Review: The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time (N64)

In this review, we once again pull the master sword to play The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time. We find out if this N64 game lives up to its reputation.

This game was released in 1998 and would be the fifth Zelda game released. The first game was The Legend of Zelda as released on the NES. We reviewed it and gave it a pretty positive review. The second game of the series was Zelda II – The Adventure of Link. In that review, we gave the game a great score. The third game was released on the SNES and was called The Legend of Zelda – A Link to the Past. That game received a great score and was ultimately the best one yet. For now, we skipped the fourth game and went straight to the first 3D game of the series to see how well it transitioned into the 3D world. Some games are great in the 2D world, but stumble badly once it gets a 3D makeover. Other games pick up what was great when they were in the 2D realm and continue on very successfully in the third dimension. So, it was with great interest that we gave this one a shot.

Full disclosure: I have played this games many times over years ago already. I recently replayed this to see if it was still as great as I remembered it knowing what I know now about the history of video games.

Like the previously mentioned Zelda games, you play Link. However, there is some suspense because you are simply known as the boy with no fairy. It turns out, you are currently residing on Kokiri village. Unlike all the other townspeople, you have no fairy. The Great Deku Tree summons its fairy, Navi, and tells it to go to the boy with no fairy and guide him on the beginning of a great journey. Ultimately, Navi succeeds in waking you and you ultimately visit the great Deku Tree. The tree explains that the reason why you are having nightmares and many restless nights is because a great evil is approaching. Those sensitive to this will be affected by this. The source of this great evil is the dark man from the desert, Ganondorf. One of the things he did was curse the great Deku tree. So, your first mission is to fight the evil that resides inside the Great Deku tree. It opens its mouth and you begin you long journey.

You begin the game with, well, nothing. There are many collectibles to be had in this game, but the only ones you’ll be able to obtain for now are rupees (the games currency) and health (in the form of hearts). You can’t even visit the great Deku tree until you obtain two critical items: a sword and a shield. The shield can be bought at the store for 50 rupees. Unfortunately, you are broke, so you are forced to scrounge around the village for enough rupees to purchase it. The sword has to be collected somewhere in the village. By the time you obtain the sword (or collect enough rupees), you’ll be able to obtain more items such as Deku sticks (useful for lighting torches) and Deku nuts (great for stunning enemies).

Along the way, you’ll encounter a bunch of enemies. These enemies vary from the almost harmless plant life that tries to stop you going to the Deku tree to highly annoying armored knights that you encounter later on in the game.

The first dungeon, Inside the great Deku Tree, is pretty much a mandatory mission if you ever want to even leave the village. Dungeons such as these are filled with an assortment of traps, barriers, switches, puzzles, and nasties.

Much like previous games, each dungeon has a set number of features. The first feature is the existence of special items. Every major dungeon has a map and a compass. The map will reveal every room in the dungeon (save for the off secret location here and there). Rooms visited in the start menu will appear blue while rooms you haven’t been to will simply have no color. You’ll also get a small popup window in the bottom right corner showing you which room you are in. The compass reveals the location of the dungeon boss. Unless there were some new features in the Game Boy version that I’m not aware of, the compass also shows you on the on-screen minimap, which direction you are facing, and where you are located in the room via the yellow dart. It also reveals where you entered the room via the red dart. More usefully, however, is the fact that the compass also reveals the location of all chests in the dungeon. This also appears in the minimap on-screen if there are chests in the same room as you. Suffice to say, the compass was greatly enhanced since the SNES game.

Also a returning feature is the special item contained within the dungeon. Most, if not, all the special items are critical to your progression in the game. These items include the Lens of Truth, the Bow, the Boomerang, and Fairy Slingshot. not all special items are located in the main dungeon, but a majority of them are.

There are two types of chests: larger chests and smaller chests. The larger chests contain either the map, compass, or special item. The smaller chests contain a host of minor items. This includes rupees, bombs, deku nuts, hearts, and Deku seeds.

This game is split into two sections. The first section is when Link is younger. The second section is when Link is older. There are three main dungeon’s in the first part where you are to retrieve 3 sacred gems. The second part features 5 main dungeons where you collect the powers of the six sages (accessing the second part alone nets you the first Sages power without any action on your part). This follows along the SNES game quite closely.

In the second part of the game, there are more dungeons and special items to obtain. Some of the items you obtained in the previous part of the game are no longer functional and can only be used when you are a kid. You’ll can get a whole arrangement of special items that are both wearable and usable. Some items are even automatically equipped.

Also like the SNES game, a major component isn’t necessarily found in the major dungeons necessarily. You can spend a good portion of your time playing just the side quests. Completing these side quests can greatly increase your chances of success in the game. A major factor in this is the fact that just about every partial heart container is the reward for completing these side quests.

Like previous Zelda games, there are two kinds of heart containers. There are whole heart containers that are typically obtained from defeating major dungeon bosses. If you collect one, the maximum amount of health you have is increased by one container. Small heart containers, on the other hand, are typically found by completing various tasks not essential to the completion of the game. If you collect 4 of these, your maximum health will increase by 1 container. The more health you can have, the easier things can be in this game.

Some of these sidequests that net you a partial heart container can simply involve you reaching a particular cliff edge. Others are much more involved such as completing certain mini-games or completing a series of tasks for people.

The largest side quest that does have a partial heart container as a reward is the Gold Skulltula side-quest. This one lasts pretty much throughout the game and is so involved, the chances of completion for your average player is rather low. However, you do not need to kill every Skulltula to obtain the heart piece. You get rewards as you progress throughout the game killing these things and obtaining the icon after. General strategies for hunting these is listening for the scratching noises their legs make (This is the only enemy that I’m aware of where Z targeting doesn’t work at all). Another one is to hunt for them when its night in the outdoor locations. If a gold skulltula icon appears next to your map in a major dungeon, it means you successfully cleaned them all out in that dungeon.

Another lesser involved side-quest is the magic beans side-quest. You gain access to this sidequest after obtaining the special item in the second dungeon. The first part of the quest is to purchase the magic beans. They start off cheap at 10 rupees, however, each time you purchase one, the price goes up by 10 rupees. In total, there are 10 magic beans you can buy, but the last bean requires a wallet upgrade just to get because your first wallet only stores 99 rupees. The second part of the quest is to find the 10 locations you need to plant these beans. You won’t have access to all of the location until towards the end of the game, but planting them in the soft soil spots is critical. If you plant a magic bean as a kid, you can return to the same location as an adult where the plant has grown into a flying platform. Ride the flying platforms as an adult to get otherwise unreachable items. Many of these items are heart pieces, so this is a worthwhile endeavor.

Generally speaking, you can spend hours just running around completing these side quests. In fact, it’s not out of the question that you could spend a whole day just doing side quests in between dungeons. Heart containers aren’t the only prizes for these quests. You can obtain many useful items such as jar/containers (to my knowledge, you get only one of them over the course of your main quest which is to gain access to the third dungeon in the game), large rupees, a special mask, extra attacks, magic (which is probably the most critical side-quest reward, actually), and more.

Generally speaking, these side-quests alone helps make this game extremely immersive. They can be completed at almost any time during your quest after you are able to start them. So, there is a major choose-your-own-adventure aspect in this game already.

To make this game that much better, the first few quests and, arguably, the whole first part of the game allows the players to get a good grasp of what the game is about. While there is a lot to take in, most of these explanations are actually spread out and not overly burdensome. That, alone, was quite impressive in my books.

The difficulty curve is also something to be impressed by. The beginning few dungeons are at about the correct difficulty for new adventurers. The game allows them to learn the ropes at a nice comfortable pace all the while presenting them with gradually more difficult challenges as time goes on.

Another thing I really liked was the use of time. While many other games, even in the SNES era, emulated the passage of time by showing the changes in the overworld through day and night, this game took things a step further. Some areas are closed, other things are open. You can’t really gain access to Hyrule Castle as a kid at night. Different enemies appear at night and other enemies are even completely dormant during this time as well. In the day, you can have a world of difference with certain characters appearing. this, alone, was quite impressive for a game of its time.

In spite of some of the old English being used from time to time, the storyline was also impressively written. This game has plenty of serious moments, strange moments, and even funny moments. One amusing moment was when Navi tries to wake Link up at the beginning of the game.

One thing I complained about the SNES and NES version was the navigation. While it was gradually improved through the next iterations, the inclusion of Navi pretty much fixed the last remaining loose ends. Navi is able to drop the occasional hint from time to time to prevent you from getting too lost in the game. While it can be annoying when Navi tries to drop hints even though you know what you are doing, it’s far better than the alternative where you immerse yourself in a side quest, then completely forget what the next main quest objective is. So, this gets a thumbs up from me.

In researching this game, I found that many people consider this to be one of the greatest ,if not, greatest N64 games ever made. There are perfect scores abound from other sources. As long time readers are aware, just because a game scores well elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean it will score well here. In this case, I have to say, this was an incredibly good play. when it comes to complaints, I have to think quite long and hard over what the flaws were. The only thing that comes to mind is that the controls, on occasion, may not exactly co-operate with you. However, this ends up being an extremely minor nuisance as this doesn’t pop up that often in the game. The biggest case of finicky controls I recall playing this game is during the race with Epona where it’s sometimes difficult to tell if Epona is going to jump or just smash into the barrier, forcing you to lose the race even though you swear you lined that horse up perfectly square. Beyond that, I can’t honestly think of a single thing to really complain about in this game.

The graphics were actually quite impressive in this game. The 3D models were nicely done for a console game of its time. In fact, the quality was so impressive on some of these models, they can evengive a number of PC games made at the time a run for their money (such as Might and Magic 6 – The Mandate of Heaven and even Blood 2 – The Chosen). In fact, I would go so far as to say that the graphical quality of this game even challenges some of the console games released in later years. What sets the game apart was the many effects found throughout. This includes the glistening of the gems, Navi’s dust, and even the feathers that fly everywhere when you pick up a Cuckoo. This goes over top of the many environments found throughout the game. Just to make things even more impressive, the cutscenes used was also something to be impressed by. The use of the models movements, the changes in textures for characters to display emotion, and even the lighting which is sometimes utilized by Navi. It’s so impressive, you can almost miss the occasional clipping for some of the characters in the cutscenes (i.e. the dancing Goron scene). In all honesty, the clipping is so unnoticeable, I’ll give this issue a pass partly because so much else impressed me in this game.

The audio was also very well realized in this game. The sound effects alone were huge elements of this game. The use of panning and the many different sounds just made this game come alive. In terms of music, music is not only a major component of the experience, but it is also utilized as part of major and minor quests. You actually even make your own music in this game (talk to the correct scarecrow) which is noteworthy in of itself. a lot of the music was quit memorable and nicely realized. The orchestral elements, whether it is in cities or dungeons, all made for a very memorable listening experience. To this day, I’ve come across references to (and even uses of) this music which is quite impressive given the rich history gaming has had since then. So, an obvious perfect score for this element.

Generally speaking, this game sucks you in with its immersive environment from the very beginning and just doesn’t relent until the very end. I’ve encountered my share of games that starts off great and just stops being impressive part way through. This game doesn’t do that at all. Once you’re done playing this game, you’ll want to go back and figure out where some of the items you’ve missed were located. This is seriously one of those games that is like crack: you can’t stop playing without a great deal of willpower. I had to think long and hard about any complaints I had and the only one that came to mind was the occasional moment where the controls can be a bit frustrating. A minor complaint in the end, though. The graphics, though, this game raised the bar for graphics by quite a bit at the time. The cultural impact of the audio in this game lasts to this day and it is an impressive feat of sound both in the sound effects and musical department. Some games live up to the hype, others do not. This game seriously lives up to the hype and is probably one of the best produced games I’ve ever played.

Update: This game is officially the game of the year for 1998.

Overall

Furthest point in game: beat the game. Missed a total of 3 whole heart containers. Uncursed all but the last Gold Skulltula victim (requires a perfect sweep of the entire game by finding every single one of them). Found all four jars and every special item.

General gameplay: 24/25
Replay value: 10/10
Graphics: 10/10
Audio: 5/5

Overall rating: 98%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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