The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Based on: Taking Link into the third dimension, using the power of Z-Targeting. Saying Hey. Listening.
Article by LeGeek | March 23, 2009
"The best computer value in the world today. The only computer you'll need for years to come." Shatner, you huckster!
I have a confession to make. I was a Commodore kid. While other young nerds were playing Super Mario Bros., Rygar and R.C. Pro-Am?, I was typing up cheesy games in BASIC. Sure, I played some fun retail releases like Test Drive? and Skate Or Die?, but I admit it: I was always jealous of my friends who had an NES.
If there was one game I coveted most, it was The Legend Of Zelda?. I would play it at my buddy's apartment, but somehow my save file would always get "erased" between visits. I generally made as far as collecting the raft each time. Later, in college, I picked up my own NES with a Zelda cart and enjoyed the hell out of it. The sense of exploration was amazing, and I liked the fact that you could go pretty much anywhere on the map -- assuming you didn't die a quick and "dizzy" death. It remains my favorite NES game, and Zelda is always on my short list of the best games ever made.
I picked up a Super NES and played A Link to the Past in a similar after-the-fact fashion, but the game didn't impress me in the same way. For all its bigger-and-better improvements, the game just seemed too structured compared to the openness of the first Zelda. I went on to dabble in Nintendo 64 games, mainly opting for multiplayer Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007?. But what made me decide to pick up my own system was, not surprisingly, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was netting good buzz in magazines, and having disposable income from a real job made the decision even easier.
I was subsequently blown away.
Zelda's first foray into the third dimension got many things right. The sense of exploration that had been missing from the last few games was back. Once I left the training grounds of Kokiri Forest, I felt I was free to explore, even if the experience wasn't quite as nonlinear it had been in the NES original. The scale was epic; if you saw a mountain in the distance, there was a good chance you could figure out how to get there. The world wasn't empty, either; there was always something to do or some secret to find. When you grew tired of running around, you could eventually employ the classic Zelda staple of warping to major locations -- but this time around, you might actually have had more fun riding your horse. Plus, from the moment you turned on the system, the graphics were obviously pushing the Nintendo 64's capabilities. The art was stylized to work within the system's limitations, specifically its low polygon count, and some of the character designs came off as creepy as a result -- the Great Fairies in particular. More often than not, this fit Ocarina's otherworldly feel and gave the story a bit of an edge.
Using the Nintendo 64 controller as an Ocarina was an inspired choice, in part due to the fact that the button layout is a close enough match to the real instrument. Music had been a focus in the series since at least Link's Awakening, arguably before, but it's never fit the game quite as well. Ocarina also solved the early problems of 3D combat by offering the ability to lock onto enemies. While Nintendo went a bit overboard using a fairy named Navi to explain the ability (see also Lakitu as camera in Super Mario 64), the Z-targeting concept been copied in nearly every third-person action game since.
Figuring how to get the next dungeon was always a challenge in and of itself; and once inside, the gameplay was always varied, challenging and memorable, even if the themes of water, fire and ice were a videogame cliché even then. Real-time cutscenes could be as long or short as necessary and gave the proceedings a cinematic flair without breaking up the action. The boss fights -- with fun monster names and bylines that could be Godzilla's rivals -- were particularly great, requiring just the right combination of wits and dexterity. And the ending was suitably epic and satisfying. Like the best Zelda games before it, the game was challenging without being too frustrating, and it held its own with the best action games of the time.
Game mechanics aside, the dark urgency of Ocarina of Time (both in its story and its tone) is what I remember most fondly. The world really does go to crap -- and on a far more personal level than, say, Final Fantasy VI at that -- and you really have a vested interest in fixing it. The Zelda series had grown up a bit, and the art style and difficulty reflect the new found maturity.
I recently replayed a bit of Ocarina just to refresh my memory, and even though it's a game I've beaten multiple times over the years, I had a hard time putting it down even this time. While other games in the Zelda series may surpass Ocarina in certain aspects, for me, none of them has quite gotten the mix exactly right. It may not be my favorite game of all time, but it will always be the one that taught me the difference between a great game, and merely a good one.
Images from Alixsar's Ocarina of Time Let's Play
Shatner's VIC-20 ad courtesy of http://directorblue.blogspot.com