Back in 2004, Nintendo launched the DS to audiences largely mystified by the company’s intentions for the new device. Who designed this unholy eyesore? Why did it have two screens, and why in God’s name did you have to poke one of them with a stick to make it go? And where did it fit in in an ecosystem already populated by millions of Game Boys? Surely this was another failed experiment, soon to be relegated to the Mexican landfill that was home to countless Virtual Boys and Atari ET cartridges…
Seven years, 150 million units, and four design revisions later, it’s a universally acknowledged truth that the DS is the most successful video game console ever released. The system is home not only to some of the finest traditional video game experiences ever created, but to some fantastic experiments that, along with the Wii, changed the way we think about video games and opened up gaming to an audience that never even batted an eye at it before. Super Mario 64 DS, by far the biggest launch title for the DS, was neither of these. The original game from which it was ported is rightly considered one of the greatest games ever created, and despite how poorly its presentation has aged (a problem generally suffered by all Nintendo 64 games), it’s still a blast to pick up and play today. So what went wrong with the DS conversion?
You can chalk it up to Nintendo having not yet gotten a firm grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of its then new moneymaker. Super Mario 64 DS looked (and still looks) great: with upgraded texture work and higher poly counts in all its character models, it easily outclasses its progenitor, despite the DS’s lower resolution per screen. It’s also bursting at the seams with new content. True, some of this content was filler, at best: a collection of fun, but limited, touch-screen mini-games that did nothing to enhance the core Mario 64 experience; a roster of new playable characters that were essentially forced into a world that felt better without them. But this wasn’t the big issue most gamers had with the conversion. The biggest problem with Super Mario 64 DS was, hands down, the controls. Super Mario 64 was THE most important game ever released on the Nintendo 64 – so important, in fact, that the system’s analog stick-equipped controller was designed to play it; so important that every home console released since then has come equipped with at least one analog stick because of it. Super Mario 64 DS, on the other hand, was shoehorned onto a system that had no analog stick, offering gamers two suboptimal choices: the once-vaunted D-pad, which would prove incapable of offering the kind of subtle movement required of these kinds of games; and the touch screen, which offered the very first virtual analog stick that iPhone gamers would come to loathe years later. Simply put, it was a chore getting through the game on the DS. Regardless of how much fun I wanted to think I was having while completing it, it was impossible not to get frustrated every time Mario would walk the wrong direction off a cliff, or overshoot a jump that was so effortless on the N64, and this happened constantly. Super Mario 64 was not meant to be played on a DS, and it was obvious.
It’s gone on to sell over 9 million copies worldwide, regardless.
In March of 2011, Nintendo’s 3DS launched with issues of its own. This time, nobody was questioning the potency of the DS brand itself – Nintendo was wise to stick with it for the new device. Also absent were any issues with identity: we all knew that the 3DS was meant to replace the aging DS, and we all accepted it because the timing felt right. It was also apparent from previews and online raving from those who’d gone hands-on with the device that it was packing some pretty amazing tech that had to be seen to be believed. And so many of us pre-ordered, lined up, and anxiously awaited the day Nintendo would revolutionize handheld gaming yet again.
Except they didn’t. The 3DS’s launch lineup, though lauded by many Nintendo faithful as being one of the most diverse to ever grace a game machine, was far from offering anything that would make people rush out to buy the system – something that would prove even more crucial for the 3DS than any other system released before it, as there simple was no way to experience what made it so special without actually touching, seeing, and believing. Worse, Nintendo rushed the system to market without many promised features, such as a downloadable game shop meant to offer Virtual Console titles from the Game Boy and Game Gear lines, or a built-in Netflix client that could, potentially, stream 3D movies to subscribers. Sales dropped quickly as the 3DS was left to wallow for months without any content compelling enough to make skeptics rush out and buy the device, sight unseen. That all changed last week.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D is absolutely the best game for the 3DS, and it’s not hard to understand why. With a massive story mode spanning nine main dungeons, two time periods, hundreds of (useful!) hidden collectibles, tons of interesting characters, and countless other little things to find, explore, and do, there’s easily between 25-50 hours of content on offer here. And that’s to say nothing of a Boss Gauntlet (that, sadly, does not include the game’s final boss), or the Master Quest mode that not only ups the difficulty in the game’s dungeons but completely flips Hyrule on its vertical axis – a seemingly insignificant tweak that adds a surprisingly significant element of unfamiliarity to the game for long-time fans. But what if you’re not interested in a boss-rush mode, or you’ve already played the (non-mirrored) Master Quest when it was released on the Gamecube? What’s to bring players back to Ocarina of Time again, when so many of us have already complete it countless times since its original release on the Nintendo 64 in 1998? Surely a new coat of paint, stereoscopic 3D, and some new motion-based control options aren’t enough to breathe new life into a 13-year-old game? Well, yes, in fact, they are. This is, without a doubt, the best version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that has ever been released, and it would not have been possible on any other system than the 3DS.
Pixels vs. polygons aside, Hyrule has never looked better than it does in Ocarina of Time 3D. In fact, it looks so good that you might settle in comfortably, breezing through the Kokiri Forest Training Grounds, burning the rot out of the cursed Deku Tree, and tramping out into Hyrule Field without ever even noticing it. See, the mind’s eye has a curious habit of fooling us into viewing the past through rose-tinted lenses. You might take one look at Ocarina of Time 3D and think this was how the game always looked, but you’d be mistaken in that assessment. Track down a copy of the Nintendo 64 classic – I’m talking the real thing here folks, emulation will not do! – and you’ll see just how big a difference it really makes. Colors, once muted and muddy, now truly pop with a crispness that would’ve been impossible to implement in 1998. Characters, once crudely rendered, now fully resemble their concept-art counterparts; dungeons now feel dusty and organic; Castle Town now feels like a place where people live, and would want to live. Perhaps most notably of all, the character animation system has been completely reworked, not only imbuing Link with a greater sense of fluidity, but breathing life into a supporting cast that once resembled animatronic robots at Disneyland. The overall effect isn’t revolutionary, but it is a revelation: for the first time ever, we are seeing Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule as its creators always intended. And to see an artist’s vision, once hampered by the limits of technology, now fulfilled…well, that’s a hell of a thing.
I’m not going to lie about the stereoscopic 3D in Ocarina of Time 3D: it’s completely unessential, but I can’t imagine ever going back to the game without it. Hyrule Field now stretches deep into the horizon, lending to the illusion that it is as large as the most hyperbolic of fans have made it out to be (though it’s still a glorified hub, largely devoid of things to do.) The waters of Lake Hylia now have a sense of volume to them, and the little lights drifting listlessly through the atmosphere of Kokiri Forest add to the otherworldliness of the place. The effect feels completely natural at all times, especially with the setting turned all the way up…but I wouldn’t hold it against anyone whose eyes couldn’t handle it, or who preferred the game without it.
There are so many good things about Nintendo’s (and co-developer Grezzo’s) Ocarina of Time remaster that one of the most subtle, welcome changes to the game is likely to go unnoticed by most players: the upgraded interface. Inventory items, once buried on a pause screen, can now be swapped in and out painlessly via the touch screen (which includes an extra item slot.) Additionally, the Iron and Hover Boots have been moved from equippable gear to inventory items, meaning they can be hot swapped without pausing the game. In the case of the Iron Boots, this means Link can actually now swim fluidly through Lake Hylia, and not just on the surface. It’s completely unnecessary, completely unexpected, and completely welcome.
The biggest surprise I found with Ocarina of Time 3D was how accurate and fun it was to control the slingshot, hookshot, bow, and camera with gyroscope controls. At E3, I’d messed around with gyro aiming in Star Fox 64 3D and been completely put off by it. This might’ve had something to do with the fact that the systems were tethered down, because once I’d done it the first time in Ocarina of Time 3D, I never went back to aiming with the circle pad (even with the 3D on.) At first, it was simply neat to be able to win at target practice every time, and soon, I was able to pick off keese (bats) effortlessly at 50 yards and more. About the only time I had a problem with it was when first-person aiming was interrupted by on-screen prompts, meaning that if I moved the system back to a comfortable position to read text while my character was aiming at a skewed angle, the center of view would be reset inappropriately and I would have to contort myself to look straight ahead once aiming resumed – the quickest example I can think of is during the rupee shooting game, where if you almost win, the barker tells you he’s going to let you play again for free. It’s akin to the problem with Wii MotionPlus technology, where a MotionPlus-equipped controller has to be placed faced down on a flat surface to recalibrate. It was a pain in the ass then, and it’s a pain in the ass now. Still, I can’t overstate how much the gyro controls strengthened the bond between myself and my on-screen avatar, and I think players who aren’t slavishly tied down to tradition will find themselves loving this new feature.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D is not a perfect game, but then, neither was the original. But, much like the original Ocarina, the 3D version is a perfect example of how to use a gaming platform to best fit the needs of the game itself. Just as Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64 showed us how essential “Z-targeting” would be to helping developers transition successfully from 2D to 3D environments, Ocarina of Time on the 3DS teaches us that 3D and gyroscope controls can be used to enhance our connection to the player character and the worlds they travel through. Unlike Super Mario 64 DS, which was a fatally flawed cash grab meant to pull buyers in while Nintendo struggled to figure out what the DS was all about, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time feels like it was always meant to be played on the 3DS. And really, what bigger endorsement can I give the game than that?