Anyone who’s scrutinised the hundreds of screenshots printed in Edge over the past three years could be forgiven for feeling overly familiar with Nintendo’s epic even before it hits the shops. But this has been mere titillation compared to finally experiencing the finished product. Here’s a title perhaps more qualified than any other to demonstrate Nintendo’s irrepressible knack for honing things to perfection.
Anticipation has swelled around Ocarina of Time ever since its development began three years ago, although the popularity of its immaculately conceived forebear, Zelda: A link to the Past, sowed the first seeds of expectation a further three years before that. The series’ graduation from 2D to 3D is commendable because it retains the essence of what makes the Zelda experience unique – an intoxicating blend of exploration, action, puzzle-solving and storytelling now fused with state-of-the-art visuals. It’s Zelda all right, but it now benefits from a new level of creative and technical ambition. Sensibly, Nintendo has skillfully avoided the possibility of ending up with a fantasy-themed version of Mario (a 64bit title whose gameplay took a considerable detour from the precise 2D platforming of its 16bit days). The result is pure, unadulterated Zelda, 1998 style.
From the title scene depicting Link astride a galloping horse, to the firstperson-viewed flightpath of sidekick fairy Navi as she clumsily navigates her way to Link’s home, events unfold in this saga with a neatly choreographed, cinematic quality. Beautiful realtime cut-scenes punctuate the game with an integrity and seamlessness that throws a considerable shadow over the more incongruous mix of styles in Final Fantasy VII – Square’s vast, render-intensive approach wholly eclipsed by the painstaking efforts of Nintendo’s artists. In this case, less has most definitely meant more for Nintendo.
The upbeat Kokiri forest is the setting for Link’s first exploits and works in a similar fashion to Mario 64’s castle grounds – as a playpen in which to become acclimatised to the controls and interact with the impish inhabitants of the village. Once inside the giant Deku tree (the first dungeon) you’ll quickly discover nuances in the control system such as Link’s automatic jumps – a conscious attempt to differentiate the gameplay from Mario’s – as well as the intricacies of the combat system, which are initially daunting, but prove well-designed and effective.
Aside from regular sword combat (which has its own repertoire of moves and attacks), firstperson views come into operation when brandishing certain weapons such as the slingshot or bow, or when using items such as the hookshot. However, holding the Z-trigger when close enough to an enemy activates a thirdperson, locked-on perspective – with strafing a simple matter of moving left or right. This makes simple work of targetting enemies, with a cross-hair automatically tracking the nearest foe. (Incidentally, wearing headphones even provides effective stereo ‘vision’ which is especially useful when keeping track of the game’s formidable line-up of bosses.)
Just as combat is an evolution of that of the 2D series, now making best use of the N64’s pad, Nintendo’s decision to set the story (a prequel to the series) in two time zones – one when controlling the younger Link and the other when he’s matured – can be traced back to the 16bit Zelda’s ingenious light and dark worlds. Time travel between the two zones provides a distinct change of tone, with the spirited joviality of the youthful Link cleverly juxtaposed with the darker, weightier challenges he faces later on. Challenge after challenge, the engrossing plot moves along steadily, fuelled by a cast of memorable characters that dampen the spirits one moment and lift them the next. And, with around 60 hours of gameplay – and far more if you were to leisurely explore every detail of the fascinating gameworld – it is a title of some substance. Be under no illusions that this is anything less than a serious gaming commitment.
Aside from a range of entertaining sub-games (a spot of fishing, perhaps?), hidden items (a Rumble Pak provides clues to their location) and ingenious puzzles that are sometimes so simple you’ll often struggle to see the wood for the trees, the inclusion of sparkling, innovative new touches elevates the game well beyond previous Zelda outings. One masterstroke is the Ocarina itself, whose importance is not only reflected in the game’s title but in its use at key points in the game. Playing simple ditties by using the yellow C buttons may seem like a token gesture, but the composition of melodies is a worthy adjunct to the core gameplay, and engenders an ethereal charm of its own.
Incidentally, audio plays a prominent role throughout the game, and the quality of the music and sound effects (particularly those of the wildlife activity in the Hyrule kingdom) will impress even the most jaded aural connoisseurs.
Just as the gameplay foundations are flawlessly constructed, the visible world Nintendo has built upon them is majestic in every respect. Replete with rising and setting suns, flowing rivers, waterfalls, lakes, deserts, towns and virtually any kind of geographical feature you could imagine, Hyrule is a terrifically convincing gameworld. Vast, open expanses with no pop-up, dramatic mountain vistas, huge, beautifully shaded enclosures, incredible particle effects such as sandstorms, and the melting hues of sunrise and sunset all combine to make this a devastatingly beautiful game.
Only the curious blend of static backdrops and pseudo-scrolling indoor viewpoints – such as those employed in Hyrule town – look perfunctory by comparison. But even these represent an interesting detour from the standard thirdperson view.
Everything in Ocarina of Time is realised with an elegance rarely seen in videogames. From the spirited, Disney-esque feel of the proceedings through its pacey storyline, incredible scale and vivid cinematics, nothing has been overlooked in the pursuit of perfection. In fact, the only blots on an otherwise flawless landscape are the occasionally ponderous bouts of text which resonate with saccharine-rich Americanisms that sometimes impose an undesirable element of linearity on the open structure. Some players will feel such guidance simply isn’t necessary (plus, of course, there will be the usual batch of gamers intent on wading through the Japanese version on import), but there are times when you’ll be clamouring for all the help you can get.
That Miyamoto has spent more time on this project than other under-nourished 64bit updates such as Mario Kart and Yoshi’s Story is more than palpable – Ocarina of Time shapes up as arguably the most accomplished game to have ever come out of the studios of NCL, and is reason enough to buy a Nintendo 64 in itself. Most importantly, though, the game singlehandedly restores the faith in both the creative might of Nintendo and in the power of the videogame as an entertainment medium. A work of genius.
Ocarina Of Time is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.