The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda has been Nintendo’s prize franchise for over twenty years now. Ever since its inception on the NES, the series has remained a jewel in the crown; a veritable lovechild of the industry, press, and fans. It’s also remarkably stumble-free, maintaining popularity and poise with each installment – awful CDi ripoff games notwithstanding. The funny thing about Zelda that so few games manage to pull off is consistency of design. Starting with the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, and playing all the way to the latest game, Phantom Hourglass, it’s uncanny how the structure has remained intact. Some games experimented with the design; Zelda II and Majora’s Mask both tinkered with the core mechanics enough to stick out from the rest of the series, but their blood runs Shiggy through and through. Why, then, given that the level of innovation has remained absolutely zero for about ten years now, is the series still respected so by the masses in the gaming community? Well, nearly a decade ago, a little game was released. Following the tried-and-true Zelda pattern that A Link To The Past had supposedly perfected, this game took the beloved series into territory that it wouldn’t leave afterwards. Ocarina of Time was – and still is – a beautiful piece of game design that eased players into a fully 3D world with familiar controls, characters, and then shocked them with the sheer elegance that the triple-A 2D adventure series had been translated.
“Anyone can glance at a Zelda game and immediately gather the basic plot: boy meets princess, princess needs rescuing, lots of hullabaloo about things like ‘destiny’ is made”Ocarina of Time is the simple story of a young boy who lives amongst a village of short, childlike forest-dwellers. An evil wizard… ok, look. The Legend of Zelda has never exactly been the bastion of original scripting. Anyone can glance at a Zelda game and immediately gather the basic plot: boy meets princess, princess needs rescuing, lots of hullabaloo about things like ‘destiny’ is made. Ocarina, too, followed this swords-and-sorcery logic pattern into the dark cave of redundancy. Granted, Zelda is not the place to look for a life-changing story. What Zelda succeeds at, and Ocarina especially, is consistency of presentation. While there were many fantasy cliches at work, Ocarina of Time presented itself in a manner that demanded respect. The world is fleshed out and every piece of information needed to understand the different aspects of the game are present within the game itself – no Google searches or manuals required to appreciate the atmosphere. I’ll touch upon this later, but the game provided plenty of room for interpretation, and still does to many fans today. Suffice to say, Ocarina of Time is easy to write off as a childish piece of high fantasy, but the depth to which the initial presentation was detailed is commendable.
“Everything had a sense of purpose, a small detail that made the world feel all the more believable.”This depth of design carried over to the gameplay. Like the titles before it, Ocarina of Time featured an overworld with towns to visit and dungeons to conquer, each containing a special tool for Link to use in conjunction with future combat and puzzle situations. This meant that each dungeon was progressively more complicated, given that each item would be useful after the level they were found in. Why is this a big deal? Well, as many adventure game fans know, it’s easy to create an item to use in a sort of mini deus ex machina puzzle; it takes real skill to work an item into the plot and game design. Luckily, Link’s world was full of secrets and puzzles. Outside of dungeons, items like the Hookshot would provide access to hidden areas, as well as general amusement. The spring-loaded grappling hook would latch onto anything wooden within the game, making travel much easier in complicated areas. The boomerang, a seemingly useless fetching device, was surprisingly adept at stunning enemies in combat. The titular ocarina was an actual playable instrument, with a full tone chart. Everything had a sense of purpose, a small detail that made the world feel all the more believable.
Box titleOcarina of Time was squeezed onto a 32MB cartridge, the biggest possible size for N64 games.The world was absolutely massive, too. The land of Hyrule was so big, Ocarina of Time had to be printed on a ROM cartridge twice as large as the standard N64 memory size. Even today, the expansive plains are impressive. Hyrule Field connects large environments like Lon Lon Ranch, Zora Lake, Hyrule Castle Town, and Gerudo Valley – each area significantly sized compared to the field. Back in 1998, this vista was absolutely gobsmacking. Ocarina of Time pioneered use of a skydome, an elaborate skybox that was effectively a giant sky-textured spherical prism that rotated around the world, portraying a day/night cycle. While the seams and textures are more apparent ten years later, it’s still a beautiful effect. The fact that the game really felt connected lent a hand of authenticity to the world; unlike Mario 64, there was no disconnecting sensation between each area. Even now, ten years on, it’s easy to remember the map of the world. It was comparatively massive, and traversing it felt far more immersive than the old bird’s-eye view the series had used. While the dungeon-crawling, princess-saving gameplay hadn’t morphed too greatly, the experience certainly had.
Ocarina of Time was different from its predecessors in other ways, too. For one, it was damn dark. Even with all of its high fantasy trappings, with fairies and goddesses and wizards and the like, Link’s adventure wasn’t exactly a rosy experience. The main villain, Ganondorf, was far more sinister than the jolly-looking pig Ganon, and when Ganon did appear, he was a true monster. Rotting flesh, glowing eyes, and a demonic presence made the King of Evil look, well… evil. It wasn’t just the final encounter that raised a few eyebrows, however. Link’s quest took him into places like The Shadow Temple, an eerie dungeon in the bottom of a graveyard. Rotting corpses, moans, and other creepy imagery instilled a sense of foreboding far greater than anything the previous games had evoked. Ocarina, believe it or not, even raised some controversy. Proud owners of the gold-tinted pre-order copy hold not only a nice collector’s item, but the only true artist’s vision of Ocarina of Time. The Fire Temple originally contained music derived from old-world Ottoman chants; some parent picked up on this and complained about the Muslim connection. Thus, later prints of the game feature different music, and do not feature the Islamic star-and-crescent symbols that were ubiquitous in Gerudo Valley, and displayed prominently on Link’s mirror shield. Also, Ganondorf was supposed to cough up blood towards the end of the game – not so in the standard grey N64 cartridge runoff. Ocarina of Time was mature and refined compared to the older Zelda games, and by extension, the whole gaming industry at the time.
Granted, all of this stuff was crammed onto a relatively small storage cart. Does Ocarina of Time honestly hold up this well in 2008? Well, not when directly compared with something like Bioshock, but its spirit indeed lives on. Because of the depth of the world, containing multiple races and references to their relations with each other, as well as many animated and memorable characters, Ocarina remains a staple of adventure design. Ten years later, fans argue over things like timeline placement – Ocarina is generally considered to be first – and other, less significant things. Who does Link fall in love with? There’s no consensus, as the story really avoids a romantic subplot, but damned if the population cares. Personality and script analysis, general bickering… Ocarina of Time is still a goldmine for symbol and story analysis. While it may be going a little far, the obsession with Hyrule and its denizens is justified. In Ocarina of Time, players are presented with a creation story and several bonafide religions. Social politics are presented, such as the Gerudo and their gender roles – Women are the dominant sex, and only one pure-bred male can be born every 100 years. These seemingly useless factoids are not listed in the instruction book, but actually implied and referenced in the game itself. Hyrule was a truly self-contained world in an N64 cartridge.
If anything has suffered over time, it’s the graphics. As pretty as the art for Ocarina of Time was, the dark anime-inspired look doesn’t resonate as well ten years on. Still, given the age, some aspects of this N64 title hold up remarkably well. The previously mentioned ocarina is a proper playable instrument, not a plot hole to be waved around during cutscenes. The sheer size and scope of Hyrule is license enough for the game to look so blocky, and the musical score… well, the only thing that could improve the score would involve a 60-piece orchestra. Even though the polygons and textures have become antiquated and ugly, the personality of Ocarina‘s characters shines on. 1998 was a fantastic year for expressive video games; Half Life and Metal Gear Solid both wowed audiences with thoughtful storytelling. Ocarina of Time, too, was a mature genre piece, a real expression of art through the medium of video games.
The old-school gameplay of The Legend of Zelda was not flipped upside-down when Ocarina of Time came out. The translation to a new console and new controller was smooth, and Link adapted to his 3D world just fine. Ocarina of Time is remembered today not because of its dungeons, or its control scheme, or any of the nuts and bolts of its design. It was a game that went beyond the standards; it became more than the sum of its parts. The world of Hyrule was a fascinating place to explore, and its sense of connectivity is what keeps Ocarina of Time a bastion of adventure gaming. Plenty of games have innovated far more than Zelda, but more recent Zelda games have been praised even higher than them. Nothing has changed on the gameplay front since Ocarina, but we continue to heap praise onto the series. Why? Well, I’d like to think that it’s because of Zelda‘s continuing sense of scope and story. Really, though, I think there is a far more melancholy reason: We’re all still in love with a little magical flute.