There are two games in the Legend of Zelda series that usually get mentioned in “greatest game of all time” discussions: Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. They are the 2D and 3D epitome of the series, respectively. While LttP’s reputation seems to be unassailable, probably as much as because it is a great game as because it was the last big 2D game in the series, Ocarina of Time lately has faced some harsh critical evaluations. While most people think that at least one or two the later 3D are significantly flawed, plenty find at least one to be better than Ocarina. Flaws pointed out usually involve the mostly empty Hyrule Field, as well as the game being too easy and too ugly. For the most part I disagreed. Hyrule Field is empty, but it only needs to be traversed a couple of times, and for most of them you can ride Epona. Even with its emptiness it helps provide a sense of scale, to make Hyrule seem like a real place. The game does seem easy now, but that is mostly in the difficulty of translating puzzles from 2D to 3D. Plus, I still say it provides enough challenge. There is no defense for its ugliness, there are no good looking N64 games. After playing the new 3DS version of the game, I have reconsidered. I don’t disagree for the most part, I disagree entirely. Ocarina of Time is one of the greatest games of all time. It has flaws, slight, forgettable ones, but on the whole it is a triumph.
One thing I had forgotten about Ocarina was how well it told it story. Story is something that the Zelda series puts so little emphasis on that I find it easy to forget. Ocarina’s story has a fairy tale quality to it. Link is the only Kokiri without a fairy companion, and while he gets along just fine, some of the other Kokiri treat him like a second class citizen. One morning a fairy comes to him and requests that he see the Great Deku tree, beginning his epic journey. The first third of the game, playing as young Link as he tries to help Zelda fight off the evil Gannondorf, is perfectly plotted. It tells a fun, childlike story while planting the seeds for the time jump to the second half. Link leaves his home and meets a Princess, becomes an honorable member of the Goron tribe and inadvertently wins the heart of another Princess, this time of the Zora’s. He also manages to visit almost all of the land of Hyrule and meet just about everybody. This opening part last about 4 or 5 hours, and it is a near perfect introduction to the world, while still providing meaty gameplay. The first dungeon, the Great Deku Tree, is pretty rudimentary, but the next two, Dodongo’s Cave and Jabu Jabu’s Belly, while small are perfectly good Zelda dungeons. The early part of Ocarina is just a wonderful fairy tale.
Which makes the second part particularly jarring, even when you know it is coming. As the player returns with the third magical doodad to open the door to the master sword, he is met by Zelda and her protector Impa being pursued by Gannondorf. He retrieves the magic Ocarina she flings at him and goes to get the power to defeat Gannondorf once and for all. Unfortunately, Gannondorf is thee waiting for him. So instead of stopping him, Link gives him the power he has so desperately sought. When he wakes up 7 (?) years later, finally old enough to wield the sword Gannondorf has turned the Hyrule into a nightmare version of itself. Instead of dancing people and carnival music in Hyrule square, it is full of zombies. Every idyllic place that young Link visited is not a twisted form of itself, ready to fall apart after years of misrule. And Link, being the hero that he is, sets out immediately to right these wrongs by finding the last five of the six sages, as explained to him by Rauru, the Sage of Light. One connection I did not pick up on before I played Zelda 2 was that the names of the Sages are the names of the towns from that game: Rauru, Saria, Ruto etc. He is also helped by the mysterious Sheik, a member of the sheikah, of whom Impa was the last member.
The second part of the game is amazing. The five main dungeons are all impressive, with distinct looks and feels. I know some hate the Water Temple, but it is one of my favorites. I’m not a big fan of the Spirit Temple’s reliance on doing it at different ages, but it is a neat gimmick. Another thing I had forgotten were the mini-dungeons. I had no recollection of the Ice Cave and I had little memory of the bottom of the well. Those small dungeons helped keep the formula of solve a dungeon, mess around in the surrounding area/town, go to the next area fresh. Sometimes there is a little something extra to do. Really, the second part of Ocarina of Time is as good as video games get. There is minimal interferences from the game, it is left up to the players to find their way. Of course, there is only some sequence breaking possible it is more than most of the later games would allow.
I played the 3DS version, but it has been long enough since I had played the N64 one that I can’t really note detailed differences. The graphics have been noticeably cleaned up, fixing the game looking ugly problem. There have been some fixes for the Water Dungeon, with color coded doors for water height and a quicker way to put on and take off the iron boots, but I didn’t remember that being such a problem. On problem it did add was that the 3DS joypad is too close to the shoulder button used to lock on to enemies, making some fights actually physically painful. As far as I could tell, the 3DS version is mostly the same truly excellent game that Ocarina of Time has always been.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a game that completely deserves it reputation. It is a terrifically designed game from start to finish. Each area builds on the ones that came before it. The young Link set and older Link payoff is much more impressive than the dark world shenanigans of LttP. The story is simple, but it is perfectly executed and given just enough attention, by which I mean very little. Ocarina of Time is the reason that the Zelda series is still relevant today, unlike nearly every other 2D holdover, Mario excluded. Nintendo and Miyamoto found out how to translate the 2D experience into a different, but still completely satisfying new 3D experience. It has been 15 years since Ocarina was released and it is still just as vibrant today as it has ever been. It is a true classic.