The first 3D Zelda game and with a 6 year gap between official Triforce storylines in the Zelda universe, the anticipation for Ocarina couldn’t have been higher. First previewed at E3 in 1996 then again in 1997, this game was finally released at the tailend of 1998. As before, preorders were at a record high, indicating that the public was ready to see Link adventure in 3D for the first time. Looking back, its excellence seems like a foregone conclusion, even with all the gameplay innovations that it was to bring.
Set in the world of Hyrule previous to the first four Zelda games, this game finds Link a child of the forest, known as a Kokiri. Under the protection of the Great Deku Tree, the Kokiri children are forbidden to leave, abandoning the forest’s gift of eternal youth. All possess guiding fairies except for one young lad, our hero of Link. Wracked by nightmares telling of a foreboding shadow of darkness, Link is distraught. The Great Deku Tree senses this and sends the fairy Navi to tell Link that he has been summoned. Eager to get to the bottom of this mystery, Link sets out and the game begins.
A lot of N64 games didn’t get 3D graphics quite right, often resulting in blocky polygons, exacerbated by the low resolutions set by the system’s cartridge restrictions. While Ocarina of Time isn’t immune, it is the kind of game that fans were more eager to see how X enemy or Y character looked in 3D, so it wasn’t really expected to be comparable to others. All else aside, this game’s graphics are very good with lush environments, well-designed dungeons and an especially excellent vision of Hyrule Field. The first time you step onto the vast plain, the camera pans allowing the player to take the sights in a marvelous way. Even though you spent much of the game just running across the field, it is still a very memorable location.
Other familiar Hyrule locations include Death Mountain, not quite as foreboding as in past games but unparalleled in its awe-inspiring vistas. Kakariko Village is well rendered and Zora’s Domain and Lake Hylia are much more fleshed out and necessary to the plot than in previous games.
Dungeons are also varied in location and theme, but often feel like their scope in designed to limit their appeal. They are massive in scale and their visual style just makes me tired. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always preferred the top down style of dungeon. It could be that 3D dungeons take more time to design, so they have fewer of them, and they need to be more complicated as a result to make gamers feel like the game is of sufficient length.
Music is composed by Koji Kondo, and a vast downgrade from what we had in a Link to the Past. This was the beginning of more ambient music in the Zelda series; the sweeping themes, creepiness of dungeon music, and the often bombastic melodies throughout were either gone or greatly downplayed.
The easiest way to think about the music is the plot twist in the middle of the game: For the first part of the game, we have a nice take on the classic Overworld theme for Hyrule Field. The second part of the game finds the player in a darker world where evil has free reign. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for a Dark Overworld remix right? Wrong, the music doesn’t change at all, greatly diminishing the feel of a world turned upside down that only the best music can convey.
This reality aside, OOT’s score is still competent, but mostly unimaginative. This is a sad reality considering that this game was the real start of instruments taking an interactive role in a Zelda game’s plot. Too bad the music they produced wasn’t as significant. While there are standout melodies, like the Bolero of Fire or Saria’s Song, the game’s score still feels like a missed opportunity. The closest thing we get to past greats is Gerudo Valley, a great tune signifying adventure in unknown lands, and the danger that often comes with it.
The dungeon themes are dominated by ambience, making them tolerable as you make your way through the rooms, but certainly not something that you’ll hold on to afterwards. Most of them have themes with chanting variations that works pretty well for creating a mood, but it isn’t really good music. This is the first Zelda score that I don’t want to own a CD of.
Sound effects are interesting if not quite memorable. Link still doesn’t talk, but manages to say a lot with his battle cries. Most work fine for tense encounters, but I can’t say that the presentation benefits from their presence. And when it comes to the falling sounds, they are kind of loud and annoying. I will say that Adult Link’s wince from falling is amusing. It really sounds like he is barely holding back a string of curses.
One of the reasons for the continual delays of Ocarina’s release was the challenge of having Zelda’s traditional gameplay in a 3D setting. The developers needed to have the same type of gameplay but with some new elements to set it apart from past games. One need only look at the marvel that is Z-targeting to prove that the developers struck gold here.
This new method of attacking and camera control was designed to address a common problem with 3D games: not being able to see your surroundings as readily as you would like. This could be especially debilitating in combat if the player was unable to get good bearings on the enemy, often resulting in cheap hits. The way this works in Zelda is pressing the Z button when points of interest are nearby, be it enemies, people to talk to, or points to help solve puzzles. Once a target is confirmed, Navi will hover over keeping them in your sights regardless of where you, them, or the camera moves. It’s masterful for combat, allowing you to swiftly dodge enemy hits and get in your own attacks. There are few times when judicious use of Z targeting won’t help you in the game; it’s the kind of great gameplay innovation that makes you wonder why no one thought of it before.
The other big success for Zelda 64 is how the 3D transition didn’t disrupt Zelda’s classic gameplay one bit. You still fight enemies, find rupees (that are kind of useless in this game…) defeat bosses, and conquer dungeons. It’s as good here as it first was in 1986. I will say that Ocarina’s pacing isn’t up to par with past games. A lot of the game feels artificially lengthened by dungeon design and other aspects. More than anything, this game feels like a chore to play at times, and the owl doesn’t help.
Another interesting change that I don’t favor as much as the combat is how certain classic items are now used. The slingshot, bow, and hookshot can be aimed via 3rd person, but it is their use in puzzles that isn’t quite as ironed out. Link uses them from a 1st person perspective to hit switches and similar things to solve these snares. Aiming is often needlessly precise and feels a lot more forced, often taking you out of the experience.
Riding a horse was advertised as a big deal in Ocarina, but it doesn’t really add much gameplay-wise, being mostly a way to get from one point to another quicker. Give me the flying duck from Link to the Past any day.
A special edition of Ocarina was also released for the N64 DD add-on in Japan. This was known as Ura Zelda, and featured rearranged dungeons with enhanced difficulty. This version of the game eventually found it way to the US bundled with Ocarina’s Gamecube rerelease. This 2003 was known as The Master Quest.
Nearly everything about the game is the same, be it the graphics, music, or storyline. The best thing about the new dungeons is that they aren’t really harder, but offer a different experience, be it through shooting cows with your slingshot (?) or fighting Ironknuckles more often (yeah!) I recommend the Master Quest to any fan of Ocarina looking for something different. And if you hate the Water Temple, you’ll be glad to know it is MUCH easier in Master Quest.
Overall, Ocarina of Time is an excellent game, but is a bit overrated among the series. It has all the tools of excellence but there are little nitpicks, like pacing, that prevent it from reaching the stratosphere. It’s still a must play for Zelda fans, but I urge fans of the game to reconsider this as one of the best games of all time. It may be great, but it just doesn’t have that something needed to make this Legend legendary.