The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, like Super Mario 64 before it, is a game designed to bring a long-running 2D Nintendo franchise into the realm of 3D. And like Mario 64, it succeeds admirably at this task. It translates the gameplay of a Link to the Past into the third dimension in enjoyable and convincing fashion, and avoids some of the pitfalls of its 3D brethren.
In structure, Ocarina of Time is very similar to its predecessor. You start off by completing three dungeons, after which you are transported to a different world to complete several more. Instead of the dark world, though, Ocarina of Time features the world of the future, where Link is grown up. One of the conceits of this design is that Link can use a different set of equipment as an adult versus his original child form, which allows the game to stretch the number of available items somewhat. However, this turns out to be a strength, as Ocarina is an extremely well-paced game that’s always giving you a new goal or item to keep things interesting. The only real downside of the design is that you get limited use out of arguably the most fun item in the game, the boomerang.
Ocarina of Time handles 3D differently than Super Mario 64, in that you have little control of the camera. You can re-center it, and you can lock on to certain targets, but that’s it. The abbreviated camera control works in the game’s favor for the most part, cleaning up the controls and focusing on a rather simple chase camera for controlling Link. The targeting system in particular is a revelation, allowing for interesting sword fights and exploration. The lack of explicit camera controls also frees up the controller buttons, allowing Link access to three items at a time, in addition to his sword and a context-sensitive action button.
The camera is not perfect, however. Sometimes the game will force the camera to move in certain areas without warning, which can mess with your controls. Because focus targeting uses the same button as the camera reset, it can be difficult to get the right camera angle when surrounded by foes. And like Super Mario 64, the game occasionally seems like it was designed for the camera to be the obstacle you must overcome. These issues can occasionally be frustrating, but on the whole they are rarely a real problem.
The gameplay of Ocarina of Time shines even today. The context-sensitive jumping and climbing mechanics work beautifully most of the time, and the game is pretty generous at giving you hints at some of the less obvious things you can do. Many of the mechanics established in Link to the Past translate well to 3D, such as pushing statues onto switches and lighting torches. This game is a bit more combat-focused than its predecessor, a fact which is aided greatly by the targeting camera. On a room-by-room basis, the design of Ocarina of Time is generally impeccable.
If there is one source of frustration in the game, it’s the larger-scale puzzles. Like the one obnoxious puzzle in the ice dungeon of Link to the Past, these puzzles often require you to understand how multiple rooms and floors interact, and the map is often unhelpful in this regard. It’s easy to get stuck not knowing what to do, especially in the latter half of the game, and this can stall the otherwise great pace of play.
One final consideration is the superb way Ocarina of Time handles stuff for you to find. In addition to all the basic items you need to progress, there are several optional items, and Pieces of Heart return as a primary reward for finding secrets. The game also introduces 100 Gold Skulltulas for you to hunt and collect, and executes this concept far better than some of the collect-a-thons that would appear later in the N64’s life. It will indicate when you’ve found all the Skulltulas in a given area, and they make a distinctive noise when they’re nearby. It can be tricky to find all 100, but all of the meaningful rewards are awarded by finding half of them. It’s an enjoyable mechanic for casual players and completionists alike, and is indicative of how well-designed Ocarina of Time is.
Ocarina of Time is a great game marred by a few flaws that keep it from perfection. The camera is great by N64 standards, but can still be very annoying with more modern sensibilities. Some of the puzzles and combat can be intentionally frustrating. But it’s still a great game, and the template for 3D Zelda games going forward, and should not be missed by fans of the series.