Monday, January 30, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Has there been any Nintendo game, nay, any video game as critically acclaimed as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? As beloved, as revered, as worshiped? The likes of Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man may have deeper permeation in popular culture, and it can be argued other 3D Nintendo masterworks like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime have long since usurped its throne, but Ocarina of Time's reverence is just a tad more special: that being, it hails from a period where the once-stunning transition from 2D-to-3D is now as dazzling as a two-week old moldy sandwich.

Make no mistake: Ocarina of Time is not infallible to the aging process -- even Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto believes it looks rather rough now -- but I dare any one of you to tell me its opening title screen still doesn't possess that awe-inspiring calm of late '98. The clomping of Epona's horsesteps greeting Hyrule Field's sunrise, the game's title slowly materializing into focus, the accompanied piano/flute rendition of the NES Zelda's Fairy Flute fanfare introducing Link's much-awaited transition into 3D are all still a feat of attention-grabbing magic in everything from camera direction, music and the sense of grandeur involved.

Let us dispel any doubts; nearly twenty (twenty!) years later, Ocarina of Time remains a stellar high-point for video games, for Nintendo's library, and, in the relevant constrains of this review, within its legendary source series. The extent of its perfection remains debatable; to my mind, it is surpassed by both its offbeat, poignant sequel Majora's Mask and SNES predecessor A Link to the Past, but Ocarina of Time surpasses its brethren in what perhaps matters most in any action-adventure game: rock-solid pacing.

Whereas future Zelda games got too caught up in constantly spoon-feeding context and mechanics, Ocarina of Time doesn't spare a moment in capturing our attention: we're introduced to a boy without a fairy, nightmares of runaway princesses and evil horsemen, prophecies of destiny, and a wondrous bird's-eye view cruise through the skies of the enchanted Kokiri Forest.

This is all done in less than five minutes. Yes, there is a quest ready to be started, but there's no overbearing NPCs or dumb mini-games stopping you from exploring the enchanted forest at your leisure. Haven't you ever noticed how the Lost Woods is just sitting at the back, begging to be explored? What about marveling at how you can chop up signs every which way? Okay, there's no point to that, but what's wrong with a little mayhem? Regardless, the way it's set up, you're actually encouraged to explore; you wouldn't be able to nab the Kokiri Sword and Shield, otherwise.

Right from the beginning, Ocarina of Time gives just enough breathing room to familiarize ourselves with the world, all the while taking care not to distract us with pointless trivialities. There's not the thrilling, if not slightly weary dungeon rush of A Link to the Past, nor the bloated in-between-dungeon antics of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword; the game is supported by relevant setpieces to ease into the mechanics without being overbearing or coming across as pointless padding. Just look at how it's even sly enough to include mini-dungeons along the way; be it the Ice Cavern or the haunted well beneath Kakariko Village, we're continually discovering fascinating facets of Hyrule.

The true heart of Zelda--an open, personal garden to do whatever one wishes--beats harder here than any 3D Zelda hitherto thanks to its organic sense of discovery. Who hasn't messed around with playing the titular Ocarina? Experimented with masks from the Happy Mask Shop? Leapt off ledges and rooftops with Cuccoos to see where you'll land? Placed bombs in the most inconspicuous of places to find hidden caverns? Rolled into trees to see if a Gold Skulltula would fall out? Caught bugs in bottles and planted them anywhere just to see what would happen? Hyrule Field and its fellow provinces are designed not merely for exploration, but also of enticing experimentation (all of which expands two-fold with the game's second-act twist of time travel, but we'll get into that later).

Part of why this is so effective is the seamless camerawork: taking lessons from Super Mario 64's foray into 3D paved the way for Zelda's own transition, as simply flailing your sword about in third-person would be woefully awkward without some careful camera precision. In response, Z-targeting was devised to simultaneously shift the camera behind Link and any one targeted enemy. That it extends to beyond battle--NPCs, landmarks and even signs are applicable--awes in its simplistic intuitiveness; there are no barriers in engaging with the game's world, as you can efficiently "point" to any interactive target while still on the move. It's little wonder such a mechanic was carried over to future Zelda titles, even now.

There are many other elements I could cite, but any discussion of Ocarina of Time simply isn't complete without its immaculate dungeon design. Current series directer Eiji Aonuma made his Zelda debut in their design, yet you'd hardly be able to tell they were the work of a newcomer. The best Zelda dungeons enthrall not merely in their beautiful set-pieces or the creativity involved, but in how they echo organic quality of the overworld: by constantly traversing and retracing our steps within their depths and trying new things, we become as engaged as an actual explorer delving into ruins long lost.

This is best seen in the dungeons traversed as Adult Link; not that the Young Link dungeons aren't anything to sneeze at, but the adult ones are just on another level entirely. We're greeted one by one by what's probably the best series of dungeons in Zelda history, be it the Fire Temple's acrophobia-inducing catwalks or the Spirit Temple's excellent duality of Young/Adult Link segments. Even the oft-criticized Water Temple is a thing of beauty. Yes, there's lots of water-raising switches and Iron Boots to be equipped, but it's all a matter of patience as opposed to any actual flaws (that being the occasional obscure cue for progression, such as a certain pit). That it's Zelda's most mind-bending dungeon is a good thing: it demands our full concentration even when dealing with the game's trickiest bosses: Dark Link's mirroring movements within his ghostly, ethereal battleground and the twisting trickery of the water demon Morpha.

And yet even it hardly matches the euphoria of the Forest Temple: an abandoned mansion haunted by Poes and Stalfos. The Forest Temple represents the other side of the Zelda dungeon spectrum not in its game design --a ghost-hunting expedition, which is fantastic-- but that our senses are captivated from the moment we step in. It is hauntingly, mesmerizingly beautiful, with the outdoor gardens and vine-covered walls all tantalizing details leaving us wanting to know everything behind this unusual dungeon. Even from a technical perspective it still stuns, it being host to not one but two "how did they do that?" feats of music in twisting hallways and bosses galloping through paintings. It being the best dungeon in the game is not its highest honor; it is Zelda's finest without question.

The accompanying BGM is really what cinches it. From the very first wood-rattling, we're compelled to soak in every detail, right down to the Wallmasters preying upon Link's shadow. Its alternations between soothing flutes and ghostly vocals render it game music at its most hypnotic, successfully seeping us into the actual Forest Temple itself. Considering that Ocarina of Time is home to the best dungeon music in the series, it only makes sense the best temple has the best theme. (It's so good that I had no choice but to embed the 10-hour version I found on YouTube. Listen to it, dang you!)

Ah, speaking of music, Ocarina of Time just so happened to be Koji Kondo's last solo work for the company. While he'd gradually gravitate towards a supervisory role, Ocarina of Time is a near-flawless send-off to his solo career. The game may occasionally suffer from weak instrumentation, but you'd hardly know it from the aforementioned title theme: a gentle mix of piano and flutes slowly greets latest adventure with the upmost importance.

Just as the actual intro itself, the music wastes no time in captivating us. Kokiri Forest is perhaps one of the most nostalgic songs in Nintendo history; it embodies child-like wonder, as it should for an enchanted forest of eternal children and fairies. Its counterpart, Lost Woods, is rivaled only by the Song of Storms as the game's catchiest song. Its close proximity to Kokiri Forest demands a childish, mischievous innocence that's echoed in the woods themselves, be it the presence of dancing Skull Kids or the skitterish, cowardly Deku Scrubs.

Limited as it may be now, the expanded repertoire of the N64 sound systems provides technically-impressive arrangements. Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field is notable for being the first dynamic-shifting song in Nintendo history: the song shifts accordingly to context, be it for enemy encounters or during sunset, so it's an excellent replacement for the main theme (which, in what is perhaps one of the game's few oversights, is strangely absent). Meanwhile, Temple of Time still wows in how it sounds like an actual Gregorian choir. True to the events that unfold within its hallowed hall, such a glorious sound renders it as holy as an actual church.

Gerudo Valley, a fan-favorite, instantly sweeps us off our feet with Spanish-flavored guitars and clapping percussion; both are standouts, but the latter is especially notable for continually carrying both string and brass to craft a wild, perilous sense of danger. The canyons and deserts of the valley are hardly desolate, so it's vital the song conveys an active emotion.

(As an aside, Ocarina of Time is host to one of the very few instances of post-release music alterations in Nintendo history. The Fire Temple was initially host to a chilling choir prayer containing Islamic chants, whereas future versions and ports removed said chanting and altered the melody to include a MIDI choir. Both are superb, but I think of the original Muslim chant as being more distinguished since it's so unlike anything Nintendo's ever done. It reaches a level of eerie darkness that Zelda has never tackled since, and it still reverberates at the back of my mind whenever I'm reading of history's dark moments).

Indeed, there are many things we can praise Ocarina of Time for...but is there really nothing we can critique? Perfect as its fans claim it to be, that still hasn't stopped many harsher players--or dare I say, non-fans!--from airing their grievances. It is the rushed nature of Ganon's Castle, they may say, or the Water Temple's fiasco of Iron Boots, which eludes me as much as complaints directed towards The Wind Waker's sailing. These aren't within my own gripes, yet if I were to give as spotlight on any one flaw, it would be most anything regarding text.

This isn't necessarily a dig against its script/scenario as more as how they're framed. For one thing, character dialogue is infrequent in its display speed, and it's never pleasant whenever the game churns out text to a slow, unskippable crawl. What's initially a minor quibble gradually becomes compounded with some mind-boggling decisions, and it can make for a frustrating, non-intuitive ordeal. Even when the game allows you to skip dialogue, it tends to warp instantly to end of what the character has to say as opposed to that particular text-box, so information can be accidentally skipped.

There are other niggles, like having "No" being the default option for Kaepora Gaebora's "Would you like to hear that again?" and Navi, Link's accompanying fairy, occasionally interrupting movement to blather about objectives and incoming danger. Ocarina of Time is relatively free of hand-holding otherwise, but it's in those two characters the embryos of chatterbox NPCs and helpers--soon to plague future Zelda games--are born.

Yet perhaps the deepest flaw of all lies in how Ocarina of Time is host to one of the weaker localizations released by NOA Treehouse. This isn't to say it's bad, but while there is some unique flair such as the Great Deku Tree's "ye olde" English dialect and the script is evocative when it needs to be (more on that later), there's a lot of rather plain, dry dialogue ("I should go to Lake Hylia! Many things float down the river and end up there!) and I actually cite this as the most aged aspect about the game. Characters even sometimes go OOC (Kaepora Gaebora, again: "Hoo hoo! Wait up, buddy!") and render the game more childish than it actually is.

But not even that can't smother the player's connection to Link. In the past, both Miyamoto and Aonuma have discussed how Ocarina of Time isn't necessarily "epic" in itself; rather, that feeling derives from the player's sense of accomplishment. Every puzzle we solve, every dungeon we master, every boss we overcome ingrains into us within our quest to save Hyrule.

Any video game can do this, you may say, and you'd be right. But yet again, Ocarina of Time is a step ahead: it doesn't endlessly chuck monsters and caverns to make us feel epic, thanks to its use of time travel, our actions as Link and those of other characters produce a blank, yet fatal period of history. Take Hyrule Castle Town: as Young Link, it was a bustling capital rich with activity and life. After a seven-year slumber, we are shocked at the changes wrought by Ganondorf's reign: pitch-black skies, crumbling ruins, withered trees and a population not of Hylians, but moaning hordes of ReDead zombies. Before, the town's existence was simply something we took for granted; now, its devastated state instills one goal: "I have to do something".

The game doesn't need to hammer us in the head with the characters' grief. My absolute favorite example is the Kokiri bully Mido, who obstructs and antagonizes Link at the game's beginning. Seven years later, we're provided not just with a stunning size difference--being a Kokiri, Mido is blessed with eternal youth--but a change of heart. Unable to recognize Link, he begs him to pass on a message: "Hey, you. If you see him somewhere, please let him know...[about Saria]. And also...I'm sorry for being mean to him. Tell him that, too."

Nothing more is needed. We're left to wonder how he spent seven years of regret and loss, of how much he missed someone he pretended to hate. Other characters such as the carpenter's son evoke similar emotions, as do locations like the aforementioned Castle Town. We're left to fill in the blanks of everything just out of reach, be it the legacy of the Forest Temple to the dying soldier found within the Castle Town's alleys.

It's an indescribable power that extends even beyond narrative. Hopping down into a cavern only to come face-to-face with a treasure chest we opened seven years ago. A nighttime ride on Epona in Lon Lon Ranch to the echoing, nostalgic tune of Malon's singing. In terms of Zelda, it's an intimate poignancy surpassed only by Majora's Mask and perhaps even Link's Awakening; a high bar most games can only dream of reaching.  

Any issues regarding text and the occasional Eldritch Abomination found in the NPCs do not prevent the revolution brought on by Ocarina of Time. Majora's Mask would soon arrive to upend its successes by transcending the medium of gaming itself, but Zelda's first foray into 3D may very well still be sitting on its throne via duality: it is gaming at its most pure, but also evocative and alive. Even now, through time, we grow up with it.

(Also, it introduced Gorons, which are the best Zelda race because I said so. So chubby!)

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