A boy and his ocarina

So I finished The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time yesterday. The game was originally for Nintendo 64 and was published almost ten years ago; at the time I was involved with other things, but I finally now got around to playing it on Gamecube, another deprecated game console.  Nothing to make you feel old like taking up a game you consider “new” and realizing that it was published ten years ago. Here follow some thoughts on the good and bad parts of Ocarina of Time, in review style; I understand that this is a rather popular and influential game, for which I’m glad, as it’s far from the worst that electronic gaming has to offer.

First, what is it? Ocarina of Time is a  free-exploration action adventure game that follows the original Legend on Zelda structurally: Link the hero runs around and goes into dungeons full of traps and monsters, meeting dangerous boss monsters at the end of each dungeon. This time around there’s a plot here as well, which surprisingly enough doesn’t ruin the game for me; there’s simply too few cutscenes and dialogue for me to get annoyed at it, and it’s written pretty well when compared to what happens when video game authors over-extend themselves and try to write drama.

The Good

  • The game’s really beautiful, obviously enough. Generally speaking I’m annoyed by unnecessary use of 3d polygon-based solutions in games, but here the solution is far from unnecessary. The game has plenty of action that utilizes the possibilities of the engine in many ways; the control system is one of the best there is for this kind of thing, too. The audiovisual world has garnered some considerable attention and the game is a very aesthetic entity, all told.
  • Compared to the next generation Windwaker, there’s lots more challenge here. Apart from the boss monsters, which are more like puzzles, there are some places where a player almost needs to know what he’s doing to survive the fighting. The game is very much like a grown-up version of Windwaker when it comes to the difficulty level of run-of-the-mill swordfights, which are the high points of both games when it comes to action. It’s also good that many of the otherwise useless items you’re required to find to proceed in the game can be used in combat in different ways, which gives the fighting some dimension when the player figures out the right tools for the job at hand. I wouldn’t mind having even more intricate action requirements and a bit less of the tedious puzzles, but this was positive, anyway.
  • The writing of the game isn’t bad, per se. I don’t care much of the plot in video games (they’re all written by tired gerbils, as far as I’m concerned), but in this particular case the plot didn’t intrude in the game experience too much, and it was even a bit romantic at times. That f***ing Exposition Owl in the beginning parts of the game should be fed to Great Jabu-Jabu, but apart from that it was palatable. The part about Link, Zelda and Ganon forming a symbolic trinity corresponding with the three Triforces is something I remember figuring when I was a preteen Zelda fanboy during the ’80s, so it’s nice seeing it explicitly in the game, too. Just add some moral choices for the player and some intellectually challenging themes, and I’ll be all over video game writing like this.

The Bad

  • I hate the formulaic control structures of action adventure zoning; the game is full of items that have no particular reason for being in the game apart from channeling and limiting the player’s progress. (I find the hammer particularly offensive in this regard.) This is stupid and useless game design (you could just use key cards, or even separate levels, if you don’t want to give genuine choice to the player), but it’s made even more stupid by the way items are used in the game: as the player needs to go into the menu screen to switch items he’s using, and somebody told the game designers that each and every room should require the use of different items, the end-result is that the player is constantly switching items in the menu like a f***ing laboratory rat instead of playing the game. This isn’t as bad as in that windfish Zelda game for Gameboy, wherein you have only two action buttons and a similar amount of items to switch over like a mad ocelot, but it’s bad enough. The Temple of Water was particularly distasteful in this regard, as the player is required to constantly (like, every ten seconds) change between normal boots and iron boots to get around, which could only be done via the inventory menu.
  • Like all adventure games, Ocarina of Time devolves at times into running around trying to solve puzzles with no obvious solution. “Obvious” here is not an objective thing, it’s completely a factor of an individual experiencing the game. I’m particularly talented at getting stuck in adventure games, so I managed to do that several times in this title as well. For example, it’s completely unreal how long I spent trying to get into the tomb with the Lens of Truth as adult Link, when I should have tried it as young Link; it simply didn’t make any backstory sense to me that the tomb that was sealed by Impa before the game – as the backstory told me – would still be sealed after the great evil spirit escaped it in the cut-scene with the adult Link, but would gape wide open in the time between the sealing and the escape. So apparently I’m supposed to be a mind-reader and realize that ahah, despite what the backstory told me many times, the tomb would be open for anybody to go in in the past when the evil spirit was still sealed inside, but would be completely impassable after the evil spirit had left. Obviously Impa’s mighty evil spirit seal works by allowing mortals into the tomb, or something.
  • The overall structure of the game is simply repetitive, which makes it vulnerable to player mood. I tried to play the game around the beginning of the decade, but as I remember it, I simply got bored around the third dungeon for the lack of challenge or interest. Too much running around, too formulaic dungeon-dwelving and such. On this replay I understood that the dungeons are the main course of the game, with the outdoors adventure portions just a change of pace, which helped me enjoy the game much better: I paced my play so as to finish one dungeon at a time and didn’t worry too much about the side quests, and the game made much more sense pacing-wise. It was still too long by about half, but only when considered as a whole entity; as a season’s hobby of conquering a number of dungeons with no worry for plot nor context it was pretty palatable.

Verdict

Despite the flaws I see with great clarity, I did enjoy the game most of the time, and can easily see why many people like it. Not as good as Mario 64, but then, what is? I well might continue on my console gaming binge and finish another game I abandoned half-way through years ago, Metroid Prime. Depends on what else is coming up in March, I guess.

Looking at my short lists of points above, I’d say that it’s pretty clear that I appreciate Ocarina of Time as a mission flow experience; my most biting criticism touches solely on issues that come between me and performing, like cutscenes, inventory fiddling, repetitiveness and useless running around. I’m not convinced that a game in this genre actually can improve substantially from here, as most of the weak points are pretty personal and depend on my personal expectations and reactions.

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2 Responses to “A boy and his ocarina”

  1. Shadow of the Colossus, first taste « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] all made up by the scenery and attention slavished on the monsters. After Ocarina of Time, which I finished just this week, this is already the second game in a row where I’m actually content with the […]

  2. Marble Madness « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] to unwind a bit after a long day of writing. The Gamecube has been gathering dust since I finished Ocarina of Time, but I’ve been eying Metroid Prime, thinking that it might be appropriate to give it another […]


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