It's been 15 years since Nintendo graced us with what people consider the greatest video game ever, "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time." So I figured it was time to brush it off and play through it again. Does it hold up after a decade and a half? It does, so much that it's almost perfect. Almost.
MY OWN TIME TRAVEL
I never actually got to finish "Ocarina of Time" in its 1998 heyday. I was 16 then, and new video games only came around on birthdays and Christmas. Anything else and I'd have to either rent from the video section at the local grocery store, or save my pennies and think of a good answer to the question “why do you need a new video game?” So when I did play "OoT," I was borrowing a friend's copy.
I got surprisingly far in it, too. I borrowed it for about two months or so, playing it while I could. I technically was grounded at the time, so I could only play when no one else was home. At a time when most teens were sneaking away to talk to girls or try smoking, I was waiting until everyone was gone so I could fire up my Nintendo 64. I even got all the way to the penultimate dungeon in the desert when a bomb was dropped; my friend wanted his game back.
So of course, I brought it to school the next day, and gave it back to him. I couldn't afford to have his parents call mine about technically stolen video games. That stopped my progress cold. My save file was on his cartridge, not saved to a memory pack. This was a mercy for some who couldn't afford the $20 cost, but for me, it meant starting over completely. To add to my troubles, it was fall, dead middle between my July birthday and Christmas. It was not to be.
And then eventually I didn't care. Ironically, time is what kept me from "Ocarina of Time." Before long the sequel, "Majora's Mask" was out. I never actually owned that one either. I managed to rent it a year or so after its release, after I got the Expansion Pak to play "Perfect Dark" (another distraction). And then before long the Playstation 2 was out, followed by "Grand Theft Auto 3." And so my quest to save Zelda from Ganondorf eventually became a memory.
What changed? What allowed me to go back and finish the arguably greatest video game ever? I became a dad. A stepdad, actually. As a 30-year old gamer with a 7-year old daughter, my time on games like "Saints Row the Third" or "Batman: Arkham City" was drastically reduced to after bedtime. If I wanted to play games, they had to be appropriate for younger eyes. Like any family these days, we have a Wii sitting under the TV. In between rounds of "Wii Fit" and "Bubble Bobble," I realized the game that I'd left unfinished all those years ago was available on Virtual Console, for a price I wouldn't have to justify in our monthly budget (responsibility). So I took the plunge, and over about two months, finally finished it. For the first and only time, I beat "Ocarina." Totally worth it.
COMING OF AGE
"Ocarina of Time" is gaming's greatest coming of age story. It asks us to hold on to the black and white morality of children, while accepting that some jobs are better left to adults.
You start out as the young elf boy Link, sent on a quest by a magical tree struck by a curse. The Deku Tree summons you; he has a magical curse, and you're the only one who can save him. So you go inside and fight valiantly, taking out a giant spider monster. The curse is broken, but the Deku Tree died anyway, and you're blamed for it. Still, Link follows through with the Tree's request that he go meet the princess.
You arrive at Hyrule Castle, meeting Princess Zelda. She shows you Ganondorf, the man who she believes is going to try overthrowing the throne through magic. She begs you to help stop him, and you agree. Zelda actually offers no proof that this leader of a desert tribe is up to anything. She saw a vision in a dream, and knows instinctively that he is evil. Link sees him smiling evily as he bows to an unseen king. That's enough for him. So Link goes on a quest to gather three magic stones, breaking curses and making friends. Until all three are gathered, but there's a twist.
Ganondorf is attacking NOW. Zelda was right. But you, the chosen one, are not ready.
You're just a boy! This evil man just attacked the royal castle and sent the Princess running. One last chance, seal up the magic before he can get to it. But then there's evil laughter as you enter the temple's magic light; he followed you in and is claiming his prize.
Until you wake up; it turns out Link, the Hero of Time, wasn't old enough to wield the Master Sword and banish evil. So you were magically kept in stasis for seven years. Now an adult, you're ready to make things right. This is where the realpolitick comes in.
Hyrule Castle Town has been ravaged, and all the other little fiefdoms are under duress by Ganondorf. However, this has been the norm since Ganondorf's coup seven years ago; everyone has simply accepted it. They lack the power or strength to fight back. So the Kokiri hide from monsters outside their door, the leader of the Gorons struggles to save his people from being eaten by a dragon, and the Zora are just frozen in place. The village you grew up in? Overrun by monsters. Who knows where Zelda is.
There's no choice but to soldier on, and set things right. Eventually you rid the various locations in Hyrule of Ganondorf's influence, march onto the castle, take on the Evil King and set things right. With the bad guy imprisoned, Princess Zelda admits she shouldn't have sent Link into the Sacred Realm. With that, she restores him to his original time as the Hyrule of the “future” celebrates.
Shigeru Miyamoto and his team want players to hold onto the black and white “Good/Bad” morality we develop as children. Even as we become adults, where the shades of gray typically come in. There is a caveat when Zelda admits her plan wasn't well thought out; perhaps if they'd gone to her father before Ganondorf attacked, they could've prevented it. Some stuff is just too big for children to take on. "OoT" basically has an inescapable Game Over built-in, and you get to play and explore what happened when the hero failed. Many games are post-apocalyptic, but a one-to-one equivalent would be akin to a "Fallout" game where you failed to stop the A-bombs dropping.
THE GREATEST EVER?
The legacy of this game (beyond why there hasn't been another “Zelda” game as good as this one) is the ongoing debate as to whether or not it's the greatest game ever produced. My verdict; almost.
For this game to be truly the best, every aspect of the game would have to be timeless. Everything about it would have to work, despite advances in processors, graphics, gameplay, controllers. Sadly, the camera ruins "OoT"'s chances.
Welcome to the world of turn of the century 3D gaming. Cameras were bad all over. Developers had been operating in 2D side oriented cameras for so long, the transition was bound to be hard. But I keep yearning for the days of "Super Mario 64," when a tap of the C Button could let you look around corners and scope out a room for a second.
Z Targeting is much more deliberate; it forces you to know what you want to focus on. But you often can't know what you should be looking at until it's right in front of you, and half the time that means taking a cheap hit to your life meter. It was trying to be a second control stick before anyone had them (two control sticks didn't become standard until the next generation, after Sony added them to the Playstation as a sort of response to the N64's single joystick).
According to legend, "OoT" started out with the same engine as “Super Mario 64,” but it was modified so greatly that Myamoto considers them two separate engines. Which accounts for why in “SM64,” the camera can be adjusted with the yellow C buttons, but in OoT it can only be snapped directly behind Link. Myamoto stated this was to place a greater focus on the world of Hyrule, but ironically, since the camera mostly follows Link, you can’t really see the world unless you go into first person. You’ll “see the world” when you turn a corner and the camera gets hung up on the geometry.
The graphics are simplistic, but they work. The N64 wasn't as powerful as the other systems of the generation, but things in the game look like things in the world. The Moblins (dog-monster-knight things) have heads that sort of float above their bodies, but at least they have faces. Link, Zelda, the various characters in the world look like actual people. Compare that to “Final Fantasy VII” where characters' features depend on the situation, or “Metal Gear Solid” where no one has a real face, and that's impressive.
The sound is, of course, fantastic. It's a music themed action RPG, it had to be. You can run from one end of Hyrule to the other and never get tired of the music. Plus, you actually get to make some yourself, since you can get the eponymous Ocarina out at any time and start playing, which can affect the world or your location in it. It not only enhances the atmosphere of the world, it changes how you play the game.
I can't imagine players have any reaction when Link strolls out into the wide open field other than some variation of "oh wow...what do I do now?" The rolling green field in between "OoT"'s dungeons and towns is packed with visual treats or things to do. When you come into it and realize just how far apart everything is, and what an effort getting around can be, it sets you up for the discovery and open playing style of the game.
You can at least get to the entrance of every place in the game from Hyrule Field. Whether you can go inside and explore is a different story; the game makes sure you play dungeons in the right order by creating a boundary that will yield only when you've unlocked the correct ability or item. But even then, you're not purely restricted to the next level. The player is meant to explore.
Here’s an example; immediately after Ganondorf takes over, Link (you) ages seven years, and sets out to save the world properly. Multiple sources tell the player to go back to Kokiri Forest, where the game started. You can go all the way back to the forest, even deeper into it and to a temple you couldn’t reach before...and can’t now. It requires you to have the Hookshot, an item you get back in Dampe’s Grave in Kakariko Village. At no point are you told this information, unless you went out of your way to go investigate potentially everywhere when you got the chance. You need to be willing to explore, or you're gonna have a bad time.
"Ocarina of Time" is a breath away from being the best game ever. A few things hold it back from being truly timeless, ironically. Still, it's fun, huge, and loaded with charm, not to mention available on everything. Go play it.