Retro-Review: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 11/23/1998


About ten years ago today – on November 23rd 1998, to be precise – Nintendo released a little game that would mark the industry for years to come: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game was the first of the series to be set in a 3D world, and had been announced when the N64 was first unveiled sometime in late 1995. Nearly three years later, having endured numerous delays, the game was finally released to fans hungry for another adventure in Hyrule. Nintendo celebrated the occasion by giving gold cartridges to people who pre-ordered the game (including a special edition embossed foil cover which I still own!). Fans response was overwhelming, stores had to stop taking pre-orders early because of the rabid reaction, and the game eventually went on to become the best-seller of the year, despite being released in late November. Ocarina of Time would end up selling 7.6 millions units, making it the most successful game in the series, even to this day.

Zelda fans were excited with a reason: after all, the game was supposed to explain the beginning of the whole saga, and was hyped by the developers as revolutionizing everything that we knew about the franchise. They promised that the player would be taken through an emotional journey spanning years, in a world so big that it was like nothing we had ever seen before. In an interview with official magazine Nintendo Power, Shigeru Miyamoto explained that the world was so big that it would take more than one in-game day to go through the entirety of Hyrule, requiring the use of a horse as transportation for the first time in the series. Finally, players were also promised state-of-the-art cut-scenes and controls that would feel like second nature.

It looks like gamers got everything they were promised and then some. Ocarina of Time ended up bringing in many awards, including six at the Interactive Achievement Awards, and made most end-of-the-year lists published by gaming journalists, on top of receiving many perfect scores from web sites and magazines. Arguably, this was the best game released in 1998, and even today, you will usually see the game charting whenever someone releases a “Best Game of All-Time” list.

In 1998, when the game was released, I was still more than two years away from finishing high school. I didn’t even have a computer back then. Quite frankly, I was still learning how to properly communicate using the English language. As you can see, I was a long time away from reviewing video games for a site like this one, and since OoT happens to be my favourite game of all time, I have always regretted not being able to give my honest opinion on it. Is there a better time than a ten-year anniversary celebration to remedy to the situation? Probably not, unless I want to wait another ten years, so this is why I am bringing you today this retro-review.

Before we start, let me tell you a little bit about the standards I will be using here. The game will be reviewed using today’s standards, since my goal is to see if the game managed to hold up well after all these years. However, I will also be providing a small comment in each category about how it would have scored ten years ago. That way, I will also pay homage to the game’s status when it was first released, and at the same time, come close to fulfilling my fantasy of being a reviewer back in 1998 and giving the game a glowing review.

Now that we are all set, let’s get to the review.


STORY
Ten years ago: Being the fourth game in the series, Ocarina of Time finally provides the franchise with a beginning, showing the earliest story to take place in The Legend of Zelda. The cut-scenes, using the game’s own engine instead of computer animations that were so popular at the time, tell a heart-wrenching tale of a boy who must sacrifice his childhood in order to save the world from a thief who used the power of the Triforce to become the King of Evil.

Today: This game introduced a deeper form of storytelling to the franchise, especially when compared to earlier games like the original LoZ. During the next decade, the series continued down this road with even bigger stories in the form of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. While the story here pales when compared to the tale of an entire world lost in TWW or to the eternally melancholic atmosphere of TP, it is still terribly engrossing on its own. Furthermore, it even gains an extra dimension when you are able to look at some of the twists and turns and realize how they tie-in with more recent releases, since most of the follow-ups reference this one in some way.

What I like about the story here is the details. Despite the technological limitations of the time, you still feel as if you are a part of a gigantic world. Everybody is linked somehow, and some of the quests send you all over the map to get the information you need. It is only when you stop to really think about it that you realize that after all, there aren’t that many people living in Hyrule. Still, by using many minor characters to further the story, Nintendo made it feel as if everything you heard and read during the game actually mattered.

Ocarina of Time also provides its share of intense moments. Scenes like Kakariko Village being on fire, the death of the Great Deku Tree, the abduction and subsequent liberation of Nabooru or Link waking up after a seven-year slumber are still what I consider to be the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to storytelling.

More importantly, the game doesn’t simply rely on these key scenes to develop the story. It uses smaller moments and little encounters to tie everything together. Malon and Talon being reduced to having roommates in a small village despite previously being owners of their own land is only a detail, but it helps to bring the point home of how much things have changed while Link was locked in the Sacred Realm.

Finally, you owe it to yourself to finish the game once again just for the entire end sequence, from the time you enter Ganondorf’s Tower all the way to title card that reads “The End”. The ending really illustrates just how much you helped everybody you encountered during the game and is the sweet icing on an already delicious cake.

Even ten years later, the story is still as griping as ever and has nothing to be ashamed of when compared to recent blockbusters.

Story Rating: Unparalleled


GRAPHICS
Ten years ago: In the process of bringing one of Nintendo’s most beloved series to the third dimension, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team crafted one of the most breath-taking world in video games history. Characters are big and detailed, and the backgrounds are varied and impressive.

Today: Well… this is the part that doesn’t hold as well as the rest. While the game is not ugly by any mean, it definitely shows its age. While the animations are still superb, they are executed by blocky characters on a background of blurry textures. When travelling through Hyrule, it’s easy to notice the jagged edges on enemies and structures. If you forgot how fire effects used to be made back in the days, this game will be a painful reminder. When taken as a whole, it manages to be more than the sum of its parts, but individually, it really doesn’t compare to anything that can be seen nowadays.

However, there are two things that still manage to amaze me to this day in the graphical department: the artistic direction and the water.

The artistic direction comes through with the details: every race in Hyrule has a different motif that adds personality to the characters. The design of each one is unique and shows a lot of originality and style. As for the water, it’s no secret that Nintendo loves their water. From Wave Race 64 to the water temple of Twilight Princess, it seems like Nintendo always spends a disproportionate amount of time on water effect in an effort to make it feel as real as possible. It shows once again here as it is still looking incredibly realistic, especially for a game that has been made a decade ago. For example, the boss of the Water Temple, named Morpha, is nothing but water taking different shapes to beat on you. It is a perfect showcase of Nintendo’s aquatic expertise.

With no noticeable fog, which was real plague a decade ago, Ocarina of Time is still pretty, mainly because of the style it shows all the way through, but it did lose a lot of its polish over the years.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre


SOUND
Ten years ago: One of the best sounding game of its time. The soundtrack itself is a success that will be remixed for years to come by every game music fan with a computer and DJ software.

Today: Despite using sequenced music, it still managed to be nearly as grandiose as anything an orchestrated soundtrack could produce. It does so by sticking with charming tunes that fit the theme of the area it is featured in. The soothing song from Zora’s Domain is perfect for the aquatic environment, while the almost Mexican sounding Gerudo Valley theme, with its clapping and acoustic guitar, adequately evokes images of sun and desert. Some of the pieces on the soundtrack would prove to be so popular that they would often be reused in subsequent games, such as the theme for The Lost Woods or the Song of Time.

I can safely say that every single piece of music on this soundtrack is delightful, and that some of them will be stuck in your head for months (or in my case, years) to come. It is so good that I even acquired an orchestrated version of the soundtrack called Hyrule Symphony, which I would highly recommend to any fan of this game.

Ocarina of Time features minimal voice acting, with the biggest share of it all being given to Link’s groans and expressions of pain. There is also your fairy Navi (who could forget her?) whose entire vocabulary consists of the words “HEY!”, “LOOK!”, “LISTEN!” and “WATCH OUT!”. I think she said “HELLO!” once at the start of the game, but it will be quickly erased from your memory only to be replaced by one of the previous shout-outs. Still, I didn’t find her to be as annoying as some people make her out to be. I think that in this case, her myth quickly surpassed reality.

Sound effects are still top-notch, with details such as Link’s steps sounding differently depending on what he is walking on making a big difference. The sword also reacts differently depending on what you hit. Everything here, from fire cracking to owls and bats flying, has been provided with the perfect sound to make the experience even more immersive.

One of the neatest things about the audio here is your ocarina, which is more or less fully functioning. Back in the days, I was able to play “The Imperial March” on it, which I have sadly forgotten how to do. Efforts to retrieve the old issue of Nintendo Power which featured the note chart have been fruitless.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled


CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY
Ten years ago: Using a heavily modified Super Mario 64 engine, OoT gets rid of issues that had been plaguing 3D gaming such as awkward cameras and erratic combats.

Today: I don’t think that any other word than “perfect” can accurately describes the control scheme. First of all, the automatic jumping was a stroke of genius which felt natural and eliminated a hassle that otherwise wouldn’t have fit in with traditional Zelda gameplay. After all, this was the first 3D game of the series, and other than for his brief platforming foray in Zelda II, jumping was never really a part of Link’s arsenal. This system worked so well that it has become a standard of the franchise.

Another innovation that I just couldn’t live without today is what the game calls “Z-targeting”. With the press of a button, the camera centers on the enemy you are currently battling, eliminating the awkward camera setting which was up to then the norm in 3D gaming, even in revered games like Super Mario 64. Its introduction was so significant that it has been used since then by countless games (such as the Metroid Prime series, and even Psychonauts) and it is pretty much expected to be implemented in any game that features real-time, three-dimensional combat. It makes sword fighting a breeze, and it also simplifies aiming with your slingshot or bow, turning you into an instant marksman.

The gameplay follows the same formula that has made the series popular since its inception. You navigate a huge overworld and enter dungeons to kill bosses and collect weapons necessary to continue your quest. The entire sequence flows seamlessly and the dungeons are so well-designed that I would be hard pressed to find any flaw. The first two dungeons are pretty easy and can be seen as tutorials, and even the third one (Jabu-Jabu’s Belly), which used to make me curse up a storm back when I wasn’t allowed to speak that kind of language, now seems easier than I remember. Adult Link ups the ante though with the very clever Forest Temple, which turns whole rooms upside/down in order to mess with your mind, a concept which would be further explored to great effect with the Stone Tower of Majora’s Mask

Any review of Ocarina of Time and its dungeons wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the Water Temple and its devilish challenge. Featuring three switches that can be used to raise or lower the water level and thus give access to completely different parts of the dungeon, the Water Temple is still to this day the most difficult level I have ever encountered. Even with ten more years of gaming under my belt, the dungeon kicked my ass as it showed that my sense of logic needs more practice. It also includes an epic clash against your own shadow and a fight against a living pool of water which can throw you across the room with its tentacles. I don’t know if the design team truly intended to make it as challenging as it is, but this dungeon is one for the ages.

The boss battles usually require that you use the item you acquired in that dungeon to achieve victory, but it doesn’t mean that they are easy. For example, while you do need to slam Volvagia’s head in with hammer in the Fire Temple, you still need to duck avalanches of rocks while the room-sized dragon tries to scorch you alive. When he finally takes cover in his lava pit, the ensuing plus-sized game of whack-a-mole is as fun as I remembered it to be.

All in all, this is an amazingly fun game that plays great. While I will admit that most Zelda games usually have one or two dull moments in them – like feeding rupees to Tingle in exchange for Triforce locations in The Wind Waker – there is none to be found here.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled


REPLAYABILITY
Ten years ago: While the Zelda series has always featured a couple of side quests, Ocarina of Time took it up a notch with mini-games aplenty and more than enough thing to collect for OCD-affected gamers.

Today: The main adventure can take you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to complete – I will admit that I was always more in the 40 range – and it is fun enough to warrant subsequent plays once in a while. If you want to keep playing the game using a file in which you have already completed the main quests, then your options are more varied than in most games of its genre.

My personal favourite is the fishing pond. While I have never been a fan of fishing in real life, this virtual rendition of the sport has left me addicted for a while. Using the control stick to battle with the fishes while you try to reel them in might not be everybody’s description of a good time, but this game manages to make it more exciting than it has any right to be, and it’s about as fun as fishing is going to get.

If fishing is not your bag, then you can try your hand at some of the games available around Hyrule. There’s horseback archery, bombchu bowling and a slingshot shooting game. While it’s nothing that will keep you occupied for days on end, it is a nice little diversion, and the neat thing is that your high scores are shown on a board in your own house.

If you are into collecting things, then there are pieces of heart and 100 gold skulltulas for you to hunt down. This is going to require more work – I have never collected more than 50 skulltulas in any of my files – and to be honest, you won’t need to collect much more than that. You get different prizes when you reach certain milestones, and once you get a bigger wallet, the rest is superfluous.

While it has much more replay value than many adventure games I have experienced, the bottom line is that the game wouldn’t get that much action past the first play-through if the main quest wasn’t as fun.

Replayability Rating: Above Average


BALANCE
Ten years ago: Featuring clever puzzles and dungeons, the game never has a dull moment. Despite its easy learning curve, the game became famous for its insanely hard Water Temple.

Today: It’s obvious that having finished the game way too often means that there are no surprises left and that the game becomes much easier. Still, some of the puzzles still managed to leave me thinking for a couple of minutes as my memory was failing and I refused to use help to find a solution.

As I have previously mentioned in this review, the Water Temple is STILL challenging, as the entire sequence of puzzles is too exhaustive to learn by heart, and the mechanic of changing the water level so often once again managed to wreck my brain.

The boss battles are not too easy, even though the solution to beat them at first appears obvious. The execution is still a challenge, even though we could chalk it up to my legendary lack of skills. Gamers with better abilities might find them to be easier than they remembered.

Balance Rating: Classic


ORIGINALITY
Ten years ago: As the first Zelda game in 3D, it introduced fans of the series to things that are now staples of the genre, such as lock-on targeting.

Today: It is surprising to see that even with all the technological advances we have seen in ten years, this game still feels better than the more recent games in the franchise. This game innovated many things, and it shows that sometimes, there’s nothing quite like the original. Of course, if this game was released as new today, it wouldn’t seem as fresh, but let’s not forget that it was the first one.

Originality Rating: Unparalleled


ADDICTIVENESS

Ten years ago: With eight main dungeons and an epic quest, the game sucked in players and didn’t let go until the final blow to Ganondorf.

Today: Oh my God, I had forgotten the effect that this game used to have on me. When I started playing, even my new rhythm games addiction took a backseat. The game is the only thing I played until I finished it. Thankfully, the amount of hours it took me to finish was much smaller this time around. Just to show the kind of power this game has on people, I simply mentioned to a couple of my friends that I was going to this game again for the sake of this review, and two of them dusted off their N64 to give it another shot. Is it nostalgia or is it that this game really is as addictive as it looks? All I know is that it won’t let go.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled


APPEAL FACTOR
Ten years ago: The hype and the marketing blitz surrounding the game coupled with the anticipation built up by numerous delays meant that everybody heard of the game unless the had been living under a rock. Its 7.6 millions units sold is still a record for the franchise.

Today: This game probably did more to build the mystic surrounding the series than any other iteration. Of course, the primitive graphics might put off today’s gamers if you were to try to present this game to someone who never played it before. Still, the fact remains that Link and the Legend of Zelda series are one of Nintendo’s main attraction, and even though it fell behind in the last couple of years with the introduction of Pokémon and some of the company’s more casual games, it probably has the most rabid fanboys this side of Final Fantasy. If this was to be remade for the DS, I’m pretty sure it would still sell like hotcakes.

Appeal Factor Rating: Classic


MISCELLANEOUS
The only think left to mention is the amazing variety that this game offers. Not only is it varied in its settings and characters, it offers many different gameplay situations depending on which boss you are battling or which item you are using. The items themselves have always been one of the series’ calling card, and those featured in Ocarina of Time are what I would call the classic line-up. From the hookshot to the ocarina itself, each item seems to have a hidden function that makes the game quirkier. The ocarina is quite versatile as a music instrument as you can bend the pitch and play different notes by pressing any direction on the joystick or by holding the Z or R buttons. The Megaton Hammer might be good for hitting rusty switches, but crushing enemies with it instead of using the traditional sword is pure joy.

After all these years, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the game. It still amazed me with the sheer number of things to explore and discover. It’s a game that deserves to be played even once you’ve finished the main quest.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled


THE RATINGS
Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Unparalleled
Control/Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Classic
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal: Classic
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL RATING: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

The final answer is “Yes”. The game still holds up as well as it did a decade ago. While the graphics have lost a bit of shine over the years, the rest of the game is still as flawless as it used to be. If you have never played the game, you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. It deserves a spot on every list of the greatest games ever released, and it is entirely worthy of the classic status it has attained over the years.

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