July 03 2014 by Ben Lamoreux
Recently, Arin ‘Egoraptor’ Hanson (who I learned while waiting next to him in the Smash Bros. line at E3 is just as goofy in person) did what many gamers consider a taboo: he made a video criticizing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Often heralded as ‘the greatest game of all time,’ it’s a classic that is put on a pedestal above criticism, but is any game truly immune from scrutiny?
In the latest episode of Sequelitis, Egoraptor compares Ocarina of Time with SNES predecessor A Link to the Past (as well as the original Legend of Zelda) pointing out numerous areas where he believes the game falls well short. Egoraptor holds A Link to the Past as the superior game, and I agree, but it’s not for all the technical reasons (aside from a few valid complaints) that frustrate him.
First off, if you haven’t seen Egoraptor’s video yet, you can watch it below. It’s long, but it’s a good watch with some interesting points, even if I disagree with a good chunk of it.
Egoraptor presented a myriad of frustrations he had with the game’s combat, some of which (such as the ‘waiting’ stage for most enemies) I agreed with, and others I found simply to be matters of personal preference, or simply the inability to adjust to a 3D environment on his part. However, I found that the most important message in his video revolved around the ‘Zelda formula’ and the progression towards a more story-driven linear world versus a more open, free-form world.
The original Legend of Zelda had virtually no story, no structure, and no guidance. After a short intro screen (and a slightly more detailed version of the same short intro story in the manual), you were plopped into a vast world with no map and no direction. It was up to you to explore and discover, forging your own way through Hyrule and its many treacherous dungeons.
A Link to the Past offered a more fleshed out backstory, more in-game events, more dialogue, and more story-driving points. The trade-off was that the game wasn’t quite as open and free. Much of the overworld is open for exploration early on, but the first three dungeons must be played in a specific order, and there is a stronger sense of guidance, with characters directing you where to go next. However, once the Dark World is reached, the game becomes much more open (a topic Egoraptor did not address in his video), with dungeons (although labeled in a specific order) being playable in almost any order.
Ocarina of Time transitioned the world of Hyrule into 3D, building upon the backstory of A Link to the Past by creating a much more story-driven world. Ocarina of Time had by far the most robust plot of any Zelda game at the time, but this further limited exploration. There was a great big 3D world out there to explore, but many areas were blocked off until specific parts of the story had been reached, and (with one exception) dungeon order was cemented firmly in place.To Egoraptor, this is a definite downgrade, and goes against everything that defines Zelda.
In Zelda, you were an adventurer and that much wasn’t even explained. You were just a green dude. Walk into a cave. Old dude goes “Hey, take this.” Okay, it’s a sword. You swing it at monsters that shoot rocks and **** at you and you have a great time killing them. You figure if there’s a cave I got a sword in, there must be other caves to get other **** in, right? Maybe other swords? I don’t know, this world’s neat. Well THAT’s Zelda.
Egoraptor holds that Zelda is all about exploration and finding things out for yourself, and to an extent, he’s right. Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto created Zelda with the mindset of being ‘Mario’s total opposite’ in that there’s no hand-holding.
We started to work with Legend of Zelda at the same time as Super Mario Bros, and since the same people did both games we tried to separate the different ideas. Super Mario Bros should be linear, the next step in SMB should be obvious. Zelda should be Mario’s total opposite.
The original Legend of Zelda was exactly that. A Link to the Past still featured lots of freedom after you reached the Dark World, but there was a bit more hand-holding, and a lot more story. To this change, Egoraptor shouts “it’s not the same!” But is different always bad? While I’d argue that giving players too many instructions is anti-Zelda, Egoraptor takes it a step further, essentially speaking out against any story direction at all.
Ocarina’s story provides you with a context to your quest. That accomplishing this will save this or change this, but it refuses to acknowledge the player’s innate sense of wonder and drive to quest and fight. Players want to fight bosses. They want to be rewarded for their efforts. They want to enter a dungeon, see what’s inside, and succeed against enemies. But you gotta put that feeling aside. There are more important matters at hand. The Sheikahs or the Hylians or whatever, save the Hylians. Gorons don’t have rocks to eat, that’s why you gotta quest. Gorons gotta eat. The **** are the Gorons? I don’t even care. And then what we’re left with is what feels like a formality. Dungeons with doors that need to be opened. Bosses that are beaten in the same ****ing manner every time. I think the idea that you’re told you’re a hero saving a kingdom is at least somewhat unnecessary. When it’s an order delivered by the game, it becomes a task. It’s like a job.
To me, this thought process shows a fear of change and a misunderstanding of the basis of Zelda. Yes, Zelda was designed to be against hand-holding, and later games like Ocarina of Time and especially Skyward Sword seem to forget that, but Zelda was never definitively about having a complete lack of plot. The game has a plot which involves the player receiving an order to save Hyrule, just as Ocarina of Time does. The difference is, in the original game the plot is told in the manual and the intro. This wasn't done because Zelda is supposed to be a game where the only motivation is your desire to explore. It was done because of hardware limitations. The NES couldn’t support lots of cutscenes and character interactions. As soon as superior hardware showed up, Zelda was infused with plot in-game.
A sense of exploration was the foundation of Zelda, not a complete lack of any story structure. While Egoraptor believes that an innate sense of wonder is all that is needed to drive gameplay (and that anything beyond that is a formality), that’s not necessarily a view shared by the majority of the gaming community. For millions of gamers out there, a rich story isn’t just an unnecessary element that wastes your time when you just want to get to the next dungeon. It’s a driving force that engrosses players in the universe and lore of Zelda. Yes, you naturally want to explore dungeons, but a detailed story adds stakes to it. It gives you more than just a sense of wonder to care about. It gives you characters and events to care about too. As much as we love Old Man, the evolution of Zelda’s story has led to a rich and colorful cast of unforgettable characters. The Zelda series has one of the most dedicated and utterly fanatical fanbases of any franchise, and the story is an integral part of that community.
The problem here is that Egoraptor seems to define ‘Zelda’ as just the very first Zelda game. The elements of free exploration (which, again, should very much always be at the heart of Zelda) and combat take almost exclusive preference over all of the other things that Zelda has to offer. Everyone takes away something different from Zelda, and everyone has a favorite element. I’ve always stated emphatically that, to me, ‘Zelda’ is a perfect balance of four elements: exploration, combat, story, and puzzle-solving. This is why A Link to the Past is probably my favorite Zelda game. No, it’s not as free to explore as the original Zelda, as story-driven as Ocarina of Time, or as combat-intensive as Skyward Sword, and it doesn’t have as many puzzles as Spirit Tracks, but it has all four of these elements in balance. There’s just enough of each of them that it gives me everything I love about Zelda in one package.
Ocarina of Time is a fantastic game (flaws and all, no game’s perfect), but it’s not my Zelda game. The four elements are all there, but the increase of the story element takes away from the exploration element. It’s not enough of a detraction that it significantly mars the experience for me (as I’d argue Skyward Sword‘s linear structure did), but it’s enough that A Link to the Past is a better game for me.
This is where Egoraptor’s complaints come in. It’s clear from his video that the freedom to explore and fulfill your innate sense of wonder is the most important element for him. Combat is a close second, as he also had a lot to say about the diminished combat quality from A Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time. However, story is far less important to him, and even arguably a negative aspect. I also believe he’s not a big fan of puzzles either. During one section of the video, he complains about Ocarina of Time‘s puzzles, specifically expressing frustration over “find and shoot the switch” rooms, and calling many of the game’s puzzles “bad ****ing level design.” However, he doesn’t really offer much in terms of a better way to do puzzles, instead steering the topic of progressing through dungeons back to combat.
You see in the original Zelda, you’d walk into a room, the doors would lock, but five caped horse sword dude looking guys who were ****ing hard as **** surround you. They follow you around when they see you, you can only them from the sides or the back. You gotta find vantage points. Ins, outs, manage your health, dodge them when they gang up on you – it’s daunting. It’s interesting. It engages you, and it’s really easy to understand. Because of all this, it’s satisfying when you beat them.
When Egoraptor thinks of ‘Zelda’ he thinks of the original Legend of Zelda for NES, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the series has evolved since then because the hardware allowed for it. Combat and exploration were the foundation of the first Zelda, but they don’t have to be the only definitive features of any Zelda game. New additions to the series don’t have to be bad things. Although I agree that Zelda has strayed too far from the open world of the first game with recent releases, I think sacrificing a little freedom for the sake of story (as A Link to the Past did) makes for a better game.
Everyone has a different opinion of what the most important Zelda element is, so everyone’s going to have a different favorite Zelda. Ocarina of Time may not be 100% ‘Zelda’ in spirit, but for those who prefer a rich story over exploration freedom, it’s an amazing experience. For people like me who like both elements in balance, it’s a great game, but not the best. In the end, there is no definitive best Zelda. It’s all about finding the Zelda game that fits your idea of what Zelda should be.