Today is pleasantly poetic, as on this day twenty years ago, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For a game that is ostensibly about the flow of time, twenty years on from release seems like a fitting time to still be talking about it. The Nintendo 64 had an amazing catalogue of close to 400 games but, if people remember only three titles, they would probably be Super Mario 64, Goldeneye 007, and Ocarina of Time. These games not only pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible for their generation, they also went on to define and influence their respective genres for the next two decades.
Ocarina of Time marked the Zelda series’s first foray into 3D graphics and set the standard for action-adventure games throughout the late 90’s and 00’s. The game not only boasted graphical fidelity but was also an exceptionally well made title, benefitting from Nintendo’s decision to restrict the number of titles made for N64 to allow developers to focus on quality over quantity. The result is a title that many consider to be one of the finest single-player, narrative-driven games ever made.
Technical achievements are of course important, but that is not what most gamers will remember about playing the game. They will remember the feeling they had the first time they stood at the edge of Hyrule Field, seeing the landscape reaching off into the distance. They will remember wondering if they could just waltz on over to the little farm in the middle and then their amazement when they realised they could. They will recall the sense of awe they felt at the sheer scale of the adventure laid out before them. Ocarina of Time offered players the freedom to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and smash any room full of pots… not that I did that… The game offered a story that was ready to be discovered organically and areas that could be approached in any order you liked; it did not hold your hand while you did it. I am sure I am not the only person who started to wonder if the Kokiri Forest was the only area of the game, having been stuck in there for hours!
These gameplay features may sound familiar, because every modern open-world game follows this design ethos, though few do it as well as Ocarina of Time. What sets Nintendo’s magnum opus apart from most everything else is its ability to affect the player’s emotions, and if the game is about anything else besides “time”, it is about feelings. Perhaps the most profound way in which Ocarina of Time conveys feelings is through the game’s music—Koji Kondo’s soundtrack is simply magnificent. Every area has its own, perfectly matched soundtrack that frames the mood as players progress through the game. From Lon Lon Ranch’s happy, old-timey jangle, to the melodic, tropical beats of Zora’s Domain, and the eerily choral score in the Temple of Time, Ocarina of Time guides the player not just through the game’s various areas but through the various emotions that each area conveys.
However, the genius “Nintendo touch” is in the mechanic whereby the player must learn a number of melodies, which can then be played back on the titular ocarina for various effects. Twenty years on and I can still remember the tune for “Prelude of Light”, “Saria’s Song”, and “Serenade of Water”. I loved playing those tunes so much, that I would often play them just for the sake of hearing them. Essentially, Ocarina of Time helped changed the way developers thought about how players interact with games, by building player agency into the very fabric of the game.
Today, as game worlds become bigger and the experiences more filmic, developers could do worse than remembering Link’s Ocarina. Of course, games takes more than a good score and things for the player to do to be great and once again, Ocarina of Time delivers with a near-flawless narrative. Link’s is a coming of age story, of a boy who grows into a man and of responsibilities and consequences. The first time I played Ocarina of Time, I was fifteen years old. Those teenage years are the awkward phase where you are trying desperately to be ‘grown up’, while still clinging to the securities of childhood. I remember my excitement at finally playing as adult Link and then the sudden, heart-wrenching horror of discovering what had happened to Hyrule in my absence. I wanted only to return to Link’s childhood, when the world was less scary and the future not yet set. Analogous to real life perhaps?
Ocarina of Time taught us that sometimes, despite our best efforts, bad things happen. However, the game also taught us the value of perseverance in the face of adversary. Ocarina of Time set the bar for what gamers expected from the genre and influenced practically every open-world game since. The focus on player mood and emotion, player agency and organic, free-form discovery — the single-player, narrative-driven game today is what it is, in no small part thanks to Ocarina of Time. I may have grown up since I first played it, but Link’s story is truly timeless. Perhaps Sheik says best:
“Time passes, people move. Like a river’s flow, it never ends. A childish mind will turn to noble ambition. Young love will become deep affection. The clear water’s surface reflects growth. Now listen to the Serenade of water to reflect upon yourself”.