The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Retro Review

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When discussing the greatest video game of all time, Nintendo’s 1998 effort, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is one of the heavy-hitters. Ocarina of Time has topped many all-time lists, including IGN and GameStats; it is also currently the highest-rated game overall on Metacritic. It is a seminal title in the gaming world. In the decades since its release, it has influenced the entire action-adventure genre, and even 3D gaming as we know it.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Platform: Nintendo 64
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Adventure
Release: November 1998

What is it All About?

Warning: spoilers below… unless you’re like most people and have already played this game, in which case you should be alright.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows Link as he attempts to save Hyrule from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf, who is trying to steal the sacred Triforce. Link must first obtain the three Spiritual Stones to claim the Triforce before Ganondorf can.

While escaping Ganondorf, Princess Zelda entrusts Link with the mystical Ocarina of Time, an instrument that can open the door to the Sacred Realm and the Triforce. However, when he enters the Sacred Realm, Ganondorf follows him, steals the Triforce, and takes over the Kingdom of Hyrule.

To free Hyrule, Link must awaken the seven sages, five of whom do not even know their true identities.  With the sages awoken, Link can finally take on Ganondorf with the power of the Master Sword to free Hyrule for once and for all.

Ocarina of Time
It’s all about that magical Triforce… (Source)

A Step Through Time: A Quick Recap

Ocarina of Time was released worldwide at the end of 1998 and was hotly anticipated in the months leading up to its release. It was originally intended to be released on the ill-fated 64DD disc drive but had to be migrated onto cartridge media to account for its massive size.

Despite being released only 6 weeks before the end of 1998, Ocarina of Time sold a staggering two-and-a-half million copies worldwide by the year’s end, enough to get it onto most year-end sales lists.  International sales have now reached over 7 million units and counting. The game’s enduring popularity led to its re-release on the GameCube and the iQue Player in 2003, and a remastered 3D version was released on the 3DS in 2011.

Ocarina of Time
People lining up to buy the game on release day, probably.

With Ocarina of Time, Nintendo redefined what was possible in a game. Features such as the Z-targeting system, the use of surround-sound, and the sheer level of detail changed the way the world looked at what was possible in a 3D game. It still influences gaming as we know it today.

How Does it Look Through Fresh Eyes?

My initial thoughts of this game were… well, to be honest, not great. I chose this game knowing its reputation, but not a lot else. It wasn’t long before I was starting to question what I’d gotten myself in for. The initial tutorial level felt like a large amount of work for a small reward, and the following, seemingly aimless, mission in the Deku Tree was filled by a raft of annoying enemies. Before long I began wondering if Ocarina of Time was really just the most overrated game of all time instead.

Ocarina of Time
I gotta tell you Mr Deku Tree, you need to work on your first impressions (Source)

But please, young warrior – put away your keyboard, for I soon learned the error of my ways. This game is not overrated at all. This game is good. In fact, this game is excellent. It wasn’t long before I was absolutely enchanted by this game, I knew then the hype was real. Everything in this game just works – the characters, the story, the world, the music – the list could go on. It all goes together well and what it delivers to you is an absolute masterpiece of a video gaming experience.

Despite being released more than 20 years ago, this game still holds up. Yes, it is not absolute perfection. But the fact is I began this game in 2020 and became almost immediately immersed in it like I would any new release. That says a lot about how well-crafted this game is.

Rising to the Top – Top 3 Highlights

With a game as good as this, there are a lot of contenders for the top three highlights. After some serious consideration, these three highlights show off the best features of what this game has to offer.

1. Music

Opinions on music will always be subjective. I, for one, loved the soundtrack to this game. Before I knew it I was humming this soundtrack at work, and seeking it out on Spotify. Personal favourites include the Kakariko Village theme music as well as the captivating Zelda’s Lullaby.  

But a good soundtrack is not just about what’s going to make my Spotify Top 100 at the year’s end. It is also about how well the music works with the game. Great soundtracks can add a whole new level to a video game. From the idyllic Hyrule Field to the chaotic boss fights, Nintendo has hit the nail on the head with Ocarina of Time.

2. The Setting

One thing that I simply didn’t expect from Zelda was the open-world nature of the game. I expected some sort of strictly lineal game, not the massive almost sandbox-type game that I was greeted with instead. The fact that I could run off and do a side mission or two in between levels astounded me. I can only imagine what I would have thought had I have been playing this in 1998.

Ocarina of Time
Hyrule Field truly makes for a beautiful setting (Source)

But it’s not just the size of the setting, but the variance in it too. Each level uses a different elemental influence which creates a unique experience each time. For example, the concept of day and night being introduced. I’m impressed if I see that in a game now, but in 1998 that would have blown my tiny mind!

And if that wasn’t enough, the player is shot forward seven years halfway through the game. This was a game-changer. It gave the game a new layer of depth without making it too complicated. It’s something many games since have struggled to achieve, but it is something that Nintendo got completely right here.

3. The Varied Gameplay

As I was playing through this game, fighting yet another level boss and trying to figure out how to defeat them, something hit me. And no, I’m not talking about that troublesome oaf, King Dodongo. Every single one of these has involved completely different gameplay to defeat. Not just a different level setup or weapon, but completely different methods needed to beat them.

Ocarina of Time
Oh King Dodongo, you and your variable gameplay was no match for me (Source)

That’s how it is across the entire game. Some games rely on repetitive enemies and levels to pad out the game (Assassin’s Creed I’m looking at you). But not Ocarina of Time, not at all. Every new level, and every new enemy, requires an amount of thought – and some helpful tips from my new best friend Navi. To me, that is an incredible feat that makes the game exciting to play and stops it from feeling like one long hard slog.

The Dregs at the End – Bottom 3 Lowlights

Unfortunately no game is perfect (and if it is, I haven’t played it… yet) but it is fair to say that any disappointments in this game were minor at best.

1. The Graphics

While most of the graphics in this game were amazing, some of them were not. There were three parts that could have been done better: the insides of some of the buildings (for example the houses in Kokiri Village), maneuvering around Hyrule Castle (whoever thought that camera system was a good idea needs a stern talking to), and the characters (the most common area of complaint).

Ocarina of Time
I would too if it were me who was looking like that…
© Nintendo

The fact is that these graphics weren’t bad compared to other games out there, but considering the detail and effort that clearly went into the rest of the game, it certainly feels like Nintendo dropped the ball here.

2. The Water Temple

If you’ve played this game before you’ll know what I’m talking about. Not a lot needs to be said about this, but that level was by far the worst level in the game, and the worst I’ve had to deal with in any game for a long time. It’s not that it was hard, it’s just that it was tedious and frustrating. In fact, this level is so notorious that it has its own Wikipedia page

Ocarina of Time
Please don’t make me go back there… (Source)

Even if the game isn’t as difficult as everyone once claimed it was, it was certainly tedious and warranted a touch up for the 3DS re-release. In fact, if it weren’t for internet walkthroughs this review wouldn’t exist, because I’d still be down there equipping and unequipping those damn iron boots.

3. The Low Health Reminder

The fact that this is one of the top three lowlights shows how good this game really is. But, it also shows how annoying that noise was. As if I wasn’t stressed enough by the fact that I had low health, I now have an incessant beeping in my ears reminding me of this. It also continues to beep until I find a new source of health. The odd beep or even a flash would have been preferable. This, however, was just overkill, and the source of some much-unneeded frustration.

If you really want to punish yourself, here’s an hour of it…

Biggest Surprise in Ocarina of Time

No matter what we expect of a game, there is always something that comes out of left-field and takes us by surprise. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes not.

There are plenty of valid choices for the biggest surprise of this game, but to me, it was the integration of music into the game. It’s not just the fact that it was done, but how it’s well it was done too. The ocarina is easy to use, and learning the buttons required to play the different songs was nowhere near as difficult as it sounds.

Ocarina of Time
Who would have thought such a simple instrument could make such a huge difference? (Source)

I have already lauded the beautiful soundtrack. But the way the soundtrack is used to introduce different areas adds a spell-binding atmosphere for the game. The music works perfectly, and added sound elements, like needing to follow the music to navigate the Lost Woods, gave Ocarina of Time aspects that games today struggle to pull off correctly. 

Tier Listing: How Does it Stack Up?

As each retro game is reviewed, they will be placed on The Game Crater Retro Review Tier List. This list will determine where they ultimately stack up with one another.

Ocarina of Time

It should come as no surprise that Ocarina of Time is rated in the top tier. It is a truly great game, and definitely worthy of the title of Masterpiece. Of course, as it is the first game reviewed it has nothing to compare to. Only time will tell as to how it will stack up to those that come after it.

Final Thoughts: Are We Looking at it Through Rose-Tinted Glasses?

It is no overstatement to say that I feel more complete for having finally played this game.  

Nintendo has created a magical world that draws you in and makes you never want to leave. The bright colours of the scenery. The beautiful renaissance-style music. The wonderful range of characters. These all make for a great game with brilliant depth. It never feels like a drag, despite the surprisingly long overall length of gameplay time.

Ocarina of Time

Yes, there are minor gripes, but let’s be honest – they pale in comparison to what this game has achieved. There is a reason this game tops so many all-time lists. It’s the same reason why I can play it now and be enchanted by it like millions were in 1998. Nintendo dreamed big and dreamed different with Ocarina of Time, and they absolutely hit it out of the park.

What are your memories of this game? Do you agree with my thoughts? What game should be reviewed next? Whatever your thoughts are – don’t keep them to yourself: sound off in the comments below.

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Ben McBride
Ben McBride
Just a man with too many video games to play and not enough time to play them.

2 comments

  1. I remember playing this the first time at my neighbor’s house as a kid, and it absolutely blew me away. Playing it again many years later (I grabbed it for the 3DS), sure, it’s not as spiffy as some newer games, but it still is awesome.

    Also, tempted to yeet some retro game ideas your way sometime, just to see your takes on them.

    • It’s definitely the kind of game I think of when I think of this era in gaming. It’s crazy to see how far the series has come, and while the game is a bit dated nowadays, as you said it is still awesome in its own right.

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