The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Ocarina of Time is essentially the Holy Grail of video games, and it’s easy to understand why. If Super Mario 64 was the first grand leap into 3D gaming, then Ocarina of Time was the solid landing. It’s not that it manages to outright avoid the clunkiness of other early 3D games, but it does enough to mitigate those issues to still hold up well enough mechanically for a new player to enjoy the places where it truly excels.

The key feature of OoT’s mechanical design is the lock-on camera. Instead of constantly having to wrangle with camera controls, a simple button press allows the player to keep a single enemy in focus. But I’m not one to overemphasize revolutionary features – this idea has been replicated hundreds of times over, and the feature has been improved. If simple technological leaps were the only element Ocarina of Time had going for it, then there would be no reason for a modern player to favor it over the sequels.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time captures a sense of scale like few other games. It all starts with a humble beginning, young Link exploring Kokiri Forest to gather his sword and shield before assisting the nearby Great Deku Tree with a curse eating away at his insides. This tree sends the young boy on a quest to protect Princess Zelda from the nefarious Ganondorf.

Our perception of size is not necessarily proportional to the actual size of a game’s map. Part of the magic of a game like Ocarina of Time is how it captures the imagination in getting from one point to another. So many of its best surprises are from the realization that some important location or item has been just out of the way the entire time. An area turning out to feature more content than expected does just as much to impress as a wide open map where everything is scattered about.

Kakariko Village is the perfect embodiment of this detailed design. On first visit, it feels like a nice breather zone before continuing up to the Gorons. But a bit of exploration reveals a few mysterious locations, such as a graveyard or a windmill. The narrative eventually necessitates a return to this quaint village to discover the dark secrets hidden beneath. No area in Ocarina of Time’s version of Hyrule feels like a simple stop along the way. All of these places are hiding some secret, whether it be a heart piece or two or an entire central dungeon tucked away.

All of this is centered on Ocarina of Time’s turning point, when young Link grabs the Master Sword and wakes up seven years later. In this time, the world has fallen into ruin. Like Final Fantasy VI and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before it, this moment creates the sense of a completely new world to explore. That opening trip out of Hyrule Castle and through the town is especially effective, with the town in shambles and swarming with ReDead.

This transition causes a few neat elements to pop up. Most importantly, with the world changed, many of these mysterious areas become accessible. But what makes this especially interesting is that Link can also jump back in time, with some locations requiring interaction in both periods after the jump.

But the heart of nearly every Zelda game is the dungeons, and Ocarina of Time simply has phenomenal dungeon design. Each of these are filled with strong puzzles and enemies, and figuring out where to go next can be a challenge. The Forest Temple stands as one of the most iconic locations in the series, an eerie, overgrown mansion with twisting corridors and a complex structure. Even getting to this temple is a challenge, forcing Link to navigate the Lost Woods and then a maze. The Spirit Temple makes great use of the age mechanic. Few of the later Zelda games really capture the masterful complexity of these designs.

While Ocarina of Time may have captured our collective attention with its improvements on 3D gameplay mechanics, it is the detailed world design which makes it an enduring classic. Even writing about it now, nearly a decade after my last playthrough, I’m in awe of how much was packed into this relatively small world. While Ocarina of Time laid the foundation for the 3D Zelda series, few of its sequels have even attempted a similarly narrow-yet-expansive design. Every inch of this game has soul.

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