Some Really Quick Thoughts on Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I promise.

You don’t disappear down the N64 Zelda nostalgia rabbit hole for 30 hours this late in a game-stacked 2021 without at least writing something about your experience. Well that’s how you justify the time spent. If you’re me.

You see, it turns out it’s been a tick over a decade since I last played through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – in the form of its wonderful 2011 3DS remake – and almost two decades since I gave its original blocky Nintendo 64 iteration a go. I have never played the 60Hz version – as I’ve only ever lived in (50Hz) PAL regions and so only remember a version of OoT that runs literally 16.7% slower than the American/Japanese release. I never owned an N64 Rumble Pak either. Despite this blog housing lengthy posts devoted to Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword – even a short reflective post on Spirit Tracks – I have never typed out anything on the legendary time-travelling 3D Zelda standard-bearer lasting longer than two consecutive paragraphs.

The recent addition of N64 games (and a controller to match) to the Nintendo Switch Online service gave me a fine opportunity to address all that.

It’s All Been Said Before

The most imposing barrier to my Ocarina of Time writing motivation has always been its status as “everyone’s favourite Zelda game” during my formative years playing videogames. I didn’t own any gaming platforms when the game first came out, but was properly invested in the medium for every subsequent Zelda game release; every 3D Zelda since OoT was already destined to be measured up directly and exhaustively, but this timing made the game’s shadow feel especially inescapable. For well over a decade I found any opinion other than “Ocarina is the best one” to be unpopular at best.

Discourse always felt dead in the water.

I’ve always enjoyed Ocarina of Time, but attempting to discuss it with people has never been particularly fruitful for me; it seems like every other game in the series has more interesting strengths and weaknesses. Not only that, but Ocarina did a genuinely fantastic job of bringing the stellar Link to the Past Zelda formula into three dimensions; the adulation it receives is not undeserved. The nostalgia haze around the game is strong, make no mistake, but there is no great wool-pull conspiracy going on here. It may have understandably aged in places, but this is a good videogame.

It’s just a boring one to write about. Or it was, until recently.

Now my thoughts can take flig- you know what I just find this picture really funny.

From the beginning I’ve thought of Ocarina of Time as the “vanilla” 3D Zelda game, because it codified so many successful series tropes. The inevitable side implication is that its successors each take a couple of those tropes and implement them with far more razzle-dazzle.

Majora’s Mask does sidequests and minigames better while tap dancing all over the tonally unsettling parts of its predecessor; The Wind Waker does combat and wonder like a champion and looks / sounds sensationally timeless doing it; Twilight Princess outdoes its direct inspiration in scale, heft and dungeon ambition; Skyward Sword nails narrative, pacing, item quality and lore substance; and Breath of the Wild just blows the doors off what was thought possible for nonlinearity in 3D Zelda. It’s been a long time since I genuinely believed Ocarina of Time was the best Zelda game in any particular category; even if it does plenty of things well, it has a real master-of-none vibe in retrospect nowadays.

And speaking of Skyward Sword, I wrote a LOT about it this year.

It wasn’t long into my 2021 test-turned-playthrough of Ocarina of Time before I realised this neat internal summary of the classic might need a tweak or two, because it turns out the game does do something better than its younger counterparts: It’s arguably more rewarding to replay than any of them.

The Lego Set Zelda Game

I am not a huge replayer of games, to be clear; I would almost always rather play something new than something I’ve already played (remakes and prominent remasters notwithstanding), particularly nowadays with so many rich veins of new games all around us. The only franchise seemingly capable of breaking through this is Pokemon, and only because the team-powered replayability of each game in the mainline series is sky-high. How “replayable” a game is hasn’t been a relevant mark of quality for me in at least 15 years, so I’m sure fans in the habit of conducting annual Zelda game playthroughs may take issue with my thoughts here.

There’s also the fact that Breath of the Wild is clearly the largest, loosest and most open Zelda game in existence, suggesting it may offer the most to returning players with a spare 100+ hours to spend. Which is all well and good, but I for one never have a spare 100+ hours to spend retreading ground, and I might even push a bit further to argue that BotW‘s (excellent) focus on natural experimentation and discovery cannot possibly hit as hard when you’ve already experienced it. As much as I love the game – it’s still my second-favourite Zelda at the time of writing – I believe it will never be as magical as it was at launch when I was comparing in-game discovery stories with my friends, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

Digging up my old screenshot folder for this was a journey.

But if Breath of the Wild is a giant blank canvas on which you paint with colours that will never quite rub off, Ocarina of Time is a colouring book with strong lines and bountiful space between them. Neither will ever be clean again once you’ve brought them to life, but one of them is far more likely to look like a coherent picture when you’re done.

But before that metaphor gets away from me, here’s another one: Like a self-contained but decently-sized Lego set, different parts of the Ocarina of Time experience can be rearranged and replaced without any real danger of the player taking the experience off the rails or losing sight of the bigger picture. I believe it’s still pretty unique in this regard. Just as I was 10 years ago playing on the 3DS, I continue to be stunned at how many options you have available to do parts of OoT out of order without consequences to the (still great) story.

Which one, which one?

Though in the late 1990s it felt incredibly vast, the Hyrule of OoT is a very manageable one. Slightly larger than Termina from Majora’s Mask but made of far less volatile, temperamental parts; noticeably smaller than the world of Twilight Princess with all the density benefits that entails; free of the arbitrary first-half narrative roadblocks of The Wind Waker; this is an explorable world where the next secret is rarely more than two minutes away – and that secret could very well lie in any cardinal direction.

As child Link, the three dungeons you must traverse have to be completed in a set order, but there is a stunningly wide array of Pieces of Heart available for you to track down if you feel like it – including several I had no idea were in the game when I was a kid, and a few that I used to think you had to be an adult in-game to unlock. You can say the same for a handful of ammo storage upgrades and Golden Skulltulas.

Actually more of a useful upgrade when you’re hunting down Heart Pieces for so long.

After the seven-year time jump in the story, on the other hand, while the side activities are more limited – particularly if you cleaned most of them out as the younger Link – you can really mess with the game’s “intended” order of dungeon completion. Though some orders are impossible (assuming you don’t leave any of them before beating their respective bosses), there are enough apparent item-gates with alternative solutions that you can really change up the feel of the dungeon progression based on your preferences.

This still stuns me every time I revisit OoT, because its strong narrative legacy feels inherently linear. But because the mini-story arc of each dungeon is largely self-contained, you can, for example, delay the rather unforgiving and ugly Fire Temple until later in the game where it arguably feels like a better escalation of stakes, simultaneously putting some distance between the Bottom of the Well and the Shadow Temple so the latter doesn’t feel quite as dull. That might improve the pacing of the game for you. It might not, but you can do it anyway, and that’s pretty cool.

Though I first discovered the breadth of Ocarina‘s hidden treasures when I played the game for the second time on 3DS in 2011, there’s just something about confirming all the things you learned still work in the original, much uglier game that really made the situation hit home. I was also able to take them a step further than before: In 2011 I was blown away that I could fill the top line of hearts completely (for ten total) before lifting the Master Sword, but this time I managed eleven – thanks to cool possibilities like a Z-targeting side jump off the Kakariko tower to land on the roof with the lazy guy.

Don’t mind if I do.

I pushed that number to thirteen before my first adult dungeon, and my attempts to mix up their order occasionally meant I needed those extra hearts. In 2011 I had also tried a funky adult dungeon order, but I did so using a slight cheat: I went halfway through the Forest Temple to get the bow and then left to complete the Water Temple in one sitting. This time around I looked a bit more into it online and discovered you can do the Water Temple bow-free if you remember you can warp back to the start of the temple at any time – and nail one slightly tricky but completely achievable jump.

An actual use for the sick Farore’s Wind animation!

This makes the temple’s boss is a bit more tedious (especially since I hadn’t picked up the Biggoron’s Sword when I beat it this time), but as a result you have the earliest possible access to the Longshot – and that opens up plenty more margin for error in every other dungeon. There’s also something that just works for me about heading for the Ice Cavern straight after you become an adult – you get the starkest area change in the game, the best alternative tunic and the most useful warp song straight away. Sticking with the water theming at that point feels right.

Notes on a Replay

Don’t worry, there isn’t much more.

Some other things worth mentioning about my 2021 playthrough that don’t need an entire section:

  • When I suggest there hasn’t been much new to say about Ocarina of Time in recent years, I naturally need to shout out Aussie YouTuber Good Blood for his mind-blowing fresh take on the game’s symbolism a few years ago, which you can watch here.
  • I ordered a N64 wireless controller from the My Nintendo store, which arrived literally just as I was about to go from child to adult Link for the first time. It is super surreal using that control stick and that hand position again, especially since I had never experienced that top-heavy rumble feedback before; but the C-buttons alone make life so much easier. That said, before it arrived (and when I was playing portably) I used this remapping setup in the Switch menu:
Which at least brings the controls more in line with the 3DS remake.
  • I remember a mate of mine playing the game for the first time on the 3DS alongside me in 2011, and he struggled figuring out what to do just after reaching Zora’s Domain; he quit soon afterwards. This time around I was deliberately on the lookout for hints about the fish you’re meant to drop in front of Jabu-Jabu, but it really is just that one out-of-the-way swimming Zora who gives you the hint, and it doesn’t even pop up until you’re quite close. Combined with the obtuse first half of the dungeon that follows, I can see why that section continues to trip up / lose so many newcomers.
  • That said, I still dislike Dodongo’s Cavern more as a dungeon – mostly because it’s so visually uninteresting – depressing, even. Turns out that’s especially the case with the original moody N64 graphics.
  • I now want to see the 3DS remake converted to HD on Switch even more than before – it really is astounding how much Grezzo achieved visually with that version without most nostalgic players even noticing there’d been an upgrade. But I will give a massive shout-out to the shiny first-time item pickup models on the N64 version – which look ridiculously extra with the HD Switch up-res.
  • Yes, the emulation of fog effects really suffers in this re-release of OoT, and the Water Temple miniboss room truly does look wrong – but that was honestly the only time I didn’t feel like I was playing an overall superior version to the one from my youth (remember, I played the whole thing 10Hz slower).
  • I can honestly say I had no idea about half of the Scarecrow’s Song activation locations in this game, even on the 3DS ten years ago. Because I was messing around a lot to see what I could achieve before even my Water Temple attempt, I found plenty of them extremely useful.
The go-to Scarecrow melody, always.
  • The soundtrack is still incredible, naturally, and I noticed the Ganon final boss track more this time – perhaps because I was always so stressed about it before. The chaotic way the camera follows you as you try to target his tail makes for a unique rush that’s visually messy – in a good way? I quite enjoyed it.
  • Also, no doubt for a similar reason, I never realised Ganondorf had a proper mullet at the end of the game?! I suppose you do see a lot more of him when you’re a kid, when his hair is much shorter, but I always thought his Hyrule Warriors design was more of an original take – and now I feel like a fool.
Style icon.
  • On that note, this is my third overall completion of Ocarina of Time, bringing the game level with Majora’s Mask in terms of number of replays and one above, well, every Zelda game that’s had a remaster or remake except The Wind Waker. Depending on when Nintendo decides to put MM on the NSO Expansion Pack service, that equal lead may be in danger.
WOOO, less than 2500 words this time!

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ajuric on Nov 16, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    Tl;dr

    Kickstarter.com/GetRyanALivestream

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: