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7/03/2016

Ten Bad Things About Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Ocarina of Time is doubtlessly one of Nintendo's most popular games, introducing many fans to the Zelda franchise and giving its heroes and main villain a long-awaited origin story.  And while I don't think Ocarina of Time is a bad game by any means, it is one of my least favorite Zelda games.  So I shall count down ten reasons as to why I rarely revisit this particular entry in the franchise.

1. Navi

Yeah, it's trendy to hate on Navi, but I also think it's justified to a point.  Not so much for the annoyance of the character's voice clips (though that is certainly a factor), but more for the fact that she basically ruins a lot of the experience.  She frequently interrupts the action to tell you things that you could easily figure out with five seconds of searching, and removes a pretty substantial puzzle element of the game by literally explaining every single bosses' weakness to you.  Nintendo gets criticized a lot these days for trivializing the gameplay with things like auto-completing levels and "easy modes" that make it essentially impossible to lose, but this is where it truly began.

2. The Soundtrack

Zelda as a franchise is well known for its distinct and iconic music, with Link to the Past and the original game in particular ranking among some of the most beloved soundtracks in video game history.  Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, somehow not only manages to neglect the series' most iconic track, but also fill the rest of its areas with songs that range from decent (Kokiri Woods) to mostly forgettable (many of the dungeons) to outright annoying (the Forest temple).  I can't say for sure what led them in this direction artistically, but it doesn't help the game to be particularly iconic or memorable in my mind.

3. The drab visuals

This isn't really a knock against Ocarina of Time itself, but more for the Nintendo 64's general aesthetics just not aging very well.  Lots of drab gray and brown textures that look very stretched and ugly, lending the game an overall unappealing aesthetic.  That, paired with some rather blocky character models that don't match the more nicely "rounded" graphics of LTTP or Link's Awakening, don't make this one of the more visually likable games in the series.

4. Mostly generic items

Another thing many of the earlier Zelda games became iconic for was the wide array of weapons and items the player could utilize to complete puzzles and traverse dungeons.  Whether it was lighting up rooms with the candle, bombing walls to reach new rooms, zipping across pits with the hookshot, or traversing large pits with a combination of the Pegasus Boots and the Roc's Feather, each game had a distinct and memorable set of items to utilize.  Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, mostly retreads familiar ground - bombs, the slingshot (later upgraded to a bow), the hookshot and several other items return, but there really isn't much new to see here (and the few that are, like the new tunics and the Silver Scale, get used maybe once or twice and then never touched again).  Just because the game is a prequel doesn't mean it should feel like a step back mechanically too, at least in my opinion.

5. Repetitive puzzles

With a much smaller range of items comes a significantly smaller variety of puzzles, which means you'll be seeing a lot of bombing walls, lighting the stick on fire to burn webs, and shooting those eyeball switches above doors.  Or my personal favorite, playing the same ocarina song again and again to activate switches so you can constantly adjust the water level to traverse the Water Temple! It's somewhat expected given the nature of the game, but it still doesn't make for a very mentally engaging experience.

6. Lame Sidequests

Whether it was Skulltula hunting, looking for Big Poes (who tend to vanish before you can even draw a bead on them with your bow) mask selling or just wandering around with the Stone of Agony hoping to uncover a hidden hole, then guessing exactly what item you needed to use to uncover it, this was really where Zelda's sidequests started to be much less fun and more like a chore.  And on a larger scale, seemingly inspired boring sidequests like the Arkham series' Riddler Trophies and Grand Theft Auto's ever-fun "package hunting", just giving the player dozens and dozens of inane tasks to do to fill out runtime.  Barf.

7. The general design of the game

The previous three entries were all noteworthy in their own right, but they were also emblematic of a larger problem: Ocarina of Time, on the whole, feels like the game's developers were fighting against the Nintendo 64's limitations much more than they were using its power to their advantage.  This results in a lot of drab areas, forgettable puzzles and quests and generally much slower gameplay.  I think the most perfect example of this is on the game's overworld - a mostly flat, empty plain devoid of almost anything interesting to see or interact with (and no, I don't count infinitely-respawning skeleton enemies during the night hours).  They also clearly had much bigger plans in store for this game, as evidenced by unused code revealing numerous unused objects and even suggesting two more dungeons that Kid Link would have to traverse in the past (ice and wind-themed dungeons, which have some remnants left over in Ganon's Castle and the short ice cavern Adult Link faces).   This is understandable to a degree as the Nintendo 64 was notoriously difficult to program for, but it still makes this feel like a step back from the earlier Zelda games in a lot of ways.  Fortunately they later took advantage of the Nintendo 64 Expansion pack to produce Majora's Mask, a game which addresses many of Ocarina of Time's shortcomings as well as bringing many new twists to the gameplay in order to prove that a full-fledged N64 Zelda was a very real possibility.

8. Gannondorf's incredibly contrived plan

I honestly didn't mind Ganon's origin or appearance as much as many fans; he had a decent design and definitely possessed an aura of menace that perfectly belied the warlock who claimed the Triforce of Power (though his backstory is a bit silly, but eh, it's a fantasy game.  I can accept him being a lone male of an all-female tribe).  Not to mention LTTP established that he was once a thief who attained his current form after acquiring the Triforce.  Fair enough.  But what does bother me about it is just how contrived his means of acquiring the Triforce end up being.

So basically, the guy's plan is to acquire the three keys to the Temple of Time and then enter the Golden Realm to get the Triforce.  Okay, I get that.  The Deku Tree also refuses to give up the Kokiri Emerald, so he curses him.  That makes sense too.  But the rest of the events leading up to the temple of time's opening are... awfully convenient, to say the least.  Zelda and Link conspire to stop the guy, leading to Link collecting the the three stones and Zelda getting her hands on the Ocarina of Time so that they can open the Temple of Time.  Gannondorf somehow not only knows all this from getting a mere glance at Link through the courtyard window (a person whom he has literally never seen before that moment), but also seems to bank on the fact that he would brave all the dangers, succeed in collecting the three stones, and that he would be passing in front of Hyrule Town at the exact right moment for Zelda to throw him the Ocarina of Time as she and Impa fled the castle.  That's... extremely convenient, to say the least, not to mention something he would have any logical way of knowing in advance.

Not only that, but even if he did somehow have a way of knowing all this, why didn't he just kill Link then and there?  The guy held all the keys to the Temple of Time, and we know that Link certainly had no way of knowing that he wasn't able to claim the Triforce yet because of his age (a plot point which does not exist in any other Zelda game, I might add).  So why would Gannondorf gamble on Link opening the door before making his move?

So either, Gannondorf has the ability to predict the future to an absolute T, or he just ended up getting extremely lucky.  Personally my money's on the latter, because if he really were that omniscient and powerful, there's no way he'd ever lose to Link in the first place...

(And yes, Demise's dialog in Skyward Sword somewhat justifies this by saying that Link's family line is cursed to keep fighting evil forever, but it still doesn't make this chain of events any less absurd...)

9. The lame twist

I talked about how lame Gannondorf's plan was, so now it's time to follow up by discussing the other side: where Link and Zelda come into the equation.  They conspire to stop Gannondorf by getting the keys,opening the Temple of Time, pulling the Master Sword from its pedestal, and acquiring the Triforce before he can.  Fair enough; that makes sense from their viewpoint.  But again, the devil is in the details.  They succeed in collecting all the keys, Link opens the temple and enters the Golden Realm to collect the Triforce...

...only to wake up seven years in the Future and be told that he wasn't yet of his destined age to claim the Triforce, so he just fell into a coma or something and the powers that be left the door wide open for Gannondorf to come in and claim it instead.  To which I can only say, "What kind of lame-ass fucking twist is that?!" The only limitation we'd seen on the Triforce's power before this point was that it depended upon the sincerity of its user; as evidenced in the ending to Link to the Past.  In it, Link's wish to undo Ganon's evil managed to remove all traces of him and his minions from Hyrule and even revive his slain uncle; because it was a selfless wish and he made it with full sincerity, it overpowered Ganon's corruption on every front.  Not to mention that several of the later Links in the series would be about the same age as the young Link in this game (most prominently Wind Waker's) and that this same Link would go on to save another world in his own right as a kid, so basing one's capability for good on their age really doesn't make a lot of sense within the series' own canon.

That's bad enough, but we then learn that the only thing that stopped Ganon from essentially becoming a god was a convenient Deus ex Machina.  Those whose hearts are not "in balance" cannot claim the full power of the Triforce right away; instead, he simply gets the fragment he desires most (Power) while the other two go to their "pre-destined" owners (who happen to be Link and Zelda).   I maintain that prequel stories can be done well, but trivializing the human element entirely and just having them be slaves to fate is a completely wrong-headed way to set up the three major players of the franchise.

The worst part, though, is that this could be mitigated with just a simple rewrite or two.  Consider this:
  • Ganondorf (somehow) knows that Link holds all the keys, so he just knocks him down and seems to pursue Zelda as a ruse.  Thinking he's in the clear, Link proceeds to the Temple, opens the door, and pulls the Master Sword... only for Gannondorf to suddenly appear and make his move, blasting Link aside with this magic* and entering the gate in his place.  That would make a bit more sense; young Link wouldn't be able to effectively wield the power of the Master Sword yet (blade of evil's bane or not, he's had no time to get accustomed to wielding it), and it would also perfectly play to Gannondorf's nature as a cunning thief.  They could even keep the future scenario by having Link pick up the sword again and follow him in, only to find that Gannondorf's will as the Triforce's bearer is now absolute and he has to face him on his own terms in the future he's created.  They wouldn't even need to have the whole debacle with the Triforce and its "destined owners" thing, because guess what?  LTTP's Ganon had all three parts of the Triforce and was essentially a god, yet Link still managed to defeat him there!
* Hell, take it a step further and have Gannondorf attempt to outright kill Link at this point, only to have him be protected form certain death by the power of the Master Sword; then, in a moment of haste/arrogance, Gannondorf doesn't bother to make sure he's dead before entering the gate.  That would play perfectly to his evil nature, as well lend itself perfectly to the recurring theme in the series - that Ganon's overconfidence always ends up being his downfall.

10. Sheik

Link's ally in the dark future, who turns out to actually be Princess Zelda in disguise.  (And no, that's not a spoiler; they outright give it away in games like Smash Bros.).  That's fine (and makes sense, given the story), but Sheik doesn't actually end up doing a whole lot over the course of the game.  All you ever really see her do is pop in, give you a new song to teleport to an area and the disappear again, which is a little disappointing when you consider that they really hyped Sheik up as a character in marketing for the game (even showing her fighting monsters alongside link in some promotional images):


...But you never really see anything like that in the actual game.  That may have been due to the whole "Nintendo 64 limitations" thing I talked about in a previous point, but still, they could have at least done something with the character.  Later games do something like this at least; Majora's Mask has a "co-op dungeon" where you switch back and forth with another character to unlock doors in tandem, and Skyward Sword has Princess Zelda undertake her own quest (albeit mostly off-camera) while Link is off completing dungeons for his half of the prophecy.  I can only assume they had something similar in mind with Sheik, but just didn't have a means to implement it given system and time constraints.

Honorable Mention: The lackluster 3DS "remake"

When I heard they were putting Ocarina of Time 3D on the 3DS, I liked what I saw from screenshots; they definitely polished up the graphics quite a bit and gave them some much-needed color balance and sharper textures.  Unfortunately when I played it, the upgrades were almost entirely just visual things; much better looking characters and environments, a higher framerate, faster text scrolling... and that's pretty much it.  Not really much in the way of extra content or tightening up the game's controls (like, say, more complete control of the camera) or addressing any of the drabness of the level design; this was a bare-bones visual facelift.  Hell, they could have at least ended in an alternate ending for being defeated by Ganon, seeing as a pretty substantial portion of the Zelda timeline branches off from a future where Link is defeated by Ganon in their final battle...

So there you go.  I maintain that OOT is not a bad game, but it was a letdown in a lot of ways, and as a result is one of my least favorite Zeldas.  Still, there are other games in the series that do them right: Twilight Princess is a "remake" of sorts that hits many of its story cues while putting its own flair on them, Majora's Mask seemingly was made to showcase that the Nintendo 64 could do much more than OOT would have you believe (albeit with the aid of a RAM expansion), and Skyward Sword attempted to patch up one of the most glaring story problems.  So yeah, give those a go.