Homage series: Making the case for Ocarina of Time, 20 years later

When, in your experience with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, did you first realize you had a very special game on your hands? For me, it was when I took my first steps on Hyrule Field, and heard this.

As I write this post to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary (wait, what?!), I still feel strongly about this: if you’ve ever played this game, the Hyrule Field theme gets a nostalgic smile out of you every time. It certainly gets one from me, as it takes me back to that time of innocence when I didn’t yet realize that I wasn’t staring at just any great game, but at what remains to this day the greatest game I have ever played. (Prior to this game, I was not a Zelda fan, so I am not a member of the group of pseudo-contrarians who argue (wrongly) that it’s a lesser game than A Link to the Past.) 

It makes me feel terribly old to say so, but the Nintendo 64 had its heyday a while ago now, in late 1998, to be exact, with this game. The ultimate compliment I can give OoT is not that it hasn’t aged; it unquestionably has, but that it has aged so impeccably well. It has not gotten old in a gimmicky, 10-minute refresher way like Super Mario Bros 3, Pac-Man, Tetris or Pong. Rather, it sticks with you much like the first great book you read or the first great film you watched. It’s not that you’re experiencing gaming greatness for the first time; it’s that, for the first time, you’re seeing it with the capacity to notice the details that add up to create it. This was one of the first non-J-RPGs that were not simply great, but memorable; that weren’t great just because you enjoyed playing them, but because you were invested in them. For people of my generation, who were either teens or pre-teens when OoT came out, this was as good as gaming would get, and most of us knew it.

My longtime friend Gab Flewelling (same age as me), whose eyes I know to be running a Nascar race from all that rolling as he’s reading this, would dismiss OoT’s claim to the title of greatest game ever on two points worth addressing. The first is the claim that Final Fantasy VII (1997) was better. The comparison is interesting because the two games came out a mere 14 months apart. VII the only game of that era that even remotely earns the comparison with OoT. The argument could be solved simply by saying something like “some prefer Ferraris, others like Lamborghinis,” which is the luxury-car-metaphor way of saying it’s a matter of taste. There is, it seems to me, great truth to this. FF7 and OoT are both landmark games, both revolutionary in their own way, both formidable. As a matter of context, here is how Greg Kasavin of videogames.com (now Gamespot) concluded his Final Fantasy VII review:

The question you must ask yourself is, are you prepared to dedicate a good portion of the next month to take part in a powerful story unlike anything you have ever witnessed before? If your answer is yes, and you can approach Final Fantasy VII knowing that it bears its genre’s inherently problematic traits, you will find it to be among the most incredible games you have ever played – or ever will.

Every word of this is true. Remember my earlier point about realizing just how special a game is as you’re playing it? People felt the same way about FF7. Again, it’s a SUPREMELY good game. But notice the mention of the inherently problematic traits of Japanese RPGs. FF7 dealt with parts of them thanks to the improved capabilities of the PS1. Characters were no longer just static pictures bumping into each other during combat, as they previously were, for all intents and purposes, in J-RPGs on the Super NES or the Sega Genesis. However, while Final Fantasy VII democratized the J-RPG for large sections of the mainstream gaming audience, hence its pioneer status, many gamers tolerated, rather than enjoyed, the random enemy encounters and the turn-based combat. Proponents of FF7 would answer that these are barely even flaws at all, that the combat system is more of an acquired taste than a true downside and that, even if it we agree live action combat would be better*, the gains in story depth more than makes up for this alleged shortcoming.

Indeed, folks, those were still the days when technological limits forced developers to choose between a great, complex story and amazing action/gameplay. What’s the first game to truly pull off a blend of both? You guessed it: our dear friend Ocarina of Time. Admittedly, FF7’s story is much more complex, and carries a great deal more chapters. Between its main story and its sidequests, VII has the depth and the replay value of modern DLC-powered monstrosities; pumping 100 hours into it is barely even hard. But not everyone wants to spend 100 hours on a game, and nowadays, some games have reached a point where gamers with an actual life are afraid to start them, as great as they are, (looking at you, Witcher 3) because they fear never seeing the end of them.

This takes me to Gab’s second point, which is that, absent the nostalgia factor, more modern games are simply better than older ones. For the most part, he’s right. Games are like cars: you can love your classics, but the 2016 edition of a car is undeniably superior to its 1996 counterpart. It features an entire list of improvements, be it in terms of safety or of convenience. And yet… there is the odd old-school model that can give you that little something your average modern-day disposable nondescript heap of metal won’t.

Nowadays, you can take gameplay like OoT’s, which an absolute legion of developers have done, and combine it with a story as long-winded as FF7’s. So how is a game which does that not instantly better than an old-school classic like OoT? Well, for one thing, there comes a point where too much is like not enough. Yes, I do like that games are like TV series now. A modern Action-RPG à-la-OoT that does not feature both outstanding gameplay AND character development would be deemed unfit for release. That said, many modern games are simply too voluminous, carry open worlds “too open” for their own good where the plot gets lost, and require you to shut yourself off from the world for a surprisingly long time to get through all that they have to offer, DLC and all. It’s one of several reasons why I consider the notion that Breath of the Wild, the most recent Zelda game, is better Ocarina to be absolute heresy. Its open world is too big for one character travelling alone pretty much as he pleases.

I truly believe there’s something to be said for the combination of greatness and simplicity, which finally leads me to my actual case for Ocarina of Time. It nails that combination as perfectly as any game ever has. Here is the conclusion to Jeff Gerstmann’s videogames.com review:

The game offers a nice challenge, a stunningly well-told story, and the gameplay to back it all up. This game is the real thing. This is the masterpiece that people will still be talking about ten years down the road. This is the game that perfectly exhibits the “quality not quantity” mantra that Nintendo has been touting since the N64 was released. In a word, perfect. To call it anything else would be a bald-faced lie.

Ten years? You must be joking! Although, in his defence, he couldn’t have known. Even today, even in this piece, which might tiptoe into long-form feature territory if I’m not careful, I struggle to pinpoint all the ways in which it was groundbreaking. In the gaming world, it remains an absolute masterclass in balancing acts: between exploration and story; between darkness and humour; between sheer action and emotional involvement. The Zelda story has been told on different occasions in different ways, but never as effectively. In fact, Ocarina has haunted its successors, none of which have fully managed to replicate its lightning-in-a-bottle kind of magic, however much I loved Windwaker. Of all subsequent Zelda games, only the supremely underrated Majora’s Mask, OoT’s sort-of sequel, exists outside Ocarina‘s shadow. This is probably because it’s aimed at OoT fanatics who were then two years older, expected something different and could now stomach something even darker. Good thing, too, because Majora’s Mask has elements and moments that would mortify young children. Too bad it came out on the same day as the PS2. But I digress.

Ocarina features an immersive soundtrack by Koji Kondo that features surprisingly beautiful melodies, whether they be location or character themes, or even the ocarina tunes the gamer plays using the C-buttons of the N64’s bizarre three-pronged controller. Listen to the themes of Kakariko Village, the Twinrova Sisters, Gerudo Valley or the Song of Storms. It’s not Mozart, and it’s not as dense as the orchestra soundtracks one can find in more recent games like the Elder Scrolls series, but it’s really quite nice.

And it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a “children’s game.” It’s a fairly straightforward tale of good vs evil, but it’s so well told. And while it’s not as dark in tone as the aforementioned Majora’s Mask, between the Skulltula house inhabited by a family whose members have been turned into giant spiders, or sinister ghosts (Poes) that haunt you at night as well as in a most important graveyard, or the haunted house look, music, and monsters of the Shadow Temple, it’s a surprisingly dark game.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the gameplay some more. What I wrote earlier about the gameplay successfully bringing together live action combat with a great story doesn’t do justice to the revolutionary aspect of this game’s combat system. There is something exhilarating about experiencing it for the first time. Generally, in those types of games, swordplay would feel forced, and the protagonist would slash his/her way through baddies that would take the hits like Rocky takes punches in the ring. So, imagine my surprise during my first fight against a Stalfo: “Pinch me and wake me up, because we have an actual sword fight on our hands… against an enemy that will actually use its shield… so I have to be patient and wait for it to leave itself vulnerable… I think I’m gonna cry…” All of this was accomplished using what was the revolutionary Z-Targeting, or as I like to call it, the fighting-engine-virtually-every-action-RPG-ever-since-has-been-using. Look at all your favourite games, kids. It’s there. Assassin’s Creed? There. Grand Theft Auto? There. The Witcher series? There. With the exclusion of, say, first-person shooters, Nintendo cracked the code on how to bridge RPG and live action. With Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

As for the “location” ocarina songs, modern games still carry a version of them: it’s called fast travel. Kind of a popular thing, nowadays, with those gargantuan world maps. Unless you consider J-RPG’s and their world maps “open-world games,” Ocarina is one of the first ones, if not THE first. It’s rather mystifying to see how many of its gameplay features have been recycled virtually as-is in modern games.

Yet, you might still be inclined to resist. Today’s consoles are more similar to computers than to consoles from 20 years ago. Modern games benefit from technological advances such as (far) better graphical engines, orchestra soundtracks and spoken dialogue, not to mention modernized controllers (seriously, what was Nintendo thinking with that N64 controller with the joystick that could be wrecked by a single game of Mario Party?!), greater story scope and length, DLC, etc. So how can I still pick Ocarina of Time ahead of all the great modern games? Basically for the same reason I still think the original Star Wars trilogy is the best one, despite today’s ridiculously more potent special effects. The novelty factor matters, especially when successors use the original’s M.O. and change next to nothing about it. Just as the other two Star Wars trilogies have the gravitas that they do strictly because of their relationship to the original one (and I won’t get into the endless list of lesser space opera knockoffs), a staggering amount of modern games live in the house that OoT built. I also feel for those kids to whom the peak of gaming glory is online sessions of FortniteCall of Duty, or sports games.

So, Ocarina, here’s to you, old friend, on your 20th anniversary. Because 20 years later, I still remember how you captivated me when I was 12. 20 years later, I still was never more of a gamer than when I played you. 20 years later, you’re still the reference, the greatest, the same. Thankfully.

*It is. The fact that games, even RPGs, have largely moved away from turn-based combat illustrates it.

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