After the smug intricacies of the infamous Water Temple make you want to pull out all of your hair and quit video games forever, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” gives you a present. As you leave the frustrating-yet-brilliant dungeon located at the bottom of Lake Hylia, dawn is breaking, and, if you stumbled upon a prophecy on a nearby stone, you know to shoot the rising sun with an arrow. When you do, a cutscene zooms into something falling from the sky, a hidden bit of treasure — fire arrows. Technically, they’re a meaningless item to the main mission of the Nintendo 64 game, which turns 20 years old this month, but, after the grueling Water Temple, having the ability to set your enemies on fire is a welcome addition.
The juxtaposition here, between the mind-numbing puzzles of the Water Temple and a shiny new toy is reflective of what makes “Ocarina” so special. Half of the game is brainy thoughtfulness and the other half is visceral, rewarding action.
It isn’t the first Zelda game to walk this line well — its Super Nintendo predecessor “A Link to The Past” also found the balance — but “Ocarina”, the first three-dimensional installment in the series, was the first to do it in a cinematic and expansive way that influenced so many open-world epic adventure games that came after it. In “A Link to The Past”, you have to move quickly and decisively through the over-world, while “Ocarina” lets you breathe there — giving you the chance to wander, explore and interact. It bridged Zelda’s storied past with its bright future, keeping what worked, yet evolving to push new boundaries. And two decades after its release, it’s more than virtual nostalgia. Even after numerous video games have surpassed its size, scope, fighting system and countless other elements, Ocarina still stands the test of time. Several gaming publications consider it to be the greatest game of all time.
After its release on November 21, 1998, “Ocarina Of Time”, the fifth game in the Zelda series, sold more than seven million copies in its lifetime. In the opening cut scene, Link, the protagonist, awakes from a nightmare where an iron-clad man on a sinister-looking horse emerges from a castle’s draw bridge, chasing a young woman who’s fleeing. When Link comes to, he’s summoned by a fairy, Navi, which starts an odyssey that spans from childhood to adulthood, from lava-filled mountains to mysterious deserts. The green man, of course, is Gannondorf, the perpetual antagonist of the series, while the young woman is Princess Zelda, the title character. The dream foreshadows what’s to come, but the interesting thing is, Gannondorf ends up succeeding in his plot. Link isn’t powerful enough to fight him during the first part of the game, since he’s a child, so he is sealed in the Temple of Time for seven years after attempting to retrieve the series’ consistent hero’s weapon — The Master Sword.
As an adult, Link awakes to a Hyrule overrun by evil, and he has to gather seven medallions from seven sages to reach the castle, now under Gannondorf’s control. There’re various layers to the game, most notably the ability to freely travel through time, from child to adult, hence the game’s title. Although it’s not a completely linear game, the further you get, and the more plot twists that occur, the better “Ocarina” gets. Where the beginning-of-the-game world of child Link is light and whimsical, with relatively quick dungeons and limited combat capabilities, adult Link’s story gets deeper, darker and much bigger. Like most Zelda games, “Ocarina”’s full potential is unlocked as the game goes on.
Beyond the storyline, which was wildly ambitious in 1998, and remains solid now, there are a few foundational things about “Ocarina” that help it transcend just being the first 3-D Zelda. The control scheme, which allowed you to do things like use z-targeting to lock onto enemies and points of interest, is smooth and steady compared to a lot of other early third-person games. Controlling the camera view was simple for the time, since the same button can straighten the camera and lock on to objects, making it easy to regain focus, especially on a shifty enemy. And being able to assign three weapons or items — other than a sword or a shield — to three different directional buttons added some depth and strategy to combat and action. It’s not flawless, but even when revisiting the game in 2018, there’s still not much to complain about. The fighting, controls and camera have all aged well, a testament to how well-crafted “Ocarina” is.
Another definitive piece of the game’s charm is its use of music. Veteran video game music composer Koji Kondo’s soundtrack, which may be his masterpiece, is full of general themes which burns into your brain, while adding some extra emotional charge to the game’s best moments. But, it is the titular ocarina, necessary for many purposes — to solve puzzles, to turn day into night, to warp around the map — that really pushed the game forward. It forces the player to interact with the soundtrack in a limited-but-meaningful way. In lesser hands, it could have been an annoying and cumbersome aspect, but it ended up paying off and greatly enhancing the gameplay.
Ask anyone who grew up playing “Ocarina” what their favorite part of the game was, and you’ll end up getting some sort of weighty working thesis. Maybe it was trekking through Hyrule Field for the first time. Maybe it was stealing your faithful horse Epona from Lon Lon Ranch (Did I mention you get to ride a horse? Hell yes, you get to ride a horse — unheard of in 3D gaming at the time). Maybe it was fighting Dark Link. Maybe it’s riding the ghost ship on the way to fight Bongo Bongo. Or maybe it’s finding out who Sheik is. There’s not exactly a shortage of answers, probably because twenty years later it remains one of the best and most important video games ever made.