Anyone who's ever spent a decent amount of time with video games probably has a small handful of momentous memories etched on their brains. Not just that time you beat a gruelling boss or played Mario Kart with your pals at Paul's birthday party — more pretentious than that. We mean a time when your perception of what was possible in the medium itself was expanded in some way; an instant when you thought Wow... I didn't realise games could do that.
Thinking back, I remember watershed moments playing online with friends in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (the first one) and Left 4 Dead which felt as potent as any team-based activity in the real world, perhaps more so thanks to the bonds formed through digital hardship involving zombies and gunships. Though not the first open-world video game ever, Breath of the Wild will have expanded the horizons of many players poking at its possibility space and discovering its joys for the first time. Everyone will have their own games and experiences that stuck with them for one reason or another, and for me one particularly potent moment from the 64-bit era sticks in my mind — and it was nothing more than a calm vista following a hard night in Hyrule Field.
I remember heading into Ocarina of Time's Lake Hylia for the very first time way back in 1998. The sun was still down and I distinctly recall standing and watching the water as the dark blue sky turned — gradually — to pink and being dumbstruck by the morning mist forming over the lake. It felt like I could inhale lungfuls of that cold wet air just sitting there with an N64 pad in my hands.
It was an all-too-brief moment thanks to Ocarina's speedy day-night cycle, but those 5-10 seconds at the shore of Lake Hylia left a lasting impression on me. It was a real 'games can do this?!?!?' moment, and as the rooster crowed signalling the arrival of day (and the Hyrule Field theme), my young mind had been expanded with the sheer possibilities of a growing medium, one that could capture so beautifully such a natural, ephemeral moment.
those 5-10 seconds at the shore of Lake Hylia left a lasting impression on me. It was a real 'games can do this?!?!?' moment
When I played the remarkable 3DS Ocarina remake, I sought to recreate that moment. Grezzo did a fantastic job touching up the aged classic, improving the visuals and frame rate to better match your mind's eye version of the game (rather than the 50Hz reality we Europeans experienced with the PAL cartridge first time). That morning mist that burns off with the sunrise, though? Nope, that wasn't there in the remake. It's something we've seen before in otherwise excellent high(er)-res remasters, the Shadow of the Colossus PS4 remake being a good (and appropriately mist-less) example.
The recent arrival of the game on Nintendo Switch Online prompted me not only to play it at 60Hz for the very first time, but also race through the Deku Tree dungeon and leg it over to Lake Hylia to see how the mist looked on Switch OLED. Absolutely spectacular, surely?
In fact, after seeing how the N64 emulation on Switch apparently cleared up much of the N64's famous 'fog' — most notably in the Water Temple — I braced myself for disappointment. Yes, unfortunately the mist that's so ingrained on my brain had been cleared, too. The game looks more vibrant and plays better than ever, but for veterans of the original game, I totally understand the pang of disappointment when the naked polygons of Lake Hylia or, say, Kokiri Forest feel a little less magical sans the enchanting fairy dust that used to linger in the air.
It's not the end of the world — the game is still fantastic, and the convenience of playing on Switch is not to be dismissed — but it does underline that many games are inextricably tied to the original hardware they were designed for, especially titles from this formative era of 3D gaming. I've always believed in playing games with the controller they were built around (which goes double for the Nintendo 64's idiosyncratic pad, of course), but the programmers and artists who assembled Hyrule and other 64-bit worlds not only designed around restrictions, but incorporated those restrictions into the art.
the 'fog' in Ocarina was never a necessary evil to save the system's groaning chipset... it was a vital and intended element, part of the atmosphere
Don't get me wrong, there are a great many games that could stand to benefit from losing the draw-distance fog that plagued them back in the day (I'd be intrigued to see what Turok would look like running on this Switch emulator), but the 'fog' in Ocarina was never a necessary evil to save the system's groaning chipset. Here, it was a vital and intended element, part of the atmosphere — dancing fairy dust and detritus, sand whipped up in a storm, or my treasured morning mist.
I started writing this article before firing up my trusty N64 to grab a screenshot and it occurred to me that perhaps — just perhaps — my young mind had blown the effect all out of proportion. Maybe it was a minor thing, or I had something in my eye that day. What if I warp to Lake Hylia on the original save on my original cartridge and find that the fog simply isn't there?
It was a tense few minutes as I waited for the sun, but thankfully my memory was bang on. There it was, hanging there over the water so perfectly you can almost smell the dew on the crisp morning...
In many ways, the game looks dreadful in comparison to the sharp visuals of the Switch version. Upscaling and converting the N64's analogue signal for my paper-thin TV produces an unsightly mess of grain and blur that is best viewed from across the room; make that six-foot journey, though, and the overall effect onscreen is a very pleasing one. We often joke in the Nintendo Life office about super sharp pixels versus the softer images many of us viewed through composite cables back in the day. We josh each other over which one is most 'authentic', and it always comes down to personal preference. In this case, despite the clear improvements in resolution, my heart goes with the grainy original image. The Switch version looks incredibly clean, but also vacuums out the atmosphere.
Regardless of your thoughts on the above images, revisiting Ocarina of Time on original hardware and seeing the difference in presentation underlined the fact for me that there will always be a place for thoroughly impractical and inconvenient retro set-ups involving CRTs, upscalers and original consoles, and other marginally more convenient solutions like the Super 64 that help that hardware function a little more easily with modern displays.
Much of the reaction to the NSO N64 emulation has felt way too vitriolic, and I'm certainly not looking to stoke negativity around a service which, on the whole, I feel does a pretty decent job of delivering 64-bit games on Switch. I wouldn't mind a couple of simple CRT filter options. Not being able to easily remap buttons is irritating as it gives the impression that NSO N64 controller is more-or-less mandatory, which isn't the case. I've got one in the post, because it's the best pad ever made, but I was playing quite happily with a Pro Controller.
Despite finding the online outcry a tad exasperating, I can totally sympathise with disappointment when the emulation solution Nintendo has gone with here, while convenient, compromises the intent of the artists that created these games and, specifically, this world. The version of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time is a precious place to millions of people, a semi-sacred space where lifelong memories were made, and one that should be preserved as it was conceived. Something that, ironically, is only really possible with a digital world.
The exact moment I once experienced over Christmas 1998 is one I've written about before and surely will again, and obviously one that is forever gone. I might not be able to recapture the feeling over two decades on, but at the very least I'd like to see that chilly digital mist again. And if I could do it on my Switch, that'd be just grand.