In the past couple of months I’ve also slowly wormed my way through the two biggest Legend of Zelda titles: the original 1986 NES game, and 1998’s Ocarina of Time. The latter was a frequent rental of my childhood days, while the former was new to me (being slightly too young to see the heyday of the NES, most of my exposure to its library has come as an adult).
My prediction was that Zelda 1 would be a historical curiosity, while Ocarina of Time would be a nostalgia-drenched experience. What happened was almost the reverse: I quickly fell in love with Zelda 1, while Ocarina seemed to have lost some of its shine.
This is my attempt to articulate why.
The original Legend of Zelda invented, in one swoop, the whole action-adventure genre. Before then, you had complicated computer RPGs and text adventures standing alongside the more popular, reflex based arcade and Atari affairs. Zelda 1’s triumph was to combine the exploratory nature of RPGs with the simple, visceral thrill of a good arcade game. Ocarina’s triumph was to take the genre Zelda 1 established and figure out how a z-axis should work in it.
Both games (and indeed most Zelda titles) are procedurally quite similar: In the fantasy world of Hyrule, a bad dude called Ganon is out to get his hands on the legendary Triforce. The Kingdom – especially one royal by the name of Princess Zelda – is in peril, and Link, our player-controlled protagonist, is tasked with saving the day. This involves exploring an overworld to unlock several dungeons you must clear to collect several macguffins the game requires of you. Along the way you also amass an impressive array of equipment which gradually expands what you are capable of. Once you’ve got your macguffins you’re finally able to take down Ganon and roll the credits.
In spite of this, the two operate under different design principles.
Zelda 1 is almost entirely an inductive affair. It unceremoniously dumps you into the world of Hyrule without any real overt direction on what you’re supposed to be doing. The game assumes that your own curiosity about the world, and drive to reach the finish line, will push you to puzzle things out on your own (and, if you’re stumped, that you’ll have access to word-of-mouth tips). Combat is often a life and death affair, with frequent bottlenecks ratcheting up the tension. It’s almost exactly the same sort of gameplay model Dark Souls would revive decades later.
And I just love that stuff. Once I adjusted to the crude, mid 80s look of it, I found myself getting way too excited about clearing those dungeons and milling about the overworld. Zelda 1’s success is that, in spite of its large and cryptic world, it’s still only somewhat more complex than Super Mario Bros: move in four directions with the D-pad, use your sword with the A button, use your subweapon with the B button. Contrast that with the original Final Fantasy, which is similarly opaque, but also has complicated RPG mechanics thrown into the mix, making it feel random and unfair by modern standards.
Ocarina retains some vestiges of Zelda 1’s style, but its primary interest is in creating a living world with an epic narrative, and immersing the player in it. Link is now a protagonist in his own right, and the player leads him through the story, vicariously experiencing it alongside him. This was the first game where the act of swinging a sword or pulling back a bow had a viscerally real feeling to it, and most of the excitement from the combat comes from this sense of realism, rather than the actual danger an enemy poses. The areas visited are themselves more characterized by the ambience they create than the challenge they pose. In most of these things Ocarina is still rather impressive, low poly count notwithstanding.
The problem for me begins with that word – vicariously. Although a silent one, Link is indeed a character in his own right. There’s a moment partway through the game where the player arrives at the entrance to the Forest Temple. A cutscene happens which has Link staring at a tree stump that his friend Saria used to sit down on, playing her ocarina. Wordlessly, the cinematography suggests Link’s feelings of loss and nostalgia.
It could be a moving scene for the player, except that the game adheres to a rather minimalist, old-school approach to characterization that gets in the way of things. Saria herself is barely even introduced in the game before the plot forces her and Link to part ways. As a result, I never get to experience the friendship alongside Link, and so can’t empathize with his sense of loss. And the same is true for almost every character. And so, in playing Ocarina I never felt particularly attached to what was going on, because it felt like an adventure someone else was having – someone else whose thoughts and feelings were inaccessible to me.
So the main draw would have to be the gameplay. Except, as noted, there aren’t enough genuinely challenging situations that I can get a sense of accomplishment from. And the realism that Ocarina pioneered has become industry standard, and indeed has been eclipsed by other titles that I enjoy more. To be fair, none of this is Ocarina’s fault. Figuring out 3D combat in 1998 was difficult enough; trying to add depth to it would likely have turned out painful. The developers of Zelda 1 never had to worry about camera movement and whatnot. But it does get in the way of truly loving the game.
Still, there are aspects I love about Ocarina. I love the atmospheric soundtrack, I love the spectacle of the boss fights, and I love a lot of the small, throwaway details the developers put in – like almost everything to do with the graveyard, the happy mask salesman guy, the windmill etc. And there are some interesting themes underneath the surface of it.
But at the end of the day I still prefer the “grab your gear and go” approach to Zelda that the first entry inaugurated, and which A Link Between Worlds revived.
(Oh no I’ve become one of those pretentious snobs)