The Worst Part of Great Games 1: Ocarina of Time’s Checkpoints

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a great game. It was the first thing I ever anticipated for years, and it delivered on every promise.  Huge chunks of the internet are dedicated to singing its praises, so I won’t bore you with my second-rate interpretation of the game.

Instead, I want to talk about Ocarina of Time’s one design decision that is so dumb, unilaterally terrible, and utterly indefensible – its checkpoints.

If the player saves and quits the game inside a dungeon or temple, the player will restart at the entrance of said dungeon or temple.  But if the player is anywhere else on the map, the player restarts in one of two locations:

  1. Young Link always restarts at his house in Kokiri Forest.
  2. Adult Link always restarts at the Temple of Time.

Replaying Ocarina of Time, I spent my first hour getting my sword, beating the first dungeon, and navigating to Hyrule Castle Town. I thought to myself, “That was a good session.  Let’s save, and we’ll do the whole stealth section tomorrow.”

I load up my game the next day, and I’m in Link’s House way back in the Kokiri Forest.  So I have to truck it all the way back to the Castle again.

I have never been able to make it across Hyrule Field to the Castle in the one day (daytime is about two and a half minutes long).  I assume speedrunners probably can make it, but I always get there right as the drawbridge is going up.  So I had to wait through a night (one and a half minutes) before I could get into the town.

So all told, four minutes to get back to where I was.  It’s not much in the grand scheme, but it would have been a lot easier just to start me at Hyrule Castle Town.  And this is how the game is.  The game does restart inside dungeons and temples.  But nowhere outside of the dungeons.  Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  Why one but not the other?

As the game goes on, this becomes less of an issue.  The player gains Epona to quickly speed across Hyrule field.  The player is taught songs that allow warping to the game’s key areas.

I cannot understand why this wasn’t fixed in the Nintendo 3DS remake.  Remember, the 3DS is a portable, designed for quick pick-up-and-play.  It makes no sense to force players to re-cross Hyrule Field at the beginning of every play session.  Getting to the third dungeon is no mean feat – the player has to leave Kokiri Forest, cross Hyrule Field, traverse the Zora’s River, do some minigames in Zora’s Domain, talk to King Zora, and finally enter the dungeon.  At no point is there an opportunity to stop the gameplay session and safely return back to the same zone.

What should it do?  Ocarina of Time should have its checkpoints at every dungeon and every place the game loads a new area (towns/villages, Death Mountain Trail, etc.).  If the player selects “Save & Quit”, upon restarting, he or she should be brought back to the entrance of that area – be it Goron City, Lake Hylia, or Hyrule Castle Town.  Accounting for the different time periods, there are maybe 30 different locations?  That’s one digit in an alphanumeric save file.

The game already knows to restart at dungeon/temple entrances.  Why can’t it restart at Hyrule Castle Town?  Link’s Awakening re-started players at the last door they exited before saving, and that came out 4 years earlier and for the Game Boy.

The Metroid Password Generator online breaks down exactly how the original Metroid kept track of progress.  Each missile container, each boss, each energy tank represents a different value.  That’s how these passwords and save files work as 1’s and 0’s, and that’s how it knows that Missile Containers 1,2,3, and 7 were collected, and 4,5, and 6 still need to be found.

Similarly, Ocarina of Time knows which Golden Skulltulas have and haven’t been killed.  And it shouldn’t be any different in Ocarina of Time – “What is the numerical value for having the slingshot, 5 heart containers, Epona’s Song, and starting at location 12?”   To me, retaining information about the Skulltulas seems far more resource intensive that saving a few extra starting locations.

The checkpointing system’s failings are an odd thing to harp on. But it’s a strange design decision in an otherwise great game.  I presume this was not brought up in any reviews, because reviewers tend to marathon gameplay sessions.  I am having a hard time finding time to play Ocarina of Time, knowing I will have to play at least an hour to make sure I do not lose any progress.

Luckily, there’s always sleep mode.

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What I Really Appreciate: Sleep Mode

The Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita have a miracle feature: Sleep Mode.  With the 3DS, I close the clamshell; with the Vita, I quickly press the power button.[1]

The system goes into a power-saver mode.  I open up the clamshell or tap the power button again, and I’m right back to where I was.

Why is this a miracle?

I have a newborn. He cries, as babies are wont to do.  And babies can’t be placated with the “Let me find a save point” argument that I used to pull with my wife.  And sometimes he can be calmed down and asleep in five minutes; sometimes I may not get back to the game until the next day.

Before my son was born, I derived a lot of anxiety from trying to find a place to save my game.  And once I found a save point, knowing where my next one will come from.  Can I find another save point before I need to stop?  Every road trip and every gaming session would end 30 minutes early, because I didn’t want to lose progress because I was unable to find a save point.

This was especially troublesome with portables.  With consoles, I could leave my system on for days and come back to it.  With a portable, I may only have a few hours before the system dies.

I never played Turok 2 because I heard stories that save points were two hours apart and really hard to find.  I have no idea of if these stories are true, but I believed them.

The first few Resident Evil games gave the player a finite amount of saves, in the form of ink ribbons.  I could not waste one of my ink ribbons just because the baby is crying.  On top of not knowing where the next typewriter was, I also was contending with limited opportunities to save.

But now, it’s easy.  Just play until the last possible second, then pop the system into Sleep Mode.

No worries.


[1] “Oh no!  Push the power button?”  There’s no way to accidentally shutting the Vita off.  To turn the Vita off, a player must hold the Power button for a few seconds.  At that point, the Vita brings up a prompt on the touch screen to turn the system off or cancel.  So if you press the Power button and the screen goes dark without seeing that prompt, then the system’s in Sleep mode.  I mention this PSP-3000 had a power slider – moving it to one point turned the system off, another point put it into Sleep mode, which wasn’t well communicated. To be perfectly honest, the PSP’s Power Button was the bane of my existence for many years, but we’ll get to that subject another day.