Remember experiencing “that moment” in your favorite game that really showed you how special it was? Imagine walking into a giant living tree after just earning your first sword and shield. Imagine climbing to the highest point of the tree, all while fighting spiders and man eating plants. Imagine gazing down into that tree and seeing a massive spider web sealing you off from your destination. Now imagine the adrenaline as you leap from the top of that tree and shatter that web, breaking through that colossal barrier. This moment showed me what a new 3D world of gaming can do, what could happen whenever you factor in depth. This moment showed me how visceral even the simplest of actions could be. This single moment solidified Ocarina of Time as more than just a game; it was an experience.
I saw the possibilities unfold right before my eyes. Many of these possibilities were later realized. How satisfying was it to aim your bow and arrow before firing it? How incredible did it feel to escape the barreling giant that was King Dodongo? How magical was every single panning shot? This simple transition to 3D made me appreciate gaming in a whole new way. Ocarina of Time is undoubtedly influential in gaming, but what makes it one of the greatest of all time is the combination of visuals, music, story, and gameplay to create something truly magical.
One of the first things I notice about Ocarina of Time is its near-perfect pacing. The first half of the game is a very basic introduction to the world of Hyrule. As a young boy, you begin by discovering that you are different, the chosen one if you will, and you are destined to save the world from a great evil. It’s very typical stuff, but what makes Ocarina of Time so powerful is the way it uses these clichés to circumvent your expectations and build this incredible world.
Stepping out into Hyrule Field for the first time is a liberating experience. The whole expanse opens before you and you aren’t given any clear direction. You can see Lon Lon Ranch in the distance, as well as a large volcano, a desert, and a castle. The game guides you to the castle, both through the owl Gaebora and by making the castle the prominent feature of the landscape. While at the castle, you meet Zelda, the princess of this land as well as Ganondorf, the antagonist. Zelda asks you to collect three items and in doing so you travel to two new locations, Death Mountain and Zora’s Domain. Here you meet the Goron and the Zora and begin to fill out your understanding of this world.
Just as you feel comfortable with the characters, locations, and story, Nintendo uses one of the most effective plot devices I’ve ever seen and sends Link seven years into the future. Ocarina is far from the only game to utilize time travel, but it is one of, if not the most effective. Just as you felt like you were achieving your goal, Ganondorf chases Zelda away from the castle and leaves you alone with your 3 talismans and the Ocarina of Time. After using the Ocarina in the Temple of Time to get the Master Sword, the only thing capable of defeating Ganondorf, you find that you aren’t a child anymore and everything has changed. You are tasked with rescuing all of the Seven Stages and proceed to go on a quest to save the world.
Leaving the Temple of Time still sends chills down my spine. As you approach the market, the central hub of Hyrule, you find that the world has gotten darker and you can almost feel the lack of life. Once in the market you discover that many of the cheerful citizens that you once loved are now Redeads and out to kill you. You also see that all of the Gorons are imprisoned, Kokiri children are missing, and the Zora are frozen. Death Mountain is ready to blow, the well is in Kakariko Village holds a terrible secret, and the Sands of Gerudo desert are filled with danger. This is the new Hyrule that Ganondorf has created through his tyranny and you must stop it.
Ocarina’s conclusion is one of the most genuinely exciting and satisfying endings to any game ever conceived. Just as you meet Zelda again and gather all of the Seven Sages, Ganondorf steals her away and you must climb to the top of his tower and defeat him and his evil magic. Upon defeating him, he uses his final breath to bring down the castle and you must rush to escape with the now freed Zelda in tow. After watching one of the coolest castle destructions of that era, I placed my controller down and began to celebrate, only to be rudely interrupted by Ganondorf, still alive and breathing. He then morphs into a giant boar and you proceed to hammer away at him in a grand battle that lives on in the memories of thousands.
A game can’t get by on story alone, even one as epic and enthralling as Ocarina’s. The gameplay was not only revolutionary at the time, but still remains satisfying to this day. The simplicity of locking onto a target and then attacking them is oddly rewarding; however, the bulk of the gameplay comes from the lovingly crafted dungeons. Even these dungeons are remarkably well paced. The fist dungeon is an excellent introduction to simple gameplay elements, such as basic combat, range weapons, and basic puzzling solving. The second dungeon introduces explosives and slightly harder puzzles. The third dungeon introduces escorting to the game, and while it can be frustrating, it does provide some variety in dungeon design. The adult dungeons are on a whole different scale of complex, providing stronger more powerful weapons, incredibly difficult puzzles, and challenging enemies.
Three dungeons that really set Ocarina apart from other games in the series, as well as other games in general, are the Forest Temple, Shadow Temple, and Spirit Temple. These dungeons perfectly capture what makes Zelda so fantastic and one of the greatest franchises in existence:
- The Forest Temple is an ambient Temple that plays very little with the actual Forest, but rather focuses on the new darker and adult elements of Ocarina of Time. The game plays a distressing tune that makes you feel a little uneasy. You also gain the Hero’s Bow item, which functions as an upgrade to your slingshot. What makes this dungeon so special is the sense of dread of fear it instills. Wallmasters and Floormasters fall from the ceiling and steal you away, skeletons litter the hallways, and so much more.
- The Shadow Temple does many of the same things, but pushes the Shadow theme even further. This dungeon is legitimately scary. Deformed creatures, bloody guillotines, and haunted ships are just some of the terrors you’ll find within. By this point the puzzles have gotten much harder and are really pushing your limits. This dungeon excels at throwing all sorts of things at you and making you adapt to them.
- The Spirit Temple is possibly my favorite dungeon because of its main “gimmick.” This temple has you changing between young and adult Link, which results in some really clever puzzles. This temple takes advantage of several items as well as some unique and difficult box puzzles. The temple ends in an epic battle with two witches that combine to form Twinrova, one of the most creative and exciting fights in the entire series.
Many people claim that Ocarina of a Time doesn't deserve the praise it gets because it is merely a clone of Link to the Past, but in 3D. This argument stems mostly from the fact that both games use a "light and dark world" mechanic and are thus structured similarly. This is a simple and shortsighted viewpoint, as both games employ these mechanics drastically differently. Link to the Past's Dark World, while changing the physicality of the world, doesn't really change much as far as story goes. Ocarina of Time's Dark Future actually addresses the question of "what if evil won?" It's a question rarely addressed in gaming, but it's done perfectly in this game. Characters that you know and love are now in danger, Link has a whole new arsenal (and play style), and the dungeons get appropriately darker and more challenging. Link to the Past's Dark World dungeons, while impressive for a 2D space, can't compare to the complexity and depth that is given to Ocarina's. Every temple in Ocarina is more interesting than Link to the Past, from the puzzles, to the bosses; from the lore, to the design. Every single element that Link to the Past did well, Ocarina does in a new, fresh, exciting way that blows Link to the Past out of the water.
Ocarina of Time may seem like a textbook example of game design, hitting all of the basic story notes and gameplay elements, but there's a reason why these things are so common in games. Things like Z-Targeting, that feels so simple and rudimentary was (and still is) a brilliant way to bring Zelda's action based combat into the new 3D world of gaming. The thing that sets Ocarina of Time apart is the perfect combination of story and gameplay that creates an experience, not just a game. Ocarina of Time feels like you’re playing a story book. No game has ever given me the same feeling of adventure and excitement that Ocarina has and executed every single aspect so perfectly. No game deserves the title of Greatest of All Time more than Ocarina of Time, not only because of its excellence in pacing, level design, combat, and progression, but for its influence in all of these elements for years to come.
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