Even to this day, 1999 was one of the best years of my life. It may sound strange, but one of the reasons why was because I’d gotten The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Christmas heading into it.
Widely considered the best game ever, to an entire generation, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed us all something entirely new – a massive, sprawling world that, unlike the previous revolutionary game, Super Mario 64, seemed infinitely open-ended and free to explore. There was adventure. There was action. There was comedy. There was that tantalizing hint of romance but you didn’t know quite how deep, and even though Zelda was the dominant relationship, you weren’t even sure who Link ultimately could have romanced (Ocarina of Time gave Link a lot of girls to choose from, seemingly). Although the main story was quite dark and foreboding, there was no time limit, no sense of urgency, except at the exact right moments when your dopamine was at a high point after completing a major portion of the main quest and you couldn’t wait to see what happened next. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time gave you all the time in the world to explore, with seemingly limitless things to do, ranging from horseback riding and archery to fishing to playing music in the woods. It was a fantastic world for an 11-year-old to explore. It sucked you in. Every day was a new adventure that felt like you were living it. And even in the midst of the evil of Ganondorf and the quests that nagged at your sense of discovery, there was still room for peace and quiet.
Growing up takes some of that away from you. That’s probably one reason why The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still so fondly remembered and considered the best game ever – because today’s young adults all played it as children and that feeling can’t really be created again by anything else. It can be imitated, but not duplicated, so few other games can reasonably compete with it for the title of “best game ever.”
If you’re creating a cultural work of your own, this feeling is something you’ll want to capture the first time around, decisively. Childish feelings of adventure might not be exactly attainable if your work is geared to adults, but you can create a sprawling, entertaining, epic world with high impact on first sight. I’m confident I’ve done that with The Red War.
Another reason why The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered the best game ever by so many people is because it had something of a talent stack. It was not just good, but excellent in everything. The graphics were revolutionary for their time. The gameplay was, as I said, remarkable to this day. The story was great. The characters were great (even the silent Link). The controls were great. The music was great. The very scenery itself ranged from the serene to the spooky, and each area had its own emotional feel, adding to the feeling of sprawling, never-ending adventure. Of course, the music fit each area perfectly. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time just did everything right. Where some games excel at one or a few things, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time excelled at everything. It can’t equal modern games in graphics or even the number of areas to explore due to storage space, but those newer, modern games inevitably seem to not do something as good as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did everything.
Hence the problem for its successors, particularly in the Legend of Zelda series. Robert Greene’s warning to never step into a great man’s shoes comes into play. Only about 18 months after Ocarina of Time first came out, the next game in The Legend of Zelda franchise was released, Majora’s Mask. It was great and is still a classic. Even so, it doesn’t exceed its predecessor. Ocarina of Time set expectations too high, and Majora’s Mask, while great in its own right, even superior in some aspects like its graphics, didn’t double its achievements, and so couldn’t outshine it. Its overall talent stack just wasn’t as good. It just couldn’t do everything right like Ocarina of Time, the best game ever. The same cloud has hung over the rest of the Legend of Zelda franchise. All the games have been greatly praised, but something just…doesn’t seem to measure up to Ocarina to topple it from its throne as best game ever, at least, to a great deal of people.
Such is the problem with supreme excellence, kleos, True Glory. What do you do afterward? Can the Iliad or Odyssey be matched by another epic poem? Can Versailles be upstaged? Will the Declaration of Independence be rivaled by another American polemic?
In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams makes the point that, psychologically, it’s important for you to keep going up. Life will naturally bring ups and downs, but you want your general direction to be up.
But what happens if you’ve already reached the mountaintop? You’ve done the best – now what? What happens next? What if you’re still hungry, trying to find glory and aiming high? You’re ambitious to rival or exceed the glorious works of the past. How do you do it? For every game that followed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, particularly in its own series, it was hard to measure up to it, almost impossible to be the best ever, no matter how hard the creators worked to bring you something magnificent and worthy of glory in its own right.
Obviously these are very good problems to have, and you’d be fortunate to worry about them. Yet, it always pays to be prepared. Hollywood to a large extent hasn’t confronted this problem, unlike the way the gaming industry seems to have tried its best to. Hollywood just rides off the coattails of its best old movies, which is a good reason why it sucks. You don’t want to fall into that trap. I don’t either.
To me, the lesson, illustrated so well by the best game ever, Ocarina of Time, is to constantly be innovating, to take your work in new directions while keeping core elements of what brought you (or others) success. In many ways, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was a radical departure from its predecessor with its darker storyline and time constraints, which is part of what made it so great. The constraints just worked because the catastrophe that would follow your breaking them (the moon crashing into the world) was so huge and stupendous that it kept you on edge, rather than feeling cloistered. Its attempt to break from its predecessor was a key part of its success, but even so, it didn’t quite measure up (and the use of recycled character sprites didn’t help).
Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes. You must slay the father at every opportunity and take yourself in a new, pioneering direction as best you can. You may not quite measure up to your (or others’) best, but you’ll still produce something worthy of glory in its own right.
I know that The Red War will be a true epic and that I’ll never really be able to equal or exceed it unless I break out of the shadow it’s sure to cast over my other work, so expect subsequent works, even sequels within the same universe, to be as radically different as possible.
Many people are saying that Stumped is the best book ever written about the rise and election of Donald Trump, coming out long before his victory. You can read the reviews.
If I ever do another Trump book, expect it to be different. Big league.