A curious thing happens in the games industry every summer. Between mid-July and the end of August, all the publishers fly to Antarctica or hibernate or play stupid drinking games until they get a month long hangover, because absolutely bloody nothing comes out. As in literally nothing. The website where we get our release dates might as well have a 404 page up throughout Q3.
As such, summer always turns into a slew of retro reviews, and not liking to break with tradition we’re taking the same route. Bravely, though, this article concerns the big one. You know, the one that Nintendo fans worship and that’s going to get me lynched if I say anything negative about it. Well, don your protective gear and climb into your bunkers, because it’s time for a look back at The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The Nintendo 64 was midway through its life cycle in 1998, and if there’s anything to boost a console that’s starting to drop off in terms of sales, it’s a new release in a killer franchise. What was more important to Nintendo and its fans, though, was the promise of polygonal graphics, and the chance to explore a vast, 3D Hyrule. The 3D actually presented in the game is actually rather good, something you wouldn’t expect from a fourteen year old game running on seventeen year old hardware. It has the old problems of using flat sprites constantly facing the player in order to save polygons, but it’s not terribly noticeable and you’ll probably just glance right over it after the initial hour or so.
That initial hour is where many of the problems of Ocarina of Time first rear their heads. Some of them (poor writing quality, weird animations) can be put down to age, but having the first dungeon be a dark, brown, claustrophobic experience puts one in mind of more modern games that employ the same tricks to try and be edgy. The textures are murky, and while that’s a hardware limitation it’s probably best not to create environments (like tree interiors) that require textures you can’t deliver. There’s also the obligatory Zelda Early-Game Stealth Section that can be all kinds of aggravating when you’re required to walk at angles the controller doesn’t easily allow for.
Speaking of angles, the last and most noticeable anachronism is the use of the Grim Fandango-style ‘3D Models on a pre-rendered background’ look that is so very reminiscent of the Nineties. It’s actually quite well done, offering lots of different perspectives on each area, but it doesn’t make much sense why it was done. Surely a simple 3D modelled market square or shop would take up less cartridge space than pre-rendered images? Whatever the reason they had, it’s not as bad as it could have been, just a little disappointing.
One part that’s certainly aged well is the combat system, which is still as intuitive as ever. It may be lacking some of the extra features that later games added, but by no means is that a bad thing as long as you can still lock onto an enemy then leap off a ledge at them, sword outstretched – which you totally can.
It’s often said that graphics shouldn’t matter, but that’s not always the case. In particular, graphics should matter when they can be used to enhance an already rich world, and Zelda has that in spades. It’s not just the same area repainted a few different colours, but each region has its own different flora and fauna, as well as nicely varied inhabitants that largely manage to have independent personalities – even those just handing out flavour text.
In the world of 1998, where platformers were still a dominant genre, it must have been astounding to see such depth and complexity put into world building in a game. The ability to explore large areas of the game almost from the word go is certainly quite a nice feature and the increased size of the map and ability to see far off into the distance makes this feel much more impressive than the series’ 2D offerings. You’re limited by lack of equipment to a degree, but the ability to see the area you can’t quite get to yet only makes it more of an achievement when you finally can.
The story’s not improved with time – Go find princess, go find three magical things, go find six magical things, kill baddie – but it would be the work of a cynic to suggest that the time travel mechanic and range of songs available didn’t have merit. It’s not the most trying challenge, but it’s a nice surprise when the beans you forgot you planted as young Link are huge sprouts when you return seven years later. The Ocarina allows for hidden secrets, as well as some experimentation with different songs (look up the huge number of songs people have done with the Ocarina of Time!).
Ocarina of Time is still as worthy of respect as it was when most of this website was three years old. Some of its aspects have frayed around the edges, but when compared to other games of its age it’s to be commended for remaining accessible and, most of all, enjoyable. If you’ve never played it or haven’t touched your copy in years, now is the time. Why not? There’s nothing else out this summer. 9/10.
Do you have memories of playing Ocarina of Time? Do you disagree with my review? Let me know in the comments below!