5. Ocarina of Time (1998)
I've probably played Ocarina of Time more than any other Zelda game. I've gotten a new copy for just about every Nintendo platform I've owned, and I've played all of those copies to completion. I was very happy to have an excuse to run through this game one more time.
Having played this game a lot, I know the story, and I know all of the dungeons and how I'm supposed to get through them. This could have made for a replay that was more going through the motions than actually playing, but that wasn't the case. When I was playing through this game for the one hundred and first time, I felt like I was revisiting all of my earlier memories of the game. When I played the fishing minigame, the first fish I got on the line that was big enough for a prize got away at the last possible second. That's definitely not the first time that's happened to me in an Ocarina playthrough, and it was just as frustrating as it's always been.
I remembered all of the times I've missed one specific key in the Water Temple and made sure to get it as soon as I could (I ended up missing some other key, but that's not the point). I remembered the times the times I won Epona on the first try, and the times that I had to drain my wallet to do it. I remembered the fights where I beat Gohma in five seconds, and the fights where I took forever to shoot her down from the ceiling. I had lots of memories of chasing Big Poes across Hyrule Field. I remembered all the times they got away because I ran them into a wall before I could hit them with enough arrows. When I couldn't remember the notes of every Ocarina song by heart, I was disappointed, because I knew I'd been able to claim that before. I even remembered bits and pieces of the Master Quest version of Ocarina, and I've only played that version once or twice.
I'm really glad that playing this game once more brought back so many memories.
The 3D re-release changes generally seem on point, with a few exceptions. The marked routes in the Water Temple are very helpful. I messed up the water levels once or twice, as expected in the Water Temple, and I appreciated having clear routes so I could fix my mistakes. I was surprised to see that the game pointed out that one Water Temple key that's easy to miss, by zooming in the camera on the path to it. I would have appreciated it more if I had actually missed that key, and if the game didn't do the same zoom a half-dozen times when I had to go back through that room for other reasons, but it was still a neat idea.
The addition of having Navi tell the player to take breaks is probably a good addition, if I wasn't the kind of player that ignored games trying to give me good advice. She also asked me once, during the Water Temple, if I was lost and needed help, which I found deeply insulting (I was hunting for a key, not lost). I refused to use the Sheikah Stones the game introduces on principle - I was trying to run through this game by memory. The graphics look much nicer in this remake, which was appreciated - unlike the pixel graphics in the 2D games, the N64's polygons haven't really aged well. Overall, the 3D re-release adds a bunch of nice polish without making the game seem too drastically changed.
Title cards introducing bosses are a really cool thing, and I wish more Zelda games had them. The cutscenes you're shown when facing bosses help to introduce them. But the title cards really drive the point home. You're not fighting another Flare Dancer, you're facing the Subterranean Lava Dragon: Volvagia. The final room in Dondongo's Cavern doesn't put you up against some Lizalfos, it's the Infernal Dinosaur: King Dodongo. It really feels like you're up against an important and dangerous Boss when the game has to tell you its full title or description and roll a cutscene before you can begin the fight.
Ocarina of Time has always been near the top of my Zelda ranking, but I've been rethinking that after this playthrough. I think Ocarina is better thought of as a 3D Zelda game template than a game on its own. I don't mean that in the sense of a baseline, to decide whether later games are Good or Better or Bad by comparison. I mean that Ocarina of Time is the vanilla flavor of 3D Zelda games. It demonstrates what a 3D Zelda game is, what 3D movement and combat and dungeon progression look ike. That makes everything it does new and interesting, but it also makes everything it does seem plain compared with later 3D games. That doesn't make Ocarina bad, but it does mean I like some later games more because of what they do with Ocarina's formula. I don't want to go too deeply into my thoughts on other Zelda games in what's supposed to be Ocarina's section, so I'll try to continue this argument when I write on Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword.
Returning to Ocarina of Time was a lot of fun and a large dose of nostalgia and memories. It's a very good game that I'm glad I got to replay.
6. Majora's Mask (2000)
I haven't played Majora's Mask as much as Ocarina of Time, but it's still up there on the play count leaderboard. I'm very fond of this game.
Majora's Mask uses a lot of assets (especially NPC models) from Ocarina of Time, which I assume is a choice forced by the game's one-year development cycle. I think this choice adds a lot to the game, even if it was mostly done for development reasons. It's a lot of fun to see where characters from Ocarina of Time (or, at least, their models) end up in Majora's Mask. Some of them map fairly reasonably (Malon -> Romani, Running Man -> Postman), but others dramatically change role and/or importance (Koume/Kotake, the Skull Kid). Knowing that I'll see a lot of characters I'll recognize from Ocarina of Time makes me pay a lot more attention to each NPC. The shared assets really sell the "Termina is a parallel universe" Majora's Mask is going for. At the same time, having a bunch of new NPCs and assets makes it not quite a mirror of the world in Ocarina. It's familiar and not familiar at the same time, which I enjoy.
My Zelda style has always been "100% completion" (within reason). I also wanted to try to do it as efficiently as possible, because I've played this game a lot and I wanted to keep it interesting. This meant I spent a lot of cycles with a half-dozen tasks in mind, and tried to find ways to fit all of the different schedules together. Sometimes there wasn't really a way, and an event I'd half-started or meant to start would fail because I wasn't in the right place at the right time. It was stressful, but it was also a lot of fun to pack my schedule full. It meant a trip back to the first day let me check off a lot of items from my list at once, which is very satisfying. The schedules I was tracking add a lot to the game besides busywork. They make the NPCs seem more realistic. At any given moment, they have something to do or somewhere to be. The postman does pickup in the mornings and delivery in the afternoons and you can follow him around the entirety of clock town as he does it. If you hang out in the Stock Pot Inn at the right time, you'll see Gorman wander in, and you can follow him out and around town. Events happen with or without you. You can arrive late to the alien invasion on the ranch and it'll be already happening (and if you're fast you won't be too late). Kafei will be waiting by the thief's hideout late on the third day even if you've never talked to him that cycle. The game seems more alive when the NPCs all have schedules to keep and things to do.
The three day time limit is my favorite thing about Majora's Mask, because of how much the player is made to remember it and because of how deeply it ties to the stakes of the game. The moon is always in sight. You can see it get closer and closer over the three day cycle, and NPCs will comment as it draws nearer. Many will tell you to evacuate on the final day, or wonder why you haven't already. Every night and every morning, the game will stop the action to remind you how many hours are left. The music changes in Clock Town with the days, and on the final day it's frantic and backed by unnerving chords. At the end, the clock changes to show you the real-time seconds you have left. And if you watch that clock run out, you are shown a scene of Termina being consumed in fire.
More than any other Zelda game, Majora's Mask wants you to never forget what is at stake should you fail. Every trip back in time is a reminder that you aren't ready to save the day. A game spending so much time showing you what you're fighting against deserves just as much payoff, and Majora's Mask delivers. When you defeat Majora's Mask, you see the moon vanish. The constant reminder of the three-day cycle is gone and no longer literally hanging over your head. You see a new day card - "DAWN OF A NEW DAY" - showing you that you've finally escaped the cycle. The credits show you all the people you've saved from the apocalypse. You see the carnival that was never going to happen, the performance by the circus troupe that was going to be cancelled, the wedding between Anju and Kafei that was planned one day too late. You see the Skull Kid, freed from Majora's Mask, and you become his friend. No other Zelda game has made saving the day so necessary and so important.
Majora's Mask is the first game I can try to use to support my "Ocarina of Time is a template" theory. Majora's Mask uses the same engine (presumably) as Ocarina of Time, and many of the same assets. It's built the same. And yet, the game feels very different. You have to save the world in both games, but in Majora's Mask, it feels more real, because you can actually watch the world end. You have more emotional investment in Majora's Mask, because you can interact with all of the NPCs, and see their problems and hopes and dreams, and try to help them. This game is much more character-focused than Majora's Mask, because of those same NPCs. Link has more style - he'll do flips while jumping over gaps (though that's a minor point). The three-day cycle makes the game seem more tense, because you're fighting against time. It also provides some hope, because you can always fix your mistakes. I don't think those two cancel out - Majora's Mask is filled with periods of tension and periods of relief. I can't boil down how I think about Majora's Mask to one emotion or feeling, but I really do think it feels dramatically different than Ocarina of Time, and I really enjoy that.
Majora's Mask has some cool bosses and temples, despite only having five and four, respectively. The Goht fight is one of my favorites. Having to actually chase a boss down to damage it isn't something I've seen in the series, and I think it makes the fight really fun. It's a challenging fight. You have to close in on the boss while dodging rocks and dropped columns from the ceiling. Those columns can drop really quickly and unfairly, too. If you let him get too far ahead, he'll start taking shots at you with lightning. I always have a really good time fighting Goht, and I'm glad I got to do it about three or four times in this replay. Snowhead in general is a pretty fun temple, too. I think it's cool that you're required to pull off some jumps and spiked rolls as a Goron to progress. It's tricky platforming of a kind that really isn't in any other Zelda game.
Great Bay is my favorite temple in this game. Something about the background music - all the clanking and banging - makes me really happy just to be in that temple. Redirecting the water to progress in the temple is neat. My favorite Zelda puzzles are the kind you work on over the course of a dungeon. Great Bay has you do it a couple times, which is enough to be interesting, but not enough for the puzzle to get old. I'm not really a big fan of Gyorg, but the fight isn't terrible, and it makes good use of Zora Link.
I can wrap up the other temples quickly. I'm not a fan of Woodfall or its boss. The flipping mechanic in Stone Tower once you get the Light Arrows is interesting, but doesn't really help the temple in my mental ranking. The Giant's Mask fight with Twinmold is interesting, but not great. The mini-dungeons on the moon are fun. The Goron/Snowhead one is my favorite by far.
I think the 3D version was overall an improvement over the original, but there were some weird changes that I didn't really understand. I'll start with the stuff I liked.
Being able to save properly at owl statues is a good improvement. Having to choose between saving+exiting or saving+resetting to the first day is interesting, but not really fun in practice. Similarly, being able to activate statues as any character is an improvement on something that was pointlessly annoying in the original game. The revised bomber's notebook is wonderful. It captures times like the original game's notebook, but the new one captures every event that could possibly get you a reward automatically, which was a real help in getting the absurd number of heart pieces in this game. It was a bit overeager - I think it captured an event where the prize was 5 rupees - but I'm not complaining. Like Ocarina 3D, this game also looks a bunch nicer than the N64 game, and I appreciated that.
My biggest complaint with the 3D version is changing Zora swimming so you swim slowly by default and only swim fast when using the magic shield. I don't understand this at all. The closest thing I got to an explanation is that fast swimming was too fast in some enclosed spaces in the original release, and Nintendo felt the need to address this in the re-release. There are a few places where I can see swimming fast being an issue. However, for me, wanting to go quickly to cross large areas comes up much more. Overall, the change made swimming worse for me. It meant I had to worry about magic constantly when swimming. I also had to listen to the stupid magic shield noise at all times while swimming, which was awful. I really wish there had been a "swimming mode" option in the menu, or something.
The new eye theme among the bosses weirded me out. I didn't really see a reason for it. I hadn't heard about that addition to the game, so it confused me and actually took me out of my immersion in the game a bit.
It could be nostalgia, but I think the boss fights were a bit worse overall in this game. Odolwa seemed identical, and I never liked that fight anyway, so that was fine. I hated the eye in the Goht fight - it felt like an easy way out the game was trying to goad me into taking. I did my best to stick to the right way - slamming into him from the side. I'm not sure how I feel about the Gyorg fight - I don't remember the original incredibly well, so I'm not sure how much (besides the new second phase) has changed. I'm not sure I liked that fight to begin with, but I don't know if it's improved much in the re-release, either. The Twinmold fight I outright hate. There's comedic value in Link Popeye-ing up when he uses the Giant's Mask, but that's all. Dodging Twinmold's attacks wasn't fun with Giant Link's slow walking speed. Being limited to punches meant I couldn't speed up the fight by using jump attacks or something, which made the fight drag on longer than I wanted. Having to swing around Twinmold and slam it on the ground wasn't really fun, and the game asked me to do it more times than I really wanted. I looked up the original fight after the fact. It doesn't look particularly fun, either, but I definitely prefer it.
These complaints aside, MM3D is definitely a better version of the game than the original. I was really happy to play it again.
Thank you for reading my look at OoT and MM. Next post covers Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.