Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Zero of Time

I’ve recently started playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time some 10+ years out of sync with the rest of the world. This isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to play Ocarina, but it’s the first time I intend to finish. When The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker launched back in 2003 I attempted to play the GC version of Ocarina that I got as a promotional item. What I discovered, much to my shock was that Ocarina of Time was a frustrating mess. I got maybe a third of the way through the game and stopped, not for any specific reason, but because it didn’t captivate me enough to continue despite being a core Zelda game.

For years I’ve heard nothing but praises for Ocarina of Time. There are many that herald it as their favorite Zelda game and my only explanation for this is the same I give for the preponderance of people who claim Final Fantasy 7 as their favorite of that series: Ocarina was the first Zelda game for an entire generation of gamers. Having been alive and playing through most of the commercial history of gaming, I don’t really experience this effect so much with games. I’ve certainly had it happen with music, where my first exposure to a band is one of their later albums and it ends up being my favorite. Regardless of that effect, if Ocarina is the favorite Zelda game of an entire generation, they’ve really lowered their expectations compared to mine.

Now let’s be frank, the basics of Ocarina are the same as any other Zelda game and at that level there is nothing out of sync in this title with other games in the series. The general thrust of any Zelda game is that you explore a large overworld area and delve into a series of puzzling dungeons that require you to unlock access to a special item in order to be find and defeat the end boss. It’s the very model of a purely item-based progression. The more you put into a Zelda game, the more you get out of it. Feeling a little weak? Go exploring and find new ways to get more hearts on your life bar. Stuck as to how to get ahead? Find new ways to use the last item you received from a dungeon and explore the new areas that open up. It’s a great format that has stood the test of time and almost never gets old in any permutation. So why am I so unimpressed with Ocarina?

The first problem may just be a problem for me. I grew up a console gamer in the days of D-Pads and two-button controls. Just before the N64 and PS1 came to prominence, I made the switch to being primarily a PC Gamer. The first real 3D games I played were on a PC and therefore, my mind is wired for mouse controls … smooth, reactive mouse controls. If you put me anywhere near an analog stick I’m going to have trouble, but I’ve learned to manage it. For 3rd person games I don’t tend to have much trouble these days, but I’ve learned that controlling a 1st person game with anything but a keyboard and mouse will lead to broken controllers and endless rage. That being said, Ocarina shouldn’t be a huge problem for me as it’s mainly a 3rd person game. Sadly this is not the case. I’ll chalk it up to the newness of the system for which Ocarina was developed and the lack of consideration in the controller for proper camera control (as displayed among most Japanese developers in my experience) but controlling Link in Ocarina makes me want to hurt someone. First off, there is no such thing as precise movement in the game. Every twitch of my controller sends Link careening in one direction or another and often way off whatever mark I want him to hit. Secondly, the camera fails to follow where I’m looking, which would be almost forgivable except that it does so in such an extreme manner. I understand that I’m not always going to want to be looking where my character is looking, but the camera in Ocarina lags so far behind that I’m constantly hitting the target button to face it forwards again. At the very least the designers should have realized that when I’m moving forward I’m going to want to see where I’m going and that the camera should behave with less elasticity in that situation. Granted, I eventually got used to the controls, but I was a good 1/3 to ½ of the way through the game when I did.

My second problem is the tone of much of the game and the way it keeps butting in to “help” me. Yes, a lot of this is just hate for Navi, a useful but ultimately intrusive game system/plot device that’s constantly interrupting me with inane tidbits and hints about things I’ve already figured out. Beyond that though the tone of the early game especially is far too childish for my liking; or rather it’s childish without being fleshed out. There’s a definite appreciation for and attempt to emulate the works of Hiyao Miyazaki in the early sections of the game. The character design, the themes, everything is owed to Miyazaki’s masterful animations, but there’s just not enough meat here to bring it to life in the way a Miyazaki film does. I get these boring fragments of clich├ęd and all-to-obvious exposition from almost everyone I speak to. I feel as if every sentence should culminate with “wink, wink” in acknowledgement of the overly cartoonish way that the story is being handed to me on a plate. This isn’t to say that I need a grim and gritty Zelda game with tons of prose or extended cut scenes, but either say less or say more in a better way. Additionally, the overall story has never thrilled me. Ocarina is essentially a rehashing of Link to the Past, which rehashed, but greatly expanded upon the original Legend of Zelda. I realize that Zelda games and their stories are formulaic, but as someone who has been exploring Hyrule for 25 years, I like it when things are changed up a bit. This is likely why I thoroughly enjoyed Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker especially so taking the time-tested formula and giving it an interesting spin; at least geographically.

I suppose my final gripe about the game is how confined the overworld feels. Without any exaggeration, the overworld in Ocarina of Time is composed primarily of several linear levels with various secrets that can be uncovered. Compared to the original Zelda, which throws you to the wolves in a completely open world, Link to the Past which does a similar thing albeit with more story, and Wind Waker with its vast ocean, Ocarina may as well be on rails.

It may pain me to say it, but as I’m nearly done with the game now, I have to admit that Ocarina isn’t all bad. The expected item based progression (while dulled due to the linear nature of the world building) is as compelling as it’s been for 25 years. I find it confusing how other open world and sandbox games don’t try to emulate this. The Zelda style of item progression (also on display in the Metroid-Vania style of games) is incredibly compelling as it only requires very little of the player, but baits them with so much more should they choose to put in the extra effort. Typical open world games just give you more missions for playing the game, a Zelda game does that while also enticing you with abilities and tools that will make that added game play more interesting and fun. Additionally many of the dungeons in Ocarina of Time are (once you get past the control issues) as thoughtful as ever, with boss fights that are both familiar and innovative at the same time. And once you get past the early sections of the game, there’s far less hand-holding and frolicking and while the story is nowhere near as powerful as it tries to be, it’s still marginally compelling.

Anyway, that’s my take on the game at ¾ of the way through. It could change in the final couple dungeons of the game, but I doubt it. Maybe it isn’t the worst Zelda game of all time (and “bad” for Zelda is still miles ahead of most game) but if Ocarina was your first exposure to Zelda, you really owe it to yourself to play the original game, Link to the Past, and Link’s Awakening. Despite 25 years and numerous technological improvements, the original Legend of Zelda still remains one of my two favorite games of all time and unlike many older games it still holds up in my mind as both fun and challenging.

Summer project update: Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about my summer project. In fact most of this post was written at Houndstooth this past 4th of July and while I finished writing it at home today, I did spend some time at Dolce Vita earlier.

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