Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Top 50 Games - 19. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Is Ocarina of Time the greatest game ever made? Well, according to me it's not, seeing as how I awarded Super Mario Bros. that title quite a few posts ago (it was #48). Is Ocarina of Time in the top 5, at least? Absolutely. Okay, but why isn't it in my own personal top 5? This one is pretty easy to explain (although some may not consider my excuse good enough): I never owned a Nintendo 64. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was not my first Zelda game, and by the time I played it, the years had cruelly stolen a little bit of its original luster. This masterpiece, easily one of Nintendo's greatest accomplishments, is still pretty damn high on my list though; there are only 18 games that I love more. While the graphics may no longer present the most stunning virtual landscape ever created, and the control has since been polished, there are quite a few areas of this game that remain nearly untouched. The brilliance of its innovative features, the divine quality of its music, and the genius of its overall design have barely been surpassed since its release in 1998 (in my humble opinion, the greatest year for video games ever). Ocarina of Time was born during a strange but fertile time: faced with the challenge of bringing Hyrule into the third dimension, the peerless talents at Nintendo invented by necessity aspects of 3D gaming that we have all taken for granted. One of 3D's most troublesome new problems was the camera; Super Mario 64 did its best to tame the ugly beast, but OoT's solution was much more elegant. The only way to adjust the view was to press the Z-trigger and re-center it behind Link. Pressing the Z-trigger near an enemy or character would letterbox the screen and focus Link's movements and actions around the targeted object. Z-targeting, as it would be called for years afterward, was an ingenious blessing. It helped make interaction in a 3D world much more enjoyable, and was the foundation for a combat system that still holds up to this day (which is not something that many games of the early 3D era can claim). Also new to 3D gaming was an open world ready to be explored without restrictive load screens or self-contained levels. Gamers were equipped with all the tools necessary to conquer this faraway world, using trusty steed Epona to gallop across the expansive Hyrule Field, series staples such as arrows, boomerangs, and bombs to fell Ganon's minions, and new additions like the Iron Boots and Bombchus to explore more of the fascinating kingdom. There was a day-night cycle (skeletal Stalfos enemies were much more common at night), a variety of entertaining minigames like fishing in Lake Hylia, and more details that served to keep gamers enraptured for long stretches of time. One of the game's most impressive features is its mind-bending time travel mechanic. Focused on the two most important items, the titular Ocarina of Time and the classic Master Sword, at the Temple of Time Link is able to choose between two realities: one in which he is a child, and one that finds him a fully grown young adult. This duality creates many new puzzles, some of which are more devious and clever than any in the series. Magic beans can be purchased and planted in certain areas by a young Link; when revisiting the area as an adult, plants will have grown, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas. Certain items can only be used by each version of Link as well, further complicating an already sophisticated game. Some consider the dungeons to be at the heart of the Zelda experience, and while I wouldn't agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, I will say that Ocarina of Time boasts many of them, not a single one of which is poorly designed (even the Water Temple). They are more often than not dark, musty, murky, and thoroughly tricky puzzle-boxes loaded with dangerous enemies, thoughtful challenges, and awesome boss fights. They can get pretty creative too, with one taking place inside the belly of a giant fish. Maybe the best applications of the gameplay mechanics can be found in the dungeons, but OoT's soul can easily be discovered in any of the game's rapturous melodies. Koji Kondo is without a doubt the greatest composer in the industry, and his work on display here is positively brimming with emotion and warmth. Many a gamer who has spent time in Hyrule knows that he will never ever get Saria's Song and Zelda's Lullaby out of his head. I consider the latter to be one of the greatest melodies ever written, bar none, and it, along with the title screen music, is enough to reduce any vulnerable video game lifer to goo. The most important, most timeless, most affecting 3D game ever released, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time deserves all the praise that can be thrown at it.

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