Don't Tell Zelda I Play Songs For Malon On My Ocarina

I take a look back at one of those games I somehow missed. A game that I may very well have been the last person to not play it, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Now let me explain why you're wrong about it being the best game ever made.

By Tony Walter | Feb 26, 2013

Remember 1998? Saving Private RyanArmageddon, and There's Something About Mary were ruling the box office. The US economy was in great shape, then the president had sex, so we impeached him. Some pretty bad music was filling the airwaves - well, some things never change. Neutral Milk Hotel released a pretty good album that year, but I didn't discover that until much later.

Odds are, if you follow video games in any capacity, you've heard somebody reference 1998 as the greatest year for video games in history. Metal Gear Solid, StarCraft, Half-Life, Baldur's Gate, Thief: The Dark Project, Grim Fandango, Fallout 2, and obviously, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, there is no denying that 1998 was a damn good year. While I am willing to admit a lot of these games still show influence in some of the best games being released today, I try to excuse myself as quickly as possible from any conversation that starts with "what's the best...".

Much like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I discovered Ocarina of Time much, much later. In fact, I only just finally played Ocarina of Time to completion.

My first experiences with the game were back in 1998 when all of my friends were obsessing over how cool their Nintendo 64 was. Meanwhile I was trying to figure out if my parents' used desktop would run something like Half-Life - it wouldn't. Instead of following the advice of friends, perhaps out of spite, I played pretty much every other great game released on the 64 that year. I spent a lot of time unlocking just about every ship that Star Wars: Rogue Squadron had to offer, then reenacting the fantasy Millennium Falcon v AT-AT battles I had been doing in my imagination since I saw Empire Strikes Back - how does their armor stand up against Corellian quad lasers?

Flash forward fifteen years, and the right circumstances present themselves for me to rectify a mistake.

I'm going to be forward with this, just so the purists know what they're getting into. I played this game on my 3DS, this is one of the reasons I bought the 3DS, actually. Just hear me out. Everything in the game is the same. The only differences are in the touch screen menu and vastly improved graphics, both only improve the experience, neither take anything away. Believe me, I plugged in a copy on the Nintendo 64 to see what it looks like while doing this, and there is no way I would have been able to get through the whole game that way. Man, the Nintendo 64 looked bad.

Ocarina of Time is very definitely a better looking game on 3DS.

I can feel the anger pulsating from the minds of Zelda fans over my statement about Ocarina of Time not being the best game ever made. Honestly, I don't even know if I'd call it the best Zelda game. I mean, did you play A Link To The Past? Calm your nerves though, I'm not sure what the best game ever made is. I don't even know if I've played it. That's such a sweeping and goofy statement. Games are so many things. Would the best game be the most fun? The most technically impressive? The best story? The most influential? Honestly, I don't know. Odds are everybody out there has their own idea of what the best game ever made is. I can name a few games that I think are really well made and are very important to me, but those are personal choices based on personal experiences, a lot of which had to do with where I was as a person outside of the game when I played it.

I'm no fool. I understand Ocarina of Time was a product of its age, and that is certainly something I considered the entire time I was playing it. And the game is damn impressive for its age, even today the scope is still nothing to scoff at. Scope isn't that impressive though. Plenty of bigger games were out at that point in time, and many didn't make the same sacrifices that Ocarina had made.

Ocarina has a very odd way of being overly hand-holdy when it doesn't need to - "Navi, I fucking know that I need to go to the temple that I'm walking toward. Leave me alone!" - but then abandoning the player totally in odd circumstances. "Oh, you need to go get this fire and melt the ice this dude is trapped in, then he'll just give you the blue suit, and that lets you breath under water." The only in-game work around of this is a magic stone that gives you hints, which are just videos of what exactly you should be doing - it's a maddeningly lazy fix that makes you feel like you're cheating when you use it. Not to mention, that stone is far enough out of the way in most circumstances, that it hardly seems worth using even when you are stuck. The last thing I want to do when bashing my head on a puzzle is leave the temple entirely just to have it explained to me explicitly. Heck, if I want explicit directions on how to complete each temple, I'd have bought the strategy guide - which I'm convinced anybody who beat this game when it came out had done.

In addition to the uneven guidance, the game really drops the ball on a handful of the boss encounters. Aren't bosses sort of what the Zelda games are known for doing right? Then why is the supposed best Zelda game the one with a boss that is glorified whack-a-mole, one that requires you to run in circles around a pool of water (swimming in games is always fun), and some that are so mind-numbingly simple that I swore the game had to have been made for toddlers when I beat them? I might go as far as saying that Morpha is one of the most ill-conceived boss fights I've had in recent memory. At least, even during the simple boss fights, you're asked to grasp an understanding of the item you acquired in the temple that boss fight takes place in. Morpha doesn't do anything interesting or ask any particular skill of the player - well, noting outside of the ability to operate the targeting system while fighting an unruly camera.

It's not even a hard fight, it's just boring.

Okay, I'm being a cynic. I suppose I should explain myself before fans spit hot vitriol and melt my keyboard. Hey guys, don't worry. I actually enjoyed the game - a lot. In fact, I'd say that I downright loved it. What the fuck, right? I mean, it probably sounds like I'm backpedaling hard right now. I'm not though. I just want to put this in perspective. Too often do we just like to remember fondly the games we love. So fondly that we forget the mistakes, we forget what there was to learn from. Why does this matter? If you want to forget the mistakes and remember only the good parts of your favorite games, that's fine, but then you're not really allowing yourself much outside perspective.

Outside perspective is an important thing. We all make the mistake of ignoring flaws in what we love, this doesn't even apply to just games. When you love a game, it is natural for us to ignore, look past the faults. I'm happy that you enjoy it, I want you to have that love - that's important too. However, acknowledging the flaws of a game we love, or at least understanding the perspective that might see those flaws, allows us a greater understanding of the game, the series, the developers, its sequels, and the games that those who don't like your favorite game love.

Like I said, Ocarina, overall, was a positive experience. I wanted to acknowledge its flaws, because despite what the history books may have you believe, they exist. The 3DS version did provide one of the most memorable handheld gaming experiences I had ever had - granted this is obviously only true having never played the original, as I wouldn't expect this port to be quite the experience for those who had it a decade and a half ago. For just about every flaw I mentioned there is something executed so memorably and so well that it's just about made up for any negative that one could bring against the game, in my mind. That is, if we're going to go down this weird flaw-to-non-flaw bartering path.

Other than the boss, I actually thought the infamous Water Temple
was one of the best parts of the entire game.

In reality, rarely does that sort of quid pro quo mindset actually apply to measuring how great a game is. I'll admit it, I get why Ocarina of Time is considered one of the best games ever made. Time and place are big factors in this, not to undermine the quality of the game. When it comes down to it, the biggest flaw or poorest design choice or most game-crippling glitch doesn't really break an experience. Thinking back to my favorite game from last year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, that game most certainly wasn't without fault.

So what was it about Ocarina that allowed it to click in such a way where it would become known as it is today? The game is most certainly better than the sum of its parts. Any one part of the game, out of context, might come off as interesting or generic, depending on where during the experience the part is pulled. While some of the temples, puzzles, boss battles are memorable and interesting, they are - for the most part - not so mind-blowingly fantastic that you could remember the game for these design choices alone. However, at the end of the experience I felt like I had completed something significant, a journey, a quest, one that changed the characters and the world. And in that, Ocarina hits its highest note.

Today, we see the scope of games increase into levels that we would only have fantasized about fifteen years ago. Sprawling, massive fantastical realms and kingdoms, populated with realistic looking characters and creatures, each there to interact with you on your quest. But with the shackles of limitation released, we have also lost some intimacy in these games. At the end of Fallout 3 I hadn't felt like I really impacted the world. I was told I did, and the events were explained to me, but none of the characters had felt like they changed. I felt like I was inhabiting a static world, just the narrative was fluid. Ultimately, the actions didn't feel like they mattered.


When the credits finally roll and you see all of Hyrule celebrating, you feel like a change was made. Something significant has happened for these characters. It isn't just that you defeated evil, but that along the way you had an impact in the stories of all those around you. The feeling is similar to that I had at the end of Lord of The Rings. Today, in games, we're so eager to increase the scope, that we forget how valuable something personal can be. The characters in Ocarina never felt like they were just there in an effort to serve your story, but rather that they had each their own lives and stories. There were politics and religions and love and hate that these characters felt toward each other, and you became involved, ultimately helping each other, but never sacrificing the identity of this world in the process. It is rare that a game can provide the scope of a large, breathing world, but remain a personal experience. Rarer still is that it was done fifteen years ago.


  1. I agree about the boss battles. I'm currently cycling through the Zelda series (as you've seen), and the platform bosses are *mind-numbingly* repetitious. Kalle Demos from Wind Waker requires the exact same strategy (to a tee) as Barinade in OoT. And yeah, at the time these boss battles were super unique and full of possibilities, but time has shown them to be A) way too fucking easy, which is mostly because of B) they're so structured that they don't allow for improvisation. Dark Link and the Ganon battles in both WW and OoT at least utilized, you know, SWORDPLAY and allowed the gamer to use his/her brain. Majora's Mask has the best bosses on the platform Zelda games because repetition was broken by the presence of masks. Otherwise they feel content using the same bosses in new forms.

    And, also, one minor tweak on one of your qualms. I do agree that some of the quests in OoT (and, really, any Zelda game) seem im-fucking-possible to figure out on one's own, but that also reveals the beauty of the Zelda universe. Not suggesting that gameplay isn't most important and that we can sacrifice it for absurd side quests, but the environment, the personality, and the communities within Zelda remain colorful and altogether humble in comparison with most adventure games I've encountered. You interact on such a personal level with so many races, villages, and morals that the tinkering within the quests extends your relationship with such a simple, yet complex world. Link is a bit of a loner, but he also unites the uncountable characters in the Zelda games.

    With both this last point and the boss battles in mind, I believe Majora's Mask is every bit as good as OoT. The only thing stopping me from straight up choosing MM is purely nostalgia.

    1. I wish I had played these fucking games when they came out. Unfortunately I have no context when it comes to that, other than what I can remember outside of those games, and what research tells me.

      And yeah, you won't hear an argument from me on the idea of the world being the thing that makes these games. But plenty of games, even games then, were able to have quests that were ambiguous but still intuitive. The fact that they included the Sheikah Stone at all sort of tells me they knew that, "well, fuck, nobody is going to know where we want them to go here, so let's just spell it out." It's kind of lazy. Honestly, I don't think the problem is the hints, but the weird quest design to begin with. The world doesn't really grow out of things like "this jump just doesn't look like one you can make, but you totally can." Of course not all of the quests in the game are like that, but I feel like I had at least as many moments where I had to reference a guide, as there were moments I was able to reasonably figure out on my own. I've even seen you guys referencing the guides, and you played them before. Honestly, playing this game is the worst part of it. It says something that it's still so damn good.

      Also, from everything I've seen, Majora's Mask seems like a far more interesting game.