Links enters the 3rd-dimension. A revolution ensues.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Platform: Nintendo 64 (GCN Collection version reviewed)
I'm sure that the majority of the people faithfully reading this review series of mine have been most-eagerly anticipating this one. Considered by many to be the greatest game in the series, if not the greatest game ever made, Ocarina of Time sports a fan-following that spans the entire world. It was Link's first foray into the realm of 3D gaming, and it set a new bar for all 3D adventure games to follow. Even today, we see games like Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, Beyond Good & Evil and even Nintendo and Rare's own Star Fox Adventures mirroring the design philosophies of this fantastic game.
However, if you are expecting me to just kiss this game's ass and declare it the be-all, end-all of console videogaming, you're in the wrong place. It is a phenomenal game, and accomplished almost everything it set out to do. However, where most of the other older Zelda games have retained their charm and nostalgic value over the course of the years, since OOT's original release, my ability to hold onto that same magic has waned. Since 1998, my opinions have evolved and matured, and in my opinion, better Zelda games have been made since then.
But, that is irrelevant at this early stage of the review. Regardless of where I'd rank Ocarina of Time amongst the rest of the games in the series, it is still a fantastic game, and deserves the majority of praise still heaped upon it today.
Centuries before any of the previous games in the series, the very first Link was born. Hundreds of years before his successors would sail the Great Sea in Wind Waker, hundreds of years before another Link would wield the Four Sword against Vaati, or strike down Agahnim in the Dark World of Hyrule, the very first Link would set out on an adventure that would determine the fate and future of Hyrule and its people forever.
In the beginning, Hyrule was nothing. A desolate, lifeless land barren of body, mind and soul. Then the goddesses came. Three golden goddesses, Din, Nayru and Farore descended upon the barren land and brought with them life. Din granted the world form: creating rivers, mountains, canyons and oceans. Nayru brought life: giving Hyrule green grass, mighty trees, lively animals and people to inhabit its plains. Farore gave the land spirit: infusing all things with a soul, a consience and a heart. When the three goddesses were through, they looked upon what they had created, and having been satisfied with the results, left Hyrule forever. At the very point at which their presence exited Hyrule's existence was left an artifact. Three golden triangles that embodied the purest essences of all living things. This artifact came to be known as the Triforce, and it was said that any who should lay hands upon it would be granted their deepest desires.
Millennia later, Hyrule is a bustling medieval kingdom thriving with knights, magic and adventure. In the kingdom of Hyrule rests a place called the Kokiri Forest, a small woodland town populated by the Kokiri, a race of elf-like children that never age. When a Kokiri is born, the powers that be bind a fairy to them, to be their lifelong guide and companion. All Kokiri have a fairy, except for one young boy named Link. He is ten years of age and still has yet to recieve his fairy.
The Kokiri are ruled over and guided by a large, wise and caring tree named the Deku Tree. He surveys all of Kokiri Forest and knows the lives and personalities of everything in it. One day, the Deku Tree sends out one of his most trusted fairy servants, a female named Navi, to become young Link's companion. He sends Navi in search of the boy and asks that she bring him back so that they may discuss a matter of extreme importance. Hurrying to retrieve Link, Navi wakes him from slumber and guides him to the Deku Tree's meadow. Upon arriving, Link is greeted by the ancient tree and is asked to perform a favor. Apparently, a large, nasty spider has invaded the elder's trunk and is making him ill. Arming Link with a sword he sends the would-be-hero in to alleviate his ails.
Succeeding in his mission, Link is thanked by the Deku Tree but is then told that there is much more for the boy to do yet. The tree explains to the young hero that the cause for this sudden infestation is the doing of a dark man named Ganondorf, king of the Gerudos, a band of desert thieves and assassins. The thief king apparently came to the Kokiri Forest in search of a mystical stone called the Kokiri Emerald, one of three spiritual stones kept safe by the various races of Hyrule. Refusing to hand over the stone, the Deku tree was inflicted with the aforementioned infestation by Ganondorf's vile hand. Fearing for the safety of the other two stones, the Deku Tree sends Link out into Hyrule to retrieve them all before Ganondorf has a chance to. For if the dark man should collect them all, a path will be opened to the Sacred Realm, the resting place of the Triforce. Should that day come, Hyrule will fall into darkness. Link sets out on his quest to foil Ganondorf's plans and to affect the fate of Hyrule permanently.
Ocarina of Time brings with it a significant leap forward in terms of cinematic presentation and storytelling. The previous Zelda games have all had decent plots, but minimalistic cinematic flair. OOT eschews most of this in favor of much more epic scenarios and events. Some scenes such as the Kakariko Village Massacre are pretty impressive, and do alot to push the Zelda series into a more cinematic light. However, being that this was Nintendo's first foray into truly cinematic presentation, these sequences aren't going to knock you flat like something out of Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy 10.
In addition to this, there is a much bigger focus on characterization and NPC interaction than there has been in previous games. Certain characters like Dampe the grave-digger and Ingo the ranch-hand will imprint a lasting memory upon your mind, and will always remain fond to you. However, at the same time, it honestly feels as though there just wasn't quite enough focus on bringing these great characters to life. Honestly, some of them have little to do with the story or the world in general after the first time you meet them. Malon and Talon, a daughter and father that run the Lon Lon Ranch, smack dab in the middle of Hyrule field, seem like they should have a lot more to do with the story than they really end up having. However, aside from the fact that you get your horse from Malon and you have to wake Talon up from a nap a few times, these two go woefully unused for the majority of the game. These are not the only examples, but for the sake of brevity, I'll leave it at that.
All in all, Ocarina of Time makes some big leaps forward in terms of cinematic presentation and character development. However, at the same time, these changes simply don't feel like enough. OOT always felt as though it was trying to be bigger than it actually was, and a such, always felt a little less epic to me than it should have been.
It was with Ocarina of Time that Nintendo brought Link into the 3rd dimension, and it is in these revolutionary design mechanics that the game shows off its best assets.
First and foremost, control. You move Link with the analog stick, and he features full analog movement and sensitivity. Barely push the joystick forward and Link will creep along at a slow pace. Push the joystick full force and he will break into a full-blown sprint. The A button is context-sensitive, and you use it to open doors, pick up jars and rocks, open treasure chests, speak with other people, etc, etc. The B button is dedicated to Link's sword. Pressing B will make the hero unsheath his weapon and enter battle stance. Pressing it again will cause him to swing his sword, and combining multiple presses with different directions on the joystick will cause him to execute different attacks. There are three buttons dedicated to items (three C Buttons in the N64 version, X, Y and Z Buttons in the GCN version) which is the most in the series so far. In the previous game, Link's Awakening, both of the face buttons could be mapped to different items. In Ocarina of Time, you've got three slots for equipment without having to sacrifice a spot for your sword. The R Trigger brings up Link's shield, while the L Trigger (Z Trigger on the N64 controller) activates the lock-on camera.
The Z-Camera is probably this game's biggest design advancement over all other games that were out at the time. Basically, pressing the trigger would cause Link to lock onto the nearest enemy or NPC character. Doing so would cause the camera to lock on directly behind him, giving you a locked-in face-forward view of the action. While locked on, Link could attack the enemy, use items, defend, strafe around, dodge attacks, etc. The reason that this was such a huge thing back in 1998 was because no other game had really done it before. Some games had probably attempted it, but Ocarina of Time was the first to demonstrate how to do it correctly. The system was flawless, and is still used in 3D Zelda titles today.
Beyond the control design, one of the most important factors of the gameplay is, of course, Link's inventory. Unlike the paltry dozen or so items Link could haul around in Link's Awakening, our hero can once again equip himself in style with an abundant assortment of weaponry. Old favorites such as the Bow, Bombs, Boomerang, Hookshot and Bottles are still to be found. However, several new items have been added to the mix as well. Bombchus are small, clockwork bombs that race in a straight line after setting them down. They will run up walls, on ceilings and across other non-traversible areas. After a few seconds, they will explode, allowing you to destroy obstacles on ceilings and high walls. Magic Beans are special seeds that can be planted in soft soil. After some time, the bean will sprout into a floating plant capable of air-lifting you across chasms and other nasty areas. The Megaton Hammer, while not an entirely new item (seeing as how there have been hammers in previous games), allows you to destroy certain barriers and, when slammed into the ground, can stun nearby enemies with a shockwave.
Link also has some magic at his disposal, although while not quite as "cool" as his Ether, Quake and Bombos spells from A Link to the Past, these new spells are a bit more practical. Din's Fire is an attack spell that creates a dome of fire that radiates outward from Link's body, burning anything in range. Farore's Wind is a teleportation spell that makes traversing dungeons a little less complicated. Link also has a few items and attacks that drain his magic meter. The Lens of Truth is a magnifying glass that, when activated, shows invisible enemies, platforms, bridges, doorways, etc. Instead of his trusty Fire and Ice Rods from A Link to the Past, Link can now use Fire, Ice and Light Arrows, which burn magic and ammunition to use. On top of that, Link also carries over his Spin Attack which, when fully charged, unleashes a magical shockwave that spins outward from Link's body and destroys everything around him.
Aside from his equippable items, Link also has a large selection of extra "permanent effect" items to harvest from the game. Link can acquire as many as four different swords in the game, three tunics (two of which have special powers like protecting Link from fire and allowing him to breathe underwater), three shields, three pairs of boots and a selection of other items like Zora Scales that allow him to dive underwater and Silver Gauntlets that allow him to lift heavy rocks.
One of my biggest complaints about the item inventories in the past has been the fact that some of the items overlapped in terms of their abilities. This was primarily a complaint in regard to the Hookshot and Boomerang. In Ocarina of Time, this is no longer an issue. One of the main aspects of the game is Link's ability to travel between two distinct time periods, as a child and an adult version of himself. In the past, as a child, Young Link has access to the Slingshot, Boomerang, Deku Nuts, Magic Beans and a few other items exclusive to the younger hero. However, Adult Link does not have access to these items. Instead, he is granted use of the Bow, Hookshot, Megaton Hammer and several other items that Young Link is incapable of utilizing. This system prevents item-overlaps because neither of the versions of Link in this game are capable of using every item in the full inventory. Granted, the effects of some items do still overlap (the Slingshot and Bow, for example) but because of their exclusivity to the Young and Adult versions of Link, it makes this issue much less apparent.
Speaking of Young and Adult Link, that's a substantial gameplay and plot device that requires attention. At one point in the game, Link is forced to travel 7 years into the future in order to continue fighting off Ganondorf's legions. However, doing so does not expel Link from the effects of time, and he ages as a result, turning into a 17-year-old version of himself. At any point in the game, you are free to return to the Temple of Time and use the Ocarina of Time (the game's namesake) to reverse the effect, causing Link to travel back 7 years and to become a child again. It is this two-world system that A Link to the Past created, and it works to a certain degree in OOT as well. However, I'd be flat-out lying if I said it was implemented anywhere near as well as in ALttP.
In A Link to the Past, Hyrule's Light and Dark Worlds were polar opposites. The Light World was bright, cheerful and filled with the peaceful denizens of the kingdom. The Dark World, on the other hand, was a rotting cesspool. A malformed, mutated parody of the Light World, seething with decay and viscous evil.
In Ocarina of Time, the difference between Past and Future Hyrule is not so stark a contrast. Hyrule Castle Town is the only area in the game that has suffered extensively, and it shows. The moment you exit the Temple of Time, you can see the darkened, scarred skies, the destroyed buildings and the streets infested with Re-Deads (Zelda's answer to zombies). It is truly shocking, and the first time I saw it, my jaw fell out of my head. However, the moment you leave the Castle Town, it seems almost as though nothing else has changed. Hyrule Field remains largely the same and the surrounding areas only suffer from the most basic of afflictions from Ganondorf's evil actions. Lake Hylia has been dried up, Zora's domain is frozen over, etc. Some places are so minimally affected that they are simply missing the townspeople, like the deserted Kokiri Village or the empty Goron City. The locations don't look any different, they're just abandoned. That's lazy design.
Nintendo could have done so much more with these regions. I wanted to see a Hyrule brought low and devastated by Ganon's actions. I wanted to see a Kokiri Village that has been burned to the ground and infested with Moblins. I wanted to see a Goron City in which the inhabitants have become so paranoid of the outside world that they've sealed up all entrances and are attacking anyone who approaches the mountain. Instead, I got a half-hearted and not fully realized interpretation of Ganondorf's dark ambitions. It just completely undermines the power and severity of Link's quest.
Beyond those complaints, however, there is still a lot of good that this game has to offer. The world itself is pretty huge, with a lot of ground to cover and a lot of secrets to find. You'll love riding Link's horse, Epona, across the plains of Hyrule Field, you'll dive into the Gerudo Valley River for hours, you'll spend an asinine amount of time fishing at Lake Hylia and you'll delight at the cornucopia of mini-games and side-attractions to be found in Hyrule Castle Town. Hyrule covers just about every possible regional theme previously found in the series as well. You've got your dense forest, treacherous desert, mountains, plains, lake, rivers and about a half-dozen towns to explore and become familiar with. There's a lot to do and see in this world, and you'll be busy for quite some time if you wish to see and do it all.
The dungeons are also well-designed, as is the case with just about any Zelda game. You've got the inside of the Deku Tree, the first dungeon in the game, complete with an army of spiders infesting the elder's inner-workings. You'll crawl through the guts of a massive fish, explore a set of mazelike ruins in the Lost Woods, infiltrate a massive desert fortress and much, much more. Each one is packed with great puzzles, some of them being some of the most difficult in the series. You'll also have your fair share of enemies to plow through, as well as massive bosses to fend off. The bosses are certainly one of Ocarina of Time's strongest apects, serving up a huge payload of memorable battles and encounters. Fighting off the massive, dinosaur-like King Dodongo requires you to throw bombs into his gaping maw before he scorches you with a column of searing fire. The devilish Volvagia is a long, flying, fire serpent that launches volleys of lava and ash at you as he screams through the air above your head. And then you've got the grand finale against Ganondorf himself, which I won't spoil for you here. Suffice it to say, however, that it is absolutely one of the most impressive, epic and cinematic final encounters throughout the entire history of videogames.
Beyond the main game, Link also has several very entertaining sidequests to take part in as well. He will have to hunt down a collection of creatures called Gold Skulltulas, a strange cursed spider, and destroy them all in order to relieve a curse placed on a Hylian family. Link will have to run a series of errands across the game world in order to acquire a powerful optional weapon. He can hunt down ghosts in the plains of Hyrule in order to obtain a few useful pieces of equipment. Also, as in every game, there are a ton of Heart Pieces to locate and a few other extras and surpires to hunt for as well.
So, overall, the gameplay is solid. Ocarina of Time brought the gameplay of the series into 3D almost seamlessly, while solving the issues of item-overlaps and providing a perfect lock-on camera as well as a lot of other enhancements and new additions to the gameplay. However, this game does not come without its fair share of issues. The fact is, the two-world system was a massive disappointment to me. Also, I'd be feeding you a plate of total BS if I told you I was 100% happy with the dungeon designs. They are not bad by any means, but they aren't a huge leap forward like the majority of the gameplay really seemed to be. Aside from those two issues, however, the rest of the game is absolute gold and is a blast to play.
In 1998, Ocarina of Time looked incredible and by today's standards it still looks pretty damned good. Character models have a lot of detail and some fantastic animation. Environments are huge, and the draw-distance in these areas can still be shocking even amongst most current-generation titles. The framerate occasionally hiccups, but it's not a frequent issue, and not one of enough severity to actually affect the experience of the game.
One of the best graphical aspects of the game is the wide range of facial expressions that the characters employ. Link will show surprise, anger, and confusion, while Zelda shows happiness, contentment and fear. The rest of the cast also has a large pallette of facial expression and it does a good job of converying the emotion of each scene. Of course, this game is 7 years old, so the facial expressions are limited to simply being a textural thing, rather than the actual face model changing and contorting to show emotion.
The one flaw in the graphics department would have to be in regard to the majority of the environmental textures. Unless you're at a pretty good distance, most textures are obviously blurry or flawed, and this is an inherent problem with the age of the software and hardware limitations of the time period. Compare the textures in this game to nearly anything else that was out at the time, and I can guarantee you that the only stuff that honestly looked better was Banjo-Kazooie and maybe one or two other high-profile Rareware games. Absolutely nothing else on the Nintendo 64 looked better, and by default, pretty much nothing else on any other console as well.
As is the case with the majority of the series, the music is exceptionally well-written and composed. You'll find large, sweeping epic pieces and more ambient and subtle works as well. The Hyrule Field Theme actually changes and adapts to the situation, playing different sections of the piece dependant upon whether Link is just standing around, running at full speed, riding Epona, fighting enemies and a number of other situations. There are several familiar pieces as well, such as the Kakariko Village theme and some of the dungeon pieces as well. On the downside, there are some truly laughable arrangements in there as well. Ganondorf's Theme honestly sounds like something out of an old Dudley Do-Right cartoon, and is just far too lame for such a cool villain. On top of that, the biggest audio downer in the entire game is the fact that the traditional Zelda Overworld Theme is nowhere to be found. This glaring and honestly insulting omission is arguably the biggest sound complaint I have about the game. It's just not right, dammit.
On a more positive note, however, the sound effects are spot-on. Every single location in the game is brimming with ambient and background effects such as the windmill creaking in Kakariko Village, torches flickering in a dungeon and fish randomly splashing out of the water in Lake Hylia. Walking over different terrain produces different sounds, and interacting with said terrain also produces other effects such as the difference between clanking your sword against a stone wall and a wooden rail.
There is also a minimal amount of voicework to be found in the game as well. No character actually verbalizes full words, instead speaking in text with occasional sounds or noises thrown in for good measure. This is again understandable due to the age of the software. Had Nintendo tried to stick full voicework into the game, it would have sounded canned and low-quality due to the compression. So, I'm content to have Link just make non-commital exclamations as he's running and fighting.
So, aside from a few really bad musical pieces and the complete and irritating omission of the Zelda Overworld Theme, this game sounds damn fine even by today's standards.
1) Although the plot and character development is head-and-shoulders above every game before it, Ocarina of Time still feels like a transitional entry to me. It feels like the game that Nintendo decided to use in order to get their cinematic feet wet, and it shows. The cinematic aspects of the game aspire to be more than they really are, and in the end, a some of the epic-ness of the entire adventure suffers as a result.
2) The two-world system was not as amazing as it should have been. Hyrule should have been teetering on the brink of collapse. Instead, it looked more like Ganondorf had decided to play a bunch of nasty pranks like drying up the lake. I didn't get a sense of impending doom from the majority of Hyrule's locations, and that's a real downer.
3) The dungeons are great, but considering the leaps forward that Nintendo was trying to make in regards to the cinematic presentation and the leaps forward they did make with the gameplay, it just feels like the dungeons were sort of left alone. They are certainly entertaining, dark, twisting places filled with traps and enemies galore. There's no doubt about that. However, I was expecting a bit more out of these places than what I got.
4) Age is the mindkiller when it comes to the graphics. A lot of the textures are obviously blurry or muddy, but even considering that, they look a hell of a lot better than 95% of the games in the N64 library, and absolutely better than the entirety of the Playstation catalogue, with its jumpy/ glitchy/pixellated textures.
5) A few really bad musical pieces like Ganondorf's Theme, and the complete lack of the Overworld Theme make Raziel an unhappy boy.
All of my griping and bitching aside, this game is fantastic. I've played through it four times, and I don't do that with games I don't like. The gameplay is solid, the dungeons are fun, the bosses are awesome, the world is massive and there's a lot to do in this complete epic package. If you've never played the game before now, I'd make a serious recommendation to change that as soon as possible. Most likely, you're not a nuclear-powered cybernerd about the Zelda games, like I am, and all of the complaints I've listed up to this point won't even be a blip on your radar. You can't ask for many better examples of a solid 3D action-adventure game, and I guarantee that if you decide to sit down with Link's first adventure, you'll enjoy the hell out of it.