Even Opening Chests Takes Forever
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
This week’s episode of Second Opinion couldn’t have happened without two very special people. The first is “Johannes Gutenburg” , a viewer who requested we cover Ocarina of Time in the comments of a previous episode. And the second is Jay Petrequin, former Hey Poor Podcast host, current Hey Poor Player writer, and someone I’m proud to call a personal friend. He wrote this episode, and when you inevitably have a problem with it and need somebody to complain to, you can find him @extremesalsaing on Twitter. But before the flame war starts, let’s give The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time a Second Opinion.
In case you haven’t noticed, people tend to like The Legend of Zelda. And no wonder! Since the days of the NES, the series and its tunic-bound protagonist have been hacking and slashing through spiders and pigs, scaling mountains and delving deep into sinister woods, and saving a smattering of lands from a splattering of evils. There are games series veterans are more likely to defend, and games they would sooner forget (yes, we’re talking about the CDI games), but there are a select few classic series entries which are universally held dear.
Of these, perhaps the one over which the most masturbatory time and effort has been spent in discussion, defense, and anime convention cosplayer “SQUEEEEE”-ing is Ocarina of Time. And no wonder, really. The game followed Super Mario 64 in introducing both players and the Nintendo cast of characters to the glorious polygonal world made possible by the third dimension. It was the first action adventure game to handle a 3D landscape with as much tenacity as it managed to do, and the Z-targeting system was an integral stepping stone for more things to come than the average human body contains enough fingers to count. Ocarina of Time is held up as a golden child, a marker of its era, and perhaps one of the most iconic video games ever made.
That said, it doesn’t exactly hold up all that well.
Now, don’t get me wrong; Ocarina of Time is a good game. Knowing its fans, and their usual reactions to statements such as the one just uttered, let’s chant it a few more times, shall we? Ocarina of Time is a good game. Ocarina of Time is a good game. Ocarina of Time is a good game. Ocarina of Time has the most boring depiction of Hyrule ever ma- oops. I let it slip.
As known and venerated as Ocarina of Time is, not everyone grew up playing it. I myself (meaning Jay himself) didn’t get time to fully sink my claws into the game until around 2011. Reasons for this included lacking the right consoles, not having many friends with nostalgia-based game collections, and, of course, being a filthy millennial. When I finally got around to playing the damn thing, my first reaction wasn’t “oh my goodness, look how free and changed and new I feel,” but rather a solid “huh. This field is that big, huh?”
The purpose of today’s video isn’t to regurgitate the obvious, though. Pointing out that younger generations don’t have the same nostalgic context for a game is a worthwhile point, but a self-explanatory and well-documented one already. Instead, what we want to do is identify the flaws lying within the game, and why perhaps it doesn’t stand quite as tall as some of Hyrule’s other grand towers.
Let’s start with the one that’s already been spoken; The Hyrule presented in Ocarina of Time is straight-up not fun to explore. The game opens in Kokiri forest, a charming little village seemingly safe from the echoes of whatever terrors may be brewing in the lands beyond. Young gamer minds are blown as the grandfatherly paternal old tree who gives you sage advice turns out to be, himself, the game’s first dungeon. Ghoma is eradicated from within the Great Deku Tree’s woodsy old intestines, and things are looking promising. It’s finally time to get out there and explore Hyrule, and adventurers are met with…
A circle. A large, green circle, with a house in the middle, and a few little paths going places. Huh.
The two big counterarguments to this criticism are (1) that Hyrule Field was groundbreaking enough at the time to be seen as stunning, and (2) that there was only so much game designers could fit onto a Nintendo 64 game cartridge. There’s truth to both statements, too. The first goes without saying, while the second is a fact whose truth is the reason an entire dungeon was cut from the final game, and why the Sage of Light is kind of just hanging out in sage-o-space ready to say hi to Link, instead of waiting to be awakened at the end of a dungeon like all the rest.
The criticism to be made of Hyrule field, though, has more to do with its involvement with the rest of the world; or rather its complete lack thereof. Hyrule is meant to be read as a land of many cultures, from its noble Hylians to the rock-munching Gorons and reclusive Zoras. There’s history to the land, or at least the suggestion of it. There’s an entire bit of backstory wherein it becomes revealed that Impa is the last of a race that fell victim to genocide, for crying out loud! Why, then, does the grand hub area of Hyrule feel so devoid of anything? Put some evidence that the roads have been traveled. Maybe have a couple more houses, or a shop where someone is selling trinkets from different places. I don’t know what specifically should be put there, and now I’m just spitballing.
The point is that, upon entering Hyrule Field for the first time, you feel as though you’re the first person to ever stand there. It doesn’t bear any markers of the place it’s supposed to be a part of. It’s part of a larger problem I have with the game, where in general, each area dedicated to a specific race of Hyrule’s citizens feels completely isolated. Nobody travels anywhere or visits with anybody. There’s no sense of communication, really, between any of these places. Not until you, the grand hero, show up. It ends up feeling as though the kingdom of Hyrule is centered around a vast, grassy no-mans land. C’mon, man, at least petition for a Starbucks.
It also doesn’t help that Ocarina’s art style has an odd drabness to it. Everything is made out of stone and rock, and it all starts to feel boring. It goes without saying that a Nintendo 64 game might not have the most well-enduring graphics, but there’s something about places like Dodongo’s Cavern, Gerudo Valley, and even Kakariko village – for all its charming music – that just has a visual disappeal. Is that word? Disappeal? Unnappeal? Anti-appeal? Hmm. (I’s note: I didn’t write that. He just…he just left that in.)
So now that we’ve crushed your fond childhood memories of frolicking around Hyrule’s big lawn with your glassy-eyed horse, let’s talk about story, for what little lies there. For the most part, it’s about as standard as a lot of series entries have been: bad man do bad thing, you destined to stop bad man, attractive woman help but usually capture, good guy collect jewelery/friends/musical instruments/collectible McDonalds toys, good guy save day. Day is save. Winner is you. Given that it’s such a standard for the series as a whole, this in itself is acceptable (although we’d always be open to seeing things get changed up in the future). The problems with Ocarina‘s story, really, are in the details.
So, you’ve culturally appropriated the three sacred stones from their homelands and stuck them in a weird, drab church. A door opens, and you step inside. You stick your large, menacingly blue sword of certain doom and justice into the pedestal you find there, and, voila! You just hit puberty, kid. Enjoy learning how to shave using that holy blade of yours, because we ‘aint got no time for any “My Body is Changing” videos from middle school health class. You’ve got a kingdom in saving, after seven years of Ganondorf’s cruel and unforgiving reign of terror!
…except, wait a minute. Why did any of this happen?
In Ocarina of Time, Link awakens to be informed that he has been asleep for seven years. He and the player are told that the three golden goddesses sealed him away so that he could grow old enough to be able to take on Ganondorf, unable to do so in his 10-year-old knobby-kneed body. This all sounds well and good at first, and is a neat idea for a time travel story in an unexpected place. But in what possible world was letting the world go all to hell for seven years the best possible option? Din, Nayru and Farore have real and undeniable power, a fact which we know from early on in the game (and which is repeated in various ways across the series as a whole). If they have the power to freeze Link in a temple for over half a decade, was there no way they could have simply kept Ganondorf from getting the Triforce of Power? Or, for that matter, kept him from rising to power at all?
A good counterargument here is that destiny has always been a huge part of the Zelda mythos, and that if Ganondorf was destined to take the power of a Triforce piece for his own, then it could not be stopped. Okay, that’s fine. So wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense for the goddesses to have witheld the triforce from him until Link became old enough to fight back? Or, for that matter, couldn’t they have led Princess Zelda to the Triforce of Wisdom (which doesn’t seem bound by age restrictions, as far as we’re led to believe) early enough to take more direct action? Couldn’t they have given the elusive but supposedly present king of Hyrule a vision, or spoken to him directly? Anything to even the playing field? It makes sense that each character destined to receive a piece of the Triforce would be given room to exercise their power, but is that balance of power worth the number of lives taken by seven years of Ganondorf running around and f**king everything up?
This also brings up a problem with the Triforce itself, and more specifically the way in which the trio of golden slices has been handled over the years. That is to say that the things are downright vague. The triforce of power gives, obviously, power to its wielder. Hence, Ganonfdorf get triforce, Ganondorf get real big real mean real bad. Princess Zelda uses the Triforce of Wisdom to disguise herself as Shiek (who, by the way, is a gargantuanly less interesting character than people give credit for). We see her do something similar in Wind Waker, where the reassembling of the Triforce of Wisdom transforms her into a version of herself wearing full regalia…and conveniently whitewashed. In A Link Between Worlds, after using the Triforce of Power to get stronger, the additional intake of the triforce of Wisdom makes him…more strongerer. Then we get to the Triforce of Courage, a symbol whose exact benefits upon Link are…well, foggy at best. The idea seems to be that it just helps Link do the things he is already doing, and has been doing for quite some time by now. The whole concept of the Triforce really boils down to “here are three powerful magic things that can do basically whatever the plot requires,” a boring trend that needs to stop, and which mostly got started right here.
To close, let’s say this. Complaints about its giant empty field aside, the big issues with Ocarina of Time have a lot less to do with substance, and everything to do with style. For all the good that can be said about the game, the biggest problem I found again and again was that the Hyrule it presented just didn’t feel unified. Every race and community had its own little segmented pocket in the world, and it just doesn’t feel like a whole. Hyrule doesn’t feel like a kingdom in Ocarina; it feels like a series of segmented, mostly unrelated little city-states caught up in the politics of the one that was able to build the tallest towers. At the end of the day, I beat it, of course, but I didn’t feel like I had accomplished very much, because to me, Hyrule still consisted of a single very tall building and a decent patch of grassland. Is Ocarina of Time an important game to the history of the medium? Absolutely. Is it fun to explore? Not nearly as much as the seas of Wind Waker, the packed world of Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds, or even the warped world of Twilight Princess.