July 9, 2017
Since its release in 1998, Ocarina of Time has received the best average score of any video game. It is difficult to even begin a critical review for it because to do so would require me to look for flaws, and it is physically painful to consider how this game, which I often consider my favorite of all time, could have any unforgivable problems.
Pushing aside my nostalgic feelings for the game, it may take some time, but I believe I do possess the necessary ability to look at this game critically. After all, Two Guys Playing Zelda is known for game rankings, so who am I to let my emotions muck that up? I will consider both the original Nintendo 64 version as well as the 2011 remake, Ocarina of Time 3D for Nintendo 3DS. I have chosen to do this with all games that have a major remake in the series, since the remakes are worthy of noting, but I did not think it necessary to create a separate piece for each because I would mostly be repeating what I said for the first.
And now for a review.
Considering the technology at the time, the 64-bit polygons worked incredibly well, and even still look passable today. Yes, they look dated, but honestly I could pick up an original Nintendo 64 copy of this game and play it without the slightest yearning for a 4K display. The details really stand out compared to its peers. This was accomplished by a close-knit relationship between the 3D modeling team and lead artist Yusuke Nakano. Nakano would often go back and forth with the team as he created the character art, and suggest details that could be added to the final models, and vice versa. Not only did this create my favorite art style in the series, but it vastly surpassed every other title in this early era of 3D.
The animation was also stellar for the era, as it was among the first games to reach the masses which took advantage of motion capture technology to mimic movements of actual actors in action. This technique is commonplace today, and it makes animation simpler in many cases as well as adding a depth of realism into the digital world presented.
If there is any way to improve the graphics in this game, it would be to update textures to a smoother style that more closely resembles the artwork, and possibly add a stereoscopic 3D option. Oh wait, that is exactly what happened in the remake for 3DS! Really, I did not think the glasses-free 3D would be more than a gimmick, but with the original 3DS presenting the possibility, I gave it a go and was astounded by the depth added by this change. The only flaw incurred was caused by the addition of motion controls. Moving the system around physically made for accurate and immersive aiming with ranged weapons, yet made it more difficult to keep the 3D centered correctly in your vision; an oversight that was completely eliminated by the face tracking tech implemented in Nintendo New 3DS and New 3DS XL. Perfect ten.
Returning again to the role of lead composer, Koji Kondo knocked another one out of the park in Ocarina. From the moment the title screen loads, you are greeted with unforgettably terrific tunes one after another. In fact, that is possibly the best title theme of all time, and alone I would say that it is better than many collective soundtracks. Then you get into the meat of the game’s marvelous music, and it only gets more exciting from here.
Perhaps the most important feature of the music was the titular Ocarina of Time. Any composer asked to create a tune using only a range of five notes probably could have done so, but I would like to see another take a swing at this just to see if anybody else could come close to the careful combination of complexity and memorability Kondo achieved. Playing an instrument with direct input for individual notes was a new idea at the time. I would be so bold as to argue that this was the best version we have ever seen of it in a video game, with the possible exception of Guitar Hero or Rock Band titles.
In the 3DS remake, the music had to be converted so the system could understand it, and while they were at it, Mahito Yokota and Takeshi Hama had the privilege of updating the sound files to the maximum potential of the hardware, supervised by none other than the original composer, Koji Kondo. Listening to the sound on the new version is largely identical, however I did notice several subtle changes using a decent pair of headphones. The backup instrumentation is much more clear and rich, and the bass lines of tunes get a well-deserved increase in volume, giving the lower register the recognition it deserves. I am truly delighted to have been able to spend so much time with the remake that I noticed these changes on my own. It shows an expert level of care for the development of the art form that is video game music. Perfect ten.
Initially proposed as a first-person exploration game, the change to an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective was introduced to allow players to better see the differences between Young Link and Adult Link. Between this and many other changes throughout development, Ocarina had a rather long development cycle for the time. Within this time frame, several other games showed various strengths and weaknesses, and having seen many of them firsthand, I believe Nintendo addressed critical issues many games faced before any other company really knew what to do with them, the largest among them being camera control. If not for the simple ability to point the camera where you want it, maneuvering in 3D spaces would have been clunky and awkward, especially in narrow dungeon passages while attempting to solve puzzles and vanquish foes.
Beyond being able to focus your view to navigate narrow paths better, the team introduced the “Z-Targeting” system, which has been recreated to some extent in nearly every action/adventure game to release since. This again made combat and puzzles flow significantly easier, and it defined how the genre operates to this day. Without some form of targeting system, games to me feel unrefined and needlessly more difficult. In general I cope with this well, but targeting has become such a mainstay that I bearably begrudge many games for not including it.
Another seemingly insurmountable obstacle in development of the first 3D title of its kind was how to take the puzzle-filled-dungeon concept and make it unique and interesting while still approachable to the average player. Eiji Aonuma, one of the game’s directors, and a big name in Zelda ever since, crafted dungeons to appeal to the masses. Beginning with the Great Deku Tree, a fairly straight-forward dungeon with a few clever brain-ticklers, each subsequent dungeon became more complex and intriguing, adding not only a commendable challenge, but also a deep and immersive lore to the world. Whether it is the guardian deity of a race of fish-heads or a temple built to honor the goddess of the sand, there is a clever story worked in which reveals itself partly in the dungeon aesthetic as well as the theme present within the puzzles.
The dungeons in this game were possibly my favorite of every Zelda to date, and as I stated, the lore assists this, but also just the focus on puzzles has never quite been recreated. I have never spent as long in any dungeon in a title going forward as I do in an average run of the Water Temple, and I have played this game through more times than any other four games put together. I admit I am one of those masochistic weirdos who actually enjoys the Water Temple, and the reason is because even after two decades, it still gives me a challenge because I never remember exactly how to do it and the dungeon itself is so maliciously massive. Compare this to the average dungeon in most other games, which I have played far less times through and I can still beat them in half the time, and you should see an obvious superiority.
The item system overall did not change much between past titles and Ocarina, the only notable difference being the ability to equip and use up to three items on your C-buttons rather than one equipped to A or B. This was slightly improved again in the 3DS version with two physical buttons set aside for item use as well as two digital buttons on the touch screen. This version also included a dedicated touch button for your Ocarina, and since it was used so much in the game, this effectively increased the usable item buttons from two to four.
Speaking of items, I can not believe how well they translated many spawning from past 2D titles to the 3D plane. While some were easy enough to imagine, being based on real-world weapons like a bow and arrow or sword, unique items like the Hookshot and Mirror Shield would have been some of the last items I would have expected to come across. All this made for a truly remarkable experience fighting as well as completing puzzles. Perfect ten.
Don’t forget the ubiquitous spoiler warning.
We begin in a magical forest full of children who serve a big tree and never have to grow up. Having such a simple and light-hearted opening area like the Kokiri Forest lets players slip in easily. Then by the time you finish your first dungeon, you find out that the world is not so happy-go-lucky, your father figure dies and petrifies just after sending you off to defend the world from the Prince of Darkness. At the midpoint of the story, said Prince of Darkness destroys the kingdom and takes over the world and we end locked in combat with a colossal pig-faced dual-wielding demon king. Along the way, the journey proves to be continuously enthralling.
The story drives delightfully the whole way through, and along the way we meet an eclectic cast of compelling characters adding to the lore of Hyrule and the cultures therein. It amazed and amused me to see the various races affected by the world. Ganondorf enslaved the Gorons to feed them to a dragon and froze over the home of the Zora, trapping or killing many just because they might stand up to him. Amidst this, the leaders of the various villages around the continent remained steadfast in protecting their people, be it Impa, arriving alone to fight the blight of the Shadow Temple to free Kakariko, or Nabooru, standing up to her own king because of the despicable atrocities he committed.
Each character intertwines with the world and adds to the charm of this fantasy realm we all know and love. They mingle occasionally with other characters, and the plot takes a major twist at the end to reveal the whereabouts of Princess Zelda and the dubious dealings of Ganondorf. Finally it caps off with the most epic battle in series history against the vile king himself, then a frantic run down the flaming stairs of a collapsing castle only to find that when you strike him down he becomes more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
This final scene brings up my final point in the story category: presentation. The story of this game was presented a little differently than other games which were experimenting with full motion video at the time. Rather than playing pre-recorded cut scenes, the game actually never stopped and just loaded the next series of actions for the character models to perform as well as dialogue boxes over what was already going on. This may seem like it was foregoing innovation, but this choice was made purposefully. While it did not have the graphical appeal of Final Fantasy VII’s cinematic glory, this choice never pulled you out of the game to deliver the story. According to cinema scene director Takumi Kawagoe, the top priority of this choice was to let the player feel as though they are in control of the action, which aligned with (the co-writer and creator of the Zelda series) Shigeru Miyamoto’s goal of creating a cinematic experience distinct from traditional films.
Inserting a cut scene with vastly superior visuals to the general gameplay breaks immersion, and by that merit I deem this the correct choice for the time. As games have developed a long way since then, the graphical change has become smoother and less noticeable, and FMV is now the norm. I am glad that it has, but without Ocarina presenting the story the way it did graphically, I question whether or not the industry would have shifted as such. Putting all this together, I cannot help but come up with a fourth perfect ten.
I have heard negative comments about this game, and to me they are one hundred percent justifiable based on the fact that no game anything like this had ever been attempted in 3D before. Ocarina of Time had to be the starting point. Beyond this, I can think of no other game reaching the twenty-year threshold that I would rather play, 3D remake or original. This game has punched the test of time in the nuts and told it to leave it alone, and the test of time listened without being told twice. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time receives a perfect forty, so I suppose when I finish the Lens of Truth series, I will have to do some sort of tiebreaker for at least this and Link’s Awakening, but that sounds like great fun to me.
Please sound off in the comments or on Twitter @spamomanospam or @2guysplayzelda, and we can keep the conversation alive. Do I give this game too much credit for things that A Link to the Past already established? Should I have counted the Master Quest version instead of the 3DS remake? Let me know how incorrect my opinions are and I will respond in kind!