Why is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time still highly regarded as one of the best games of all time? It is nearly fifteen years old. The visuals are shoddy compared to what we found in games that were released just a few years later, let alone after over a decade of technological advancement. The controls are less than precise, the story is bare-bones, and the characters are not fully developed. The world is small compared to many open-world games.
It does seem that fewer and fewer are considering it an all-time masterpiece recently. More and more, I see people making the case that, yes, it was revolutionary for its time, but nowadays, it cannot hope to stand up to what is being released. Time may ironically be what knocked the game off its pedestal. In 1998, they could only make something that would ultimately be improved as the years went on and developers learned from the mistakes and successes that came before.
While I fully admit that my gaming experience is somewhat limited and that there are several games I enjoy and prefer to play over Ocarina of Time, it is still to this day the best designed game I have ever played. The question is — why? How can a game that is so outdated and that has been improved upon so many times still reign supreme? And more importantly, how can the next entry to the franchise learn from how this was accomplished?
There are a few things I believe that Ocarina of Time did best. Offering a large amount of freedom from the offset while still keeping focus and offering an engaging story while keeping cutscenes and dialogue in moderation was exceptional, give or take a Kaepora Gaebora or two. It even did the best job at introducing the player to the gameplay, not going overboard with text and tutorials while also not leaving the player completely out in the cold. But what ultimately made this game an all-time classic?
Doing a few things slightly better than other games in the same series is nothing to write home about. In the end, it was simple: Nintendo stayed focused. They stayed within the confines of what the game could be. They took the core gameplay elements to fine-tune them and did not attempt to bog the game down with unnecessary elements. They knew that what they had was special; they took one of the most brilliant gameplay designs in gaming history and made it the absolute best it could be.
The Legend of Zelda series is something truly remarkable for so many reasons. Even as I write this, I’m listening to the stunningly gorgeous 25th anniversary CD and, despite having heard it dozens upon dozens of times, it still manages to move me in some way or another. Through the world, the music, the story, and through experiencing the legend yourself, Hyrule manages to become something beyond typical fantasy, something that reaches beyond the heights of engrossing literature or film, and it manages this because of one thing: it is a video game.
Zelda has become what it is in no small part because of the medium it partakes in. It allows the player to experience the world themselves, exploring and becoming part of a true legend. You can feel and empathize in a way you cannot through any other type of entertainment and from my perspective, all the 3D Zeldas thus far have delivered on this front. They immerse and allow players to interact with a living, breathing world filled with personality and heart.
But this is a video game and offering players a world to explore, a story to partake in, and characters to interact with is certainly important — to offer truly engaging gameplay in tandem is something not many series achieve. Somehow, Zelda does it and this is just as important as the world building, the music, and the aesthetic style. Ocarina of Time understood this better than anyone.
The core gameplay of Zelda is utterly unique. The item-based puzzle-solving meshes with the combat and the exploration seamlessly. It’s an ingenious mix that feels coherent as one type of gameplay, despite being fundamentally very different. All parts are hugely satisfying and rewarding and the layout of the games thus far is a perfect example of how to pace a game properly by using different kinds of play. Put simply, Zelda is a perfect mix of multiple genres that mesh together to form one of the best, most satisfying, and most unique gameplay styles out there — and Ocarina of Time put it to use the best.
Perhaps it was because it was the first time Zelda was leaving the 2D realm and becoming more puzzle-focused, as well as every part of the game needing to change in the move to 3D. Nintendo had not yet seen the need to change and mess with the pacing, because this was brand-new, uncharted territory. They were wholly focused on perfecting this groundbreaking game, putting everything they had into the formula and learning what it could be used to do. The key was that nothing was unnecessary.
When writing literature, you make a promise — a promise, from the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence — you promise what your book is going to be about. The reader quickly gets an idea in their head what this book will deliver. If it is a mystery, you begin with a crime in progress or a detective examining a case and therefore, the reader begins to know what to expect. The problem arises when something different is attempted than what is “promised.” No matter how good an element may be executed, it is not considered in the same light as what was expected. We’ll use fantasy as an example. Going in, it’s expected that there will be a magical world, epic battles, and solid characters. If the book soon begins to focus on a romantic engagement between characters, it will feel like padding. It doesn’t matter how well-done it is, how likable the characters are, how fascinating the twists, and how tightly plotted this part of the tale. It could be one of the greatest love stories ever written and it will still likely get overlooked.
This is the case no matter how prominent this feature of the story is. If it completely takes over and pushes everything else to the background, the book will be considered a disappointment. More relevantly, if this alternative part to the book is included as an aside to what was introduced at the beginning, even if it is as excellently executed as the main part of the novel, it still will not be as enjoyed or remembered as fondly. In almost every case, it is written off subconsciously, sometimes even consciously, simply because it is not what was expected.
The same can be applied to video games. They make a promise and, unless explicitly explained otherwise, we expect those promises to be fulfilled. Look at God of War or The Wonderful 101, both action games. Going in, you experience some massive set piece that introduces the tone, the story, and the gameplay. From that moment forward, you expect intense combat, ridiculously epic bosses, an enjoyable story, and insane spectacle. In the end, that is what people remember from these types of games.
They also have puzzles, some light environmental exploration, and heck — a lot of it is fun, well-designed, and enjoyable to figure out. They are all solid additions to the experience, but ask anybody what they remember from these games and they won’t say the clever puzzles. They’ll say surfing out of an exploding volcano on a rocketship or fighting Poseidon. Had these games been focused on puzzle-solving, I guarantee there would be more people commenting on and remembering the puzzles, for better or for worse. Of course, in the case of these games, they needed to break their promises: a constant barrage of fighting and insane intensity makes for a tiring experience. They needed those different types of play to balance out the game, even if it does lead to unmemorable and unremarkable parts of the games.
The key with Zelda games is that they do not need to break their promises. From the get-go, from the way the games are introduced, and from the legacy the series has established, players expect the combat, the exploration, the puzzles, the story, and the characters. The games are done in a way that all of these parts are not breaking any expectations. Every part of the game has the potential to be memorable and exciting while still implementing a proper sense of pacing and variety. So why aren’t they? Let’s look at a few infamous examples, starting with The Wind Waker. Though the game is constantly berated for the excessive amount of time it takes to sail around the world, it is generally considered to be a completely solid Zelda experience for the most part.
It isn’t always, though; a case in point would be the Triforce fetch-quest. Why do people hate it so much? If not hate, why is it never considered on the same level as the rest of the game? It technically isn’t that different from everything else, yet it is often considered far beneath everything else the overworld gameplay offers.
Twilight Princess is another example and may be the best one; now, it is an extremely fun and solid Zelda game. The dungeons were smartly done, the combat felt smooth, the puzzles were clever, the atmosphere was phenomenal, and story was good. However, it had a lot of issues, most of which won’t be covered here, as only one is needed to prove the current point: it did a lot of unnecessary stuff. Like The Wind Waker‘s Triforce fetch-quest, gathering the Tears of Light — as well as the wolf segments in general — feels burdernsome.
How about recovering Ilia’s memory and restoring the Sky Characters? Once again, there are puzzles, world traversal, and even some combat, yet aside from the hidden village, which we’ll get to in a moment, it simply is not a very fun thing to experience. Getting the third pearl in The Wind Waker and learning the Song of the Hero in Skyward Sword? Much of the same thing — they use the major mechanics of the game, but it simply is not as satisfying nor as enjoyable.
Compare these to other overworld moments — the hidden village, the Sand Sea, Dragon Roost Isle, Snowhead, and the time between the Great Deku tree and Dodongo’s Cavern. It’s almost unexplainable, but these segments are just innately Zelda while the portions listed earlier simply… aren’t. The same types of gameplay are present in each, but some are successful and add to the game while others detract. Why? I think some of it is simply how engaging the different parts of the game were designed. Some just did a better job of creating fun, fresh gameplay using the same elements; even still, I do not think that is entirely it, because at its core, Zelda promises progression. It promises that we feel we are doing something meaningful.
And then, so often, it pads the game out like crazy. There’s a difference between following a monster up a dangerous snowy mountain and snowboarding on a shard of ice down it after him, and wandering around killing nearly harmless bugs. There’s a difference between following a mysterious song through the woods to find your friend and swimming around a flooded wood for twenty minutes to find music notes for no actual reason. Some are exciting, feeling like you’re truly on an adventure and growing closer to your goal. Others feel like they exist because there wasn’t enough content in between dungeons. Some feel like they are making cool new uses of the game’s mechanics. Others feel uninspired, thrown together, existing just for the sake of existing.
Ocarina of Time didn’t waste any time. At any given moment, you were experiencing one of those things that makes Zelda great in an engaging way. If you weren’t solving puzzles, fighting enemies, or freely exploring the world, the story was advancing or you were interacting with characters in meaningful ways. It didn’t overreach, not sacrificing anything to story or spectacle, and most importantly, it didn’t pad the game at all.
What it comes down to is this: depending on your own personal experience, Ocarina of Time may or may not have had the best puzzles, the best combat, the best exploration, or the best story. It doesn’t matter; all of that is, when all is said and done, totally subjective. The point of this entire piece is that Ocarina of Time didn’t lose focus on what Zelda is. It never forgot why people were playing just so it could extend the length or fulfill some arbitrary desire of the development team. It was pure Zelda gameplay, through and through.
Ultimately, that is what the next Zelda game needs to learn. When designing the game, Nintendo must remember that the players are playing for a reason. It is not for fetch quests and it is not for completing some pointless objective that exists only to elongate the playtime. Players are playing to experience Zelda, and so they must make sure that they deliver on that promise — from beginning to end.