So it took me long enough, but I’ve finally finished a full play through of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As a lifelong Nintendo fan, I was certainly at jeopardy of losing my street cred if I didn’t get around to doing this, so I’m glad that I’ve finally taken care of business. My lack of Ocarina completion didn’t come from a lack of trying however, because I had started this title no less than six times between the N64 original and the 3DS remake over the course of my life. I just wasn’t in the right headspace to appreciate the game until now. And appreciate it I did, because Ocarina of Time is a truly beautiful game by so many metrics. But is Ocarina of Time still the absolute peak of the industry, a clear contender for the best game of all time as many believe? I’m not sure about that.
When I look at Ocarina of Time, I see a visionary release which operates so far beyond most of its N64 contemporaries. While I’ll always have a soft-spot for Star Fox 64 and Sin & Punishment personally, I’d reckon that Ocarina of Time is probably the best game on the system. It’s hard for me to give that honor to any other title. Hyrule feels so alive, complete with a rich narrative, richer characters and densely interwoven design. Just the day and night cycles alongside the dual time periods alone are enough to impress. When combined with incredible quests and Temples which stretch this landscape to its fullest, it’s impossible to not be stunned by this achievement.
a glimpse into the future
Even something as revolutionary as Super Mario 64 cannot punch at this weight. Ocarina of Time operates with a scope and complexity which really is unmatched. The game’s success doesn’t stop at its ambition though. Firstly, the narrative is truly endearing and iconic. Hyrule’s characters are what bring this world to life. You’ve got the mystical Sheik who guides Link towards Ganon, and the playful Princess Ruto who demands Link’s hand in marriage, for example. There are very few forgettable characters here, as even side roles such as Lon Lon Ranch’s inhabitants, Malon, Talon, and Ingo, are the beginning of unforgettable missions. I even have a soft spot for the annoying members of the cast, like Kaepora Gaebora and Navi.
Of course, this is all presented with a cinematic grandeur that still feels remarkable. There is a fairytale quality to Ocarina of Time which feels suitably timeless. Typically, narrative is secondary to gameplay for my tastes, but Ocarina finds a wonderful harmony of the two. The experience knows when to interject with the next story beat and when to pull back, allowing the moment-to-moment adventure to do the talking. Still, the game is never silent, as the wonderful soundtrack marches along with Link. Now that I’ve heard the full thing in context, I can comfortably put it alongside Donkey Kong Country and Halo: Combat Evolved in the pantheon of all-time great OSTs. If you don’t want to hop out of your chair and pop-lock to Song of Storms, there is something wrong with you.
Luckily, Ocarina plays pretty well too. The dungeons are some of the best in the series in my opinion, with the first and last, the Great Deku Tree and the Spirit Temple, being some of my personal favorites. Of course, the dungeon items themselves aren’t too surprising, as the majority of them became series staples, or hailed from A Link to the Past to begin with. Nonetheless, they all feel great to use and are surprisingly versatile. The hookshot in combat is an absolute godsend. And naturally, being a Zelda game, the balance between combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving is just right. Galloping across Hyrule Field on Epona (after completing her great side quest) and meticulously unraveling the Forest Temple’s secrets are equally satisfying experiences.
hyrule’s growing pains
But I wouldn’t say that Ocarina of Time’s gameplay is wholly satisfying. Like many of its contemporaries, the game is covered in a layer of mechanical and design-level antiquity. To the former, Ocarina helped pioneer a staple of the action-adventure genre: the contextual action button. Sometimes pressing “A” will open doors. Sometimes it will sheath your sword. Sometimes it will push a block and sometimes it will allow Link to climb atop said block. It’s all based on where Link is in relation to things around him. Unfortunately, the game often gets confused about the context that you’re hitting “A” in, which can lead to some rather finicky moments, particularly during sliding block puzzles or when trying to get through doors with an item equipped.
This isn’t a major issue, but it’s one of many that chip away at the experience little by little. Z-Targeting can be rather fickle at the worst possible moments, and Link’s auto-platforming certainly was refined in later titles. These annoyances are all emblematic of how far beyond 90s conventions Ocarina was pushing, but are also tiresome through a modern lens. I should note that I completed this game’s 3DS remake/remaster/whatever, so my experience is based on what is arguably the most charitable edition of the game. However, given that it repurposes large portions of the N64 code (throwing its remake/remaster status into question), these seams still show through. Grezzo, the developer Ocarina of Time 3D, also added quality of life changes that improve item management and control, which has major ramifications on sequences like the infamous Water Temple, but they don’t iron out Ocarina’s more dubious quirks.
But if these quirks were just that, quirks, Ocarina’s troubles with signposting on the other hand, are serious problems. I played the back half of my adventure with a guide, and that made the experience so much better. Like A Link to the Past before it, Ocarina struggles with some pretty esoteric quest design and structure that would’ve left me scratching my head in ‘98. Of course, since I was -2 years old at the time, I probably would’ve had greater reason to be confused. Nonetheless, the adult Link portion of the game is predicated upon open-ended happenstance in some cases. How I was supposed to reach the next beat or item without either meticulously combing through every text box or trawling every corner of the map is unclear.
a matter of interactivity
Maybe I’m just an impatient Zoomer who can’t be bothered to scour Hyrule for the next breadcrumb on the trail. It’s possible. But what’s more likely is that I’ve just gotten used to the ways that modern games have improved their signposting to guide the player along. I find this to be a persistent issue with older Zelda titles, and Ocarina is certainly no exception. It’s this convergence of issues, and some random pacing-related quibbles, that hold this title back from being the absolute best of the undeniable best.
The trouble is that this medium has marched along steadily in the past twenty years, and it has marched far past Ocarina. What made this title so groundbreaking has been synthesized and refined. Not only has Zelda itself arguably surpassed Ocarina – Wind Waker will forever be the king of that hill in my eyes – but the action-adventure genre has injected this DNA into so many new experiences. In doing so, studios had years of practice to apply onto Ocarina’s base, resulting in smoother and more exciting titles. Ocarina of Time is nothing short of wonderful, but time itself has not been too kind.
This is a familiar tale within the industry because developers are always pushing the envelope. This is the nature of an interactive medium. As technology improves alongside development experience, interactivity will inherently become more nuanced and immersive. Look at Breath of the Wild’s physics engine and world design – it absolutely eats Ocarina of Time’s lunch. That doesn’t obliterate Ocarina’s playability, but it contextualizes the importance of interactivity and its relation to timeless praise.
My campus recently held a showing of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterwork, Metropolis. This is a silent German film and one that is largely regarded as being amongst cinema’s very best. I was honestly bored by my first viewing, but this rewatch (especially since it was held in the campus Chapel with a live organist accompanying the film) was a different story. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was struck by the grandeur and intention laced throughout every frame. I was wrapped up in the majesty and horror of the movie. I finally believed in its lofty reputation.
Part of this newfound appreciation is owed to Ocarina of Time, funnily enough. I came to realize that the two works are oddly similar. Both were lightyears ahead of their peers (Metropolis is just staggering from a production standpoint), and both feel decidedly outdated in key respects today. But, the antiquated facets of Metropolis don’t damage the experience in any regard because cinema is not interactive. If anything, the audience’s response is reactive. The director controls the narrative experience and I respond to it. As a result, I can’t feel like a classic film has been superseded by what came after.
Sure, there were plenty of times when I wished that Metropolis had spoken dialog. But, the Metropolis experience was created within the context of the silent era, and by tuning my expectations into that framework, I can be transported effortlessly into that world. That’s possible because Fritz Lang is driving – I’m merely an observer. When I’m driving the experience in Ocarina of Time, I feel every bump. The fact that interactivity dictates gaming, and that the modern industry has continually refined said interactivity, means that I can’t be so easily transported into this world. I’m not asked to guide myself through The Worker’s City. But I am asked to guide myself through Hyrule, and the standards for those requisite mechanics have changed.
For me, this raises an interesting question. Do the very best games of all time need to constantly shift as interactivity evolves? I could certainly make an incredibly compelling case for why The Last of Us Part II is the greatest game of all time. Many others could make many more cases of games on that same tier that have launched in the past few years. Sure, these obviously don’t have the historical resonance of an Ocarina of Time or a Metal Gear Solid. But they certainly play much better, and ultimately shouldn’t that be what matters?
Frankly I really don’t know. Interactivity is the cornerstone of our medium and that the standards for game feel, control, and design have progressed far beyond Ocarina of Time. Zelda itself has taken this same structure and applied it to games that I feel are more interesting, again like Wind Waker. At the same time, I’m floored by so many facets of Ocarina’s experience, and I had a lovely time with it. Nevertheless, that playthrough featured many moments when I remarked that various design elements didn’t age well. While Fritz Lang simply showed me a controlled look into his Metropolis, Eiji Aonuma asked me to walk through his. In doing so, I realized how fundamental interactivity is, as obvious as that may sound. I’m not sure how to reconcile the contradictions or the questions that I’ve raised here. I know that I really enjoyed Ocarina of Time, but I also think that it is not among the best that our industry has to offer. At least in 2021, that is.