The Legend of Zelda games have been a part of my entire life. While I was too young to truly play The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link at the time they released, I did thoroughly enjoy watching my older cousins play them. My first hands on experience into the world of Hyrule was with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Watching the other Zelda titles had definitely piqued my interest in the lore and genre, but as soon as I took control of Link for the first time on my own, I was hooked. My love deepened with the Game Boy installment, Link’s Awakening, which I still consider to be one of the most underrated titles in the franchise. Then the most amazing thing happened: the Nintendo 64 came out and provided the world with a 3D Zelda game the likes of which the world had never seen before.
As soon as the game started with its memorable intro featuring the Great Deku Tree and Navi the fairy, I was captivated. Everything was mesmerizing; from the vibrant and lush Kokiri Forest to the 3D environments and controls. Even the interactions with NPCs had more depth this time around. I remember the sense of wonder I felt as I prepared to enter the Great Deku Tree, although my younger sister conversely sat horrified by the notion that we would be journeying inside his mouth.
As awe-struck as everyone was with Ocarina of Time when it released, you might be asking if it still holds that same level of wonder now as it did back then. There have been a ton of advancements in video games over the last twenty years, so does Ocarina of Time manage to stand the test of time? I must say that for the most part, the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Now the biggest potential technological shortcoming of Ocarina of Time is, without a doubt, its graphics. The Nintendo 64 was mindblowing twenty years ago, but let’s face it, looking at stiff movements on polygonal bodies while traipsing across blocky environments with rudimentary textures isn’t exactly the setting for an epic adventure nowadays. However, many of these issues were vastly improved and cleaned up with the re-release of Ocarina of Time in 2011 for the Nintendo 3DS. Yes, the graphics are still nowhere near what they could have been if the title was made with our current technology, but since it’s all in a fantasy setting with lots of unique character designs and cutting edge technology, it isn’t really needed. I will say that if you have the option to play one version over the other, choose the 3DS version. They were really able to add in a whole new level of depth and clarity to the world, visually speaking.
There were a few new innovative gameplay mechanics introduced in Ocarina of Time. Unfortunately, not all of them were great. First, there was the jumping mechanic. I use that term loosely since there’s not actually a jump button, just the fact that Link will automatically jump when he reaches the end of a ledge. This takes a little getting used to and never ceases to periodically screw you over when you’re trying to run close to a ledge to skirt an enemy and Link leaps off into the oblivion.
Next, there’s Z-targeting. This is actually a pretty great feature most of the time. Since this this was the first 3D venture for the Zelda franchise, they needed a way to get past the tricky camera movement. Z-targeting allows you to automatically face the camera forward and/or lock onto an enemy. When locked on to an enemy, Link can perform specific attacks that allow for better precision and damage. This feature is incredibly useful when fighting adversaries as well as peeking around tight corners to see if there’s a guard nearby. It can get frustrating at times though when you’re trying to lock onto a specific enemy in a group and it keeps targeting the wrong one.
The gameplay is still pretty on point as far as responsiveness and hit detection. A quick tutorial in the Kokiri Forest gives a good feel for most of the combat moves you’ll need throughout the game. Naturally, there will be other moves to learn as Link procures more items throughout his travels. The slingshot and bow handle the same way and are really easy to get the hang of. The Hookshot and Longshot (grappling hooks) make it nearly impossible to miss your objectives as they highlight their targets with an obnoxiously large red bullseye. The Boomerang can be a little tricky at times if only for the fact that the timing of its flight can be widely varied depending on if you’re Z-targeting or free throwing. Some puzzles require you to free throw the Boomerang and in many of these cases, the camera makes your depth perception really difficult to gauge.
By far my favorite addition was that of the ocarina. This added a huge new brilliant soundtrack to the game as well as a more interactive musical experience. Music plays an integral role in Ocarina of Time, not only as a focal plot point, but also as a new gaming mechanic. Link is gifted with an ocarina early on and then later this is swapped out for the titular, Ocarina of Time. Link will learn many songs along his journey and many of them perform different functions, the most important being the ability to travel back and forth through time.
There are several temples that Link will need to visit in order to awaken the sages within and join forces with to take down Ganondorf. Each temple has its own ocarina tune associated with it and once Link learns it, he can play his ocarina to warp to the temple’s location. There’s also the Sun’s Song that changes the time of day; the Scarecrow’s Song that summons a friendly scarecrow that aids Link in reaching difficult spots; the Song of Storms that brings on a tempest and often reveals hidden areas; Saria’s Song, a tune that allows you speak telepathically with your friend Saria, who will give you a hint if you’re stuck; Zelda’s Lullaby that, when played before the Triforce symbol or certain characters, will cause something good to happen; the Song of Time, which makes certain blocks move (it’s a lot more useful in Majora’s Mask); and finally, Epona’s Song, a tune that calls your trusty steed to your side.
Speaking of Epona, Ocarina of Time was the first title to introduce the equine companion. This was another fantastic addition to the series. Not only does it allow Link to traverse the significantly larger world much quicker, but it also opens up a sense of camaraderie that had previously been missing from earlier entries. The introduction of a fairy friend takes this bond even further, but I’ll touch on that later. Having a horse also made for a larger assortment of minigames and challenges. I will say that Epona’s movements are still really stiff and stilted even with the updated graphics, but since this was a pioneer venture in horse movement and animations, I still feel that it does what it set out to do fairly well. Trying to successfully fire your bow on horseback is a completely different story however.
Archery is but one of the many new minigames and challenges offered in Ocarina of Time. There’s an archery game Link can play in Castle Town and Kakariko Village that is significantly easier than the horseback archery challenge offered in the Gerudo Training Grounds. Trying to control the direction of your galloping horse while simultaneously aiming and firing at targets is absolutely infuriating. There are other types of games he can play as well, such as a treasure chest opening game and a Bombchu (running bomb) game where you try to hit the targets while avoiding obstacles. Think of it as bowling with wall-crawling explosives. Then there’s a revised classic for the Zelda franchise: fishing.
Fishing is still as fun and frustrating as I remember it being. Instead of just frantically pressing a button to reel in your rod like in earlier games, the 3D nature of Ocarina of Time allows you to fully immerse yourself in a more realistic style of fishing. You aim your rod, cast it out, flick your lure around, and reel in your line. The introducing of the Rumble Pak for the Nintendo 64 made this even more exciting since you could feel when a fish had taken a bite of your lure as well as the strain on the line as you fight to reel one in. The 3DS has these vibrating mechanics built into the handheld system as well. It was so satisfying reeling in a lunker of a fish, although there was no greater victory than ensnaring the wildly elusive and almost mythical Hylian Loach. I’ll definitely toot my own horn and admit that after many unsuccessful attempts, I was able to finally capture one and I was considered a legend amongst my friends.
There were lots of other collectibles and side quests offered in Ocarina of Time. As with every other game in the series, there are Pieces of Heart scattered throughout the world as well as given as prizes and gifts for completing challenges or helping someone. Magic beans also make an appearance. These are beans you can purchase and plant in soft soil spots throughout Hyrule, and thanks to the time traveling mechanics in the game, if you revisit these spots as an adult, your sprouts will have grown into plants that take you to hidden rewards. Ocarina of Time also introduced the Golden Skulltula, a golden spider you could kill and collect a token from. If you collected enough of the tokens, you could help a family that had been cursed into turning into these spiders and offered great rewards for helping them. All of these quests work hard to create a richer and more immersive world than previous games. For the first time, I truly felt myself caring about the pasts and fates of the people around me.
Nothing was a more simultaneously endearing and annoying more than your fairy sidekick, Navi. She provides companionship and guidance along your journey. Link had thus far endured all of his adventures solo, so bringing in a new friend to keep you company and fight alongside you made a huge difference in the feel of the game. That being said, I remembered Navi being somewhat irritating when it came to pointing out things she thought you might need help with. Upon playing it again however, all I could think was, “good lord, enough already! I get it! I need to watch out for that specific type of monster I’ve already encountered hundreds of times before. And yes, I realize that that barred and locked door needs some sort of key. I’m sorry I grazed past it and put you on high alert.” Even with her irksome need to shove helpful hints down your throat, I am still happy to have someone else to share my travels with, especially in the dangerous temples.
The temple designs in Ocarina of Time were not only astounding at the time, but in my opinion still hold up as some of the most well crafted dungeons in the whole franchise. Yes, I say this even knowing what a pain in the butt the Water Temple is. They all had their own one of a kind and personal feel. Every temple had its own unique theme and boss that made sense for the area it was in. This is something I feel was lacking in the recent Breath of the Wild. Yes, it was a great game, but it was lacking the individuality of major temples and bosses. The giant mechanical beasts got repetitive and (dare I say it) boring after a short time. I loved the organic feel in the Ocarina of Time temples that made you really feel like you were visiting once sacred places that had been affected by years of corruption. This is a quality that I still think hasn’t quite been replicated in subsequent titles.
Ocarina of Time was a groundbreaking game at its original release and in my opinion, remains an absolute masterpiece of a game. This was, and still is, my favorite of all the Zelda titles. There have been many other amazing entries, but Ocarina of Time was one of those rare games that broke the mold and tried something different, and created a truly spectacular experience as a result. Everything in it from the music, the expanded world, the large assortment of minigames and challenges, the intriguing sidequests, the compelling story, and the new companions makes this entry in the Zelda franchise a delight to play, both twenty years ago and today.