Monday, December 26, 2011

Fifty - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Yup. 50 videogames beaten in one year. I won't dwell on it in this space, though, because this is supposed to be a review. Number 50 is probably the one game that I was most embarrassed not to have played over the years: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Well, I say review, but mostly it's the bleary-eyed rambling of a crazy person (yours truly). First, some 'splaining: I like Zelda, but I've been avoiding it. I own most of the games in the series in some form (12 out of 16 after a quick count), but I've beaten only five of them. Most of why this Zelda evasion has occurred is my hesitation in "switching" to 3D. I'm used to the top-down Zelda games, and for me that's simply what Zelda is; those five I've beaten are A Link to the Past and the four Zeldas made for various Game Boys. I've never owned an N64 and I didn't own a GameCube until around when the Wii debuted, so I've missed the boat on trying out the 3D ones when their hype was peaking, and my uncertainty and wariness of the "new" Zelda style made it easy for me to dismiss them as they've come along.

Yes, I know that reasoning isn't reasonable at all. I was acting like an angry old man hating on rock and roll, but at least now I've finally caved in. This review concerns the version of Ocarina of Time included as part of the Zelda Collection from way back in 2003, which I found used at a Gamestop during college (the box amusingly has NOT FOR RESALE in bold letters on the front). I started to play the game in mid-2008 and beat the first few dungeons, but I shelved it late in the semester when work was piling up and exams were on the horizon. For awhile I totally forgot about my GameCube and never even plugged it in for years.

When I started this 2011 gaming project, Ocarina of Time was one of the first incomplete games that came to my mind. When I started planning out games to play in the second half of this year, I figured to go out with a bang and make OoT the final title, similarly to how I made Portal my final game of 2010. Long story short, this playthrough has been in the works for awhile.

So this game has a lot of history behind it. It's one of the most acclaimed games of all time. It reinvented one of the most beloved and popular videogame series of all time. When I first played it in 2008 I had an enthusiastic roommate hovering over my shoulder providing commentary and advice (which wasn't usually asked for...). At first the game seemed a little trite and lacking in real drama, but then the first big twist occurred (the events immediately after Link obtains the Master Sword). Right when the game started getting good and I started getting more impressed, school reared its ugly head and Ocarina of Time got stuck in my backlog.

But that's in the past. In the past ten days I've taken on the last two-thirds of the game and conquered it. First, let me say that this is still very much a traditional Zelda game - you seek magical MacGuffins by exploring dungeons united by an overworld, and amass a ton of weapons, clothes, tools, and collectibles on the way. Many of this game's strengths and weaknesses are simply strengths and weaknesses of the Zelda formula (more on this later), but the overall package is definitely solid.

The plot is pretty basic, but features enough intrigue to keep me invested. Link is a young boy, Zelda is a princess, and there's an up-and-coming usurper to the royal family's power named Ganondorf. Prompted by Zelda, Link finds three mystical jewels required to obtain the royal family's sealed power before Ganondorf does, and soon after (avoiding spoilers), Link must collect six medallions of the primary and secondary colors in order to defeat Ganondorf.

The story's framework is nothing special, but Ocarina of Time's 3D gamescape (is that a word? Sure, I'll roll with it) brings a level of cinema that previous Zeldas never had. Encounters with NPCs are more personal, boss battles are more dramatic, and major plot events have more impact. And trust me, there are some impactful scenes in this game. At OoT's major break point, when Link explores the world to see how it's changed, it's a wake-up call every bit as stunning as The Day of Judgement in Final Fantasy VI or the major turn in Portal 2. Ocarina of Time's story outline isn't anything special, but its presentation and execution are excellent and were probably downright amazing in spoiler-free 1998.

The game's environments are some of its most and least impressive parts. Allow me to explain in the next few paragraphs: perhaps because I'm used to the ultra-busy Zelda maps in A Link to the Past, but the world isn't that huge. On horseback Link can traverse the map in a few minutes. Worse, the game's major overworld zone, Hyrule Field, which interconnects Hyrule's different regions, is empty and boring - no enemies, no hidden caves, and the biggest landmark outside of a new area are fences. In the older Zelda games, a simple traverse from a safe zone to a dungeon was every bit as dangerous as the dungeon proper. Sure, Hyrule field has some great adventurous music and an enthusiastic "setting out" vibe to it, but I wasn't sold. Other areas, like Zora's River, the Death Mountain Trail, Gerudo Valley, and Lake Hylia, are okay enough in content, but were mere linear paths and not as sprawling or richly detailed as I wanted them to be.

One thing this game does do right is having hidden shit everywhere. Every major area of the game with the possible exception of the near-empty Hyrule Field has nooks and crannies full of goodies that Link can collect for various bonuses. The game's four or five town areas also have shops, mini-games, and secrets of their own worth exploring. Most of these side activities are totally optional, but useful enough to make them absolutely worth pursuing. I beat the game with only two bottles (max four), maybe a quarter of the Skulltullas, and under half of the heart pieces. I'm pretty sure I found all of the Great Fairies, though. I would have had MUCH more difficulty with this game if I didn't have the sword obtained from the game's second trading quest.

And I know I hated on the game's outdoor areas somewhat, but here's where I make up for it: these are the best dungeons in Zelda history. They aren't my normal beloved Zelda dungeons, but I think they're better. For one, most of them are elegantly organized, with the Deku Tree, Fire Temple, and Water Temple creating tremendous feelings of height and depth to their multiple floors and every dungeon in the game creating a sense of scale perhaps unseen in any game prior. Sure, I have played several games with superior presentations of scale and vastness (Shadow of the Colossus, God of War III, et al.), but none nearly this old. A 13-year old game impressing me with its building architecture and scale? Dayum, Nintendo. For the record, yes, the Water Temple was tricky, but I still think its legendary trickiness is overrated. It's hard to say which dungeon was my favorite (a bunch were great), but my least-favorite was definitely Jabu-Jabu's Belly.

So sure, the dungeons are very nice, the overworld sections are less nice, and there is stuff hidden in a lot of places. Here's where polygonal graphics come into play. Look, two of the 90s favorite types of visuals, pre-rendered 3D (Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Donkey Kong Country) and 3D polygons (Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time) look butt-ugly today. Maybe it's the better television screens, but it's probably the high level of fully-rendered 3D visuals present in nearly every game. Maybe it's how my brain's wired, but I think that sprite-based videogames of the 90s look better than 3D graphics of the 90s. Both of those get their asses kicked by 3D graphics of the 2000s, but come on.

Ocarina of Time's polygons aren't that bad, especially on Link, important NPCs, and on massive structures like dungeon architecture and large land features, but nameless NPCs and smaller details look awful, and the lack of texture on spaces like grass, dirt, and even stone floors is noticeable bordering on unappealing. A lot of Ocarina of Time's designs hold up great, but the technical quality of its graphics does not.

One other weakness of this game is its camera. Sure, it's a 1998 video game, but I still have a right to complain. It's L- and Z-targeting system was groundbreaking and important, yes, but far from perfect. Switching between targets or dropping a target is difficult, and messing with the L-targeting often screws up your camera in a way that will lead you straight off a cliff or into an enemy. The aiming for Link's slingshot, bow, and hookshot were nice and clean and useable, even with the lack of reticules for some weapons, but I wished it were less sensitive. Maybe I just suck with a bow and am complaining for no good reason, but at times it was quite frustrating.

Now, Ocarina of Time is a faithful adaptation of the Zelda formula, but they do have a few specific additions and themes to the gameplay that I'd call successful bordering on brilliant. First, the titular Ocarina. Yes, this is the third Zelda game with an Ocarina ("Flute" in the English translation of A Link to the Past), but this is the first one that has you play individual songs, and learn a whopping 12 or 13 of them. The addition of the music learning and playing is an interesting mechanic that becomes second-nature quickly, and also makes parts of the game's soundtrack all the more memorable.

Second, Epona. Zelda map seems a bit too massive? Make travel faster, easier, and more fun by riding on horseback! Link on a horse was a fabulous idea, and it's no accident that in every Zelda since Link's had some kind of animal or vehicle transport. Third, clothes. Link's had costume changes in the past, but never like this. Link's outfit is now a crucial gameplay mechanic, and his tunic, boots, and gloves have major gameplay implications. By the endgame, you can essentially choose the color of Link's tunic based on personal preferences.

Now here's where I start alternately praising and defaming Zelda's core concepts and mechanics. I'll avoid straight-up action mechanics, because they're usually pretty good and are actually quite solid in Ocarina of Time (3 hotkeys of sorts for inventory items? Yes please!). First, Zelda's arsenal. Nothing but love for the sword, shield, and bow, but everything else? You might as well just have different color-coded keys. Nearly every item in Zelda history other than those three just referenced are A) used in very specific ways to advance through the dungeons in which they are found; B) the crux to defeating specific bosses; and C) will be totally unused when they're not crucial. Sure, I know there are a ton of Hookshot fans out there, but really. Who uses the hammer, the various boots, or Deku products when they aren't required for an enemy or puzzle? Zelda puzzles are designed to make you feel smart. Sure, they're often tricky, impressive, or ingenious even, but really - Link keeps a kajillion weapons in his invisible backpack, but other than the sword, shield, and bow they might as well be funny-shaped keys.

But hey, I love the basics to Zelda's gameplay. Collecting shit? Tons of varied weapons and items? Big dungeons and overworld treks? Colorful, cartoony visuals with a certain innocent sense of adventure? Zelda is to adventure games as Mario is to platformers and Dragon Quest is to JRPGs. It's the founder, the standard, the brightly-colored Japanese legend. Maybe not the pinnacle, but usually damn good and deserving of its legion of fans. I'd hate on Zelda like some kind of hipster Tim Rogers jerk, but it isn't worth it. Not only are Zelda games often good, they have the instant clout and appeal that comes from simply being Zelda. I don't want to say they're above criticism, but hating on them will just get you called a hater.

I could list more gripes about Ocarina of Time, but it wouldn't be worth it. I missed out on playing it when it was a stunning, game-changing work of art. Its visuals and controls haven't aged wonderfully, but they're still totally serviceable and almost everything in place is usually pretty good and at times downright awesome. Even if it's not my favorite Zelda game, I can definitely say that Ocarina of Time is an outstanding videogame. Mostly, I'm glad that I finally played it through.

Games Beaten: 2011 Edition

1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
5. Flower
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II
31. Jade Empire
32. Cthulhu's Angels
33. DeathSpank: Orphans of Justice
34. Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
35. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
36. Trine
37. Prince of Persia '08
38. Final Fantasy IV: Anniversary Edition
39. Professor Layton and the Last Specter
40. inFamous: Festival of Blood
41. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
42. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
43. Bastion
44. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 1
45. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
46. Portal 2
47. BioShock
48. Shadow of the Colossus
49. Ico
50. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time


That's it. I'm done. I no longer have a deadline for my gaming hobby, so my next gaming projects will either be revisiting games from earlier this year (Dragon Age, Disgaea, inFamous, Bastion) or beginning something that will take me longer than six days to finish ('ll see). Even if my criteria was at times spotty (beating just the final boss in Paper Mario TTYD, beating that shitty arcade game at MAGFest, the special mode in Cthulhu Saves the World), I'm glad I did it. I mean, almost all of the items on that list are totally legitimate - I knocked out a ton of my backlog, and exposed myself to some cool new experiences!

So now that I've beaten 50 games in 2011, am I going for 60 in 2012? Oh hell no. I have some specific gaming goals and projects planned for 2012, but I'll detail those in a blog post later this week. For now, I'll just celebrate the end of the year... with my brand new (...used) Nintendo Wii. Hey, I'm in a good mood. It's nice to set goals and meet them.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on 50! And ending with a bang at that! Now you can get cracking on Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword!

    It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since I first beat this game. I've been trying to walk my sister through the game, but not at a very fast pace. :|