As The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time celebrates 20 years since release, it remains the finest, most beloved, and influential video game of all time to gamers all over the world, even two decades later.
The N64 classic is a generation-defining work of art, a game that informed and inspired the industry for decades after its release, and that rarest of all things – something that all gamers can actually agree on.
Even in 2018, Ocarina of Time still easily comes out on top as the best video game ever made. A ranking of the 100 greatest games of all time – compiled by regular gamers – has Nintendo’s adventure comfortably in first place, nearly 1,000 votes ahead of Skyrim.
You only need to take a look at reviews aggregator Metacritic for further confirmation of Ocarina’s greatness. The game sits proudly in the number one spot with an incredible 99, ahead of classics like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, GTA V, and Super Mario Galaxy.
In other words, it is objectively the best reviewed game in history. That is an indisputable fact. As sure as you can’t actually fly off of a building with a cuckoo above your head, Ocarina of Time is the most well received video game for as long as video games have been a thing.
I guess it shouldn’t really be that surprising. I don’t know many whose formative gaming careers weren’t spent exploring the fields, deserts, and lakes of this 3D Hyrule.
I don’t know anyone who wasn’t blown away when they discovered the Master Sword for the first time, or choked back tears as the credits rolled over a world that was finally safe from evil. A world that we’d spent dozens upon dozens of hours deeply invested in, thanks in no small part to the masterful way in which Nintendo essentially divided the game’s story into two chunks – something that works beautifully from both a design and story standpoint.
One of the things that’s always struck me about Ocarina of Time is the genius of the game’s first few hours, in which we play as a younger version of Link. This is the ‘first chapter’ of Ocarina of Time, if you will.
Not only does this first chapter serve as a way of sending Link on his journey to collect three spiritual stones to defeat the evil Ganon, it also gently eases the player into the rules of the game by presenting three smaller, easier to manage dungeons, and offers a brief tour of what Hryule has to offer while still teasing out a larger world.
Beyond that, it manages to endear you to the characters that inhabit this Hyrule during your initial tour of the land, making the shocking twist at the end of your journey as young Link all the more affecting.
I’m aware that this game is 20 years old, but if you don’t want to be spoiled I wouldn’t read on any further.
Once young Link has collected the three spiritual stones (which in itself feels like the end of an epic quest), players are faced with the Master Sword – a legendary blade, and a fine reward for your trials.
But in what I would maintain is still one of the greatest video game twists of all time, it turns out we’d played directly into the evil Ganon’s hands, giving him exactly what he wanted. Link wakes up seven years later, no longer a child but an adult, and chapter two of Ocarina of Time begins.
At this point, it becomes the player’s goal to explore this dark and twisted future version of Hyrule and undo everything Ganon has done in the seven years Link has been asleep. The game becomes more complex, opens up considerably, and throws out much more challenging, labyrinthian dungeons, and terrifyingly twisted bosses.
To my mind, this was an inspired move, one made all the better by the hours we’d spent as a younger Link in a version of Hyrule that wasn’t in ruin. That time we’d spent getting to know all of the characters – from the Zora Princess Ruto to the bizarre but loveable inhabitants of Hyrule Castle Town – gave us a reason to care about taking down Ganon and restoring the world.
At least personally, I wasn’t just interested in putting Hyrule back to normal because it’s what the game said I had to do, but because I’d been charmed by young Link’s peaceful, funny, and colourful Hyrule, and I felt a very real desire to fix things.
As I explored Hyrule as adult Link and saw everything Ganon had done, like destroying Castle Town, freezing Zora’s Domain, and locking up the Gorons, I was driven further and further to get to the end so I could stick the Master Sword right through Ganon’s head. When you finally get to do just that after one of the most epic boss battles in gaming it’s nothing short of sublime.
Of course, the fact that you could travel back in time by returning the Master Sword to its resting place, switching between young and adult Link to solve puzzles and explore two worlds that were near identical, but still wildly different from one another, only made the game even more astounding in scope and scale.
When Ocarina of Time released in 1998, the world had never seen anything quite like it. You can argue that all Nintendo did was take the Zelda ‘formula’ that they’d refined with the Super Nintendo classic A Link to the Past and translate it to a 3D environment, but consider what a huge technical and creative achievement that was at a time when nobody had done anything like that before.
Of course, Nintendo had had no small measure of success in bringing their other famous franchise to N64 two years earlier. Super Mario 64 was (and is) a classic that took the concept of 2D platforming and skilfully manoeuvred it to 3D, surgically removing or tweaking any aspects that didn’t work anymore.
But the Zelda games have always been more complex beasts than anything in the Super Mario series, and the idea of bringing Link, with his interconnecting overworld and puzzle-filled dungeons, to 3D must have been hugely daunting.
Lesser developers might well have scrapped the ‘open world’ of 2D Zelda games in favour of something that would be easier to work with in 3D. In fact, Nintendo very nearly did.
Shigeru Miyamoto – the creator of both Mario and Zelda – previously revealed in an old edition of Iwata Asks that he wasn’t sure if the N64 could handle an ‘open world’ like the Hyrule Field we eventually got.
Miyamoto’s original plan was to create a Zelda game more in line with Super Mario 64 – using Ganon’s castle as a hub world, Link would travel to different dungeons and levels via a series of paintings around the castle. In the “worst case”, Miyamoto said, “Link wouldn’t have been able to go outside the castle.”
In the end, the decision to go for it and create a proper 3D overworld came from Miyamoto’s desire to have Link ride a horse – something that he obviously couldn’t have done in a linear castle setting, not without running into walls and getting horse muck everywhere, anyway.
Making a broad landform that you could ride a horse across weighed down the processing, so we took it out for a while. And after a while I returned to work with the production team and launched a huge campaign to regain the grassland! We started by testing whether we could have two horses out at once. We thought if we could do that, then we could make other forms of play for that grassland. It went well, so we made a demo video with two horses. We showed that at Nintendo Space World7, and I was like, “Now that we’ve shown this, there’s no backing out!”
The end result was iconic, of course. Who can think of Ocarina of Time without recalling the first time they thundered across the field on Epona, Link’s trusty steed? These days riding a horse in a fantasy video game is pretty standard, but this was just another game-changer from Nintendo, and it made the world feel that much more massive.
The fact is, even if Ocarina of Time had been a more linear affair, in line with the kind of structure we saw in Super Mario 64, it still would have been incredible. But Nintendo pushed the development team and the N64 hardware to its absolute limits to create something truly groundbreaking, making the dungeons, bosses, and characters that much more immersive.
I should also point out that Nintendo basically invented the first workable concept for 3D combat in a video game too. Miyamoto and his team felt that the best way to deal with enemies in a 3D space was to be able to ‘lock on to’ them, a feature that’s now standard in pretty much every action adventure game around.
The ability to ‘Z-target’ an enemy suddenly meant that Link could lock into tense one-on-one duels. Our hero could strafe, backflip, block, roll, and jump from side to side as he fought enemies who would often have specific weak points or openings, turning every battle into a deadly game of chess.
Again, it’s a feature that hasn’t aged brilliantly and has clearly been perfected in the years since, but this massive innovation was born out of Nintendo’s drive to make Ocarina of Time the very best game it could be.
So that’s Nintendo’s first 3D Zelda, more or less. A towering technical achievement, and a staggeringly ambitious game that consistently innovated, surprised, and delighted. It has more than earned the high scores and praise it received – and continues to receive.
Quite honestly, I can’t think of any gamer that hasn’t been touched by some aspect of Ocarina of Time, be it the majestic score by Koji Kondo, the memorable bosses, or simply striking out across Hyrule field for the first time.
But I’m sure we can all agree that this bloody owl can do one.
The Legend of Zelda is widely loved and respected by fans and critics everywhere, but Ocarina of Time is the title that took a near-perfect franchise, and made it truly legendary.
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Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.