In the eighties, a man named Eiji Aonuma took classes at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He majored in design, primarily working on moving mechanical figures. After graduating in 1988, he interviewed at Nintendo, a company that rose to international fame throughout the decade with their classic arcade games and their successful home console – the Famicom (NES). During the process, Mr. Aonuma met Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the company’s most prominent figures, and he took the opportunity to show him samples of his college work.
His samples impressed the company, and he was given a job. However, there was one minor issue; he had never played a video game before, as he did not grow up with the medium. He then asked his girlfriend about video games, and she in turn introduced him to two of Yuji Horii’s works: the genre-defining JRPG, Dragon Quest, and the title responsible for codifying the visual novel, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Prior to their respective inceptions, such games by and large did not exist in Japan. It was through experiencing these pioneering games that Mr. Aonuma’s career with Nintendo began in earnest. His first projects involved designing sprites for Famicom games such as the 1991 title Mario Open Golf (retitled NES Open Tournament Golf overseas). Five years later, he found himself in the director’s seat, overseeing the creation of Marvelous: Another Treasure Island for the Super Famicom. Impressed with his work, Mr. Miyamoto recruited Mr. Aonuma for an important development team. They were to bring The Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises – both commercially and critically – to the Nintendo 64.
The origins for a possible Legend of Zelda installment on Nintendo’s first 3D console date back to 1995 when a technical and thematic demonstration video was unveiled at the company’s Shoshinkai trade show of that year. The game was originally slated to be released on the Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive) – a peripheral touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”, making full use of its superior storage capabilities. Unfortunately, the device was delayed multiple times, and when it became dubious that it would ever see an international release, the team moved the project to a standard cartridge format.
Shigeru Miyamoto, who had been the principal director of Super Mario 64, was now in charge of several directors as producer and supervisor for this project. The five directors were: Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizumi, and Toshio Iwawaki. Mr. Koizumi was notable for having conceived the scenario for Link’s Awakening, the then-newest Zelda installment. Mr. Osawa created the scenario for the new project based on a story idea between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Miyamoto. It was stated in interviews by Mr. Miyamoto that the real-time rendering engine allowed the three-to-seven-person team in charge of developing cinematics to rapidly adjust the storyline and develop additional gameplay mechanics even up to the final months of development.
Within the first two years of the Nintendo 64’s debut, people criticized the console for a decided lack of hit first-party releases. Though there was a fair bit of variety within the scant games they did create for the console, they needed to aim even higher to avoid being decimated by the Sony PlayStation, their new, powerful rival. Next Generation magazine stated that “Nintendo absolutely [couldn’t] afford another holiday season without a real marquee title”. With Super Mario 64 having been one of the first successful games to feature three-dimensional gameplay, sparking a revolution that would shake the foundation of the entire medium, the prospect of The Legend of Zelda receiving a similar treatment was enough to make the new installment the most anticipated title of the decade.
After much speculation from the press and enthusiasts alike, the game, entitled The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was at last released in the final two months of 1998. In a series that already had a stellar track record and worldwide fan adoration, the reception Ocarina of Time received seemed to utterly dwarf any of those previous accomplishments. It didn’t just get universal praise or win “Game of the Year” distinctions from every publication; it sold 2.5 million units in 1998 alone, and earned 150 million dollars in United States revenues – higher than any Hollywood film released within the final six weeks of that year. In the game’s lifetime, 7.6 million copies were sold worldwide. The year 1998 provided no shortage of competition, for it happened to be the same year that saw the release of Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and Half-Life. It stands to reason that something about Ocarina of Time managed outshine all of those efforts. Indeed, the reception this title received can never be said to have faded away; even today, it’s considered by many to be the absolute best game ever made. With all of the various artists who have appeared over the years to challenge the status quo in their own ways, how does Ocarina of Time remain a critical favorite all these years later?
Analyzing the Experience
Situated in eastern Hyrule is the Kokiri Forest. The children who live here are ageless, though |they are led to believe that| they shall perish should they ever venture outside of the forest’s borders. The forest is protected by a being known as the Great Deku Tree. Each of the Kokiri has a fairy companion with one exception: a young boy named Link. Though considered something of an outsider by the other children, he lives a happy life of peace in the secluded village. One day, a fairy by the name of Navi is sent by the Great Deku Tree to inform Link that the guardian has summoned him. When they meet, Link learns that a mysterious man placed a curse on the tree. The only way the curse can be broken is by slaying the monsters that dwell within the guardian.
Ocarina of Time differentiates itself from previous games in the series in that it has an entirely 3D presentation. As a result, the gameplay is markedly different than anything that came before. To begin with, the control stick allows for more precise degrees of movement than a directional pad. You are not limited to moving in only eight directions, and how far away from the center the control stick is determines your walking speed. This is important to keep in mind whenever Link is made to navigate narrow platforms.
Furthermore, whereas 2D installments gave you an overhead view of the action, the perspective in Ocarina of Time is less set in stone. The way it changes to depending on your actions is referred to as the camera, bringing to mind the method of which films are shot. By holding the “Z” button down, the camera will point behind Link’s back, allowing you to change its direction to mirror the direction he himself is facing. If you continue to hold down the button, Link will strafe if you steer left or right on the control stick and walk backwards if you point it towards yourself. While doing this, you can have him jump in the appropriate direction by pressing the “A” button.
One of the first things anyone playing the game will notice is the interface. In addition to the standard health meter, which continues to be measured in hearts, there are five icons to the right that resemble buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller. The green “B” button will become your dedicated sword button once you obtain it. The blue “A” button is a contextual action button whose function changes to fit the situation. Helpfully, what action it performs, if any, will be written on the icon. For example, when moving, the icon will read “Attack”. Though it’s a little misleading, what it’s trying to convey is that you can roll forward while running. The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, and A Link to the Past only limited you to using a single inventory item at a given time. The interface was altered in Link’s Awakening, which allowed you to equip two items at once in exchange for eschewing the sword button. This was done out more of necessity than anything else, owing to the Game Boy’s limited number of buttons compared to the SNES’s controller. This is where the three yellow “C” buttons come in, for they are all used for the same purpose: equipping inventory items. The shield isn’t assigned to a “C” button, nor does it automatically protect Link from projectiles in the direction he faces. Instead, pressing the “R” button will have him raise the shield, which will protect him from various attacks – not just ranged ones.
The purpose the top “C” button fulfills depends on context. If Navi has advice she wishes to dispense, you can press the button when her name appears in the top-right corner to hear what she has to say. Otherwise, it’s used to change the camera to a first-person view from Link’s perspective. In this state, you can use the control stick to look around and examine your surroundings. Mr. Miyamoto originally intended the entire game to be played from a first-person perspective as a means to allow players to fully appreciate the scenery and inspire the team to focus more on developing enemies and environments. He reconsidered once it was established that Link would be a young boy |to begin with|. From there, he deemed it important for him to be visible onscreen. In the final product, the first-person perspective is used when utilizing items that require precision aiming such as the slingshot, which you find in the first dungeon.
Navi isn’t just there to provide exposition, though; she plays a vital role when it comes to interacting with your environment. When approaching NPCs, enemies, or certain points of interest, she will fly towards it and change colors. She turns blue if near an NPC, yellow when close to an enemy, and green for miscellaneous objects. Once she does this, you can hold down the “Z” button to focus on the target. This mechanic is appropriately known as Z-targeting. With it, you can talk to NPCs from afar as shown in the above screenshot, but it’s even more vital in combat. You can ensure that Link will always face the enemy you wish to fight. You can use items that would normally force a first-person perspective while doing this if you so choose, allowing you to move while using them.
In the bottom-right corner of the screen is a map of your immediate area. Link is represented by a yellow arrow, and it points in the direction he is currently facing. A red arrow is placed at his point of his ingress. In dungeons, the room you’re in will appear, but only if you find the map. You must then locate the compass in order for the yellow and red markers to appear on it.
Within an hour of you starting a new game, the team throws something of a curveball at the player in the form of the first dungeon: the Deku Tree’s interior. With an extra dimension present, it becomes clear, especially when examining the dungeon map for the first time, that the level design is far more dynamic than in any 2D installment. Rooms in those games were typically square-shaped and the few exceptions still had entryways that, without fail, faced in the four cardinal directions. None of that is true here, the rooms present in dungeons can be any shape imaginable, and the exact details of each one are outlined extensively.
Multilevel dungeons also make a return after being absent in Link’s Awakening. However, in Ocarina of Time, this quality serves much more of a purpose than simply having the ability to drop into a room from the one above. Rooms can now exist on multiple floors, and the new perspective makes this fact easier to appreciate. In the first room of the Deku Tree’s interior, you get a true sense of its sheer scale by looking up as soon you enter and realizing that it spans all three aboveground stories. You would do well to be cautious when dropping levels, as Link will take damage if he falls from too great of a height.
As Super Mario 64 brought Nintendo’s flagship series into 3D, it’s fitting that Ocarina of Time shares the same engine. Then again, according to Mr. Miyamoto, it was modified to the point where the games were nigh unrecognizable from each other. Nonetheless, as a necessary consequence to making Ocarina of Time a 3D game, platforming elements have been formally introduced to the series. Link’s Awakening was the first game to feature the ability to jump, and the occasional side-scrolling area provided some platforming challenges, but Ocarina of Time takes it a step further. Interestingly, this was accomplished without providing a default jump button. When you have Link run towards the edge of a platform, he will automatically jump in that direction. You don’t need to worry too much about being precise because he will latch onto the edge of another platform if he can. Should he wander off the edge by accident, he will catch himself as long as he isn’t moving too quickly.
Of all the improvements Ocarina of Time brought to the table, by far the most appreciated one would be its control scheme. Just like with Super Mario 64 two years prior, Nintendo managed to implement an interface that allows the player to adapt to the third dimension just as easily as the designers themselves. One of the worse aspects about Link’s Awakening was that the player needed to pause the game every time they wished to switch items, which occurred very frequently when traversing the overworld. With the ability to equip three items at the same time, the number of times you need to open the menu is greatly reduced, lending the game a much better sense of pacing.
Another nice touch is that there is a greater variety of sidequests compared to any other game in the series thus far. This is primarily because they tend to involve the various inventory items you collect. For example, there is a shooting gallery, for which you use your slingshot. In doing so, it’s as though the development staff managed to turn the utilization of the individual dungeon treasures you find into a mini-game of its own. The rewards offered for completing these sidequests vary wildly from bottles, which carry potions, to other useful things such as ammunition pouches. It’s a welcome change from older titles wherein carrying capacity upgrades were either found in random spots or you had to pay a lot of money to obtain them. They also generally succeed in lending a sense of character to the NPCs their 2D counterparts lacked.
You can even find a pond where the owner will allow you to go fishing. You cannot consume the fish, but there are useful prizes in store for those persistent enough to catch large ones. It’s a nice diversion which once again comes across as the team embedding an entire second game in their blockbuster title. Curiously, this wasn’t originally intended to be in the game. A Q&A session with Satoru Iwata revealed that a designer secretly created it as a means of entertaining himself while at work. It was quickly discovered, but the other members were impressed, and they added it to the game. Though they later admitted to having trouble deciding where to put it, the feature fits so well in the final product, the uninitiated wouldn’t suspect it was hastily thrown in.
From an aesthetical standpoint, I would say the greatest contribution Ocarina of Time provides is that the various communities that exist within Hyrule now have their own defined culture. Earlier games had shades of this, but it wasn’t until now that it became apparent. What really helped it achieve this goal was the introduction of various races that would become mainstays for the series, including the mountain-dwelling Gorons and the fishlike Zoras. The sense of culture these places have goes far beyond the denizens’ outward appearances, however; music also plays a key role in the setting.
At one point, you obtain an ocarina, and you can play it using the “A” and four “C” buttons to sound different notes. Every song you learn has a purpose from serving as puzzle solutions to teleportation in a similar vein to the original game’s recorder. In a series that has had no shortage of unforgettable melodies, it’s fitting that the developers found a way to make it a game mechanic that fits seamlessly into the plot.
Analyzing the Experience, Part 2
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers.
After fighting the monsters that dwelled within the Deku Tree, the guardian commends Link for his courage. Tragically, before Link even set foot inside, the curse had progressed past the point where the tree could be saved. It is here that the Deku Tree tells Link of the world’s creation. A long time ago, three goddesses named Din, Nayru, and Farore formed the land that would come to be known as Hyrule. With her immense strength, Din cultivated the land, forming the earth. Nayru lent her wisdom to the earth, granting unto the new world the spirit of law. Lastly, Farore produced the lifeforms that would uphold the law.
Having competed their work, they departed to the heavens, leaving behind an artifact known as the Triforce. It has been said that whoever touches the Triforce shall have a wish granted to them. In order to access the Sacred Realm where it resides, one must collect the three Spiritual Stones. The man who cursed the Deku Tree did so because he would not give him the one that resided in the Kokiri Forest. The guardian then tells Link that he is the one chosen by fate to stop the great evil threatening to envelop the land. Before he passes away, he gives Link the Kokiri’s Emerald, tasking him with journeying to Hyrule Castle so he may meet Princess Zelda. It is only through their efforts that they stand a chance of thwarting the avaricious man’s desires.
After leaving the forest, the immense Hyrule Field is there to greet you. Few games could claim to have a single area of this scale in 1998. Even Super Mario 64 never had a level that sprawled as much as the central field of Hyrule. It tells the player that getting the first Spiritual Stone was only the prologue. As you traverse it for the first time, you will notice the sky turning a violet hue before the sun sets and dusk falls. It’s an effective method of introducing an important mechanic to the player while also giving Hyrule Field a sense of scale that surpasses its actual physical size. Time moves at a much faster rate than it does in real life, taking a few minutes from high noon for the sun to set. As one would expect, most stores are closed at night, though some NPCs will still be out and about. Because of this, it helps to visit towns both during the day and at night, as some sidequests are only available during certain times.
If Link’s Awakening represented a turning point for the series, then Ocarina of Time marks the completion of its metamorphosis. With a greater emphasis on storytelling, the design is far more linear than any of the older installments. However, unlike Link’s Awakening wherein a strict order was enforced with physical obstacles, Ocarina of Time takes an approach similar to that of A Link to the Past. A fair bit of the overworld opens up to the player after receiving the Kokiri’s Emerald, but strategically placed event flags prevent players from reaching certain areas too early. This is something of a point of contention among fans of the original game. It’s understandable, as one of the greatest appeals of The Legend of Zelda was how it offered an open-world experience several years before the subgenre became set in stone. Personally, I don’t mind the change at all, for it was more of a boon than a hindrance to the series as a whole.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with the game’s first dungeon. In addition to signposting to the player that the rules they grew up with no longer apply, I feel the Deku Tree’s interior represents the best aspect of this thematic shift. To begin with, with the older games’ dungeons, what you saw was what you got. They were video game levels and your goal was no more complex than getting to the end. Whether they were called temples, grottos, or towers, they bore little significance to the plot other than housing the item you needed to advance it. Starting with Ocarina of Time, dungeons became something more. The Deku Tree’s interior is not the kind of dungeon I would expect to find in A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening. To contrast, before you enter a dungeon in Ocarina of Time, you will be informed of its historical significance. Not only do they have a lot more personality because of this, it often makes for an organic method of learning important tips to navigate them.
Meeting Zelda for the first time is one of the game’s more memorable scenes. Not only is it her first appearance in a 3D installment, but it’s also when you begin to grasp the story’s central conflict. Once Zelda notices the Kokiri’s Emerald, she tells him that a man named Ganondorf has recently pledged loyalty to the crown. However, she does not trust him, though her concerns are dismissed by her father. She then comes up with a plan to defeat Ganondorf themselves. Believing he is after the Triforce, she asks Link to find the remaining Spiritual Stones so they can reach it first.
Naturally, it would be anticlimactic if finding the three stones encompassed the entire game. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the inventory screen and observing the numerous empty item slots gives away that the game is far from over. Nonetheless, completing the task presents to you the moment the story hinges its identity on. Opening the large door in the Temple of Time will allow Link to enter the inner sanctum. Situated in the center of the room is the legendary blade forged of evil’s bane: the Master Sword. Walking up to it will result in one of the single most impactful button presses in the medium’s history as the young Link pulls the weapon from its pedestal.
Unfortunately, in doing so, he is sealed inside the temple for seven years, as he is deemed too young to be the legendary Hero of Time. To make matters worse, Ganondorf, knowing of their plan the entire time, walks into Sacred Realm, obtaining the Triforce for himself. In the intervening time, he used the relic’s power to overthrow the kingdom, toppling Hyrule Castle. In its place is a foreboding stronghold floating above a pit of lava. Knowing what it once was makes this revelation all the more horrifying. The only way Link can defeat Ganondorf now is by awakening five sages throughout the land and utilizing their collective power.
With the sheer amount of admiration this game gets, it’s easy to overlook how surprisingly deconstructive the plot manages to be. Zelda’s plan is sound on paper, but it is, at the end of the day, one concocted by a child and it is consequently highly impractical. This is quite a contrast from the original game wherein Link is stated to be very young, yet it didn’t stop him from being the hero. In fact, that aspect too is examined with more of a critical eye this time around. Though Link manages to perform several incredible feats of bravery as a child, once he comes face-to-face with Ganondorf, it’s clear he is no match for him. Moreover, should he obtain a shield used by Hylian knights, he is unable to use it properly. It’s only after he grows up that he can use it in its intended manner. This extends to the rest of his inventory as well; there are items he can no longer use as an adult such as the slingshot and the boomerang. After awakening the first sage, Link gains the ability to travel back seven years by placing the sword on the pedestal. In turn, most of the weapons he finds as an adult can’t be used as a child.
As the cartridge format was chosen, Mr. Miyamoto had a fallback plan of structuring the game similarly to Super Mario 64. In this hypothetical scenario, Ganondorf’s castle served as the main hub, and Link would access different regions by using portals hidden in portraits. I’m glad they ultimately decided against it because it would have deprived this game of its own identity. In a creative twist, the idea was recycled for the first adult dungeon’s boss fight. On a similar note, Link was to remain an adult for the entire span of the game, but it’s for the best the team scrapped this plan as well. With the way it’s presented, the player can appreciate Link’s transformation by experiencing it firsthand through gameplay.
It is because of all of these facets that I can declare Ocarina of Time a giant step forward for video game storytelling. Mr. Miyamoto wanted his team to create a cinematic game that was distinct from actual films. This is demonstrated by the fact that none of the cutscenes resort to pre-rendered full motion videos. Instead, they’re generated using real-time computing on the Nintendo 64 console. Though the contemporary Metal Gear Solid can be praised for featuring an intricate, labyrinthine story in a mainstream release, the path it chose to convey the narrative cast aside the medium’s identity in the process. With the final product as it is, Ocarina of Time manages to carry an epic plot that becomes one with the medium’s oddities, showcasing a potential few others had been able to tap.
As incredible as the game is, it’s not without its share of annoyances, and one of the most commonly cited problems concerns a specific dungeon: the Water Temple. Underwater levels don’t tend to be particularly popular with enthusiasts due to featuring wildly different mechanics or taking the form of a convoluted maze, and it would appear that even Ocarina of Time doesn’t provide an exception. Most of the dungeon requires the iron boots, which true to its name, allows Link to sink to the bottom of any body of water. A large source of the irritation stems from how equipment selection in this game is handled. The iron boots aren’t assigned to the “C” buttons; instead, you must pause the game, go to the equipment screen. From here, you put the boots on when you want to descend and take them off to reach the surface.
Link is incapable of swimming normally; he automatically floats to the surface whenever using his standard boots. Without the iron boots, he can only dive for a limited time; when the countdown reaches zero, he makes an attempt to resurface right away. It only takes a few seconds to switch boots, but it adds up after pausing several times. Coupled with having to constantly change the water level in the center of the dungeon, it’s of little wonder few people think highly of it. Then again, I would argue that the Water Temple is only bad compared to the other dungeons in the game. It’s still a passable level; it’s just that every other dungeon in the game meets or exceeds a particularly high standard.
Another minor complaint I have concerns a rather extensive sidequest that runs throughout the game. In one of the villages, you will find a house full of deformed spider-human hybrids. A curse has been placed on them, and only by killing all one-hundred of the spiders bearing a golden carapace known as Gold Skulltulas can their forms be restored. The tenants promise you good rewards for collecting all of the tokens the spiders leave behind, and they stay true to their word – up until you’ve obtained fifty, that is. Should you persevere and get all one-hundred, they will reward you with an infinite supply of rupees. By the time you get this reward, you’re all but guaranteed to be past the point where that would be helpful. Not only that, but it’s easy to obtain rupees from areas in which they constantly respawn, making the reward even more pointless. As a sidequest, this has a minimal impact on the main game, though I can imagine those who saw it through to the end without spoilers felt slightly cheated.
Discussing the Ending
WARNING: This section will contain minor unmarked spoilers for the entire Zelda franchise.
By its fifth entry, the Zelda franchise had been decidedly hit-or-miss when it came to endings. The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past had appropriately challenging final dungeons. Conversely, Zelda II had an unreasonable spike in difficulty in the form of the convoluted Great Palace while Link’s Awakening completely failed to stick the landing with a final level that took the form of an incredibly simplistic maze with no monsters to fight other than the endboss. Keeping this in mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask how Ocarina of Time fares compared to its predecessors. The answer is that it happens to offer the greatest endgame sequences of any installment thus far.
True to its name, the Triforce is made of three pieces – each being an essence of the goddesses who created the land. When Ganondorf took the Triforce, he only embodied one of its virtues: power. Because of this, the remaining two components representing wisdom and courage split from the relic only to be inherited by Zelda and Link respectively. Ganondorf captures Zelda shortly after Link awakens all the sages. He then challenges Link to meet him in his castle.
As much as I admire this section of the game, I have to admit that Ganondorf’s castle is underwhelming as a final level. The first half recycles motifs from the previous five dungeons. It’s not to the point where entire puzzles are copied, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. It doesn’t help that the dungeon treasure barely sees any use. The Golden Gauntlets allow Link to pick up giant pillars and toss them aside. You can use them a grand total of two times before they become completely superfluous. The second half isn’t any better, amounting to a linear climb up a spiraling staircase that is occasionally interrupted with mandatory monster fights.
Luckily, the quality picks right back up upon confronting Ganondorf directly. With the fully assembled Triforce present, he demands Link hand over his component of the Triforce. When he refuses, the final battle begins. In a callback to a similar boss fight in A Link to the Past, none of your weapons will harm Ganondorf. In order to make him vulnerable, with well-timed sword strikes, you must reflect his magic back at him. Only after he is unable to successfully deflect a bolt can your attacks damage him. Don’t think you can “Z” target Ganondorf and mindlessly hammer the “B” button until you successfully hit him either. The developers realized this possible strategy as well, and disabled your ability to target him. What’s particularly noteworthy is how this is contextualized in the narrative. It’s important to remember that the ability to “Z” target isn’t just a game mechanic, Navi flies at the enemy and turns yellow when utilizing it. Therefore, in rather chilling display of pragmatism, Ganondorf sends energy waves that prevent Navi from getting close to him.
Defeating Ganondorf prompts him to use his remaining strength to destroy his own castle in a last-ditch attempt to kill Link and Zelda. The two of the make it out with mere seconds to spare, but it’s not quite over yet. Barely clinging to life, Ganondorf fully taps into the Triforce of Power, transforming into the embodiment of his hatred and malice: a being simply named Ganon. Everything about the confrontation from the music to the visuals to the tactics you must employ in order to fell this intimidating foe is perfectly executed. It’s true that the fight is simplistic if you’re experienced or are conducting a second playthrough, but if you’re going into it blind, there’s a good chance you’ll be questioning yourself with every action you take.
After seeing the battle to its conclusion, all of the sages use their power to seal Ganon in the Sacred Realm, at long last restoring peace to Hyrule. Zelda uses the Ocarina of Time to send Link back to his own time now that his quest is complete. The Master Sword is then returned to its rightful place in the Temple of Time and Navi bids farewell to Link. He then meets Zelda once more with the knowledge of what will come to pass.
As the series progressed, there was one characteristic the fans began to speculate on: its timeline. It started straightforwardly enough; The Legend of Zelda was one of the decade’s most popular titles, and its direct sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, took place a few years later. A Link to the Past was released a year after the Super Famicom’s launch, being advertised as a prequel to the first two games. Meanwhile, the Game Boy installment, Link’s Awakening, was a sequel involving the same incarnation of Link. However, from here, things began to get complicated. Ocarina of Time was declared a prequel to A Link to the Past, receiving a follow-up within the same continuity two years later. When The Wind Waker was launched in 2003, astute fans were confused because the world it took place in could not have taken place in the one depicted in A Link to the Past or any of the titles that followed it. It was the subject of countless debates that seemingly had no consensus in sight. This changed when the series was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2011. During that year, an encyclopedia for the series dubbed Hyrule Historia was released, containing developers notes, concept art, and to the surprise of many, a complete timeline of the series up to and including the then-newest entry, Skyward Sword. As it would turn out, the climactic fight against Ganon in Ocarina of Time is quite possibly the single most significant moment in the entire series, though it was impossible for anyone to know at the time.
With her last course of action, Zelda inadvertently created two separate timelines – one in which Link was able to stop Ganondorf’s machinations before they could begin and another wherein the Hero of Time disappeared forever once he served his purpose. Then again, if one were to recall the backstory provided by A Link to the Past, there would appear to be one remaining mystery. The lore suggests that Ganon was sealed in the Sacred Realm following a long conflict against Hyrule’s bravest knights with no mentioning of this Link at all. This is because A Link to the Past and its distant sequels exist on a third timeline in which Link was defeated by Ganon in the climactic showdown.
Where things get interesting is when you begin examining your own actions through the lens of the nonlinearity the series as a whole set up for itself. If you ended up losing to Ganon on your first try, it means your experiences playing The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, and A Link to the Past, were, in reality, you helping to make up for a slight you wouldn’t commit until years later. Replaying the entire game with this knowledge adds a whole new level of intrigue and weight to the proceedings. While some works are saddled with an ending that fails to do the events leading up to it justice, the final sequences of Ocarina of Time have only gotten better with age. With an advantage such as that, it’s perfectly understandable why it continues to be considered the best of the best decades after the fact.
Drawing a Conclusion
Whenever a medium or movement matures, critics inevitably begin to declare certain works the equivalent of older ones for a new generation. A favorite standby when doing this involves the classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. To wit, when the Beatles issued their landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in May of 1967, several music critics retrospectively declared it rock’s equivalent of Citizen Kane. Decades later, video game critics proved to be no different. When those who first adopted video games as a hobby came to age, they began to wonder if they had truly reached that level.
To be honest, I feel these statements tend to be reductive, for they don’t denote a lot of respect for the newer work – as though it has to lean on past, largely unrelated accomplishments rather than being good in its own right. On the subject of Citizen Kane itself, it’s easy to forget that it was not met with a warm commercial reception. The powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst, whom the film was partly based on, not only refused to give it publicity, he actively prevented cinemas from screening it whereupon it fell into obscurity until nearly fifteen years later. Ideally, the parallel should be drawn whenever a work is beloved by critics, yet for whatever reason doesn’t fare well with the general populace. It is therefore not a particularly apt comparison when a work is both revolutionary and manages to generate a profit that greatly exceeds the production costs as is the case with Ocarina of Time. One thing it does have in common with Citizen Kane is that helped turn the tide in the medium’s favor, proving to cynical naysayers how video games were no longer mere children’s toys.
In five games, the series showcased more evolution than others do in their entire lifespan. Granted a lot of this has to do with circumstance; after all, a series that began in the mid-eighties and continued past the 3D revolution of the mid-nineties can’t help but change dramatically with each entry compared to one which debuted after the point when graphical capabilities began to plateau. Even so, it’s incredible in hindsight that Ocarina of Time emerged a mere twelve years after the release of the Famicom original.
Once the novelty of 3D began to wear off, certain longtime fans began to argue in favor of the four games that preceded Ocarina of Time, claiming the series was better in 2D. This is an assessment I cannot agree with; in fact, I believe successfully making the 3D leap allowed the series to grasp a certain something that was previously just beyond its reach. Giving players a large world to explore made The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past novel games for their time, yet the environments are easier to appreciate when you can look up and see the sky. Mr. Koizumi was inspired by Twin Peaks when he decided to lend an air of suspicion to the NPCs in Link’s Awakening, but he and the rest of the team needed to create bustling communities in order for that personality to shine. There were some memorable dungeons within the first four games, yet the extra dimension encouraged Mr. Miyamoto and his team to incorporate the environments into their puzzle design. It’s a refreshing change from the older games wherein the most significant difference between early levels and later ones was the number of rooms.
Now that I’ve said my piece about Ocarina of Time and how it manages to be the best the series had to offer by this point, one question remains: has it aged well? Naturally, whenever a work in any medium gains this level of critical acclaim, there will exist a faction for whom it simply doesn’t resonate. Maybe they experienced the works it influenced beforehand and have an understandably difficult time putting themselves in the proper frame of reference; maybe they have no higher purpose than to establish an anti-mainstream identity. There is exactly one point I would agree with these people on: I don’t think Ocarina of Time is the greatest game ever made. It may have been when it was released, but certain artists since then were able to surpass it by the skin of their teeth. Instead, Ocarina of Time will have to settle for being a masterpiece that, visuals notwithstanding, has held up very well as a superb action-adventure title. Whether you decide to play the Nintendo 64 original or the 3DS remake, you can’t go wrong. As Mr. Miyamoto and his team designed the game, they created a legend within the confines of their fictional universe. When the game was finished, they created a second legend – one of the gigantic impact their work had on the medium and its enthusiasts for years to come.
Final Score: 9/10