Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Ocarina Of Time: The Best Game Ever Made, Just Not The Best Zelda Game

Yes, I admit it; I do sometimes write articles just so I can give them appropriately controversial titles, and whilst the above isn’t (necessarily) entirely how I feel about “Ocarina”, I think my point still stands. I’ve played a lot of Zelda games, and I’d say I’m at least broadly familiar with all the main titles (with the exception of some of the more recent releases and those god-awful CDI games). Therefore, I think I’m reasonably well qualified to talk about the Zelda franchise as a whole in a critical way.

We never talk of the "Unholy Triforce"

Now, my first Zelda game, as luck would have it, was “Ocarina of Time”, which is undeniably a difficult act to follow. Don’t get me wrong; I love Ocarina of Time. It blew me away as a kid and it still blows me away now. It does everything a video game should do. Well, aside from a multiplayer, but as a single player experience it’s got it all covered. A protagonist who is simultaneously distinct and an everyman. A strong balance of story and gameplay. Some damn fine gameplay variations and some truly ingenious puzzles. Furthermore, it is arguably the best 3D adaptation of a 2D franchise. When people call it the best game ever made, I can see why, as it really does showcase everything a video game can do. If you need to show someone completely unfamiliar with video games an example of one, this is certainly one of the best to choose.

Despite this, there is one very big “but”. And no, it’s not the general problem one has with Zelda games and those unfamiliar with them, where you have to explain that Zelda is the princess, not the hero, nor is it the 3D problem of having to explain that there isn’t a jump button. No, the but I have is that “Ocarina” has all the best aspects of Zelda games, but few original aspects of its own.

You see, if you look back at “A Link to the Past”, or even the original “The Legend Of Zelda”, you can see how many ideas were just directly lifted from these; the enemy designs, the structure of the games, the dungeon/item mechanic, even the characters are pretty much the same. In fact, this is actually becoming a problem for Zelda games, as people get sick of playing the same thing over and over again. 

I would argue that you have to give the most credit to any original, and any subversions of said original. After all, refinement is one thing, and whilst it is not necessarily an easy thing, incremental refinement cannot be equated to true revolution. For me, there are 3 games that distinctly play with the formula.

It's not this.

Firstly, we have the underrated and still very good “Wind Waker”. At first, it may not appear to be a massive deviation from other games, but there are a little of small changes that help make it a unique addition to the Zelda canon. The most obvious example is the reworking of the visual style, but there are also experimentations with playability, where you play as a support character, exploration, via the sailing mechanic, and an increase in the self-aware humour of the franchise.

Secondly, we have the criminally underrated “Zelda II: Link’s Adventure”. Whilst not the best game in itself, a lot of people take for granted how much it did. Due to the side-scrolling perspective, it meant that the combat system had to evolve past “bomb everything that your sword can’t kill”. There were a variety of sword moves, and with hindsight it is possible to see a lot of these ideas being mapped on to the 3D games, though “Ocarina” purists would probably dismiss such a claim.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have “Majora’s Mask”. Ah, “Majora’s Mask”, it seems you are destined to always be the misunderstood genius of the franchise. You see, a lot of people write the game off as a self-consciously “weird” clone of “Ocarina of Time”. But what “Majora’s Mask” is is much more subtle than that. The whole game is a dark parallel of Hyrule; the name “Termina” distinctly apt for a game so preoccupied with death. Instead of simply Ganondorf (again), we have a faceless evil, an evil with an uncertain past that hides behind a mask; an evil that, ironically, defines itself by giving the faceless a face, in the form of the ever-approaching moon.

But the parallels are much more subtle than these overarching themes. The peace-loving shopkeeper in the Haunted Wastelands from “Ocarina” is now a master warrior. The runner who requires the bunny hood, defined by his free spirit, is rewritten in “Majora’s Mask” as a desperately lonely individual whose life is ruled by a job he hates.

I would be very reluctant to call “Majora’s Mask”, or indeed any of these other games, an overall better game than “Ocarina of Time”. It is, however, important to see just how clever, how dark and how innovative a rewriting of masterpiece can be. Think of it as “Wicked” to “The Wizard of Oz”. Except with more hookshots.

Still shit.

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