Does Ocarina of Time Still Hold Up By Today’s Standards?
Despite all its evolutions over the years, no entry in the Legend of Zelda series has stood the test of time in terms of critical acclaim to the extent that Link’s first fully 3-D adventure has. Even after almost two decades, it’s still widely considered one of the greatest games of all-time. After all, not only did we all play it during childhood, but the reason we did so is because for its time, it was incredibly revolutionary in terms of what you could accomplish in terms of both the formula and open-world gameplay. And with over three million copies of the 3DS remake being sold as of this time of writing, it is apparent that Ocarina of Time will not be fading from public memory anytime soon.
But whilst the impact of the second-most acclaimed N64 title next to Super Mario 64 can’t be denied, does it still stand the test of time by today’s standards? If Shadow of the Colossus can be just as fun to play now as it was back in 2005, then could the game that it clearly took inspiration from to the point that it might as well owe its existence to it follow suit? To answer this question, let us take a look at some of the most important aspects of Ocarina and see how they stand up by today’s standards. One thing that will not be looked at are the graphics, because there is a reason that Nintendo felt the need to upgrade them for its 3DS port rather than keep them at the same level of its Gamecube ports, and any analysis of them would lead nowhere.
The Open World and Locations
First, let us look at the world itself. While it may look small when compared to today’s vast epics like Skyrim, there’s no denying that Hyrule Field alone is a huge place that to this day still makes the player feel like an ant when they fully realize just how important the journey actually is. Unless you’re traveling on horse, which you won’t be able to do until about a third of the way through the game, traversing the area can take a really long time with most players having to battle skeletons at night before they can even enter Hyrule Castle for the first time. This can be considered both a good and a bad thing, because whilst it’s enthralling to explore big open worlds, said feeling can be diminished if the actual traveling isn’t fun in of itself. And unfortunately, no matter how much you roll on the ground or side jump, the fact of the matter is that Link is not a sprinter in the least.
But that didn’t matter too much back when the game first came out, because the very idea of traveling in a world of this size was inconceivable in the late 90s and there’s no getting around the fact that even today, Hyrule Field feels alive. From the lush large green landscapes that connect every various location you need to go to, along with hidden secrets, a day/night cycle, and enemies that can attack you at any time depending on where you are at a specific time, this open world still serves as a functional case of using exploration as its own gameplay mechanic. And the fact that every location it connected to felt natural to the game’s setting as well as lively on its own is a plus too. Not to mention, who can forget the moment when you finally got to ride a horse on that field? So while it has some more apparent faults now, the open world still holds up fairly well in terms of scale and functionality.
It’s not just the open world however. Although the locations are obviously smaller in scale compared to Hyrule Field, they are vast and varied on their own terms. From the long trek up Death Mountain to the large amount of water in Hyrule Lake, Ocarina of Time knows full well that you can’t just rely on the bigness of the connecting world to carry the exploration aspect. The places that you have to explore to must be fun as well, and you shouldn’t limit it to the dungeons. Whilst they are the areas where Zelda’s real challenges should come into play, the areas directly connecting them should feel important as well, and Ocarina of Time accomplishes that to a tee. Secrets and life that actually progress gameplay from heart pieces to gold skulltulas litter these places in order to provide substance beyond the spectacle, and it helps when said locations are populated by colorful characters you can interact with. That said, one thing that’s very noticeable now is that there’s not much you can do to actually “affect” the areas or characters themselves apart from the occasional side quest that rarely changes much. Link participating in the local activities will usually only benefit him and nobody else, so don’t expect a brand new marketplace to appear from your various donations. So in that sense, Ocarina is a bit left behind.
As for the dungeons themselves, it has been argued that they’re too easy by current-day standards (hence the Master Quest edition) and the Water Temple has achieved a not-so insubstantial amount of criticism for its overcomplexity amongst other things. But even so, they still require a bit of brain work and you still spend a decent amount of time in them without much of a sense that they’re overstaying their welcome. There’s not much to really say about them aside from just like the locations, they’re still fine in their own right in terms of variety and secrets, but the standards of complexity have no doubt increased since 1998.
All in all, the game’s various set pieces have some age on them, but they’re still imaginative without dwarfing the player under their scope and there’s quite a lot you can do in them. Maybe a bomb in that area will open up a hole. Or maybe you can plant a bean here so that seven years later, you can increase your health or go fishing without having to beat an overly long temple in order to catch an 18-pounder.
Ocarina of Time is probably the one game that sees the most returning characters in later parts of the franchise (certainly a lot of the Zelda characters in Super Smash Bros seem to come from the game). It was the first game to give Ganon a human form under the name of Ganondorf – a form that has since been used in almost every 3D Zelda game afterwards to the point that his original Moblin form might as well be a temporary powerup – and it was also the first to introduce Zelda’s famous alter-ego, Sheik. But more importantly, it was the first game to introduce Link’s iconic adult form, as the previous games mostly portrayed him as a kid that’s a few years older than his younger self in Ocarina. But those are just appearances. How do they stand as contributing players to the Zelda universe based on this game?
As is pretty much common knowledge by now, Link was created solely to be a blank cypher that the audience is meant to project themselves onto, so his overall personality is entirely dependent on the player, although you can’t beat the game without portraying him as a hero, so he’s always going to be a goody two-shoes. Nevertheless, he doesn’t even have much of an expression other than constant frowning or the occasional smile/surprised look (the blank look he had as Rauru told him Ganondorf stole the Triforce during his slumber being a particular stand-out), let alone any noticeable thoughts when you’re not in direct control of him and thus isn’t going to astound academics as a fully fleshed-out main hero. There is some backstory given to him, but it adds little to the overall narrative and thus might as well not be there. As is such, it’s up to the characters surrounding him to liven up the game.
Although the other characters are definitely memorable and do a good job of compensating for Link, they also do not have much to them, especially once they fulfill their game-important role. Zelda spends most of her screen time as Sheik and aside from that, she’s only really important after the first battle with Ganondorf. After Saria teaches you her song, she never really does anything after that. Malon and Talon mostly just say hello after you’ve gotten all you need from them. And despite Impa’s popularity, she’s almost all but non-existent after you first meet her. This is just the plot-important characters mind you. The majority of Hyrule Castle Town’s residents (who move to Kakariko in the future) each have unique designs, but they pretty much exist for no reason other than small talk and the occasional hint/heart piece. The Gorons, Zoras, and Gerudos all look the same minus the important ones and don’t have much more to offer. As for Navi, she can be annoying, but she tries hard and serves as a functional heart to Link’s journey.
The phrase that best sums up the characters are “memorable, but very little of them”. And since later 3D Zeldas would make its large cost more interactive to the story/gameplay, this could make Ocarina very awkward to players who are used to only Wind Waker or Twilight Princess. So while the characters themselves have aged fine aside from maybe Link himself, their lack of presence hasn’t.
If there’s anything anyone can agree on regarding Ocarina of Time, it’s that the story is very simplistic and is more remembered for its scope rather than the actual details. There’s not really much to Link’s journey besides him collecting mystical artifacts in order to take down an evil king who mostly just sits back and waits for the hero to beat his generals rather than take matters into his own hand, and said journey is incredibly underdeveloped on the personal end of things, mostly because it lacks a compelling reason for Link to partake in this journey in the first place. For instance, the reason Link starts his journey is because his guardian, The Great Deku Tree, tells him it’s his fate and he accepts that without question. Whilst it’s true that his guardian’s death might be a contributing factor and that he might possess a sense of vengeance towards the person responsible, The Great Deku Tree’s presence all but drops out of the story apart from some brief instances in the Forest Temple arc in order for Zelda to take over as Link’s main motivation. And at that point in the story, Ganondorf hasn’t taken things over yet, so all Zelda has to go on regarding sending Link out to fight evil are dark dreams and the fact that the Gerudo King is so obviously evil that it’s a wonder the King allows him into the castle.
Of course, this backfires as Zelda’s decision to gamble on Link causes Ganondorf to steal the Triforce and in seven years, Hyrule was turned into a land full of monsters. However, whilst the consequences are definitely apparent (the first thing you see as you leave the Temple of Time is a broken down town and a giant crown of fire over Death Mountain), Zelda is the only one who really grasps what her actions have done and that’s only at the very end of the game. Nobody else really has a personal stake in what’s going on and even when they do (ex. Darunia’s confrontation with the Goron-eating dragon in order to free his brethren), we never get to see their side of the story or have them contribute in any visible way (Malon practically adds nothing to the Lon Lon Ranch subplot other than to be an extra motivation to complete it). Practically all of the story is on Link and his limited interactions with everyone else. Combine that aspect with the simplistic characterization of our main hero and you have one aspect of the series that has not aged well. Its own direct sequel had a unique story, and every console Zelda afterwards – regardless of overall quality – has injected life into the formula by introducing personal arcs to carry Link through his dungeon-hopping adventures. Throw in everything else it inspired and it’s apparent that if you are a huge proponent of video-game storytelling, which has become more important to video games nowadays than it was in the 90s, Ocarina of Time won’t scratch that itch.
Every 3D Zelda game – with the exception of Hyrule Warriors – owes their gameplay to Ocarina of Time because it’s pretty much the exact same in each one with a few tweaks depending on the title. You equip items on three contextual buttons, you keep one button for the sword, one for the shield, and several more for backflips, targeting, and rolling. Compared to previous Zelda games’ ability to only assign items to two buttons, including the sword, this was definitely a very welcome and major upgrade in terms of open-world gameplay. And the items that you get to improve gameplay are all varied too, with very few of them becoming irrelevant after obtaining them, even if a large part of that is because you need to be either a kid or an adult to use some of them. So it should go without saying that the overall gameplay is still good if you are into Ocarina’s genre Zelda games in particular as long as you’re used to the system’s control scheme.
Combat is fun and easy for the most part with the only real hindrance being Link’s slow running speed, the occasional camera issue, and determining whether Link can jump something or not. The sword fighting is simple and effective whilst using other items is generally a bit more complex due to some targeting issues but nothing close to a game breaker. If there’s one aspect I can say time hasn’t been too kind towards, it’s how you need Navi to be close to an object in order to target it. Targeting systems these days, let alone Zelda ones, just target whoever is closest to you, and it’s still that way today for the most part because it’s a perfectly fine system. But with Ocarina of Time, you have to wait half a second for Navi to fly over to whom you want to target, and that’s if she flies over to that person or object to begin with, leaving you to some cheap shots if she messes up. There are some enemies you can’t even target, like the Moblins preceding the Forest Temple, because Navi suddenly decides she doesn’t want to get close to them.
Then there are the actual bosses the game provides you. Although they are generally fun to play against, practically all of them are fairly simple to defeat once you know how to use the tool you acquired from the dungeon itself – which is all but impossible since the tool is usually the main reason you reached the boss in the first place. The one main exception is probably the final boss, as the game doesn’t do the greatest job at explaining when you have to use the light arrows against him, and you don’t even acquire said arrows in the dungeon you fight him at. But regardless of the strategy, all boss fights are won by stunning it and then hitting it a certain amount of times, making them more akin to puzzles. And since they very rarely adapt to your style of combat, this sort of puzzle-style fighting is very simplistic and you’ll easily make short work of them once you know how to stun them.
Finally, no description of gameplay would be complete without the mention of side quests. During his journey, you can make Link fish, engage in trade, participate in bombchu bowling, or collect gold spider tokens. Each of these events have simple rules to follow and they usually reward the player upon completion like the ability to dive longer or carry more items at a time. And once you get the rewards, you can play the games that you have to pay for just to kill time. Whilst the actual quality of these mini-games are entirely dependent on the players’ interests, they are generally fun and you’ll probably spend quite a bit of time doing them while Ganondorf continues to poison the world…you monster. Just don’t hurt any chickens when doing so, as you’ll most likely regret it.
While Ocarina of Time still serves as a fun game in its own right, there is no denying the fact that everything has improved on its formula – including other Zelda games – to the point that there’s nothing truly special about it anymore other than its legacy and the nostalgia towards it that we refuse to let go. If you’ve never played the game and have mostly grown up with its various successors, there’s a moderate probability that you’ll find what it has to offer as functional but toothless, especially since some of its successors have aged far better in terms of story, character, graphics, and even gameplay. By today’s standards, it really lacks anything it can call its own other than introducing some famous characters and even some famous locations whose potential would be realized far better in later installments. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s an important game with a huge lively world to explore and save cannot be denied. And whilst most of us know in our hearts that we probably wouldn’t enjoy Ocarina if we played it for the first time now, we enjoyed it growing up and we continue to enjoy it now.
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