I can’t get through Ocarina of Time.
I don’t mean that I get bored, I mean that I’m so terrible at it that I can’t do it. It’s the camera! The camera movement that is just a little out of sync with the player, so that as you run and turn the camera turns slightly less until eventually you’re running toward it. You’re supposed to use z-targeting to get it back behind you. When you’re supposed to fight an enemy, you z-target that enemy, which is more intuitive, but just getting around your dang hometown is a struggle when you can’t see where you’re going. I have played newer Zelda games and have not had this problem, but something about the camera movement in Ocarina is just kryptonite.
I couldn’t get through the tutorial. You know those plants that don’t attack you, they just hurt you if you run into them? Those things? They keep killing me.
Now, admittedly, I didn’t try very hard. I got a couple new 3DS games all at once, and when I did I said I was going to play Ocarina of Time before I played Fire Emblem, and I really love Fire Emblem. So I gave up a little easily, and I think that if I devoted some significant time to getting the hang of the controls, I’d be able to get through Ocarina of Time. I’ll probably try again sometime down the line, if I ever have time to play games again.
The thing is, even though I was just playing for an audience of me, and even though I’ve seen Ocarina of Time played through and don’t have a lot of investment in it, it felt… weird, I guess, to be so, so shitty at it. Because talking to any games nerd who grew up with even one foot in the ’90s who has opinions on games, their eyes always light up when you talk about Ocarina of Time. Legendary, classic, and inimitable are words often thrown around. I like to call it game-changing because it works on so many levels, but then I lose friends. And when I told my friends that I finally had both the game and a system that would run the game, I got a lot of “you’re in for a treat!” and “I can’t wait for you to finally play it!” The universal conclusion was that it was an incredible game, a timeless classic that I was going to love.
I didn’t love it enough to keep playing it after my frustration with the plants that I flung myself to death against multiple times. (Okay, I DID make it past there, but not much further). And not only was it not that fun to play a game that I sucked so hard at, but it also wasn’t fun when, in my frustration at not being able to navigate (this was more the fault of the camera than the map), I recalled that this is supposed to be a formative gaming experience and I’m supposed to be having the time of my life.
I discussed this with my friend Pat, once I had moved on to Fire Emblem and confirmed that while I may be shitty at z-targeting I am great at Fantasy Chess Dating Sims. He was surprised to hear that I’d had such a hard time, and I remember complaining about the camera slowly moving out of sync with Link, and struggling to z-target out of combat (I also struggle to z-target in combat, but it’s much more intuitive to lock onto a target you’re going to hit with a sword than to just keep the camera pointed in the direction you want to go). And I said, “I know the game was revolutionary when it came out, and it had a huge impact on the industry for the amazing new things that it did, but if it came out today we’d call it bad game design.”
And Pat held a long, thoughtful silence before saying, “That never occurred to me, but you’re not wrong.”
And after a lengthy discussion about growing up with something vs. learning it as an adult, and the growth of the games industry, and the evolution of the franchise, and whether or not I’m just shitty at Zelda, here is the take I have landed on: Ocarina of Time is no longer a good game.
It was an incredible game when it came out, its story and characters really ARE timeless, it’s wonderful to revisit if you played it when it came out and if you did play it when it came out you probably think it aged perfectly. And if it’s one of the first games you’ve ever played, you probably think it’s one of the most amazing games ever.
And even with all those caveats my aforementioned take feels very harsh, especially since it was, objectively, an amazing game in the past. So to say now that it is not good feels weird and bad, and definitely feels like I’m going to get death threats if anyone on twitter reads this. But there are things that Ocarina of Time does badly.
It’s not that it didn’t used to be bad. It’s always been bad, but everything was bad. And they had nothing else to work with, and they took a new and scary system and they did something amazing with it. And now we have learned how to do all those things but better, more intuitively and more straightforwardly and in a way that doesn’t make me fall off any ledges because I can’t see where I’m running without physically adjusting the camera angle.
(I have the same problem with KOTOR, another game that Pat really wanted me to play and, listen, I’m not going to finish it. Sorry, Pat. The precursor to a couple of franchises that literally changed my life, playing KOTOR is like looking at old family photos of where you came from. Look at this morality system, there’s baby Mass Effect! And this combat system, baby Dragon Age! I love it! But I’m tired of clicking little arrows to scroll up and down through menus in order to attack anything.)
Ocarina of Time deserves its accolades, and I’m not here to dispute that. I’m here to say that maybe we shouldn’t hold it up as the gold standard of games anymore. We should remember it and learn from it and, yes, play it! Play that game that started it all! But we shouldn’t treat it as the platonic ideal to which games must measure up. When we recommend it we might be recommending a classic, but we’re also recommending something that just doesn’t work that well anymore.* And when we tell people that it’s the greatest game of all time, at this point, we’re lying.
For all that, I really like Ocarina of Time. I like watching other people play it, sure, and I even liked playing it myself, when I wasn’t immensely frustrated by it. I’ll get back to it someday, but I’m no longer going to treat it like some milestone I have to hit, because, you know what? I just don’t think it’s that good.
*I had a roommate who bought a ’69 Mustang. It was his pride and joy. It’s not that I begrudge him his interest, but it made me realize how much I don’t get the love of old cars. It was really driven (lol) home for me when I listened to him talk about its condition, its engine, all the things that made it vintage, and he said “you don’t see them like this anymore” and I was like yeah, because we make better cars now! Newer cars can do all this stuff but better and safer and also you’re twenty-five.