Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Time's Arrow: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional. 

Format: 3DS, Wii, Gamecube, N64 (version reviewed)
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1

Okay, so you've probably noticed that I'm cheating a bit with this review. Even though Ocarina saw its latest re-release on the 3DS last Friday, everything written here is based on the N64 original. But since the two are identical in design terms, with the only changes being the optional 3D effect and more streamlined item management, it seems to me that a review of how the gameplay stacks up after over ten years, albeit without a round of modern enhancements, is perfectly valid given how the version of the game I've been playing is 99% identical to the one that you might have picked up for your handheld over the weekend.

So, on with the article. I don't think a history lesson is needed. Ocarina of Time is not just considered one of the all-time great games, but also one of the most important. But with technology having advanced so significantly in the twelve-odd years since its release, the big question is whether the game, as important as it was to a developing medium, can hold up to modern experiences offering bigger worlds, enemies and more complex storylines. For those who haven't played the game before, this review contains SPOILERS.
Amazingly, the answer is a resounding 'yes'. It's not a complete victory, in that there are a few rough edges that will require modern gamers to slip into a more old-fashioned mindset to navigate, but one which absolutely proves how far ahead of its time the game was in 1998.

There are even respects in which modern gaming has not yet caught up to what Nintendo achieved back with  Ocarina. Far from being overshadowed by the vast worlds offered by game series such as The Elder Scrolls, Hyrule Field's wide open plain feels suitably grandiose but doesn't take a frustrating amount of time to navigate. By not being so divided as Twilight Princess' field, the total area is smaller but feels like more of a  complete world. Riding Epona from one side to the other as night falls above you is still a beautiful, thrilling sight that stirs the heroic instincts like few other moments in gaming.

In fact, the smaller field works to the game's advantage: since you have less ground to navigate, you get to where you need to go quicker, giving overworld navigation a dynamism and pace that reduces the tedium of travelling back and forth. The lack of distractions - Lon Lon Ranch is the only visitable location occupying the field itself - helps this as well. Nintendo seemed to understand that everything had its place: contests and mini-games could wait in the towns. In the field, all that was needed was a wide open space, a horse, several fences to jump and a setting sun. Or maybe it was just a result of hardware limitations. Either way, it's an excitingly pure pleasure.

Appropriately enough, Hyrule Field captures the essence of what makes the game as a whole feel so special. It offers big themes and adventures, yet somehow its smaller size makes it more accommodating and intimate. 'Epic' games are two-a-penny these days, yet few (even Nintendo's subsequent releases in the series) feel as warm, honest and funny as Ocarina. In between all the talk of goddesses falling from heaven, dark princes taking over the world and enormous battles, Hyrule is populated by a cast of  individual characters who are  each thoroughly unique and charming. Even the little subplots which go nowhere play into the game's central themes of growth and maturity, from Link's bafflement at the numerous flirty girls who surround him - those playing for the first time may wonder whether a Harvest Moon scenario will play out (totally a Malon man, myself) - to each characters' reaction to Ganondorf conquering the kingdom.

Speaking of which, that first moment when you step out of the Temple of Time as an adult and see the devastated world around you is as heart-stopping as ever. It wouldn't be nearly so powerful if Hyrule didn't feel so real and its characters so charming, but there's also a wonderful bit of foreshadowing that happens right before which sets up the scene brilliantly. With the three Sacred Stones retrieved, Link travels back to Hyrule Castle to meet Zelda. Only at the Castle gates, the sky blackens and he sees Impa and Zelda riding away. Zelda tosses something to you, which lands in the moat. Before Link can investigate, Ganondorf appears at the castle gates and asks you in what direction the Princess' horse was heading. Link draws his sword, and Ganondorf laughs.

Having been through three dungeons, you'd have every reason to feel pretty pleased with yourself by that point, like you could easily take whatever the game throws at you. Yet seeing Link draw his tiny sword, before being easily blasted aside by Ganondorf's magic, the game is delivering the harsh lesson that you are far from ready for the big challenges. Link, after all, is still a child, and looks pathetically weak compared to the armour-clad black warrior he tries to face down. By giving you a reminder of your weakness immediately before you step into the Temple of Time and grow up, the moment when you step outside into Ganondorf's war-torn Hyrule is made both horrifying, because you understand the scale of the dangers which lie ahead, but also exciting, because as an adult, you are on your way to being ready to face those dangers.

The game uses foreshadowing to tell its story and emphasize its themes to a much greater extent than I had remembered. You are able to see the entrance to almost every adult dungeon during your first quest, to collect the Spiritual Stones, as a child. You learn a new song by playing your ocarina with Saria beneath the entrance to the Forest Temple. The volcanic entrance to the Fire Temple is a fatal temptation after reaching the summit of Death Mountain for the first time. The Ice Cavern and underwater Lake Hylia temple are both just beyond your reach as you make your way to meet Lord Jabu Jabu, and so forth. It's a thrilling device, pushing you forward and making you long for the time when you can finally enter those tantalisingly inaccessible new places to explore, just as a child longs to grow up and do the things which only an adult can. It's interactive storytelling at its most exhilarating, playing out to the sometimes stirring, sometimes haunting melodies of Koji Kondo's majestic soundtrack, and still light years ahead of such pretenders as BioShock's claims to have mastered the art.

In gameplay terms, the range of mini-games and activities available outside the main quest remains astonishing. Whilst Hyrule Field is relatively sparse, each connecting area is packed full of surprises and chances to experiment and win an assortment of random prizes. Little temptations are scattered throughout every environment - a gong just begging for someone to catapult seeds at it, multicoloured frogs waiting on a  submerged log - that encourage you to explore and see what can be unearthed.

With no external prompting - Navi only chirps up for the main quest - each new discovery is a fresh joy, gratifying through being the result of your curiosity and efforts alone. None are particularly complex, but that's fine: these are diversions, not supposed to take hours. The Golden Skulltula, Poe and Biggoron Sword hunts are the only ones which take up significant chunks of your time, but are clearly advertised as such beforehand. The rewards at the end of each - although the best item in the Skulltula hunt is handed out disappointingly early - more than justify the extra time spent. Sometimes, there's no material reward at all, other than an opportunity to have fun: ever wanted to abseil a chicken down from the top of a windmill? It's more than worth the effort.

The dungeons are quite the opposite in design terms, but function as a counterpoint to the overworld's freeform fun by being fascinating puzzle boxes waiting for you to find the right order to pick them apart. The designs here have laid the foundations for almost all the dungeons in subsequent Zelda games, yet rarely been beaten. Naturally, some are stronger than others: the Water Temple, as we all know, is too complex for its own good, requiring huge feats of memory to recall what area can be accessed from where and at which water level. (I'm not even sure that better item management, to alleviate the frustration of having to open a new menu each time to swap the Iron Boots on and off, can save it). The Spirit Temple, however, is a masterpiece of level design, opening up new perspectives and opportunities every time an area is revisited. If one thing can be said for every dungeon, they are all stunning ergonomic showcases. (Perhaps too much so, in the case of the Water Temple). You never feel too far away from an area to feel daunted by restarting, and shortcuts are opened up regularly to facilitate navigation. Every square foot feels vital.

Fully opening them up results in a boss fight, which are - again - stunning in their sheer variety and design. From giant spiders, horseback phantoms, fire-spewing dragons and a Bio-Electric Anemone Barinade (still my all-time favourite boss name), each are gorgeous to look at, animated with great flair and thrilling to battle. The fighting system is simple but deep, even if the Z-Targeting is less precise than nostalgia might remember. The range of different contextual attacks and dodges is intuitive but takes time to master, whilst each weapon  has its own role to play in combat in and out of boss arenas, rewarding experimentation.

The only area in which the game might not quite hit the highest standard in modern gaming terms is in sometimes asking for a little too much intuition and guesswork, making it easy to get stuck or lost. Yet that's as much as a result of the recent trend in game design towards holding the player's hand all the way through, to the detriment of self-expression and exploration as a challenge. In every other respect, Ocarina does not just hold up, but outclasses almost everything that has arisen in its stead since gamers took their first steps into Hyrule Field over twelve years ago. Like its hero, the game now awakens a decade older, to a new world posing bigger and more powerful threats to its title than ever. It conquers them masterfully. [ 9 ]



Lers said...

Love it. The game and the review! :D

gaol said...

Great review, some insightful commentary. However, on your own scale, and by your own text, it's surely a 10 - Masterpiece. No game is perfect, after all.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for the comments!

@gaol: You're right that no game is perfect, but in the context of its modern release, OoT doesn't have the same impact it once did. A stunning game for sure, but not one that is as mindblowing as first time around. Therefore, it's a '9'.