The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an adventure game, released in 1998, that has become one of the most influential of the genre. Bringing a story with many classical elements, the game surprised players by reinventing the formula established by A Link to the Past, adapting it to accommodate the advent of the third dimension. Despite some flaws, Ocarina of Time is a game that delights in the way it stimulates the exploration of its universe, offering a wide range of memorable settings and situations.
The protagonist, Link, is a young Kokiri who lives in a secluded forest village. He is different from every one of his colleagues, because he is the only one who does not have a fairy to guide him – which makes him be marginalized by the other Kokiri. His only friend is Saria, a girl who believes that one day Link will have the company he deserves. One morning, however, the Great Deku Tree sends the fairy Na’vi to wake the boy up and summon him to an audience. After hearing the speech of the ancient tree, Link discovers that it was poisoned by an evil force and that it is up to him to leave on a journey through the kingdom of Hyrule to save the world.
The plot of Ocarina of Time does not try to hide the fact it has roots in the biggest clichés of the fantasy genre, with a “chosen one”, a diabolical villain and even a princess to be saved. However, what matters most is how this premise is developed and the trio of writers (Miyamoto, Ousawa and Koizumi) do not disappoint in this regard. They are very economical, building relationships between characters with very brief but meaningful dialogues and scenes. The player cares about the relationship between Saria and Link, for example, thanks to the fact that the boy is an outcast in the forest and she is his only friend. Without Saria, he has nothing left. Thus, the scene in which the protagonist decides to leave to fulfill his mission, and notes that she is the only person waiting for him at the exit, is moving because of the mixed feelings linked at that moment: on the one hand, the scene demonstrates the affection and the concern that Saria feels for Link, but, on the other, it is also loaded with sadness, suggesting that the journey of the protagonist will prevent them from being together.
The localization for the English language also deserves applause. Early on, for example, one can already notice incredible care in the lexical choice: the vocabulary used by the Great Deku Tree conveys its age and wisdom by using terms in an older English (“Doust thou sense it?”) and, mainly, because it refers to evil in the world as a “climate” (“The climate of evil descending upon this realm”), revealing that it is so ancient that it sees even the forces of evil as something fleeting, which happens now and again.
The narrative moves on in a quick pace in the first hours of gameplay thanks to the enormous amount of events happening. In a few hours, Link leaves his home village behind, runs through the kingdom of Hyrule and meets eccentric people, such as the Gorons – amiable stone monsters who like to eat stone – and the Zoras – amphibian humanoids who live in their secluded kingdom. He meets Princess Zelda and comes face to face with his nemesis, Ganondorf. After a series of twists, Link witnesses the castle of Hyrule being attacked, Zelda fleeing and then finally travels forward in time when removing a sacred sword from its pedestal.
It’s just a shame that after going to the future, the pace of the story becomes a slog. There are no new regions or peoples to be discovered until near the end of the game. The main plot itself does not advance, stuck in Link’s mission to get five magical medallions. The goal in this part is to revisit previous areas and observe what has deteriorated over time, but this objective does not prevent the second act of the game from signifying a sudden decrease in the pace of the adventure.
The developers, however, work very well with the transformations that have taken place in Hyrule over time. There are shocking moments – notably the decadence of the main city –, but also some more subtle changes: in the room of Lon Lon Ranch owner, for example, his daughter’s paintings are replaced by portraits of Ganondorf and the bright wallpaper is replaced by a purple one – a color usually associated with death and attached to the villain figure in Ocarina of Time.
The game, in fact, has a unique fantasy universe that mixes several influences: it contains Arthurian myths, such as the “Master Sword”; typical characterizations of races of the genre, such as the Zoras, who, cold and reclusive, act as if they were the elves of Tolkien; and it has even a very strong Shinto atmosphere, with nature spirits emerging with great power and influencing the events of the story. This Shinto influence can be especially noted in the active stance that developers wish the player to take in front of Hyrule: the game is focused on interactions with the environment to reflect the mystery and importance of nature.
Thefore, if most of today’s games – especially open world ones – are concerned with filling their spaces with activities, Ocarina of Time fills its world with secrets. The consequence of this difference is evident: while some strive to keep the player busy, leaving him bewildered with so many goals (most of which are irrelevant), Ocarina of Time hides its missions, inviting the player to join its universe. The resulting effect is dazzling, due to the mystery built around that magical world.
Thus, the great attraction of Ocarina of Time is exploration. Each space in the game provides numerous discoveries, such as the location of treasures, special powers and pieces of heart, as well as possible uses for the songs learned: several of the moments of interaction with the surroundings occur with the musical instrument of the title, whose melodies can generate specific reactions in the characters or modify the environment. No matter where the player is in the story, wherever he goes there is something not to do, but to unravel.
It is also very important that the game does not point too much at its optional puzzles, encouraging the player to observe the surroundings and connect the points for himself. Are there flowers in front of only one tomb in Kakariko Village’s cemetery, and the symbol of the royal family in front of another? What do these signs mean? Reflecting on these issues, the player ends up maintaining an active relationship with the environments, connecting more with them, which makes them more memorable in the process.
In this sense, the first area of the game, the Kokiri Forest, basically works as a playground: the developers offer a lot of space for players to try out the various action options, like being able to climb over crates, crawl in holes, and do pirouettes. The forest is there for players to become familiar with the controls.
As the focus of Ocarina of Time lies in the interaction with the environment, it is perfect that the narrative of the game is structured around the conquest of dungeons, since it configures the most challenging areas regarding the analysis of the scenario, containing numerous complex puzzles.
The first dungeon to be visited, the interior of the Great Deku Tree, is ambitious in its proposal to expand the initial function of the Kokiri Forest, while also explaining the logic of the puzzles and the structure of the dungeons that will follow. It forces the meticulous observation of the environment to lead players to deduce which equipment at their disposal can assist them, often locking Link in rooms that require the specific use of a newly acquired weapon. The dungeon teaches how to trigger devices at a distance, swim and go underwater, the principles of the combat system and works with the notion of verticality by requiring the impact of jumps to the opening of passages. In addition, it still subverts ideas after presenting them a few times: the player quickly learns that to destroy webs on the ground it is necessary to make Link jump and that webs on the walls need to be burned, but at the end of the dungeon the challenge is to learn how to burn a web in the floor.
Ocarina of Time is also famous for featuring a mechanic called “Z-Targeting,” which locks the camera on an enemy, allowing sword fighting to become more like a duel. The ability to lock on enemies is still one of the most used mechanics in three-dimensional games, and is probably the main legacy of the game in terms of mechanics.
It is undeniable, however, that it borrows its entire structure from A Link to the Past, separating the narrative in the same way – three pendants, travel to another world and five medallions – and copying the dungeons and the logic of puzzles – such as regulating the water level in the dungeon based on the same element.
Despite all its virtues, Ocarina of Time is not devoid of problems and some of them are serious. Dungeons, for example, contain their share of setbacks: in the Dodongo Cave, after getting the bomb, there is a breakable wall just below to the right of the platform where Link is. However, besides the fact that this passage doesn’t offer anything useful, getting down there requires players to take a short turn to go back to the platform where they were previously, causing them to waste an unnecessary time. The Temple of Shadows commits a similar error by offering a shortcut that, when discovered, can have the opposite effect, blocking the way back with a block and forcing players back to the beginning: if players only push the block out of the entrance, instead of across the hall – solving the puzzle completely –, after finding that the passage serves as a shortcut they will go back to explore the rest of the place only to find that the block will have teleported to its initial position, barring the way. And The Temple of Water can become a bit boring by the need of opening and closing the main menu several times to equip and remove the metal boots – a problem solved in the 3DS version, in which the boots are a common item that can be equipped with the common buttons.
Another problem is the lack of usefulness of some equipment. The Deku Nut, for example, is never necessary, and can be summarily ignored by players, who have much more effective weapons at their disposal. The Bombchu – which is limited to a minigame and two mere puzzles – and the Mirror Shield – though brilliant in its execution, appears only in the last temple and very late inside it – are equally underutilized.
The action button also has its share of problems. As the name implies, it gathers many actions in one place, which simplifies things, but inevitably generates some problems: trying to erase a fire stick can cause the player to roll on the floor with it. Similarly, moving and climbing a block sometimes may confuse the player, due to the time that one command takes to turn into the other.
And the fairy Na’vi – famous for the inconvenience of her “Hey, listen!” – proves to be annoying due to a programming that ignores context: “Don’t you think we should go to Kakariko Village?” she says in Kakariko Village. “What would Saria say about the next sacred stone?” she asks after the player questions Saria about the next sacred stone.
Yet, Ocarina of Time’s main problem lies in the futility of its monetary system. In the game, the currency is a jewel called “rupees”, which Link earns as a reward for various activities: the largest secondary mission of the game – hunting for gold spiders –, for example, gives the player hundreds of rupees. The developers, however, forgot to give some purpose for the money acquired and something important for the player to buy. Since there are only arrows, bombs and potions for sale – items that are normally stocked by killing enemies or cutting bushes / breaking pots – players are left without what to do with so much money, which inevitably leads them to question whether it is really rewarding to solve some missions, such as the spiders’ one.
Ocarina of Time may contain some design mistakes, but it nevertheless delivers an excellent adventure. The world of Ocarina of Time is not a place full of activities to be done, but made up of mysteries and secrets ready to be unraveled. And it is all the better for it.
December 07, 2018
Originally published in Portuguese on May 09, 2016.
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Eiji Aonuma, Shigeru Miyamoto, Yoshiaki Koizumi.
Shigeru Miyamoto, Toru Ousawa, Yoshiaki Koizumi.