20 years ago, Nintendo released what would become one of the most influential video games for the next 20 years. From slashing monsters to solving dungeon mazes, from open-world exploration to creating a destiny. Its a game that had everything. Who knew a 32MB cartridge could hold so much magic?
There are many words to describe the Ocarina of Time experience. The one that springs to mind today, looking back on the unforgettable experiences Ocarina of Time delivers, is preparation. The vivid introduction begins with the subtle sound of a horse galloping. What follows is an almost-soothing soft-piano number that seamlessly transforms into one of Ocarina of Time’s many mournful melodies. It serves as a taste of things to come; danger, discovery, destiny. It is one of many sequences that was technologically innovative of the time, whilst still remaining incredibly evocative today. And so, 20 years ago this week, one of the world’s greatest and most important video games, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was released.
Any entry into the Legend of Zelda series is a noteworthy release of anyone’s gaming calendar. But even this, coming 6 years after the grand adventure A Link to the Past, was an epic 3D open-world adventure that didn’t seem possible until it became reality. Coming at a time when the journalistic written word and screenshots were the only viable means of hype, it was there in abundance.
This was the N64’s biggest release to date, and it showed; upon its UK release on 11th December 1998, it was quickly a sought-after item due to a stock shortage. Its impact was clearly underestimated, and 17-year-old me was a hugely despondent figure upon missing out on that initial supply. That is until, on one college lunch break, I stumbled across a game store that had just opened in time for the Christmas rush. And there it was: the final copy in the shop. Its simplistic yet gold-on-black box art glistening at me. It was my very own ‘what’s in the chest’ Zelda moment, in retrospect. Indeed, Ocarina of Time was the birth of those treasure-finding moments, which has become a series-constant ever since. Even with all the hype, perfect reviews and scores, only upon that first glimpse of the iconic introduction prepared me for what was to come.
For what is now remembered as a childhood classic, Ocarina of Time is a bleak and scary tale at times. Link’s initial and indicative nightmare of Princess Zelda fleeing from Hyrule Castle and being pursued by the demonic Ganandorf is a lot for a young lad to deal with. All things considered, I managed OK. But all jokes aside, there is a lot of burden placed upon our young Link. His transition into a young man is akin to that of Simba in The Lion King; his forced absence has led his homeland into ruin, and only he can stop the evil that has corrupted it. If you think about it, it’s pretty deep.
There are plenty of other scary moments, too. The first time you are frozen on the spot by the shriek of a Gibdo mummy instils immediate panic. The collectable Skulltullas have a house in Kakariko Village, where a family has been morphed into spiders with skull faces, is another hugely unsettling moment. The sense of duty bound as you make your way up Death Mountain as boulders come down at you. Or vanquishing each dense dungeon throughout the game.
But all these burdens are merely the sum of its parts; From the moment you first take control of Link to the last, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a magical experience. Exploring the quirky Kakariko Village and its interactive inhabitants. The underwater domain of the Zora’s. The maze-like Lost Woods. That first venture out onto Hyrule Field. All these areas and more are simply a joy to behold.
Then there is the score which is a thing of beauty. The Hyrule Field theme is among the most stirring of Koji Kondo’s score. The theme of Kakariko village offers safety and sanctuary; often the case when running from the dangers of Hyrule Field. It is a soundtrack that traces Link’s journey from childhood prophecy to man of destiny with such aplomb it is no surprise to see it still rank among videogame’s greatest ever soundtracks. Then there is the music Link plays on command, courtesy of the simple chords denoted against the N64 C-button formation. Link can change day to night and vice versa, teleport to key locations, even summon your horse, Epona.
Where the treasured visuals, ambience and tonal shifts prepare you for different experiences on offer, the execution and vividness of the Ocarina of Time experience is something else to behold. Once the quest is over, that feeling of accomplishment is mirrored with reflection on Ocarina of Time’s vivid dungeons, be they beautiful (Forest Temple) or exasperating (Water Temple). And the bosses too remain vivid in the memory. The need to quickly shift from fire to ice against Twinrova, the grandstand final battle against Ganondorf/Ganon, even fighting a shadow version of yourself. I have found myself talking about them at some point for years and years now.
The genius and significance of Ocarina of Time lives on today. Not just through its various re-packages or Virtual Console releases, either. To say this was the first game of its kind and get so much of it right first time is simply incredible. The z-targeting system is used in some form even in games of today. The Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series allows you to centre on your given target. As does other series such as Bayonetta. Many of today’s games have hint systems for fear you could get lost, and Navi is Ocarina of Time’s answer to that.
Like many of Nintendo’s beloved back catalogue, Ocarina of Time remains remarkably on-point today. It is no surprise that following its release Ocarina of Time would go on to dominate Top 10 lists for years and years. There may be many experiences like it today, particularly from Nintendo themselves given this became the blueprint, but Ocarina of Time is still up there with the best. It is a magical adventure that will no doubt live on forever.