Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why I love Ocarina of Time

There have been a couple of occasions recently where my 3DS has completely surprised me. The first was when I was playing about with the built in AR games, and was taken aback at how impressive they are. The 3D effect is actually quite incredible, and it is just such a shame that the nature of the games involves moving the console itself about, because if you shift your gaze by even a micron the glorious 3D gets replaced by the even more eyestraining blurry-double-shake-o-vision. Which becomes a bit of a problem when you are fighting a dragon that has risen out of your sofa.

The second surprise came from Pilotwings Resort. This latest version in the popular series starts off, in traditional fashion, quite simply. The basic tasks of "Take off, fly through some rings, land" are almost impossible to mess up on, and so you have to be a particular breed of thumbless wonder to not get a perfect score on these early challenges. Indeed, I managed this without even trying to on my first go in the aeroplane. Getting a perfect score is always nice, but what is not so nice is when you get rewarded with the following message :

Come again?

Wait ... what? BETTER than perfect? What the hell kind of Moonspeak is this, Nintendo?

It turns out that it is true, you can indeed improve on perfection. This is because there are bonus scores that are only available once you have achieved the perfect score. So, what turned out to be a bit of a shock turned into a pleasant surprise, because without this aspect to the game it would be dreadfully shortlived. (A fact that seems to have been overlooked in the vast majority of reviews, incidentally, which all like to shout about how short the game is. Honestly, does nobody play for high scores anymore?)

So far, so nice. But now, we come to something even nicer.

By far and away the best reason to own a 3DS is the rather wonderful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. An undeniable masterpiece, it is widely regarded as the best game of all-time. And with good reason. That a 13 year old game can not only stand alongside anything else released this year, but actually tower over most of the current-gen titles speaks as much for Nintendo's timeless design as it does for the nature of modern gaming. From the moment Navi flies towards young Link, it is clear you are in for a treat.

Gaming has evolved in many ways since this landmark was released, of course, and a lot of this evolution came from this game. It is now standard to use a button to "lock on" to an enemy in a 3D space, but it was new at the time.

What was not new at the time was the sometimes total lack of clues as to what to do next, or even where to go. The only real hint system was that Navi, your fairy companion, would harass you with "Hey!" and "Listen!" before departing some vague blabber about something unclear. Phrases like "Let's go find someone who knows about sages", for example, which could mean literally ANY OTHER CHARACTER IN THE GAME! There have been times when I have been wandering around the map just hoping to stumble blindly into some kind of encounter or clue. (Or, to be completely accurate, rolling around the map making Link say "YAAAH!" because it is so much more fun than just running.)

It was during one such session that I discovered that I had not only gone the wrong way, I had managed to miss out an entire dungeon. Having gotten to a point where I could progress no more inside the Spirit Temple, I decided to go on a hunt for Gold Skulltulas, the collectable spiders littered throughout the game. Which meant a trip to Kakariko Village, for that is where the House of Skulltula is based, and if I wanted my reward for freeing 30 spiders I had to go collect it.

Entering the village triggered a cut-scene, in which Sheik taught me a new song and told me about the Shadow Temple. This song meant that I had now learned all the songs in the game, but even at this point I hadn't quite worked out what my mistake had been. It wasn't until I was in the Shadow Temple itself, just trying to make sense of anything I could see that I found the Winged shoes. These shoes let you cross otherwise uncrossable gaps, of which I had found more than any Temples fair share of in the Spirit Temple. And it was at this point that it dawned on me that I was obviously meant to complete this Temple before starting the other one.

This was a revelatory moment! I honestly couldn't tell you now when was the last time I did something like that. Have a game just let me go and do my own thing, instead of whisking control from me to dump me into its latest set-piece or cut-scene. Yes, Navi was quite insistent that I play my new song anytime I left the Temple for any reason, but at least I had the option to just not press the button to see what she was saying. I compare that to the Call of Duty franchise, for example, which basically has zero in the way of exploration or even choice. There, it is all about moving the plot on at all costs and throwing the player into their next gunfight as soon as possible, most likely to make sure the player doesn't get time to think about what they are doing and realising that they are playing a not particularly good game.

Nintendo trusts that the game world will keep you happy. They let you leave the fast track to the end of the game in order to determine your own route. Modern games don't allow this freedom, being terrified to give a player time to breathe before dropping them into the next challenge.

I like the more free approach. I WANT the more free approach! In my extra life, all I want is some rough idea of the problem and then the time to fix it. I want to be allowed to make mistakes.

What I don't want is a smack on the wrist for daring to try and do anything other than see precisely what the developer spent half the budget on. Your bridge may be pretty, and your city may be impressive. But they don't mean a single thing to me if I'm not allowed to touch them until you say so.

So, the moral of this tale? It is threefold.

1) Pilotwings Resort is very good, ignore the reviews from stupids who don't understand that a game doesn't actually need a story of any kind. (You can buy it here.)

2) Ocarina of Time 3D is absolutely fucking magnificent, and MUST be in your collection. Buy that one here.

3) Games are better when they let you play them than when you mostly watch them.

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