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Notes on Ocarina of Time, Part 1

March 1, 2012


Hamlet: This is a project where we record our discussion while Perculia plays through a classic game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s a game I am deeply familiar with, having avidly played it starting on the day it came out in 1998, and a number of times since. Perc has almost no experience with non-MMO videogames of any kind, and when I got a 3DS a few weeks ago, it seemed a prime opportunity to have her try one of the most well-loved games that has ever been made. She was very interested to see what it was that had so captivated so many of her friends. As we started talking about the game I was having a lot of fun–while I’ve replayed Ocarina in the past and it’s one of my favorite games, it’s now been 14 years since I saw it through a new player’s eyes. We realized others might enjoy the same thing.

The following is a series of notes about things she noticed while playing, and various responses from me. There’s no promise that all aspects of the game are discussed, merely whatever topics we wind up talking about along the way. If you find it interesting, comment or even add your own memories of Ocarina. If there seems to be interest we’ll try to keep it up as she plays through the entire game. You can find us both on twitter as @HamletEJ and @perculia.

Without further ado:

Kokiri Forest

Perculia: Kokiri Forest was both an effective tutorial in introducing me to gameplay controls and the environment. You’ve spoken before both on how Ocarina was radical for the sheer scope of the world/player combat, but that every Zelda game elaborates on core tropes. So it was fun to see how Link was a commoner/nobody in his little village (knowing I’d be exploring a vast world soon), while haphazardly running around getting used to the 3D setting and jumping off rooftops.

Getting the initial shield and sword was both a lesson in gameplay and an introduction to one of the series’ standards–Link’s traditional gear. Instead of being found in a chest, the Deku Shield required me to explore the village for hidden rupees so I’d have enough for purchase at the store. In the midst of throwing rocks and bushes in the hopes of uncovering more rupees, I saw a 5 rupee coin noticably floating on top of a tower. The tower was reached by walking over a series of narrow bridges–which I did, slowly at first. It taught me to correctly use my movement controls and rewarded me for that little extra bit of explanation. When jumping over some rocks precisely, I was also rewarded by getting a rupee, reinforcing that carefully-executed behavior may give you an additional bonus. Of course, there weren’t rupees lurking behind every corner–just enough to make me want to explore every corner.

The Sword was obtained after successfully completing a tutorial section that introduced me to first to “L” targeting and associated strafing, rolls, and jump-slashes, taught me how to crawl through a tunnel, and successfully navigate a maze with a rolling rock. This started the pattern of completing puzzles (some that didn’t even require combat) and finding a reward at the end.

I’m also enjoying how a commoner from a tranquil green village can co-exist with throwing rocks over one’s head and chopping down signs 🙂

Hamlet: What’s great about the open Kokiri Forest segment is how effective of a tutorial it is. When I was 14 I didn’t even realize that’s what was going on. But as you’ll see, essentially nowhere else in this game do you have to grind up rupees to buy something to progress. It’s a mechanic introduced as literally your first task and never repeated. Why? Collecting Rupees by running around the forest area at random tutorializes the game’s basic movement functions. In 1998 it was the first or one of the first 3D action-adventures people would have played, possibly one of the first 3D games. With each new game the player had to acclimatize himself to a new grammar of basic movement.
Even the basic task of running in a straight line falls into this description. You see 5 rupees in a very visible spot, reachable only by walking across two long narrow bridges. Remember that this was not a 100% trivial task–camera logic then wasn’t what it is now and the camera wouldn’t stay lined up behind you easily. The game got you comfortable moving around naturally in a harmless environment while your mind was occupied with the task of getting 40 rupees, so that by the time you were doing things like combat and dungeons it was second nature.

One other thing I want to flag in the intro segment is how it teaches Z-targeting (or L-targeting as you know it in the 3DS version). It’s kind of crazy to look back now and think that “targeting stuff” in this way was actually an innovation at the time, especially if your gaming background is mostly WoW. Not that the concept was unheard of, but referring to its use as a means for controlling combat flow when the action-adventure game genre went 3D. By and large the 3D games we’d played before this were FPS’s (and Super Mario 64 which had no combat) and the idea of a 3D Zelda requiring you to “aim” your sword in that way seemed awkward at best. Z-targeting as the basic control concept driving the whole game seems like an incidental matter at first, but Ocarina wouldn’t have been what it is without it.

There’s so much more to talk about here but I’ll have to restrain myself for now–there’s a whole game coming up where we can discuss the artistic and world-building aspects you hinted at above.

Inside the Deku Tree

P: Starting the first instance (H: heh), I had a vague sense of expectations–that I’ll find a map and a new item which will allow me to defeat the final boss. The actual mechanics of the dungeon, the layout, and combat style are pretty foreign to me though (besides the “L” targeting function from WoW). Along the way, I tried to be mindful of subtle hints or motifs that were elaborated upon throughout the dungeon.

Fire. Fire is important in breaking webs–you first test this out on a wall and then move on to burning the floor towards the end. I also learned about the duration of lit sticks and how they’re an expendable, yet easily farmable, resource.

H: Also, when you first drop down to B1, the torch is unlit and covered in webbing. You press a button to light it and watch the web burn away, teaching you how to deal with the web across the room (not completely though, you have to add in what you know about Deku Sticks–but the game provided the requisite information about how the world works). Most readers know how a 2012 game would have popped up text saying “Fire burns webs!”, robbing you of the chance to make the mental connection, and probably interrupting game flow in some fashion in order to do it.

P: Deku Scrubs/Business Scrubs. As I’ve seen from later play sessions, these clueless merchants are more prevalent than I expected. The Forest tutorial emphasizing the importance of “L” targeting was helpful here, to instantly lock onto the Scrub and reflect the nut at the correct angle. One of the Scrubs gave me a clue halfway through the instance that I forgot about until I successfully realized that the mobs guarding the final boss were also Scrubs–and the clue applied to them. I haven’t been exposed to musical patterns and motif recognition at this point, but this puzzle trained me to focus more on visual similarities for clue solving.

Spiders. I learned to use the slingshot fairly quickly, when I was put into a position of being forced to use it on spiders blocking my only path on the wall. You have no other option but to use your new toy fairly quickly, but it feels like you’ve discovered a new type of combat instead of having no other option. When I first came across the spiders on the wall, before I had the slingshot, that was a hint that I’d be returning to that room in the future with an additional tool. (Which is similar to discovering an unlootable Skulltula early on, and assuming I’d be returning to the room and moving the nearby yet unreachable block at a later point.)

I found that jumping from the top level through the ground floor was a faulty puzzle. The floating hearts were a hint that I was meant to jump off, but I hadn’t encountered jumping before and it seemed risky (thinking of WoW fall damage), plus the floor looked opaque.

The boss fight was as expected–it drew upon color-changing eyeball trash mobs and utilized the slingshot–but I appreciated the flashy visual introduction, which you said was a hallmark of boss introductions in this game. Besides providing the player with an epic introduction, it also showed off the boss’ unique armor before combat began, which I appreciated from a visual perspective.

H: There’s something subtle here. You mentioned the vine-covered wall between levels 2 and 3 with spiders on it, and how you find the Slingshot on level 2 so you can proceed. So far all pretty obvious. What’s interesting is what happens after shooting the spiders off the wall and climbing up to 3. After getting the Compass in a side room, you come back out to the main shaft in level 3, and aren’t sure where to go next. As you point out, the solution, jumping down two floors to break through the web, is imperfectly hinted at. But there isn’t a great way down otherwise–it’s hard to shoot the spiders of the wall now that they’re below you. You can with some awkward positioning, but by being put in a situation where climbing down the way you came is difficult, you’re led to look for other options, like jumping down from the top floor.

Hyrule Castle Town

P: Besides the usual fun that comes along with exploring a new town with vendors, flavor dialogue, and funny NPCs that drop useful hints, two parts stood out in Hyrule Castle Town. One was an awesome room filled with pots that I could happily smash against the wall for rupees and hearts. Smashing pots is addictive, so when most of the pots in the room were broken, I practiced running and jumping off the boxes to perfectly land on the ledges that allowed me to climb up to the pots by the ceiling–which was fun to muse upon, seeing how I previously struggled to walk in a straight line. And in the process of idly rolling around the cleared-out room, I inadvertently smashed some boxes and discovered a Skulltula. Before I had previously thought that they were dungeon-only rewards, but now I viewed the outdoor world differently, as a place that was worth exploring too.

H: You mentioned once already how finding a hidden item made the world feel like it was something to explore. Exploration is the heart of all Zelda games–what you’re playing now grew out of the original Legend of Zelda, where this was more obvious because there was nothing else. No 3D, no fancy artwork and landscapes, no story to speak of–just Link, a huge grid-based environment, and lots of items to find. Ocarina is remembered as the game that brought this to 3D, and while many things changed between 1986 and 1998, it’s clear from your experience already (and from a generation of exaltation for this game) that it captured some of that adventuring spirit. Knowing that your own only background was an MMO, a goal-oriented multiplayer endeavor that shares little in common with something like Zelda, I couldn’t have guessed in advance whether you’d have fun doing things like smashing all the pots in the little room just inside Castle Town. But the funny part is, I know most people reading this remember exactly what room you’re talking about, because they did the same thing.

P: I also learned about how the time of day meaningfully impacts surroundings. I couldn’t get into Hyrule Castle Town in the dark, but I did come across zombies. Most of the town was deserted during the night, but a Potions store was open. When I was completing later outdoor quests, I remembered to keep the time of day in mind when completing key segments.

The stealth-like mission to meet Zelda reminded me of a fun version of “Assassinate Creed,” one of the Tier 13 legendary quests that has rogues stealthing around phased Gilneas, but not completely following traditional stealth and vanish mechanics. Here, there was more freedom to roam, no mechanics that seemed jarring with previous gameplay, alternate ways to avoid guards, and fun mini-games rewarding your dexterity like swimming in a striaght line or snatching rupees in the palace garden right next to a guard. And my initial observations on daytime accessibility were reinforced when I discovered I could only enter the palace during the day.

Learning Zelda’s Lullaby and later musical puzzles is a large topic on its own; I will address more fully in a later post.

H: We definitely will. Also, for those who don’t know Perc, she is really into music. In fact, in thinking Ocarina was a great game for her to try, a nontrivial factor in choosing it over other games is that it’s remembered for having a magnificent score. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of talk about both that and the iconic Ocarina in later segments.

P: It was easy to focus on the design issues and puzzle-solving at first because of how new everything was. But besides music in later posts, I want to talk more as well about the visual environment and the story narrative. I stopped writing here at the point when Link meets Zelda, so I think that’s a good starting place in the next blog to discuss both music and story more.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Esoth permalink
    March 1, 2012 9:10 am

    “But the funny part is, I know most people reading this remember exactly what room you’re talking about, because they did the same thing.” Oh my, yes. Good article guys. I might have to upgrade my DS to 3D now, thanks a lot jerks.

  2. March 1, 2012 9:46 am

    “Most readers know how a 2012 game would have popped up text saying ‘Fire burns webs!'”

    and that game’s name is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. :ba dum tish:

    Great post! As someone who played this game when it first game out and few times since, I think I’ve forgotten just how amazing it was that first time around. I’ve played all the Zelda’s minus the Phillips CDi ones, Majora’s Mask, and I haven’t quite completed Skyward Sword yet.

    The point above about the “hint culture” (proposed term) in modern games is an incredibly valid one. One moment from Skyward Sword stick out to me. I was in a dungeon and I had triggered something that allowed me to drastically alter the dungeon. I went into a room that was previously closed off to find that there was nothing in it save for a door that I couldn’t go through unless I hit the switch that altered the dungeon. But hitting that switch would keep me from entering the door that let me into the room. That’s when I noticed a sunshaft on the floor. Just as I realized that I needed to use the bow to shoot out from where the light was coming from to hit the switch Fi (the Navi-esque character for the game) appeared to tell me that I should use the bow to hit the switch by shooting it through the hole where the light was coming from.

    You have no idea how mad that made me that they took a perfectly good puzzle and ruined it. The joy is in the discovery, not the execution.

  3. March 1, 2012 12:34 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this, it is amazingly refreshing reading about a game that I’m so familiar with, but hearing about it through new eyes. I hope you write more about your time with the game (and I hope you enjoy it, because it’s a classic :D)

  4. Hamlet permalink
    March 1, 2012 2:31 pm

    Yeah, you’re right about Skyward Sword. It’s a trend in games, and Zelda has been no exception. In truth there’s some of it even in Ocarina–Navi, and the owl. It’s closer to the line, but it’s not the undirected player-driven exploration of Legend of Zelda or Link to the Past. And the 3DS version goes a bit further in this direction: there’s more Navi handholding, more owl, new hint stones you can always consult for a virtual walkthrough.

    I don’t want to get too much into my evaluation of Ocarina right now though, at this early point. Suffice to say its pristine image in everyone’s memory is generally belied by a critical eye. It was great, but it was not the perfect game that it may have felt like when we were 14. It was revolutionary because it was a starting point for bringing these kinds of games into 3D era, but it was not by any means an ending point. Something to discuss later perhaps is how Ocarina was so influential that the course of the Zelda series from then on has been written in stone–all they’ve done for 14 years now is try to remake this game.

  5. March 2, 2012 1:33 am

    *please* do more of these posts.

  6. March 2, 2012 5:08 pm

    This was an amazing read. OoT is so dear to my heart, probably my favorite console game of all time. It was a joy to read the thoughful experiences of someone as articulate as yourself over something that had such an impact on my life. ❤ I chucked when I read the bit about you calling the Deku Tree an 'instance', it was a neat moment. 🙂

    I'm really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the 'musical puzzles' as you described them; it's fascinating to explore a world like Hyrule where music is so tightly woven into the mythos.

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