November 27, 2018
At times it is hard to believe that it has already been 20 years since Ocarina of Time’s release. Five main console Zelda’s have been released since then, including a 3DS remake of the legendary game subject of this retro review.
The formula established by Ocarina has been a mainstay standard in the series until the recent Breath of the Wild broke some of the established gameplay conventions that had been set in stone in Zelda’s 20 year old entry into the 3-D realm.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Ocarina of Time is the fact that it still holds the Metacritic crown at a staggering 99 rating. Every main Zelda entry since Ocarina has challenged its all time ranking with most falling decidedly short, except for BotW which came decidedly close.
Incredible games in other franchises such as GTA San Andreas/V, The Last of Us, Skyrim, and Red Dead Redemption 2 have come and gone. All of the former titles received the highest praise, GotY awards, and justifiably high Metacritic scores. However 20 years later, myself gone from being a pre-teen child into becoming a married father in his early 30’s, and the N64 once the tech powerhouse of its time fading away to infinitely more powerful hardware, Ocarina’s 99 Metacritic score is still somehow standing through the test of time.
How a Miracle is Made…
Nothing in this world is perfect; everything that is, or was has flaws. It’s the law of nature; it’s the law of life. This law also applies to video games because humans who are hindered by those laws create them.
That being said, something very special, in fact something quite extraordinary (some would say nothing short of a miracle) must have been happening at Nintendo headquarters in Japan, during the 5+ years that it took for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to be conceived. By the time it was released in 1998 for the N64, the game had managed to break the laws of nature and life, and for the first time in history there was actually something in this world worth calling perfect at least at the time of release.
Now calling a video game perfect is a mighty big statement, but as this tribute/review will explain in detail, calling the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time anything less than perfect would be a crime.
My definition of a perfect game is, a game that is as good as it can be in every department, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time manages to accomplish that, and even more.
Pushing the N64 Close to Its Limit…
Graphically one word is fitting for describing the game: Amazing. In 1998 this was the greatest looking game on the market bar none; at least as far as home consoles were concerned. Today in 2018, save for Horizon Zero Dawn I have yet to see a game that is as visually pleasing and as visually an eye-opening experience as The Legend of Zelda: OoT was in its glorious debut.
Heated debates about Banjo Kazooie being the better looking title still rage on in many online forums, and yet while BK was the more colorful title, no game in 1998 brought a realistic looking world into TV sets that matched OoT’s brilliance.
Games were just not supposed to look that good on the N64 or any other machine at the time for that matter. Ocarina of Time was pretty much the first game to get rid of the ‘blocky’ look that video game characters had at that time, it was also one of the first games to show clear cut facial animations on characters.
Link looked freakishly awesome specially in his adult form, while Ganondorf no longer looked like a pig, instead he was a tall, slender man whose presence was both imposing and intimidating. Because the characters looked so great in motion, Nintendo utilized in game scenes using the game’s engine as opposed to FMVs (Full Motion Videos) that the FF series used at the time, this game showed that in game scenes when done right could have as powerful an impact on players as FMVs did.
The game probably inspired the great Skies of Arcadia and Suikoden 3 to follow the same path in that they chose to use in game scenes instead of FMVs. Those were early examples and yet the industry has moved into in-game real time cut scenes since, showing Nintendo’s knack for predicting the future and adding to OoT’s reputation as a trend setter in the industry.
While the characters all looked amazing, the environment in which they lived in, was even more breathtaking. From the grassy fields, to the rivers, to the gigantic field of Hyrule, everything in the environments was colorful and well textured; you really got an incredible sense of freedom and open space in the game.
Ocarina’s rendition of Hyrule was the first proper 3-D open world. By today’s standards there is a camp that doesn’t believe that Ocarina had a ‘proper’ 3-D open world as in practice Hyrule Field serves as a hub with multiple path branches to other locations.
This would be true, the game isn’t open in the way standard open worlds operate today. But Nintendo 64’s practically non-existent load times and careful overworld design makes transitions from Hyrule field into other areas a near seamless experience (in 1998 it was seamless) considering the limitations of mid nineties hardware Ocarina was as good and as open as a world could be in 1998 especially when Zelda’s traditional style of progression (a key item is needed to reach a new area) is factored in.
I have seen a lot of impressive things in video games during my 30 or so years of playing them, but nothing will ever quite match the way my jaw dropped, and the way my eyes became pools of water when breathlessly I first walked into Hyrule field.
As the bright sunny day slowly turned into a warm evening and then into a clear cold night, I couldn’t pick up my jaw from the floor. No, Ocarina didn’t have a temperature meter like Breath of the Wild does but the powerful imagery conveyed the sense of a breathing living world just the same and perhaps even to a greater degree.
Exploration is a key part of the Zelda series and playing Ocarina in 1998 felt like a pioneering experience in every step of the way. The sense of wonder was unparalleled then, there were no other 3-D worlds after all that behaved in a realistic manner. Every experience that would be taken for granted today such as the day/night cycle, NPCs tasks at different times in that cycle, horse riding, weather changes, impactful environmental changes in the two time periods, and even the relaxing hours spent at the fishing pond were brand new monumental achievements that pioneered new ground in those days.
The world felt cohesive, a real fantasy world where players got to live in. The fact that OoT was a graphical marvel had a lot of relevance in setting the mood. Quite frankly neither the PS1 or the Saturn could pull off a game like OoT.
The way the colors in the sky changed, and the way the light of the sun realistically changed the view of the landscape and even the proper lighting on Link’s character model was too fantastic a sight at the time to describe in mere words. Nintendo’s attention to detail made every sunrise, and every sundown a marvelous sight to see.
The water effects while flat (no ripples) were amazing at the time thanks to the use of different moving textures on top of one another simulating water movement. The waterfalls even the small ones were really great looking. It was a clear step ahead of Mario 64 and most other N64 games in that regard.
On the topic of fantastic water; for the first time ever in a Zelda game swimming and even walking underwater (provided you had the iron boots) was possible (a feature that is missed in BotW). The underwater physics in the game were amazing, I must have wasted dozens of hours of game time during my first 5 months with the game just “playing” around, and exploring the underwater scenery, I remember using my iron boots to walk on the bottom of the rivers to see how far I could go and to see where the rivers led to. The entire visual package incited players to explore every possibility in the game.
The other great thing about the game was the fact that everything that you saw on the screen, you could actually go to and explore in detail because the camera could be controlled by the player with ease and at will, so yes you could easily zoom into every thing in the world with the exception of Market Town which used sharp pre-rendered backgrounds (like resident evil and the PS1 Final Fantasies).
The Legend of Zelda OoT was perhaps (at least according to Nintendo in some of their interviews in now defunct game mags) one of the first games in history to use real lighting sources, which is why Link’s character model’s lighting changed depending on whether he was carrying a torch, walking inside a dark cave or wandering in the middle of Hyrule’s field when it was a sunny and clear day. In contrast if you play Mario 64 for example Mario’s character model always had the same lighting on it regardless of what environment he (Mario) found himself in.
Zelda: Ocarina of Time was also one of the first titles to really break that “pop up” and “fog” phenomenon that plagued most N64 titles (Turok I am looking your way!). One only had to venture through Hyrule’s expansive field to know what I am talking about; there was really no trace of “fog” or “pop up” as you could see very far into the distance. If there was any graphical flaw in the game it had to be some slight minimal slowdown, and if you want to nit pick a slight case of repetitive textures caused by the limits of the N64. The visual elements that didn’t age well were hardware and cartridge related so it is hard to fault the game for these issues.
Since 1998 a lot of other games have come and have visually surpassed it, but it is unlikely that any other game will have the same impact Ocarina did.
OoT wrote the book on how 3-D action adventuring should be done. It is more than likely that GTA, and Elders Scrolls both took something from it in their transition to 3-D.
A Musical Game
Moving on to the sound department one thing should be considered. The N64 had (and still has) a reputation among gaming circles for having the most primitive aural technical capabilities of its time. While the sound processor of the system was quite a leap over the SNES’s, it was still badly behind the curve in comparison to the PS1 and the ill-fated Sega Saturn’s aural capacity. Thus every N64 game was expected right off the bat to sound bad.
This was unfortunate news for any RPG that would make it onto the system (not that there were many RPGs for the system, you could pretty much count them all on one hand) because it had to compete against the impossibly high musical standards set by Squaresoft’s RPGs and a few others from other companies that were released on either the PS1 or the Saturn.
However in every Nintendo console before the N64, Zelda had always had great music, maybe not quite as great as the FF series music, but great nonetheless. Well in the sound department Ocarina again broke the rules of convention, by crafting a masterpiece of a soundtrack, and creating some unrivaled environmental sound effects that put the players ears right in the middle of Hyrule.
Even if the soundtrack wasn’t CD quality because of the limitations of a cartridge based system, the compositions themselves remain today by far some of Kondo’s (Zelda series composer) best work. The over world theme that played while traversing the green pastures of Hyrule Field was simply majestic. While some old time fans complained that the “classic” Zelda music was absent, that was in truth about the only thing that they could complain about. The soundtrack in Ocarina of Time was stellar, great care went into composing every piece of music in the game.
Nintendo didn’t stop there in what the music was concerned. Since the game’s tale deals around an Ocarina of Time that Link can play to affect the gameplay (but more on that on the gameplay section), it was only fitting that the tunes you can play in the Ocarina received as much care as the rest of the soundtrack did.
There were about twelve Ocarina songs, including one you could make up by yourself which the game saves for you (the scarecrow’s song), the Song of Time in particular gave me the chills when I first heard it.
The Ocarina was a versatile and beautiful instrument, capable of playing many notes for those who took up the task of mastering it, I definitely think that the ocarina is vastly superior to the wind waker as a musical instrument to play.
Zelda Ocarina of Time is one of the most musical RPGs you will ever play.
It would have been easy for Nintendo to just forget about the sound effects when they had such a great score (something that Square was very proficient at) and yet they did not leave the SFX in the backseat, instead they went the extra mile to make sure that the game’s environmental sounds mimicked those that one would expect to hear if one were to be standing in the middle of Kokiri Forest at three in the morning for example. The night owls, the insects , the sounds of the flowing water in a near by creek, in short; every imaginable sound in a fantasy world was here.
That Ocarina of Time managed to accomplish so much aurally on a cartridge system is more of a credit to the dedication of the developers to assure the quality of the sound in the game than a credit to the N64’s sound processor.
Setting the Standard
Ocarina of Time was the first game of its kind, in that it led the player into a coherent world where time (day and night cycle) passed in real game time and the player was free to use his character to explore and go anywhere. Sure the Zelda’s that came before it were also pioneers in freedom of exploration within a game world, but none of them ever took this concept to the extreme that Ocarina of Time did. I mean talk about longevity, years after I mastered the game; meaning I got every heart container, every Skulltula, every bottle, and in short everything there was to get I would pick up the game and happily waste 2 or 3 hours just running around, jumping into rivers, walking underwater, riding my horse Epona, playing the archery game, fighting monsters, and even fishing! And the list could go on forever if I wanted to.
Link was controlled from a third person view behind his back, like Mario in Mario 64, and like Mario you could control the camera pretty much at will, by using the Z button on your controller you could position the camera directly behind Link. Wanted to inspect the environments up close and in first person? No problem by pressing the top C button you could zoom in and look around all you wanted. While most action games of this kind seemed to run into trouble when the camera did not follow the action during battles (Castlevania 64), that problem was non-existent in Zelda thanks to the (at the time) revolutionary Z-targeting. When confronted by an enemy or a boss, all you had to do was press the Z button to automatically lock the camera onto the enemy so that the enemy was always within your sight.
Not only was the camera as good as it could have been in an Action RPG but the controls were perfectly responsive, running through the fields, swimming underwater and even riding Epona would only take seconds to become second nature to the player.
Link could perform a large variety of moves, besides running and walking of course. He could side step, jump (even though he couldn’t jump at will, you had to run into a ledge or a gap for him to automatically jump, that might sound bothersome in theory but it actually worked out perfectly while in gameplay), he could swim and dive underwater. He could climb objects, vines, and ladders; he could push or pull blocks.
He also had a variety of action moves for fighting, such as the usual stabs, the jumping slash and the powerful spin attacks with his sword. Of course depending on the weapons equipped Link would fight differently.
For example the Bow and the Slingshot worked pretty much the same. You could lock onto an enemy and shoot it from the normal third person perspective, but you could also use your real aiming skills by using them in the cool first person view.
Link was not only an offensive powerhouse but he also had some pretty slick defensive moves. He could roll, jump and even back flip himself out of the way of danger, he could also utilize his shield to block (and in the case of the Mirror Shield even reflect magic attacks) the enemy strikes.
Going back to the weapons Link had at his disposal many if not all of the classic Zelda weapons, such as the bow, bomb, sword, boomerang and hammer. But he also had many new tools to aid him in his quest, for example the cool and useful Hookshot.
As its name implies the Hookshot is a hook attached to the end of a long chain. He could use this to shoot towards items that are too far for him to reach and successfully pull them towards him. He could also use the Hookshot to pull himself onto surfaces where the hook would stick (usually wood) to swing across gaps and reach other wise unreachable places. There were dozens of more accessories at his disposal, some that were a necessity to continue your progress during the quest while others were optional items that the truly dedicated player who took the time to explore the gameworld would have to find.
The Ocarina of Time was perhaps the most useful item in the game, as you could play a variety of tunes that affected gameplay, for example one tune had the power to invoke a rain storm, while another could quickly turn day into night or the other way around. Some tunes had to be played at the right time and place in order to solve some of the puzzles.
There were about ten gigantic dungeons that were brilliantly crafted, the puzzles and just the way they (the dungeon layouts) are designed was brilliant. The puzzles took some thinking to figure out, but they never got frustrating.
The bosses that awaited you in the dungeons were at times huge and graphically impressive. Nothing will quite match the shiver that went through my spine when I first met face to face with King Dodongo. When he roared at the beginning of our battle I knew I was in big trouble, and to think that he looked so cute and inoffensive in the Legend of Zelda for the NES. The bosses were smoothly animated, so their moves were quick and natural looking.
Ocarina of Time also featured an excellent save anywhere feature, as the game was saved into the cartridge.
But of course no Zelda would be complete without its share of mini-games and side quests. I can safely safe no other RPG game on the market in 1998 offered the amount of mini-games and side quests this game had.
The fishing game alone could have sold well as a stand alone game, the controls coupled with the rumble pak made for a very competent and addictive fishing simulator.
The same can be said for the horse riding games. In fact riding Epona through Hyrule is one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had. Epona was rendered and animated beautifully and the controls once again were dead on accurate, the fact that you could play shooting games with the bow and arrows while riding added a whole new level of fun to the riding segments.
Those two mini-games I have described are just a few of the numerous mini-games available in the game. The quality and effort the developers put into each and every one of them was mesmerizing. The prizes you earned for excelling at the mini-games were also great. You could get anything from heart containers to weapon upgrades (for example a quiver that let you carry more arrows.)
In the end I could write 20 more pages describing everything that Ocarina did that no game had done before, but we must move on to the last category.
A Story That Moved the Series Forward…
Ocarina of Time’s narrative easily surpassed its predecessors, no the tale was not original the Princess had been kidnapped before by Ganondorf , but this tale had never been done as well as it was done here.
There was a sense of impending doom from the very beginning of the game, when Link was introduced to Ganondorf in a dream while he slept in the forest, every single piece of dialog in the game was sharp and to the point, Nintendo had some of the best translations in the business back then.
Of course after Link awakened from the dream he embarked on a Hyrule saving quest that would take him across the land and even across time. And while it was predictable that the tale would end with Link saving Zelda and Hyrule, what happened in between those events was not. A great deal of importance was given to support characters or NPCs (non player characters) such as Zelda, Malon, Ruto and Saria. All of them had their turn at the center stage, they became likable, and in the end you wanted to save Hyrule to save them.
I have a hard time recalling NPCs which I loved more than those in OoT before 98 or after. Nintendo created the illusion of a little functional world in which each citizen meant something.
What I said in that paragraph should be taken with a grain of salt…I was and still am a long running JRPG player. Playing games full of NPCs and party members was my daily living routine, and yet even the mighty FFVII which to me was and still is the pinnacle of that genre paled in comparison in that regard.
The main party members of Square’s masterpiece were all unique and Aeris made me cry in real pain and anguish for the first time in a video game. But Final Fantasy VII played and felt like a great novel. OoT played and felt like a living world.
So how did Nintendo pulled this off? Well every character in Hyrule read beautifully. They all had something interesting to say, and most of them also had a role in getting you an item or a heart etc.
So you would constantly be interacting with different NPCs, giving you the sense that they were “alive” and they were just not placed there for the sake of being there which is a problem with the massive open worlds we have today.
The story of course also revolved around time, or time traveling to be more specific. The world of Link as a child was vastly different from the world Link encountered as an adult. There are areas that were off limits to the child while seven years later those areas opened up for the adult Link to explore. It was very interesting to see how characters changed from one period of time to the other. This added to the story and made some events of the game a bit unpredictable.
Link’s origins are finally explained in a game…well at least part of them. The game also finally explains how Hyrule was created. The fact that this game includes a lot of lore and historic references of Hyrule, gave the story a more, should I say “legendary” feeling that seemed to be partially missing in past games of the series.
In short the Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time’s tale is as good as it can be under the circumstances in which the series has been.
The series leaves much to the player’s imagination which in the end is also as much a strength as it is a weakness. While you never witness a gruesome death playing OoT, there are grim fates for pretty much everyone involved including and perhaps most of all for Link. Grim fates later revealed in TP, the direct sequel to OoT and MM. But even those are topics of much speculation and debate for Zelda scholars.
That being said it is clear that Nintendo understands that some of the magic in the series lies in the don’t show, don’t tell, but leave the story up for speculation way that Zelda has been known for. It has come to the point that 20 years later part of Ocarina’s story’s greatness relies heavily on the timelines that it sets up for future iterations.
The Greatest of All Time…
Different people have different criteria for how a game should be ranked in an all time list. My most important criteria is simply how great the game was at the time of its release. By that standard Ocarina is the greatest game of all time. No game did more and pioneered more with such polish as OoT did in 1998. No game ever dropped as many jaws.
Today, yes TP is a bigger refinement of OoT. Its HD iteration is more fun to play than Ocarina’s portable remake. Skyrim is perhaps the biggest replayable open world there is and brought unparalleled verticality to the genre. RDR2 brought more real-life detail to a video game than any game has before, and BotW has brought Zelda into the new age of gigantic open worlds pioneering a wonderful physics based system. Yet for all of that, the 99 Metacritic score stands as a reminder that at the time of release no game has ever been more worthy of being called perfect, and no game has ever been more worthy of the GOAT listing as Ocarina of Time was, and is.