"Without a fairy, you’re not even a real man."
I never knew that Nintendo was so open-minded. Not the sort of modern free thinking you’d expect from a company mired in 15-year old icons (oh please, no more Mario). But from Frogger to Asteroids, the old has become new. And now, "It seems the time has come for the boy without a fairy to begin his journey."
Once upon a time in the shimmering land of 8-bit Nintendo, there was a fat little boy in a green outfit named Link. He lived in Hyrule and when evil reared its ugly head, he explored the land, collecting heart containers, fighting dodongos and octorocks. As it turned out, it was all about a powerful artifact called the Triforce, which Link saved when he defeated the evil Ganon.
Twelve years later, the N64 is king, and game guru Shigeru Miyamoto returns to design The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is actually the 5th Legend of Zelda game (not counting Gameboy), and what is it like? Well, you play Link, but you’re not fat anymore. Ganondorf (a combination of Ganon and Tim Conway?) threatens the land of Hyrule and Link must get the Triforce before Ganondorf does. You must explore, collect heart containers, and fight dodongos and octorocks. Sound familiar? Well, aside from the 3D graphics, much of Zelda 64 will set off the deja-vu alarm in the back of your brain. And it’s great, like an old friend coming home.
The graphics are the one part of the game that is totally new. All the locations in Zelda are totally 3 dimensional, like Mario 64 only much better. The N64 is a 3D workhorse, and Zelda proves it with great textures, lighting, tons of little environmental effects, and smooooth framerates with no slowdown. Faces, the toughest graphical challenge on 3D characters, are fantastic in Zelda. Characters blink, look around and change expressions with surprising grace.
However, the most impressive part graphically is ‘Hyrule Field’, the largest single 3D environment I’ve seen on the Nintendo. It really gives you a feeling of open exploration and freedom. Unfortunately, there is only one such area in the game, but the one is awfully impressive.
The lack of FMV, the bane of cartridge games, is nearly solved in Zelda with ‘movie’ sequences rendered on the fly. The little movie segments really do look as good as the movies in some PlayStation games.
The sound is good for the Nintendo, but not great in the larger scheme of things. No CD music means MIDI tunes that range from fair to terrible. There are a few sampled voice noises, and the environmental noises (crickets, birds, running water) are perfect. Many of the sound effects, like the noise when you solve a puzzle, are taken directly from the original 8-bit title. Retro, baby!
Like the original, gameplay is about 75% action to 25% RPG. Control is sharp and precise. Most of the time, it plays like Mario 64, but with a smarter camera. There is also a battle mode where you (and your camera) focus on one particular enemy. This is useful during combat and works well.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the control is the lack of a jump button. You need every button on the controller for other options. If you run at a ledge, however, Link will automatically jump. This works better than you’d think, but it is still really weird not being able to jump whenever you want.
Aside from running around and hitting things with a sword, there are some simple puzzles and a fairly straightforward storyline. Your fairy friend (yes, you do get one after all) will keep you on track with occasional helpful advice. While you can wander pretty far off track, the plot is still quite linear and the fairy makes sure you don’t go too far astray.
The RPG elements are pretty slim, like the original Zelda. You collect heart containers to gain more life, and there are 4 swords and 3 shields to collect. There are a number of useful items and objects as well. And some, like the different masks, aren’t necessary to completing the game.
Later in the game, you even get to play as an older version of Link (it is called Ocarina of Time, after all). He’s taller and stronger, and can use different equipment and weapons. This is a nice change, particularly when you are getting too used to playing as the same little boy.
All told, there are about 70 hours of gameplay in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is great; it’s nice and long. Game Revolution does have a walkthrough if you get too frustrated, but I recommend against it. Nothing is that hard to figure out and if you keep at it, you will enjoy the game for longer and really get your money’s worth.
Length, however, does not equal depth. At first the Zelda seems too much like a child’s game. Things are cute, cartoony and simple. Zelda is definitely geared for a younger audience than Final Fantasy VII, for example. As you play, it does show quite a bit more depth than you’d guess from first impressions, but never gets very complex. This is really a flaw with the cartridge format. Without a CD, you just have much less potential data to work with.
Of course, this is great news for younger gamers or parents worried about giving their kids games that are too mature. For us older gamers though, Zelda still tastes a bit like baby food at times.
That aside, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is terrific. As childish as the game sometimes looks, even adults become quickly hooked. While playing, the hours slipped quietly by without my noticing. I also developed a small audience just watching me play. Well… they were talking, too: "Turn left here. No, left. Are you sure? What is that thing? Jump on the box." Sigh.
Zelda is easily the best RPG for the N64, and a must buy for N64 owners this year. It’s very cool, and there’s really nothing to compare it to. Get it for your kids, get it for yourself (or just pretend that you’re getting it for your kids…).