Okami: Best Zelda Game?

Okami and I share an interesting history. I’d originally heard about the game in 2006 when it was still a PS2 exclusive, but I didn’t go out and buy it because I didn’t own one. Then it came to the Wii in 2008, yet I still didn’t buy it right away. It wasn’t until my 20th birthday that I requested it as a gift out of sheer curiosity, whereupon I fell in-love with it…for a few months. I wouldn’t have gone back had I not been prepping for something special, although that was definitely a mistake. Because, no holds bar, Okami’s excellent.

However, upon replaying the game, I was reminded of a feeling. I felt it when I first picked up the game 7 years ago, and I kept feeling it when I frequently returned to its music over the years, but nowhere was this more present than in my most-recent play-through. Considering that I’ve recently crossed another game off my intrigue list, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, I’ve noticed plenty of design and core gameplay elements overlap from the respective franchises. Essentially, Okami feels a lot like a Zelda game. And not any ordinary Zelda game, but the best Zelda game.

Since I’ve joked about this before on Twitter, I’ll mention what makes Okami feel similar to the Zelda franchise. Both are hero’s journey stories that centre around “the chosen one” cliché. In the Zelda franchise, a hero, Link, must fight a great evil, Ganon, and rescue the heroine, Princess Zelda, over and over again. In Okami, a heroine, Amaterasu, must team up with her companion, Issun, and defeat a great evil, Orochi and, later, Yami, in order to save Nippon. Both franchises go about this differently, the Zelda franchise being more conventional and Okami Japan-centric, but the core idea is still present in them.

Both franchises are rooted in open-world exploration. The Zelda games, in particular, encourage it with their non-linear over-world mechanics, requiring you to travel back-and-forth over a vast land/ocean/[insert place here] to complete the game. Okami, while more orderly in its exploration, also requires you to travel back-and-forth to complete the game. Both franchises thrive on scavenging, rewarding you for scanning every nook and cranny for items and trinkets.

Both the Zelda games and Okami are filled with non-playable characters, or NPCs. Said NPCs often require direct communication, lest they contain clues to help you progress. Sometimes, these NPCs are integral to your current objectives, and sometimes these NPCs are optional. It makes the games’ worlds feel real, furthering engagement with the player.

Both franchises utilize platforming in their dungeons. Both have massive dungeons that require travelling back-and-forth, backtracking and working your way up different floors. These dungeons have puzzles that require critical thinking thinking to solve them. They also have special items, be it weapons or Celestial Brush techniques, that can only be found in those specific dungeons. And they have bosses that can only be defeated with these items.

Both franchises also use real-time action in their combat. During the fights, you’re locked into combat with your opponent, only leaving once you beat them. This allows you to switch up your combat techniques on-the-fly, which in turn forces decision-making: is this enemy easily penetrable with my sword, or should I try something else? Should I turn my opponent’s attacks against them, or not? Should I engage my opponent in combat at all, assuming I have that option? These are all factors that heavily influence these games.

Visually and musically, both franchises push the envelope of their respective consoles. With the Zelda games, this is pretty obvious, as every entry has strived to produce some of the highest-end music and visuals their respective Nintendo consoles were capable of. Okami, while limited by the PS2, pushed its console to the limit with its Sumi-e art-style, which holds up 11 years later. And its music, which leans on Japanese instrumentals, is the same. Factor in the catchy melodies both franchises are notorious for, and you have a recipe for success.

Finally, both franchises have gimmicks that match their consoles’ strengths. With Zelda games, every entry has made use of what the Nintendo platform was famous for, be it Mode 7 scaling, portability, Wii motion controls or touch stylus controls. These features have made them feel unique, even when they were treading familiar territory. With Okami, its gimmick also pushed the limits of the PS2’s hardware and controller aesthetics late in its lifespan, and its Wii and PS3 ports followed suit. Because both franchises excelled in their gimmicks of choice, the end-result was that much more successful.

You’re probably thinking, “Okay, you’ve listed why these franchises are similar. I get it. But didn’t you say that Okami was better? What makes you so sure? What could this one game possibly do better than an entire franchise?” It’s subjective, but my personal preference for Okami lies in the details, and how it does them so uniquely and wonderfully.

The Zelda franchise, for the most part, keeps relying on the same conventions with its hero’s journey: the hero, Link, fights the villain, Ganon, and saves the maiden, Princess Zelda, from harm. This has been done so frequently that it’s pretty much a running joke. And while it’s played around with, at the same time it’s so overdone that, after 30+ years, it feels somewhat stale.

Okami goes for something unique. For one, our heroine, Amaterasu, is out to purify Nippon, instead of rescuing the same damsel over and over (even though there are damsels that need rescuing). Two, that Amaterasu’s busy purifying the land means that there’s more of a connection to the world. And three, every time you help the trees, grass, people or animals, you gain experience, or praise, that allows you to level up your powers. All of this encourages exploration, and while the game can feel more linear than the Zelda franchise, due to its objectives taking precedence, at the same time it feels more personal.

The objectives are also more clear-cut than the Zelda franchise. In a typical Zelda game, your clues are vague and cryptic, forcing you to think outside the box. Said clues also frequently rely on franchise knowledge to figure out. This isn’t an issue for a veteran, but a newcomer will get stuck figuring out why a puzzle has to be solved a specific way, especially when it’s not obvious. I’ve yet to play a Zelda entry without the need of a walkthrough at some point, even when the entry’s relatively easy.

Okami’s much more straightforward. One could argue that it’s “too straightforward”, but having your objectives be clearer is better for the uninitiated. Objectives are usually spelled-out, with crucial clues in red text, and oftentimes they require and encourage NPC conversations to complete. That, too, ups the level of connection to Nippon. It also makes solving the puzzles feel less frustrating, as they don’t lean on past franchise knowledge (not that there’s any to rely on anyway, mind you!)

This encouragement of NPC interaction in Okami also allows for deeper attachments to their personal stories. Fans of Zelda can debate me if they desire, but most of the NPCs there feel inconsequential, almost window dressing, even when they’re integral to the overall gameplay. Some have stories, true, but they’re rarely engaging on a personal level. Okami’s NPCs feel trope-y, but they act with the illusion of agency and depth. They have backstories and character-arcs, and I’ve found myself emotionally-moved by their predicaments.

Then there are the dungeons. Ignoring the easier puzzles for a moment, or that Amaterasu can jump, the dungeons in Okami are more straightforward. They’re more linear, but they’re also less confusing to navigate. This confusion is one I have with even the easiest of Zelda games. Okami’s dungeon linearity is also much easier to process in my mind, which is important seeing as I’m a visual learner.

The combat in Okami is also vastly different. With Zelda, it’s truly open-world, meaning that you can avoid enemies, for the most part, whenever you so desire. With Okami, however, once you’re locked in battle, you can’t escape until you win. Some battles are even mandatory, further upping the stakes and investment. Plus, Amaterasu relying on brushstrokes during fighting means getting creative to win.

Visually, Okami’s quite distinct. The Zelda games frequently switch-up their art styles, to varying degrees of success, while Okami’s Sumi-e art is pre-set. Admittedly, and this isn’t quite fair to say, the Sumi-e style also gives the game an identity above the rest. It’s also aged well, and, even after several ports, the woodblock style masks the game’s graphical limitations. Not to mention, its style gives its in-game characters more emotion and personality.

The music in Okami’s also distinct. The Zelda games, while they have excellent music, often rely on the same theme on-loop for their over-worlds, with slight variations in special circumstances. It can, therefore, become tiring to hear the same song over and over without stop. Okami’s over-world themes loop too, but it has several of them depending on which part you’re in. They also have slight variations depending on where in the three major areas you are, meaning that Ryoshima Coast and N. Ryoshima Coast don’t sound 100% alike instrumentally. Oh, and let’s not forget those gorgeously-arranged tracks that play when you purify a Guardian Sapling, shall we?

Finally, the primary gimmick is more compelling in Okami. Not that the Zelda games don’t have cool gimmicks, but they often don’t fully-utilize their consoles’ control schemes and tie-in with their visual aesthetic. Additionally, some of them, like the time-travelling in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, drive me crazy with frustration. And when the gimmick is frustrating, there’s a problem. There’s a problem because the game’s not fun, and when it’s not fun, well…why play it?

Fortunately, Okami’s core gimmick is also, not surprisingly, its core aesthetic: drawing. Even with the Wii version not being as smooth as I’d hoped, the paintbrush concept in Okami isn’t only fun and exciting, it’s creative beyond belief! It forces you to think outside of the box immediately, and the learning curve’s so shallow that picking it up is easy! I can’t begin to tell you how fun it is to draw bombs, or mess with fire, ice, air and water to progress to new areas. And the constellations are as cool to fill in as they are to see come to life.

I could go on about why I love Okami more than the Zelda franchise, but that’d force me to repeat myself. However, while I recognize that it’s incredibly subjective, I wouldn’t be saying all of this if it weren’t true. It’s not even like Okami’s impervious to criticism (why can’t I auto-save again?), but when the flaws are far-outweighed by strengths, well…who am I to complain?


  1. I cant see why is better than Zelda. Because it look cool to your eyes? Story is not the most important thing on a Nintendo game and this extend to Zelda too. Remove the story, remove the aesthetics, and just look to the core gameplay, Zelda is better on everything.


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