Twilight Princess: The better Ocarina of Time?
by on March 11, 2016

In a 2009 interview, Eiji Aonuma didn’t hold back. “If you play Ocarina of Time nowadays, you notice that it’s not that good,” he opined very candidly. “Sometimes it doesn’t move as fast as it should, graphics aren’t as beautiful as they should be; there are some confusing parts…. Any present Zelda is technically superior.” Like an artist or a musician critiquing his or her own work, flaws are easy to see, and hindsight is usually 20/20. Yes, Ocarina of Time has its flaws.

And to those ends, for years after his work as a director and lead designer of Ocarina, Aonuma had walked a path that sought to correct the game’s sins. “I think we’ve been solving those issues with every Zelda since Ocarina of Time. With each entry, I’ve tried to add things I couldn’t do before. Actually it’s like I’ve been remaking [Ocarina of Time] during these years.”

Eiji Aonuma 2005And so he created Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and eventually — what was to be the master stroke — Twilight Princess: All of these were attempts to create the magic and adulation of Ocarina of Time. Yet while there is a considerable amount of love for the subsequent console Zelda titles, Majora’s MaskWind Waker, and Twilight Princess, never have they managed to fully eclipse the fandom’s memory of the Nintendo 64 classic.

I’ve questioned this for years, but I never really stopped and asked myself why that was. For years, I’ve agreed in essence with what Aonuma has come to personally realize over the years, that Ocarina of Time doesn’t live up to the rose-tinted nostalgia that seems to be omnipresent within the fan community. I’ve actually come to personally accept that all three of Ocarina‘s follow-on sequels have surpassed Ocarina itself, but I’ve come to find that criticizing Ocarina of Time on a forum is sure to bring out defenders from every direction. People like Ocarina of Time; people love it. Sure, it’s okay to like a different Zelda game more, but to say that Ocarina is a deeply flawed game? To say that another Zelda game is a better Ocarina of Time than Ocarina itself? Some would consider it blasphemy.

it’s okay to like a different Zelda game more, but to say another Zelda game is a better version of Ocarina of Time? Some consider it blasphemy.

But maybe they actually have a point. Maybe they are able to see something I have refused to see all these years.

And so with the release of Twilight Princess HD joining the ranks of re-released Zelda games, now seems a perfectly good time to dive into the question. Is Aonuma right? Is Twilight Princess the better Ocarina of Time?

The N64’s hardware limitations

And so the first real question that one has to ask is simple: Where did Ocarina of Time actually go wrong? What legitimate flaws does it have?

Try as I might to come up with an exhaustive list of sins, even I, an Ocarina skeptic, couldn’t come up with many. In fact, what list I had felt like nitpicks and niggles than actual flaws.

The obvious one comparison is perhaps unfair, but unfairness doesn’t mask away the truth. While it may have came out before HD televisions were in a majority of households, Twilight Princess was so much more high-fidelity than its predecessor. Certainly, this should be a natural result of how fast processors have become and how significantly memory budgets have ballooned. And while bigger doesn’t always mean better, Twilight Princess used the more advanced hardware of the GameCube and the Wii extremely well. Ocarina had to make a lot of sacrifices and take a lot of shortcuts to fit inside of a 32-megabyte cartridge.

Ocarina of Time Twilight Princess Temple of Time

The comparison might be unfair, but Twilight Princess was much more high-fidelity than its predecessor.

In that aspect, Twilight Princess does so many things right. The game’s nine dungeons were as diverse as they were complex, and the bosses were incredibly fun and larger than life, certainly somewhat terrifying and demanding some controller dexterity. While the cast is perhaps not as diverse as Ocarina of Time‘s before it, the characters had enough personality to melt your heart, no longer mere one-dimensional stock characters. There was a sense of belonging as you joined Telma’s Resistance against Zant, there were tugs at the heart strings as you restored Ilia’s memory, and Midna stole the show more than Navi ever could. The puzzles were much more diverse than Ocarina as well; a majority of the puzzles weren’t simply looking for eye switches or stepping on the switch to open the door.

Twilight Princess HD Hyrule FieldAnd the overworld really spoke volumes through the visual medium. While perhaps not everyone is in love with the more run-down, Wild West sort of Kakariko Village, but no one can say that Twilight Princess was afraid to make a strong brush stroke upon the canvas. There really just is an amazing amount of detail provided in the game. The interiors of houses actually felt like real living spaces for the first time, even if sometimes certain pieces of furniture were missing upon closer inspection. With Twilight Princess, I would occasionally just ride around Hyrule and absorb the scenery at a more relaxed pace. This was never something I did with Ocarina of Time; that game was just all business.

Perhaps it’s the old Nintendo-64 era jagged polygons or limited draw distances, but neither Ocarina of Time nor its cousin Majora’s Mask really stand out in the visuals department. The environments are drawn with almost minimalistic detail and cheat dramatically in order to evoke the settings they’re attempting to convey. The Lost Woods barely has any three-dimensional trees in it; in fact, most of the actual “tree” visuals come from a texture card placed well above ground level, perhaps several feet up, above a solid rock wall. Now granted, our imaginations had the ability to run wild with that minimalization, creating a world within the actual world presented. And it may be slightly unfair to compare a 1998 video game’s graphics with one from 2006, but the effect is still there.

Creating an epic storyline

The question of why Ganondorf wanted to conquer Hyrule wouldn't be answered until The Wind Waker.

The question of why Ganondorf wanted to conquer Hyrule wouldn’t be answered until The Wind Waker.

But it’s not just graphics alone that Twilight Princess fleshes out from Ocarina. The story is also much more deeply explored than Ocarina of Time dared to venture. In fact, if we’re really honest with the point, Ocarina’s story isn’t much more than a bare-bones plot skeleton without any real meat to cover them. Think about it: Ganondorf is the impetus for the entire story; it’s because of Ganondorf that causes Link to meet Princess Zelda and eventually conspire with one another to save Hyrule. But why? Why is Ganondorf conquering Hyrule? Nowhere in the game does it show any sort of humanity in the villain; we’re left wondering until the finale of The Wind Waker what actually motivated Ganondorf’s acts several games prior. Why are there Seven Sages? Why do the people who become Sages become Sages? What do the six elements mean to Hyrule? Why do the Kokiri have fairies? Why is Kakariko Village still seemingly prosperous seven years later when everything else in Hyrule has gone to pot? And for what reason do the Gerudo only have one male offspring every century?

In earlier years, before Twilight Princess, I would say that these questions were Ocarina of Time’s strength. And I still to some degree believe that today. The forums of all the Zelda fansites in the late ’90s and early ’00s were all about asking those questions and speculating crazy answers to them. That sense of all the unanswered questions inspired such creativity that modern Zelda games have yet to replicate. Within a world that is more or less a Disney-World façade with propped up wooden planks painted to look like houses, forests, and castles, players could invent their own histories and their own explanations. Miyamoto always intended Link to be the proverbial link to the player, the conduit by which one creates a narrative that weaves him or her into the game. And it was very apparent in those early days that people looked to Ocarina of Time to fulfill that itch to dream.

Twilight Princess Link and Midna

Twilight Princess responds by creating a world that, while it doesn’t answer all the questions, answers at least some of the questions. Why is Zant shrouding Hyrule with the Twilight Realm? Because he feels jilted by Midna and was seduced by Ganondorf. Why do so many people do nothing when Zant conquers their land? The Twilight Realm made people afraid and paranoid, and then sealing Hyrule Castle off left people unaware of how to help until the Resistance started planning around it. Why does Link transform into a wolf? Because he unknowingly has the Triforce of Courage within him. How is Link able to withstand being shot out of a cannon into the desert? Hmm, well, like I said, we don’t get answers to everything.

But the point is that Hyrule now feels like a real place that one can explore instead of a mere amusement park. The human race has a fond love for story, and Twilight Princess, I could argue, has solid moments of emotional impact whereas Ocarina of Time just stitches a few plot threads together with some cheap twine and duct tape to hold it all together.

Twilight Princess has solid moments of emotional impact whereas Ocarina of Time just stitches a few plot threads together with some twine and duct tape.

On paper, it sounds like a slam dunk case. Game goes to Twilight Princess.

But not so fast.

Respecting the player’s time

 

So, okay, Ocarina of Time just couldn’t have as big a vision as Twilight Princess could. That’s hardly a sin though, and I’d be hard to say that it’s not even a flaw. Sure, it’s reality, but that’s not some black mark to besmirch Ocarina‘s legacy for all time. So if that’s not a flaw, what else could it be?

I really did have a hard time coming up with something else though. I would occasionally look at my list, stare at it with with consternation, and then after a while I just gave up. It’s hard to spot the ways something could have been better if only their 20-year-old hardware had a bit more girth to it. But otherwise, there’s a reason why Ocarina is still well loved today. The characters are good pretty much across the board with little cruft to be found. The dungeons are still wildly interesting and distinct from one another, even if navigating a maze within Jabu-Jabu’s Belly is entirely illogical. Each of the items in your inventory has solid purpose, even Deku Nuts if one is creative enough with them! And hunting down Golden Skulltulas never seems as arduous a chore as obtaining Twilight Princess‘ Poe’s souls, even if I personally never went looking for all 100. (I still netted more than half!)

Ocarina of Time Kaepora GaeboraIn fact, outside of the game just not showing its age as elegantly as it could (though Ocarina of Time 3D does a decent enough job at hiding some of that), I only came up with one other nitpick to levy at Ocarina, and that’s the matter that Ocarina can be tediously slow in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

The game actually does a really good job of masking that too, though once you see it it’s hard to unsee. There are so many enemies are largely invulnerable except after waiting for a fair bit of time for them to wind up an attack and expose themselves. You’ve got the Wolfos, the Stalfos, the Skulltulas, the Deku Scrubs, the Bubbles, the Dinofols, the Floormasters, the Octorok, and many more, all of which require some degree of patient waiting before you can slice and dice your way to victory. One might be generous and call this a more strategic sort of combat than, say, A Link to the Past‘s, but any enemy in the early 2D Zelda games that took as long to kill as their Ocarina counterparts only did so because they had that much HP.

Furthermore, enemies generally won’t swarm and overwhelm Link and frequently will trade places with one another as they attack you one at a time. While it makes the combat more manageable, it also extends the fights just a little bit, which can start to grate when you have to defeat all the enemies to open the door to the next room. And the text bubbles scroll so terribly slowly, with Kaepora Gaebora being the worst offender. The long cutscenes about the origin of the three goddesses and the Triforce may be interesting enough the first time around; however, on subsequent playthroughs, I will go make myself a sandwich and be back still with plenty of time to spare.

It must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but all it does is drag the game to a crawl.

It must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but all it does is drag the game to a crawl.

But it’s here, perhaps, where the more modern Zelda titles don’t shine as well. In fact, I have to think that Aonuma perhaps inadvertently pulled a George Lucas. Just as the Star Wars prequel trilogy has incredibly fun moments and perhaps a “good parts” version can be extracted from them, just as the cinematography and the use of special effects were leaps and bounds better, the prequel trilogy labors beneath the weight of a lumbering script and campy direction.

In the same light, Twilight Princess really did perfect the moment-by-moment action and correct the mistakes that its elder sibling made. Combat is much more dynamic and never feels slow, even if it rarely ever feels very threatening. When cutscenes do happen, they’re filled with much more interesting visuals or a significant surge of emotion instead of yet another random pan to the three goddesses flying through space to create the Triforce. The prefab set pieces provide unique gameplay experiences that give that much needed adrenaline boost. The game isn’t about wasting your time.

… Except the game is all about wasting your time. While Twilight manages to fix the moment-to-moment experience, it silently forgets about the overarching narrative and puts filler and tedium in the way of just getting things done. On horseback, Twilight Princess’ Hyrule Field takes roughly 15 real-time minutes to travel an entire circuit with most of it empty space without many enemies or exploration points. The Desert Province is league after league of sand without any sort of meaningful encounter until reaching the Bulbin Encampment. While there is fast travel in the game, it never seemed quite as convenient as Ocarina‘s warp songs. Just getting to the Forest Temple, the first dungeon of the game, took me three hours and a half. I’m sure a second pass through the game would expedite that significantly, but Ocarina of Time gets you to the first dungeon merely after retrieving the Kokiri Sword, 40 rupees, the Kokiri Shield, and a rather brief cutscene. Ocarina doesn’t fool around.

Twilight Princess Desert Province

Desert Province is league after league of sand just about devoid of anything meaningful to do.

And therein lies the trouble. Twilight Princess is a brilliantly executed experience. It gives stunning vistas, dramatic characters, a strong sense of story, amazing battles, and a strong theme all in one package. But despite all this, despite the fact that it manages to excel in so many areas, Twilight Princess forgets sometimes that it needs to be more than that; it forgot that it needed to be a video game as well. It forgot the core need of a video game to be interactive and fun instead of directive and forced. It ends up stifling the player with an all-too linear story (despite it being a good story) that either needed more fun or exploration added in the gaps or significantly less with all the cruft edited out.

Ocarina of Time may not have much of a story. But it doesn’t let the story get in the way of the game. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and then not deliver on the promise. It provides just enough incentive to convince the player that there’s play to be had, and then it just drops large quantities of fun all over the screen.

While Twilight Princess is a brilliant experience, it forgot that it also needed to be a video game. It forgot to be interactive and fun.

So no, Twilight Princess isn’t the better Ocarina of Time. While it perfected many of Ocarina of Time’s rough-around-the-edges elements that were limited by the hardware of the day, it inevitably failed in the more important aspect of balancing gameplay against story and setting.

But I do think that it’s important to recognize just how ever so close Twilight Princess came to outshining one of the best video games of all time. Twilight Princess is a solid entry in the Zelda franchise. It may not tick everyone’s boxes, but I do believe it should looked at with a healthy dose of fondness.

David Johnson
David Johnson, a.k.a. "The Missing Link," was once the webmaster of both Zelda: The Grand Adventures and ZeldaBlog. He works as a software engineer in the games industry. David also pontificates about Zelda, writes features and guides for ZU, and obsesses about CD-i.
  • Beth McCrossan

    Good arguments for both. I would have liked to be able to get around the Arbiters’ Gtounds to the Desert Colossus and make it back to the Gerudo Fortress. I’d have liked to see some of the old platforms you warp to with your Ocarina. They make it clear this is the same Hyrule, albeit about a hundred years in its’ future, but there wasn’t much continuity. We know the Castle was moved, But Zoras’ Domain? What the heck?

    And what about Skyward Sword? That’s my favourite so far. It has it’s own flaws, certainly, but I think it’s pretty awesome. And anyone who wants to diss the easy boss on the Sandship has obviously forgotten it was an earned reprieve considering Scervo, whom I always had issues with. Not to mention Dreadfuse. >:(

    One thing that I’d like to see is in-game restoration. When you complete the Forest Temple in Ocarina, the monsters disappear from the Kokiri Forest. In Skyward when you turn “Uncle Bats” human, the cats don’t go mental at night, and again no annoying monsters roam the town. I’d like more of that. I’d like to see the temples be temples. If they’re built, like the Tower of the Gods, as a testing ground for heroes, then fine, but as temples to offer prayers, most are pretty impractical. How are little devout monks supposed to get around without claw/hookshots, whips, etc (and handy, pushable boxes)? It seems that only the Hero can get around, and that’s not why these places are built.

  • Jouros

    Disagree. Twilight Princess is a better game. There is plenty of game play to be had inbetween the main story, you just need to know where to look. Finding all the bugs, Malo marts side quests, Poe Hunting (even tho it does get kind of anoying), fishing never gets old special in dungeons for the forbidden bone fish. Its all a matter of perspective and what the person finds injoyable in the game. I like making long distance kills on enemies with the bow with out using the hawk mask even if its not to progress the story. I find most people i personaly know flock to OOT simply because it was the first all be it crudely drawn 3D zelda game to help give a greater sense of adventure and realisum to the Zelda games. Twilight Princess has more Depth and more invations and better overal ideas on how to get the job done. That being said OOT is right behind TP but even thats behind the very first LOZ for the NES. That tops my list over all.

    • nessundorma

      TP is just like a quick introduction to Zelda universe for new players. But OoT is the real game: better puzzles, better immersion, better adventure. If you had played Zelda since first time when was released 30 years ago, you would understand it.

      • Jouros

        I did i beat the first zelda game at the age of 4 back in 1988 oot if over rated as the best game

  • Shona

    The leadup to Twilight Princess HD reminds me a lot of the hype leading up to the original release and how excited I was about it. This article is right: on paper, TP seems like a bigger, better Ocarina of Time, and yet it felt like something was missing. Things like the huge but empty world, the fact that Castle Town seemed largely populated but you couldn’t talk to everyone (or do much overall), and the plot holes and things that didn’t make sense in the story. I disagree that the characters were memorable nor the story heartwarming because I wasn’t able to find myself invested in them. There was so much potential that was wasted: the Resistance is one such example. I never felt I had the chance to get invested in their cause.

    It’s true that Ocarina of Time had a lot of technical limitations and seems really simple in comparison today, but at the time it seemed to make the most of everything it had (especially being the game that made Zelda’s jump from 2D to 3D). The GameCube and Wii offered TP so much more for Nintendo to add to the world, story and mythos, and yet left a lot out. To be honest, I feel that Twilight Princess was missing its soul.

  • tremjam

    I wasn’t sure which way this was going to go, but in the end I pretty much agreed with all of your points.

  • Contraltissimo

    I’ve always kinda liked the stark loneliness of the Twilight Princess world. Feels like a wilderness you can just enjoy the sight and feel of.

    Also kinda nice to not feel like you’re being chased by some anti-boredom algorithm.

    But I love both games. 🙂

  • Vladislak

    It really is all just opinion, I like Ocarina of Time better than Twilight Princess, but I like certain other Zelda games better than Ocarina of Time. In my opinion it’s more or less impossible to say one Zelda game is definitively better than another, or at least to state it as a fact. Different Zelda games can mean very different things to different people. You’ll find a fan for every game, and their opinion is no less or more valid than the opinion of anyone else :).

  • Pseudo Twili

    I think this will always be an subjective thing here. Everyone looks at it differently. I enjoy TP and OoT very much, but I would have to say that TP comes out on top by just a smidgen.

    Are you kidding me? FIFTEEN minutes to make a circle of Hyrule Field? I don’t care how rough that estimate is; unless you’re having Epona tiptoe, making a circuit of the field takes a couple of minutes, tops.

    As for places being empty, I beg to differ. There are many hidden places and things around Hyrule. There are the usual collectables, plus places to fish and grottoes to dig into. It’s all a matter of how much a player wants to explore. Oh, and I’m sure crowding the field with enemies would have been a marvelous idea, for I always love the lag that comes with an excess of actors.

  • MrCold

    Everything is subjective of course. I’ll say what I think though (or actually, feel):
    TP is my favourite Zelda, and OoT was it before that. I can’t explain what made either of them my favourite in a rational way, though. The main reason is that when I first played OoT I got a feeling that no other game had ever given me, and I never got this feeling again until TP, although I played all the other Zeldas between the two.

  • Sanity

    I mostly agree with the points made in the article. Watching my significant other play Twilight Princess HD (he only played the original up to the first dungeon), and having the backseat, has been a rather interesting experience. While I get sucked into the immersive world and don’t mind running from plot point to plot point, taking in the overall mood of the world around me, he lives for those moment-to-moment thrills. Puzzles really aren’t his thing, he loves the combat, and finding new things to do. As a result, he doesn’t love Twilight Princess nearly as much as I do, because the game is rather padded out.

    I like the game because it feels like an expansive world. Ocarina’s maps feel small by comparison, and you wonder how this is the sacred land of Hyrule when you can get anywhere by running, not even by horseback, in ten minutes or less. But I’m also seeing that it’s no excuse for Twilight Princess’s problem of having a huge world but not much to do in it. Hyrule Field mostly feels like a road you pass through to get literally anywhere else. Example? Lanayru’s Twilight segment. Obviously the biggest section of Twilight by far, because it encompasses most of the world. You enter in Hyrule Field, but find that the only purpose of this is to make you follow a scent through the field to Hyrule Castle Town. When you’re done there, you cut through the field to the lake, and keep doing lots of filler stuff until you can get to the light spirit. Then where are all the bugs? Well, one’s in Hyrule Castle Town, forcing you to make another trek there. The rest are in the lake and river. Apparently the bugs found the Hyrule Field area boring too. Meaning that, without interesting and interactive content, the Field simply distances “The Place You Came From” from “The Place You’re Going”. And before warping was available, my significant other dreaded having to make a trip back to a town for a Red Potion, because he’s playing Hero Mode.

    The other issue I’ve always had with Twilight Princess is that the items are fairly one-use. The Spinner is used in a few dungeons but just to get up a track on the wall or make a bridge in the City in the Sky. The Dominion Rod had some interesting puzzles, and was used in an overly long segment running around finding letters. The Gale Boomerang is less useful than a regular boomerang, and I only wish the Ball and Chain had more practical applications, because I felt like it had a lot of potential. But I feel that the only games this wasn’t a problem in were Link to the Past and Link Between Worlds.

    But these are the only two big issues I see with Twilight Princess, and they’re issues Ocarina shares. Twilight Princess brought forth a massive expansion on combat with horseback combat and the Hidden Skills, giving you a real sense of Link turning from a farmboy into a warrior, rather than a guy swinging a sword into a guy with a magical spin attack and that’s it. Twilight Princess is more visually impressive, and requires more flexibility in situations in general, making you interact with the environment and improvise more strategies than “swing your sword until it dies, or wait until it’s vulnerable and swing your sword until it dies”. It felt more like Twilight Princess was challenging me as a gamer; while the puzzles weren’t all that difficult for the most part, it didn’t feel like the same routine from room to room, from weighing down a giant scale, to playing keepaway with a magical beach ball and Wallmasters.

    Skyward Sword is still better though.

  • Edie W-k

    One point that I haven’t seen mentioned in any criticism of OoT is how little it matters when you get hurt. While some attacks will send like flying, the majority of attacks won’t even faze Link and the only indication that you’re getting hurt at all is that you’ll flash red and your hearts will dip from 15 to 14 and a half. It wouldn’t even interupt your attacks, so it really felt like he wasn’t getting hit at all. While replaying OoT recently, this really started to bother me and i would often become careless while fighting and disregard my health entirely. I’d still win the fight, break some pots, and my health would be back up to full like it didn’t even matter. Playing TP HD, I didn’t get this problem nearly as much, largely because getting hit would make Link flinch and make you restart your attack. This is just 1 reason why I prefer TP over OoT in terms of gameplay, but all the other ones have been mentioned already.

  • Happysalesman

    I think the reason for OoT being considered more loved over a better game like TP comes back to the first point of this article. The hardware limitations of the n64 left a world where our imaginations filled in the blank. (Funnily enough, this is why people always say ‘the book was better’)

    Now why are our imaginations better? Simple. Our imaginations come up with details that are most appealing to us. Some of us would have liked the Lost woods to be a dark and scary place where people died. Others saw it as a light hearted place that was being corrupted by evil. But each saw a story that fit what they liked to see, rather than have someone tell them what it is.

  • Andrew Defty

    I love both TP and OoT equally. OoT for bringing The Legend of Zelda to 3D, TP for giving me a more mature visual experience.

    And OoT was on a 256 bit cartridge, not a 32 bit. Just saying!