Legends of Zelda, Part Four: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Try to say something negative about it. Go ahead; I will wait. It’s tough, isn’t it? And that’s not because the game is without flaws (I have yet to play a game that is without flaws), but more because anything it does wrong is couched in so much that’s done exactly right. Oh, and there’s also the fact that there’s an absolute and irresistible charm about the entire game. Sure, we could nitpick and find faults, but would we want to? Our closest friends have flaws as well, but don’t we just want to spend time with them, enjoying their company? There’s something that makes us forgive their faults and overlook their weaknesses. It’s worth it for us to do so, because we know there’s something very rewarding underneath.
And Ocarina of Time is enormously rewarding. It was without any question Link’s biggest, longest, most-involved and most-varied adventure to date, and it managed to take the franchise an enormous step forward while still remaining true to everything that made the games great in the first place.
To call it an accomplishment is to undersell it. To call it a revolution sounds a little too enthusiastic, but it’s actually not far from the truth. Consult just about any list of Greatest Ever Games compiled since Ocarina’s release in 1998 and you’ll see this one placing high, if not at the absolute top. It’s one of those very, very, very uncommon games that are held in unanimous reverence. And while I wouldn’t say it’s the best Zelda game, neither would I dream of begrudging anyone their fondness.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this game, in terms of overall structure, is that its plot is, basically, an unacknowledged reboot of the series. Yes, I know, we are often told that there are many Links and many Zeldas at all points in time (always the same Ganon, though, I believe…) which is a convenient cop-out when it comes to assigning a chronological order to the games, but this is the first time we’ve seen Link “become” a hero. (The Link of A Link to the Past might have become a hero under our watch…or he might have been one already…it’s debatable in either direction, but in Ocarina it’s made brutally significant.)
Maybe more importantly, it’s the first time we, as players, become heroes along with him. We spend the first area of the game playing, after all. Our character is a child, so we assume the role of a child. This child has a new toy in the way of his fairy (something of a guardian angel to the forest children known as the Kokiri), and so we run around the town playing with it, learning how to use it…what it can do, and what it cannot do. We run, we jump, we swim, we climb…we even crawl…we talk to friends and smash their pottery. We aren’t allowed to progress past this indulgence of childishness until we find a physical symbol of adulthood: a sword.
Of course, finding a sword doesn’t turn Link into an adult…but it does set him forth on his adventure toward maturity. And, not coincidentally, I’m sure, finding the Master Sword later in the game literally turns Link into an adult…aging him seven years instantly…altering the way other characters in the game view him, and preparing him for new weapons and abilities.
Wow, I sure lapsed quickly into symbolism, didn’t I? It wasn’t intentional, but with a game as rich as Ocarina of Time it’s not really out of line. In fact, this game heralded a much more serious approach to the way in which Zelda’s tales are told—granted, the complexity of narrative peaked with Majora’s Mask, the very next game, but every installment since Ocarina has made some significant attempt to explore the mythos of the series in a way that the earlier games did not bother with.
Without question this game aims for a more immersive experience than we’ve seen before, which does sort of arrive as a result of its new 3D environment (you’re actually in these areas now…you’re no longer peeking down into them like a board game), but by no means is it limited to that. By giving us a plot that keeps changing directions (Boy meets fairy? Little man in a big world? Help the princess? Rescue the sages? Rewrite history?) and only explaining the situation sporadically throughout the game, we become a part of the adventure. We feel it, for once, as it happens, and pretty much anything that surprises Link should surprise us as well the first time through.
More time is invested in creating secondary characters as well. No, they’re not nearly as complicated as they will be in Majora’s Mask, but they’re far more expressive and individualized than they were in A Link to the Past (which, itself, was a big jump up from anything we had seen before that). By and large the NPCs are just there with a sentence or two of gossip, but that’s okay—an attempt to turn too many background faces into convincing characters gets both crowded and confusing. And besides, a lot of the characters manage to…well…actually make us care about them…an accomplishment considering that so many of them are of races we’ve never encountered before in a game series that has endlessly reinforced that anything that isn’t human wants to murder you.
Maybe that’s why the Gorons (the first non-human characters you meet) are usually perceived as enemies by first time players. I think just about everybody tried to attack that first sleeping, friendly guy on Death Mountain Trail…and can you blame them? It’s called Death Mountain Trail, for one…there are monster-sized meat-hungry spiders leaping everywhere, and there is a guarded iron gate keeping the inhabitants of Kakariko Village safe from harm. As such, we first meet the Gorons under a feeling of extreme prejudice. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the same prejudice that Darunia, the Goron King, must overcome in relation to us players. Why should he trust us? Kakariko locked Darunia’s people out and, until now, nobody has been interested in helping to rid the mountain of the beasts that have suddenly taken over. It’s as though in a time of catastrophe, Hyrule’s human populace erected barriers to force the Gorons to deal with their problems themselves, rather than offering assistance. Darunia is skeptical. You represent the selfish race, and when you first meet he’s more than happy to project all of the wrongs he’s been done by others onto you. Kind of the same reason you kept trying to stab those Gorons on the trail, isn’t it?
The Zoras, by contrast, are almost disarmingly calm. It’s easy to perceive a Goron as an enemy simply because they are physically imposing; you are immediately put on guard. Even their theme music is raw and percussive; unless you are patient enough to locate the (actually quite beautiful) melody, it puts you on edge. When you meet the Zoras, however, it is under very different conditions. The music is soothing; the water is calm and cool. They might lead simple lives, but they seem to be lives of quiet meditation and intellectual pursuits. Also, while one would never mistake a Zora for a human, they have an unmistakably human build…albeit taller, thinner, paler. They constitute no physical threat…though there might well be a dormant cultural one.
Furthermore there is the Kokiri, which does indeed have its own social order and structure, but, as its inhabitants are forbidden ever to leave the forest (and as the forest is not easily accessible to any of the other races), they possess no major sway in Hyrule as a whole. They are a sort of footnote to the larger story, and one that most people won’t bother to read. Their perpetual childhood prevents them from being taken seriously—or, indeed, taking anyone else seriously in return. Link initially believes himself to be one of the Kokiri, but this is eventually revealed to be false; he does age, somewhat unexpectedly, and one of the strangest moments in the game is returning to your old home town as an adult to find everything (and everyone) uncomfortably tiny. That’s the way of the Kokiri; fun and boundless while you’re in, but limited (and depressingly helpless) once you’ve seen the world.
Then there are the humans (or Hylians, if we must stay in-game) who are the most widely-distributed and well-established race in Hyrule, and certainly the race which has had the greatest success in instituting any kind of significant governing body. And yet they also prove to be the most defenseless; as Ganon’s reign takes hold everybody suffers, but only the humans are weak enough to be physically displaced, condensed into a single area. It’s humanity, alright, and it sure does a good job at crumbling at the first sign of threat. (It also might be worth noting that the Gerudo, by far the most human of the non-human species, are also the most warlike and threatening. It’s as though Ocarina of Time has split humanity into two halves, each of which highlights a serious human weakness: one vain and self-serving, the other fierce and impersonal.)
And yet again I’ve fallen into analysis rather than summary. But that’s okay. We’ve all played the game; it’s a game we fell in love with, a game we returned to day after day, piece by piece. It was an adventure we cared about. I remember as a child that I was never too upset by the fact that I couldn’t beat a Zelda game. If things got too hard, that was okay. I’d get as far as I could, switch to another game…maybe get further the next time or maybe not. It was just part of the experience—not everybody was going to win. In Ocarina of Time, however, that changed. I was not going to give up…I knew how much was riding on me. No amount of Jabu-Jabu’s Bellies or Water Temples was going to hold me back. Sometimes I’d get frustrated to the verge of tears, but I couldn’t quit. Link needed me. Zelda needed me. My friends the Gorons needed me. There was an urgency here that I had never felt in a video game before.
And that urgency is, for the most part, a product of one very simple plot device the series had never used before: we get to see what we’ve been fighting against through the previous three games. Ganon has always been a threat, but only because we’ve been told he’s a threat. We didn’t know what any of it really meant, or what the consequences would be to his success. At least, not until we stepped outside the Temple of Time as an adult. The darkness, the wind, the red tint to the cloud over Death Mountain. We already know things have changed. The bright and playful Castle Town theme is gone. There are no more puppies romping with each other. No, you don’t even need to visit the next screen to know what you are going to see…and yet you go anyway, just to be sure. Desolation now has a face.
From here you get to explore the world and all of the ways in which it has changed, but it also gives you a clear incentive to succeed—you can avoid this future. Not just for yourself, but for everybody. You—the Hero of Time—can take away all of this pain and misery, and nobody will even remember it happened. You play the first half of the game because it’s fun…you play the second half because you must.
I could go on about all of the wonderful things this game does, but words are no substitute for experience. There is tremendous enjoyment to be had, and while I could sit and gush about it, that wouldn’t bring you any closer to understanding. This is a game to be played…a game to be explored…and a game to get lost in. And besides, a lot of the good stuff I’d like to discuss would either fit better or just as well in my essay on Majora’s Mask.
So let me instead do the unthinkable: criticize Ocarina of Time. Remember what I said earlier about overlooking the faults of a friend? Yeah, I didn’t buy it either. Let’s get picky.
One thing that you will notice playing this game now, so many years down the line, is the stubbornness of the camera. Obviously it functions no worse than it did in 1998, but the vast improvements in control over the years (peaking, in the Zelda series, with The Wind Waker) make Ocarina’s camera seem like a downright hassle. Sure, it works fine most of the time, but when it gets stuck behind something, or in a wall as you’re trying to cross a narrow passage, or (my personal favorite) behind the little fence the first time you face Phantom Ganon so that you can’t even see him kicking your ass, it really stands out. And not in a good way. This is just a necessary side effect of the leap to 3D…the camera technology hadn’t evolved before this because there was never any need for it. Ocarina of Time, while a great game, got saddled with technology that wasn’t quite ready for it. (On the bright side, it isn’t nearly as bad as Mario 64’s camera, which was maddening even in its day.)
On a related note, while L-targeting is brilliant and an absolutely perfect way of creating “fair” but complicated combat in the third dimension, the same button should not have been used to center Link’s gaze straight ahead! It means you don’t get a choice in what you’re doing…if you try to target something out of range (it’s not always easy to tell), Link will look straight ahead. Far, far worse is that there might be an enemy or important object on the screen while you’re being asked to traverse a narrow platform. Since it’s enormously difficult to do this on an angle you try to center the camera behind you…and it keeps locking onto the enemy or object instead!
The dungeons, for the most part, are well-designed. Even as overwhelming as they might seem at first, a little exploration reveals that the complexity is almost always an illusion, and there is a clear and logical (if often very much indirect) path from the first room to the boss. (If you need convincing of this just consider how often you’ll find the map, compass and boss key—in that order—on your first pass through. There’s a predetermined path, even when it feels as though you get to choose your way.) The trouble is that there are exceptions to this rule, and when the logic of the game seems to disappear and leave you deserted, frustration sweeps in to replace it. I’m thinking, specifically, of the Water Temple (why are the Water Temples always horrible?) with its far-too-similar corridors and frustrating and repetitive climbs to reset the water level, and Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, which is an unfair chaos of enemies that are both numerous and aggressive, and also unkillable until you locate the boomerang—which is not as easily locatable as it should be. Rather than keep you on a path toward the boomerang—which, I must add, you should find much sooner since nothing can be killed without it—Jabu-Jabu’s Belly seems to just lead everywhere at once…leaving you to find it on your own without any kind of guidance whatsoever. Very unfair.
Also, the NPCs on a first play seem to be interesting and varied, and you’ll find yourself caring about some of them. Saria, certainly, and Talon the rancher’s daughter spring instantly to mind. Maybe even the fat Zora king. You like these characters. You want to succeed for them and for their happiness. Finding Talon laboring on her ranch without her father is one of the saddest surprises of the adult section of the game…and so is finding poor King Zora frozen solid. Yet on later playings, once you already know what you need to do and where you need to go, it’s a lot harder to become invested in them emotionally. This is because the game relies on a sort of aimlessness to expand its own world. A lot of the characterization is achieved through wandering…meeting characters before they have a definite function in your quest so that you’ll know where to find them when they do. You check up on them. They let you play mini-games. They share their histories and their worries. But once you know the path through the game, you’ll do a lot less wandering and therefore a lot less discussing…and all of a sudden they’re hardly even characters anymore. Sure, Talon’s a cute kid, but will you even see her more than about twice the next time you play the game? The character loses her impact.
And speaking of paths through the game…as much as I complained about the lack of a hint system in the first game, Ocarina of Time has too many hint systems. Much like A Link to the Past you can open up your map and locate a flashing node. Good. You also have a little fairy companion called Navi who follows you around, gives you tips on how to defeat enemies, and will frequently remind you of something you’ve been told to keep you heading in the right direction. A lot of people dislike Navi with her constant “Hey!” and “Listen!” but I don’t mind her. I think she’s helpful and a good addition to the game. (Interesting, too, that the idea of a helpful fairy companion seems to be the only thing that ever carried over to the games from that wretched Legend of Zelda animated series.) But that’s two methods of delivering hints to the player. On top of that we have Saria’s Song, which, if you play it on your ocarina, will get Saria—your childhood elfin sweetheart—to give you more hints. And on top of that we have some big annoying owl who appears at various times to interrupt the game and give you protracted hints and advice that are about as subtle as a knife through your eye. Fucking hell, that’s four concurrent hint systems assaulting you in the game. Again, the first time through you’re probably so slow and aimless that you don’t even notice, but every other time you’re going to wish you could take the owl out with a fire arrow and get on with your life.
Oddly enough, the only real criticism I remember from around the time of the game’s release was that Ocarina of Time made no use, in any way, of the original Legend of Zelda theme. A less valid criticism you’d be hard pressed to find. Wasn’t the song looping endlessly on the title screens and overworld of all three of the previous games enough? Instead, composer Koji Kondo (brilliant man) gave us a slow and deceptively simple introductory tune that plays over images of Link riding Epona on Hyrule Field. Yes, the original theme would have made that image more exciting, but as Link rides endlessly toward a mysterious destination under the glow of descending moonlight, Kondo chose to highlight a different emotion, and this manages to set the mood for the entire game. (Also, the new overworld theme is brilliant, you shits.)
Of course, there is a lot more I could say about the music…the way the Goron theme used to creep me out but now makes me happy. The way the fleshed-out Kakariko Village theme melts my heart. The way I’ll sometimes stand around in Lon Lon Ranch just to hear the plaintive and beautiful full version of Epona’s Song. But all I could really do is cheapen the music with my words. There’s a whole world’s worth of epic composition here to seek out and explore, if you haven’t already.
So take the time. It’s worth it. And go meet some new people, even if you don’t, strictly, need to. You’ll find out why in the next game.