Ocarina of Time happened at the wrong time. Not so much for the fortunes of its original platform, the Nintendo 64, nor legions of Zelda fans old and new around the word – the game would sell two and a half million copies between its November 20th release and the end of the year. But said year, 1998, was one where a lot changed for me personally. I turned 18 in the spring, and… Well, let’s just say that video games suddenly weren’t so much of a priority.
A familiar story, I’m sure – one that many readers will be able to relate to. And, just like so many of you, it didn’t take too long before my love of video games – something that’d been forged by the ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga and SEGA Master System long before my first Nintendo acquisitions – re-established itself, with social sessions aplenty spent in front of PlayStations and N64s, through college and university.
But while we’d go Baron-to-Bowler in multiplayer GoldenEye matches and chase each other through Choco Mountain on Mario Kart 64, the fact that I didn’t own an N64 at the time – I eventually bought one in my early 30s – meant I couldn’t really explore its single-player titles. And certainly not a significant time-sink of an adventure like Ocarina of Time.
But finally, for its 20th anniversary, I have played the game that earned unanimous acclaim at launch, a swathe of perfect scores, and still sits top of Metacritic’s best-ever list. Caveat: I’ve done so using the 2011 3DS version (even more specifically, using a 2DS XL). But I am a creature of convenience, and portable play is my preferred way to dip into older games.
The problem with doing just that, revisiting archive titles, is that history is rarely kind to video games. Visuals can dull (subjective though that assessment will always be), mechanics become outdated, forgivable quirks transform into painful problems. Gaming has never been as good as it is today – and this time next year, we’ll be able to say the same thing all over again, until the end of time itself. It’s the nature of the medium, determinedly progressive and tech-driven as it is, and the industry that surrounds it. So, I started Ocarina of Time, in 2018, with some apprehension.
I needn’t have worried. Some things resist the ravages of time, crystallising as they do an era, a genre, in such a way as to, if you’ll pardon the cliché, become timeless. And I was – I am – relieved to discover that Ocarina of Time is such a video game. After putting some 200 hours into Breath of the Wild, I never expected a 20-year-old ancestor of the Switch’s preeminent role-player to be quite as engrossing, as nuanced and layered, as something with 21st century design philosophy driving it.
(And this is a good moment to add: spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time follow.)
But then, both BOTW and Ocarina of Time are built on the go-anywhere explorative foundations of the very first Zelda game. Ocarina might pair Link with the ever-chattering fairy companion Navi, but her where-to-go-next advice need not always be immediately heeded, leaving the player free to explore a three-dimensional Hyrule that, records attest, was remarkable in 1998. In 2018, while compact by contemporary standards and undeniably empty in several areas, it still impresses once you leave the opening Kokiri Forest hub.
And it’s a big enough world to make travelling exclusively on foot something of a chore. Which leads me, neatly, to one of the surprising things about my overdue debut play of Ocarina of Time. Epona, Link’s horse and 3DS cover co-star, isn’t a steed you’re guaranteed to call your own during the course of the game’s central story, as the way to gain access to the fleet-footed friend isn’t explicitly woven into Link’s quest.
Rather, it’s a case of wandering, listening, reciting melodies – an all-important part of Ocarina of Time, alongside time travel, as its title makes abundantly clear – and having enough rupees in your pocket to enter into a wager with a crooked ranch hand. Where Breath of the Wild naturally funnels the player towards taming a wild horse, Ocarina of Time just leaves one in the game for you to acquire of your own accord.
Or, of course, by using a guide – which I am unashamed to say I have been, during my playthrough. It’s helped a lot with some dungeons, and for learning (about) optional songs. The Scarecrow Song, for example, has proven invaluable. It’s an anomaly amongst the melodies here, as Link actually recites it to a sentient scarecrow on the shore of Lake Hylia as a child (write it down!), and must then recall it, with note-perfect accuracy, as an adult to unlock access to a handy strawman buddy who’ll help Link access otherwise unreachable areas, to grab treasure or avoid tough enemies. Before learning the various tunes of temple teleportation, this shortcut-enabler is a godsend.
Something else I wasn’t ready for is the darkness that creeps across Ocarina of Time. It’s not as grim as its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, which I’ve previously played; but knowing as I do the significance of the Great Deku Tree to Zelda lore, it’s a shock to see the famous forest spirit turn as black as an ’86 Optimus Prime and die so early in this game.
The way that parts of Hyrule are completely devastated once series big-bad Ganon(dorf) reveals his true colours is also fairly remarkable, with Hyrule Castle Town creepier here, populated by shrieking, zombie-like ReDeads, than its ruins are in BOTW. No, the graphics aren’t amazing, this being a low-res handheld; but even with limited detail, albeit vastly improved on the N64 original, this version of Ocarina of Time is ripe with atmosphere.
Combat, it turns out, isn’t so different to more modern Zeldas, with locking onto enemies essential given the 3D space and lack of an easily controllable camera – there’s no C-Stick functionality, with Ocarina preceding the little nub’s incorporation. There are times when the camera irritates, with Link falling through an unseen hole in the floor or being blindsided by a hidden enemy lurking off-screen. Some bosses are more exciting to face off against than others, but that’s par for the course for this series, and the same is true of the dungeons – oh, how I never intend to set foot in Jabu Jabu’s Belly ever again.
But even 20 years on, any complaints to be levelled at Ocarina of Time are really nothing more than nitpicks, irritations that won’t be the same for everyone. Personally, I’m so pleased to have discovered that this is a certified classic – according to the ancient scriptures of archive magazines, at least – that does hold up in the present day.
Indeed, it more than holds up – Ocarina of Time still plays terrifically, even ported to a platform it isn’t native to. It has a degree of depth and mystery that constantly rewards the curious player, and offers a healthy level of challenge that can be modified, effectively, by your own choices regarding equipment and magic use. And if you want it to be tough, oh boy, Ocarina can be tough. And that’s before you even entertain the idea of attempting the Master Quest version.
So if you, like me, somehow missed out on this landmark release on the N64, or the GameCube (lest I fail to acknowledge that port), please be assured that Ocarina of Time is a legitimately fantastic video game, right now. It doesn’t look as shiny as later Zeldas, but has an aesthetic consistency throughout that draws you into its world. Navi can get on your nerves a bit, but I guess you can turn the sound down. There are characters aplenty that you’ll already know from later games. And while you’ll have to wander off the beaten track to get the most out of it, isn’t that part and parcel of all mainline Zelda games?
Those first steps onto Hyrule Field can’t amaze like they would have done in 1998 – but on the small screen, in 2018, the moment remains an invitation to a most wonderful adventure.