The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first 3D Zelda game released on the Nintendo 64. This review is assuming you are already familiar with Zelda games or have read my review on The Legend of Zelda for NES. The reason for this is because it does many of the common Zelda things you would come to expect. Let’s just be honest and admit that you probably already know a lot about the Zelda series and Ocarina of Time just from hearing everyone else talk about it so much. There’s not much I can add to the conversation of its praise. However, I’d like to still try and talk about some ways that the game is unique.
The titular instrument, the ocarina, plays a big role in this game, as does music in general. Sure, prior installments had instruments, but none of those games had you do much with them. In Ocarina of Time, the songs you learn are used for minigames, puzzles, and general progression. And you don’t just select a song to autoplay. You have to actually perform these melodies with button presses. This makes it a test of memory. You learn to play these songs not just by their button arrangement but also by the notes. You learn them by sight as well as sound. Music is your most powerful and mysterious ally. This is also where the common lore of the Deku, the Gorons, and the Zoras originate. I also can’t talk about Ocarina of Time without talking about Z-targeting. This feature allows you to lock-on to enemies in combat. The idea is to make aiming easier and keep the camera focused your foe. It’s also handy for repositioning the camera behind you even when out of combat. This is incredibly helpful as the automatic camera movement can be slow and unresponsive at times. Typically in N64 games the C buttons would act as camera buttons. They would rotate and zoom the camera at will. However, in Ocarina of Time you have items assigned to those buttons. So Z-targeting was a quick and necessary fix for this camera issue. Plus, being able to assign three secondary items to your buttons while having a constant sword button opened up lots of possibilities for combat and puzzles alike. There’s even a day and night cycle! The idea of having two parallel worlds isn’t exactly a new idea, but the time travel element actually changed your character between the worlds this time. You start the game as a child with certain items you can obtain. When you transport yourself to the future you become an adult that cannot use many of the previous items but has access to many new ones instead. And of course, everything you’ve come to love about Zelda games has been beautifully recreated in three dimensions. It all sounds great, and many people will call Ocarina of Time a masterpiece. While I can agree it’s a classic as well as a great game, it certainly isn’t as perfect as it’s made out to be.
I mean, I won’t knock the graphics or anything. They’re dated now, but they looked just fine for the time and don’t detract from the game even by today’s standards. I like a lot of the music, but most of the temple themes are pretty ambient and forgettable to me. They’re more like background score than catchy, memorable tunes. The combat is pretty good considering it’s the first 3D Zelda game, but it can be clunky at times. I also think that being a kid is just overall worse than being an adult. As young Link you’re smaller so it takes forever to travel around on foot. You’re a slave to the day and night cycle until you learn a song for it. You’re barred from many places. And basically once you become adult Link you find out just how miserable being young Link really was. As an adult you are bigger so you naturally travel faster on foot. Plus you can get a horse to ride around, making things even faster. You even learn songs to warp you around the map to aid in your adventuring. Nearly every item you get is basically a better version of an old item you had when you were a kid, typically having some extra functionality that the prior did not. And you just look cooler too. Basically, once you experience adult Link you’ll never want to go back to being a kid. Hyrule Field was a lot more impressive when the game first came out. It was this vast overworld for you to explore that stretched on for miles. It was as scenic as it was tremendous. The problem with it is that it hasn’t aged well. It’s no longer a gigantic expanse to explore, but rather a glorified hub world that connects the separate areas of the game together. It doesn’t have too much in it to be visually pleasing nor anything of true substance. The few things you can actually find and do in the field do not necessitate its size. It leaves you with a barren wasteland to walk between as you witness the day and night cycles. The day and night cycles are also pretty shallow. Towns tend to change depending on if its day or night, but in the areas where time actually passes there doesn’t seem to be any type of change. And even though I personally think the puzzle elements in the Water Temple are refreshing for the game, I understand completely the frustration in constantly needing to pause the game to take on or take off the iron boots for sinking and floating or waiting while you play a song to raise and lower the water level tons of times. The puzzle part is good, but the execution of traversing the temple is tedious. I also don’t like how everything feels like it has to happen a certain way. Everything is part of this big prophecy that just so happens to place you in the center without it really being your choice. You just do things because you’re supposed. Fate is thrust upon you rather than giving you good motivations. Your only real motivation is to avenge the death of The Great Deku Tree that protected you and your home for all these years. Even THAT bit can be quickly forgotten in the mix of things. Of course, I can’t go without talking about the biggest flaw of the entire game… Navi.
Sure, everyone hates Navi on a surface level because her shrill voice chiming in constantly is annoying, but that’s just the surface. Beneath that is actually something worse. You see, you know as well as I do that Zelda games are about adventure. You go into a Zelda game expecting to explore and create your own adventure within the confines of the game. If you hit a roadblock by not knowing what to do or where to go, you want to figure it out. You want to explore and seek out the answers. You want to do things on your own because that’s what makes it YOUR adventure. Navi constantly tried to remind you of what to do and where to go every ten minutes or so. That means that Navi frequently tries to take the experience of your own adventure away from you. This is completely counter intuitive because the inclusion of Navi assumes that the player is either too stupid or too lazy to figure these things out for themselves. Navi serves to take the adventure out of an adventure game. She will even offer up the way to kill nearly every enemy and boss in the entire game if you ask. Sure, you can avoid these things by just never hitting that C-up button, but some of her hints and flat out directions are forced upon you. Sometimes you’ll walk into a room and before you even get a chance to attempt a puzzle or challenge, Navi will jump in with the solution or a hint so obvious it may as well have been a command. These pieces of handholding mixed together are a flaw that the game simply will not let you ignore and bring down the entire experience because of it. This alone keeps the game from ever being a masterpiece to me. Why not just have Saria give you hints when you’re stuck and play her song to talk to her? That sounds like a much better idea. And luckily later games backed off on this extreme handholding concept after the backlash. The reasoning behind it is that 3D games were still rather new so they didn’t want the player to get too lost or stuck. However, that doesn’t excuse it. Just like an old comedian telling racist jokes, the times can explain the flaws but not excuse them. So after all of this bashing, where do I land on this game?
Well, Ocarina of Time may have some issues, and one big one, but that’s not nearly enough to diminish all of the great things it does. I wouldn’t call it the best Zelda game ever, but it’s still a great one. After you’ve played the game through a few times you’ll know everything anyway, so Navi can’t spoil your experience forever. It might be a little more awkward and ugly these days, but it’s still incredibly fun and charming nonetheless. I grew up with this game, so I guess I’m also a tad biased. Well… that and the fact that I have a soft spot for N64 games in general. Still, if you can find a copy of the game, pick it up. Hell, you don’t need ME to tell you that you should play it. Don’t expect perfection, but be happy with all the great things The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has to offer and you won’t be disappointed.