The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64/GC) Review

Collectors Edition Ocarina of Time

 

Nothing in this world is perfect; everything that was or is has flaws. It’s the law of nature; it’s the law of life. This law also applies to videogames because humans who are hindered by those laws create them.

That being said, something very special, in fact, something quite extraordinary (some would say nothing short of a miracle) must have been happening at Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan, during the 5+ years that it took for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to be conceived. By the time the game was released in 1998 for the N64, Ocarina had managed to break the laws of nature, and life itself. For the first time in history there was actually something in this world worth calling perfect.

Now, calling a video game perfect is a mighty big statement, but as this review will explain in detail, calling the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time anything less than perfect would be a crime.

My definition of a perfect game is a game that is as good as it can be in every department, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time manages to accomplish that, and more.

The Greatest Looking Zelda at the time of  its release

Graphically, one word is fitting for describing the game: Amazing. In 1998, Ocarina of Time was the greatest looking game on consoles bar none. Today in 2004, I have yet to see a game that is as visually pleasing, and as visually an eye-opening experience as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was in its glorious debut.

The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time Screenshot

Sure, games like Shenmue, and Skies of Arcadia  are powered by more powerful engines and hardware. The look better today. but for all of their bells and whistles, none of them have come close to creating that amazing magical feel that Ocarina of Time managed to exhibit from the very opening of the game in Kokiri Forest (even though Skies of Arcadia came somewhat close).

Games were just not supposed to look that good on the N64, or any other machine at the time for that matter. Ocarina of Time, was the first game to get rid of the ‘blocky’ look that plagued most video game characters at that time.

It was also one the first games to show clear cut, real-time, facial animations on characters. At the time the character models looked like they had been taken out of an anime, and rendered to perfection in 3-D.

Link looked freakishly awesome, specially in his adult form. Ganondorf no longer looked like a pig, instead he was portrayed as a tall, and slender man whose presence was imposing, and intimidating.

Because the characters looked so great in motion (and the N64 cartridge had storage limitations), Nintendo utilized in game scenes using the game’s engine, as opposed to the FMVs (Full Motion Videos) that the FF series and other games of time used. OoT showed that in game scenes, when done right, can have as powerful an impact on players as FMVs can.

Ocarina of Time probably inspired the great Skies of Arcadia, and Suikoden 3 to follow the same path, in that they chose to use in game engine rendered scenes instead of FMVs.

While the characters all looked amazing, the environment in which they lived in, was even more breath taking. Even today, you won’t find better-designed environments in any game on any system.

From the grassy fields, to the flowing rivers, to the gigantic field of Hyrule. Everything on the environment was colorful and full of smartly placed textures (texturing wasn’t the N64’s strongest suit as the Cartridge’s memory limitations made it impossible to store large detailed textures on its games).

The first gloriously rendered real time day and night cycle

I have seen a lot of impressive things in videogames during my 15 or so years of playing them, but nothing will ever quite match the way my jaw dropped, and the way my eyes became pools of water, when breathlessly, I first walked into Hyrule field, and the bright sunny day slowly turned into a warm evening, and then into a clear skied night.

The way the colors in the sky changed, and the way the light of the sun realistically changed the view of the landscape, and even the lighting on Link’s character model was too fantastic to describe in words.

It must be noted here, that Ocarina was the first Nintendo game to actually use ‘real’ light sources during gameplay. Characters and illumination as a whole in objects and the environments were realistically affected by light sources such as the Sun, and torch light.

The Sunrise was perhaps even more spectacular than the sunset. The entire cycle – of sundown and sunrise – in the game looked so natural, and felt so real, that it has probably never been done as beautifully in any other game, not even in the more modern Zelda: The Wind Waker.

The water effects while flat (no ripples) were amazing thanks to the use of different moving textures on top of one another to simulate water movement, and the waterfalls, even the small ones, were great looking.

For the first time ever in a Zelda game swimming, and even walking underwater (provided that you had the iron boots) was possible. The underwater physics in the game were amazing, I must have wasted at least 30 hours of game time during my first 5 months with the game just “playing” around, and exploring the underwater scenery.

I remember using my iron boots to walk on the bottom of the rivers to see how far I could go and to see where the rivers lead to. That is the kind of freedom and excitement that this OoT’s environments provided. The entire visual package incited players to explore every possibility in the game.

I don’t think I can overstate how important (and revolutionary) the freedom that the game allowed for in a 3-D space was in 1998.

The other great thing about this game is the fact that everything that you can see on the screen, you can actually go to, and explore in detail because the camera can be controlled by the player with ease and at will. So yes! You can easily zoom into everything in the world with the exception of Market Town which uses sharp Pre-rendered backgrounds (like Resident Evil and the PS1 Final Fantasies).

The Legend of Zelda OoT was also one of the first games to use real lighting sources, which is why Link’s character model’s lighting changes depending on whether he is carrying a torch, walking inside a dark cave or wandering in the middle of Hyrule’s field when it is a sunny and clear. In contrast, if you play Mario 64, for example, Mario’s character model always has the same lighting on it regardless of what environment he (Mario) finds himself in.

Zelda: Ocarina of Time was also the first title to really break that “pop up” and “fog” phenomenon that plagued most N64 titles (Turok, I am looking your way!). One only has to venture through Hyrule’s expansive field to know what I am talking about; there is really no trace of “fog” or “pop up” (except some distant enemies), as you can see very far into the distance. If there was any graphical flaw in the game it had to be some slight minimal slowdown caused by the limits of the N64.

To finish the review on graphics, the technical aspects of the visuals weren’t the only thing that impressed the masses. The art work and character design were top notch too.

Every nook and crany in Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule was designed carefully and expertly. The attention to detail in the game remains damn near impeccable. Since 1998, a lot of other games have come and have visually surpassed it. Skies of Arcadia being one them. Yet, I am still waiting for the game that combines great visuals with the amount of freedom of exploration that Ocarina of Time so easily pulled off.

An Aural Masterpiece

Moving onto the sound department, one thing should be considered. The N64 had (and still has) a reputation in gaming circles for having the most primitive aural technical capabilities of its time. While the sound processor of the system was quite a leap over the SNES’s, it was still badly behind the PS1’s and the ill-fated Sega Saturn’s aural capacity. Thus, every N64 game was expected to right off the bat sound pedestrianly.

This was unfortunate news for any RPG that would make it into the system (not that there were many RPGs for the system, you could pretty much count them all in one hand), because it had to compete against the impossibly high musical standards set by Squaresoft’s RPGs and a few others from other companies that were released either on the PS1 or the Saturn.

However, in every Nintendo console before the N64, Zelda had always had great music, maybe not quite as great as the FF series’ music, but great nonetheless. Well, in the sound the department Ocarina – again -broke the rules of convention by featuring a masterpiece of a soundtrack, and creating some still unrivaled environmental sound effects that placed the players ears right in the middle of Hyrule.

Even if the soundtrack wasn’t CD quality because of the limitations of a Cartridge based system, the compositions themselves remain – by far – some of Kondo’s (Zelda series’ composer) best work. The over world theme that plays while traversing the green pastures of Hyrule Field is simply Majestic. While some old time fans complained that the “classic” Zelda music was absent, that was the only thing that they could complain about, because the soundtrack in Ocarina of Time is stellar. Great care went into composing every piece of music in the game.

The dungeon music itself while lacking the majestic features of the music heard in the over world, possessed an aural quality that was moody and reflective of the dungeon in which Link found himself in. The music fit perfectly with every environment. Kokiri Forest, is a perfect example of this, as the theme that accompanies this area of Hyrule has a magical sound to it that echoes the feel of the forest.

Nintendo didn’t stop there in what the music was concerned. Since the game’s tale deals around an Ocarina of Time that Link can play to affect the gameplay (but more on that on the gameplay section), it was only fitting that the tunes that you can play in the Ocarina received as much care, as the rest of the soundtrack.

There are about twelve Ocarina songs, including one that you could make up yourself, and the game would saved it for you (the scarecrow’s song). The Song of Time, in particular, gave me the chills when I first heard it.

The Ocarina in here is a very versatile and beautiful instrument, capable of playing many notes for those who take up the task of mastering it. I definitely think that the ocarina is vastly superior to the wind waker as a musical instrument to play.

Zelda Ocarina of Time is one of the most musical RPGs that you will ever play.

It would have been easy for Nintendo to just forget about the sound effects when they had such a great score (some thing that Square is very proficient at doing), and yet, they did not leave the SFX in the backseat.

Instead they went the extra mile to make sure that the game’s environmental sounds mimicked that of those that one would expect to hear, if one were to be standing in the middle of Kokiri forest at three in the morning. The night Owls, the insects , the sounds of the flowing water in a nearby creek, in short; every imaginable sound in a fantasy world its here.

Also, the game nailed down the underwater sound effects better than any other RPG that I have ever played….even though there aren’t many RPGs – other than the two N64 Zeldas – that let you go underwater…so I guess Zelda: OoT won here by default anyways.

That Ocarina of Time managed to accomplish so much Aurally on a cartridge system is more of a credit to the dedication of the developers to assure the quality of the sound in the game, than a credit to the N64’s sound processor.

Polished to perfection

Now for the gameplay… Where should I start? Ocarina of Time, was the first game of it’s kind, in that it let the player into a coherent world where time (day and night cycle) passed in real game time and the player was free to use his character to explore, and go anywhere.

Sure, the Zelda’s that came before it were also pioneers in freedom of exploration within a game world, but none of them ever took this concept to the extreme that Ocarina of time did.

I mean, talk about longevity, it’s been six years since I mastered the game, meaning I got every heart container, every skulltula, every bottle, and in short; everything there was to get.  And yet, even now, in 2004, sometimes I pick up the game and happily waste 2 or 3 hours just running around, jumping into rivers, walking underwater, riding my horse Epona, playing the archery game, fighting monsters, and even fishing! And the list could go on forever if I wanted to.

In OoT, Link is controlled from a third person view behind his back, like Mario in Mario 64. Like in Mario 64, you can control the camera pretty much at will, but this time by using the Z button on your controller, you will position the camera directly behind Link.

Want to inspect the enviroments up close and in first person? No problem! By pressing the top C Button you can Zoom in and look all you want. While most action games of this kind seem to run into trouble when the camera does not follow the action during battles (Castlevania 64), that problem is non-existent in Zelda thanks to the (at the time) revolutionary Z targeting. When confronted by an enemy or a boss, all you have to do is press the Z button to automatically lock the camera into the enemy that the enemy will always within your sight.

Not only is the camera as good as it can be in an Action RPG, but the controls are perfectly responsive. Running through the fields, swimming underwater and even riding the horse Epona  only took seconds to become second nature to me. Depending on how hard you pushed the analog stick, Link either walked or ran.

Link was given a large variety of moves, besides running and walking of course. He could side step, Jump – even though he couldn’t really jump at will – you have to run into a ledge or a gap for him to automatically jump, this might sound bothersome in theory but it actually worked out perfectly while in gameplay. He could swim and dive underwater. He could climb objects, vines, and ladders. He could push or pull blocks.

He also had a variety of action moves for fighting, such as the usual stabs, the jumping slash, and the powerful spin attacks with his sword. Of course depending on the weapons equipped Link could fight differently.

For example, the bow and the slingshot worked pretty much the same way. You could lock into an enemy and shoot it from the normal third person perspective, but you could also utilize your real aiming skills in the cool first person view.

Link was not only an offensive powerhouse, but he also had some pretty slick defensive moves. He could roll, jump and even back flip himself out of the way of danger. He could also utilize his shield to block (and in the case of the mirror shield even reflect magic attacks) the enemy strikes.

Link had some many moves at his disposal, that the player could spend hours just playing around trying to see them all.

Going back to the weapons Link had many, if not all, of the classic Zelda weapons, such as the bow, bomb, sword, boomerang and Hammer in his repertoire. Some of these weapons, like the Hookshot, are given a cooler new life in 3 dimensions.

As its name implies, the Hookshot, is a hook attached to the end of a long chain, it can be used to shoot towards items that are too far for Link to reach to successfully pull them towards him. Also, he could use the hookshot to shoot into surfaces where the hook would stick (usually wood) to swing across gaps, and to reach otherwise unreachable places.

There were dozens of more accessories at Link’s disposal, some that were a necessity to continue your progress during the quest, while others were optional items that the truly dedicated player that took the time to explore the game world find.

The Ocarina of Time itself was, perhaps, the most useful item in the game. You could play a variety of tunes that affected gameplay, for example one tune had the power to invoke a rain storm, while another could quick;y turn day into night or the other way around. Some tunes had to be played at the right time, and place in order to solve some of the puzzles.

Ah yes the puzzles! As I stated earlier, Ocarina of Time might possess the greatest level design on any game on the market even today. There were about ten gigantic dungeons that were brilliantly crafted. The puzzles and just they way that they (the dungeon layouts) were designed was brilliant.

The puzzles required some thinking to figure out, but they never got frustrating, as they did in the excellent Alundra 1 for PS1. There was so much to do and see in the dungeons, that you could find yourself wandering and exploring for hours in them.

The Bosses that awaited you in the dungeons were huge and graphically impressive.  Nothing will quite match the shiver that went through my spine when I first met face to face with King Dodongo. When he roared at the beginning of our battle, I knew I was in big trouble, and to think that he looked so cute and inoffensive in the Legend of Zelda for the NES.

The bosses, like everything that moved in this game, were smoothly animated. Their moves were quick and natural. Like in all the Zelda games, the bosses all had a pattern that could be exploited to in order  defeat them. Ocarina of Time also featured an excellent save anywhere feature, as the game was saved into the cartridge.

But of course, no Zelda game would be complete without its share of minigames and sidequests. I can safely say that no other RPG game on the market offerered the amount of minigames and side quests this game offered.

Yes, Wind Waker has way more things to collect, but the constant sailing and the lack of quality of its side quests, places it behind Ocarina and even behind Majora’s Mask in that regard. And while there might be some other RPGs out there that might offer more minigames in terms of quantity, you will be hard pressed to find them.

Ocarina of Time has every single game beat in the replay value simply because it offers both quantity and quality. One only has to play the fishing game. In which obviously, Link gets to fish, the goal was and reamains to catch the biggest fish in the pond. It actually took skill and practice, but the entire game is so fun that the hours flew as I attempted to improve my skills as a fisherman.

In fact, so good is the fishing minigame, that calling it a minigame is very inappropriate, as the game could have stood (and sold) well on its own. If you have a rumble pack, then this might be the most fun fishing simulator on the market! The controls for the minigame were perfect, every detail of it had been extremely polished, with the same care and dedication that went to the rest of the game.

The same can be said for the Horse riding games. In fact, riding Epona through Hyrule is one of the most pleasant experiences that I have ever had. Epona was rendered and animated beautifully. The controls, once again, are dead on accurate. The fact that you could play shooting games with the bow and arrows while riding added a whole new level of fun to the riding segments.

Those two minigames I have described are just a few of the dozens of minigames available on the game, and like I said before; all the minigames are done in real time. They felt “real” and the quality and effort that the developers put into each of them remains mesmerizing.

The prizes earned for excelling at the minigames were also great. Anything from heart containers to weapon upgrades (for example a quiver that lets you carry more arrows) could be attained.

No game before or after Ocarina has matched the “polish” of it’s gameplay and the incredible replay value that the game provided. I could, possibly, keep rambling on how flawless the gameplay is on this game for 20 more pages, but we must move on into the last category.

Ocarina of Time has tells a better story than any prior Zelda, but it is a bit behind the times

The Story…the one weakness that has plagued the series since its birth. A lot of people believe Ocarina of Time is a retelling of the first Zelda, and they would be right to a degree.

The princess gets kidnapped by Ganondorf, and as Link, the player must save her. But this has been the tale of almost every Zelda game, so I think Ocarina of Time is not a retelling but another story maybe even a summary of the series after all you do get to fight a Dark Link (Zelda 2’s boss) and players did get to save the princess from Ganondorf (The legend of Zelda, and a Link to the past).

What ever it is ( a re- telling or a different chapter), Ocarina of Time’s narrative easily surpasses those of its predecessors. The tale is not original, as the Princess has been kidnapped by Ganondorf before, but this tale has never been written as well as it was in here.

There was a sense of impending doom from the very beginning of the game when Link is introduced to Ganondorf in a dream while he slept on the forest. Every single piece of dialog in the game is sharp and to the point. Nintendo has some of the best translations in the business.

Of course, after Link awakened from the dream he embarked on a Hyrule saving quest that took him across the land and even time. While it was predictable that the tale would end with Link saving Zelda and Hyrule, what happened in between was not.

A great deal of importance was given to support characters or NPCs (non player characters) such as Zelda, Malon, Ruto and Saria. All of them had their turn at the center stage, they became likeable, and in the end you were driven to save Hyrule in order to save them.

Of course even NPCs that were not as important to the plot as the aforementioned above, had a great deal of personality and importance to the player too. How did Nintendo pull this off? Well, every character in Hyrule read beautifully. All NPCs had something interesting to say, and most of them also had a role in getting you an item or a heart etc. This gave me the sense that they were “alive”, and that they were not put there for the sake of being there.

The story, of course, also revolves around time. Time traveling to be more specific. The world of Link as a child was vastly different from the world of Link as an adult. There were areas that were off limits to the child while seven years later those areas opened up for the adult Link to explore.

It was very interesting to see how characters changed from one period of time to the other. This added to the story and made some events of the game a bit unpredictable. This is something that this series’ plot has lacked in past editions.

Link’s origins were finally explained in this game…well at least part of them. The game also finally explained how Hyrule was created, the fact that this game included a lot of lore and historic references of Hyrule, gave the story a more, should I say “legendary” feeling, that seemed to be missing in past games of the series.

In short the Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time’s tale is as good as it can be under the circumstances in which the series has been and its in.

The circumstances are limits that Nintendo has implanted on the series. Limits that keep the series’ story from reaching its full potential. Nintendo obviously wants to keep one of its flagship series as a “KA” (6 years and older) game. However, RPGs stories have evolved since Link to the Past. Lunar and FFVI began a trend of mature RPG tales, the FF series in particular has matured nicely.

In 1998 this ( a Kid friendly story) was forgivable even after FFVII had opened our eyes as to how magnificent an RPG story could be, but the problem with Nintendo is that they have regressed from Ocarina of time into an even more childish approach towards the series with their latest Zelda in Wind Waker.

I believe that the Hyrule’s Ocarina of Time showed us that the story has the potential for a much more intriguing much more mature tale, in which love and tragedy – though there is a lot of implied death – could take center stage. Hopefully, one day we will have a “ballsy” Nintendo scenario writer who dares to explore the possibilities of the world of the Legend of Zelda.

The Greatest Game of All Time

Ocarina of Time, is undoubtedly the greatest playing game of all time, a long quest, a huge world, flawless gameplay mechanics and a captivating adventure made this one an all time classic. It is a must play for anyone who is even vaguely interested in games.

Ocarina of Time remains the only game in the market worthy of being called perfect. Now that it has been re-released in the Gamecube (in two different promotional discs) there is no excuse for anyone not to play this all time great. (Note the gamecube version of Ocarina of Time is identical to the N64 one, except that the GC visuals look a bit sharper on the screen.)

Gameplay: 10- No game has ever combined all of the things that you can do in Ocarina of Time together and made them so fun. The controls are flawless, the level design is impeccable, the puzzles are brilliant, and Hyrule feels real. You can pretty much do anything you want in this game; the sense of freedom is incredible.

Graphics: 10 –No other game in 1998 looked as good as this. This is as good as an N64 game with out the RAM pack will ever look, the fact that you can control the camera at will only adds to the visual spectacle that is Ocarina of Time. Today 6 years after the fact, the game remains very handsome.

Music: 10 -Beautiful compositions, unparalleled sound effects, The song of time still gives me the chills.

Story: 9.0 –As good as the Zelda series can be with the hindering KA rating.

Replay Value: 10 –Minigames galore. The fishing game alone is an addiction, the open end-ness of the game world and sidequests will keep you playing long after saving the princess, and Hyrule from the clutches of evil. It has kept me playing for at least 6 years. Now THAT is replay value!

Overall: 10-Simply put: Ocarina of Time is the greatest game of all time and perhaps the most influential 3-D adventure ever. This game was, and still is Nintendo’s finest hour and I doubt anyone will ever pull the feat ever again.

Metacritic rated The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time a 99.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.