Thursday, August 3, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #54

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the ultimate example of a game for which I have great fondness but can't find the large number of words necessary to adequately express why it commands such reverence. In truth, this has become a source of regret; as I was working to prepare this piece, all I could think about was how it seemed inappropriate that I was about to deny Ocarina of Time the mountains of text I'd ordinarily reserve for games of its world-changing distinction. I feel as though I should be giving it the feature-length treatment, which it certainly deserves, yet the reality is that my memories of the game simply aren't structured that way.

Mine isn't a true "chronology." I have no real "story" to tell. I recall Ocarina of Time only as a series of feelings and nostalgically shaded mental images.

That being the case, I've decided that it's best to approach this piece from a different angle: As I lack the wealth of material necessary to form a lengthy, coherent narrative, I'm going to instead talk about what the game meant to me.

To give it the proper framing: Ocarina of Time is the game that held me in total captivation for the 1998 holiday season and the year in following. It's the technical marvel that dared me to dream about what the future held for next-generation consoles. It's the masterpiece whose profound brushstrokes strongly color my memories of the late-90s era of gaming.

It is, in my opinion, the irreplaceable 3D Zelda.

The history leading up to the purchase was typical for me: I was largely apathetic about Ocarina of Time. I never read too deep into the Nintendo Power coverage or looked far beyond the screenshots. It looked impressive, sure, but the idea of a three-dimension Zelda just didn't sound all that appealing to me; really, I was looking for more of what A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening offered, and I wasn't convinced that a 3D Zelda could deliver the same type of experience--that it could replicate their tightly controlled action and hasty map navigation or reproduce the sense of atmosphere I associated with those old top-down games, which put the focus on where you were and left everything else to your imagination.

Now, I wasn't suffering from some selective learning disability (not at the time, at least); I hadn't forgotten about Mario's successful jump to 3D and the hugely positive impact Super Mario 64 had on me. I mean, it was possible that the Zelda series could find similar success in the 3D space. But could a 3D Zelda replicate the 2D games' core values with a high degree of authenticity and become heralded as their true evolution? I didn't think so.

What made me doubt the possibility was my reflecting on how Super Mario 64 had achieved its success: It didn't seek to "naturally evolve" its 2D predecessors' underpinning formulas or replicate their unmistakable aesthetic values. No--Super Mario 64 was a creature of its own design; we championed it because it was simply amazing--so transcendent that it didn't matter whether or not it had much in common with Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. We were too much in awe of it to care.

But that was the problem! Zelda wasn't Mario; its history had already shown us that the differences would become too irreconcilable if it attempted to move in a different direction (or so I thought before I finally recognized the brilliance of Zelda II); it couldn't stray too far from the existing template without losing sense of itself. "So what if it turns out to be a great game?" I thought. "Zelda simply isn't Zelda if it's 'new and different.'"

Oh, I was still going to buy it, sure, because I was a Nintendo fan and the name "Zelda" carried so much weight that skipping a series' release would be, in my estimation, akin to missing out on a major world event! But it would be a pure loyalty purchase; there would be no logical impetus--no compelling-enough reason for me to feel excited about Link's 3D debut.

So my plan was to wait a few months before snagging a copy of Ocarina--remain focused on WCW/nWo Revenge and other recent releases. There were enough new games to keep me busy for a while.

But suddenly I found myself caught in the hype. Nintendo Power was ramping up its coverage to such a degree that I could no longer ignore Ocarina ("Are you telling me that I can ride a horse anywhere I want?!"). Members of my family were talking about it. And it was a frequent topic of discussion in just about every AOL chat room (hobbyist-focused or otherwise) I'd visit.

To me, hype was contagious. Once I was caught in its net, I just couldn't escape. I was helpless.

"So why wait until next year?" I figured. Sure--my decision might have been influenced by the fact that Ocarina's release happened to run concurrent to my Thanksgiving break. And of course there was that undeniable allure of being able to play a big-time Nintendo release during one of those always-magical late-year vacation periods. I mean, how could I pass up such an opportunity?

So I went out and bought it day one.

Ocarina of Time began exhibiting its power right away. Within seconds of my seeing and hearing its pleasantly toned intro, any remaining traces of apathy and cynicism were permanently cleansed from my system. At the moment its melancholic opening tune began flowing out from my television's speakers, Ocarina of Time had captured me. Factoring into my submission was that I immediately recognized that the tune's opening flute strain was a recreation of the ditty that would play whenever we'd call upon the use of The Legend of Zelda's recorder item (which, coincidentally, we all called "the flute"); this one little detail brought everything home--provided Ocarina an instant air of nostalgic resonance.

The scene it accompanied, wherein Link rode his horse (Epona, whose name would become ingrained in our memories) all across Hyrule and allowed us a glimpse at some of its more notable landmarks, did well to harness its energy and evoke feelings of wonder. I ignored any text that urged me to hit the Start button; instead, I placed the controller down at my side and let the intro loop over and over again. I let it wash over me for a good five minutes or so.

Thinking about that indelible scene now, I feel even sadder that I don't have much of a story to tell past this point. Honestly, I simply don't remember a whole lot about my first play-through's minute-to-minute progression--about where I traveled initially or what I was thinking or feeling whenever I discovered a new location. All I have are the scattered memories that have stuck with me all these years, like the unforgettable opening moments wherein I ran about the wondrous, sun-drenched Kokiri Forest and tested out Link's new three-dimensional abilities (the enormity of the experience's impact equivalent to what I felt the first time I made Mario run in circles using the analog stick)--generally got a sense of Ocarina's world.

I recall my first meeting the incomparable Great Deku Tree and how his mere presence informed me of the scope of Ocarina's creative ambition. Wandering into the overworld and getting chills as the rousing Hyrule Field theme kicked in and worked to further enrapture me. Seeing the breathtakingly pre-rendered image of the Temple of Time with Death Mountain hovering the background. Aimlessly running up those stairs to the east and suddenly finding myself in the grasp of that familiar, utterly wistful Kakariko theme. That time when my brother happily strutted his way into the den at the exact moment that I initiated dialogue with the carpenters' boss, whose exceptionally raucous greeting ("HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!) sent him recoiling back in terror, his arms raised chest-level as if he were preparing to be trampled by a riotous mob (maybe I shouldn't have had the volume turned up that high).

Peeking into Hyrule Castle and discovering the hidden portrait of Mario and crew. The frightening encounters with ReDeads. Experimenting with the ocarina. The twisting corridor. Exploring the domains of the Gorons and the reimagined Zora race. Fishing. Riding Epona for the first time. Finally unlocking the Temple of Time's secret and claiming the Master Sword. Being overcome by feelings of nostalgia as the invigorating, goosebumps-inducing Master Sword-obtention theme majestically resounded throughout the room just as it did six years earlier in that unforgettable A Link to the Past scene. The battle with Dark Link, fought within the confines of an illusory placid spring. The encounter with Ganondorf--playing projectile tennis in 3D space for the first time. The surprise appearance by giant pig Ganon and the epic battle that ensued. And, of course, Navi's persistent pestering, which was annoying yet endearing in a way (which is to say not obnoxious like the endless hounding and uninvited chatter thrown your way by the helper characters Navi inspired).

Really, I'd list every memorable "first" if the consequences of such didn't entail Blogger running out of available space.

Ocarina of Time was part of the fabric of being. It was everywhere--its name popping up in conversations I was having with the people around me and those with whom I'd communicate on the Internet. When my cousins came to visit us for Christmas that year, we had a lot of fun discussing our personal experiences with the game. Most memorably, we shared a lot of laughs in recalling the contrived side mission wherein an enormous Goron agreed to repair Young Link's broken Biggoron Sword but required that he endure a waiting period of seven years, which just happened to match the span of time that would elapse whenever he'd travel to the future and back. "Come back in, oh, seven years," he'd say, never once stopping to rethink his practice.

If my online cohorts and I were together in a chat room, it was inevitable that one of us would attempt to communicate with the others by randomly throwing out lines of dialogue as taken directly from the game. "With C! With C! Sell me something with C!" we'd repeat, partly hoping that we'd draw out a response from a lurker who had managed to figure out what that Kakariko panhandler wanted. "FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, MAN--SELL ME SOMETHING WITH C!"

Message boards were flooded with posts within which people would discuss how the game had touched them. They'd speak glowingly of the areas they liked to visit; the characters they loved; and the dungeons that so perplexed them. They were all hits except for the Water Temple, which consensus said was frustrating for a number of reasons (namely its slow rate of progression, its high level of arcanity, and its requiring that the player frequently endure the tedious process of equipping and soon unequipping the steel boots). I'd say that all of their criticisms are valid except for the one that concerns difficulty. Personally, I didn't think that the Water Temple was particularly challenging; but then again, I've never been perplexed by dungeons that feature water-raising/lowering gimmicks or those that demand the use of spatial reasoning. Maybe that's just the way my brain is wired.

You could spend so much time thinking and writing about how Ocarina of Time made you feel that it would become easy to take for granted how astounding it was as a video game. There was no category in which it didn't score near-perfect grades: It looked amazing. It was wonderfully cinematic, but not in way that put distance between the player and game's world. Its music was all at once evocative, absorbing and atmosphere-defining. Its controls were on point, Link able to pull off a variety of maneuvers (both from the first and third person) without any noticeable hiccups. Its combat mechanics, as fueled by the newly introduced Z-targeting system, were brilliantly executed. Its dungeon and puzzle design was so masterfully conceived--so excellently crafted and implemented--that I'd have thought that Miyamoto and his staff had been making 3D Zeldas for years. And it was stuffed with so much content (all of it quality) that the average player would need to spend months exploring Hyrule's vast landscape if he or she hoped to discover all of the game's secrets.

I wasn't a fan of light world-dark world mechanics, since all games not named "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past" or "Chrono Trigger" failed to execute them well, but I felt that Ocarina'swas a wildly successful take on the idea. The key component was that Link, too, would undergo a transformation, his separate age-based forms able to wield unique weaponry and secure exclusive access to certain areas; this opened up the potential for scenarios wherein his past and future selves would have to work together and use temporal trickery to help each other advance through the game. It helped that both variations of Hyrule were interesting places to visit, observe and explore; when skillfully planned time-travel puzzles built bridges between them, the result was often magic. Furthermore, Link's fourth-dimensional escapades helped to further expand the game's already-enormous sense of scope!

Ocarina of Time stomped its way across the generational barrier and triumphantly carried The Legend of the Zelda series into the world of 3D. It nailed it. Yet it didn't forget where it came from; it was "new and different" and it captured the spirit of the 2D classics. It did everything we'd want a 3D Zelda to do.


And for that reason I consider it to be a "peak game," which is a term I invented to describe any game that so thoroughly perfects its given formula that a sequel can't surpass its quality simply by increasing the size and complexity. In fact, I consider Ocarina to be vastly superior to all of its 3D predecessors, which in comparison are bloated, tediously paced, and so disappointingly derivative that not even their graphical, transformation-based or motion-control gimmicks could disguise their clear lack of a transcendent impulse.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Ocarina of Time is the highest-rated video game ever. Yet those of us who played it know that Ocarina is so much more than an aggregate of unfathomably high categorical rankings. We understand that its best qualities can't be measured using numbers--that its true power lies in its ability to encapsulate everything we loved about the old consoles and the unmistakable ways in which (a) they rendered their game worlds and (b) invited us to be a part of them. Ocarina wasn't just a game you played; it was a game you lived.

That's something Ocarina's critics tend to miss when they rant about how "overrated" it is. They see categorical rankings as the be-all and end-all when it comes to judging games. Thus, they fail to take into account that a video game can mean more to people beyond what its graphics, music, controls and other easily observed qualities communicate; there are so many other reasons why they might connect with it. It might be that playing it brings them comfort. Maybe they're able to draw inspiration from it. Or perhaps it helps them bond with other people.

You can't dismiss how a person feels about a game. The hardcore types might now want to believe it, but how a game influences you does indeed play into its value.

Sure--Ocarina has its shortcomings: There are some camera issues. Horse-riding controls don't always function as intended. The game is pretty linear. And for however vast it is, Hyrule Field is disappointingly empty.

But so what? None of that should negate the fact that it positively affects your life. You can throw honest critique at Ocarina, certainly, but you don't have to stop loving it because popular opinion suggests that it should mean less to you because that giant moblin's head is comprised of only eight polygons.

Ocarina of Time has the power to make your world a better place. What's "overrated" about that?

Over the course of the next five years, I probably played through Ocarina of Time four or five additional times--usually during the late-autumn months, when it would start getting dark early and my life needed its form of vibrancy--which is actually a small total when measured against the number of times I've played through other games I hold in similarly high esteem (that's just the way it worked out). Yet the number of play-throughs doesn't matter; had I played it only once, I'd still feel the same way about it. I'd still have those same vivid memories. I'd still fondly remember the time I spent with it.

Even if I'm unable to recall every step of my journey through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, its best parts, of which there are a great many, will never cease resonating with me. And for certain, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time will continue to add rich texture to my memories of the N64, the late-90s gaming scene, and indeed The Legend of Zelda series.

Now that I think about it, maybe that's all I needed to say.

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