"A Detailed Look at Ocarina of Time's Staying Power"Five years ago, in GameFAQs' first Best. Game. Ever. tournament, Final Fantasy VII beat The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time en route to being declared the best game ever.
Four years later, on a play through Final Fantasy VII, I decided to take my time and really look at what gave Final Fantasy VII so much staying power to still be declared the best game ever even 7 years after its initial release.
Now, five years later, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has supplanted its old foe in the latest tournament, bringing up the same old questions. Both games have once again withstood the tests of time to be popularly considered the two greatest games ever. But with Ocarina of Time recently inching ahead in this age-old battle, I can't help but wonder -- what gives The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the remarkable staying power that it has?
A year ago, I wrote a detailed review of Final Fantasy VII, analyzing what exactly gave it the power to remain on top even two console generations later. With Ocarina of Time taking the front spot, now is the perfect time to examine the same criteria for it.
What's interesting is that many of the traditional criteria that can be used for justifying the passing of the popularity torch from one game to another cannot be cited in this instance. "One is newer"? Both games were from the same console generation, separated by only a year. "One is more technically advanced"? The PlayStation was the superior console in terms of specifications, yet it's the Nintendo 64's game that is taking the top spot. "It's been bolstered by sequels and remakes"? While Ocarina of Time's Virtual Console re-release no doubt exposed it to a new audience, Final Fantasy VII has been comparably bolstered by sequels and prequels galore. These are two games that hail from the same era and have largely undergone the same histories -- why the switch now?
What's always been remarkable to me is how both games have their critics (as every popular game -- or popular anything, really -- does) who label each game as overrated: however, those critics levy very different accusations at the respective games. While Final Fantasy VII's popularity is often pinned on it being many players' first, and thus preferred, RPG, Ocarina of Time's criticism is often focused on the simple nostalgia factor. A large contingent of critics hold that the game is simply not that good, but possesses such a nostalgic hold on audiences that nostalgia alone can explain the game's popularity.
That puts me in an interesting position in writing this review. Believe it or not, I had never beaten Ocarina of Time before this. Nostalgia has no hold on me. I'm fully aware that this factor alone will deprive me of some of the enjoyment that others gain from the game, but I also hope it will give me an added element of objectivity in this analysis.
Let me be clear on one thing: my goal in this review is not to pass a verdict on the case of Nostalgia v. Quality, nor is my goal to compare Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII (the latter of which will not be mentioned again). My goal is to look at how it's possible for an 11-year-old game to be consistently ranked above the thousands of more recent games, emerging as the most popular choice despite two entire console generations that have followed it.
Some people have proposed very simple explanations, without truly delving. Most commonly, they say that it was the state-of-the-art game of its age, and that its fans have since held in high regard for true nostalgia sake. It can't compare to modern games, it just has that appeal because of what it represents to its fans. It wouldn't present anything of interest to a new generation.
That's not good enough for me. Games don't achieve Ocarina of Time's level of success simply because people remember them fondly. People don't replay games just because they enjoyed them when they were ten years old. Ocarina of Time may have revolutionized its genre and paved the way for future 3D action/adventure games, but gamers don't return to old games solely for their historical significance. In order to achieve the downright transcendent level of popularity that Ocarina of Time possesses, it has to be more than just a game that provides a nice stroll down memory lane.
With that objective in mind, I started Ocarina of Time for the first time. I kept a special eye on features that were not only well-done, but also especially unique, and kept in mind that many features that have been seen in subsequent games actually had their roots here. I was on the lookout for aspects of the game that hadn't been done before, and haven't been duplicated since. I wanted to know why Ocarina of Time is Ocarina of Time.
And my results? I've found twenty (yes, twenty) criteria that I feel contribute strongly to Ocarina of Time's staying power. Some are major gameplay criteria that every game should strive to duplicate, regardless of genre. Some are plot elements that make for a good story in any medium, be it a game, a book or a movie. Some are small game elements that have a surprisingly significant impact. And some aren't even characteristics of the game itself, but rather its timing and place in history.
Some are obvious. Some are subtle. Some are major. Some are so minor that you'll wonder why I even bothered mentioning them at all. And some probably never occurred to you, but as soon as you read them you'll realize, "Huh, I guess that was pretty cool." But all, I feel, contributed to Ocarina of Time becoming as transcendentally popular as it remains today.
These twenty aspects are divided into five categories: Progression Elements, Minor Game Aspects, Classic Plot Elements, Innovative Plot Elements, and Historical Significance.
On a sidenote, the hardest part of writing this review was coming up with a title for this dang section. These are elements of the overall game structure that actually have nothing to do with the plot: at a basic level, the core tasks that the player must complete.
Broadly, what Ocarina of Time does an incredible job of is varying and dividing its gameplay. The aspects covered in this section are crucial toward constructing a game that is both consistently engaging and significantly memorable.
Several Genres in One
It would be an absolute disservice to classify Ocarina of Time as strictly an action game, strictly an adventure game, or strictly a role-playing game. The truth of the game is that it is, at different times, any number of genres. While the core of the game is that of a fairly standard action/adventure game, there is an incredibly heavy contingent of the game that can only be classified under a different label.
Mentioning the genre RPG typically conjures up images of a deep and thorough plot, multi-dimensional characters, a significant game background, and a turn-based menu-driven battle system -- but this last criteria is not core to the genre, and it is only this final criteria that Ocarina of Time does not possess. In every true definition of the term, Ocarina of Time is a great (if a bit under-expressed plot-wise) role-playing game, with an excellent mix of classic and innovative plot elements to draw the player in without being predictable.
Perhaps even more so than that, Ocarina of Time challenges even the puzzle genre's cornerstones for the difficulty, variety and complexity of its puzzles. Oftentimes in gameplay (especially for those that have completed several play-throughs), it can be lost exactly how much time is spent on puzzles of various difficulties and scopes. It's not surprising to mention large-scale puzzles like the Water Temple, but what is lost are smaller puzzles: how to collect the silver Rupees in a room, how to open a particular door, or how to defeat any of the game's bosses.
A strictly action/adventure game necessitates only one thing: a playable character and some enemies to slash. Nothing more is required, but Ocarina of Time features so many more elements that it is effectively several games in one. It's for this reason that it finds such a large audience, and it's for this reason that replaying the game still provides the same enjoyment rather than monotony on subsequent play-throughs.
Providing so many different gameplay styles is a great feature and one of Ocarina of Time's (and the entire Legend of Zelda series') most important traits, but it itself would be nothing without...
A close corollary to the above feature is that not only does the game effectively feature several different game genres, but it also splits and balances these genres perfectly. There's no giant 'fighting' segment of the game, long 'puzzle' segment of the game, or plot sequence that lasts more than a couple minutes. In playing the game, the player likely never finds themselves spending more than 8-10 minutes on any single task. Gameplay is constantly switching among genres, with puzzle-solving portions directly leading to battles which directly lead to plot points.
This isn't just an interesting observation; it's actually crucial to the game's appeal. Ever since the very early days (Pong), it has not been acceptable for a game to be identical the entire time the player is playing it. In the beginning, games simply became more difficult as one played -- the ball sped up, the Pac-Man ghosts moved faster, and levels were designed to be more difficult. But the Legend of Zelda series always opted for a different method, and accordingly the game arguably does not get harder as one progresses. Instead, it's this well-divided gameplay that provides the alteration to the standard game structure that the player craves.
The effect of this division is directly felt in the player's later recall of the game. The human mind naturally searches for ways to group experiences, and as such a sequence of similar gameplay in a similar game locale will be grouped together, regardless of how long that sequence may be. Sub-dividing the player's short-term goals and objectives throughout such a sequence significantly improves the player's ability to mentally process the individual events.
The constant switching between largely different short-term game styles also provides a sense of true movement through the game, which is enhanced by...
Cohesive Plot Sequences
While it's important to divide up gameplay to keep the player interested and prevent the game from becoming monotonous, there's an equally important criteria toward creating memorable and consistently engaging game: preventing drag. It's not just important to race car drivers; game designers need to ensure that no aspect of their game drags the player along rather than pushing them forward. Game need to be consistently engaging, and one part of this is to ensure the player feels like they're consistently accomplishing something.
The root of motivation to continuously play a game lies in the feeling of accomplishment that the player receives. This is what separates great games from simply fun games: there needs to be a sense of accomplishment somewhere. And while completing the game obviously provides the greatest sense of accomplishment, most players will not play a game for 30 hours before ever feeling like they've actually accomplished anything.
The way to avoid this is to provide accomplishments along the way, and the way to succeed in this is to divide the game into cohesive plot sequences. These are sequences which have a very clear start point, a very clear end point, and a very clear accomplishment associated with that end point -- and, in case it wasn't perfectly obvious, these are the nine dungeons (the three as a child, the five temples, and the final dungeon) that form the cornerstones of Ocarina of Time.
It's important to note that not every dungeon in the game necessarily qualifies under this criteria: the Ice Cavern and the Gerudo Fortress are among these that lack a strong accomplishment at the end, and subsequently both likely feel to the player as steps toward a future objective (the Water and Spirit Temples, respectively). It's the nine major dungeons throughout the game that provide those short-term goals and intermediate accomplishments that keep the player interested, engaged and confident. It's these that provide a consistent impression of actually progressing through the game and moving closer to the end rather than simply going through some game-determined motions for an unknown objective.
What enhances these sequences even more in the case of Ocarina of Time is that they are not just momentary accomplishments of their own, but they themselves are steps to a great accomplishment. They are parts of a whole, which the player can grasp because the game provides a very...
The objective of Ocarina of Time is extremely clear throughout. In the early part of the game, it's to collect the three gems; in the later part, it's to collect the six medallions. The purpose to the latter objective is even clearer: collecting the six medallions will allow you to fight Ganondorf and save Hyrule.
It's very straightforward, but the straightforwardness isn't the characteristic of interest here -- a more complicated plot could accomplish the same thing. What's important is that there's actually a clear destination in mind, which makes the act of obtaining the medallions and completing the temples serve a much clearer purpose. There's a higher goal to all of it, and your progress toward that goal is clear, making the game much more mentally manageable.
The best way to really describe this idea is with an analogy (or several). When you're downloading a file, how aggravating is it when your system won't give you an estimated time remaining? When you're sitting in a meeting, how much more tedious is it when there is no set end time? And when you were a little kid on a long car trip with your parents, how many times did you ask 'are we there yet?'? It's extremely annoying to be unsure of your progress through a certain task, and for an entity whose specific purpose is not to be annoying, this must be avoided.
Providing a clear direction and measurable milestones is all a part of that -- because the player is well aware of their current standing through the game, they are more apt to continue happily. There is a firm mental model of the "past", "present" and "future" and how one's future tasks will meld with past accomplishments to reach one's goal. Overall, it's this fine structure of multiple well-divided, frequently-changing short-term game tasks and their true connection to a measurable, manageable and understood long-term objective that makes Ocarina of Time such a playable and replayable game.
Classic Plot Elements
When it comes to a strong plot, different mediums aren't all that different. Sure, a big fight scene might be far more entertaining in a movie than in a novel, and a long dungeon can only be expressed in a video game to retain its entertainment value. But the overall plot structure -- the characters, the goal, the twists -- remain the same between various mediums, and there are certainly several tried-and-true plot elements.
Ocarina of Time borrows from these commonly popular plot traits quite liberally, and it's this element that is responsible for a large portion of its persistent popularity. It's not only a great story, but it's a great story of a timeless style and structure. In many ways, it harkens back to the most classic stories of humanity's literature, while simultaneously retaining an obvious connection and similarity to stories that come out today. Combined with the unique expression that video games allow, the story becomes as timeless as any. Ocarina of Time is clearly not the only game to have ever featured these concepts, but it's the presence of these that allow the game to achieve the staying power that it has.
Traditional Character Archetypes
You don't have to be a psychologist (or be named Carl Gustav Jung) to notice that stories from extremely different authors, cultures and genres can often have very similar characters. This isn't because there's a finite number of characters to choose from -- it's because there are certain character archetypes that hold such a natural, inherent appeal that they crop up again and again.
These archetypes come up frequently because of how well individuals identify with them. They are simple enough for easy processing, and hold a natural pull that draws the player, reader or viewer in. They've been shown to be successful and popular over and over, and Ocarina of Time (as well as the whole Legend of Zelda series) utilizes these to maximum effectiveness.
The classic Jungian story archetypes run rampant throughout Ocarina of Time's plot structure. There's the Hero, a pure-of-heart, courageous and noble conqueror destined for success. There's the Maiden, representing purity and innocence, who is threatened by the Sorcerer, a symbol of pure, limitless and unjustified evil. There's the Sage (the owl), a being of unexplained wisdom. And of course, there's the Horse, an enduring, faithful, strong companion that accompanies selflessly on the Hero's journey. The gang's all here, so to speak.
These are archetypes whose popularity has endured not only through the years, but through generations and cultures around the world. They were not created by an author, but are drawn from within ourselves and our desire to tap into a simple battle of good against evil, where the victor is clear and assured. Ocarina of Time taps this simple, inherent, human desire perfectly, drawing the player in with its unique expression to a world of characters we've always known and are meeting anew.
Coming-of-Age, the Hero's Journey, etc.
Here's a buzzword soup of literary terms. Similar to our innate desire to see characters and individuals within certain archetypes, we also have an innate desire to see a certain type of story. We crave stories of individuals confronted by challenges they can never hope to meet, and yet through perseverance, confidence and courage manage to match in the end.
This is the most classic story around: the story of the boy becoming a man, confronted with a challenge that leads to a journey of self-growth and self-discovery, ultimately culminating in the man's triumph over his one time foe. This isn't a story that's restricted to swords and arrows, mystical powers and a being that threatens the entire world. This is the story of nearly every sports-themed movie of all time: the underdog, the guy everyone counted out, the kid.
Ocarina of Time follows this structure to the letter. We start with Link as a boy, a young and inexperienced kid armed with a knife and a plank of wood. We follow him as he moves through trials and grows, and then witness his instant coming-of-age. There may not be as much internal character development here as in other games and stories (with a silent protagonist, how could there be?), but the very nature of the age discrepancy harkens back to the story that has always and will always strike a chord in all our hearts.
A Part of Something Greater than Oneself
Destiny. The Chosen One. The Prophecy. These terms are a dime-a-dozen in stories, and for good reason: like the above two plot elements, they strike a chord with us. There's a natural appeal to stories of the fulfillment of destiny, where a character is fulfilling a purpose spoken for him long ago. It's almost surprising -- after all, if a character is pre-destined to be victorious, there should not be any suspense.
And yet, there is. Despite the certainty of the eventual result, there has always been a natural appeal toward witnessing a character play a role that was outlined for him in a greater story. There's the notion that the pieces were in motion toward bring about the plot long before, and that the only thing that can compare to the plot we see is the plot that we don't.
More so than that, it pulls from our own inward desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves. We all want to be Link -- we all want there to be some great, world-changing purpose pre-determined for us in our lives. We all want to be assured that we will play a significant role in some story, rather than relying on our own means to make something of ourselves. It's not a matter of ease -- it's a matter of assuredness, to be guaranteed that we have some innate, undeniable importance to the world. We all want to be Link, and for a few hours, Ocarina of Time lets us all do what we've all dreamed of doing -- being the one to save the world.
"Find and Collect X Mystical Items"
This one's a bit strange. For whatever reason, this plot structure has always had a strange appeal to viewing audiences. It could be the simplicity of it -- anyone can understand this plot structure. It could be the notion of mundane items that combine to present some kind of power. It could be the looming notion of a dormant power just waiting to be awakened. Whatever it is, it's always been appealing structure.
What's particularly indicative of this plot structure's popularity is that despite being particularly well-suited to video games (where a long, plotless task to obtain an item is more acceptable), it's still prominent in other mediums as well. The three deathly hallows, the seven dragon balls, the seven moon crystals -- it's an extremely common plot structure.
Ocarina of Time might border on over-doing it, with at least two (and arguably three) sets of 'collection' items. But this plot structure's natural popularity lends a strong appeal to the game, while simultaneously facilitating several of the features mentioned in the first section regarding cohesive plot sequences.
It's this combination of greatly-structured game progression and a time-tested plot system that form a great beginning-to-end game story. But if a story only focuses on a good structure and the timeless plot devices, it will be good... but not groundbreaking. It's never been enough to do what other stories have done before -- there has to be something that sets the story apart. That leads us to...
Innovative Plot Elements
Sure, there are lots of tried-and-true plot elements that can guarantee at least an adequate storyline with no major faults: but therein lies the problem. If these elements are the only focus of the plot, then the plot will never be anything more than adequate. It will be pleasant with no notable faults, but not memorable. Vanilla ice cream -- better than Fried Eggplant (which does exist), but nowhere near Chocolate.
Fortunately, while Ocarina of Time pulls off the above classic plot elements with near-perfection, it also provides a substantial collection of incredibly innovative plot elements that make for one of the most memorable and unique stories around.
Incredibly Atmospheric Locales
The first innovative element shows an understanding of the capabilities of the Nintendo 64 that previous developers had yet to grasp. The developers of Ocarina of Time had an excellent comprehension of how the Nintendo 64's relatively limited hardware capabilities (64 megabytes for the entire game) could be utilized to express a variety of different locations -- namely by using great contrast between locales while simple repetitions within them.
The game's atmosphere is often identified as one of the greatest features of Ocarina of Time, and is comprised of such a wide variety of elements that uniting them to portray such different yet individually cohesive environments is more than just a feat of design mastery: it's an artform. In the many locations throughout the game, the graphical style, sound effects, musical background and short-term plot elements unite absolutely seamlessly to form incredibly vivid and unique atmospheres that truly transport the player into another world -- itself one of the greatest accomplishments a game can achieve.
This might risk becoming repetitive, but the game's overall atmosphere is such an important characteristic that it warrants more praise as to how masterfully different game elements were put together. For creating a creepy, ghostly environment, for example, it might seem adequate to focus on strictly aesthetic details: you'll want some eerie background music, maybe some startling sound effects, and definitely a dark area with ghost-themed enemies. That would be enough, right? But with Ocarina of Time, the developers take it a step further -- not only do the visible, tangible details reflect the desired atmosphere, but the entire design of the area does as well. Ghostly areas are littered with hidden doors and sudden enemies. Organic areas (like the inside of a giant fish) possess a deeply organic layout. And in all, the elemental designation of the various dungeons actually plays a role in how the player completes them, rather than being a simply aesthetic title.
Perhaps the best way to describe how masterfully even subtle features contribute to the overall atmosphere is this: it's easy to create an atmosphere with images, textures, music and sound effects. Anyone can suggest creepy music for a graveyard or lava traps for a fire dungeon. But in Ocarina of Time, imagine stripping away the visual element and muting the audio -- all walls and floors are simple and white, all enemies are mere polygons, and all music and sound effects are eliminated. Ocarina of Time's level design and overall structure are so well-suited to the atmospheres they express that even without these features, one could still likely identify that one dungeon is themed after a tree, one after a prison, one after an icy cavern and one after a giant fish's belly. That accomplishment is truly amazing.
Real Alteration in Common Plot Structure
Most games follow a pretty standard plot. Go here, then here, then here. Do stuff here and there. Eventually get to the end and win. Granted, there are typically plot developments that occur that actually motivate that structure, and these are often beautifully written -- but the underlying structure remains the same.
Ocarina of Time changes that. Some games have plot twists, but if it weren't for the dialog there wouldn't be a visible impact on the game -- not Ocarina of Time though. The transition from young to adult Link presents such a significant alteration in structure that it's silly to try to describe it. There's just nothing like it -- a complete conversion of visual character appearance, plot objectives, battle elements and atmosphere. It does an indescribably great job of memorably altering the normal game structure in such a simple yet comprehensive way that regardless of what games may come after, none can quite out-do this particular element without being rightly accused of outright mimicry.
Significant World Change
The objective of a game being to save the world is not new -- many games, especially of the RPG or action/adventure genres, hold this as the main overall plot goal. It's a great goal to have; it provides the impression of actually doing something as great and important as is humanly possible.
The problem is the way many games implement it. In far too many instances, you're in charge of a party whose goal is to save the entire world -- and yet, somehow, no one knows about it, and if you're successful, nothing in the world changes. Not only is that somewhat unbelievable, but frankly it's somewhat dissatisfying. If I'm saving the world, I want someone to know about it.
In Ocarina of Time, it's pretty clear that something big's going down. As above, it's almost silly to try to analyze the significant world change that takes place when transforming from young to adult Link -- it's such a huge aspect that it's almost impossible to underestimate its reach.
But the impact of this significant world change may be underestimated in how it affects the player's impression of the game. Up until the point of traveling through time, you're in control of a little kid armed with a knife and a plank of wood, sent on a "mystical quest" by another little kid. Frankly, it feels like Link and Zelda just have incredibly overactive imaginations.
Then you travel through time, and immediately it's completely apparent. Every single aspect of the entire world is altered by this change -- from the terrain to the characters, it's like two entire different world. A simple idea is rammed home: big stuff is going down, and you're the one that has to stop it. The player truly gets a sense of power and importance that is often absent. The tangibility of this world change is aided (or, rather, caused) by...
The Enemy's Success
Here's a feature that really sets Ocarina of Time apart from any game that would come along for several years afterwards. In most games, there's a huge hypothetical catastrophe that the enemy is going to unleash if you don't stop him in time. Unfortunately, what this means is that you never get to witness this huge, awesome catastrophe. Even if you fail, typically the game only returns you to an earlier save -- it's not actually possible for the enemy to succeed.
In Ocarina of Time, not only can the enemy succeed -- he does. When you travel through time, Ganondorf does conquer Hyrule. Yes, there's a higher catastrophe he'll unleash if you're unsuccessful, but there is a definite and visible success that he's already achieved.
This matches the above elements in truly altering the game structure. You're not only trying to prevent further catastrophe, but you're also trying to undo what has been done. Success means more than just avoiding some hypothetical disaster that you never truly understood; it means successfully reversing a terrible development that you've actually had occasion to witness.
All these elements unite to form a truly unique and innovative alteration on the standard game plot structure.
Minor Game Aspects
The above characteristics of Ocarina of Time are broad, significant elements of the overall game plot and structure that contribute heavily to the game's great flow, pace and consistent intrigue. At a basic level, they're reasons why the game was great at the time and remains great today. They're reasons why the game is still entertaining even eleven years later.
But Ocarina of Time was not the only game to possess these features. In its heyday, the Nintendo 64 had a handful of games that featured many of these characteristics. Its competitor, with its larger library, most certainly exhibited many of these traits, and without a doubt several games since have tapped into the same sort of appeal and overall quality. So why has Ocarina of Time outlasted the rest?
While the overall structure of the game is phenomenal and the new plot features are incredibly innovative, there are several minor features that are equally important to the game's amazing staying power. These are tiny aspects of the gameplay that had an incredibly disproportional impact on the game's timelessness. They may seem minor, but their role in providing just enough of a twist to increase the game's replayability, memorability and nostalgic motivators is as important to its staying power as anything above.
Heavy Musical Basis
Ok, maybe this one's not so minor. Music is shown to be one of the most impactful, significant sensory ventures that can be experienced, and Ocarina of Time is, perhaps, the most musically enchanting game of all time.
It's more than just the fact that the game's cornerstone (and namesake) is itself a musical instrument. Ocarina of Time presents a thorough, complete musical experience; it's so prevalent that it'll incorporate itself into several other future items on the list.
When considering the music, it's tempting to only look at part of the picture. The most obvious element is that music forms the basis of a significant portion of the game's progression, playing a frequent role in everything from the overall plot structure to individual tiny aspects. Beyond that, the next obvious characteristic is that of the background music. The songs are beautiful, varied and perfectly complement the different locales, really forming a unique game experience as mentioned in the previous sections.
But for Ocarina of Time, it really isn't enough to simply talk about this piece of music or that. Ocarina of Time takes musical experience to an entirely new level unseen before in video games. Every aspect of the entire game is accompanied by a musical sign of some sort. It's not just the background music or the Ocarina songs -- it's the musical riff from dropping a block into the right square. It's the fanfare for opening a chest. It's the way the various levels of audio -- from background music to foreground music to sound effects to the Ocarina itself -- unite to form musical journey that could take the place of any dialogue.
And it's all these musical features that keep Ocarina of Time around for modern audiences to play over and over again. Yes, it has something to do with nostalgia -- that twinge in your mind the moment that little fanfare plays. But nostalgia is not solely a function of childhood memories; it's something for a game to actively try to accomplish. Not every game played in one's childhood inspires the type of memories that Ocarina of Time does, and the musical base layer of the game forms the foundation for this accomplishment.
One of the more minor features on this list focuses on something that breaks the standard mold of many adventure games. It's an unfortunately standard and inflexible characteristic of many games that every item serves exactly one purpose.
The Legend of Zelda series as a whole dodges this trap, but Ocarina of Time especially counters it quite thoroughly. The two most obvious characteristics of this are the Ocarina and the bottles. The Ocarina is clear -- its songs can be used to transport, to open portals, to solve puzzles, and somehow to validate your identity. The bottles are less appreciated in this regard but perhaps even more important -- they serve an almost immeasurable number of functions throughout the game.
But this characteristic is much more than just these two items -- nearly every item in the game serves several purposes. The practical result of this is a game that largely defies the common game characteristics and, as a result, deeply enhances the player's interest throughout the game and recall afterwards. And of equal importance is that the flexibility of these items allows for a great number of tasks to be accomplished without complicating the game; new items are not required for little task, but instead the player must find uses of the items they already have.
It's difficult to full describe (or even predict) the impact of such a subtle game feature, but the most important note here is how this flexibility sets Ocarina of Time apart from most other similar games, creating its own culture that mentally forces it to be segmented away from other games that might otherwise be considered similar.
Continuing and Apparent Character Development
Most action/adventure games or RPGs involve some sort of character development -- not plot development in the character's mental psyche, but rather increases in strength or in abilities.
A common problem in some games, however, is that this development is not apparent. Level-based system are a common example of this: as the playable characters level up, they become stronger and more able to defeat new enemies. The problem here is there's not a clear connection to this increase in strength -- a number goes up, but other than that there typically are no individual moment where the player becomes aware of a drastic increase in ability.
Ocarina of Time largely avoids this issue -- character development is based entirely on accessing new items, meaning that there is an absolute discrete and immediate alteration in player strength. And perhaps more important than that is that these moments occur extremely frequently throughout the game, presenting to the player the impression of truly continuous character development that they can actually witness.
Manageable World Size
In video games, a very common objective is to save the world. It's big, it's important, and in many cases it's at least somewhat believable. There's a common problem with it though -- in order to save the world, many games make you travel around it, showing the fact that approximately .001% of the world is actually inhabited. This largely sabotages the believability of the game -- this "world" you're saving is comprised entirely of five-house towns and approximately 200 people.
Ocarina of Time gets around this issue quite deftly by providing a manageable world for all the game's action to take place. It's fairly understood that there is more to the world outside just Hyrule and the accessible world, but it's also justified within the game why all the action takes place within such a controlled area. The game plot and objective, and the threat of Ganondorf's world takeover, are quite believable, and the large but enclosed world map prevents the threat from feeling more influential than it is displayed to be.
There is also a naturally appealing unstated objective that becomes possible with an enclosed world. At the beginning, the world of Hyrule feels (and actually is) rather enormous, but because of its manageable size, exploring the entire world is actually a real objective. In larger worlds, there is a natural impression that there is more available than the game permits you to explore, but the enclosed and entirely accessible size of Hyrule inspires a natural connection to every corner of the landscape, as every corner is actually available.
Everything above shows details of the game within itself. That might seem obvious judging from the characteristics, but it's crucial: there is not a single thing above that would be any different were Ocarina of Time released for the first time today. Its plot structure, its innovative elements, its classic characters and its incredible atmospheres were certainly innovative for their time, but they also represent the same things games attempt to achieve today. With the obvious graphical advancements, Ocarina of Time would be as successful today as it was when it came out in 1998.
But therein lies a question: we're not asking why the game was popular in 1998. We're asking why it's popular now. If the game were released for the first time today, would it be as popular in 2020 as it is today? As great a game as it is, I don't think so. There is certainly some historical significance to the game's staying power. This is in no way meant to malign Ocarina of Time or pin its staying power strictly on these criteria -- but its place in time must be recognized as a key component in its timelessness.
Right Game at the Right Time
Ocarina of Time was, in short, the right game at the right time. That sounds belittling, so perhaps the better way to describe this would be that Ocarina of Time was the perfect game at the right time. Again, nothing in this section is meant to for one second malign Ocarina of Time's quality.
But Ocarina of Time did come along at perhaps the optimal time (though arguably a year earlier would have been even better). The game could not have come along significantly earlier, as many of the features that made the game so great were dependent on the Nintendo 64's capabilities. Implemented on the older SNES, Ocarina of Time would have been a great sequel but nothing more as the innovations it presented would have been largely impossible on the 2D console. But later generations saw a decrease in Nintendo's one-time monopoly: the consoles from the NES until the early days of the Nintendo 64 marked the peak of Nintendo's market share, and were arguably the only time in video game history (save for the Atari 2600) when the entire gaming audience could be reached on a single console. Any later and the game would have had to contend with the console wars splitting its audience -- a development that, in my opinion, is largely responsible for no games reaching the level of transcendent popularity that various fifth-generation games reached.
What these timing characteristics combined to supply was an audience: it's Ocarina of Time's overall quality that took that audience on the incredible journey that made the game such an icon, but what is crucial to the timing of the game's release is that it provided the audience itself. Great games slip through the cracks all the time: but released at this time, on this console, with the series name behind it (as mentioned below), Ocarina of Time reached the full audience it was designed for.
"The Legend of Zelda": Before and After
Step back for a moment and consider how the game may have been different with one slight alteration: imagine an identical game, but the main character's name is Doug, the Princess's name is Patricia, and it's the first installment in a series. Is The Legend of Patricia one of the greatest games ever?
I highly doubt it. Contributing again to the detail mentioned last section about the importance of drawing an audience, the series backing that preceded Ocarina of Time was largely responsible for the game's initial popularity. For that first week, the game could have likely been terrible without substantially altering its sales figures: the series brand gave it the audience it needed to expose its quality to the masses.
But its part in a series has a much more significant role than just that. Its role as a part of a series not only gave it its short at popularity, but it helped it sustain it. It's a symbiotic relationship: while the Legend of Zelda series was already somewhat popular, Ocarina of Time pushed it to a new height, giving opportunities to later series installments that they never would have had otherwise.
But more important to this analysis is that the later installments of the series have provided a perpetuation of Ocarina of Time's initial popularity. Imagine for a moment that Ocarina of Time had been the final Legend of Zelda game. Would that diminish its quality at all? Not in the least. But would it be rated as the greatest game of all time today? I, personally, highly doubt it. The Legend of Zelda series has served a crucial role in keeping the characters and setting at the forefront of gaming, constantly reminding gamers of that glorious installment in the series.
Finally, I'd be lying if I said that nostalgia did not play some role in Ocarina of Time's timelessness. I don't believe for a second that it is solely responsible: after all, if the game's only appeal was nostalgia, I -- a person who just played it for the first time now, over 10 years after its release -- wouldn't have cared for it at all. But with regards to its staying power, it's impossible to write as if nostalgia does not play a role.
But there is one unfortunate understood qualification that often comes along with accusations of the game's appeal being purely nostalgic. There's an unstated assumption that nostalgic is somehow a lesser quality for a game to draw an audience based on: that truly 'great' games have plots that are still interesting, battle systems that are still fun, or characters that are still entertaining.
Ocarina of Time has all of these, but even if it did not, nostalgia is not some lesser quality for a game to draw its popularity from. Nostalgia is actually one of the greatest things a game can ever hope to achieve. Consider how many games were released in the Nintendo 64 era -- if nostalgia was strictly a function of time, then every game would share the same nostalgic hold that Ocarina of Time does.
That's not the case, though. Nostalgia is one of those great, unquantifiable, immeasurable traits that game developers can only hope to infuse into their project. It's a function of a great many variables that must each be done to perfection while simultaneously existing at a perfect balance. It must provide various types of connections with the gamer, including reasons to recall the game in one's every day life and very specific reasons to desire a return to the game world.
So, yes, Ocarina of Time does draw a notable part of its timelessness from nostalgia. It's completely absurd to suggest that nostalgia accounts for all of its staying power, but more importantly it's an absolute disservice to consider its nostalgic hold on its audience to be some sort of lesser quality than any others. Considering the power that nostalgia holds over its audience, if it were easy to achieve then every game would. But every game can't. It's because Ocarina of Time is considered so great that it is considered so nostalgic; not the other way around.
Just. Plain. Fun.
With a Master's degree in Human-Computer Interaction and a Ph.D. in the works, I admit I have a major tendency to get caught up on details of game designs and implementations that most people would not even consider as important factors in a game's quality. It's in my nature. I think it's useful to be able to provide this type of analysis, but I also am well aware that pointillism is more than just random dots, and similarly that focusing on the details -- no matter how large they might be -- can force you to miss the big picture.
So, here's the big picture. Moving away from the brilliant story structure, the innovative yet classical plot and the incredibly impactful gameplay elements, one simple fact remains: the game is just plain fun. It's simple yet complex, it's pleasantly repetitive with just enough alteration, and it'd be silly to dismiss as primitive the fact that slashing at monsters with a sword and blowing stuff up is just plain fun. It's a fun game. You can have a great plot, interesting elements, entertaining characters and a well-constructed story, but if the game isn't fun, it's not going to matter. No one replays Ocarina of Time strictly because of its historical significance. The story, structure and plot play a role, but what matters just as much is that the game is fun. Fun doesn't automatically grant timelessness and staying power, but the lacking it is the quickest way to sabotage an otherwise great game.
There's not a single item on this list that some game had not done before Ocarina of Time, and there's not a single item that no game has done since, likely with better graphics, a deeper story and more engaging gameplay. But it isn't any one of these features that grants Ocarina of Time the staying power that it has -- its the combination of all of them. It's the fact that it has a greatly structured plot that tells a beautifully classic yet engagingly innovative story. It's the fact that tiny little gameplay elements provide an intrigue and experience that other games can't match. And it's the fact that the game came along at the perfect time to get a suitably large audience to appreciate its greatness, and is accompanied by a series to promote its greatness to every new generation. It's the way new gamers beat their first Legend of Zelda game and learn soon thereafter of the masterpiece they missed. It's the way gamers that played it when it first came out make a point to play it again.
Ocarina of Time is not a perfect game. It has its faults and its idiosyncrasies. The often-terrible control scheme, for one, is solely responsible for the death of a little piece of my soul. But what the game did right is so far and above the level of any minor fault or error that it has reached a transcendent level of video game fame, saved only for the Final Fantasies, the Marios and -- largely thanks to Ocarina of Time -- the Legend of Zeldas. It made a series, it made a console, it made a genre, and it made itself the greatest game of all time.
At least, for now.
DDJ's Overall rating: 5.0 - Perfect