It’s interesting to juxtapose Oceanhorn with another 2017 release, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a monstrous game which players and scholars will, spend the rest of their lives exploring. It is a representation of what The Legend of Zelda will look in the future. Oceanhorn is beholden to the series’ past: It looks a lot like The Wind Waker and plays a lot like A Link to the Past, but with the scale of a budget-priced indie videogame.
Oceanhorn is derivative and it knows it. It never tries to ascend higher than copying the well-worn Zelda formula, and I get the impression while playing that escaping the formula is anathema to its ethos. This is nothing less than a Zelda videogame made without the Zelda license. From this derivation, we get a glimpse into what another developer thinks of as the “essence” of Zelda. Breath of the Wild makes the statement that freedom of movement and the glory of discovery are what makes Zelda work; Oceanhorn states that respect for tradition and solid-but-predictable design is its true core.
From the outset, Oceanhorn feels familiar. Sent out alone after a catastrophe, the nameless protagonist (who I shall refer to as Not Link for simplicity’s sake) must hold off an army of monsters while he scrounges a sword and shield, then embarks on an epic journey to gather a series of macguffins that let him challenge the monster Oceanhorn and avenge his parents’ death. Guided by the player, Not Link can explore optional areas off the guided path, increasing his mettle and offering a greater chance at defeating the obstacles in his path. A player curious enough and a Not Link tough enough to traverse every inch of Oceanhorn will find themselves so powerful come endgame that nothing can stand in their way. Facing a fully upgraded Not Link, the final boss practically falls over, cowed by the player’s and the character’s mastery of the game space.
It is, in other words, a paradigm of post-A Link to the Past Zelda design.
Until the release of Breath of the Wild, and especially in the entries that followed The Wind Waker, the Zelda series entries exuded a malaise of sameness: well-designed, but rote and obligatory, Hyrule was less and less exciting to inhabit as each entry explored the same ideas and the same places over and over again with minor variation and innovation. Oceanhorn falls into the same trap: I can say that it is well-made and the islands Not Link explores are much larger and more dense than I expected, but I can also say that little of it stuck with me. When I play a videogame and it reminds me of A Link to the Past, but fails to establish an identity beyond that, my memory will always leapfrog over it to the nostalgia the product seeks to exploit. The true impact of Oceanhorn is not that it is well made, but that it copies another well-made videogame.
I imagine Oceanhorn as the first new Zelda videogame I have played since experiencing Breath of the Wild, and it makes me wonder: Can the classic series live up to the new standard? Will I ever again return to a smaller-scale Hyrule where my journey is guided, where my freedom of movement is far more illusory, and experience the same kind of joy and wonder which was once sparked by the likes of A Link to the Past or Majora’s Mask? Will a return to the classic Zelda formula, freed of the nostalgia of those seminal entries, ever feel good enough, or will it be yesterday’s news?
I can say that I enjoyed my time with Oceanhorn, but I can’t say that I will remember it. Maybe that’s Oceanhorn’s problem; maybe it’s a competent videogame, but its derivation makes it a forgettable one. Or maybe being derivative of the classic Zelda formula is a sign that nothing will ever be the same again in that series, that a return to the series roots is the last thing I want to see from it. I will always love A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening and the many other great Zelda entries. But after playing Breath of the Wild and Oceanhorn, I’m not sure there will ever be another one like them again. They are ideas which have been mined and gutted. And it may be time to retire them and embrace the new.