What Makes Ocarina Of Time Great, 20 Years Later 

The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time turned 20 years old today. Link’s first 3-D adventure, for the content-starved Nintendo 64, captivated a whole new generation of players, setting a standard for adventure games and laying a foundation for today’s massive open world journeys.

In spite of this, Ocarina of Time remains a unique experience even two decades later. Much of that is owed to how simple it was.

After Nintendo shifted Super Mario into 3D at the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, one major thing was on players’ minds: How awesome will Zelda be in 3D? Answer: Mind-blowing. Ocarina of Time was released on November 21, 1998 in Japan, and available a week before Christmas in Australia, needs to be discussed in the context of its release. That release was defined by eager fans and a major step forward in graphics.

There have been countless open world games since 1998, but Ocarina of Time was the moment when the concept of massive, interconnected worlds began to really crystallise. It wasn’t a new concept—the Ultima series has been providing its own version of mass-scaled fantasy for years—but Ocarina of Time mixed scale with a graphical fidelity that hadn’t been seen before.

The result was a version of Hyrule that, while minuscule by today’s standards, felt like a real place and not merely a connected series of video game levels. Its scale was shocking but not without purpose. Hyrule Field is largely a barren plain that takes minutes to walk across, but moving from the cheerful Kokiri Forest and into the wide-open frontier imparted a sense of adventure.

It was a quiet sort of wandering, an exciting but isolated hike that grants downtime before the explosion of activity encountered in Hyrule Castle Town. Twenty years later, that’s a lesson that some games still fail to take in. Ocarina of Time pushed the boundaries of scale but never at the expense of tone. There’s no need for random events or radiant quests. The world is enough.

That simplicity is Ocarina of Time’s biggest strength. It can be tempting to look back and think of Ocarina of Time in terms of gameplay innovations. This is the game that created Z-Targeting and helped pioneer in-depth spatial design with its dungeons. But Ocarina of Time’s enduring legacy is as much a lesson in restraint as it is in innovation.

This is a game of implication, where the world spins just enough to sell us on the fantasy. It is not densely populated or particularly reactive in the moment. Outside of a few key quest chains and bombable walls, Hyrule is largely indifferent to the player. Link might be the Hero of Time and the only person who can save the world from Ganon, but Hyrule itself - Death Mountain, the Gerudo Desert, and more—would remain even if we failed.

And it’s telling that while the series would later experiment with gameplay gimmicks like transforming into a wolf or sailing through the skies on a giant bird, Breath of the Wild would embrace this sentiment and leverage it into a powerful and equally standard-setting open world.

Like Ocarina of Time, it is not afraid of silence and the world carries on, even without its hero.

Ocarina of Time isn’t the most narratively daring or thematically compelling game in the Zelda series. The Wind Waker makes more effort at giving its characters (including Ganon) depth, while Majora’s Mask experimented with mood and tone to greater effect. But Ocarina of Time endures because it sets a standard for game worlds.

Hyrule pushed the boundaries of scale, but never bent backwards to accommodate the player. Many games seek to emulate the scale and scope of Ocarina of Time but omit the simplicity. It’s that simplicity, that willingness to offer empty spaces and quiet hikes in equal combination with tricky boss battles or trading sequences, that helps Ocarina of Time resonate to this day.


Comments

    This game was my everything back in the day. I went from playing Master System to playing N64 so it was a huge jump. Got the N64 for my birthday with Top Gear Rally (my choice) but it wasn't until a few months later that I'd get Ocarina of Time for Christmas and it changed pretty much everything I knew about games.

    Still got my original N64 cartridge with my original save, with my own name in all capitals as Link's name, because I didn't understand the reason for giving my save file a name at the time and had no idea who Link even was.

    Friend: If you could go back in time to live through or witness any event, what would it be?

    Me: December of 1998.

    Friend, looking confused: What? Why?

    Me: I got Ocarina of Time and Pokemon for Christmas.

    I think I've got the Gerudo Valley soundtrack permanently etched onto my brain.

    I remember being amazed that there was more to the after getting the 3 Stones. Then I grabbed the Master Sword and got blown away.

    I'll never forget those 20 years of memories playing The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64.
    I really enjoyed going on those adventures around Hyrule Field collecting three spiritual stones, grabbing the Ocarina of Time and performing the Song of Time to open the Door of Time and pull out the Master Sword to become Adult Link, and help save not only Princess Zelda but also the land of Hyrule from the evil Gerudo thief himself Ganondorf.
    All I had to was awaken five sages from five separate temples and they are the Forest Temple in Kokiri Forest, Fire Temple up at Death Mountain, Zora Temple in Lake Hylia, Spirit Temple located the desert, and the Shadow Temple in the Graveyard located within Kakariko Village.
    20 years of playing The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64 have been amazing and I do hope to see The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time as a remake or remaster for Nintendo Switch sometime in the future.

    But Ocarina of Time endures because it sets a standard for game worlds.
    Ok but just because something set some standards it doesn't mean it's as good as it once was.

    Also, the camera in this game is god awful and the empty barren overworld isn't a good thing, it makes it a pain to get anywhere and not being allowed into towns is easily the most annoying part of this game.

    I think it would be quite interesting if someone reviewed this game without any nostalgia goggles on.

      I don't know of many games that ARE as good as they once were, given enough time. Without rose tinted spectacles, all games that are a few years old and beyond are easy to critique but that's not really the point. Half Life 2 springs to mind, that game looks and plays incredibly dated by today's standards but will always be hugely important despite that.

        I think it's aged quite well. HL1 however... now that game is looking dated af.

        It did come out at the same time as Ocarina of Time though.

      How can one take off the nostalgia goggles though? It would be unfair to review it fresh today, compared to modern games, and it's impossible to find anyone to review it who hasn't played tons of games already.

      Nostalgia? I can take that off any time. Hell, just seeing that screenshot at the beginning of the article kind of made me cringe. What is harder and arguably unnecessary to remove when talking about games like these is gratitude, the acknowledgment of the ways games like this transformed gaming for the better, permanently. When a game sets the standards that many games in the future will build upon, you don't look back and stop at each of the flaws made evident by the accrued experiences with ever-improving iterations of the systems, mechanics and genre trappings. How unfair would that be?

      Best you can do with regards of being objective is trying to remember the things that annoyed you or frustrated you back in the day... but why would you choose to remember and focus on that? These people were literally inventing gaming as we know it nowadays. There's little point in nitpicking the lack of polish or unnoticed flaws on history being made.

    The ambiance and quiet moments is what made OoT great for me. This is something that a lot games forget and for some reason it gives games a really good feeling. Currently im playing NEO Scavenger and the ambience contrasts amazingly well with the music.

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