Ocarina of Time is a phenomenal game that has hardly aged a jot. There's a reason why it's routinely listed as one of the best games of all time, and this port to handheld has enhanced, rather than diminished, the experience.
The N64 and the GameCube are stowed in a dusty box, and it has been some years since you've thought to dust off your old copy of 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You've all but forgotten it … but now, in your hot little hands, you're holding a Nintendo 3DS. You tap on the game icon and, as the sound swells, you think to yourself, "... Ah."
It would not be unfair to say that Ocarina of Time brought with it some innovations that revolutionised gaming. It was the first game in the Legend of Zelda franchise to use 3D graphics; and it brought with it context-sensitive buttons, lock-on targeting, item-collection side quests, large, open-world exploration and a day/night cycle, none of which had been seen before — or, at the very least, seen to good effect.
In 1998, it was mind blowing. But how well does it hold up?
Actually ... it's bloody brilliant. Having played the original back in the day, it's a little hard to know how someone approaching the game for the first time now would feel about it, but as a returning player, it feels every bit as engrossing as it did 13 years ago.
Like all Legend of Zelda games, the staples are in place: Link, Ganondorf, Princess Zelda; an epic battle between light and dark for the Triforce; careless villagers keeping their money in unguarded clay pots; chickens can kill you; Like Likes, Keeses, Peahats, Stalfos, Wall Masters, Armos, Lizalfos, Dodongos, Skulltulas, Tektites, ReDeads and Poes populate the landscape and dungeons; and the dungeons themselves are complex puzzles to be intricately solved and survived.
Nintendo actually made a brilliant move by porting Ocarina of Time to the 3DS console. Compared to today's graphics capabilities and HDTV screens, the game appears dated on a television screen now. However, Nintendo has upgraded the graphics quite significantly — not enough, perhaps, to stand scrutiny and comparison on a TV screen, but certainly enough to look stunning on something the size of the 3DS.
Comparison of the same scene in the N64 version (left) and the new 3DS version (right). (Credit: Nintendo)
In fact, the game translates extraordinarily well to being pocket-sized. Being able to close the 3DS and open it to pick up where you left off (a feature, we probably needn't add, not supported by the DSi) makes it very pick-up-and-play. It also eliminates the need for excess time spent getting from point A to point B, as you don't have to restart at one of the game's two starting spawn points (well, except for dungeons, where you respawn at the entrance if you switch the game off).
And, of course, the portable console means that you can take this deeply immersive game with you on long trips or even just on the bus to work in the morning — it sure makes the trip fly.
There are other advantages, too. The 3DS's dual screens mean that you have access to more actions than you had on the N64. Your ocarina and two additional item buttons are displayed on the touchscreen, as well as a map, a quit first-person-view toggle and your HUD — leaving the top screen clean and able to give you a better view of the action.
You also have quick, one-touch access to a full map, your items and your gear, and when you do pull out the ocarina, you have a choice to play it either using the touchscreen or the buttons — whichever you're most comfortable with.
The bottom screen on the 3DS (right) means that you can see your map at all times, as well as allowing easy one-touch access to gear and extra item slots. (Credit: Nintendo)
You might think that the smaller screen size would scale down the epic feel of the game, but that isn't the case; for a start, the world is just as explorable as it ever was, allowing you to go pretty much anywhere and play mini-games and complete side quests, going about the story in your own non-linear fashion. The updated graphics help, too, giving the game a breath of fresh air; if anything, it feels slightly bigger than the original, thanks to a lightened palette and greater detail.
Some people dislike the use of mini-games, thinking that they serve only to pad out a game artificially. This is a valid argument when the mini-games are poorly executed, but Ocarina of Time is not one of these games. In between beating dungeons and trying to rescue the princess, you can play a number of different games, usually involving aiming weapons at a target, for prizes that are definitely worth your while: expanded item slots and life capacity, for the most part.
You can also complete side quests for optional items. Four bottles hidden in the game allow you to buy potions or capture fairies to restore your life energy, and the main side quest — finding and destroying all 100 gold skulltulas in the game — brings with it significant and useful rewards. They also add an extra dimension to what might otherwise be a fairly linear game; gold skulltulas, for example, are often hidden in areas to which you will have to return after you have won a certain item, and all of the heart pieces, which grant you additional life, can only be found by exploring every nook and cranny of Hyrule and competing in various challenges.
These rewards are great enough, and the gameplay is consistently fun enough, that you never feel that these quests are petty time-wasters; at any rate, they are optional — you are not obligated to complete them, although to skip them would be to miss out on a good part of what Ocarina of Time has to offer.
One of the side quests sees you racing around Hyrule at night, trying to shoot ghosts from the back of your horse. It's not as easy as it sounds. (Credit: Nintendo)
There's only one wrong note that Ocarina of Time 3DS hits, and that's the 3D mode. This is not to say it's bad; but, having seen a few 3D titles now, it's definitely not one of the better implementations of the technology. The depth of the 3D is both dizzying and jarring at the higher levels — the reaction of everyone that we handed the game to with the 3D slider tuned up was to say, "Whoa", and to hold the console at a greater distance. At lower levels, it is less jarring and can actually look quite good, but playing for any length of time with the 3D switched on was a little headache inducing.
We actually found the experience better with the 3D switched off entirely. That's not to say that everyone will have the same experience — the console's 3D technology is very impressive — but it seemed to be the case for most of the people we talked with.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is, at its core, what it always has been: a heady, enthralling mix of fascinating exploration, satisfying combat and mind-bending puzzles — and it has only benefitted from its transfer to the 3DS. But the next-best bit? Majora's Mask may be on the way ...