The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had become before its release either the greatest game of all time or the most over hyped depending on who you listened to. It would be the N64's savior or a giant bubble of hot air waiting to explode. After its release reviewers from every magazine and web site were proclaiming it as perfect and the best game of the year, possibly of all time. After playing through it twice I can tell you that it isn't perfect, but that it comes very close in its execution. It is an incredible feat of game design and attention to detail that deserves high praise for its creators if not the label of, "perfect".
"Time and Again"
Zelda: OoT is considered the first story in the Zelda series. It shows us the origins of the hero, Link, Princess Zelda and the evil Ganon who first appeared many years ago in the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. Link and Ganon's origins are very interesting and the game also explains why there is always a Link, a Zelda and a Ganon in every generation. The story begins in the Kokiri Woods of the land of Hyrule where a race of elves lives with their guardian, The Great Deku Tree. Every Kokiri has a guardian fairy except for one. A young boy named Link who had suffered from terrible nightmares until one day the Deku Tree sent for him and gave him a guardian fairy. The Deku Tree told Link that he was cursed and it was up to him to dispel that curse with his wisdom and courage. After breaking the curse Link is told of a dark man from the desert that placed this curse on him. He is a sorcerer who wishes to enter the sacred realm that holds the divine relic, the Triforce. He who holds the Triforce will have their wishes granted, and if an evil man were to obtain it the world would be thrown into chaos. Link must travel to Hyrule castle to meet the Princess of Destiny and present her with the Kokiri Emerald that the dark man hoped to find. She will know what to do.
And thus, Link's great adventure begins that will take him across Hyrule and eventually take him through time as he becomes the hero of time. Zelda: OoT is a wonderful fairy tale that will introduce you to fantastic characters and beautiful realms. While thin on dialogue and character development, the characters have wonderful body language and incredible facial expressions that give a tremendous unwritten depth to their development. Link is silent for the most part in the game except for the occasional grunt and shout in battle, but as it is a game told in the 1st person this isn't that big of a problem. It is easy for the player to overlay their personality and make the game even more involving. That combined with the option to change Link's name and the fantastic body language makes the story very personal if not in-depth. There are no huge emotional issues to deal with, just a fun adventure in a fairy tale world that makes you feel like you're really there.
The story does have one major flaw and that is its extreme similarity in the main thrust of its plot to the SNES Zelda: A Link to the Past. It is too close to be considered a carry over of theme but more a lack of originality. In a game where plot and story line is not the main focus, originality is very important. While the plot isn't horrible and is actually quite good, it was better the first time I experienced it in A Link to the Past. With all the attention that went into creating the supporting cast and making them unique, it wouldn't have hurt to change the direction of the plot to something more unique. Again, this is only a minor flaw and minor flaws are all you'll find in this game. The world in which the story takes place is wonderfully unique and beautiful and the focus is more on game play than story as it should be in an adventure game. I still would have liked to see the plot go in new directions. Have the world expand rather than simply having the same world change slightly through time. The plot is also extremely predictable even if you haven't played A Link to the Past. You know when things will happen in the story; you know when the other shoe will drop. As more and more games outside of the RPG genre allow story line to become more important, it feels like a hole is left when the story receives little attention. Again, minor flaws that don't detract from the enjoyment of the game unless you really focus on them.
"Better than Reality"
graphics in Zelda are just stunning. I never thought that 3D with current technology could really create a vibrant world full of personality the way 2D was able to. Zelda does it all with an incredible attention to detail and wonderfully smooth and realistic animation. The world of Hyrule lives and breathes unlike any you've experienced in a video game. As you first walk out of your tree house in the woods you will be looking at everything as you step into the middle of a true fairy tale world. The first time you cross Hyrule field you will have no choice but to stop and watch as the sky slowly turns from a deep blue to a purplish tint. Then a deep reddish purple as your shadow grows longer behind you and night finally falls and the moon rises behind you. And when you finally get to ride your horse into the sunset, it is one of the most wonderful gaming experiences I've ever had. I've never been so pulled into a world simply by the graphics presented to me and by the smooth animation of the characters. Some of the locales you just have to stop and look at. I could go on all day describing moments of wonder and joy just wandering around Hyrule and finding new tiny nuances. It's better experienced than described.
Another thing you'll notice about the characters that immediately floored me is that they have faces. And I don't mean those static pasted-on textures you find in most games. These look like hand drawn animation and they move and react to the situation. Link will look to the left and right not by turning his head but by moving his eyes. One thing that polygons have lacked is emotion. They always had the body language but no personality or expression. Zelda changes all of that as the line between 2D detail and 3D realism is cut ever closer and almost surpassed.
Cinema sequences in the game are handled by the game engine and are wonderfully done. No, there is no slick FMV but it isn't needed. The use of camera angles, special effects and proper zooms make the cinema scenes more than powerful enough. It's like having a tremendous director and a moderate cinematographer. Even if the picture isn't the most beautiful it could be, a great director can make it beautiful. FMV is not necessary and the cinemas in Zelda are better than most of the FMV I've seen because of the way it's handled. Some scenes are just as memorable as the best FMV I've seen in other games. It also helps to have great actors as the ones in Zelda have excellent body language and expression. There are scenes that I will never forget that could have been no more memorable with different technology.
There are also some minor graphical flaws. There are at times some slowdown during intense sequences but it never really hampers the game play. Also, the textures tend to get muddy due to the N64's use of filtering and many of the textures are used repeatedly because of lack of storage space. These are flaws of technology and not game design, and if the only flaws you can find are from technological limitations, they aren't really flaws. Graphically this game is just about perfect, and the only downside to that is where can the N64 go from here?
"Play Me A Tune"
As can be figured out from the title of the game, one of the main focuses is music. That is unless you didn't know that an Ocarina is a musical instrument. The Ocarina plays a large part in the game as certain songs you can learn will open up new events or let you warp to different areas. The music is beautifully composed and extremely catchy. You'll be whistling Ocarina songs for days after you finish playing. The soundtrack fits each area wonderfully and the only thing missing is the original Zelda over world theme that we've all come to love. Its replacement is just as good, but it feels like something is missing without that tune. While the compositions are excellent, weak sound quality and lack of variety in instrument hurt them. The N64's sound chip just can't compete with CD quality, but this is again a technological limitation. It hurts the game slightly, but hindsight is 20/20 and the developers aren't to blame.
The sound effects on the other hand are excellent and take advantage of the speed of the cartridge as effects and even music theme changes in real time. As you get close to danger the music changes to a more threatening tone without missing a beat. Also, effects change depending on your location as they have more echoes in large cavern and warble when underwater. Every sound is taken into consideration and given a unique effect. There are no overdone effects or samples from other games. It's this attention to detail that makes this game stand out from the rest.
There is minor use of voice from your fairy guide, Link's grunts and shouts, and other characters have some small voice sample for certain dialogue sequences. They are well done but it would have been nice to have more, especially in cinemas. It would have added even more character and deepened the immersion factor.
"Sword and Song"
Zelda's game play finally solves just about every problem that has plagued 3D games. The analog controller that you move Link with is as tight as controls get. Maneuvering him is just plain fun and you will never be frustrated by the controls. Link can attack with his sword with the b-button and use his shield with the right shoulder button. The arrow buttons control Link's mini-weapons like his slingshot and boomerang. The up arrow button places you in a first person perspective so you can look around. The a-button is an all around action button. It performs most of the physical tasks that Link needs to perform like climbing or pushing blocks. These actions are prompted at the top of the screen. When you come to a block and walk into it, a prompt at the top of the screen will show the blue button and the option you have to either grab the block or climb on top. It sounds somewhat complicated and there is a bit of a learning curve, but it really makes things so much easier once you get used to it. There is no jump button as the computer performs jumping. If you run to a ledge you will jump automatically. I was wary of this at first but it works perfectly and solves another problem with 3D game play as judging distance and timing was always a real pain in the ass in 3D.
The most important button is the z-button, or the trigger button under the analog stick. This button will make the camera jump to the behind Link view and will also lock onto enemies when they get close enough. This is the most ingenious aspect of the game design. When you are locked on you can circle your foe and never have to worry about getting lost running in circles trying to face them. Hand to hand 3D combat was a major pain before, but with this system it is a breeze and extremely fun. The N64 controller was designed just for this type of game and the two mesh perfectly to create absolutely flawless controls.
Besides battling, the major chunk of the game play is puzzle solving. The dungeons are ingeniously designed and will really challenge you. It takes the Zelda formula of finding the switch, beating the enemy, getting the right tool and beating the boss into full 3D with spatial puzzles that will boggle the mind unless you're used to games like Tomb Raider. The only major flaw I found in the design is the obscurity of certain tasks. Most of these are not in dungeons but out in the fields and towns. There is barely a hint as to the way to complete some of these tasks and only major trial and error or mind numbing exploration will get them for you. Luck also helps. It's also no surprise to me that the official strategy guide for this game is the best selling ever and that sites like GameFAQ's have increased almost 3 times in the number of hits after the release of this game. These puzzles are there to sell the strategy guides, plain and simple. I don't like it and I can't ignore it. The booming business of strategy guides is actually interfering with game play and I think it's a bad trend. Zelda isn't the first to suffer this and it won't be the last. I was lucky to get through Zelda as quickly as I did with only having to ask for help once. I just kind of stepped into certain solutions by accident. It's okay to have obscure secrets but not major elements needed to finish the game. Getting through the dungeons is hard enough.
And speaking of secrets, Zelda has a ton of them. Spells to find, weapon upgrades, heart container pieces and the soon to be infamous gold skulltula. There are also a ton of mini-games to play like horseback archery or Bombchu Bowling, all of which are well-conceived and fun to play. At times you will just forget about the main story as you sniff out secrets.
One of the key aspects of the game play is time travel. Half the game you play as Link at 10 years old, the other half is Link at 17. Each Link has specific weapons at his disposal that the other can't use. And certain actions performed by young Link will help adult Link find secrets, and the two working together are the only way to solve two of the dungeons. Another ingenious aspect of the game that really shows that Shigeru Miyamoto is still the standard setter as far as game play is concerned. Aside from the occasional camera problems and the slowness of Z-targeting to lock on to flying enemies, the game play is pretty much flawless. It sets new standards that you will see just about every game that follows take a piece from.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is as close to perfect in its execution as I've ever seen a video game come. Most of the flaws I found were due to technology limitations and personal preference. It is the best game I've played this year, if not the most original. It has taken 3D to a level that only better technology could possibly surpass. It is visual bliss and pure fun to play. If you miss out on this one, you're really missing out on one of the best gaming experiences you could possibly have. It may not be the N64's savior, it may not be perfect or the best game ever, but its creators are deserving of the praise they have received. Borrow, beg or steal but at least play this game once.