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Save the Cat! in Ocarina of Time

For nineties kids, gamers, and fans of The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time is a pretty big deal. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an action-adventure game that was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1998 and is the fifth game in the Legend of Zelda Series. It was the first one in the series to have 3D graphics. It is one of the most popular Zelda games of all time, receiving perfect or near-perfect scores on all rating platforms, and is my personal favorite. This is largely due to the fact that I haven’t played most of the other games in the series. A crime, I know.

I recently replayed the remastered version of Ocarina of Time on the 3DS and, for the first time in my life, 100% completed it. For the non-gamers out there, I have completed the game in the past, but I never completed all of the little side quests hidden out in the world. For instance, there are one hundred spider monsters hidden throughout the world for you to kill and collect. Without internet guides, that was a herculean task back in the day.

But that is beside the point.

The point is, after completing the game, I examined the story of it and compared it to my favorite little story plot map, the Save the Cat! beat sheet. In theory, video games, at least the ones with campaigns, should still follow the story beats laid out in Save the Cat. Surprisingly, and unsurprisingly, from what I can tell, the plot of the game doesn’t follow the beat sheet very well in terms of pacing.

Also, spoiler warning for the game, though with it being twenty years old at this point, I really shouldn’t have to warn you.

A Quick Refresher

If you aren’t completely enamored with Save the Cat! like I am, then you’d probably appreciate a quick reference to the beat sheet.

Act 1

  • Opening Image 0 – 1%

  • Theme Stated 5%

  • Setup 1 – 10%

  • Catalyst 10%

  • Debate 10 – 20%

Act 2

  • Break Into 2 – 20%

  • B Story 22%

  • Fun and Games 20 – 50%

  • Midpoint 50%

  • Bad Guys Close in 50 – 75%

  • All Is Lost 75%

  • Dark Night of The Soul 75 – 80%

Act 3

  • Break Into 3 80%

  • Finale 80 – 99%

    • Gathering the Team

    • Executing the Plan

    • High Tower Surprise

    • Dig Deep Down

    • Execution of the New Plan

  • Final Image 100%

For a more in-depth look at what each beat means, check out my article on the matter here.

Breaking down the Game

There are a lot of points for a story to hit at particular moments in order to keep the pacing up. Given that the average length of gameplay to complete the story in Ocarina of Time is around thirty hours, that pacing is going to be a bit stretched out.

Right off the bat, there are several points that feel way off the mark as far as pacing is concerned.

Opening Image: I would say this is the opening cutscene where Navi, a little fairy, is flying through Kokiri Forest. We get a quick view of the world, our young hero Link (Or whatever you decided to name yourself), and the threat that is facing the world of Hyrule.

Theme Stated: This one is a bit tougher to figure out and pinpoint. The theme seems to be about the loss of childhood innocence. The Great Deku Tree calls on Link for help, and then sends the child out into the world to face a great evil in the form of Ganondorf, a king from a distant realm.

Setup: This is everything within Kokiri Forest and the Great Deku Tree dungeon. This section of the game is all about introducing the player to the controls and gameplay. It is quite literally setting you up for Link’s adventure by teaching you how to play and showing what the goals are.

Catalyst: After Link completes the first dungeon within The Great Deku Tree, the tree hands over the Spiritual Stone (Don’t worry, it’s a magic tree.) of the Forest and tells Link to go out into the world to save Hyrule and to start by speaking to Princess Zelda in Hyrule Castle.

Debate: Since it’s a game and there wouldn’t be much of a game if Link thought too long about going on this quest, the debate section is pretty short. I’d say the final meeting with Saria is the debate. She talks to Link about actually leaving their forest home and going out into Hyrule. It’s not really a debate as much as a sad goodbye, like “be safe and come back soon.”

Break Into 2: This one is easy, Link breaks into Act 2 the first time he steps out of Kokiri Forest onto Hyrule Field. Link has left the old world behind and is headed to a new one that is full of unknown adventures waiting to be had.

B Story: As with most B Story arcs, I’d say Ocarina of Time’s is all about a relationship. The relationship between Link and Princess Zelda isn’t inherently romantic, but there is something there and it does carry on throughout the whole game and surfaces at other plot points. So this plot point occurs after sneaking into Hyrule Castle and meeting Princess Zelda.

Fun and Games: This beat and the Midpoint are where the pacing seems off for me. In my opinion, the fun and games portion is everything between entering Hyrule Field up until Link gathers the other two Spiritual Stones. This only includes defeating two of the game’s nine, plus a few mini one, dungeons, which definitely isn’t half.

Midpoint: And this is where things get weird. The midpoint of the story, though very much not the midpoint of the game, seems to be when you get the Ocarina of Time and open the Sacred Realm. Once this happens, Ganondorf is able to enter the Sacred Realm thanks to Link, obtain a piece of the Triforce, and take over the world. Meanwhile, Link is tucked away in the Sacred Realm for seven years by Rauru, the Sage of Light, until Link is old enough to wield the Master Sword, the only weapon capable of defeating Ganondorf, and return to the world. This is very much a false defeat moment in which it seems Ganondorf has won, but there is still plenty of game left.

Bad Guys Close In: When Link returns to the world, he finds a devastated Hyrule now under the rule of Ganondorf. Zombies roam the streets of the now destroyed kingdom of Hyrule and devastation is unleashed across all realms of the kingdom. In order to stop Ganondorf, Link has to travel through the kingdom, going through the dungeons to awaken five sages, with guidance from the mysterious Sheik, and gather five sages who, along with the other two sages, will have the power to imprison Ganondorf away in the sacred realm when he’s defeated by Link.

While the Bad Guys Close In beat is usually shorter than Fun and Games, this is the longer beat in this game. With fun and games, Link only goes through two full-fledged dungeons, whereas with this beat, he goes through five.

All Is Lost: This beat occurs after Link has awoken all of the sages, Sheik reveals that she is actually Princess Zelda, the Seventh Sage and the wielder of the Triforce of Wisdom. She explains that when Ganondorf tried to grab the Triforce, it shattered into three pieces and he only managed to claim the Triforce of Power. The other two pieces latched on to the people who represented those aspects most, with Zelda acquiring the Triforce of Wisdom and Link Acquiring the Triforce of Courage. After all of this is revealed, Ganondorf shows up and captures Princess Zelda, and takes her to his castle.

The Dark Night of the Soul: This beat is often one of reflection where the hero doesn’t quite want to go on, but can’t return to the life they once had. In Ocarina of Time, this beat lasts as long as it takes for Link to walk from the Temple of Time to Ganondorf’s Castle, which is like a minute away.

Break Into 3: This occurs when the remaining Sages help Link enter Ganondorf’s Castle. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat in the context of this story.

The Finale: This all occurs with storming the castle and confronting Ganondorf, which can be broken down into the following sub-beats.

Gathering the Team: At the start of this final dungeon, there are six different mini-challenges, each leading to a seal that can be broken by the respective Sage. How considerate of Ganondorf!

Executing the Plan: After the barrier is destroyed, Link can climb the tower, fighting baddies along the way until he reaches the top and finds Ganondorf. The two fight and Link manages to defeat him, freeing Zelda.

High Tower Surprise: It’s fun that this actually takes place in a high tower. In a last-ditch effort to destroy Zelda and Link, Ganondorf uses his magic to destroy the castle. Link and Zelda race back town the collapsing tower and make it out just as it collapses. But that is not all. Anyone familiar with Japanese RPGs will know that the first fight with the final boss is never the last one. They always come back stronger. As the pair of heroes look over the ruins of the castle, Ganondorf rises from the rubble and uses the Triforce of Power to transform into the Monstrous Ganon.

Dig Deep Down: It’s time for the final fight and it won’t be easy with Ganon all powered up. On top of that, he knocks away the Master Sword, forcing Link to fight without it.

Execution of the New Plan: Link faces down Ganon until he is able to get the Master Sword back and uses it to deliver the final blow to Ganon. Once he does this, Zelda and the other Sages use their powers to seal Ganon away in the Sacred Realm.

Final Image: With Hyrule saved, Zelda asks for the Ocarina of Time back and uses it to return Link to his time before he tried to remove the Master Sword from the Temple of Time. Link is returned to his childhood, which inherently seems like a happy ending until you stop to think about it.

The Not So Happy Ending

As I was looking up the story for Ocarina of Time while writing this, to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, I stumbled upon an interesting article considering the end of the game and how it really isn’t a happy ending for Link.

Throughout the course of the game, Link, a young child is forced to fight against the evil threatening Hyrule. Sure, in the end, he’s returned to his childhood, but he can never really go back to it. He lost his innocence fighting and killing monsters to defeat the greatest evil in Hyrule. On top of that, no one but him remembers any of it because upon returning to this time, it creates another reality where Ganondorf never rose to power. (This is where the Zelda games’ timelines start to get really, really confusing and splits into three different versions. Not kidding, there are three different timelines and all of them are canon.) So, as far as the occupants of Hyrule are concerned, Link is just some kid.

Just imagine being in that scenario. Here you are, a kid, and you’ve fought in a war, killed monsters, and saved the world, and no one remembers any of it. What kind of unexplainable PTSD would that give a person?

It’s an interesting thought to consider that Zelda sends Link back so he can live a peaceful life and regain his childhood, but by doing so, robs him of those options. It is this kind of emotional complexity, along with the complex timeline and general fun gameplay that has kept the Legend of Zelda series going for so many years.

As long as we all continue to ignore the CD-i games.

Is Missing Beats Bad?

Ocarina of Time, from what I can tell, hits all of the beats, it just doesn’t hit them at the right time. If this were a book or a movie, I think it might be a bit of a problem. However, this is a video game and video games follow slightly different rules.

The pacing of a video game is always drastically different than a movie or book. For proof, look at any video game movie. Those movies almost always feel rushed and lack a lot of the depth that the games had. This is one of the many reasons why video game movies are so poorly received.

Game stories move at a different pace depending on the player. With open-world games like this, there also has to be some wiggle room in order for the player to find the time to complete side missions.

Despite the fact that Ocarina of Time misses its footing with some of the beats, the game and its story are still great. I think this goes to show that there is some wiggle room in these beats. If anything, it proves that a good world and great characters can really help push a story along.

An Iconic Series

The Legend of Zelda is a great series to play. It has fun puzzles to solve and challenges to overcome. This was especially great in the old days when you often only had a handful of games to play. Most of the Zelda games offer plenty of things to do and lots of replay-ability.

On top of that, the complex storylines are fun to examine and talk about with others. How many other series out there have three different timelines with all of them being canon to the overall story?

I love the Legend of Zelda games, and if you haven’t played them, you should.

What is your favorite Legend of Zelda game? Let me know in the comments down below.

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