At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we arrive at what some call the best the franchise ever offered, the N64 classic Ocarina of Time.
It’s difficult to put into words how much this Zelda game meant to me as a child. Just writing an article about it, trying to cover every aspect of its immense impact is a challenge in itself. I was ten years old when it was released, this is a tumultuous time during any childhood in England as it’s the age that you transition from Primary to Secondary school. This means going from being part of the eldest and most respected kids, to being the youngest and most looked down upon, both socially and physically, almost overnight. I hated school and it’s dreadfully dull where I’m from, a small, rural village on the edge of the country where nothing interesting has ever happened. It would be another few years until I discover the cities and gigs, so this game provided some much needed escapism.
The hype surrounding the first 3D Zelda game during the Christmas period of ‘98 was off the scale. There had never been even half the buzz for any game in my short lifetime before it came along. Pre-orders had to be stopped when it exceeded more than triple the amount of anything that came before. It was dubbed the most anticipated game of the decade and turned out to be Nintendo’s blockbuster, akin to a Hollywood film. In the last six weeks of ‘98, it earned $150 million, which was higher than any movie in that period. It sold more than a million copies in a week, two and a half million in this six week period, and would go on to sell a total of more than seven and a half million worldwide.
Not to mention that it received perfect reviews from every gaming publication that was worth reading and won so many awards that it’s embarrassing. I distinctly remember sitting near a man in a public place and feeling a little awkward because he caught me gawking at some Link-patterned wrapping paper he had, which was obviously going to be used to wrap the game for some lucky kid. To get my own copy, I had to save up my pocket money. A few pounds here, a few quid there to accumulate what seemed like a huge sum at the time. I mostly earned this from doing household chores but even at this young age, I had the foresight to know that this game was worth foregoing any other luxuries until I obtained it.
When I earned the last of the money I needed, I felt as if I had collected all the pieces of the Triforce, and when I got the game my older brother was distraught that it solely belonged to me. He was visibly upset and instantly tried to barter with me for shared ownership but to no avail (I still let him play it). When I started the game, it felt as if I had gained access to the Oasis.
The spinning 3D N64 logo that appears first is a declaration that you’re not playing Zelda on a SNES or Gameboy anymore…this is the real deal. When I arrive at the menu that plays the serene “Fairy Fountain” song it never gets old and will always be comforting. This song was even used for the romantic first meeting of a future husband and wife as children in Dark, and was also featured in Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
The excitement was intoxicating, but even then I didn’t know how much this game was going to exceed the hype. What followed was a race, between me and every friend I had, to advance further in the game. I took to it quickly, so much that I recall having to complete some of the first levels such as the Deku Tree and Jabu Jabu’s Belly for multiple people. Although far more complex than any game that had come before, it made sense to me.
I vividly remember my brother begging me to tell him how to get through Dodongo’s Cavern, I kept telling him that it’s more fun to figure it out for yourself but eventually gave in when he became too irate. I also distinctly recall the night that I jumped through time to become Link as an adult and being the first person I knew to do so. The game became a metaphor for life at the time, through it you could discover more about yourself; what you’re capable of on your own, whether you were a leader and who of your friends needed help along the way. The reason the game was able to take on such an existential role was because it was the closest thing at the time to playing in a real world scenario.
Everything from the brilliant narrative, the iconic music from Koji Kondo, beautiful landscapes, and the ability to explore them freely added to a metaphysical experience. The mythology written for the game is so compelling and it has a better plot than most films of this genre. It even came with its own amazing promotional artwork, just like a classic film. The 90 minutes of cut scenes that bring these ideas to life throughout the game, the cinematography utilised for them, and the dialogue are all exquisite. They made it feel like you were inside an actual film that you had control over, and it was the first game that felt really worthwhile, like you were actually achieving something whilst playing it. One major decision that contributed to this greatly was the choice of camera angle during the gameplay, the stationery perspective was key to creating this cinematic effect.
Credit as always goes to the legendary Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto as Writer and Producer but equal praise should also go to Yoshiaki Koizumi as Director, Writer and Artist as well. This was undoubtedly a team effort though and there was a large one behind this masterpiece. Kondo’s score, as well as giving characters their own musical themes, gave each area of Hyrule one as well. This has been said to be leitmotif in reverse, where instead of music announcing a character, environments are introduced as you enter them musically. This is a powerful technique, as the themes will always spark your earliest memories of visiting each location and produce waves of nostalgia. Kondo’s score has also been compared to the work of contemporary classical artist Philip Glass, who just happens to be one of my favourite composers.
There are countless innovations in this game that made it the new benchmark in gaming. The fact that the team came up with them whilst also transitioning all of the gameplay from previous Zelda games into 3D is astonishing. One of the main innovations is the targeting system that is utilized for everything from firing weapons, to communicating with other characters, and interacting with your environment. Koizumi came up with the ingenious idea to disguise it as a fairy that accompanies you on your quest, the system is such a simple but brilliant idea that is now commonplace in every RPG that followed. This targeting focused the controls, creating clean gameplay and adding to the general look of the game.
Another brilliant idea was giving players the ability to procure a horse that made travelling across Hyrule easier and fun, especially as the world of the game felt almost infinite in scale when you first started. The hero galloping through the lush landscapes is a powerful motif that’s utilised well for the game’s cinematic intro. What hooked you though was finding and completing challenges to add to your arsenal. The game is cleverly constructed so that you spend a certain amount of time making do without something you sorely need, making the relief felt when you finally obtain it quite potent.
The vibe and atmosphere in each temple is different but also distinct, each design evoking different emotions. The puzzles in them are challenging and completing them is immensely satisfying. My personal favourites are the Forest and Shadow Temples. Although the Shadow Temple was the more overtly sinister, there was a more subtle, haunting creepiness in the Forest Temple that makes it my favourite, and the bosses for both temples are among the best.
The game is great enough when you are still young Link, but things kick into top gear when you become an adult. Due to a cruel twist of fate, once you achieve your mission as a kid, you are put to sleep and locked away until you’re old enough to save Hyrule from the hell it’s become in your absence. When you first emerge from the Temple of Time and see the giant, ring of fire that surrounds the top of Mount Doom, it’s shocking. When you then descend the steps into what was once the bustling Market that was full of life, only to find it destroyed and filled with zombies milling around in their place…it’s nothing short of harrowing.
This is just a sign of things to come, it’s now your mission to visit every location and fix the horrific problems that you find there. On top of this, most of your previous friends and allies are either lost or deceased. Things are certainly bleak. However, this only increases the levels of satisfaction when you conquer the more harsh, complex temples and return each region to its former glory and reinstate your allies. The end sequence to the game is so profoundly moving because of the long, epic journey that you’ve taken throughout the game. It’s hard to describe the feeling when thinking back about how far you’ve come, yet at no point does the quest ever feel drawn-out or tedious.
My one and only criticism of the whole game is that the boss battles are too easy. Every boss is menacing and suitable for the temple, but it’s actually quite hard to be killed by one of them and if there was any game that you’d expect to have brutal bosses, it’s this one. It’s a shame but at least each boss is intimidating and never fails to be cinematic. I usually just try my best to make the fight look as good as possible, just to entertain myself really, and it’s very fun. I also play the game without a shield, to make it more challenging (plus Link looks cool with just a sword).
The cherry on top of this game is the eponymous Ocarina. The idea to incorporate an instrument you can play into a game and learn songs that help you in your quest is genius. The songs can help you in a myriad of ways including teleporting you around the land of Hyrule, opening secret doors, and persuading characters to aid you. Kondo revealed that it was challenging to write so many songs on the limited five note scale but the results are natural and effective. The perfect instrument was chosen and it produced a massive surge in its popularity that is still existent today. I, like many others, have purchased one and had a go at learning songs from the game myself.
This isn’t the only way that the game pierces the veil. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve been visiting other countries, or in a certain type of building, and gotten vibes similar to this game. This is because it manages to encapsulate the spirit of exploring and of adventure itself. If you want to see the impact it’s had on film, just watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Guillermo Del Toro’s own masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth from this perspective and you’ll pick up on several similar motifs. The latter is one of the best films that has emerged since Ocarina of Time and I don’t think it could have existed without its influence.
It’s no wonder that this game is the highest rated ever on Metacritic, consistently topping many lists for the best game of all time through the years, and has thus become widely acknowledged as unanimously being the best. There have been many more Legend of Zelda games since, and a few of them I think I actually prefer to this game. However, Ocarina of Time is the original 3D Zelda, that will always secure its place as the best and I’ll always return to it every few years or so.
Just writing this article makes me want to play the game all over again. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve completed it, and I can collect every single minute thing possible in the game without having to look anything up. No other game will ever compare to the impact it made as it changed the landscape of gaming forever. Just as Twin Peaks did for TV, it’s hard to imagine how things would be had this flawless and unique game not come to be.