If you’ve been around
my website the last year, you may have caught on that I occasionally played The
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was to be my first ever Zelda game I would finish.
It was a strange trip I started 22th of April, 2018, I decided that I’d play it once a week until it was done or I broke.
Now, a year later, I've seen the final dance party, but I'm still in a vacuum of thinking about the game so I had to write something about the whole experience.
If you're curious, I narrated my moment to moment play-session every week and the whole thing is catalogued. Which I'm pretty happy with as a whole, even though it does vary quite wildly in quality throughout (Read the Shadow Temple Arc, Episode 35-36 if nothing else, that thing's insane).
But this piece will mostly be about the game itself, as I had too many thoughts about that to fit into a reasonably sized piece, so here's just all of it.
(I will, if you haven't guessed, spoil the whole thing and assume you know roughly what's going on in this game.)
The Game: A Hundred Objects Thrown into a Valley
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is a game released in 1998 (killer year as it was), made by Nintendo (as vague as that is) and playable on the Nintendo 64. I didn’t play it on that, I played it on an emulator, but that doesn’t really matter.
It’s lauded by pretty much everyone. It is STILL the highest rated game ever on Metacritic (which, while that doesn’t really mean too much, is silly, also because no one’s ever going to beat it because a metascore of 99 is impossible to match and frankly, probably no game deserves that).
It’s one of the capital C Classics, one of the most mentioned games in games of all times lists (allegedly, I haven’t actually counted), it was one of the first 3D games that worked and showed how 3D action games could be done, and it’s not an understatement that it changed gaming forever.
It is also a mess.
No other game I’ve played has so many disparate elements smack-dash next to each other and treated it like no big deal. There’s no internal consistency to the world in the sense that it feels like almost anything goes without bothering to explain it.
There’s large open plains with flying flower-things, there’s undead skeletons and zombies, there’s Chinese dragons and chickens and fake chickens who live in pockets, there’s fairies but not really, there’s bows and magic and a room straight outta Interstellar, there’s talking scarecrows and whales with electricity monsters inside. There’s introspection and attempts at poetry, there’s a Konga Line, there’s people who eat only gourmet rocks and cat-people. There’s Time Travel and ghosts that shoot fireballs and a windmill that lowers the water level. Not to speak about the Most Powerful Song in the World and several Dimensions and prophecies and talking trees and old wars and royal families and lava-sun elevators.
Seriously, people don’t make games like this anymore.
They throw so much at you and bother explaining so little of it you very quickly just go with it and just let it do its thing. And in some ways it’s refreshing; it’s wild that this works at all (and there are parts that don’t), and it is definitely a valuable lesson to look back and see that stories was made like this at some point. Because if a game came out like this today, I’d find it super disjointed, without focus and with very little consistency.
The word lore gets thrown around a lot but damn, this game’s lore is nonsense. And while I am making fun of that a lot of times throughout my writeups I can also say that it is enjoyable that it just doesn’t give a damn (and it made it fun to write about).
And to stay on the positive train a bit longer before I dive into the nitty-gritty of that lore, I totally get why the game's a classic. I was surprised at how well it held up. How easy it was to get into, to play, how natural it felt for a 21 year old game. The controls, while obviously not modern, work. It is so easy to see how a game like this shaped (and still largely frames) all 3D action games: The 3D movement, the Z-targeting, the targeting-based strafing, etc., is almost exactly as it is in modern games, and it’s kinda wild they succeeded this well on their very first attempt.
And the while the
world is tiny by today’s standards, I can easily see how it must’ve felt
HUGE. It takes TIME to traverse it, sometimes with just dead space in between
knots of important elements, strewn along the edges.
It still feels mysterious, wondrous. Strange. You don’t know what’s coming next (because as mentioned it can literally be anything), there’s a ton of cool moments and it continuously surprises (both in a good and bad way).
As I did several times during the playthrough, I couldn’t help constantly make comparisons to dark souls. I so get the comparisons now. The Dark Souls games are, in many ways, modern Zeldas, just with a different structure, different focus on combat and a very different tone. But it does have a similar sense of loneliness, of exploration, of travel and wonder.
And then there’s all the stuff that doesn’t work. Most of it is a lot of things that have aged badly, or what they did with the Nintendo 64 limitations they had, and some of it is standards that have changed and a lack of coherence you would see shaved off in modern games. So I don't really want to talk about that much.
But the the story is, really, where I have most things to talk about.
At its core, it is just this: A lonely kid gets call to adventure, but wait he actually has noble ancestry and a destiny to save the world, and then he does so—you know, basic shit.
But I’ll get a little deeper, because this story has some STUFF that I couldn’t help speculate on. Because maybe this game is doing something ridiculous unintentionally.
The Story: The Idiot Who Had to Be the Hero
Let me set a few things up. This game starts with Link getting a fairy. Nothing whatsoever (except his lineage) is defined about his life before this fairy moment except that he is alone, and people in the village bully him for not having one. (Oh and Saria’s his friend but we get no justification for that.)
And while this is an easy way to build empathy with the person we’re about to spend the next 40 hours with, it is also rather empty. We have nothing to tell us what kind of person Link is.
And before you say he’s a blank slate, let me lay out for you what he does over the course of his first hours after getting this fairy—after getting this unexpected power and purpose.
- He robs every house in the village and takes a sword from a maze (is it no one's sword?)
- He sneaks in past every guard to get a sneak peek at the princess (and violently wakes up a sleeping man while doing so)
- He travels to Goron City, and hears of their plight with food, but doesn’t offer to help a single time, instead he consistently asks everyone where he can find a colourful rock.
- He then clears Dodongo’s Cavern of creatures, not to help the Gorons, but to get said colourful rock.
- Oh, and why is he getting the rocks? Because the princess told him to. He’s doing it to make a girl like him.
- He destroys an ancient family grave to get a song.
- He makes a poor musician play the same song for seven years.
- He, upon finding a letter from a girl that specifically states to not tell her dad, immediately goes to tell the dad.
And that’s not even all of it!
So, there we are, playing as Link we are doing a bunch of pretty bad things, that doesn't make him the most likable hero in the world, now does it? But he's not the instigator here, he's just doing what Zelda told him to! Well, that's where it gets really weird.
BECAUSE, when we finally gather the stones and pull the sword out, through which we’re opening the Door of Time (which is connected to the Sacred Realm in a way that is never quite explained but whatever), Ganon mindspeaks to Link, and tells him that he knew Link would open the door.
The question I asked when this happened was… how the hell did Ganon know Link would open the door?
Ganon’s only interaction with Link was just moments before, outside Hyrule City, when Zelda and Impa rode off, where he dismissed him completely as some ignorant kid (which is accurate).
But then suddenly, in the next cutscene, Ganon is all like “Ahah, I knew you would do this and you stepped right into my trap!”
Which brings me to the second point about Link, is that while he’s an idiot and a borderline asshole, everyone important seems to already know that He’s Important. Zelda knows, The Deku Tree knows, Ganon knows, Owl-boy knows, Saria knows.
And at the same time, the other half of the game treats him like a kid who has no idea what he’s doing (even when he’s adult), and he spends a lot of the game trying to convince people that he actually has the right and the capability to do things he’s told he can’t do (and sometimes causing some collateral damage while doing so!)
Here’s the deal. Here's the thing that makes this all work in my head:
They all know he's the Hero of Time already. Everyone was privy to that information before the game even began. Link was destined to be the Hero because… Destiny, but then when he did anything everyone realized he wasn't really… hero material.
So, they try to stuff him away and give him as little power as possible, to mitigate the damage he causes along the way. Meanwhile, the real agent of change, Zelda, is actually setting up to fight Ganon.
Zelda wants to get the Triforce before Ganon does, so they want to open the door to the Sacred Realm to do that (which, flawed plan, really, if they never open the door, he can’t get them, right?). But she sends Link to do that instead of her because she has other shit to deal with (being a princess and all--you know, spying on her family).
But when Ganon does actually get access, they all literally seal Link off for seven years because they realized that was still too early and he definitely wasn’t ready but now that the world is properly messed up anyway we can let him out (and to be fair, he does far less shitty things as an adult than as a child). Meanwhile, during those seven years, Zelda learns to be an actual Ninja and becomes infinitely more competent than Link, but can't do any of the heroing because she doesn’t want
to do the Water Temple Ganon to find her. Meanwhile, Link, who no one thinks is a threat because he’s LINK, is free to run around. So Zelda is in the frustrating situation of having to hide and subtly give Link constant clues about where to go and what to do, while she can only stand by and watch him flail.
Seriously, I really want to see a behind-the-scenes-montage of her face-palming every time Link falls off a cliff or gets hit by his own bomb. That image is so hilarious to me.
And finally, the reason why it all works, is also kind of brilliant: Link is not a nice guy but he’s also not lazy, or craven. He’s literally, as is revealed, Courage incarnate. However, there’s two sides to the word courage: Bravery and blind stupidity. You can be so ignorant of the dangers of a quest that you present yourself as courageous by undertaking it. And that is where Link Shines. He, throughout the entire story seems so disastrously ignorant of what he’s doing that he just goes “oh, ok, I guess I’ll just jump down this hole, oh that’s a dinosaur, alright, let’s just throw this bomb over here, ok that worked, all right. Good. Oh, hello zombie.”
His incessant surprised stare at his ocarina every time he learns a song, his childish glee every time he receives anything remotely shiny, his blank stare in the adversity of literally any monster.
It’s all Courage. It’s all Link.
Zelda couldn’t do those same things even when she was far more able to, because she was afraid Ganon would find her. Link didn’t know Ganon was even a threat so he just said fuck it and went for it.
So in that way, the nicest thing I can say about this story is that it in a way is a story about letting go of your worry and just go do a thing despite it being stupid. Zelda needed Link do so some stupid shit because she was too smart to.
The Truth: A Loop Without Answers
But, all that said, the frustrating thing is that this is behind-the-scenes. It isn’t shown. And it isn’t the actual story in the game, it’s just me reading into it.
It is frustrating that all of Zelda’s actions take place off screen. It is frustrating that Link’s actions are never commented on, or dealt with in any remarkable way. Link isn’t treated like an idiot by the game, but rather as a Hero. He isn’t shunned but applauded. The game seems incapable of understanding the role Link has as being anything other than Noble.
And while much of that is hilarious, it is annoying that half the female cast of the game seems to swoon over him for doing absolutely nothing to deserve it, it feels off how Link ends up helping management and not the workers, it is weird how readily he takes part of a pyramid scheme, and a lot of other things that come off as out of a very different time. And that’s fine, I’m not blaming the game for being 21 years old, but I also can’t help but wonder what a game like this would be treated like today. And I couldn't help but feel left a little short when the game seemed more interested in looking back to childish times rather than looking forward.
It is a game that has a lot of world hinted at but ultimately very little payoff (except Bongo Drums, the greatest of payoffs). Most of the grand questions aren’t explored. Who are the Hyrulians and why was Link left in Kokiri? What are the fairies? What is Hyrule’s BLOODY HISTORY OF GREED AND HATRED, Seriously!? What was that evil spirit under Kakariko? How did Ganon rise to power and infiltrate the Kingdom, and where are Zelda’s parents (aka the ruling family)? Who are the Sages and why did the man say they created Hyrule when that doesn’t make any sense? Who's Owl-boy and why's he helping Link?
I didn't expect the game to answer all of these, and I probably wouldn't even want it to, but I feel there were missed opportunities in many of these, that could've enriched the world.
The game ends with Link becoming a child again, which feels wrong when he grew up to become an adult. Zelda literally says it's to give him back the time he lost, but don't know what time he lost when he was doing nothing before this? There are much more interesting stories to tell with Link being forced to grow with the world he saved and almost destroyed.
The game seems to think the world was a better place when Link was a child, but I'm just not sure that it understands its point if that is the answer. That things were better when you were a child is a pretty bland conclusion. And something that feels at odds with the game's sense of wonder and discovery and mystery. It seems at odds with how the game wants you to explore and use your skills and ability to manipulate the world across time to your advantage.
And then the stinger shows him at Zelda's again. Which is either just repetition, a time-loop or a conclusion that he went to find her again because who knows, so I don't really have much to go on. But it underscores how the beginning was always the end for this game. They wanted it to be.
But at the same time,
the mystery also works. It is a game with a fair amount of melancholy, and
weight, especially when comparing it to other Zelda’s before it (from looks, haven’t
played them). It is captivating and I did want to know the answers,
and I can honestly say I still do.
I am more interested in the world of Zelda because of this game, and that is honestly something I’m surprised by. As much as I’m criticising it, I’m also excited to see more.
(Let me say I cannot wait to play Breath of the Wild now. I am giddy about that. Honestly.)
I am happy I played it. I got a much better perspective on this game, on Nintendo in general. I finally feel like I "get" Zelda games. And if I were to place a stance, I will say I like it. If I'd played it as a child, I would've loved it.
Let me leave you with the greatest pieces of advice I learned throughout this playthrough:
Don't judge a boy by his ocarina,
and always play Zelda's Lullaby.
Ok, one last thing, because it's too good, the final masterstroke of this game:
The Deku Tree.
See, I lied when I
said Zelda was the one who set everything in motion. It was actually the Deku
Tree. It sends Link off to see Zelda. And why does it do this?
Because it is about to die because Ganon cursed it, and Link, by opening the Door of Time and doing the Forest Temple, resurrects the Deku Tree as a Sapling.
The Deku Tree doomed the world because it didn’t want to die.