20 Years On, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is Still Special

By Rich Stanton on at

There are a lot of famous Shigeru Miyamoto quotes, but one of those you see again and again is a simple idea: “a delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever”. It’s unclear what game he had in mind, even if the sentiment most perfectly fits Ocarina Of Time, the game that didn’t make the Nintendo 64 launch date by over two years.

No wonder it took so long, given what it delivered: a 3D world to explore that was presented with an inspired directorial flair, and some of the greatest dungeons, characters and gadgets of any adventure. The game begins in Kokiri Village, a training level that is also a masterstroke of simplicity. Rather than a list of instructions and commands, or dropping you in at the deep end, Ocarina begins in an eminently explorable village and tells you to explore it. There are chests to find, people to talk to, a training dungeon – it’s several hours before you even feel a need to look farther.

When you do and the world opens its horizons, it is one of gaming’s great moments. Zelda games were always epic, but it was with Ocarina that they achieved a new scale: the central field seems to go for leagues, opening on to a sea, a castle, a fortress, mountains, woods, a ranch. Even the best games hadn’t presented an adventure like this before. If a modern player looks at Hyrule field now, it may seem a paltry thing. In 1998, this was the future.

Adventure, of course, requires adversity. In Ocarina the real enemies are not the skeletons, wolves, ghosts and octoroks that attack Link, but the Rubik’s Cube of the dungeons. The interlocking rooms, switches, moveable blocks, hidden items, crystals, manholes, torches, targets, spikes, statues and locked doors are the building blocks for puzzles with solutions so elegantly simple they take the most grizzled player by surprise, allowing you to make it through one door at a time, get that little bit closer to the boss, and then get stumped all over again.

Few entire games can compete with the single moment in each Ocarina dungeon when finding a new item suddenly opens up new areas and previously insurmountable challenges are suddenly all-too-easy. These days the Water Temple is a much-maligned design, partly thanks to the constant equipment-switching required, but to me it still stands as great challenge to your spatial awareness in a 3D environment, demanding that the player visualise the architecture internally in order to master it.

Even when the challenges have been met, all the switches pressed and all the keys collected, there is always one final challenge – usually huge, with teeth. The bosses are screen-filling behemoths that can toss Link around like a ragdoll, manipulate reality to their will, or even mimic his form and moves; how can you defeat yourself? There's an awful moment where, after defeating the Forest Temple boss, the first dungeon you face as adult Link, Ganondorf appears and casts his failed creation into a limbo of eternal torment, laughing and looking you right in the face as he does so. You've won, yeah, but it's hard to feel proud of it.

The light and dark worlds of A Link To The Past had made the dual-world mechanic a central part of Zelda’s mythos; Ocarina upped the ante by making the division between the two worlds nothing more complex than chronology: there were no portals or what-might-bes, just a gap of seven years. You were either young Link, struggling against the brawny adult figure of Ganondorf, or you were adult Link, in the adult world Ganondorf ruled. The brilliance of this touch, quite apart from the change in focus it allows the later challenges, is in giving an inevitability to Ganondorf’s victory, creating a fear that spurs the player ever onwards. Is there any other game set in a world that you’ve already failed to save?

The darkness of the adult time infuses the whole world. Nintendo being Nintendo, the gorier and sadder sides of growing up are hidden beneath a covering of wit and sly obscurity, but they’re there all the same. The world resonates against its earlier self, and unless you’d been paying attention to Link as a child, you may not understand why he stares blankly at a stump in the sacred meadow as an adult. It’s one of the many riddles that exist in every corner of the game; from visiting the ghosts of people you knew as a child to selling masks to spread a little happiness, the dungeons and both overworlds of Ocarina are crammed with possibilities.

Ocarina is also a model of how to design for specific hardware: the N64 C-buttons allowed wide access to your inventory and the titular ocarina, while Z-targeting allowed an easy switch between movement and combat that has become a standard. Automatic jumps removed the distraction of lining up movement: Link jumped when he reached edges because... well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Ocarina Of Time instantly rebooted Zelda history such that its precursors, even the exceptional A Link To The Past, seemed mere blueprints; it was an astonishing achievement and still a landmark for 3D adventures in general. It took Nintendo almost two decades to move on itself; until Breath of the Wild, the 3D Zelda games had been stuck in a spiral of diminishing returns, still looking to Ocarina for inspiration. In a series composed of awfully big adventure games, Ocarina may no longer be the prettiest or the biggest or even the best, but it’s still arguably the most important of them all.

This article originally appeared in Edge magazine.