Video game rankings in the early 2000s lacked suspense. When it came to the #1 ranking, one game ruled them all. Nintendo’s 1998 N64 classic, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, had a strangle hold on the top spot. It dominated more than Michael Jordan in a game seven did. As the years went by, each game borrowed and learned from Zelda: Oot and attempted to improve on the 3D video game masterpiece.
In 2011, Nintendo re-released the game for the 3DS, with a few changes and improvements. I recently picked up this title to relive the classic. Twenty years after the original release, has Zelda:OoT sustained its brilliance, or has time ravaged this once great game? It is time to put the Master Sword back into the Temple so we can travel back and find out.
The Boy and his Flute
For those who have not played Zelda Ocarina of Time, I want to give a spoiler warning. I am going to dive headlong into the nuances of the story and reveal many twists. Be warned!
The story begins with the odd kid in a small village. Everyone else has a fairy companion, but you. You only get a companion cube. I guess Tinkerbell just was not a fan of your personal hygiene. Exploring the village wins you a tutorial and a small dungeon. In classic RPG fashion, a curse is coming and you are the chosen one to stop it. Now that you are special, a fairy decides to hang with you. Huzzah for baths!
After leaving the forest, you enter the large open field. I was astonished to find how barren the world felt. The amazing vista consists of bland green textures and a smattering of plants you could count on one hand. The space between destination points felt more like superfluous travel than world building. The graphics were updated for the 3DS version, but it sorely lacks the interest and majesty of the worlds in current HD games. The dungeons and smaller areas did not give this same impression. Other than this one area, the graphics after all these years had zero negative impact on the overall experience.
The barren feeling was not only from the dull visuals, but also lack of interesting and meaningful enemy encounters. In Breath of the Wild, I challenged groups of enemies when I became low on certain supplies, food materials, or in need of a new weapon. Here, if you go fast enough, all the enemies will simply go away. I easily dodged all enemies in the main field by choosing to practice my tumbling. Just keep somersaulting, just keep somersaulting…not quite the same ring to it.
Music is a crucial component to the story and the entire experience in Ocarina of Time. Sneaking through the castle brings you to the beautiful princess. Zelda gives you an Ocarina and teaches you a song. The song acts as a special password for many locations in the world of Hyrule. The beauty though is the way the songs pair with the subtle music playing in the background. It is not identical, but connects in an elegant harmony. While the cut scenes for playing the Ocarina become obnoxious on the 20th, 30th, 100th time playing them, the songs remain beautiful in their own right. You become part of the world, and area, by joining it in song.
With the power of music, you head out into the world to collect the sacred stones and stop Gannon. It is clobbering time!
The Core of Zelda
The foundation of the Ocarina of Time is the dungeons. The entire game experience builds off the dungeon experience. Entering into the Gorgon’s cave on Fire Mountain begins the true dungeon experience. Each builds in complexity and challenge from the previous.
Dungeons in Zelda usually have three stages to them. The first stage introduces the thematic elements of the dungeon and ends with the player finding the map, and sometimes the compass. In the next section, players get a new item and learn to use it. The final stage is finding the boss key and battling for that beautiful new heart piece. Each dungeon follows roughly the same pattern.
The first three dungeons are basic. The Deku Tree and cave dungeons are followed by going to the water people, Zoras. Battling inside of the giant fish was one of my least favorite dungeons, as it is littered with multiple mini bosses and camera issues. Once done, you return to Zelda with your three rocks. You stud you. Upon returning to the castle, your visions come true as Zelda frantically rides past with Gannon following. He pauses just long enough to give you his version of the Care Bear Stare.
After the shivers leave your spine, you head to the Temple of Time. I still remember the first time I played the game. I was blown away when I took out the Master Sword and Link transformed to an adult. I remember walking out of the temple, wondering if I broke the game, as everything turns into Zombieland. Experiencing this moment a second time did not have the same impact, but the story was still engrossing. Every moment and rediscovery brought a smile to my face.
I want to pause here for a second to raise a question about the time travel in Ocarina of Time. Did Link move through time when he pulled the Master Sword? Passing through time, like a wormhole or Mario warping to world 8, would mean that time continued around him and he did not experience it. Shiek comments that he disappeared for seven years makes sense if he leaps from one time to another. If so, he should not have aged. There are only two explanations that have him age. If he goes into a coma in the Temple of Time, or is transported to the Sacred Realm where he spends seven long years playing Go Fish and singing Karaoke with a lonely sage. I hope that the food in the Sacred Realm is tasty, otherwise only a skeleton would pop out the other side. I guess we chalk this up to narrative magic.
The multiple times is a unique and engaging story/gameplay mechanic. The way past actions affects the future environment feels fresh and inventive. The magic beans are a fun and simple way to achieve this. The limitations of items based on Links age/size was also a great mechanic. This brilliant move allows for reuse of many environments and music when cartridge space was so limited.
When playing a video game, there is a specific moment I look for, the addiction. In a novel, you reach a point where you just cannot put the book down. For a video game, I look for the point where I am desperately looking for the next opportunity for a fix. If I never reach that point, then I know the game always felt like a slog and never a true joy. I was surprised that I passed the Temple of Time transformation without feeling hooked. It was not until the fire temple that I truly became hooked. From that moment on, I wanted to sneak every moment I could with the game. Ultimately, this reminded me that the Ocarina of Time still has “it”, even after all these years.
LISTEN! Beef, it is what’s for dinner.
Like an elephant in parading through a golf course, there is one flaw that stuck out to me. Zelda makes a huge transformation. She begins as the vulnerable princess cliché. She is assigned an attendant that will protect her at all costs, a Shiekah. Even in these moments, Zelda demonstrates a subtle bravery and wisdom as she recognizes the threat of politically cozying up to the powerful Gannon. She quietly engages in espionage to defy the evil Gannon should he make a move against her kingdom. When Gannon seizes the castle, Zelda is carried out by her protector in secret. Gannon gets wind of this and pursues her. Even in this moment of crisis, Zelda has the foresight to bestow the Ocarina of Time to Link.
In the seven years of Gannon’s oppressive rule, Zelda becomes ninja like. She takes on the name Shiek, in honor of her attendant’s brave warrior clan. Gannon explains later that he sought Zelda this entire seven years. He has agents around every corner and curses plaguing the land. For Zelda to survive on her own, she must become a warrior in her own right. The skills used to expertly evade the forces of evil are on display as Zelda disappears and reappears in Batman like smoke clouds. Several cut scenes show Zelda silently observing Link’s progress from a mountainside perch. These glimpses demonstrate her strength in climbing and hunting (stalking). She must have had to live on the margins of society, stealing or killing her food to survive. Zelda, or Shiek, has become a badass ninja warrior.
When Zelda reveals herself in the Temple of Time, Gannon swoops in and captures her. She returns to her old clothes, likely from technical limitations and so players would remember who she was. She is trapped in a cage and unable to escape. Because…magic. Later, when Link defeats Gannon’s first form and frees her, she inexplicably becomes the helpless princess in far too many fairytales. She walks with Link down the tower, when she could probably climb down or disappear in a cloud of smoke faster. Gannon’s forces trap her in a fire barrier that abates when you defeat them. This woman could disappear from an open field but cannot escape a six-foot firewall? Zelda, the badass ninja warrior who escaped these thugs for seven years, waits helplessly for Link to free her as the tower collapses on top of them. The elephant though is not yet in the room, but we have begun to get glimpses of the trunk.
After the tower collapses, Zelda and Link stand on the ruins, marveling at the destruction. Gannon bursts forth and transforms into a terrifying warthog, Pumba. Link, being the macho man we know him to be, steps in front of Zelda to protect her. What happened to badass ninja warrior Zelda? Change her clothes and she becomes helpless? As the fight begins, Link’s Master Sword is knocked from his hands and rests right next to Zelda. Of course, she picks the Master Sword up and throws a perfect strike into Thanos’ head, not making the same mistake that Thor did. It fits with her character development after all. Ugh, if only. Back in the real game, she stands next to it with her hands daintily pressed to her mouth as she fearfully looks on. When the fire dies down, she tells Link to come grab the Master Sword. Obviously, princesses do not pick up swords, so he has to do it himself while she helplessly looks on. Thus, the complete failure at character development is complete.
Zelda’s character arc hits at one of my biggest pet peeves. When a story takes the time to develop a character to show how they have grown and become a new person, it is aggravating to see the character make a choice that makes no sense. Zelda’s helplessness in the end makes zero sense and flies in the face of one of the best surprise reveals in early gaming. This was the biggest blotch on an otherwise great game.
The All Important Gameplay
My play through of Zelda: OoT was on the Nintendo 3DS. The biggest change is in the menus. In the original on the N64, pulling up the menus felt like putting a cardboard box on your head and spinning it around to make a selection off of different panels. Likely, this decision for the stylistic choice was for gamers to know they had other panels, or menus, to utilize.
The 3DS has thankfully done away with the cardboard box layout. Instead, the second screen serves as your menu. It is constantly available to players, allowing quicker access and transitions. The 3DS has a drastically different button layout than the N64’s unique controller set up. I did find myself missing the four yellow “c” buttons that allowed for a quick transition between four items. Two of my items were paired to X and Y, while the others were connected to I and II. I never figured out where these two buttons were, and simply used the touch screen. Personally, I did not enjoy having to click into the touchscreen for these items when I needed magic in a pinch. These moments were rare though and did not affect gameplay often.
The other major change from the original is the Water Temple. Game designers have apparently made this area much easier and straightforward. I did not realize the change in my play through, but was surprised at how quickly I progressed through the simple temple. I completed the temple without the Zora (Blue) Tunic that allows you to breathe underwater. I have yet to test the Master Quest, but I hope that game mode restores the temple to its previous level of difficulty.
Having just played Xenoblade Chronicles, which utilizes vast 3D environments, I missed the camera. Xenoblade used the 3DS’s nub to adjust the camera to my liking. It was rarely needed, but nice feature to have. In OoT, I found the camera often becoming stuck behind things. I struggled immensely during a mini boss in one dungeon because of the tight environment and horrible camera. No other section or boss ever presented more than a basic challenge. The camera issues are common for this era of game. It is refreshing to know how far this mechanic has come. On the flipside, sad to know that this was not completely fixed in the re-release.
The majority of the items in the game are unique and allow for new exploration. I particularly enjoyed the way grabbing a cuccos. The small lift these chickens give you when jumping allows Link to reach new areas and collect hidden hearts. The only item that felt redundant was the hookshot. Getting the extender to it felt disappointing as the other items presented interesting new mechanics like floating boots and boomerangs.
One of the best aspects of Ocarina of Time is the boss fights. Each one is unique and utilizes the latest weapon collected. The game makes each boss fight feel earned after exploration and solving a dungeon.
I have to give a major shout out to Nintendo for my favorite boss, Bongo Bongo. Link drops down into a dark room. Drums start pounding, mirroring your heart. As you bounce up and down, you realize that you are on the drum. Bongo Bongo’s hands begin pounding out the beat, as its head disappears into the blackness. I struggled with this fight as I kept bouncing when I wanted to dodge. The steady beat though kept the tension throughout the fight as I desperately tried to find and attack Bongo. Only on my third attempt did I realize I could use the hover shoes to help me avoid the constant bouncing. Even then, I barely made it out of Bongo’s lair alive. That deep drumbeat still raises my blood pressure.
Twinrova was another boss that stood out. The two witches circle and attack with different elements that require you to reflect it back. The witch’s power, demonstrated in cutscenes, had me anxious going into the fight. Quickly, I figured out their pattern. Once victorious, I was rewarded a hilarious scene of the twins bickering.
The bosses bring out the best in Nintendo’s design, with enemies leaping out of pictures, creeping through the water or reenacting Jurassic Park chase scenes. I enjoyed each one immensely.
Legacy of Zelda
There is no mistaking the greatness of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The gameplay, side quests, boss fights, and level design are all top notch. While past reviews called it flawless, it is clear that the story has its holes and the camera could still use an upgrade. These minor blemishes are more apparent as time goes on, but do not diminish what is a true classic. If you have not played the game, go out and enjoy a legendary experience. Zelda, the badass warrior ninja, certainly earns the Legend moniker in this title.