The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time review
A Legendary Masterpiece
When it comes to the NES it was home to a number of ground breaking games, and some of these just happened to be the starting points or at least early entries of some of Nintendo's own big hitters. Mention the roots of platforming and Mario's early 8 bit days are likely to crop up. These days also saw the birth of The Legend of Zelda series, with the appearance of a top down adventure tale like no other.
Fast forward to the N64, and those same series are seeing new twists on the classic gameplay as each one makes the jump into the 3D realm. Ocarina of Time marks the first time our elven hero Link tests the waters. The result is a game that has won praise from many sources and for good reason. Put simply, this is one of the greatest masterpieces of the N64 era and still stands as one of the better adventure games to come out.
The story, while perhaps not as moving or emotionally charged as the more masterful movies of the big screen, is still a great piece of work that tells of the origins of the whole Triforce saga. Starting as a mere Kokiri child living in the forest, Link's journey will take him all across Hyrule as he meets with many people and overcomes various trials. His altruism and total mystery - further reinforced by the lack of dialogue for him - makes him an ideal heroic character for the player to step into the boots of.
The little details in the environment and event progression is really what builds the atmosphere, especially when you hit the latter half of the game and see the consequences of Zelda's actions. Early Hyrule life is carefree and full of joy as villagers enjoy their quaint little lives, but when circumstances take a turn for the worse their attitudes shift too as despair and worry rule their lives. The change is quite dramatic and underlines the importance of bringing peace back to the land.
Starting the game, Kokiri Forest essentially acts as your playground. Your initial goal is to obtain a sword and shield to get past the pest blocking the path to the Deku Tree, but during this time you're free to simply run amok and experiment with everything you've got. Chat to the locals, leap across gaps, climb walls, perform evasive moves and even go ransack your neighbours homes for cash (apparently there's no law against helping yourself to someone else's savings). When you do get your equipment you can practice with those too for as much as you want. Eventually you'll want to move on and this is where the real adventure beings in earnest.
All this has just been a precursor as the world of Hyrule awaits, and a large world it is. You'll have to visit many locations such as the castle town, a sleepy village, a volcano, a lake, a river, a desert and of course the forest you start in. Each location is beautifully designed that encourages you to simply wander around and explore that you might actually forget the original reason for going there. Community places have lots of people around that will chat about recent events or just random nonsense. You'll find various shops, games and secrets around if you look hard enough.
Get moving, this is just the beginning of the journey.
Those secrets are the main pulling point of location exploration. A lone tree by itself? Dropping a bomb might reveal an unexpected hole leading to an underground chamber. Will it be rupees, a heart piece or a gold skulltula waiting as your prize? These kinds of secrets are scattered in pretty much every single location in the game and while you can safely pass them over to complete the game there is a certain element of fun to be had in tracking them down and nice rewards waiting if you put the effort in. The variety of approaches needed to uncover them all is solid too.
That said, Hyrule Field stands out as the one overworld disappointment. It acts as the hub that connects many places together, but it's pretty empty given the large size it takes up. You only have a handful of enemies here and there which makes trips across it fairly boring even when searching around for the few secrets it holds.
Day and night play roles in these locations too. Time passes in some locations and remains static in others, which is admittedly a rather iffy way of doing it, but the time mechanic itself is a nice one. Houses and shops are only open during certain hours, and people will be in different places depending on the time. You might even find certain enemies appearing only during certain times, and the visual changes are a welcome touch too. The addition of the Sun Song to manipulate the current time makes it a great system to work with.
Time concepts go a bit further than that, with the game taking place across two distinct time periods. Link must travel between the two, and Hyrule itself changes slightly between times. A bustling market town in the past is transformed into a ghost town plagued by the undead in the later years. Most locations take on a more darker tone and certain places can only be reached in one of the two time periods. If you're stuck in one try exploring in the other. Clever use of this mechanic gives the game an extra edge.
When you're not sightseeing you'll be wanting to move the story along and to do that you need to find the dungeons of the game. Often this means completing specific tasks, such as the previously mentioned acquiring of equipment, or you may need to speak with someone and earn their trust. Some of these tasks alone can be a good test to figure out. Just in case you need it is Navi, a fairy who can offer advice on what you need to do next should you require it. Prepare to have her yell into your ear at any given time though.
Getting into a dungeon is only part of it, as you have more trials to overcome once there. All main dungeons play out in a similar manner, where you have to find your way to the boss' room with the aid of whatever dungeon specific item waits for you somewhere in there.
Navigating the chambers is a requirement for this. A map will slowly build up as you explore on one of your subscreens, and will be fully shown by finding the relevant dungeon map. Each dungeon usually consists of multiple floors and sometimes working out how to access specific rooms or what route to take to the final chamber requires some thought.
The Zelda series has always been strong on the puzzle side of things and OOT is no different. Long term fans may well recognize the concepts used, as many of the series oldest puzzles have been brought into the third dimension. Link will have to slide blocks to reach new areas, shoot switches, light torches, play songs, uncover hidden doorways and more in his bid to move forward. While these puzzles are not going to cause mental breakdowns anytime soon they do provide a solid challenge.
The action button is going to be the center of this and many other things in the game. Context sensitive, this allows for many actions depending on the circumstances. Link can talk to people, roll, jump, open, dive, grab, climb, drop, throw and many more, all at the press of a button. A clear onscreen display shows what action will occur when pressed too and it responds so accurately.
The variety of types of puzzles is impressive too and this is further complimented by the sheer number of items on offer. Many items Link will acquire on his journey are C button items, and the player can assign up to three of these to C Left, C Down and C Right at any given time. This grants Link access to many options, like firing arrows, planting bombs and casting magic. There are even some more odd choices like bringing out a stick to light torches with or dropping bugs into a hole for a token reward. Item usage is often balanced enough to avoid too much swapping around of assigned objects too.
Play it again, er... Link.
The ocarina gets a special mention considering it's the focus of the subtitle. Link can play special songs on this item that cause certain effects, whether it's opening passageways, convincing people to help, causing blocks to move or summoning a localized storm to strike. You can even just go screw around playing songs if you wanted, if the full spectrum of notes possible if you know the proper button combinations needed for them.
Management of everything is handled via four pause subscreens, flipped between through the use of the Z and R buttons and with a decent layout that makes things pretty straightforward. The C Buttons screen lets you set items to buttons. The equipment screen shows equippable items and lets you switch between them, allowing you to put on heat resistant clothing or boots designed for limited hovering as needs arise. The quest status subscreen records the collection of specific quest items. Finally the map screen either shows a map of Hyrule or a map for the current dungeon, depending on location.
Then comes the combat. The B button works as your sword attack, and combining this gives you some sword combos. It's not as fluid as other later games like Ninja Gaiden or Wind Waker but it's solid enough in that it works. You can easily mix in certain C button items into it too, like firing an arrow at distant targets or lobbing an explosive in their general direction. A few evasive techniques and a stronger jump attack seals the deal.
What makes the combat work as well as it does is the Z targetting system. Using the Z button lets you lock onto enemies, allowing Link to move around while always keeping the enemy in his sights. It's quite a smart system that maintains a lock well and allows for the player to easily flip between targets. The player can even choose hold or switch settings for this system, making it very user friendly. It turns the experience into an enjoyable one.
However, the enemies are not as great as they could be. Very nice seeing some of our old favourites make the transition into 3D, but many of them are just too easy to take out. In fact, aside from a couple of bosses, the enemy forces and even the traps and hazards of the dungeons just aren't that threatening. This is made evident by fans of the game playing through a self termed "human mode", where runs are executed with only three hearts on the life gauge to the end. Needless to say the enemies could stand to be a little more threatening. Some of them do have some rather interesting approaches and not all generics are lost causes (Stalfoes and Iron Knuckles come to mind as decent) but these do not prevent the game from feeling too easy to conquer. The over-abundance of healing items and the size of the health gauge compared to damage taken do not help.
If all else fails, hitting it in the eye might be a good tactic.
The game is pretty huge. You have three early dungeons, followed by six main dungeons and two sub dungeons plus all the overworld wandering about, and all this is just the main quest. Like any good Zelda game you can expect a bunch of extra stuff that has nothing to do with the main quest.
Sidequests play a big role here. Early on you can partake in a mask selling quest, where you borrow masks and sell them onto people who might want them. Another quest sees you hunting poes in Hyrule Field on horseback. There's a large trading sequence leading to a powerful sword. Some quests are more obvious than others but ultimately they serve as worthwhile distractions from the main quest and you might just lose time to these.
Minigames can be played too. You might consider trying your aim at the shooting gallery, a spot of fishing or sending self propelled time bombs down an obstacle course to hit three targets. Generally these will cost rupees to play but they can be a lot of fun and can be replayed if you have the funds to do so. More ideal ways to waste time and have fun while you are doing so.
Ocarina of Time was one of the more impressive titles of the N64 era in terms of visuals. There is clear expressional value in the characters and while there is some blockiness to the models it isn't bad so they have good form and the animations are certainly strong enough. There are obvious successes in the design choices too as the world of Hyrule is brought alive through the characters, enemies and environments themselves. Of course, these visuals are dated by today's standards so be aware of that.
I can't really complain about the audio. Those used to voice acting in their games may be disappointed that OOT does not include any, unless you count the grunts and screams of Link. However, the musical collection used throughout is very impressive. Often consisting of serene melodies that gently accentuate the onscreen events, I feel these choices work to reinforce the overall mood of the game.
Ocarina of Time is not just a good game. It's one of the N64's best titles to appear, redefining expectations of adventure games to follow and is still an excellent gaming experience even now. It's a work of genius that has so much going for it that forgiving its few flaws is easy just so we can explore the mystical land and its delights.
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