Friday, February 10, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Some people say it's the greatest game of all time. Some people say it embodies their childhood. Some people say it's unsurpassable. Luckily here at Opinions Can Be Wrong where enthusiasm is sneered at and positivity is for the ignorant, I don't make such claims. Nonetheless, it's a good game.
Like many kids who grew up in the Nineties, Ocarina of Time was my first experience of the Legend of Zelda franchise. Unlike many kids who grew up in the Nineties, however, I didn't even acquire Ocarina of Time until 2000. I don't quite remember why we got it. It was meant to be good, I suppose, and maybe it was because I'd found myself becoming enthusiastic for the Fantasy genre. Anyway, despite the fact that the lack of a Mario-style jump function put me off I played the game, and I enjoyed it. I didn't get around to replaying it until a few years ago, and recently replayed it for a second time. Given that it's recently been re-released for the 3DS and that the franchise is in general undergoing something of a revival I thought I'd look into this watershed title in video game history.
The Legend of Zelda series provides the definitive or archetypal examples of the "action adventure" genre of video games. Marrying real-time combat and activity with both puzzle-solving and a story and cast of characters to drive the gameplay forward, it's worth noting that despite the fantasy elements of the series it has far more in common with adventure games of the Lucasarts and perhaps even moreso Sierra variety than it does with traditional western role-playing games. You don't level up or get experience, there's no character customisation and your interactions with characters are largely one-sided. You play as silent everyman hero Link and fight evil because it's the right thing to do. You journey through an overworld to get to dungeons which must be overcome in order to progress through the story and usually you complete the dungeon with the aid of increasingly arbitrary devices which assist in puzzle-solving and combat.
But you probably know this already, and given that Ocarina of Time is fourteen years old as of my writing this it's a little needless to examine the formula. I just want to look at various aspects of the game and maybe muse upon how they feel at this stage. To many, Ocarina of Time is the definitive instalment. As the first one operating in three dimensions with polygonal graphics it certainly set the standard. An impressive nine main dungeons and three mini-dungeons, one optional, lends the game a robustness. You do feel like you're going on an epic journey with Link. This is helped by the dynamic of having transitions between Link's childhood and his adulthood enabled by the Master Sword. One thing I appreciated in my most recent playthrough is the lengths the developers went to in order to ensure that the ability to return to the past and play as child Link doesn't seem a superfluous gimmick late in the game. It's often useful to return to childhood to plant magic beans which assist in shortcuts in adulthood and access heart pieces. The Shadow Temple, third last dungeon, generally necessitates such a return in order to find the Lens of Truth beneath Kakariko Well. Where this really shone for me, however, was the division of the Spirit Temple into child and adult sections. While of course I've been familiar with this for many years now, in my most recent playthrough it really struck me how clever it was of the developers to give you one last mission as a child very close to the end of the game. It also ensures that all the Sages are people you met in the past. Link only really knows Nabooru for a matter of hours but she's known him for years. It's a clever way of doing things.
One thing I found rather odd on my playthrough however was the disparity of consequences in the adult setting. The Zoras have all been frozen and the Gorons rounded up to be fed to Volvagia the dragon. The Hylians, by and large, seem to have been at best inconvenienced by all this disruption, however. They just up shop to Kakariko Village and live there. Obviously Ganondorf's a bad guy but the lack of troubles the Hylians seem to have makes it feel a little abstract at times. The small cast of NPCs contribute to a feeling of confusion over how bad things really are. Ganondorf could do all this to the Zora and the Gorons, he can obliterate Hyrule Castle and put a huge floating fortress in its place, but he doesn't just go to Kakariko and wipe it out? While I remember how confronting it was to walk out of the Temple of Time for the first time as an adult and see Castle Town Market in ruins and full of zombies I feel like more could have been done to convey a sense of Ganondorf's conquest having real consequences.
Another thing that I've always found weird is returning to childhood once you're an adult. Besides Zelda having gone into hiding and a dead guard in an alleyway, nothing's changed. Shouldn't Ganondorf and his army be rampaging through Hyrule taking over? Is time in some kind of stasis? It doesn't entirely make sense. While it lends credence to the timeline split story that was created afterwards the whole "time in flux" thing is a bit weird to me, like every time you go back to being a kid you're bumping Ganondorf's takeover, entirely occuring while Link's slumbering in the Sacred Realm, a little bit later.
I generally feel like Zelda and Ganondorf aren't as developed as they could be. While I often find the text-heavy cutscenes to be the less interesting parts of the game I feel that with Link already being an archetypal hero with little motivation beyond his own sense of right and wrong our co-protagonist and villain could have used some more exploration. It's not until The Wind Waker that we get any investigation of Ganondorf's motivations and Zelda's importance seems to fluctuate throughout the game. Do we really care that she's apparently missing by the time Link's an adult? Of course I think if people were going to criticise Ocarina of Time for anything it would be that the story and characters aren't exactly deep. While we need the Spiritual Stones as a kid to unlock the Door of Time, what exactly are the medallions for as an adult? Why are the sages important? We're told that they "add their power" to your own each time you awaken one but seriously all they do is make a bridge to Ganon's Castle. That's it.
There are other characters who feel like they should be important but aren't. Koume and Kotake, the Twinrova sisters, for instance, feel as if you should have encountered them much earlier in the game given that they're meant to be close allies of Ganondorf. The King of Hyrule similarly exists entirely offscreen and is of ambiguous status in the adult world certainly. At times the setting doesn't feel entirely cohesive. As I said earlier, the lack of evidence for Ganondorf's takeover outside of Castle Town is suggestive of this. These are the kinds of things that later Zelda games have changed, however, with perhaps more consistency than we get in Ocarina of Time.
On the other hand, what else still impresses me after all these years? The music is obviously a big point. The series has always been noteworthy for top notch music and this is of course one of the most distinctive examples. The implementation of playing the Ocarina is an effective element of gameplay and significant tunes like Zelda's Lullaby and Saria's Song show the mastery of Nintendo's musicians in transforming a few simple notes into catchy themes which resonate with emotional significance. The graphics also have, in my opinion, stood the test of time far more than you might expect. While sometimes they can be far from pretty everything's recognisable and the level of detail is still impressive for a game from 1998. The gameplay of course holds up perfectly; frankly I can't understand the complaints some people have that Nintendo 64 games are difficult to play these days. Sure, the controller has an extraneous third handle like a vestigial mutant finger but really the design elements created by Nintendo then and rather unashamedly adopted by Microsoft for the Xbox controller for instance still seem perfectly familiar in this day and age of stick-waggle based Nintendo gameplay.
One thing we could have had were more sword actions for Link so that it's easier to attack low-flying airborne enemies with hand weapons. The Biggoron's Sword sidequest left me wishing the game had included more trading sequences. There was perhaps little motivation for exploration beyond pure wanderlust in areas like Lake Hylia and I feel like maybe the game world seems a little sparse and empty these days.
I realise that Majora's Mask was in many ways a response to this situation by providing more involved characters and a deeper storyline, so I think I can forgive Ocarina of Time these quibbles. While it is maybe a little shallow in some regards its length and innovation lend it an air of timelessness which I think is reflected in the ongoing popularity of the franchise. It certainly set a standard which has helped bring quality games like The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess to fruition. While it's not my favourite Zelda I enjoy it a lot and recognise its significance. I think it has aged rather well, all things considered, and that it's just as worth playing now as it was in 1998. I suppose for Ocarina of Time that's really a good thing, isn't it? It is about timelessness and futurity after all.
Yet it's also about leaving things behind, which is kind of funny considering it's kind of the game that the franchise can't leave behind. Link has to give up Saria when he leaves the forest. Zelda has to give up Link at the end of the game to give him the life he deserves. Inexplicably, Navi gives up Link right at the very end. The Sages give up their lives, perhaps quite literally, so that others may live in peace and freedom, and it's not even clear if many people are really going to benefit. What we leave behind is a dominating aspect of the entire adventure, and while a lot of people note the sadness and sense of loss in Majora's Mask it's present here too, although in a somewhat different and more straightforward way. Perhaps it's fitting then that just as these partings hang over the characters and dominate future events, such as Link's wanderings in Majora's Mask due to Navi's departure and the destruction of Hyrule in The Wind Waker due to Zelda's sending Link back in time, given that most of the games since, especially on console, haven't really managed to escape the shadow of this one. But maybe Ocarina of Time was just the logical extension of the precedent set by A Link to the Past into three dimensions and with new technology, a game which itself reconnected with and embellished the gameplay of the original The Legend of Zelda for NES, which recent timeline revelations now cause to be reflected back upon a previously unspoken potential outcome of Ocarina of Time. Maybe the real definitive Zelda title doesn't exist. Perhaps the entire franchise is in a kind of state of Platonic Idealism where all the many iterations are variations on a true form which doesn't and can't occur itself, and that occasional bouts of slavishness towards this particular instalment are perhaps misguided.
Regardless, I do believe that Ocarina of Time is a great game and a great example of the creativity and ingenuity that we got in games back in the day. It's fun and moving and without it we wouldn't have my two personal favourites of the franchise, Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess. It's old, but it still holds up. If you haven't played a Zelda game, play this one. If you haven't replayed Zelda lately, replay this one first. Then play the others, because Zelda is, I think, something you have to play many versions of to truly appreciate.

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