ocarina of Time Isn’t the Best Game Ever

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Link vs. Ganon

Ah, Ocarina of Time. The first 3D Zelda, and probably the most respected.

It pioneered target-locking, context-sensitive controls, and other modern features, lifting the action adventure genre into 3D. IGN, GameSpot, Edge, Famitsu, and numerous other sources gave it perfect scores. At the time of writing, it holds the highest Metacritic score of any game in the world. Countless developers cite it as an influence.

I first played Ocarina of Time in second grade. My parents ordered a used GameCube bundle on eBay that shipped with Zelda: Collector’s Edition, Wind Waker, Pokémon Colosseum, and Resident Evil 4. It also shipped with a PlayStation 2 AV cable. My parents ordered the proper connector from someone else, and I finally managed to play Collector’s Edition when the cable shipped 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. Death Mountain confused me for several months, but I finally found the Goron Ruby through a game guide. My system woke me up early the next morning, trying to compensate for the lost time. When we moved the GameCube into my room, I played late at night with the speakers muted, sneaking paranoid glances down the hallway.

Despite that, I’ve never agreed with people who consider it the best game ever made. The combat, storytelling, and overworld design are too simplistic for that honor, at least at this point in history. Ocarina of Time is an exceptional game by 1998 standards. It deserves enormous respect for influencing the industry, and it holds up fairly well today, but we’ve surpassed it in almost every area I can name.

Ocarina‘s plot is a simple tale of good versus evil. The most interesting event occurs when Ganondorf tricks you into helping him conquer Hyrule. You spend the child portion of the game gathering the eponymous Ocarina and the three Spiritual Stones, but when you cross the Door of Time and draw the Master Sword, he simply follows you into the Sacred Realm. The Master Sword seals you away until you turn seventeen, and when you awaken, he’s already won. Castle Town lies in ruins, populated by walking corpses, and Ganon’s Castle stands in place of Hyrule’s monarchy.

It’s a rude awakening. Octorocks and man-eating plants greet you upon return to Kokiri Forest, defiling your journey’s place of origin. Ganondorf next imprisons the Gorons in the Fire Temple and tries to feed them to an ancient dragon. He isn’t a complex villain, but he serves well as a destroyer.

Link and Sheik

Unfortunately, Ganondorf is probably the best character in the game. Zelda’s strategy changes enough to remain somewhat dynamic. The cast is largely hollow otherwise, including the Sages. Some of their lines made me laugh, but they exist largely to serve the plot, with little development otherwise. It’s a common problem with video game storytelling, and Ocarina of Time dives into it head-first. You also reverse most of Ganondorf’s destructive actions by the end, even in the adult timeline.

It’s better than Super Mario 64, but even in Ocarina’s era, deeper writing existed. Fallout 2 came out the same year, FreeSpace 2 came out a year later, 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.

Ocarina of Time‘s combat is also simpler than in later Zeldas. You can perform 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. You can perform enhanced spin attacks without charging, once you master a mildly challenging combo, 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.

Ocarina‘s overworld is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it reveals dungeons 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, particularly compared to the sequels. Hyrule Field is a vast, open expanse with relatively little to do. It contains Big Poes, Peahats, Stalchildren, large amounts of grass, and two evil golden spiders. Termina Field is larger, filled with side quests, and simply easier on the eyes. Twilight Princess‘s version of Hyrule Field is superior for similar reasons. Even the Great Sea packs more content, hidden behind tedious sailing.

Compare Ocarina of Time areas to their counterparts from Majora’s Mask. Romani Ranch reuses character models from Lon Lon Ranch, but it adds dog racing, a pair of corrupt rival ranchers, and 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 throughout the game’s clock.

Zora’s Domain is smaller than Great Bay, the Gerudo’s Fortress is simpler than the Pirate’s Fortress, and so on. Ocarina‘s undead-themed areas (Shadow Temple, Kakariko Graveyard, adult Castle Town) are arguably scarier than Ikana Canyon, but it doesn’t humanize the spectres, aside from Flat and Sharp.

I say this not to hype up Majora’s Mask (although I enjoyed it more), but to illustrate how primitive Ocarina of Time‘s world really is.

Ocarina is known for excellent dungeon design. The Forest Temple is among the finest game areas I’ve encountered, no matter the genre. The Fire Temple, Spirit Temple, and Shadow Temple are almost as good. Ganon’s Castle is easier and less unified, but it’s a nice change of pace before the final battle. Even the Deku Tree serves well for a tutorial area, and the Master Quest version is surprisingly 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. It revolves around manipulating the water level with Zelda’s Lullaby, switching the Iron Boots repeatedly on and off through the pause menu (no C-button assignment to save you), and trying to determine where the hell you are. On top of that, you have the usual sluggish block puzzles.

These issues sound minor, but they magnify each other to a nauseating level, like alcohol mixed with opioids. The Water Temple is one confusing ass level, and the more wrong turns you suffer, the more you have to adjust the water level, visit the pause menu, and put those fucking Iron Boots on again. It feels more like homework than gaming. The 3DS remake fixes it, but the other versions still suffer.

It’s easy to forgive one bad dungeon in a game with eight others. 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.

Let me be clear: Ocarina of Time is a very good game. It wrote the book for 3D action adventure titles, and it remains entertaining to this day. But it’s not perfect. In the end, nothing is.

You may wonder: what do I consider the best game ever made? My three personal favorites are System Shock 2, Half-Life 2, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, in no particular order. But I wouldn’t argue they’re superior to all the other games in existence; I’ve just spent the most time with them. When it comes down to it, I’m not sure how you’d bestow such an honor. There are too many different games and genres to crown an unambiguous king.

Image Attribution

Link vs. Ganondorf
April 14, 2011.

Second image:
Nintendo Press. April 15, 2011.
Majora’s Mask: The Clockworks
Author: Janice Scott, Upload: 2013.

Link vs Amoeba
Author: Anthony Vargas, Upload: 2011.

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