Above its obvious importance, it should be noted that Ocarina of Time is ultimately a fantastic gaming experience; one that may not be as great today as it was back when it was released, but a journey that remains engaging and surprising
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was born with a task, and it was not one of the small kind. Released in 1998, therefore a whole two years after the launch of the Nintendo 64, the game does not actually qualify as one of the system’s first releases. As such, long before its arrival, the world had already been given plenty of proof that gameplay formats that were successful in 2-D could be nicely translated to the tridimensional realm while both maintaining their essence and taking advantage of the added plane to expand their mechanics. By then, despite the existence of numerous glorious fails that showcased the transition was not an easy leap, examples of that achievement were already plenty, and from Super Mario 64 to GoldenEye 007, they spanned various genres and were produced by a slew of companies. Ocarina of Time, nevertheless, had quite a full plate in front of it.
Firstly, there was the fact that, although obviously not as popular as the quests of the mustachioed plumber, the adventures starred by Link were simply bigger; for where in Mario games the action was contained within standalone environments, in The Legend of Zelda the challenges that had to be overcome unfolded in a fully connected world that felt whole. Secondly, there was how the saga’s gameplay, reliant on complex puzzles, precise structural arrangements, frequent swordsmanship, and the usage of a resourceful set of tools was rather complex, involving an extra range of variables that became especially hard to tame in 3-D and that did not have to be handled by other tridimensional pioneers. Lastly, but certainly not least, there was the franchise’s strong relation to detailed storylines, a tendency that became especially apparent in the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past and that, with the new hardware brought in by the Nintendo 64, would unquestionably be more demanded.
Yet, somehow, in a turn of events that seems simultaneously the result either of sheer wizardry or of an incomprehensible miracle, Ocarina of Time nails every single one of those trials. The world it builds, in spite of how simple and small it may come off to eyes used to modern gaming standards, is a gigantic accomplishment in a vast amount of areas, being able to immerse and intrigue whilst offering a satisfying package of secrets to those that give in to the temptation to dive deep into its mysteries. The gameplay it contains is polished from a technical standpoint, as the title grabs a firm hold of the dangers found in the 3-D universe, and moving from a creative perspective, as it merges pure cleverness with an uncanny ability to use the newly found depth of its visuals to propel its puzzle-solving to a whole new level. Finally, the story it boasts is a marvelous tale so big it encompasses seven years and so smoothly written it joins past and present with enviable seamlessness.
That tale begins inside a house located deep within Kokiri Forest. Inhabited by a race of forest folk garbed in green that seem to never grow up, the place lies in the furthest reaches of the kingdom of Hyrule. Sleeping alone in one of the huts and recently plagued by nightmares is Link, a boy who, differently from all the other Kokiri, never received a fairy of his own. As the game starts, though, a fairy, named Navi, does come to him. She has a message from the forest’s guardian, the Great Deku Tree, who wishes to see Link as soon as possible. After grabbing hold of a sword and a shield, the boy quickly heads to the encounter.
There, he is greeted by dire news. A wicked man of the desert has begun to cast a shadow upon the land, as he seeks an ancient power that will make him unstoppable. Foreseeing that Link has an important role to play in this story, the Great Deku Tree tasks him with saving the world, a goal that – as he is told – must be accomplished by first heading to Hyrule Castle in order to meet with Princess Zelda. And as he departs from the forest that has served as a safe shelter for him through all of his years, Link will slowly come across signs that confirm the world has started to be affected by the vicious quest for power of the antagonist.
Given the daunting challenge with which Ocarina of Time is faced, the game is smart and quick in grabbing some sort of shortcut to help it land the jump into 3-D and achieve its notable greatness; and that road goes by the name of A Link to the Past. Thriving in the impressive talent of the team that built it as well as in the hardware of the Super Nintendo, that adventure worked towards bringing the franchise’s gameplay to full maturity, not only by smoothing out rough edges but also by giving it a more defined structure. And it is precisely over those bones that Ocarina of Time is constructed.
Like the 16-bit classic, Ocarina of Time is broken up into two clear acts; and in both, the goal is essentially the same: find a way to access a specific dungeon, clear it, collect the plot-related item that is guarded by its boss, and repeat the process until all the needed artifacts are gathered. However, the pair of fragments into which the plot is divided play somewhat distinctively from one another, because what stands between them is a major story occurrence that significantly alters Hyrule itself. In the case of Ocarina of Time, that event basically involves Link being thrown into a seven-year slumber and the wicked man of the desert, Ganondorf, making good use of that interval during which the hero was out of action to simply take over the kingdom.
Saying that Ocarina of Time capitalizes on that leap through time would be an understatement; although that jump is far from being the only component that has an influence over the game’s notable quality, it is unquestionably its defining trait, and a lot of its greatness stems from it. Even if not exactly different when it comes to controlling, Link’s child and adult versions have totally unique sets of equipment, as pretty much all items gathered in the initial half of the game cannot be used by the hero’s older version and vice-versa; consequently, the puzzles they encounter in their respective journeys stand pleasantly apart.
Yet more meaningful is the visible shift in the game’s tone. As he walks out of Kokiri Forest for the first time, Link will bump into troubles that have been caused by Ganondorf’s influence, and solving them will be intimately connected to the dungeons he will have to clear in that stage of the quest. As the story hops ahead, the formula will remain steady; however, what once were bothersome problems will have, for the most part, taken a far heavier weight: corruption will give way to destruction; places that held onto peace will have turned into nightmarish landscapes; and where there was bustling life, one may stumble upon death.
It is a setup that works on many levels simultaneously. Even though the first act already feels decently big, the disastrous turn of events that marks the movement between time periods transforms the primary half – in hindsight – into a spectacular introduction to an adventure that suddenly becomes a lot more epic than it already was. Furthermore, despite being, in physical terms, the same kingdom in the two eras, the alterations that Ganondorf’s rule brings to Hyrule open up the quest even more, for it allows Link to reach places that he previously could not get to, to find a purpose to locations that seemed empty when he first walked by them, and to see how the same scenario can turn into something else entirely following a seven-year gap.
That transition also bears fruits in gameplay. It goes without saying that, since they are assisted by completely different pieces of equipment, there are items and quests – both mandatory and optional – that can only be completed by one of Link’s two versions. More impactful, however, are the tasks which involve actions in both eras, a trick that Nintendo cleverly employs in a small scale, such as by letting the younger hero plant seeds that in the future will become traveling platforms, and in a much greater scope, like the time-related puzzle that allows Link to ride his faithful horse, Epona, and even an entire dungeon that can only be completed if child and adult – albeit each in their own period – work together. In all cases, players can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that traveling through time can be done repeatedly and straightforwardly.
As if all of that were not enough, time also plays a part in giving a great deal of resonance to the storyline that Ocarina of Time carries. It is not just a matter of presenting the idea that its adventure is so grand and grave that it happens across many years; although that is certainly quite an important aspect of the package. It is, mostly, the way through which Nintendo joins the two acts into a cohesive unit that is almost impossibly well-tied.
That quality manifests in how Link and Zelda vividly mature as the years go by; in how Ganondorf realistically goes from a sneaky man that comes from a distant part of the kingdom to the menacing ruler of the land; in how minor characters that were walking around when the hero was a kid appropriately reappear, sometimes very much changed and occasionally totally unaltered, down the line; and in how the strongest bonds that are built in the past prove to be quite valuable in the future when the hope of the kingdom is hanging by a thread.
No amount of excellence in plot, concept, and ideas would have allowed Ocarina of Time to succeed as masterfully as it did in its ultimate task if they were not backed up by great execution; and as attested by history itself, the title also does very well in that regard, showing an understanding of the complexities that exist in 3-D environments that seems borderline otherworldly for 1998. And such maturity comes through in how the adventure materializes not one, but a series of innovations that would go on to become essential building blocks of tridimensional gaming, qualifying – nowadays – as utterly obvious considering their ubiquitousness.
Its context-sensitive commands, which allow the A button, for example, to make Link roll, grab onto objects, let himself go when hanging from ledges, and perform numerous other actions depending on the situation he is in, go a long way towards simplifying interactions between players and a world that can contain a wide range of scenarios. Meanwhile, the three directions on the C-pad that can be assigned to hold pieces of equipment not just diminish the chances one will have to pause the game multiple times to use tools, but also let users essentially configure their controller setup on the go. Finally, the camera features a mostly automatic behavior that works wonderfully well whilst also giving gamers the chance to seamlessly reset it by pressing the Z button and having it immediately move behind Link, an option that is finely explored by the quest especially in tight corners around which the character must peak to check if the way forward is safe.
Those innovations, however, play second fiddle to the biggest one of all: the target-lock system. With it, as the Z button is pressed, Link will automatically put his focus on whatever potential target is nearby; from that moment onwards, any movement the character makes will happen in relation to that object, allowing him to freely walk around while constantly keeping the focal point in sight. The benefits of the target-lock system are uncountable, and the way they streamline various aspects of gameplay is astounding.
For starters, it keeps 3-D duels, which are quite common in Ocarina of Time, away from being messy occurrences that involve running around blindly and constantly adjusting the camera to desperately keep the foe visible. Instead, these moments, be them against minor foes or major bosses, are actually thrilling skirmishes that let players concentrate on what is important: footwork, dodging, and the timely use of the sword and shield. And since all of those moves are super simple to perform, battles are an utter joy to tackle.
In addition, when more than one enemy is present, the Z button can be used to smoothly switch between targets, which greatly streamlines combats against larger hordes. To top it all off, tools that involve targeting – like the boomerang and the bow – can also be employed in conjunction with the system, a fact that besides supporting the easy integration of those assets into battles, makes it simpler to use them to solve puzzles that involve the timely or the precise hitting of targets as well.
The gameplay of Ocarina of Time, though, does not shine exclusively due to its technical achievements, for it is also powered by good old creativity. The quests that precede the dungeons are great in taking advantage of the nice scenario variety sported by Hyrule, of the remarkable characters that inhabit the kingdom, and of the tools Link has at his disposal; as such, they are able to build up to the mazes in a junction of adventure, puzzle-solving, and storytelling that is both satisfying and flexible. Thanks to how it constructs an original challenge for every portion of the adventure, at no point does it feel like the game is walking into old territory, as it pushes players towards stealth segments, investigations that entail plenty of interactions with other characters, battles versus varied foes, a few mini-dungeons, some horse-riding, and – of course – joyful exploration.
It is, however, inside the dungeons themselves where the game makes the best use of its new perspective. Although the five mazes of the adventure’s second half are clearly superior in relation to the three of the first act, all of them shine in their own way, expanding the franchise’s puzzle-solving component – which was already pretty great – to new heights. The added dimension considerably raises the bar of what designers are able to put together and gives them plenty of opportunities to generate exciting moments of epiphany, which are achieved not just because of how many of the buildings have structures that force players to reason and sometimes even backtrack to locate keys they missed, but also in the way they test Link’s usage of his equipment.
That set of tools has a lot of old familiar faces, like the boomerang, for hitting switches and stunning bad guys, and the hookshot, which has those two effects too but that also allows the hero to physically reach distant ledges. At the same time, it introduces a few notable pieces that bolster gameplay, such as the iron boots, which let Link walk underwater; the Lens of Truth, which reveal fake surfaces and invisible platforms; the Megaton Hammer, which crushes boulders and rusted switches; and, needless to say, the titular Ocarina of Time, an item that is not exactly valuable within the dungeons – with one major exception – but that has a lot of purpose outside them, as the different tunes the character will learn through his quest will have important uses that include changing day into night and vice versa, warping, summoning Epona, and a few others.
The same positive effect that the 3-D space has on the mazes can also be felt on the bosses that are encountered in the dungeons’ midway and closing points. Those duels do a fine job in exploring the environments where they happen, in making good use of the target-lock system, and in putting Link’s equipment to the test. They are, essentially, puzzles themselves, and many of them still rank among the best boss battles that the franchise has ever produced.
The cherry on top of it all comes in the form of Ocarina of Time’s numerous sidequests. Like the saga’s titles that preceded it, the game features numerous Heart Pieces (thirty-six of them) spread around Hyrule, and these are usually tied either to the exploration of the map, to the solving of optional puzzles, to the helping of someone in need, or even to a couple of nice mini-games. Likewise, the quest also possesses a bunch of non-mandatory items that can come quite in handy, such as expansions to the amount of bombs, arrows, and cash the character can carry; some mighty magic spells; a couple of equipment upgrades; and even one incredible sword that can only be obtained following a lengthy and thrilling trading sequence. In a twist of good design, Ocarina of Time is rarely abrasive in presenting those extras, as most of them can be found through in-game tips.
Finally, to those who are into thoroughly combing environments, there are the ten Big Poes lurking in Hyrule Field and the one hundred Gold Skulltulas scattered around the world. Present pretty much anywhere, including within dungeons, the latter are golden spiders which serve as the ultimate collectible of Ocarina of Time; and like the other optional tasks, finding them all can be reasonably achieved without any external help thanks to the distinctive noise they make. Nevertheless, given their considerable quantity and the fact they are sometimes positioned in rather obscure locations, hunting every single of them down is a goal reserved to the most dedicated fans.
Needless to say, even with all of the qualities it carries, the advances in technology that have taken place since the release of Ocarina of Time have caused many of its elements to lose some luster; in fact, save for its stunning soundtrack, not one area remains unscathed. Its overworld, which was a revelation in 1998, is a humble and relatively empty open field that connects the various distinctive areas where the action truly unfolds. Its visuals, which are easily among the best the Nintendo 64 produced without the aid of the Expansion Pack, hold up fine but are far from impressive; in particular, they suffer quite a bit due to the poor textures the game deploys indoors and around Hyrule Castle Town. Finally, a couple of its features could have been better handled, like the somewhat cumbersome way the iron boots are deployed; the lack of purpose for Epona; and Navi’s annoying habit of calling Link’s attention for silly reasons.
It is hard to envision, however, how Ocarina of Time could have been improved in a significant way, even if slightly, because it takes care of the daunting task that was put in front of it with a mastery that is uncanny for a title that came so early in the era of tridimensional gaming. It is utterly natural, given Nintendo’s stunning competence, that all 3-D The Legend of Zelda installments that followed it are superior in at least one major area.
Majora’s Mask has a more distinctive vibe and stronger gameplay outside dungeons; The Wind Waker does a better job at implementing exploration and creating full-fledged sidequests; Twilight Princess feels like a grander and more thoroughly realized perspective on the Ocarina of Time structure; Skyward Sword tops it in inventiveness; Breath of the Wild operates in a level that is so different that comparisons become too one-sided; and the trend will continue as the saga advances. Yet, the steps those entries took were all solidly built over what Ocarina of Time laid down; they were only possible because the leap into 3-D was made so successfully and established so many vital mechanics. Above its obvious importance, though, it should be noted that Ocarina of Time is ultimately a fantastic gaming experience; one that may not be as great today as it was back when it was released, but a journey that remains engaging and surprising, generating a myriad of feelings and sensations through storyline and gameplay that simply cannot be denied.