Why Are You Here? Shigeru Miyamoto And The Ocarina Of Time


For many, Ocarina of Time is the greatest video game ever made or, at the very least, one of the most influential. In this Kotaku feature story we speak to its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, about the making of the game we waited seven years for.


"Mr Miyamoto, what are you doing? Why are you here?"

1997. Mid-way through a year of strenuous development, Shigeru Miyamoto finds himself in a strange place; far from home, far from Nintendo HQ where his team is frantically connecting the final pieces of the puzzle that will become known to many as the greatest video game ever made.

In the midst of that chaos Miyamoto returns — escapes — to Kanazawa, to make a speech in the place where he once underwent a more personal strenuous development period: his alma mater, his old university in Kanazawa, where he famously took five years to graduate from the art degree that would eventually help him win the job he has held for the past three decades.

Now, as a result of an unplanned stop in a convenience store, Miyamoto is face to face with a very confused store clerk.

"Mr. Miyamoto, what are you doing? Why are you here?" he asks. Miyamoto looks up.

"You're supposed to be in Kyoto finishing the game."

The game? Oh. The game.


The Blueprint

In an age of saturated viral marketing and artificial hashtagged hype, it's almost impossible to overstate the legitimate level of anticipation gamers had for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Its predecessor A Link to the Past was arguably the most tightly designed video game ever made. In its wake Nintendo had released the Nintendo 64 and Mario 64. They had practically invented how video games functioned in a three dimensional space.

Mario always represented the anarchic frivolity of systems firing on all cylinders, but Zelda was the closest thing Nintendo had to the video game as 'experience'. Back then, the idea appealed. There was a shift in the zeitgeist: an entire generation had played Nintendo and subsequently 'grown' into the then successful PlayStation console. We were an army of teenagers in the clumsy process of becoming adults. We had played Final Fantasy VII, we were already plagued with a primitive nostalgia for A Link to the Past and we ached for that next step. A darker, more 'mature' Zelda that played out in three dimensions.

A Zelda that was all we hoped it could be and more.

But in 1995 Nintendo was in the midst of a very different transition: that grand dimensional leap into 3D, a transition that began, of course, with Mario.

But in 1995 Nintendo was in the midst of a very different transition

At Space World, when we had our first glimpse at the game that would eventually become Ocarina of Time, it was merely a tech demo. By that point Mario 64 was at least 50% complete; completely playable, utterly mindblowing. It would go on to completely redefine Nintendo's approach to development.

"Back then we didn't really have a good idea of how strong the 3D visuals were, how strong they would be and what experience they would give," says Miyamoto.

"As we were developing Mario 64 we were experimenting with what was possible within that space. We tried to apply what we had learned to the next big franchise for us, which was going to be Zelda."

Mario 64 was an epoch-defining video game, but it also served as prologue. Lessons learned during Mario 64's development process were already being applied to Ocarina of Time in pre-production. Yoshioka Koizumi, one of the game's many directors, remembers scribbling down ideas for Zelda in a notebook whilst developing Mario 64. It made sense: Miyamoto and his team had no other template. No other template existed.

"At that time there really was no blueprint for how to create that kind of game in a 3D space," he explains. "No-one had done it before.

"There were no rules for us to follow."


The See Saw

1977. Shigeru Miyamoto secures an interview with a company flirting with the idea of creating its own video game hardware. Among the many toy ideas he brings as examples of his work is a three-way see-saw. Miyamoto was always interested in bringing hidden layers of complexity to simple concepts. 20 years later he will attempt the precise same trick with Ocarina of Time.

Today Miyamoto's role at Nintendo requires a bird's eye perspective, but he confesses his true passion lies in the details. Back then, in the mid 90s, Miyamoto played a broad role in overseeing development, but was heavily involved in the minutiae of Ocarina's early experimentation. It was, he admits, a lot of fun.

"It was an era where there was a lot of exploration in development, exploration in general," he says. "It was quite a bit of fun for us because of the nature of the work."

The nature of Miyamoto's work involved completely reinventing one of Nintendo's most important franchises. You'd expect that kind of pressure to be overwhelming, perhaps stifling, but Miyamoto and his team were completely divorced from expectations, creating an environment where no idea was off limits.

An example: Miyamoto initially wanted Zelda to be played in the first-person perspective, an idea that seems bewildering in hindsight, but outlandish ideas like those were part of the process.

"There were lots of challenges in trying to show the game from a third-person perspective," explains Miyamoto. "We had also experimented with moments where the battles were in 3D but parts of the game were on rails.

"We looked at the idea of taking a Mario 64 approach where you have a Mario 64-style castle, the equivalent of that being Hyrule castle, and you explore and encounter the gameplay through that central area."

Intertwined in this experimentation was the slow process of prodding at the hardware itself. Many of Ocarina's early prototypes were the end results of Miyamoto and his team getting to grips with technical limitations; with what the Nintendo 64 was actually capable of.

"We really wanted to create a very distinctive world of Hyrule, with changes in weather and things like that," explains Miyamoto. "We eventually found what the N64 was able to do. It was a system that felt really well designed to bring Hyrule to life."


A Kingdom For A Horse

Shigeru Miyamoto grew up obsessed with the Wild West. As a child he'd take aluminium cups from water fountains and batter them against concrete in a clip-clop rhythm. To Miyamoto, and an entire generation of Japanese children, it sounded like a horse galloping across the open plains.

Epona was named for the Gallo-Roman protector of horses, but adding her to Ocarina of Time wasn't Miyamoto's idea. Initially, Epona was the work of Director Yoshioka Koizumi. The impact was immediate and sizable.

"The horse was a turning point," says Miyamoto.

Epona wasn't the solution to the sheer size of Ocarina's playable space — Hyrule's ponderous field was built in her wake. The horse came before the course and it heralded a major developmental shift. In familiar terms Epona was the item Miyamoto's team held aloft with a triumphant chime. In the parallel puzzle that was Ocarina of Time's development, Epona was the Master Key.

"The moment that we saw you could ride around on a horse in 3D," explains Miyamoto, "we instantly realised that we needed a giant field that people could ride through."

Everything clicked seamlessly into place. There would be no more on rail sections. Ideas built during the castle phase of iteration would eventually be filtered into other areas of the game. Hyrule's majestic field, where players could watch the sun set and then rise again, would now be the the grand centrepiece of Ocarina of Time. We would fight duels with skeletons; pierce arrows through the dead hearts of ghosts on horseback. We would encounter strange men running marathons across the plains and it would all be utterly, utterly unforgettable.


The Link To The Past

"The other turning point," says Miyamoto, "was Link himself."

Ocarina of Time is the story of a child who becomes an adult; it's a theme with strange parallels and an intense resonance. An entire generation had waited patiently. We were children when we first played A Link to the Past; when Ocarina of Time was finally released in 1998 we were adults. A seven year gap between games. Seven long years.

It felt like providence. A third of the way through Ocarina of Time, in a distant room in the sacred realm, Link's spirit is sealed for the precise same amount of time. It was a quest Link couldn't undertake as a child. Neither, perhaps, could we.

"It was perfect," says Miyamoto. "It was the exact same amount of time."

But the connection was accidental, pure coincidence.

"We started off creating the more grown-up model of Link," explains Miyamoto. "After creating that model we then asked, 'well, what if we were to create a younger Link?' Then we asked, 'which one should we go with?'

"When we created the younger Link, that's when we realised we could use both versions of Link and have him grow from being a child to being a grown-up."

As someone who preferred the depth of simple ideas, the concept appealed to Miyamoto's sensibilities. There was a dramatic irony to Ocarina of Time, but it was subtle: one protagonist, two very different time periods. In the beginning we see Hyrule through the eyes of a child; but then we grow up. The world is a very different place. Something is lost and the universe we now inhabit is a persistent, cruel reminder of that.

"I wanted to make sure we had something that felt a little bit simpler in terms of the differences between the world that Link experiences as a child, and the world he experiences as an adult," says Miyamoto.

"For example you would see how his relationship to the girls in the game would change from when he was a boy and he was an adult. When you were a child certain characters might have been scary. Or the adults who seemed stupid, how did you see them when you were a child?

"It was about portraying the differences between those two to tell the story of a boy growing up."


Upending The Tea Table

"What are you doing?

"Why are you here."

Miyamoto recalls the story of the boy in the convenience store; how badly he wanted Miyamoto to return to Kyoto.

"Knowing that even the clerks in convenience stores were waiting for me to finish Zelda? That made me very happy," he says, chuckling.

In its final year, Ocarina's development had a strange momentum; a frantic sense of desperate joy. Horizons broadened with each new day. Ideas exploded at a formidable rate as the development team edged closer to completing what would ultimately become one of the greatest creative endeavours in video game history.

"We wondered if the game was ever going to get finished," admits Miyamoto, " but everyone was having a lot of fun."

There were issues with some of the more systemic facets of Ocarina's design — Miyamoto calls them "random elements" and uses the example of the game's Postman.

"The team was confused initially, but in the end it was good!"

"We had to ensure those random events happened at points where it didn't cause inconsistencies in the game," he says.

Then there was the moment when Miyamoto suddenly decided there weren't enough Ocarina songs in the game. As development raced to its conclusion, it was the closest Miyamoto would come to "upending the tea table".

"I decided we had to double them," he laughs mischievously. "It resulted in a big change in gameplay! The team was confused initially, but in the end it was good!"

At this late point the team was in the process of obsessively play-testing Ocarina Of Time's numerous 'dungeons'; fine tuning layouts and inserting more fiendish puzzles. Everyone become so adept at zipping through dungeons that they failed to notice when the infamously difficult Water Temple began to stretch the limits of fairness.

"It remains a regret for Eiji Aonuma to this day," says Miyamoto, "mainly because he continually hears from everyone about how difficult the dungeon was!

"But he continues to insist that the dungeon wasn't hard," he laughs, "it was just a pain because you had to keep taking the boots off and then put them back on He says it wasn't hard, just inconvenient!"


Back In Time

And then Ocarina of Time was finished.

"I was just glad we could put it out there for people to play," says Miyamoto.

After seven long years, we finally got to play the video game we had waited so patiently for.

We'd wake up in a forest; a child amongst children. We'd walk into a field and watch the sun set for the first time. We'd fight skeletons in our nightmares and hurtle across open fields in our dreams. The endless clip clop of aluminium cups on concrete would echo in our subconscious and then we'd awaken; ready to confront the once terrifying burdens of adulthood.

Shigeru Miyamoto has a son. By the time Ocarina of Time was finished he was in the upper grades of elementary School. But Miyamoto's daughter was younger; she was in the middle grades when the game was finally released.

"It was the first game that my daughter sat down and played a lot of, and as a result of that she became a really big Zelda fan," says Miyamoto,

"I remember Ocarina of Time as the game that allowed my daughter and I to start having a lot of conversations about video games."

In Ocarina's final scene Link is sent back in time to relive the seven years he sacrificed to save Hyrule. He places the Master Sword back in its sheath and returns to Kokiri Forest; a village frozen in an eternal childhood.

Ocarina of Time will always be a story about a boy who became a man, but it's also about preserving something.

In the final frame Link returns to Hyrule Castle as a child; a mirror image of an earlier scene where he meets Zelda for the very first time. She turns and gasps in surprise. Or is it recognition? It's almost impossible to say.


Comments

    Is it reasonable to say that this would likely never get ported to the XBLA or Xbox One equivalent?

    Great article btw. :)

    Last edited 10/07/13 1:04 pm

      Is it reasonable to say that this would likely never get ported to the XBLA or Xbox One equivalent?

      Sadly, Nintendo have even tighter control over their software than Apple. Just take a look at what Nintendo did in the 90s and you will see how tight they can be.

      There have been a few instances where Nintendo licensed out their IPs but it never went down well.

      Interplay made a Mario Bros. Typing Tutor: fine for a while but the novelty wore off quickly.

      There was Mario's Hotel on CDi: very poor idea NES capable idea on a new generation console.

      Then Zelda CDi: Probably the main reason why Nintendo tightened things afterwards.

      Those are the examples that come to mind.

        It is a shame, but I understand why they may want to remain tight-lipped. It'd be interesting to see if it makes it to an emulator on the Ouya!

          Basically since when Yamauchi turned the company from toys to just consoles back in the 80s, it has been incredibly tight. Also to the point of being horrifying.

          Nintendo does not like emulators (within reason), but they also hate second hand sales. They even tried to sue video stores back in the 90s to stop them renting out games.

          While it actually would be nice if Nintendo relaxed a bit and allowed some of their library on other platforms, they always see money first and games later. They make good games, but they are still serious business men first.

            "they always see money first and games later."
            Because restricting their games to their own consoles is definitely more profitable than spreading games across many platforms?
            Nintendo hangs on to their IPs because they're brilliant and reliably sell well, and they prefer to develop for their own hardware to get the best end products possible. Sony hangs onto God of War and Killzone, Microsoft hangs onto Halo, and Nintendo hangs onto Mario and Zelda. Every company has exclusives, to pretend it's just Nintendo is stupid.

              This may be the reason why Nintendo is the only company not backed by a giant multinational corporation to live and thrive nowadays in the cutthroat gaming business.

      why would they do that?

        Broader audience, greater market coverage, accessibility to those late to Nintendo or a new generation of players, more money....

    I only just finished playing this on the 3DS. It is genuinely one of the greatest games ever made, a cornerstone of my childhood, and I think will become a keystone of my adult gaming life as well.

      Agreed. This was the one game that really reminds me of the joy of video games. I clocked so many hours just exploring the Hyrule field and I never got bored. An absolute joy.
      Finished it on the N64, got the gamecube disc as well and now own it on the 3DS. A huge part of my gaming life.

      Thanks for the article.

        my all time number 1 without doubt

        i remember almost every second of my first play through during the school holidays.
        locking myself in my room during summer literally sweating as i got to the fire temple.

        then replaying the game trying to do as much out of order as possible and setting challenges like playing through the shadow temple without using the eye of truth.

        brilliant game and now i feel like going home and playing it again on 3ds

    Great article Mark, great trip down memory lane and just makes your realize that Ocarina of Time really is a special game - its development is almost as legendary as the game itself.

    Ocarina of Time is my favourite game ever, I was 12 when the game came out and as I've gotten older and as more has come out about how the game was developed it makes me appreciate it even more.

    Ocarina of Time soundtrack time!

    This is the best thing I have ever read. Gave me chills down my spine at the end and reminded me of every part of the game. I wish I were older when this came out so I could fully understand the wait between A Link To The Past and Ocarina of Time - which may have made it that bit more special, but none the less, this game is perfect, and I don't think any game will ever even come close to topping this for me.

    Well done Mark.

    Last edited 10/07/13 1:23 pm

      That morning Hyrule Field theme.

        Dat Owl as you walk out and you accidentally press 'No I didn't catch all that' D: then cry deeply.

        the creepy but childlike lost forest theme in Kokiri....available on itunes actually haha. so so good.

        its been my morning alarm music for many years now

    “When we created the younger Link, that’s when we realised we could use both versions of Link and have him grow from being a child to being a grown up.”
    Reminds me of the story of how Super Mario came to be. Something along the lines of the NES allowing them to suddenly use much larger sprites than ever before, so they ended up using it as an actual game mechanic, giving you mushrooms to grow larger.

    This game is my childhood. 2 friends and I used to have races when we were young where we would bring N64's to one house and see how fast we can beat the game.

    I always lost, damn water temple. ಠ_ಠ

    I like Zelda...

      "No, I don't think you understand. I really like Zelda..."

    This is THE game that I kick myself for not playing it properly when I was a kid. :'(

      Mine is Wind Waker. I never really gave it a good chance. So tempted to get a Wii U for the remake

        Lucky for you blokes, they dun gon did updates.
        All you need is a 3DS and a Wii U
        @miketarno

          Wait! I have one such whatchamacallit... 3DS thingos. Time to hunt down a copy.

            It's one of the better updates I played. They just upgraded the graphics, there was no fiddling with gameplay or music/sound (unlike the "updated" music and voice in Starfox 64 3D *shakes fist*)

    I only ever played this on 3DS. Whilst I did finish it, Ocarina never had the same impact on me as did A Link to the Past. A very good game indeed, still contemplating whether the 3DS version makes my top25 list or not.

    omfg spoilers Mark... :D

    I think I was more excited to play OoT upon release than LttP, but as time progressed LttP has remained my firm favourite. I really hope the sequel balances nostalgia with some great new content to make something that stands out on its own.

    ...that said, give me some more Misery Mire and Turtle Rock. That shit is off the hook. ;)

    Thanks for this Mark.

    Oh the memories. Love this game so much.

    i was 22 (crap i'm old) and unemployed when ocarina dropped, best time ever. i play it at least once every couple of years, if not more. i think i own 5 different versions of it now (n64, wind waker retailer preview disc with i think every home console zelda to date on it for cube, wind waker bonus disc also gc, wii virtual console and 3ds), if they release it again i will buy it again.

      holy shiz, i just realised that was the same year as metal gear solid. best year in gaming history.

        MGS was my OoT - the game which broadens your perception as to what videogames are capable of. My god, I love that game.

    I didn't have a 64 growing up. I was a one console man back then, and Playstation was my console - so I didn't get to play this when it was groundbreaking and current. I've since played (and finished) the 3DS port; and, while I can see why is so well-loved, a little of the magic was lost on me.
    I thought it was great, but it's not on any "top ten games" lists for me, unfortunately. I have no doubt that if I'd had a 64 back in the day I'd love it as fervently as everyone else seems to. As a consequence, Wind Waker is "my" Zelda.

    The hyrule morning theme IS and has been been my alarm music for the last few years.

    Ocarina of time was the greatest game of the 90's. But I think to still call it the greatest game of all time is pretty silly. Many games beat it in gameplay, narrative and graphics.
    I wish Nintendo would look to other developers for influence (Like Naughty Dog with Uncharted) and really give the Zelda franchise a complete re-design (gameplay and narrative)

    Great work Mark. I'm lost for words!

    I think I'll just pull out the 64 now and relive some old memories.

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