Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine
Format: N64, GCN, Wii, Wii U, 3DS
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release: December 18, 1998
There will never be another time in videogaming quite like the transition from 2D to 3D.
For years, gamers only knew the bright, colourful worlds of pixels and MIDI sounds; whether via PC, consoles or arcades. Sure, there were many rudimentary, novel attempts at 3D through vector graphics or hilariously chunky polygons that made the screen look like an impressionists’ painting – but these were niche experiences afforded only by connoisseurs.
It was only when the 16-bit juggernauts of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive made way for Sony’s PlayStation, Nintendo’s N64 and (to a lesser extent) Sega’s Saturn that the industry went through a quantum shift that had never been seen before.
Videogames changed before our very eyes.
We were now playing movies – or so it seemed like at the time. Our favourite franchises metamorphosised into stuff that seemed to come straight from the future; in Super Mario 64, a fully-voiced, expressive plumber ran around in huge environments, Final Fantasy VII invited us to spend 50 hours in a living, breathing cyberpunk anime world, and original experiments like NiGHTS both baffled and delighted those who dipped into Sega’s surrealist vision.
It was an unforgettable generation, and it produced many of the greatest titles of all time – but there was one that, for me, stood out above all others.
To tell the truth – despite being a lifelong Nintendo fan (well, all of 10 years in 1998), I had never played a Zelda game before. For some reason, the series passed me by, and all that I knew of it was that you played as some sort of androgynous elf kid in green clothes – and that he was called Link, and not Zelda.
However, that all changed on one fateful day, when I saw a commercial for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
I could not believe my eyes. Even at my young age, I knew that the N64 couldn’t pull-off the detailed ‘Full Motion Videos’ of the PlayStation, but seeing the lush, film-like imagery of characters like Link, Zelda and Ganondorf instantly made the game number one on my most wanted list.
The rave reviews Ocarina of Time received in my monthly games magazines further solidified my desire to get my hands on it, and when the day finally came of its release… I rented that bad boy like there was no tomorrow.
What? Buy it?! That’s a laugh – I was allowed a grand total of two games a year, so I had to make sure I was getting my (well, mum’s) money’s worth. After all, I really had no idea if I’d actually enjoy it.
And enjoy it I did… not.
Yes, I’m sad to say that my first impressions of Ocarina of Time were not entirely positive. Coming from a background of primarily action and platform titles, I was simply stumped by the puzzle aspects of the game. Though wowed by the ephemeral Kokiri Forest, it took me an inordinate amount of time to find the sword, because the muddy N64 textures made it hard for me to see the small hole that Link needed to crawl through.
It took me two days to find it.
Frustrated, but not deterred, I rented the game again, and managed to fight my way through the Deku Tree (after figuring out how to get past those damned spider webs), and managed to complete the first dungeon. After some gripping exposition that left me slacked-jawed, I finally left the forest, and entered the world of Hyrule.
Much has been described about this moment, so I won’t repeat what’s been said a million times before. Suffice to say, I spent countless hours exploring ever nook and cranny – and though I loved it, the inability to actually progress the story always nagged at me. I simply couldn’t figure out what to do – I was told that I could sneak into Princess Zelda’s castle, but once again, the game’s texture work stumped me, as I didn’t realise that climbable vines were staring me right in the face.
Dejected, I didn’t play the game again for a long time after that. The fact that there was so much more both angered and saddened me. I would never explore Hyrule to its fullest. I would never get to see Link grow up. I would never battle Ganondorf. I would never see any of it.
The game was simply too hard.
Fast forward a year later, and I come across a discounted copy of Ocarina of Time for $36. For some reason, I was still as determined as ever to beat it, and I used my pocket money to buy it. I was going to beat it, once and for all.
I can’t clearly remember, but I think I may have had a guide to help me through it. Either way, this time, the game finally clicked with me. I began solving puzzles. I deciphered clues. I mastered dungeons. I was actually doing it.
All the while, I was left starry-eyed. I think this was the first time I actually felt like I was the hero. That I was actually travelling a real world. Nintendo’s masterful visual and sound design no doubt played a part in this; like the way music faded in and out with the sun, or how nightbirds warbled during the silence of the dark. NPCs were in different places during day and night, giving a true sense of secret lives that held juicy details. This realism extended (in a somewhat unwelcome fashion) to spooky places like the Kakariko Graveyard or the Shadow Temple; the bowel-clenching thunder of the former, or the whispering, low hums of the latter.
However, it was these unpleasant moments that made their liberation all the more powerful, and made the sunlight hat much more of a wonderful sight. This was a game that knew the power of contrast; the designers created a feeling of appreciation within the player, by forcing them into dank, dirty areas that made the paradise of Hyrule that much more appealing. After being stuck in claustrophobic temples for hours at a time, I really felt Link’s relief at breathing the fresh air once more after defeating the boss and obtaining the latest shiny trinket.
Of course, much has been said about Zelda’s successful transition from 2D into 3D. At the time, I had no knowledge of previous games, but now that I’ve had 18 years to play the rest of them, I can see just what a monumental achievement this was. Like Super Mario 64, Ocarina was nothing short of a design miracle. You must remember, at the time, developers had very little idea regarding 3D games. They endlessly experimented, with some results more successful than others. Heck, many of them didn’t even bother making the transition, proffering instead to stick with a primarily 2D ethos, (as seen with Street Fighter or Dragon Quest VII), and even games like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil saw fit to use pre-rendered backgrounds, instead of fully polygonal worlds.
Ocarina of Time was developed alongside Super Mario 64. Like that perennial 3D platformer, Nintendo had its work cut out for it when it came to creating a 3D world for Link. When it was finally released, it was (at the time) the biggest N64 game; weighing in at 32MB – four time the size of Mario 64. In an interview, series creator Shigeru Miamoto revealed that Ocarina was originally intended to be played from a first-person view: However, when the story eventually called for two different Links (young and adult), it was deemed necessary for the player to be able to see the character’s physical progression.
Link’s many different abilities were cleverly mapped onto the N64 controller with a minimum of fuss; the ‘A’ button allowing the elfin hero to perform a myriad of actions depending on his position. Thanks to difficulties faced during the development of Super Mario 64, Link’s actions in Ocarina were more ‘context sensitive’. Director Yoshiaki Koizumi explained in an interview:
If you tried to beat an enemy in front of you [in Mario 64], the axis weren’t aligned, so it was hard. So we started talking about decreasing the action element in The Legend of Zelda and increasing the puzzle elements.
Ocarina of Time was built around the premise of sword-fighting, as revealed by the late Satoru Iwata:
When people talk about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, they mention various things like an epic story, solving puzzles, trotting across the broad field on a horse and how cool Link is, it began with the single theme of making a Zelda game that included chanbara-style swashbuckling.
The innovative Z-targeting system was born from a visit to a local show, according to designer Toru Osawa:
They were doing a ninja show. A number of ninja were surrounding the main samurai and one lashed out with a kusarigama (sickle and chain). The samurai caught it with his left arm, the chain stretched tight, and the ninja moved in a circle around him.
This was the initial situation that provided inspiration for the targeting mechanic. However, there was still the matter of Link facing multiple enemies. Yoshiaki Koizumi himself discovered the answer through another show:
I watched very closely and it was simple. The enemies don’t all attack at once. One attacks while the others wait. When the first guy goes down, the next one steps in. [It] was a clue toward solving our problem. Z-targeting flags one particular opponent, telling the other enemies to wait… the moment you beat that one, you can switch the z-targeting.
Ocarina was also the first (non-musical) game to feature a fully interactive instrument in the form of the titular Ocarina of Time; which could be played by Link to produce magical effects such as teleportation, creating rain storms and passing time in an instant. In addition, Koji Kondo’s soundtrack cleverly changed depending on the current situation. A cacophony of trumpets as Link explores Hyrule Field would change into a frantic tune as he encounters an enemy. Wisely, Nintendo refused to incorporate FMV in order to tell Link’s story; instead they advocated the use of in-game assets to tell a smoother story.
Looking back, Miyamoto described the freedom he and his team enjoyed when bringing Zelda to the 3D world, because they were working on something that was simply unprecedented:
It was the most primitive, the most free. That’s all there is to it…It isn’t that subsequent games lost that freedom, only that the games which were put out later simply had more things which needed to have more attention paid to them. Of course, even Ocarina had traditional elements dating from Link to the Past, for the Super Nintendo, so it wasn’t completely free. It’s just that it was the first 3D Zelda, and we were able to explore what would be most interesting abut making it in 3D without worrying about much else.
The fact that not only was the game supremely successful in both critical acclaim (it is still the highest rated game on Metacritic, nearly two decades later), but has been emulated countless time since, is proof of the indelible mark left by Nintendo – amongst its many, many other accomplishments.
Since then, the series has thrived, with every entry offering something new, whilst creating new fans. For me though, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not only my favourite Zelda game – but my favourite game of all time – indeed, I still possess my golden, $36 cartridge, with my original save file! Still, whenever a new sequel nears, I can’t help but wonder if the N64 classic will finally be knocked off the podium – and judging from what I’ve seen of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the possibility is stronger than ever…