I never set out to make an entry on all of these Zelda titles, it just sort of happened. It’s basically the end result of me not having any new titles to play on my portable gaming devices so I’ve revisited some classics. I’ve already made entries on the first two Zelda titles, so naturally I should make one for the third game in the series: A Link to the Past. But wait! This isn’t an entry on A Link to the Past, but the next game in the series (for home consoles): Ocarina of Time. That’s because I can’t play A Link to the Past on my 3DS (though I could have dusted off the old Gameboy Advance, I suppose) and never played the 3DS version of the Ocarina of Time: Master Quest. I played thru the normal quest on the 3DS version when it was released in 2011, and I have played the Nintendo 64 version (on a Gamecube) of the Master Quest as well, so this was far from a new experience. And since the original version and the 3DS remake are largely the same, this can be considered an entry on both.
Ocarina of Time is considered by many to be the best in the series. It’s usually a debate between that and A Link to the Past with the sides mostly split on age lines. People who were introduced to the Zelda franchise during its formative years will mostly lean towards A Link to the Past, while those introduced to the franchise via Ocarina of Time naturally are slanted towards that. And even though the two may not look all that similar, the core experience is very much the same between the two. The player controls Link who must battle thru various dungeons collecting useful tools and items along the way. There’s lots of wandering, conversing with non-player characters, and general adventure along the way. The player also isn’t expected to just hack and slash their way to the end as there are lots of puzzles to challenge and frustrate as well. Regardless of what position you may take on which game is superior, know that both are excellent and enjoyable games that should be experienced by all serious gamers.
Ocarina of Time is regarded as a near perfect gaming experience, so if you’re expecting this to be a contrarian take, look elsewhere. And while it does earn its reputation, it also has its share of flaws. This game is nearly 15 years old, which blows my mind. There are many games of that age that are still considered an excellent experience today, but naturally some things age less gracefully than others. Ocarina of Time is perhaps most notable for being Link’s first foray into the world of 3D. Transitioning from 2D to 3D is a challenge and it’s one that has stymied other famous franchises of the same era. While Mario was able to adapt, gaming’s other titan of the 16-bit era, Sonic, still struggles with it to this day. Both of those characters were transitioning from side-scrollers to the 3D platform genre, while Link had the benefit of moving from that top-down perspective of the first and third Zelda titles which is actually a much easier transition. Both Mario and Sonic were expected to jump and navigate various platforms in their games, while Link didn’t have that expectation. Because of that, Nintendo didn’t even see fit to provide a jump button in Ocarina of Time; Link just does it automatically when he needs to. Instead of the camera being positioned directly above Link, it’s moved behind him but still retains a high angle in many sections of the game. Where age starts to rear its ugly head is with this camera.
The camera is often the make or break portion of any game from the late 90’s. It still can be problematic in modern games but it seems to happen far less. For Ocarina of Time, Nintendo opted to not give the player total control of the camera as some games do. The players has one camera button at his or her disposal which automatically centers the camera behind Link in most cases. There’s also the Z-Targeting lock-on button that fixes the camera on an enemy and puts Link into a sort of battle mode. This works fine in open spaces, but some of the dungeons in the game can get cramped and in those areas the player is often left to battle the camera. There’s one section in the game that has Link in a maze trying to avoid sentries like one Solid Snake. This moment is brief in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still an utter failure of game design that feels shoe-horned into the experience. The camera is very limited and almost stuck to Link’s back. Trying to peer around a corner is cumbersome and, if you’re like me, you’ll probably just say “screw it” and plow ahead. The automatic jump can also be a problem at times. I do appreciate that Nintendo did not want to turn Link into Mario and have him bounce all over the place, but not giving the player control over that aspect of the character does create a disconnect of sorts. I can’t think of any other way to describe it other than it just feels weird. It also creates the problem of Link jumping to his death on occasion by accident (usually brought on by shoddy camera work). In many games where jumping is relegated to a button press, simply running off a ledge causes the character to fall and grab onto the ledge. When approaching a ledge very slowly and carefully in Ocarina of Time, the same is true, but give Link any kind of speed and he takes a leap of faith no matter what lies below.
Another flaw, I suppose, resides with the lock-on system and enemy AI. When Link is locked onto an enemy all other enemies around him will back off making the game a series of one-on-one contests. This is obviously something that was implemented deliberately by Nintendo, but it’s still kind of odd. Though I suppose it’s no less odd than turn-based battles in role-playing games. A lot of the dungeons are also fairly clever. They make it obvious to the player where to go, but leave it up to the player to figure out how to get there. There are moments though where I felt cheated and the only way to progress is to strike an object that 99% of the time has no function. This forces the player to resort to smacking everything and anything with Link’s sword at times. There are also a few boss encounters that rely on magic power or a specific disposable item, and if you run out, you’re out of luck and either have to reset or let the enemy kill you. And then there’s Navi. Oh, how I despise Navi. Navi is this little fairy that accompanies Link and is supposed to give him advice when needed. She’s also a targeting reticule and a means of selecting which enemy to combat. She’s also incredibly annoying. I hate her existence. She’s insulting as her primary function is to state the obvious, as if Nintendo didn’t think we were capable of getting thru this game on our own. If you try to run off and do side quests, expect to be interrupted by Navi every ten minutes or so to remind you to head to the game’s next dungeon. And each time she does you get to hear this annoying, high-pitched voice shout “Hey!” In the 3DS version she’s even worse as she’ll pop in to tell you to take a break if you’ve been playing for long stretches. She doesn’t seem to recognize when the system goes into sleep mode so you may actually have only been playing for a few minutes before she starts barking. Nintendo, all too often, pulls crap like this with its games and it drives me nuts that features like Navi can’t be toggled on and off.
Those are my main sources of irritation when it comes to Ocarina of Time, the rest of the game is pretty awesome, to put it simply. Yes, there’s still some age-related items in terms of the game’s presentation and mechanics. Link certainly doesn’t handle as smoothly as more modern titles. He can feel a bit stiff, and combat is mostly a hack and slash affair, but it gets the job done and is easily forgiven. The visuals on the Nintendo 64 version have not aged gracefully, but are not horrid either. The 3DS is a noticeable improvement here as it ups the visual quality to something akin to an early generation Gamecube title. It won’t knock your socks off, and Hyrule still seems woefully underpopulated, but it’s far better than the original. A lot of the enemies Link will encounter are lifted from the older games and it’s fun to see them presented here. The iron knuckles are most intimating now, and the poes possess a lot of character. The stalfos, one of the easier enemies in prior games, are far more challenging this time around and more menacing too.
A lot of the fun experienced in a Zelda game comes from the items and power-ups Link acquires over the course of his adventure. Many make their return in Ocarina of Time and are engaging in this new 3D world. Link can now toss bombs and even lock onto enemies when doing so. The hookshot doesn’t just allow him to get over gaps in the area but turns him into an elven Spider-Man of sorts! The hammer also takes on new meaning as it’s basically a giant cavalry hammer, though I feel like it’s underutilized in Ocarina of Time. Some of the items are only usable by child Link, and others by adult Link. The boomerang is one such item, but there’s always an item that levels the playing field. In this case, the hookshot used by adult Link can stun enemies and retrieve certain items just like the boomerang. The ocarina is, naturally, an important item in the game and it allows Link to play songs. A majority of these songs function as a quick travel feature and transport Link to another area. Others are used for puzzles. The mechanic worked so well that it’s basically been included in some form in all of the games to follow.
As was the case with the previous titles, the game is somewhat light on plot. It’s fairly straight-forward but there is a story present with the best portion of it devoted to giving the antagonist, Ganondorf, a backstory. The inclusion of time travel is kind of neat but not really fully utilized as the game basically exists in two parts, the young Link portion and the adult Link portion. There’s only one dungeon that requires the player to tackle it with both Links and only a few instances of Link doing something in the past to affect something in the future. Link’s method of time travel is a bit cumbersome, so I suppose it’s a good thing the game doesn’t require the player to constantly travel back and forth, but I do feel like it could have been exploited further. Boss battles are usually rewarding, but not often challenging. There’s often a specific way to defeat each boss, and once the player figures it out, it becomes easy. I’d be hard-pressed to pick out the most challenging boss as few stand out in that regard, though the most interesting boss encounter may belong to Phantom Ganon of the Forest Temple.
Even though the boss fights aren’t all that challenging, the game does present a challenge elsewhere. The traditional quest is fairly painless, but the Master Quest ups the ante by making enemies much stronger. This kind of slants the game a little as it becomes much harder early on when Link only has a small amount of hearts. Once that’s built up it basically normalizes. The only other changes with the Master Quest involve the dungeons being mirrored which does kind of throw you off but is easy to adapt to. The gold skultulas are also harder to find but the heart pieces remain in the same locations. The 3DS version takes the mirroring concept one step further and turns the whole game into a mirror-mode of the original quest. I actually found that harder to adapt to than the dungeons as Hyrule Field is now flipped over so what was once east is now west. Link’s handedness even changes from being a southpaw to a righty in the Master Quest.
Aside from the Master Quest and visual upgrade, the 3DS version does present some other modifications to the original game. Most notable is the use of the touch screen for items. Items can be mapped to the face buttons as well as two additional touch “buttons” which prove useful for certain types of items. This also reduces the clutter on the top screen as Link’s health and magic is kept on the bottom screen. There some drawbacks to the 3DS version though, such as the cramped space. Z-Targeting is now L-Targeting and it can get awkward due to the dimensions of the 3DS. Tight quarters also tend to feel even more claustrophobic on the 3DS screen and the gyro-controls for first-person view and aiming is just a so-so addition to the game. The ending credits do have an updated song that’s fully orchestrated (something the N64 was incapable of capturing) which was a nice surprise upon completion. All in all, if you’re looking to play this game for the first time there’s no obviously better version. I would probably just go with whatever is easier to obtain, or if you know you want to play this primarily in front of your television, the original is more than sufficient. You could also look up gameplay on a video sharing sight to decide if the visuals are a big enough reason to select one over the other. And I guess if you love the whole 3D thing, that’s a factor too (I played the game in its entirety with the 3D feature turned off).
Ocarina of Time, no matter how or when you choose to experience it, is an excellent gameplay experience. It holds up remarkably well, not just when age is considered, but just in how easy it is to come back to. I’m mostly a one and done kind of gamer, meaning I beat a game once and that’s enough for me. With Ocarina of Time, I’ve played thru and beaten it multiple times and each time the journey is an enjoyable one. My only real concern with the game is for people who have never played it. They may approach it thinking it’s a perfect game, but it’s not. The game had some flaws when it was released in 1998 and some other flaws have been exposed due to age. No one should approach any game expecting perfection though as there is no such game, just as there is no perfect movie or perfect book. Our opinions and tastes are too broad as a people to ever declare any one game perfect. We can only apply such absolutes in the broadest of strokes and at the highest categorical level: Food is great. Oxygen is excellent. Zelda is fantastic. Yeah, that sounds about right.