The Pleasure of Playing a Randomised Version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

By Heather Alexandra on at

To defeat the final enemy in Ocarina of Time, you need to have the light arrows. You get them right near the end of the Zelda game by the series’ famous princess. When Carbonwater was playing the Zelda classic one time not too long ago, he just couldn’t find those arrows. Princess Zelda didn’t have them, and as he searched for hours, they didn’t appear to be anywhere else he looked either. This wasn’t a normal playthrough. This was a randomiser run, a different way of playing classic Zelda games that adds a challenging twist.

The Legend of Zelda games are masterclasses in structured and intentional design. Each story beat flows directly into the other, every new challenge specifically engineered for players to find the right item and use it in the right place. Dungeons are winding mazes, but they are also invisibly guided theme park attractions. If you’re stuck, chances are that you’ll soon find a key or a special new item that will help you progress. But what if you got rid of all that intentionality? What if you took The Legend of Zelda’s carefully constructed logic and threw it into a blender. What if things weren’t where they should be and instead found anywhere? That’s what players of randomiser runs play to find out. With the help of special software, Nintendo’s meticulous worlds are torn asunder until all that’s left is luck and problem solving.

Zelda randomisers are special programs that allow players to adjust variables and create special world-states that are as unpredictable as they want. Randomisers can change where doors and exits lead, shuffle which items are in treasure chests, and alter the items granted in cutscenes. By rearranging item placement and changing locations during each playthrough, each new adventure has the potential for glorious serendipity or hilarious misadventures. It started with A Link to the Past, with a community-created program that shuffled the game world. Since then, randomisers have expanded to encompass games like Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. Each has special features and is carefully crafted by diligent community members. What started as a small bit of chaotic fun is now one of the most popular and engaging ways for players to test their knowledge of a Zelda game.

Ocarina of Time’s first randomiser was created about a year ago by a modder called AmazingAmpharos. Initially, its purpose was simply to shake up the game world, and it did its best to avoid trapping the player in unwinnable situations. AmazingAmpharos released the project to GitHub on 12th March 2018. He had worked on a randomiser for Link to the Past already exists and saw an opportunity to create a randomiser of his own.

“It started as a bit of a self challenge,” AmazingAmpharos told Kotaku over Discord. “I saw Ocarina of Time as a game pretty ripe for randomisation. It has that semi-linear but fundamentally open-ended design based around item progression like A Link to the Past. And is a pretty fun game on a basic level anyway.”

AmazingAmpharos used the same code base at the Link to the Past randomiser, including the same item-shifting algorithm. The program makes two assumptions: you can never lose access to something you can already do, and you can always do something. Ocarina of Time’s structure, where the experience of controlling the hero, Link, is split between Child and Adult timelines that the player can go back and forth with at will, posed some unique challenges. The two versions of the protagonist Link have some different abilities.

Ampharos offered an example: imagine there is a room that the player can reach in multiple ways. The game’s logic needs to understand that it isn’t valid to, for instance, enter this room through a crawl space that only Child Link can access and then be able to use Adult-only items like the hookshot. It needs to understand which situations are not logically possible. The randomiser’s logic struggled to understand these situations, so the solution was to personally account for all of these situations and forbid them from occurring.

There was also a different problem at release: the randomiser couldn’t randomise all things. The original model changed chest contents, the songs players could receive (which basically work as important magic spells and teleportation tools), and items that characters in the world gave them. It couldn’t randomise items that were “freestanding” in the game world, such as health-improving pieces of heart that were found in the open. The solution was to take the project in a collaborative direction. Ampharos first worked with a modder named Wulfy to make freestanding items random and then turned the project open source, where other modders and players began to build new options and rulesets into the program. Much of this was coordinated over a community Discord.

Since release, the randomiser has developed a number of “forks,” alterations created and worked on by other modders. One of the most popular Ocarina of Time randomiser forks was created by TestRunner, a modder and speedrunner who also works as the technical director for the charity marathon Games Done Quick.

Zelda games don’t have a lot of replay value once you’ve beaten them,” TestRunner told me via Discord. “And I want to be able to play Zelda games but not be exactly the same. Randomizers give a mechanism to be able to replay the same game with not being the same.”

That desire to help keep Zelda games fresh even after multiple playthroughs led TestRunner, alongside numerous contributors, to expand was was possible within the randomiser. One of its hallmark features is an intense level of customisability that helps ensure that players can have whatever level of randomness they want. The most extreme version of this is the “No Logic” which removes all the careful maths that allows it to create completable seeds. It allows for the creation of impossible versions of the game. In devious cases, it adds ice traps to treasure chests. “No Logic” is arguably the most pure randomiser experience, but it is far from a popular option. The rest of the options are less daunting and more popular, allowing players to toggle where and how certain items can appear.

Speedrunner zfg111 attempts a completely random, “no logic” playthrough of Ocarina of Time

Some of these options manage the difficulty and help ensure progress. For instance, the “All Locations Reachable” option ensures that items are arranged so that players are never locked out of certain dungeons or areas. There is also an option to place progress-essential items in dungeons. These features are common to other Zelda randomisers as well, including randomisers for Wind Waker. However, some options add different type of randomness into the world. An option called “Shopsanity” adds random items to shops, forcing players to not only scour for item-granting treasure chests but also check out local bazaars for key items. Another option shuffles ocarina songs into treasure chests instead of giving them out during story cutscenes. Each of these options needs to be carefully balanced. One faulty piece of logic could render the game unplayable. When implemented correctly, each new option allows for new experiences and new ways to keep the 20-year-old game fresh. That freshness attracts enthusiastic players.

“I think it gave me a new way to play a game I loved as a kid but without having to learn a tonne of frame perfect tricks and glitches,” Carbonwater told me. He specialises in speedrunning Super Monkey Ball 2, a game that requires incredible agility. Randomised Ocarina of Time runs provide a welcome change of pace. “I like how it makes you piece together a puzzle as you are going. I think that’s what drew me in. Being able to use that part of my brain, that logical puzzle solving gave new life to the game.”

A look at some of the options available for randomised Wind Waker runs.

Playing a randomiser is both a challenge and a gamble. To counteract impossible situations, randomisers often grant the player certain items from the start in order to ensure progress. The Ocarina of Time randomiser grants either a stone or a medallion when a new playthrough starts. These items, usually given for completing a dungeon, can allow access to new areas or story moments. Meanwhile, The Wind Waker randomiser starts players with a sword and shield, as well as the Wind Waker instrument and a warp song to allow easy travel around the massive overworld. These affordances can then be augmented with “convenience tweaks” that grant additional items or even speed up text boxes based on personal preference. These changes can help a playthrough go faster and experience less frustration but there’s also one final option: the spoiler log.

Spoiler logs are generated at the start of each playthrough, generating a text file that tells players exactly where to find certain items. They are a last-ditch trump card to use if you are truly stuck, and they are also the feature that helps turn randomisers from a solo affair into something larger and communal. Speedruns and challenges already attract plenty of viewers on Twitch. Randomisers take advantage of tools like the spoiler log and item-trackers to facilitate active participation from viewers in chat.

“I give it to my mods so they know where things are,” Carbonwater said. “It’s funny because I’ll decide something isn’t necessary and they say ’really?’ and then I decide to do it.”

An Ocarina of Time spoiler log provided by AmazingAmpharos. The text file shows player where each item is hidden.

In addition to the spoiler log, randomisers have chat integration with their tracker feature. This convenient list allows players to mark off where they’ve been and where they’ve looked for items. That can be a tricky process to handle in the middle of a run. One mistake could accidentally mark an area as complete when there are still characters to talk to and chests to open. According to Carbonwater, that was the cause of his lengthy search for the light arrows. He had mistakenly believed that he had already received an item from Link the Goron, who gives players the Goron Tunic in a normal playthrough. It was only after someone in his Twitch chat suggested talking to him that Carbonwater found the Light Arrows. To avoid issues like this, it’s possible to have your Twitch chat update the tracker for you. Combined with the spoiler list, moderators can quickly update the tracker while players focus on exploring the world. Twitch chat becomes a mixture of curious onlookers, co-piloting moderators, and loyal viewers eager to speculate on puzzle solutions. It’s an infectious combination which creates a slightly different feel than the intense focus of watching a speedrun.

AmazingAmpharos stressed one last important feature of the Ocarina of Time randomiser: the ability to turn off Navi, the faerie’s interrupting “Hey!” and the long-winded speech of sagely owl Kaepora Gaebora

“I think most people who remember Ocarina of Time from when they were kids will quickly remember those two were their least favourite parts of the game,” hethey said. “

“And I think everyone who did dev on OoTR agrees.”

The combination of challenging play, customisation, and community excitement also means that randomiser races are common, with multiple streamers starting at the same time and seeing who can complete their randomised world the fastest. And while players who can execute glitches might have a few tricks up their sleeve, randomisers are structured so that you don’t need to be intensely familiar with hardcore techniques in order to proceed.

The Wind Waker’s randomiser offers similar levels of customisation, with some items granted at the start to assure progression.

“The randomiser is designed in a way to where every generated runthrough can be completed without glitches or anything like that,” Orcastraw told me over Twitter DMs. Orcastraw is a speedrunner and a Twitch streamer best known for her Breath of the Wild speedruns. She occasionally plays The Wind Waker randomised, alongside games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. “Anyone who watches a randomiser can do one too! For glitches and tech, a lot of dungeons have tricks I try. Even if I fail them, there’s always a glitchless alternative, which is nice.”

“I am using a part of my brain I hadn’t used since physics at university,” Carbonwater said. “I speedrun Super Monkey Ball 2. It’s about doing this movement here and this movement there. It’s not robotic but it’s very much about brute forcing something quickly. There’s less logic. I like being able to slow down and think things through. It’s made an improvement on my life. I look at things a little more logically than I used to.”

“I didn’t know all the chest locations,” TestRunner said when I asked him about his first Ocarina of Time randomiser run. He insists that anyone can start playing a randomiser. “Just dive in and play.”

That idea—that anyone can dive and play—is the real drawn of the randomiser experience. The fantasy of a randomiser is the fantasy of truly egalitarian play. As speedrunning and Twitch streaming has grown in popularity, a perceived gulf between our skills as viewers and the people we watch squashes the idea that we, too, might play with as much skill. It takes countless hours of practice to rank up in Overwatch or learn the necessary skills to speedrun a video game. But randomises can make champions and fools out of everyone equally. If you’re familiar with a game and exhibit some grit, you can overcome a randomiser’s challenge. Even diehard speedrunners can find themselves backed into a strange corner. The joy of watching a randomise run is replacing the premium that’s usually placed on skilful play with something more cerebral. That wonderful, nerdy idea that if you just think hard enough, you can solve any puzzle.

Featured image: YouTube