The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64) review
"There's no way I can make an introduction to this game that doesn't sound melodramatic, but I really don't care. No matter how sappy it might sound, to be completely honest this game changed my life. It shocked me out of complacency about videogames (or, to use the overused and irrelevant phrase, my casual gamer status) and led me to realize that games can and should be far greater than mere time wasters; far more important than something to do for fun. It grabbed my life, dominated my though..."
There's no way I can make an introduction to this game that doesn't sound melodramatic, but I really don't care. No matter how sappy it might sound, to be completely honest this game changed my life. It shocked me out of complacency about videogames (or, to use the overused and irrelevant phrase, my casual gamer status) and led me to realize that games can and should be far greater than mere time wasters; far more important than something to do for fun. It grabbed my life, dominated my thoughts for months (perhaps even years), and quite simply blew away my mind. It's gotten quite a bit of antihype over the years, mainly due to a backlash against its highest-ranking game status and sharp contrast in style with Wind Waker, but you can ignore it. This game is incredibly amazing.
Where to begin? The plot? Sure, on its own, one could dismiss it. It's cliché, a fairy tale, not worth overanalyzing, right? Yes, it can easily be taken at that level, and there's nothing wrong with that. Yet we can overanalyze it, because all those little details are there that begin to surface the more you contemplate it. Is the owl just a device to help you learn stuff, or is there more to his story? Perhaps he is actually an ancient sage, evidenced by a stray Gossip Stone, who is actively searching for one to unlock the Sacred Realm? Perhaps he is leading you on, pushing you towards your goal because he is afraid of Ganondorf's maneuverings, or afraid that the Deku Tree's death might ruin your courage if you stray too long? Is Rauru some guy who randomly appeared, or has he been waiting in the Sacred Realm, another ancient sage, meant to advise the Hero of Time yet forced into taking action when Ganondorf appeared? Are the three spiritual stones and the Master Sword yet another hokey collect-a-thon or part of a brilliant plan set up by the ancient sages to safeguard the Triforce against the likes of Ganon? What exactly is meant by the ending; what are the implications for Hyrule? The ability to probe deeper and deeper into this game is practically endless, and I personally have spent countless hours describing, defending, and refining my own theories.
Same thing with connecting it to other games. The simple connections are obvious; specifically the fact that this game is a direct prequel to LttP as mentioned in the latter's instruction manual. The sages are the precursors to the wise men obviously, and the Master Sword makes an appearance in both games. Heck, the breaking of the Triforce is eerily reminiscent of Zelda 1, where Ganon only managed to steal one piece. But, yet again, we can go further. The sages apparently became famous enough to have towns named after them by Zelda 2. Perhaps Agahnim was actually a Sheikah, considering his unique powers and odd design on his clothes. Perhaps the Triforce of Courage was hidden away due to the events in OoT. And if you'd like, I can give you tons of evidence that OoT is actually a direct result of the events mentioned in the backstory of Zelda 2, namely the sleeping Zelda story. In the end, it becomes clear that out of all those Zelda histories and timelines that you see on the net, this game is the one that glues them all together.
But if you don't care, that's fine. After all, it can still be enjoyed at a superficial level. And that's because this game is one of the few games that is truly a game for everyone. Enjoy it at the surface, fine. Probe a bit deeper, great. Go nuts like I do and research every little detail, wonderful. I have encountered no other game that works on so many levels like this one. This story, and the amazing depths it can provide, has provided me with hours of enjoyment even outside of playing the game, and for that reason alone the game is one of my favorites.
And yes, the story excels while playing as well. Simply put, the game oozes epicness. It draws you in, making you one with the game and making you share the experience. It feels like history in the making, it feels like you are part of something larger than life. I can't explain it, but I can feel it. All of those little cut scenes, so boring usually, become filled with emotion and life. The subtlety and beauty of Saria and Link on the bridge is incredible; the sheer power of the scene is more than anything I would ever expect. Link and Ganondorf outside the castle - it's amazing how a simple act like stepping back and drawing your sword could convey so much meaning and seem so brilliant. And I still get chills down my spine when Ganondorf bursts out of the rubble near the end, despite having seen it a dozen times. It's a master of directing ability, that every single scene just seems so perfect. Why does Nintendo feel the need to make an overexpressive cartoon Link when a single blink is much more powerful?
Perhaps this epic feel is enhanced by the atmosphere. Despite blurry textures, low polygons, and all sorts of technical complaints people could throw on to the game, you cannot deny that it is beautiful. Watching the sky turn colors as the sun sets, seeing sprites flutter their way through the forest, staring across a massive lake, and standing atop a deep chasm truly serve to bring Hyrule to life. Every area is massive and full of charm. This is Hyrule, a world of greatness, and the first time you step out into Hyrule Field and see the camera slowly panning across the plain will surely drop your jaw. The environment is the perfect fantasy setting, and merely seeing each individual section of Hyrule was a reward in its own right.
Combined with a beautiful overworld is a myriad of subtle effects that complete the picture. For instance, did you know that your voice echoes in the Lost Woods? Try it when there's no music; it sounds great and adds so much. There's also the ambient noises - crickets chirping, owls hooting, your footsteps, etc - that also are so subtle you hardly notice them, yet complete the picture and bring about a state of total immersion. The sound effects are abundant in this game, yet they rarely, if ever, become too cheesy or break the mood. While we're at it, there are plenty of nifty graphical effects that serve the same purpose. Notice how the screen darkens when you power up your sword, as if Link is absorbing the energy around him. Notice the reflection of Link in the water disappears once Dark Link shows up. Look around and find the Triforce insignia all over the place. Snicker as Epona whines in anger when you shoot her with an arrow. And watch Link if you leave him idle for awhile as he glances around the area, pants if he's injured, or shivers if he's cold. It's subtle, but all of these pieces add so much to the ambience and magic of this game, bringing about a complete experience unlike any other.
Fortunately, the music fully complements this scene, even if it's not entirely perfect. Koji Kondo borrowed heavily from past Zelda games, and I welcome the return of Kakariko, Agahnim's theme (given to Ganon, of course), The crystal music (transformed into the charming Zelda's Lullaby), and even the original whistle music featured in the game's title screen. Of course, the classic overworld theme is missing, which is unfortunate. But the abundance of new themes makes up for it. Who doesn't like the upbeat Lost Woods, the chants of the Temple of Time, or the gypsy-like Gerudo Valley? Various styles, from the dramatic Deku Tree music to the innocent Kokiri Forest all blend together perfectly. I feel compelled to also point out the Final Battle music, a haunting piece with such a strong sense of finality that makes it better than any other final piece I've ever heard in any game. It may not be the best soundtrack, but it is still very, very impressive.
Notice I didn't mention any of the underworld music. Not because it's bad, but because Kondo takes such a different style here that it deserves special mention. Rather than taking the traditional Nintendo approach of easily recognizable tunes that you can hum along with, the dungeon themes are subtle, quiet, and true background music. They aren't simple tunes; they aren't made to hum along. But they do provide an insane amount of atmosphere to the levels, remaining almost unnoticeable yet having a profound impact. Just listen to the Forest Temple music. I never noticed before how creepy and eerie it really is, yet there was always a feeling of uneasiness while I was there. Surely the music was to blame. Same with the Fire Temple, or Shadow Temple, or many others. This is so much better than anything Nintendo (or anyone else, really) has ever done. I'm surprised how few adventure games seemed to have picked up on the fact that quiet, subtle music help to complete the experience of the game.
And, of course, the gameplay more than complements the fantastic artistic side of the game. I won't spend too much time on the obvious stuff; we all heard how the controls are perfect, Z-targeting is great, combat is fun, there's lots of items, varied environments, blah blah blah. Those are the bare minimum, things we should expect out of a Zelda game. But one should point out the subtler aspects in order to see why this game stands alone. The level design, the sense of freedom, exploration perfectly brought to 3D, and some truly memorable moments insure that this game will remain one of my favorites for a very long time.
Take, for instance, the freedom to do whatever you want. From the moment you first step out of your little home, there is such an overwhelming sensation that you have a complete world at your fingertips. I'm sure I'm an outlier, but I spent a couple days merely roaming the Lost Woods and Kokiri Forest before even entering the Deku Tree. And then you're free to go in so many directions - Lake Hylia, Kakariko, Lon Lon Ranch, or of course the Castle. And once you complete certain aspects of the story and gain a few more powerups, you can do whatever you like. Get bored with the Temples? Why not search out skulltulas or pieces of heart, or complete your trading quests, or compete in a myriad of minigames? Everyone seems to go gaga over fishing, but my personal favorite is the horseback archery. I've spent countless rupees and hours attempting to fire twenty perfect shots in a row, and it never ceased to be engaging. And one can't forget the ocarina itself - just pull it out and make your own compositions, or translate your favorite songs into A and C buttons. Cool, huh? Why do people praise GTA3 so much for its "freedom" as if it's an original idea, when there's just as much creativity and freedom available in this tiny little cartridge?
And with freedom comes the most important element in a Zelda game: exploration. Unlike the somewhat dull Link to the Past Overworld, this one is massive. There are secrets everywhere, and not all obvious. With 36 heart containers and 100 gold skulltulas, you will spend an eternity discovering every inch of the overworld, trying to find every last piece. But there's more than that; gossip stones, weapon upgrades, pointless but cool things, and extra rupees also litter the landscape. Finding everything is next to impossible, yet merely exploring this land Nintendo created was immense fun. From the very moment you step out of your home, you will be inundated with discoveries, making you wonder when (or if) you'll find a use for them. Why's there a patch of dirt on the ground, or a circular target hoisted up onto a tree? Just what do these gossip stones do, why are these frogs looking at me funny, what's with the skull kid? There are so many opportunities for guesswork, trying zany things, and just plain experimenting. Maybe if I fire my hookshot just right I can climb the windmill, maybe if I take a swan dive off of this giant canyon, maybe if I use the song of storms I can see better, maybe there's a patch of dirt around here, maybe, maybe, maybe. And don't forget the rewardless stuff - the running man, the loach, the vague structure in the distance - that left you puzzling to no end. Never before did I feel such a need to interact with the environment, to explore every possibility, in order to accomplish anything outside of the main quest. Finally, the Zelda series returned to its roots, offering a true sense of exploration and adventure.
This exploration is rewarded with some amazing level design. Despite their relative linearity (as opposed to the labyrinths of the original), they were incredibly fun and engaging to explore. Every temple, from the great hollow trunk of the Deku Tree to the goddess of the sand in the Spirit Temple, had something special about it, something that made it stand out from the rest. Every single temple was unique. And they all required different ways of thinking, different skills. You had to learn to control fire, raise the water, and see the truth. The variety of puzzles present, from dropping bombs in the eyes of a giant skull to timing your jumps against the wind to hookshotting from one platform to the next to, of course, pushing blocks and lighting torches, was phenomenal. Things weren't always obvious and, even when they were, at least they were interesting. While we're at it, one really ought to complement the fact that the boss is always right by the entrance after getting everything. It really eases the frustration and boredom that comes from going through levels multiple times just to die at a boss.
Besides, every level had that one moment where you just sit back and appreciate the greatness of the game. Jump off the ledge in order to crash through the spider web below in the Deku Tree. Set off a couple dozen bombs at once in order to gain access to a staircase. Chase Ruto through the maze of Jabu Jabu. Run through a twisted hallway, race against the flame in the Fire Temple, and fight your own shadow. Hitch a ride on a ferry to the afterlife, stand in the hands of a giant statue, and listen as Ganon's ominous theme becomes ever louder as you climb the endless stairs up his tower. Now toss in the excellent boss fights- the sheer massiveness of Dodongo, the frantic boomerang tossing at Barinade, the horse riding phantom Ganon, the giant whack-a-mole game with Volvagia, or the simple disorientedness of Bongo Bongo and Twinrova. These are above and beyond simply "great gameplay;" they sharpen and enhance the overall experience into something truly extraordinary.
But the epitome of the design, the pinnacle of the great gameplay experience that this game represents, is certainly the Forest Temple. You enter, and find yourself in a courtyard. Even in this seemingly innocuous area there are secrets to uncover, so don't forget to look up. Then enter the temple proper, and see half a dozen various routes open to you. Step outside again and look around, at the platforms far above where you can reach, at the little stream or the ruined architecture, at the vine-covered walls and the stone well. There's no way to interact with some of these yet, but that's ok. You'll find a use for them later. Climb a vine (but be sure to knock those skulltulas off first - no sense in getting thrown off) and work your way through to a similar room. Look around, aim your hookshot carefully to climb up to a ledge for a heart and gold skulltula, and then hit a switch to drain the water. Enter the sewers and take a shortcut back to where you were, and don't forget the key. Now find yourself in a tall room, with a large maze-like structure you must climb. When you finally work your way to the top (ignoring the treasure chest you can see but not quite reach yet), enter through the door, and gape in awe as you run through a twisted hallway. There's treasure chests on the wall, useless ladders, and shallow dips in the floor, but there's not much you can do about it now. Nor can you do anything about the strange paintings with ghosts in them, that seem to disappear when you approach. Watch out in the next room, as a few Stalfos attack. These seem to regenerate after dying, so figure out the secret to getting rid of them permanently. You will be amply rewarded and ready to conquer the latter half of the temple. Although I'm sure my description didn't do it justice, this temple encompasses everything Zelda should be - vast areas to explore, engaging level design, innovative puzzles, blood pumping action, little secrets, and just plain amazingly cool.
Never before have I become so engrossed in a game, and probably never again. For months I worked my way through it, savoring the atmosphere, honing my skills, and just plain having a blast. I suppose, if you look hard enough, you can find faults within the game. But why bother? Why not just ride around on Epona and explore the scenery, get in an intense fight against Dark Link, or hack some chickens until they peck you to death? Who can worry about petty complaints in a world so immersive, a plot so wonderful, and an atmosphere so intense? I doubt most of you got as much out of this game as I did. And if not, I pity you. You don't know what you're missing.
Featured community review by mariner (January 09, 2005)
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