THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) Game Review

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It takes several looks to fully grasp a piece of art, even a video game.

There have been several times I’ve regretted writing my positive first impressions on movies as said movies fell apart the second time around (though sometimes when that happens, the third time ends up being the charm). …That is unless the game or movie is bad on first playthrough or viewing; then I don’t mind going straight to trashing it (as I did with Transformers 5).

So, if I’m going to properly label something as a review post-restarting this blog with “Finding Myself”, it might as well be for something I’ve replayed or rewatched enough times to form a solid opinion on it, so I might as well just write about games that I’ve played through more than once, even ones that dissipate over each playthrough. So, unless I’m really compelled to revisit Final Fantasy VII after I’m finished this first playthrough of it, chances are I’m not gonna review it.

For the first of these games I’m going to review, however, my opinion has not dissipated; if anything, the disappointment I’ve found in the general medium of video games has enhanced my appreciation for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time since the years it formed my taste in video games.

It’s quite cliche to mention that Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential and critically acclaimed video games, if not the most critically acclaimed video game, of all time, and this is a review coming from somebody who agrees with such acclaim but disagrees with the praise for many other “best video games of all time”, most notably The Last of Us.

Of course, aside from Ocarina of Time and The Last of Us being video games that feature zombies (Ocarina of Time‘s of which, while less prominent than The Last of Us‘s, haunted my childhood), the latter is a character-driven post-apocalyptic survival-horror whereas the latter is a plot-driven fantasy action-adventure; comparing the two is comparing apples to oranges, though I suppose there’s a way to better understand my favorite game of all time by comparing it to my least favorite of all time.

Admittedly, The Last of Us is a technical masterpiece; it hooked me on an emotional level. That is until its violence eventually got so dark that I checked out and watched the rest of the game on Youtube. The game’s ultimate succumbing to nihilism, even more so, burned me so badly that it single-handedly makes me regret buying a PS3. However accomplished the player feels in the end depends on how they hoped it would end.

This isn’t the only time where a game I was invested in left me feeling unaccomplished, with other examples being Half-Life 2 and Alan Wake (though my overall experience with Half-Life 2 is worth a review in of itself). Shouldn’t a video game, out of any art of any medium, leave the audience feeling like the hours-long journey was worthwhile? Heck, why aren’t more gamers asking this same question?

With Ocarina of Time, as well as all other Zelda games I’ve beaten, even the twisted outliner Majora’s Mask, the game lets us feel accomplished in the end. While Ocarina‘s payoff is bittersweet, justice is served, and there’s not much ambiguity regarding who’s good and who’s bad either. It’s that black-and-white, childlike simplicity enhanced by its aged but vividly colorful graphics that makes the adventure so endearing to this day.

I should mention that The Last of Us, Half-Life 2, and Alan Wake progress in linear fashion with gameplay largely based around brutal violence with the occasional puzzle. While there’s plenty of cartoon violence against monsters in Ocarina of Time, there are plenty of opportunities to break free from the action and explore the land of Hyrule to find treasures or just interact with its lovable inhabitants, not that there aren’t enemies scattered around the open areas. I know, there are plenty of other games like this, but I have yet to find another game that balances linear storytelling with open-world exploration this perfectly.

What holds up surprisingly well is its atmosphere; it still feels like it’s taking us on the epic adventure of a lifetime. Even though Hyrule field, the hub for Hyrule’s locations, is quite empty, there’s still a joy to traversing it. Just as the original 1986 Legend of Zelda was the first 2D world of its kind, Ocarina is the first 3D world of its kind, and it embraces many of the tropes that the series had established, such as the trio of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the dungeons…

Granted, there are things in this game that make me wonder what the heck the developers were thinking, especially for a game aimed at all ages.

The game’s horror elements go too far into the opposite direction of joy, such as a village well when drained leading to an abandoned torture dungeon still being inhabited by undead monstrosities; that would be messed up enough for a grownups game, but it becomes even more horrifying due to the inference that people drank from that well (unless they heard the legend about where the well leads, but who in their right mind would build a well there?).

Hyrule’s mythology, which can’t be avoided as the protagonistic Link is following his destined path, includes polytheistic themes in the form of the goddesses who created Hyrule and monistic themes in the form of the Triforce of Power that holds the essences of the goddesses and holds creation together. The creepy Great Fairies that give us powers granted by the goddesses are presented in a fetishized manner. And then there’s the Gerudos, a race consisting entirely of fit women expect for one man born every hundred years; their methods of reproduction can only be theorized.

Despite these elements, Ocarina of Time is still a beautiful balance between mythmaking and escapism, from the treasures discovered to the hilarious side characters to the brain-teasing level design to the magical songs we can play with the titular ocarina. Even when the story takes more somber turns, it doesn’t lose its sense of joy and wonder. The polytheistic themes also play into the fundamentally Christian principle of following the divine’s good will.

While the Legend of Zelda series is my favorite game series in general (though I still haven’t built up the patience to beat any of the pre-Ocarina games), and while there are non-Zelda games that I like, Ocarina of Time is the one game I can revisit over and over and over again. It’s the reason I’m interested video games, and it’s the game I compare all others to.

My first playthrough of it took me ten on-and-off years (an atypically long time, or at least I hope it is), so a lot of the appeal is nostalgia. However, I can take off rose-colored glasses and consider the flaws in the things that shaped my childhood (just look at my Star Wars articles on Catholic Wannabe Critic). I genuinely believe that Ocarina still deserves its praise.

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