I’m a little late to the party with this one, but you may have heard that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) celebrated its twentieth anniversary last month. Coincidentally enough, I actually got the itch to read through the amazing manga retelling of the videogame by Akira Himekawa and subsequently played through the 3DS remake (Grezzo/Nintendo EAD Tokyo, 2011) once again so I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon and talk about arguably the best Zelda title ever made.
Ocarina of Time wasn’t the first in the franchise that I ever played (that honour goes to the underrated The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development, 1993)); however, it was definitely the game that really hooked me into the series. Back in the day, this was one of those titles that everyone had, talked about, and played and, man, did I play this to death!
So, I mean, it’s kind of redundant to talk about the gameplay mechanics and narrative because surely everyone has played this game or is at least aware of it but let’s just do it anyway. Players are tasked with assuming the role of Link (or whatever they want to name him), an elf-like boy who is finally gifted a fairy companion by the Great Deku Tree, the protector of Kokiri Forest. Link is then tasked with leaving his childhood home and embarking on a quest to stop the evil desires of Ganondorf, who is plotting to obtain the Triforce (a relic of incredible power left by the Gods), overthrowing the monarchy, and taking over the land of Hyrule. Although Link succeeds in the early part of his quest, Princess Zelda is forced to flee when Ganondorf attacks, leaving Link with the sacred Ocarina of Time. When Link uses the ocarina to try and stop Ganondorf, he unwittingly allows the desert thief to access the Sacred Realm and obtain ultimate power. Awakening seven years later, Link (now an adult) is charged by the ancient Sage Rauru to go out into the world once more, free the other Sages, and defeat Ganondorf once and for all.
It’s fair to say that Ocarina of Time changed the way 3D action/adventure games are played; Link’s fairy companion, Navi, plays a crucial role in allowing players to target enemies and objects of interest with the Z trigger, which locks the camera into a battle-specific perspective. Players have full control of the camera at all times but Z-Targeting really overcame the issues that many 3D camera systems suffered from back in the day, namely getting stuck in or glitching through objects or scenery.
Similarly, Link is extremely versatile; he can’t jump but he can grab ledges, dodge attacks, launch himself at enemies, and use a variety of times and methods to traverse the large overworld map. Link’s primary method of combat is through sword-play; Link can stab, slice, and slash at enemies in a number of ways, charge up a devastating Spin Attack, and also block or deflect projectiles with his sword and, of course, his shield. Link can also backflip, side-step, and hop away from danger and duck and defend behind his shield with Z-Targeting.
Link’s vast array of weaponry extends to a bow-and-arrow, bombs, a boomerang, hover boots, different tunics to protect him from elements, and even a massive hammer to smash blocks and switches. Each time Link takes on one of the game’s many dungeons and temples, he must acquire a new weapon and use it, and his other items, to overcome both the dungeon and the boss that dwells within.
Speaking of bosses, Ocarina of Time has some of the best seen in the series and in videogames. Link tackles giant spiders, living water, an invisible bongo player, and even a gigantic fire-breathing dragon. My favourite boss battle was against Twinrova, which saw Link having to absorb and reflect their ice and fire attacks back at them before leaping in to strike. Each successive boss increases in its difficulty and the tactics players use will evolve and change with each encounter; by the time players go toe-to-toe with Ganondorf himself, players must use every trick they have to overcome the King of Evil and save Hyrule.
As mentioned, Ocarina of Time features a large and varied overworld; players begin in Kokiri Forest, a small and secluded area that makes Link’s first steps into Hyrule all the more impressive. Hyrule Field is a large expanse of land that Link must traverse on foot in the early going; players can find a ranch (from which they can later acquire a horse, Epona, for some fast-paced travel) in the center of the field, Hyrule Market and Castle at the far north, Lake Hylia in the west, Zora’s Domain in the east, Kakariko Village and Death Mountain, home of the Goron tribe, in the north-east, and Gerudo Valley in the north-west. Each area is unique in its own way and has its own hazards, quests, dungeons, and secrets to discover; by talking to non-playable characters (NPCs), Link can either learn hints or story information, be asked to perform tasks or quests, or obtain key items that will allow him to progress further.
Honestly, the NPCs really breathe life into Hyrule, allowing each location to have a unique history and an atmosphere; the Gorons value honour while the Zora’s are a bit more self-entitled; Death Mountain has a ring of fire around the summit that must be dissipated by defeating Volvagia and Zora’s Domain is encased in ice in the future. Solving these problems and restoring the world to peace and prosperity brings a real sense of urgency to Link’s mission and you start to see people and places benefiting from your actions, such as in the House of Skulltula, where the family within will return to normal as Link collects Gold Skulltula tokens.
Link can play his ocarina to solve puzzles, warp across the overworld, and alter both the weather and the passage of time but perhaps the most integral part of the narrative and is Link’s ability to use the Master Sword to travel throgh time. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t really need to travel back and forth through time all that much to progress the story but the idea of traversing between two time periods, two stages of Link’s maturity, and two very different overworld maps is intriguing. Characters and places you interact with as a child will have changed significantly in the future and, occasionally, Link is required to travel back to the past to solve puzzles and access new areas as an adult.
Difficult as it may be to believe, though, Ocarina of Time does has its flaws; character models have obviously not aged too well, Link oddly does not have his sword sash around his chest as depicted in the promotional material, and players were forced to navigate the item menu in order to equip certain necessary items and gear. Some of the dungeons also came under criticism; the Water Temple often makes the list as one of the more frustrating and confusing dungeons in the game, series, and in all of videogames (though I personally don’t really find it that bad, especially compared to the Shadow and Spirit Temples, which were a lot less fun to play through).
Luckily, the 3DS version addressed many of these issues. Link now turns towards people and objects of interest, has his sword sash, and he, like other characters, is a lot more expressive and detailed. The duel-screen of the 3DS really helps with equipping items, especially the Iron Boots, and a lot of the temples have coloured-code hints or other additional aspects to help players navigate and explore. The 3DS version also includes the Master Quest, which was previously only available to Nintendo 64DD owners or those who pre-ordered The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo EAD, 2002), now with every map mirrored to test even the most seasoned Ocarina of Time player.
To be honest, as much as I love this videogame, I often find myself torn between which is better, Ocarina of Time or The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (ibid, 2000). I definitely play Ocarina of Time more, as it is a lot easier to play through, whereas Majora’s Mask is basically one giant side quest filled with a hundred other side quests which, coupled with the time-based mechanics, make it a bit more difficult to play over and over. I find it much easier to just play both back to back and mash the best parts of each into one.
For example, one of the biggest disappointments about Ocarina of Time is that, while defeating Morpha returns fresh water to Lake Hylia, Zora’s Domain remains a frozen wasteland. Majora’s Mask made up for this with Snowhead Mountain being restored when you defeat Goht, but Ocarina of Time 3D had the perfect opportunity to try and correct this oversight. To be fair, though, if the Water Temple was relocated to the bottom of Zora’s Fountain and the Ice Cavern was swapped to the bottom of a frozen pool at lake Hylia, this would have been solved completely as defeating Morpha would defrost Zora’s Domain and the fresh water would then flow out into Lake Hylia.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that a lot of content and features were removed from Ocarina of Time before its release and I would have loved to see some of these be revived in the 3DS version. The Light Temple, for example, could have been implemented after Link awakens in the future, as could the unicorn fountain and the ability to fire energy waves from the Master Sword. I also would have liked to see the future a bit more nightmarish and ruined; Hyrule Field is actually more dangerous in the past, especially at night, and it definitely feels like more enemies or evidence of Ganondorf’s evil could have been added to the future overworld just so that there was a bit more urgency to Link’s mission. None of these omissions are deal-breakers, obviously, as the title is still a great game to play through but, considering how much was added, altered, improved, and changed in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (Grezzo/Nintendo EAD Tokyo, 2015), it is a bit of a shame that more wasn’t added to Ocarina of Time 3D.
In the end, though, Ocarina of Time more than holds up even twenty years later; the narrative is as rich and layered as ever and playing the game is the perfect balance between challenging and fun, with a progression system tied specifically into your acquisition of items and familiarity with the combat and other gameplay mechanics. For me, given how well the 3DS versions of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask turned out, I would have loved to see Nintendo revisit the game engine and create an entirely new title, returning us to the role of adult Link in the child Link timeline, sometime after Majora’s Mask, to make this a trilogy. It’s unlikely to happen, given Nintendo appears to be favouring the Switch over the 3DS these days, but if the consolation prize is playing through Ocarina of Time one more time then I’ll take that any day.