The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Nintendo's bad habits

By Steve Watts, Jul 03, 2014 3:00pm PDT

The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is an undisputed classic. It helped define the console transition to 3D, told an epic story with some genuine surprises, revolutionized its own series' combat system, and won more Game of the Year awards than Hyrule has Moblins. In many ways, it deserves the accolades and to be remembered as one of the best games of its generation.

But oh boy, did it teach Nintendo some bad habits.

First, let's examine the series up to that point. The Legend of Zelda, the NES classic, was incredibly rich, and crafted in a time period when players were expected to learn the rules of a game by pushing against its boundaries. This is why the original game felt so expansive. The world was large, and without a stated goal or ruleset, players were left to explore. This was part of the point: to make a true adventure by leaving you to your devices. Dialogue was sparse and the world was filled with a sense of discovery and wonder. Dungeons were true discoveries, and could be taken in almost any order.

The Adventure of Link, something of a red-headed stepchild in the series history, was a radical departure that took its cues from more action-oriented games. It certainly wasn't bad, but it's telling that both A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening were more like the original than its sequel. Both of them refined those core concepts, striking the delicate balance between discovery and dialogue, intrigue and instruction. They remain among the best of the series.

Now consider the common complaints of modern Zelda games: characters talk too much, the game over-explains its systems, the tutorial is too long, the path is narrowly gated. We may not have realized it at the time, but Ocarina is the prototypical example of each and every one of them. Every 3D Zelda game since then has followed the roadmap set by Ocarina, both for better and for worse.

The opening of the game is an extended village sequence that lasts almost an hour for new players. The game constantly explains itself in full paragraphs, from picking up items to outlining your next quest. If the tutorial weren't long enough, a constant fairy companion follows you around and reminds you of your goals. The dungeons are almost always reliant on an item found in the previous dungeon, so you absolutely must finish them in order.

These are the exact complaints you'll see applied in reviews of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword. What else was Nintendo supposed to do? A game that is still lauded as one of the best of all time had all those traits in common, so the company continued using it as a roadmap.

It's why I find it so difficult to finish Ocarina of Time again. It's still a fantastic game in many respects, but it's difficult not to find myself frustrated at how clearly I can see the groundwork being laid for future problems. Nintendo made a hit with Ocarina of Time, and it's been making Ocarina of Time ever since.

I was heartened by A Link Between Worlds, not just because it shares so much in common with one of my favorite games, but because it finally felt like Nintendo understood what made those early games so special. Even Nintendo seems to have tired some parts of Ocarina's legacy, and comments from Eiji Aonuma have signaled he's willing to experiment with Zelda a little more. We only know one key design decision for the upcoming Wii U Zelda, and that's an open world focus. That's enough to get me excited, because it sounds like they're cracking through yet another hard shell of Ocarina's legacy.

I'll always love Ocarina of Time. It's a classic for good reason, and it did right much more than it did wrong. However, Nintendo has made its weaker points emblematic of the series as a whole, and is just now appearing to learn that lesson.

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