Original Release Date: 1998
For years, Ocarina of Time has had a rather unassailable reputation. It was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, and continues to be regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made. However, in more recent times, more people have started questioning this, with some claiming the game is highly overrated, and saying that it’s not the best game ever made or even the best Zelda game ever made.
In general, I think the disillusionment with Ocarina of Time is a good thing. Recognizing that it isn’t infallible is important, as it’s that kind of attitude that has silenced dissenting opinions and caused problems for the franchise as a whole. Because people were so enamored with Ocarina of Time, games like Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker didn’t get the attention they deserved, at least during their initial release. Rather than appreciating how good they were in their own right, people complained about how they were too different from Ocarina of Time. As a result, Nintendo then tried (and ultimately failed) to recreate what seemed to work with Ocarina of Time in the following 3D titles, namely Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It’s the incorrect idea that Ocarina of Time was perfect that also led to them being far too safe and conservative with the 3DS remake, rather than really trying to update and fix the things about the game that were flawed or dated.
However, I feel in some ways that the disillusionment with Ocarina of Time has gone too far. It’s perfectly fine to say that Ocarina of Time is not perfect, or that it’s not the best Zelda game. I would actually agree with both of those assertions. But many people go the extra mile and try to downplay all of the things that Ocarina of Time did well, or even pretend that there wasn’t any good reasons why people fell in love with the game in the first place. This is a shame, because the reality is that Ocarina of Time was, and is, a very good game.
Much like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time was a pioneer that helped pave the way for the future of 3D gaming. However, Ocarina of Time had a trickier task than Super Mario 64. Mario games have never been very story focused, typically focusing all of their energy on the gameplay and having the story being more of an afterthought. As a result, Super Mario 64 only had to worry about having good gameplay, which it did, while still having a pretty barebones story.
The Zelda series, on the other hand, has always had more lore to it, and ever since A Link to the Past, story has played a much bigger part in the Zelda games. To that end, Ocarina of Time kept both story and gameplay in mind as it built up the world that many people still know and love to this day.
The storyline, while fairly simple and straightforward, is also incredibly well paced and beautifully put together. The storyline overall is your pretty standard good versus evil, destined hero has to stop evil villain kind of story, but where it shines is in how it ties the narrative and gameplay together. The game starts off in Kokiri forest. For story purposes, Kokiri forest serves as the quiet start of Link’s journey before he ventures off into the world, while for gameplay purposes it serves as a tutorial area that lets new players become acquainted with how the game works, and also allows veteran players to move through it quickly.
From there, the game introduces you to the various regions of the game, introducing new locations and characters while also establishing new elements to the gameplay. All of this then ties in once you leap forward seven years. The game informs you that Ganondorf has taken over Hyrule, but it also reinforces that through the gameplay. As you travel through all of the locations you explored as young link, you can see how things have changed for the worse during the seven year interlude. Castle town is in ruins, Kakariko village has swelled with refugees, Kokiri forest is full of monsters, Death mountain is more dangerous, and Zora’s Domain is frozen over. The game doesn’t simply tell you that things have changed for the worse through exposition, you get to see it for yourself firsthand through the gameplay, which adds more depth to the narrative and worldbuilding. In addition, the heightened stakes of the narrative tie back into the gameplay, as the game introduces more elements and more difficult challenges during the second half.
The game also uses 3D space very effectively. While somewhat primitive in terms of graphics and scope when compared with modern games, Ocarina of Time still has some of the most clever puzzles of any 3D game. While many modern games take 3D space for granted, Ocarina of Time actively builds the puzzles with the 3D space in mind, and each new dungeon explores this with new items and environments. The camera controls are also much improved over Super Mario 64, and have aged quite well.
Another thing that Ocarina of Time does well is in its scope. While the world of Hyrule is definitely smaller than a lot of more recent adventure games, it manages to be compact while still having a sense of bigness. All of the locations in Ocarina of Time have a purpose, and none of them are any larger than they need to be, with the only minor exception being Hyrule Field. This makes traversing through the game world fun, while traversing many modern game worlds can be a bit of a chore. Modern games can have much, much larger worlds, and there are plenty of modern games that craft their worlds well. But many of these games have worlds that are filled with a lot of empty space that serves no real purpose at all, and many of the locations and environments are often copy and pasted over and over, which further reduces the sense of wonder of exploring new areas. While Ocarina of Time was held back by the limits of its time, in hindsight this allowed it to avoid many missteps of more recent adventure games.
Ocarina of Time does very well with its environments. Each location is distinct and memorable, and each of the dungeons in particular stand out as being very unique. It’s the first Zelda game where each level felt different from the last, whereas in the older games a lot of the dungeons tended to blend together and feel interchangeable.
The story also incorporates its non interactive elements well, and does its best to make sure that they don’t get in the way of the interactive elements. The cutscenes are all fairly short, and don’t provide any more information or exposition than is needed. The characters, while not as deep or developed as the characters in later games, are still distinct, and seeing how they change and grow after the seven year leap is also very interesting, and ties into the game’s overall theme of change over time.
The music is fantastic. The ability to play different songs is beautifully implemented, and really enhances the experience. Each musical piece fits their respective environments perfectly, and the soundtrack is hands down the best in the entire Zelda franchise.
Gushing praise aside, this game hasn’t aged completely gracefully. The graphics do look a bit dated, and even by N64 standards they aren’t always as good as they could have been. In particular, the use of the 3D in some areas, such as Castle Town, is rather awkward, and not as good as the rest of the game. Some hills are rather blocky looking, many stairways are flat, and some of the textures and models do look rather dated.
Another problem is the rather lackluster content outside of the main story. While the main storyline and dungeons are done very well, the sidequests and exploration are less prominent. This is not to say that they aren’t there at all, or that they’re not good, but players who like to explore off of the beaten path might be left feeling a little disappointed, and many of the future Zelda games offer much more content when it comes to exploration and sidequests.
One of the more prominent sidequests is the gold skulltula quest, where there are 100 scattered throughout the game world, and you need to try to get them all. But getting them all is rather tedious and time consuming, and there’s not really a proper reward for doing so. After you collect 50, you’ll have gotten all of the rewards that matter, and you won’t get any more rewards until you get all 100. And once you do get all 100, your only reward is a bunch of money, which at that point in the game you won’t really need. This particular sidequest is an interesting idea, and it would have benefited it if the player received a more substantial reward for getting them all, rather than just bragging rights, which is something only idiots care about.
Another issue is that not all of the items are utilized as well as they could have been. Most of the items and weapons you get are actively useful throughout the game, but there are a handful that are not. The hammer and the hover boots are not useful very much outside of the dungeon they are found in, and some items such as the ice arrows, Nayru’s love, and the golden gauntlets are obtained so late in the game that the player is give almost no opportunities to use them.
While the gameplay and narrative tie in together for the most part, there are a few times were there is a bit of a disconnect. According to the story, Link and the sages work together to purge each temple of evil, and some of the sages actually do appear in person. But in the gameplay, Link works through the challenges and the boss alone, and the sages only show up afterwards. Having the sages play a more active role in the gameplay would have been tricky, but it would have helped tie in the gameplay and story a little better than what was presented in the actual game.
This issue also comes into play when you enter the Gerudo fortress. It’s towards the end of the game, Link has gotten much stronger, and from a story perspective shouldn’t have any problem fighting the Gerudo guards directly. But because the gameplay wants the player to focus on stealth, if the Gerudo guards see link, they automatically arrest him and throw him in a cell, when he should realistically be able to fight them off. While a relatively minor issue, this does create a temporary disconnect between story and gameplay, which is only exacerbated by the fact that the guards don’t take any of your weapons away, which makes even less sense that Link not being allowed to fight back.
Finally, the gameplay and story, while good, aren’t as fleshed out as in later games, and in terms of overall design, both Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are better games.
I could go on about the things that Ocarina of Time does well, or continuing nitpicking some of the areas where it falls a bit short. But at the end of the day, Ocarina of Time remains an excellent title, and one that has aged pretty well. It managed to successfully translate the Zelda formula to 3D, and delivered a truly stellar example of what games are capable of as an artistic and immersive medium. Whatever your opinion about this game is, its importance and quality cannot be denied. It’s not perfect, but it is still very, very good.
If you don’t like Ocarina of Time, that’s fine. If you think it’s overrated, that’s fine. If you think it’s outdated, that’s fine. If you don’t think it’s the best game ever made, or the best Zelda game ever made, that’s fine.
But if you think that Ocarina of Time is a bad game, you’re wrong, plain and simple.
How well it holds up 3/4
Personal Enjoyment 5/5
Overall quality 9/10
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