Now, before you tell me to go back to little girl school and play with all my little girl dolls (which I am not in any way suggesting represents weakness or cowardice, because I took a class on feminism once and do not ascribe to such negative gender stereotypes), allow me to clarify just what factors into my personal fear of the defining Zelda game.
First, the majority of my memories associated with Ocarina of Time come from the game occupying a considerable chunk of my 10-year-old life, a period of time during which I thought Child's Play represented the apex of terror. Second, I'm not the most knowledgeable connoisseur of survival horror. I don't have an aversion to the genre, but I've always been fond of the Resident Evil 4 school of scary games, where the focus is less on tapping into a primal sense of fear through an endless series of maddening key puzzles and more on shooting at gross tentacles that burst out of the skulls of broad racial caricatures. And third, I'm convinced Hyrule is more of a nightmarish hellscape than Detroit, the interior of a Waffle House, and an IGN comment section combined.
One of the reasons it's such a frightening place is the game's keen awareness of the power of juxtaposition. Link's whimsical adventure takes a hard turn into heavy territory at the game's halfway mark. The entire quest for the Spiritual Stones is about as threatening as one of those direct-to-DVD family fantasy flicks where Jim Belushi has to learn what it means to be a father by defeating an evil cartoon wizard, but fast forward seven years and suddenly everything you know and love has been corrupted beyond recognition.
The dumb, lovable Gorons are on the verge of dragon-assisted genocide. Zora's Domain has fallen victim to an icy cataclysm. Your very first moments as adult Link are spent in the bombed out ruins of Castle Town. The marketplace, once filled with happily dancing couples and kindly old ladies looking for their lost schnauzers, is now teeming with sentient husks who can only communicate by latching onto the nearest living thing in a screeching struggle to the death.
But Ocarina of Time isn't just scary because the time travel mechanic serves as an apt metaphor for the dark uncertainty of adulthood. There's a lot of freaky-deaky shit that goes down in Hyrule. The list of inexplicable abnormalities includes, but is not limited to, magical stones that speak in oblique riddles and launch into space if you blow them up, chickens that will stop at nothing to murder you, sharks, a man who challenges you to a race you can never win, and a family of greedy capitalists that have been twisted into spiders in some kind of Kafkaesque morality tale. Whatever bizarre dream logic governs Ocarina of Time seems specifically designed to disorient and unsettle players at every turn.
Then there's the character design. Oh sweet merciful god, the character design. The Zelda series is notorious for going against all notions of human decency and searing such unforgettable monstrosities into our heads as those birds with creepy baby faces or everyone's favorite elfin pedophile. But the series' obsession with crafting characters that haunt the dark recesses of our imaginations seemingly started with the whacked out, disfigured denizens of Ocarina of Time. The Lake Scientist's obscene overbite served as all the motivation I needed to wear my retainer every night. I actively avoided buying potions so I wouldn't be driven insane by Granny's malicious insect eyes. Not to mention the shirtless Albino drifters, the overly friendly gravediggers, and the Gerudo gypsies I'm positive I should be deeply offended by.
There's a reason I opened this blog with the menacing visage of the Happy Mask Salesman, and that reason is because his is the last face you see before you die. Every time I entered his shop as a kid, I couldn't shake the feeling he was crafting those masks out of the skin of innocent Hyrulians.
Though maybe you're still not convinced. Maybe you're still chalking up my reasoning for being afraid of Ocarina of Time to me being the kind of rube who would invest in a home security system. In which case I direct your attention, dear imaginary Internet detractor, to the final fight with Ganon and defy you to tell me it's not a master class in scaring the ever loving crap out of an impressionable ten year old.
Admittedly, the initial encounter with Ganondorf is little more than a glorified game of racquetball, and even a child can tell you that a villain dramatically playing an organ is about as hoary as a twirled mustache. But the following sequence, in which you're given three minutes to escape Ganondorf's fabulous obelisk fortress as it crumbles around you, is despairing on a universal level. On the list of "Worst Ways to Die," being crushed to death is right up there with drowning, burning, and dying without ever knowing the intimate touch of someone you love. Even now, the only way you're able to live your life is by remaining willfully ignorant of the ceiling over your head possibly caving in at any moment.
Upon narrowly avoiding an untimely, squishy demise, Zelda then goes and utters the words you never want to hear in any life-threatening situation: "It's finally over." That line is horror movie speak for, "I am about to get a machete through the larynx." And true enough, Ganondorf springs from the rubble, gives one last barbaric yawp and transforms into Ganon. Just Ganon. No ridiculous subtitle like every other boss in the game, he's just... Ganon. Dude's like the (artist formerly known as) Prince of Zelda bosses.
I had not played enough Final Fantasy at that point in my life to know that you never beat a final boss in their first form. So in the moment that Ganondorf leapt out from beneath 100,000 tons of obsidian and turned into a beast of pure malevolence, I knew for the first time in my life the kind of core-rattling, deep-set fear that my grandfather must have felt when he stormed the beaches of Normandy. (Only much later did I realize how insensitive of a comparison that was to make, and that my grandfather had never actually seen any action during wartime. But at the time it was a very profound experience.)
Hyperbole aside, the final standoff with Ganon is legitimately tense. The fight follows the old Jaws tenant of horror theory, which states that the less you see of a monster, the more terrifying it is. Ganon spends the entire fight as a hulking mass of shadows, a set of glowing eyes and swords stalking you around a claustrophobia-inducing ring of fire. The apocalyptic music, flashes of roaring lightning, and inhuman wailing every time you wing Ganon with a light arrow all combine for a final boss fight that leaves you on the verge of cardiac arrest.
Perhaps Ocarina of Time lacks the psychological trauma of Silent Hill, or the constant threat of lurking danger of Amnesia, or even the pervasive helplessness of any game where you play an adolescent Japanese girl who vanquishes ghosts with the power of Polaroid. But whenever I think back to those halcyon N64 days, my mind can't help but wander to the Happy Mask Salesman, and ponder what evil teemed beneath the gilded surface of his cheery façade.
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