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That crazy flute-guy rides again!
By: Andrew Long
The N64 era was not exactly a golden age for Nintendo and RPGs; among the handful of titles on the system, barely any stood out, and several games among that meagre selection bordered on unplayable. Happily, Nintendo did manage to strike gold at least once, however; in 1998, the Big N's Shigeru Miyamoto turned his creative efforts towards bringing the Zelda series into 3D, and the result was one of the earliest, and also greatest, 3D action RPGs, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Ocarina of Time follows the story of a young Kokiri boy named Link, who, unlike his brethren, does not have a fairy companion to shower him with fairy dust and generally annoy the heck out of him. Luckily for our young protagonist, the game begins with the Deku Tree, the guardian of the Kokiri people, summoning Link to introduce him to Navi, a fairy he has selected to guide young Link in his journeys. The Deku Tree, you see, is dying thanks to an infestation of Skulltulas, and shadows are clouding the land. Naturally, Link is the only possible choice to clear out the spiders, and whatever else may be lurking in the shadows.
In this incarnation of the series, Link comes equipped with his usual sword and shield, but unlike previous installments, he can choose from not one, but three alternate items at the same time, equippable through one of the N64 controller's D-pads. This allows for much less shuffling through subscreens than would otherwise be required, because the puzzles in Ocarina of Time are definitely much more difficult than those in prior Zelda titles. Players will frequently find themselves scratching their heads as to how to proceed next.
Fortunately, that's where Navi comes in; not only does she point out some secrets and provide information or weak points on enemies when they are selected, she also enables Link to target them for attack, a definite plus given the creaky 3D mechanics, which while more than serviceable would be rather cumbersome without the targeting. This system also helps out immensely in tasks such as aiming the bow and hookshot, both of which take on much greater complexity with the addition of a third dimension. Overall, the transition to 3D is smooth, and actually, the camera work in OoT is superior in many ways to that of its GameCube successor, Wind Waker. Battles, while nothing out of the ordinary for an action RPG, are intuitive and well-executed, and at no point is the gameplay so easy that players won't occasionally have to crack open a bottle or two in order to keep going.
The Ocarina itself is also another key element of OoT's gameplay; its songs allow Link to travel, speed along the game's day-night cycle, travel through time, change the weather, and call his horse, another wonderful addition to the series. Riding Epona makes travelling across Hyrule a breeze, and her incorporation into several sidequests and minigames throughout makes it difficult to imagine the series before her arrival. It is these little touches that make OoT such a well-executed gem, and even though OoT provides a new, three-dimensional identity for the series, the end result is a game that feels perfectly at home with its predecessors.
Ocarina of Time, by sheer dint of some of the moves that must be executed, is more difficult than those previous titles in the series. Wandering around Hyrule can take its toll, and the dungeons themselves, while easily traversed by a seasoned gamer, contain enough pitfalls that the unwary will find themselves making more than one attempt. The chief area of difficulty at first lays in solving the puzzles; until players are acclimatized by the game's rather idiosyncratic approach to the many brain-teasers it contains, the solutions to some problems will not be immediately obvious. The best advice in this regard would be to look everywhere, since that seems to be the key to finding the answers to even the most difficult of problems.
As a result of this reliance on puzzles, OoT's replay value is hindered somewhat. Much of the game's challenge comes from figuring out how to get through a given area, and while there is always something to be said for hacking your way through a collection of Gibdos, LikeLikes and Stalfos, this thrill is replicated every couple of years by Nintendo in a shiny new game, so some of the enjoyment of repeat playthroughs is lost. There is, however, a Master Quest included with some versions, and as this rearranges certain elements of dungeons and gameplay, gamers will be able to come back for more after all. The adventure is also considerable by series standards; though it is possible to breeze through in about ten hours, a playthrough can easily consume four times that if the gamer's goal is to explore every corner of Hyrule.
Few Nintendo games have a shoddy interface, and Ocarina of Time is no exception. In addition to the aforementioned aid provided by Navi, the game features a four-panelled inventory system. The map leaves a little to be desired, but otherwise, the display provides all the necessary information. The only qualm here is switching between various items such as the iron boots and the regular boots, which in certain dungeons can be a tedious chore as it requires flipping between the game and the menu every few seconds. As for the translation, an adequate job has been provided by Nintendo of America; no immediately noticeable errors are evident, and aside from the slightly annoying excess of help prompts which has become a baffling hallmark of Nintendo games in the 3D generation, there is little to complain about here.
Graphically, OoT would benefit from an improved framerate, but given the limitations of the N64, it is understandable that this particular feature is rather limited. Other than this stumbling block, the graphical presentation of the title is marvellous. Dungeons feel appropriately creepy, Hyrule looks resplendent in its 3D glory, and the spell effects, if not spectacular, are nonetheless bright and colourful. The music, though of fairly low quality, is beautifully arranged, and OoT is responsible for a number of the most memorable tunes to grace the Legend of Zelda series. The sound effects are slightly better, and while not quite top-notch are nonetheless respectable.
One area where Ocarina of Time does suffer is in its storyline, which is pretty much the same song and dance Nintendo has been trotting out since the beginning. Certainly, there is little justification required for the hack and slash of the standard action RPG, but since the Legend of Zelda was pretty much the first title in the genre, it would be nice to see a little more effort given in this area. The game, though part of a series, does manage to offer a lot that wasn't in previous entries. Significant layers are added to the world of Hyrule, including both the Goron race and an updated take on the Zoras, as well as the Gerudo, a mysterious race of thieves that are almost exclusively female. Granted, many series hallmarks such as Death Mountain, a wide array of items, and travelling between different versions of the same world recur, but OoT does manage to strike new ground in a number of areas.
Seldom does a game manage to define a console, but the Legend of Zelda: the Ocarina of Time is pretty much synonymous with the N64. There are few gamers who own that system, at any rate, who do not speak fondly of OoT, and with good reason. With a fantastic mix of gameplay and presentation values, it is a game that will go down in the annals of video game history as easily one of the most influential and well-loved, to say nothing of enjoyable.
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