Nintendo 64 hit the ground running thanks to Mario 64, a game that made huge waves when it touched down. In the shadow of this, gamers were excited to see what would come next from the Japanese gaming giant. With the years ticking by, Nintendo was working on a game it hoped would blow people away again. When released in 1998, it didn’t just change a gaming series, it entirely redefined what gamers expected from adventure games. This was a tour-de-force so magnificent and so complete that even games today live in its shadow. That game – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
It’s no exaggeration to say that few games had quite the impact Ocarina of Time managed upon its initial release. Here was a title that didn’t just break rules – it changed them as it passed through. The first fully 3D Legend of Zelda title arrived to huge admiration and critical acclaim, becoming one of the systems best sellers and going on to influence no end of future game designers. But what made it so great? What made this title that good in 1998 and make us rank it so highly in our Zelda Ranking list?
At its heart, this game is very faithful to the Legend of Zelda template. The introduction is slow and brooding, building to grander things. You’re led gently towards your next objective, but with plenty to do on the side should you choose. Following Link to the Past’s lead, Temples typically introduce an item then spend the remaining time teaching the gamer how to master them before the Boss Battle. It’s a tried and tested formula that affords practice time to the gamer, helping them to adjust to the items they’ll be using. The use of puzzles and a varied arsenal of foes keeps things fresh and while the game won’t win any originality awards – it did manage to do the job in a memorable manner.
What really sets Ocarina of Time apart from anything that came before though is just how cinematic the whole experience is. Miyamoto and his team went above and beyond in ensuring that the 3D was used to full effect. Gamers up to this point were just getting used to the idea of 3D cutscenes conveying huge chunks of story – but Ocarina of Time blends together as many aspects as it can in order to shake things up. Everything looks gorgeous with camera cuts, sweeping shots and framing all playing a huge part in making the experience come to life. Moments like the first time you escape Lon Lon Ranch with Epona. When Link sees Ganondorf for the first time and the camera pans up looking at your foe – Link framed as the obvious weak link in this encounter. It’s a small touch for sure, but very few of the games cut scenes fall flat and in a time when they were very much still experimenting with the medium; Ocarina of Time was streets ahead.
Another aspect which really set Ocarina of Time apart was its use of dual worlds. Not a first for the series (how many times will I say that in this retrospective!) the idea is tweaked here enough to add a huge twist around one-third of the way into the game, and change the way you perceive the game. The first few hours of Hyrule are a slow-build, getting you to invest in the world and its cast of characters. You help the Goron’s with their food problem, save Princess Ruto from a whales belly and even round-up some chickens in Kakariko Village. Yet this is entirely flipped on its head as the Hyrule you become invested in as Child Link becomes a horrified wasteland of evil. Hyrule Castle Town is destroyed, Kokiri Forest is in disarray and your actions in the games first third had very real ramifications.
It changes the focus of the story entirely, framing Princess Zelda’s quest and your previous achievements as nothing more than Ganondorf using you as a pawn. This adds such gravitas to the story and makes the game feel weighty as you try to undo the damage you and Zelda unwittingly caused – and see the ramifications of that.
There’s also a sense of scope to proceedings that in 1998 was just mind-boggling. An example of this is when you’re introduced to Hyrule Field.It feels very much like a burden to get across, taking minutes to get anywhere as Young Link. It’s a trick that adds to the sense of grandness throughout the world, like you’re actually on an adventure and questing. Mario 64 lacked this sense of grandness and there were very few titles around at this time that achieved it. This was made all the more impressive when returning as Adult Link. Here you can gain access to your trusty steed Epona; and this makes the world feel more accessible. Suddenly those long runs across Hyrule Field are made more manageable – you can get around the world in a more timely manner. It’s a sense of progress that’s naturally tied into the world yet makes
Of course because it’s an early 3D game, there are a number of teething issues from which the game isn’t immune. Navi, your personal fairy assistant, has all the subtlety of brick going through a window. I suspect Miyamoto was worried gamers may get lost and forget the path they were supposed to be on. On the other hand, having an annoying and very vocal voice in your head screaming “HEY, LISTEN” every three minutes wasn’t the most inspired of ideas. It’s annoying and sometimes outright patronizing – enough that you’ll at least make one attempt to find the option to turn it off.
Likewise I have to say that while time has been kind to a number of the games features, the Z-targeting system is not one of those. In general the camera is serviceable, but the use of Z-targeting makes combating multiple opponents (something you’ll be doing a fair amount of later in the game) an absolute ball ache. The problem is the rigidness of it all. Without the ability to switch opponents on the fly, Link is left hugely vulnerable from all other sides. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but it’s one of the harder aspects to return too when later games got it so right.
We also need to talk about arguably the games most infamous feature, the Water Temple. For my money I never had too much of an issue with this dungeon, if only because I didn’t mind the endless wandering. That being said, the difficulty spike leading up to this is something to behold, as the Water Temple (and arguably the Shadow Temple that follow it) ramp up the difficulty with alarming abandon. Many gamers ended their quests here and it’s easy to see why, some of the design choices made in this temple rub up awkwardly against the games limitations. Here the awkward camera becomes an insanely obtuse obstruction. Here the back-and-forth design means you’ll be trekking long distances to open doors across levels. As said, it’s not a terrible design – but it’s easy to see why so many decry the experience as a farce.
Even with all these niggles though, it’s hard to overlook just how glorious this package is. We haven’t gone into the graphics and just how jaw dropping they were back in 1998. The beautiful soundtrack that captivates and becomes imprinted on your mind. We haven’t spoken about the huge cast of memorable characters, including the quirky inhabitants of Hyrule. We haven’t even touched on the varied locales – from the shores of Lake Hylia to the dust storms of Gerudo Desert. We could be here all day talking about the little touches that made this game so brilliant.
Let’s just say that when people talk about Ocarina of Time, they’re very right to gush. It’s an amazing achievement in video game design. Put together with dedication and inspired everything that followed in the series. It’s just that good and while it hasn’t aged in the most graceful way, it’s very much playable to this day and well worth your time.