It is a good game, and it is a very important game. It, with Super Mario 64, has pretty much served as the basis for all 3D action/adventure games. Games still steal shit from Ocarina, and they rarely can replicate it as well as the original. Ocarina needed to happen, and without it, video games might be in a very different place right now.
But it’s not perfect. Why? Well, if I wanted to be direct about it, the infamous Water Temple is infamous for a reason. And then there’s Hyrule Field, which has dispirtingly little going on for an area so huge. The Z-targeting mechanic is handy, but makes combat pretty stale most of the time. And now that I think about it, Jabu-Jabu’s Belly isn’t much fun either.
Mainly though, Ocarina isn’t exactly perfect because all of its perfection is ripped wholesale from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The structure is near identical, and the shift from 2D to 3D, while still transcendent and important, broke more in retrospect than it enhanced.
I’ve long been of the mind that there are three perfect games; three that I’ve played, at least. But before I go about explaining my choices, let’s lay some ground rules.
1) These choices are very obviously representative of my opinion and my opinion only. I don’t mean to claim any sort of authority.
2) The games on this list are not necessarily my favorites of all-time (though one or two certainly might be if I thought about it). I try to draw a purposeful distinction between academic perfection and a more subjective like/dislike. For example, Metal Gear Solid is easily one of my favorite series, but I don’t consider any game under that umbrella “perfect.”
3) Calling something perfect is tricky, and should be viewed through a time-sensitive lens. It’s true that any game released in 1994 won’t be as technically masterful as one released in 2013, but ambition and intent are just as important. These games were perfect in their eras, and are worth appreciating in modern times.
Alright. Perfect game number one.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST
The three games on this list are pretty wildly different from one another, but The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is probably the choice I’ll have the easiest time justifying. It taps into the player’s basest pleasure centers; both in aesthetic and gameplay. The land of Hyrule has not yet been as strikingly realized as it was here, and sense of place is absolutely impeccable. Combining that with the crazily ambitious Dark World variant makes it one of the best looking games on the SNES, or any console.
A Link to the Past also managed to refine upon its predecessor in a multitude of ways. It’s the best kind of exploration, where you feel smart for discovering a secret even if the game has been subtly pointing in its direction. The map, too, is immensely helpful, giving you a great sense of the scope of the game while leaving much up to your imagination. One thing all three of these games have in common is their ability to remain surprising and enchanting while still cohesive. The Legend of Zelda was a game that promised a fully realized world, and A Link to the Past made good on that promise.
FINAL FANTASY VI
Final Fantasy VI is probably the best of RPG of all-time. Is it my favorite? That’s a discussion for another time. But in terms of SNES JRPGs (in other words, the golden age for the genre), FF VI is the absolute pinnacle. It’s really the first game I’d call cinematic in its story ambitions. One sure sign of that ambition is the famous opera scene, which remains eerily effective nearly 20 years later.
That scene’s defining for a couple reasons. Part of it has to do with the context: why your squad has to participate, and where Celes is in her character arc. However, a lot of it has to do with the attention paid to the look and sound of what’s happening. The way the stage looks just as real as any normal environment, and the layered “vocal” track that matches up perfectly with the lyrics. Yes, FF VI features the best version of the well-tread Active Time Battle system, and the World of Ruin is simply spectacular. But that one scene is evidence enough of this game’s importance. It pushed its hardware limitations to a technical and emotional breaking point.
If I had to qualify this further, I’d say Portal is perhaps the most perfect game of these three. It trims so much fat that what’s left is a masterclass in escalation, in regards to both puzzle-solving and comedy. It’s length is integral to its success, as well. If the player spent any more time listening to GLaDOS, or futzing around with portals, the game would’ve told too much and shown too little. But the way Portal unfolds itself, where everything starts seeming more and more malicious, is the definition of perfection.
It all culminates in one of the most cathartic ending sequences in video games, where you break free from the claustrophobic test chamber environments and run free throughout the bowels of the facility. The test chambers taught you how to play Portal, and this sequence is where you have to apply that knowledge. It’s utterly exhilarating. And it may have been driven into the ground, but Jonathan Coulton’s catchy credits track “Still Alive” remains one of the most memorable surprises of this generation.
All these games required being in a certain time or place to appreciate. That much is apparent. Would a person who didn’t discover Portal as a filler game in The Orange Box really feel as strongly about it as I do? Maybe not. But context is everything. Each of these games had a kind of perfect storm backing them, from when they were released to how they were recognized. Are my assessments still subjective? Sure. These distinctions are ultimately meaningless, if interesting from an academic point of view. I know that.
I also know that Ocarina of Time isn’t perfect. Not many games are.