Late To The Party: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I have a…strange relationship with the N64. I’ve had one since I was a kid and own about a dozen games for it. But, somehow, I missed almost every 1st party Nintendo game. Never owned Mario Kart, no Star Fox, no Smash Bros. I had Mario 64, but didn’t get it until after getting Banjo-Kazooie so I never took to it. But by far the biggest omission was Ocarina of Time. This was the reigning canonical choice for Best Game Of All Time for basically my entire childhood, but, nope. There was Wave Race to play.

OoT is legendary, even today. Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser once famously said “Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying — from the games on Nintendo 64, not necessarily the ones from today.” The thing about early 3-D games is that absolutely no one knew what they were doing. The PlayStation’s launch controller had 0 analog sticks, expecting players to navigate 3-D space with an 8-directional D-Pad. The dual stick layout wouldn’t become industry standard until the 2000s, and it honestly wasn’t until the HD era that you could consistently expect competency in regards to things like player movement and camera (of course, even today there are some…exceptions).

Mario 64 and OoT were two of the most successful games in this formative era, showing players and developers alike the possibilities unlocked by the Z-axis.1 But just because these games are historically important doesn’t mean they hold up as entertainment. Mario 64 is a great example; it’s the game that introduced both cameras and analog sticks to the masses, and will therefore always be important. But it’s also a game that didn’t realize you needed an analog stick for the camera, and will therefore always be kind of a chore to play.

So, where does Ocarina of Time rank? Is it an enduring classic? Or is it destined to become a historical footnote, doomed to increasing obscurity as the generation that played it when it was cutting edge die off? Well, I can’t speak for history. What I can speak for is myself. And when I played OoT for the first time ever earlier this month, I made it about ~40% of the way through before deciding I would rather do literally anything else than continue.

By modern standards, OoT fails in a multitude of ways. The player mechanics are…incomplete is probably the best word for it. You can’t really control the camera, outside of centering it with Z. Most games of this era had limited camera controls, but OoT is on the worse end of the spectrum, especially because there are segments that take place in tight corridors with blind corners the game expects you to look around…somehow. You can’t jump on command, which, okay, you can’t jump in a lot of games, including past Zeldas. But OoT has lots of jumping. You just do it by running towards an edge and praying. Even when it works it’s unsatisfying; you didn’t jump, you walked with a fancy animation.

The game is also confused about how much agency it wants to give the player. OoT takes place in a big (for the time) open world. You can get hints about your next objective, but the game doesn’t hold your hand the way many modern games do; no waypoints, no text objectives, no HUD compass. There are secrets aplenty for players who track them down. But, it’s also a game where (at least through the parts I played) there is exactly one thing to do at any given time that will progress the story. Exploration isn’t fun when you can do it “wrong”. If there’s exactly one correct thing to find being hands off doesn’t encourage player agency, it’s just bad direction.

An example; early in the game, the player is tasked with sneaking past guards to enter Hyrule Castle. You eventually reach a spot where, after sneaking in through a hole in the moat, you have to get past two guards looking directly at where you crawl in from. So, this means you have to find a new way in, right? Or a way to distract the guards? Or a way to sneak around them somehow? Or: you have to leave and then wait for the in-game day-night cycle to hit daylight, because those particular guards are only there at night, and the sequence as it exists at night is intentionally unsolvable. So any exploration or experimentation you might have tried was worthless; there was exactly one (obtuse) correct thing to do, the game just didn’t want to tell you it outright.

I could go on; there are a million annoyances that make playing OoT unbearable. You’re supposed to bomb anything that catches your eye to discover secrets but bombs are a limited resource you need to progress. You respawn after death with exactly 3 hearts rather than your current max because they made an amateur mistake programming Zelda 1 and refuse to admit it out of pride of design reasons, surely. Dropping OoT was a death by 1,000 cuts. All these annoyances, big and small, built up to the point that I was taking longer and longer breaks and looking for excuses not to play. I eventually gave in at the Forest Temple’s mini-boss; every death meant 10 minutes of redoing work to reach the fight again, and this frustrating loop was my breaking point. I found myself getting so enraged I knew continuing to play wouldn’t be a good use of my time.

But you might be wondering what the point of all this is. Like, I know better than a 21-year-old game. I also know that, despite appearances, the train on the screen won’t actually burst into the theater and there’s no reason for alarm. Congrats to me?

The problem is that many of OoT’s mistakes are present even in modern games. The default genre for AAA games is an “open world” full of empty exploration where anything story-related is heavily scripted and controlled. These games will usually explicitly tell you what to do next to progress on the golden path. This makes them more playable than OoT, but no less confused; why make an open world game if you don’t really “trust” exploration or player agency when it comes to your core experience? Or what about the scores of big-budget games that feature impressive-looking traversal animations that require only that the player hold “up” on an analog stick or press the “do stuff” button to make a parkour happen?

The point of examining past classics through a modern lens is not to dunk on games with the benefit of hindsight; I doubt I could have done any better in 1998, even accounting for the fact that I was 5. But we don’t get Breath of the Wild from developers who hold Ocarina of Time’s design as sacrosanct. Being honest about the failures and successes of the past is the only way to properly learn from it; not doing so leads to endless replication of the same problems.

And fuck Stalfos.