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.”
And 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 Mask, Wind 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.
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.
And 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
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 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!)
In 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.
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.
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.