NA Release Date: November 23, 1998 (N64)
Initial Playthrough: c. December, 1998 (N64)
Replay: c. October, 2019 – April, 2020 (3DS)
Here we are now, at the start of it all. I mentioned in the intro to this project that it was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the release of OOT, which was my first introduction to Zelda. Needless to say, as a nearly universally-agreed high watermark of the series and beyond that a genre-defining game, I really enjoyed this as a 10 year-old kid. It set me off on an obsession which would ebb and flow throughout the years, but (clearly) never fully abated.
As I was thinking back on it though and I found myself wondering if it was really that good, or if it was an accident of timing that it caught me at precisely the right moment. I’m happy to report that, to probably no one’s surprise, my concern was unfounded. Ocarina of Time is a thoroughly enjoyable game- all the more with the visual upgrade and modern flourishes to the control scheme afforded by the 3D version which I played for the first time over the last few months (albeit on a 2DS, so I can’t comment on the True 3D-ness aspect).
This writeup is a little tougher because I took so many notes while playing through, the bulk of which can be categorized as variations on “I didn’t remember that…”, “Did that always look that way?” or “This was just as cool as it was the first time.” But we’ll do our best not to have this turn into a complete nostalgia-trip.
(Almost) Everything Looks Sharper
It’s worth mentioning up at the front that the team at Grezzo did an excellent job with the fresh coat of paint they gave OOT for its 3DS outing. While Link’s nose is no longer suitable for cutting glass, owing to the increased polygon count in many places and more detailed textures, this is still universally a good thing. At first, the additional content afforded by the higher resolution textures threw me, and I was spending time looking at every little detail on random walls to try and divine their hidden meanings… of which there usually there isn’t much, but that’s fine.
The detail only looks out of place when you’re so used to interacting with this world while squinting through at a fuzzy CRT display. I remember firing up the GameCube emulated copy several years ago on a modern display and being taken aback how unkind the years had been to the graphics. You get over it after a bit, but it was nice to be dropped back into this iteration of Hyrule and have it buffed out for modern hardware to avoid that particular shock again.
Other quality-of-life improvements, like the 3DS’s second screen accommodating a (very welcome) new inventory management system, allow for the main screen to be de-cluttered of HUD elements, making the game a little more immersive. The only addition I didn’t really think was needed were the Sheikah Stones, which show you a short clip of Link doing the next thing he needs to do to advance the plot. They’re a little too large and garish, and I guess I don’t see why people can’t still look up what they need to do on GameFAQs like in the old days, but maybe that’s me.
This Game Is… Easy?
I poured untold hours into this game on my N64 back in the day. While some of that was mindless hunting down claims of the then-nascent internet rumor mill, there was a pretty solid chunk of it spent just trying to grind through the main quest. I was not very good at this as a child of 10, as the creased, worn, haggard pages of my PRIMA Official Strategy guide will readily admit. Like many who played the original version, I still harbor a mounting sense of dread when it comes time to head over to Lake Hylia and plumb the depths of the Water Temple.
Granted: the 3DS version has gone to some effort to make the water raising/lowering mechanism a little more tractable, and the inventory management improvements makes the Iron Boots pretty fun, rather than a chore. Still, after just a bit more than an hour of methodically scouring each room in turn and progressing steadily forward… Morpha had been reduced to a little droplet of goo and I was headed back to the surface. What…? Where was the agony, the endless wandering through dim corridors comprised of identically-textured walls? This was not the Water Temple of my youth.
The working theory is that several things conspired to make this happen: first, the 3DS version more clearly signposts how the water mechanics function; next, I am (slightly) better at solving video game puzzles than I was 20+ years ago; finally, against all odds some of this information (enemy strategies, tricky item locations) is still rattling around in my brain after all those years away. And yet, it wasn’t just the Water Temple. All the temples were handily solved in play sessions which seldom reached longer than 90 minutes, with little frustration and no need of guides.
Perhaps borne from our years of history together, this game proved the perfect difficulty level for me. Juuuust tough enough that many tasks aren’t trivial, but not so tough that I didn’t see the Game Over screen more than 2 – 3 times across the leisurely 31.5 hours it took to complete the game. Most other games I’m so limited in my time to play that I’m reaching for a guide for the sake of expediency- the purist in me thoroughly vanquished by a lethal combination of pragmatism and responsibilities.
So… it was nice for once to just roll through something and not really get stuck anywhere. [Full Disclosure: I did pull up a tutorial for the damn fishing minigame, which I still pretty much hate, even though I am very proud of my 18-lb non-loach.]
This is The Zelda Game
Lots of people like this game- fine. I do too; it’s really fun to play, and certainly the advances it made in gameplay were huge in pushing console game design forward, not to mention the excellent art and sound contributions as well. Let’s take all that as a given, though. I think there’s a more nuanced argument to be made as for what makes this the quintessential entry in the series.
First, this game has the most ‘canonical’ feel to it. Almost everything from the main series which follows it has a type of gimmick added (tons more masks, sailing, Wolf-Link, sky-world), while the mobile games almost exclusively take place in Not Hyrule (or have their own gimmick ie: flattening, shrinking, multiplayer). The earliest games are almost unrecognizable in visuals and gameplay to a modern audience. None of this is leveled as criticism, but I’d argue that all of these examples each have a little something extra, or a bit of something missing, from what we’ve come to collectively consider as the ‘core’ of a Zelda game.
The only entry that slips past much of this is LTTP, which acts in a similar role in laying the groundwork for a lot of the worldbuilding and musical themes which have become series mainstays. Even then, I think with Link’s weird little red-shoed, pink-hatted sprite appearing in that title, we might give the tie to OOT. What about time travel as the gimmick? Sure, it is… but it’s implemented so seamlessly it doesn’t feel tacked on. You just happen to be partaking in the unadulterated Zelda dungeon crawling experience in two different timelines which are similar enough to not really take you ‘out of it.’ Braving these labyrinths to collect sacred (but mostly useless!) MacGuffins is essential to the series, while the other mechanics listed are arguably not.
It helps too that the dungeon design was so well executed that many if not all of the ‘Adult’ timeline temples and most of their bosses are considered paragons of the series in their own rights. The exploration facet of the franchise is also on full display here in a way that wouldn’t really truly be surpassed until decades later with BOTW- though in more recent years you’ll hear the critique that OOT’s Hyrule Field is largely empty. However, that’s almost part of its appeal, one might argue. Much of the (real) world is simply empty space- fields, forests, mountain ranges, lakes, deserts, etc. It takes time for you to get places on foot, and it was this field which first felt like a real world where you could roam.
Probably because it was my introduction to the series, I always thought of OOT as the prototypical Zelda game. My argument now is that, after all these years and with a great deal of perspective on the series, I still think that’s the right call.
There’s Some Story In That Plot
Maybe what keeps me coming back though, after all this time, is still the little beats that make OOT so memorable. The level design often plays some role here: Link-as-Jonah entering the whale Jabu Jabu, or as Orpheus descending into Hades by boat on the river Styx in the death-obsessed Shadow Temple are both good examples. Both draw on well-established myths to impart a sense of larger gravity to this particular outing in the Hyrule Fantasy. Other moments, like Koume and Kotake’s incessant bickering even as they become ghosts and pass on to the afterlife, inject a surprising amount of personality into characters who get relatively little screen time.
Sheik’s arc is the inverse of this- a slow burn where small crumbs are dropped as you advance. The player likely catches on much earlier than Link with regard to what’s happening, but the reveal is no less satisfying for it. While this conceit is used again in WW, here it is telegraphed somewhat more subtly; in both cases it’s quite gratifying to see Zelda with some agency in the story.
Stealing Epona is another high point of the game’s writing: that you know the horse from childhood, and that said bond is the only way you can outwit the usurping ranch hand Ingo is a nice payoff of the time jump mechanic which comes (potentially) early in the plot progression. All the better that the in-game reward is your trusty steed who expedites the additional travel required in the Adult Timeline quest.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t say something about Dark Link, who still manages to captivate my imagination despite his relatively brief interlude. The attention to small details- that Link’s shadow disappears upon passing the dead tree at the center of the chamber and reappears as he turns around to find it given form by some unexplained malevolence is a deft touch. That the battle is so much harder if you rely on targeting is the best kind of twist to throw at the player. That no explanation is ever offered concerning this encounter, one of the game’s most challenging, and its occurrence right at the midpoint of the Adult Timeline dungeon sequence makes it all the more mysterious…
Wrap-Up: Winners and Losers
Winner: Sheik. I for one am still pining for the chance to play as Sheik/Zelda in a real Zelda game, though I’m sure we’ve all learned to make do with SSB.
Loser: Zelda. If you subscribe to any of the meta-narrative with the timeline split and such, OOT Zelda can conceivably be blamed for a lot of the troubles which Link and his successive incarnations end up having to recon with. Plus who goes off to battle a demonic overlord in his hell-scape of a castle in a ball gown…?
Winner: Ganondorf. Referenced in LTTP, here we actually meet the man behind the snout. Fashioning a human antecedent to the nasty pig beast we’d come to fear/loathe was a really clever turn and it’s well executed here. Understanding Ganondorf as a true character raises the tension since anyone familiar with the prior entries knows there’s only one way his arc ends.
Loser: Great Fairies. No amount of polish from the 3D version will ever do anything about that ear-splitting cackle… and I never, ever liked their design as moss-clad and buxom. They always struck me as garish and out-of-sync with the rest of the game.
Winner: The Goddesses. Here we start to flesh out some of the creation myth of Hyrule with some quality deathbed-exposition from the Great Deku Tree. I always thought it was cool that they looked like Emmys.
Loser: The Triforce. Perhaps the most striking counter-argument to my ‘this is the most pure Zelda experience’ thesis is that the Triforce is never seen fully assembled, even if it is the primary driver of the plot. Players spent years hunting for this thing in the game, and it’s just not there 🙁
The Legend of Zelda and time travel is a pretty classic peanut butter / chocolate situation for me: two great tastes, taste great together. It occurred to me as I was working on this that the time jump mechanic also allowed the creators to drastically increase the playable content in the game without having to proportionally scale the number new resources (character models, textures, environments, etc.) that would otherwise be required to do that (a similar trick they’d employ to turn around MM so quickly).
It’s a little shortcut that ended up paying big dividends. All the more amazing that this game would go on to cement its place in the ‘greatest games of all time’ pantheon after the long and torturous development cycle it had, though that’s a story for another day. For now, on a personal note, I’m just glad to report that this classic from many of our collective childhoods has held up extremely well, and remains my gold standard against which all other games are compared.
A Link to the Past (3DS Virtual Console)