Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

By Austin Kirley

Hi internet. On account of the recent release of Skyward Sword, I figured that it would be appropriate to write a lil' sumthin'/sumthin' about Zelda. Although I don't have and have never played Skyward Sword. And I don't have Wii. Or money to buy either. What I do have, however, is a recently Craigslist-purchased N64 and a tattered copy of Ocarina of Time borrowed from a friend (shoutout to my friend Keshav).

And so here we both are. Yes, I know this game is from 13 years ago. And we both know that I am in no way an expert when it comes to video games. In fact, this is one of the very few games that I've picked up and scrounged up the determination to say, "I'm gonna beat this."

One of my earliest experiences with video games (short for "videolectric gameules") was at a house my grandfather owned in Virginia. It was this super-rural, very out of the way farm house, and it was definitely not the kind of place you would associate with video games. I would say butter-churning comes more to mind. Fortunately, my uncle Chris was pretty hip to new technology in 1986, and I found this old NES collecting dust (and covered in bird shit) in a toolshed across from the house. With it, my uncle managed to find 5 games: Maniac Mansion, a really awful point and click horror/adventure thing (apparently produced by George Lucas); Shadowgate, a marginally better fantasy point and click, text based game; Demon Sword, which is a really great, underrated Ninja Gaiden-esque martial arts game. It's actually really fast-paced and has great controls, and I still play it today; The Legend of Zelda II, which was WAY too hard for 8-11 year old me; and, lastly, Super Mario Bros., which really came to define my views on video games for at least the next following few years.

I had a really pretentious attitude towards video games in my early adolescence. I was all, Oh Halo? Call of Duty? How droll. And while a lot of that was just me being annoyingly contrarian, I really did find myself not enjoying all the first person shooters that were popular at the time; they all seemed to redundant. I played a lot of the great platformers for the PS2, because, I'm assuming, I was so influenced by playing Super Mario as a kid. But after a while, I really stopped playing games all together. I guess I just got bored with them, I don't know.

But then one day at the farm house, many years later, I got bored of all the natural beauty and cows that are so plentiful there. So I decided to breakout the old NES again, and to my surprise, I found myself becoming re-addicted to these old games, Mario especially. I spent a lot of my time there getting really good at that game specifically. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I took the NES back home with me, where it resides to this day. And it still gets copious amounts of play time; I even played it yesterday. [SIDENOTE: I'm going there for Thanksgiving on Tuesday, and apparently there's also an Intellivision there, so be expecting a post or two about that.]

This is when I really started to get into these games in a very intense way. After getting as good as I could at the original, I picked up Gameboy ports of other Mario games like SMB2 and Super Mario World, which I will always contend is the best 2D Mario game. I picked up the DS port of Super Mario 64 (I only got a 64 about 2 or 3 weeks ago), which I played the hell out of. I really started to respect the games as more of an art form than as just entertainment. After you play them enough, you can really start to just enjoy being in that world, especially with the 3D games. It's colorful and trippy and fun. You can play through the levels, or you could just admire the architecture of Peach's castle and get the same satisfaction out of both. It really is escapism to the maximum.

So one day, that same uncle comes to visit, and he brings with him a few more NES games he dug up: Faxanadu, which is very reminiscent of Zelda II without the mind numbing difficulty; the original Final Fantasy, which is awesome needless to say, I still haven't beaten it; and, most importantly, the original Legend of Zelda. Ironically, I saved that one for last. I had been led astray by my bad experience with the sequel, and I thought this would be similar. I played the others for a while before finally popping in Zelda (and then unpopping it, blowing on it, then repopping it). Saying I was in for a pleasant surprise is the understatement of the century.

I don't know if you've played this game, internet, but lemme speak truth at ya: it's intoxicating. Almost everything about it is perfect. For real. When I was playing Mario, I had been stuck at levels before. There are places in those games that take a few tries, or sometimes a lot of tries, to beat. But all that takes is just some basic coordination. Even the most basic player can pick up the controller and be pretty good at it. But Zelda was something different entirely. It was the first game that actually took practice on my part. You actually have to work to be even halfway decent at that game. I had never really been challenged like that from by a game. It was kind of a revelation. And that's just the physical aspect of the game. There is a mind boggling amount of content on that cartridge. The Overworld of Hyrule is massive. As a lifelong Mario player, I was used to a certain order to progressing through a game, that being "You start at the beginning, you go to the end". Zelda didn't buy that. Do it in whatever order you goddamn please was their philosophy. And if you don't know where something is, save it and pick it up from where you left off! No password needed. This game invented the concept of non-linear gameplay. Then, of course, there are the dungeons. At first you think Well hey, these seem fairly easy. It's just a maze and a boss battle. Them around the 5th or 6th dungeon, you realize that no matter how much you explore and hunt, you can't find any other dungeons. When you realize that you can bomb the walls of the dungeons, it really gives you the feeling of how huge this game really is. And that can scare a lot of people off, or it they can revel in how tiny they feel, and wander around for hours as they get to know the place. And that, to me, is why Zelda gameplay is so good, and so challenging. It takes work to know what the hell you're doing, or where the hell you are. It makes you feel so incompetent and minuscule and when you finally get good, it's more rewarding that you can imagine.

If you know me at all, you know that I like to take things to their extreme. If I start listening to the Ramones, I'll end up listening to Merzbow. Ocarina of Time does this for the original Zelda. Zelda was a humongous game, there's no denying that. It pushed the limits of what the NES could do. Ocarina of Time did the same, but with the massive more able medium of the N64. I can't even describe to you how much of a real world this seems like. From your first step into Hyrule Field, you can immediately realize that this isn't a type of setting that anyone had played video games in before. You wander around the field quaking in your Kokiri Boots at how little you know about this place, and the day shifts into night. Come on, how cool must that have been? This place is more of a living, breathing Earth than any other that's ever been contained in a cartridge.

I'm not going to waste your time talking about gameplay and controls. The game is 13 years old, all of that has already been written about. Needless to say, for a game that's considered the best of all time, both are fantastic. It makes me jealous, in a way, of that kid in 1998 who turns on this game for the first time and can look around. They can look up and down, full 360 degrees. That must have been an amazing feeling, to walk down the ladder into Kokiri Forest. Everything must have looked so organic and so true to life. You could practically smell the dirt. This is always been a problem for me: nostalgia for things that I've never experienced. Which is depressing in a way, that I'm never going to be able to experience something I love for the "first time". But I think it gives me a fuller appreciation of that thing. I can have a better understanding of this game knowing it's place on the cultural radar. And while you could argue that it's not as pure a love for that thing, it really makes you aware of every iota of awesome that this game contains.

You know how I mentioned before that the original Zelda invented non-linear gameplay? Well Ocarina, as it is wont to do, takes that to yet another extreme. There is ZERO need to play the game in any sort of order. Sure, there is a sort of plot order, and you need some items to continue to other portions of the game, but there is absolute freedom in this place. There is no time limit. You could literally spend and eternity here. Say your stuck in a dungeon, and you have no idea how to continue. You can explore Hyrule searching for more pieces of heart or gold skulltulas. Or you could play one of the numerous mini-games throughout the world. Or better yet, just walk around and enjoy the scenery. Think about that. This is a video game that you can just exist in. You're not going to lose a life when a timer runs out. You don't have to collect all the coins, or get the highscore. You can just go and look at a waterfall or a range of mountains or go fishing.

One thing that everyone always mentions when talking about this game is how cinematic it is. Do you know why they all say that? Because truer words have never been spoken. Video games, at least to me because of my experience with plotless Mario games, have never been a source of emotion. And I'm a cynical guy, I don't get emotional about much. But I managed to immerse myself so much in this game that I found myself reacting to it like a child. Which is what the game does, or any decent piece of escapism does: it reverts you back to child-like innocence. You actually feel anger at Ganon, and you laugh at all the goofy visual gags, and you feel a legitimate sadness when it all ends.

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