Ocarina of Time Retrospective:
I'm a little late, but November 21, 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. So, I've decided to celebrate this special anniversary by writing a retrospective for the game that made such a monumental impact on the video game industry and on my life.
Like most games of this caliber, I will refrain from sharing all of my thoughts, especially since this is a Zelda game and I could go on endlessly about the symbolism, dungeon designs, and the lore. Instead, I will be focusing on what currently sticks out to me most when reminiscing about this game as well as some common criticisms.
I have an unbelievable amount of love and praise for this game, but I actually think it would be best to go over my two major criticisms with this game before getting to why I believe it is so incredible. Admittedly, part of me wants to go over the criticisms first in an attempts to try to appeal to the people who seem to think that people who adore this game only do so because they are blinded by nostalgia and that this game is actually overrated and has not aged well. My suspicion is that this growing resentment has been sparked by how Ocarina of Time arguably had the title for not just the greatest Zelda game but the greatest game of all time longer than any other game. As with anything that sits at the top, it will spark people to resent it and will inevitably be heavily criticized from the enormous weight of holding the title of the greatest video game of all time. Obviously, this game will not be for everyone and the flaws can be far more harmful for how enjoyable their experience is than it is for others, but as far as I can tell, the flaws of this game pale in comparison to the brilliance, greatness, and magic this game holds.
So what are the flaws and criticisms of this game? Well, I would argue that there are only two major flaws and I do agree that they significantly detract from the game, especially as time goes on and on repeat playthroughs. The first flaw is that Hyrule Field is painfully barren: lacking in enemies, characters, secrets, activities, or even any meaningful scenery. With that said, and I think this flaw is exaggerated an unfortunate amount, I am not talking about the game world as a whole. Ocarina of Time has a plethora of interesting side-quests, delightful characters, variety of enemies, secrets, rewards, towns, and a wonderful variety of level design in terms of scenery and atmosphere. It is simply Hyrule Field itself that is very little more than a way to get from Point A to Point B, and with how often you have to traverse this area that can get old fast. I believe that this field was also intended to evoke a strong sense of adventure, but as time has gone on, it is hardly successful in this. As for the second flaw of this game, I think the child portion is fairly dull and tedious to get through from a gameplay perspective which accounts for roughly a third of this game. From a story and symbolism perspective, this portion does a tremendous job at introducing the characters, setting up key plot elements and the over-arching theme of this game which is growing up and maturity. However, from a gameplay perspective this portion of the game has an unfortunate amount of backtracking which is amplified in how tedious it is given how barren Hyrule Field is. On top of that, this portion of the game has several parts where it is ambiguous and even arbitrary for what you need to do in order to progress and this can really cripple someone's experience with this game or even ruin it if they are unable to figure out how to proceed. Furthermore, the dungeons of the child portion are also a lot less fun, exciting, or interesting to get through. The puzzles are less involved, the atmosphere isn't as enticing, and some aspects such as carrying Ruto around in Jabu-Jabu are fairly tedious. This makes the pacing and gameplay of the first portion of the game fairly average at best and at worst it can ruin someone's experience who can not figure out what the game wants them to do to progress.
Now, with that out of the way, let me talk about the biggest reasons I view this game as a masterpiece to this day despite its flaws and why it is so near and dear to my heart. The first reason is this game has absolutely superb dungeon design in terms of atmosphere, length, puzzles, bosses, and use of key items. I know I said the child portion had average dungeons, but the adult portion which makes up roughly two-thirds of this game and the bulk of the dungeons are an incredible improvement. As far as atmosphere goes, this game has you going through a mysterious worn out mansion in the woods with haunting, eerie music, the depths of a volcano with strange chanting in the music, or a temple far into the desert with religious figures and symbols. The atmosphere in each of these dungeons are top-notch and really evoke and sense of awe, wonder, mystery, danger, isolation, and/or adventure. The puzzles are a lot more clever and involved and they make great use of their dungeon items which are creative, fun to use, and exciting to find. Even the Water Temple has grown on me significantly over the years, it challenges the player intellectually in such a special way that I rarely see other games tackle. For this dungeon, the puzzle is the dungeon itself as it deeply tests the players spacial sense and memorization skills. The player needs to navigate the dungeon and keep track of the locations of all the different rooms, the locations of the water alterations, and the player must think about how more or less water might affect what they are able to do in a given room. This dungeon really evokes the feeling that you are navigating though a massive labyrinth and the task of mapping the dungeon in your mind is truly enthralling to me. Ocarina of Times dungeons have a level of depth and complexity that makes each dungeon truly special and memorable and they challenge the player in a way, especially intellectually, that I rarely get elsewhere.
Now for the biggest reason that I see this game as so special and why it had such a strong impact on me and that is the characterization of Link in this specific Zelda game. The tragic hero is a trope that has been part of stories for countless times, but Ocarina of Time executed this in such a meaningful yet tragic way that it had such a great impact on how I view heroes and what growing up and maturity really means which is the main theme of this game. When you go through the story of Link in this game you have a boy who grew up feeling like he never belonged as he was an orphan in Kokiri Village and was never truly one of them, and for it people treated him like he was different and weird and he only had a single friend growing up. The Great Deku Tree which was a father figure to Link died when he was only a kid despite his best efforts to save him. The Great Deku Tree, in his last words asked Link to help carry out a mission to save Hyrule, and so Link did, and he plotted with Zelda on how to stop Ganondorf from taking over the kingdom. Once again though, despite Links best efforts or rather because of Links efforts, Ganondorf took over the kingdom when Link pulled the Master Sword and on top of that, Link lost his childhood in an instance or in more symbolic terms, Link lost his innocence and view of a bright world. When Link came out from his seven year slumber, the kingdom was in ruins and Ganondorf reigned terror all because he opened the door to the Triforce for him. Even then, instead of giving up or feeling as if he's incapable, Link set out to save Hyrule even though he was just a kid in an adult's body and he was without any friends or allies besides his one companion Navi that The Great Deku Tree sent him. As the game goes on, he slowly grows closer to a character named Sheik who tries to lead him in the right direction literally and metaphorically as Sheik teaches Link what growing up really means since he was forced to grow up so fast. At the end up the game, after saving Hyrule, Zelda who turned out to be Sheik all along, sends Link back in time to his childhood body. However, now he is without Zelda/Sheik which is one of the only friends he's ever had and right after he is returned to his childhood, Navi leaves him without a word. Link lived in isolation, people leaving or dying on him, and the weight of the world for most of his life and yet he still strived to save Hyrule and to help people and he never lost his sense of self. The way Link kept moving forward despite everything that happened to him had such a strong impact on me, especially when I was really young playing through this game. I have heard some people say this game has a basic plot, but I can not understand that in the slightest. With the themes of maturity and growing up, the plot twists, and the characterization and tragic lives of Link and Zelda this will always be a special story and one of the most defining examples of what true maturity really means.
For these reasons, Ocarina of Time remains as one of my most favorite and most praised video games- I even order write essay for me about Ocarina not because of my deep nostalgia with it, not just for the impact it had on my life or the industry, but because it is truly a brilliant masterpiece that has stood the test of time.
"Time passes, people move. Like a river's flow, it never ends. A childish mind will turn to noble ambition. Young love will become deep affection. The clear water's surface reflects growth. Now listen to the Serenade of Water to reflect upon yourself."-