Simply put: This is my youth
The most important aspect of any adventure game is that playing it actually feels like going on an adventure and that is what Ocarina of Time nails perfectly. As I fight your way through temples, go on side-quests and explore the beautiful Hyrule Field I always feel this unique feeling that feels like a mix between excitement, determination and a slight bit of fear. I haven't played any other game, not even within the adventure genre that has made me feel exactly the same.
Another interesting thing this game managed to do was making me care a lot about Hyrule and those who lived in it. I first noticed this very clearly when I had to return to my childhood as part of a temple (thus going back to Hyrule before it got ruined) and I just had to visit a few locations to check up on them. I wanted to hear their cheerful theme songs and watch the people in those places wander around carelessly before I would go on with my adventure. The whole time travel fiasco was used in a very good way to give the story some emotional weight.
The characters are also very good, not because they have some brilliant writing to back them up, but because their physical design is very appealing and they are very friendly or have interesting personalities. Nintendo has never been too good at handling their stories and characters arcs very well, but Ocarina of Time keeps it rather simple and benefits because of that choice. Saria, Malon, Darunia and all the others became some of the most popular characters in video games history and they got quite a cult following behind them.
What this game is remembered the most for is its amazing soundtrack and the way it was implemented into gameplay; A few times throughout the game you will have to rely on the soundtrack to help you solve a puzzle, but the most common use is the Ocarina, which allows you to play a few songs in order to use the magical powers they contain. Using songs you can teleport to locations all over the world, call your horse, trigger events during puzzles or open up parts of the map that are off-limits.
There are moments in the game where Nintendo really reached out to the veteran players, old fans who have been with the franchise since they were kids in the 80's, but have now grown up into adults. A certain temple that showcased Hyrule's dark and gruel past is perhaps the best exception, but there is also some well implemented sexual innuendos hidden here and there and a few very good character lines and rhymes that always made me feel like I was receiving a little present.
Even though this imagery and adult stuff is around, the game still manages to keep it mostly kid friendly, having the innuendos pass way over their head and not going too far with the darker style of the second half of the game. By doing so and maintaining a very well structured difficulty curve they managed to make this game both child/family friendly and add another great title to the family console everybody remembers as the Nintendo 64.
The puzzles are very good and they proved to be amusingly challenging without reaching the point where you just shrug it and boot look up a walkthrough (although I had to do that once or twice). Repetition is kept to a minimum which is also very nice and like always you are required to make creative use of your items and weapons in order to solve them.This format has proven quite successful, but this is the Zelda game were it worked out the best.
The graphics haven't aged very well and the way the world is presented is rather shabby. 90's polygon graphics are one of those things from the past you look back at and feel slightly ashamed off, but it's the presentation that worries me the most. Very little effort has been put into making the world feel like a living whole and that already becomes obvious when you first arrive in the first area and see a whole race of children sitting around in one spot, constantly repeating a single animation. Those kids should be playing and laughing, don't have them just sit there and occasionally talk to you.
It is also quite annoying that the character Link is kind of a boring tool, not any more interesting then a kitchen knife and functioning almost exactly the same. He barely ever shows any emotion at all except for whenever he does something that astounds himself (like learning a song). There is a memorable scene very early on where he leaves his home village and says farewell to his childhood friend, but as she empties her hearth, Link suddenly backs off in a way that makes it looks like he is cowering away from the possible emotional response he feels coming. A lot of characters do the same, but Link just takes the crown for this kind of uncanny behavior.
I am sure we can all agree that Nintendo 64 controllers were never really good with smooth controls. Most controllers have a terrible analog stick, but even if they don't it sometimes feels like playing R.C. Pro-Am, where you switch between different directions instead of a smooth 1:1 response. This is especially annoying during moments where you need to platform around dangerous areas such as the Fire Temple. There was one point where I had to walk over a very narrow path within a short time limit where falling to the right would place me back at the start of the dungeon, this part will be remembered among networking classes as situations that just never seemed to end.
Talking about the temples, there is a bit of a problem with those two. In the sense that I am wondering how many more times I am going to have to play through a series of temples/dungeons that use the elements as their themes. The one thing I learned from Psychonauts is that a game becomes much more easier when you base key areas around something else, in that games' case around the physiques of the people you met during your adventure. Another problem is that the game is a little too eager to tell you about their clever ideas, such as how they used people you met during the the first part of the game Sages in the second half, but this means the game almost always spoils who the next sage is going to be before you enter the temple. That stuff should be an interesting mystery up until the point you finally find out who it is.
By doing a very annoying side-quest you can unlock a two-handed sword that for some reason does more damage than the Master Sword. Not to ruin your clever ideas Nintendo, but combined with the overall story this is just a really dumb idea because it causes the story about the legendary blade trip and break it's skull on a rock. Why would you put a weapon in the game that is better than the one of legends you can't stop banging on about in this series? Go sit in the corner, you're staying after class Nintendo.
The Bottom Line
Having replayed Ocarina of Time has been an interesting experience to me, on one hand I discovered the many rocky mistakes that slipped past me the first time around, but on the other hand I also noticed a lot of great things that I missed just because I was too absorbed into the story. Overall though, the balance between good and bad things hasn't changed in my opinion, though I still look at this game from a very different perspective now.
As I mentioned before, Ocarina of Time is a game for a lot of people; the hardcore crowd will enjoy it's great gameplay and action scenes, the Zelda fans will love it for some of the mature themes it has and the improvements it has brought into the series, the casual/family members will enjoy the excitement of a big adventure on the Nintendo 64 and the kids will simply love the style and mystery that surrounds this title.