How to Judge Video Games – An Ocarina of Time Introspective

December 27, 2016

Casey Moore, Host


**This piece was original posted on my personal blog, which will no longer be accessible after this goes up.  The purposes of the two overlap too much, so instead of using them both, I’m redoubling my efforts on one – and moving the meaningful content here in the mean time.


In case my incessant ramblings haven’t made you perfectly aware of this, I like video games, and I’ve been playing them for a pretty long time now.  I’ve played lots of video games, from Grand Theft Auto to Mario to XCOM to Katamari.  I read about video games, listen to podcasts about video games, have my own podcast about video games, and will hopefully find myself writing about video games for money in the near future.

In all that time, I like to think of myself as a little bit of an authority on the medium.  I’ve been enveloped in my favorite hobby for close to a decade and have made concerted efforts to try everything new and old, bad and good, popular and niche, just to have a varied background and understanding of video games as an entire entertainment genre.  I think they’re a great lens to observe social constructs and cultural differences, as well as just have a good old time jumping on bad guys.  I think they’re a wonderful tool to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told, and include the player in grand tales of monsters and machines, but also to just stack blocks really fast if that’s what you’re feeling.

Within all of this, there’s been something which has persisted in my interactions with other folks regarding video games: that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the greatest game ever made.  I’m sorry, but I respectfully disagree, and that seems to carry a strange stigma nowadays.  I find this a bit frustrating; I’m fairly experienced with games, so someone telling me that Ocarina of Time is the best game ever in lieu of my examples contrary feels a bit like someone telling a mechanic their favorite car is bad just because they once changed their own spark plugs.

Let me clarify: Ocarina of Time is a crucial part of video game history.  It was the first of a popular series to find itself in a 3D world, and was among the vanguard of games making the plunge into 3D at all on a console dedicated to doing so.  The transition from A Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time found itself with a greater depth of storytelling, and players could command Link to solve puzzles in a more dynamic space, as well as simulate duels with his enemies in a more visually stunning breadth of view.  Locking on to enemies, or “Z-Targeting,” was invented alongside Ocarina of Time.

Let’s not forget something, though: this was in 1998.  It’s very impressive for so many things to have gone right so early into the exploration of 3D video games, and Ocarina of Time deserves its share of praise for that.  Yet, a very significant number of people misinterpret this for meaning that, to use their own words, “Ocarina of Time is the greatest game of all time.”

I should hope it’s not, because we’ve had 18 years to build upon it.  If a better game hadn’t come out in that time, video games would have been an artifact of the 20thcentury by now.

What folks need to understand is that a game being historically significant and a game being of high quality are not mutually exclusive.  Ocarina of Time may have invented the wheel, but it hadn’t put treads on it or made use of all-wheel drive yet.  Why should it have?  All new spectrums of game design have to begin somewhere; a game doesn’t have to be simultaneously inventive and perfect.  That would be unreasonable.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t think Ocarina of Time holds up.  I think it’s a relic of the past, I think several elements of the game were designed poorly, I think it controls badly, I think it’s paced badly, I think it’s a waste of space to have such an open overworld with so little to do in it, and I think the puzzles are child’s play.  All of these gripes are completely separated from the fact that Ocarina of Time more or less inventing adventuring in a 3D space, and those facts should be examined separately when discussing the quality of a game.

I often hear, “But it was amazing when it came out!” which is interesting because it implies it isn’t amazing now, which I’d agree with, but also because it’s from a mentality that’s admitting to its own nostalgia.  Yes, it was amazing when it came out, but it’s not 1998 right now, so that point is moot.  What does it matter if it was amazing when it came out?  Is it still amazing?  I’d argue no and they’d argue yes, but all the same, that argument means very little; a game could have been incredible relative to its peers in 1985 but not to its 2016 competition, and that’s perfectly fine.

That’s why I think a game should be judged on two merits: it’s historical quality, and its contemporary quality.  This allows a game to be recognized for any positive traits it had relative to the time of its release as well as the hardware it was on (EG, of course Ocarina of Time looks awful compared to Destiny, but that’s hardly the fault of the game), that way we can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of games of the past.  Something had to tie the line between The Witcher 3 and Ys.

Meanwhile, as far as simply enjoying a game is concerned, all that matters is if it’s fun right this second.  Compared to other alternatives, Ocarina of Time is not as good as The Witcher 3, or Dragon Age: Origins, or other games of their ilk.  That’s not a snide at Ocarina, it just means that games have evolved and learned from the trail that Ocarina blazed in the past.  Of course, it’s still perfectly fine if you enjoy Ocarina of Time despite that, but it should still be recognized that in the ever-growing pool of video games, they’ve become more powerful, more impressive, and of far greater quality since then.

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia.  If you grew up with Ocarina of Time and it will always have a special place in your heart, then by all means.  If you only first played it this week and it just scratched that itch just right, don’t let me stop you from having a good time.  What I ask is that people recognize that “first” does not mean “best” and that even a historical masterpiece like Ocarina of Time isn’t flawless, and neither has any game since been.  Games can only be as good as the creative minds behind them and the hardware they’re made for, and those are two things that will always be improving, and with them, so will games, just as they should.

I’m sure I’ll convince close to nobody that Ocarina of Time isn’t as good as they believe.  That’s fine; I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade or make them enjoy their favorite games any less.  I just don’t want people to ignore the fact that games are ever-improving.  A fantasy story is told better in Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, fantasy combat is improved in The Witcher, and fantasy world-building is more robust in Dark Souls.  You don’t have to enjoy Ocarina any less; I’d just like the whole world to enjoy other games a little more.


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