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The Complex Legacy of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on its 20th Anniversary

Even after two decades, the importance of Link's first foray into Hyrule's third dimension can't be overstated.

Feature by Nadia Oxford, .

On a cold afternoon in November of 1998, I made a beeline for my high school's payphones the second the bell signalled the start of lunch hour. I dialed a number printed on a receipt that was so precious, I wouldn't have traded it for a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

"You've reached EB Games," a tired voice answered. I heard a dim bedlam in the background. "Yes, we have Zelda."

I hopped on a subway and shot straight as an arrow to the EB Games at a nearby mall. I waded through the chaos in the little store, presented my pre-order receipt, and received the single game I'd been dreaming of since I threw all my part-time savings into a Nintendo 64: A gold-cartridge edition of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I even received a free Ocarina of Time t-shirt, which made my excitement-addled brain spin faster. An epic game and an unexpected t-shirt? As someone who enjoyed displaying pop culture-related plumage everywhere she went, I made damn sure that t-shirt received plenty of use in the months to come.

Me wearing my Ocarina of Time shirt like a huge nerd. Also pictured: Pokemon Red being enjoyed on a classic Game Boy, as God intended.

I took Ocarina of Time home (yes, I skipped half a day of school to pick up a video game) and plugged it into my N64. When I finally surfaced, I realized my parents were on their way home from work and I hadn't started dinner, set the table, or walked the dog. I was spellbound.

"Best. Game. Ever?"

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a special game in 1998, and it's still a special game 20 years later. It arrived at a time when N64 owners seethed with jealousy over Final Fantasy VII, Wild Arms, Suikoden, and other A-grade PlayStation RPGs that would never squeeze their way onto an N64 cartridge. You can argue Ocarina of Time enjoyed massive initial success (over 7.5 million units sold) because RPG-starved N64 owners were desperate for something, anything, to rub in the face of PlayStation owners, but Ocarina of Time's popularity hasn't petered out. In 2015, GameFAQs hosted its annual "Best. Game. Ever." contest, and when Toby Fox's indie RPG Undertale usurped Ocarina of Time (a champion in previous years) for the #1 spot, the internet erupted.

Is the Zelda fanbase's fevered love for Ocarina of Time justified, or is it just clinging to the game with the unbreakable bulldog grip that only blind nostalgia can fuel? While things did get a bit out of control during the Great GameFAQs War of 2015, Ocarina of Time is undeniably a genius work of game design that deserves to be held aloft with the likes of the very first Super Mario Bros. It brought the traditionally top-down series into a fully 3D realm while successfully preserving the heart and soul of previous Zelda games. Its "Z-targeting" mechanic refined the clumsy auto-targeting systems that made 3D console games of the day feel inferior to 3D action games on the PC. Finally, it presented a story about healing a broken world—which is always a compelling plot thread to follow—and uses Link's literal and spiritual growth to gradually introduce bigger and more mature challenges.

Is the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the best Zelda game ever made? That's a matter of opinion. Is it a pioneer, an unspeakably important game that deserves to be as highly regarded in 2018 as it was in 1998? Absolutely.

Link Enters Dimension Z

No matter how much you love Ocarina of Time, though, it's hard to look back on parts of it without sighing. The first twenty minutes of Link's adventure sees the young hero scrabble through a maze to collect a sword, then digging around for enough rupees to buy a shield. The tutorial feels unnecessary in this current marketplace filled with 3D games with sprawling environments and customizable cameras. But that's not what the marketplace was like in 1998, least of all on consoles.

We had to learn how to make Link run, leap, block, and swing his sword—and the green sanctuary of his adopted home, the Kokiri Forest, was the perfect place to do it. Even the man-eating Deku Baba plants that grew thick through most of Hyrule were rendered withered and toothless by the forest's holy protection, making them perfect targets for Link to practice his first few clumsy sword-strokes on. These initial kills in turn rewarded Link with a supply of flammable Deku sticks, which were vital for solving his very first major trial: his attempt to save the life of the Great Deku Tree, the deity that watches over the innocent, ageless Kokiri race and their forest home.

"Hop in." "No thanks, I'm good--" "I said. Hop. In."

The Great Deku Tree is the first of three dungeons Link must triumph over to prove himself worthy of wielding the Master Sword (not unlike his quest to win the Three Pendants in 1991's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES). This is where Link learns what he's truly capable of now that he can move in three dimensions—and where he learns how to fight for survival. Spiders scratch their way across thick webs and the Deku Baba plants, now full of life, eagerly lunge for Link if he gets too close.

But Link has tools to fight back. He's equipped with his sword and shield, of course, but he also finds a slingshot in a treasure chest; his first projectile weapon. Navi, Link's chatty faerie friend ("Hey! Listen!"), points out foes he can lock onto with the touch of the Z-trigger button located on the bottom of the N64's weird controller. This "Z-targeting" mechanic feels painless and natural. Link can stay locked onto an enemy for as long as he needs to and can strafe with his shield up while he ponders his next move—or while the enemy ponders theirs.

Z-targeting was an invaluable mechanic in a time when a game's camera was more likely to cause your demise than the most vicious end bosses the early 3D era had to offer. Z-targeting made Ocarina of Time's battles feel smooth, if not graceful. When Link locked onto an enemy, he was capable of more than just mindlessly waving his sword. He could slash, stab, and even perform backflips when the enemy got too close for comfort.

New Puzzles: So Familiar, So Different

Though Ocarina of Time is tailored to make the jump from 2D to 3D Zelda as painless as possible, fighting and solving puzzles in 3D still take some getting used to. That could be why Nintendo decided to stick to series tradition in cooking up Ocarina of Time's challenges. Most of the puzzles in Link's breakout Deku Tree adventure are familiar: push blocks onto switches to open doors, light torches to unlock gates, find and use small keys to gain access to locked rooms, slash at minor obstructions to clear them (or use fire to burn them), and so on.

But even as Ocarina of Time makes you say "Aha, I know what to do," it gently encourages you to think in three dimensions. In A Link to the Past, lighting a torch simply involved equipping the lantern item and using it to kindle cold sconces. Ocarina of Time, by contrast, encourages you to equip a Deku stick, and it places ample burning braziers within easy reach of puzzles that need solving. Any grade school student who knows the first thing about fire quickly understands what comes next.

Protip: Burn it all.

The Deku Tree's tortured innards are comprised mainly of wood, and the spiderwebs laced everywhere are extremely flammable. Fire solves most of Link's problems, but before he's allowed to take on Gohma, the first boss, he needs to take one more literal step that helps him embrace his strange new world. There's a particularly tough spiderweb on the ground floor of the Deku Tree that can't be burnt. The only way to break through it is to travel to the highest point of the dungeon, take a leap of faith, and let Link's momentum tear through the barrier.

Link's jump down to the basement of the Deku Tree is what you might call a mind-expanding event. It teaches you how solving puzzles in Ocarina of Time still involves old standbys like lighting torches and pushing blocks, but when the obvious answers fail you, you might have to think on the Z-axis.

The next two dungeons Link faces as a child reinforce the importance of climbing, falling, and learning how to observe your environment for clues to solving difficult puzzles. Though each dungeon still carries a sense of danger and are punctuated by a clear goal—"Kill the Dodongo that's cutting off the mountain-dwelling Goron race from its food supply" and "Rescue a fish princess who was swallowed by her people's cranky deity"—they're merely training grounds for Ocarina of Time's real trials.

The Plot Thickens (and Darkens)

Ocarina of Time shares more with A Link to the Past than puzzles centered around torch-lighting. Both games also volley you between mirrored versions of Hyrule. In A Link to the Past, the "Dark World" is an alternate Hyrule that's been corrupted by the evil Ganondorf's influence. A similarly corrupted version of Hyrule exists in Ocarina of Time: When young Link passes his first three trials and earns the right to pull the Master Sword from its pedestal, time zips forward by seven years. Though Link goes through insta-puberty and can wield the legendary sword that was previously bigger than him, Ganondorf takes advantage of the hero's stasis by claiming Hyrule for his own and twisting it in his image.

Adult Link's initial awakening in Ocarina of Time is one of the game's most shocking moments. The first quarter of the game gives Link plenty of busywork that familiarizes him with Hyrule's bustling castle town, its friendly inhabitants, and Hyrule Castle's quiet, green gardens. But when Link leaves the Temple of Time with the new Master Sword in hand, it's immediately clear everything is terribly wrong. The sky is dark. A fiery halo winds around the summit of Death Mountain. Worst of all, Hyrule Castle Town is in ruins, populated only by Redeads, zombies that freeze Link in place with a horrific scream before trying to leap on him and devour his life force.

The rest of Hyrule doesn't fare much better under Ganondorf's rule. Nearly all the locales Link became familiar with as a child are tainted in some way. Zora's Domain, once a tropical paradise, is frozen over. Goron City is nearly empty, as its denizens were rounded up as a potential sacrifice for the dragon that now rules the mountain's peak. The laid-back Lon Lon Ranch is in the grip of Ingo, a peevish stable-hand who turned out the ranch's owner and now breeds horses for Ganondorf's use. Even Link's old hometown, Kokiri Village, has been breached by evil. Once untouchable, it's now overrun by monsters pouring from the Forest Temple hidden in the deepest part of the woods.

The "Dark Worlds" presented by both A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time are more than just a clever way to re-use assets and save precious cartridge space. They get you invested in your mission to save the world, since even the twisted, darkened versions of Hyrule feel like home in a strange way.

This sensation of "Oh man, I gotta save everyone and fix everything" is especially strong in Ocarina of Time because Link travels through the same Hyrule he explored as a child. The Zora King who sits frozen and silent in Ganondorf's Hyrule is the same Zora King Link met years earlier. The Malon, who Link befriended as a young boy, now sings to herself alone in the desolate fields of Lon Lon Ranch.

When Link ascends to adulthood in Ocarina of Time, you share a moment of humanity with him. The people of the new, troubled Hyrule you awaken in need a hero, and they also need a friend; someone who cares enough about them, their families, and their countries to clear away the darkness plaguing the countryside. Adult Link has a great deal of responsibility downloaded onto his shoulders during his first few moments as a teenager, but instills him—and you—with a strong drive to see everything through until the very end.

The Trials of Adulthood

When Link becomes an adult in Ocarina of Time, his trials grow with him. There are six additional dungeons for Link to conquer if he hopes to free Hyrule from Ganondorf's grip. While one of those dungeons requires him to travel back in time and fight as a child (though Ocarina of Time doesn't send you between the "Light" and "Dark" versions of Hyrule as much as A Link to the Past, there are still plenty of tasks for Link to complete as a youngster), the rest call on Adult Link's strong sword arm, his mastery of advanced tools like the Hook Shot, and the player's developed appreciation for how puzzles and combat are constructed in Ocarina of Time.

For starters, adult Link usually can't expect to saunter into dungeons as easily as child Link. Even adult Link's first real trial, completing the Forest Temple dungeon and saving Kokiri Village, begins with him navigating a shrubbery maze patrolled by hulking, snorting Moblins. If Link doesn't move carefully, the dog-faced demons charge into him and send him flying back several paces. Stealth and patience guides Link through this trial. If you're clever, though, you might want to whip out the Hook Shot adult Link earns shortly after he wakes up and test its potential as a long-range weapon . (Spoiler: it's great.)

Ocarina of Time's huge Moblins are a shock to behold if you're used to the little fellas you fight in previous Zelda games.

When Link reaches the entrance to the Forest Temple, he shares a bit of a tender moment with his childhood friend, Saria. Saria, a member of the ageless Kokiri race, didn't grow during the hero's seven-year stasis, but Link—a Hylian and an orphaned outsider—did. The Zelda series owes a lot to Disney's iteration of Peter Pan, and while the imagery of Link forcibly growing up and away from his innocence isn't subtle, seeing adult Link tower over his old companions (few of whom recognize him) makes an impact.

After meeting Saria, Link's allowed to enter the Forest Temple. If the Great Deku Tree was Link's training session, the Forest Temple is the hero's first real day on the job. Everything Link learned in the dungeons he explored as a child needs to be applied in the Temple, and then some. Before Link can even enter the Temple proper, he's attacked by two Wolfos, vicious canid monsters who announce their presence with alarming howls. Wolfos are aggressive attackers who move quickly; they're a notable step up from the passive spiders and rooted Deku Babas populating the Great Deku Tree.

Adult Link's lessons don't stop at "Watch out for aggressive enemies." The Temple door's locked, and if he wants the key, he must look around the Temple's overgrown foyer to find it. By now he should know the answer isn't always going to be in front of him. Sure enough, climbing the ivy on the walls—a skill Link learned as a child—reveals a hard-to-spot treasure chest resting on a beam. The key is within.

Link hasn't even entered the Forest Temple but between its Moblin-patrolled grounds, the Wolfos fight on the doorstep, and the climb for the key to open the front gate, we're already aware the dungeon means business. The Temple's haunting music flavors Link's new and difficult trials; the dungeons he completes as a child contain only atmospheric sounds.

Ocarina of Time's Forest Temple is a masterful work of design in a game that's not short on examples of top-tier level builds. To this day, the Forest Temple stands as one of the Zelda series' best dungeons, period. Its deeply mysterious vibes combine perfectly with its advanced difficulty to make you realize you've entered a strange new world filled with serious hazards. It's all very exciting and a little frightening—much like entering adulthood, really.

Gradually, adult Link gets used to his new body and the skillset that comes with it. As he travels, he finds lots of opportunities to test himself (and you). Ocarina of Time has some of the most complex dungeons in the series' history, sometimes to the game's mild derision: Just say the words "Water Temple" to a Zelda fan and there's a chance they'll furiously make the protective sign of the Cross even if they're not Catholic.

But painful memories of the Water Temple's confusing torrents drain away when you strike down Ganondorf and the bestial Ganon rises in his place. This towering, horned King of Evil that makes A Link to the Past's iteration of Ganon seem squat and comical. Ocarina of Time is built on moments that welcome you to the 64-bit generation, and Ganon's rise, complete with demonic scream, caps those moments perfectly.

Fun and Games

As intense as Ocarina of Time gets at points, Nintendo takes steps to ensure Hyrule always remains a fun realm to poke around. For example, adult Link can undertake a long trading quest (doubtlessly inspired by a similar and still-beloved trading quest from 1993's The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for the Game Boy) that begins with him hatching an egg and concludes with him acquiring a comically huge "Biggoron Sword."

If you're the treasure-seeking type, you can also take a break from saving Hyrule to seek-and-destroy the 100 Golden Skulltula spider monsters hidden in the game's overworld and throughout its dungeons. Navi doesn't point out Golden Skulltulas the way she points out regular enemies, so finding each one demands you carefully observe every inch of your surroundings. It's especially important to listen for the spiders' strong audio cues. Can you hear that distinctive scratch-scratch-scratch sound in the dusty recesses of your memory? You sure can. It's been 20 years, but you never forgot.

A Legend Amongst Legends

Here's a funny thing about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's one of the most important games ever made, but some critics will tell you it hasn't aged well. You never hear "A Link to the Past hasn't aged well," or "Link's Awakening hasn't aged well;" it's usually Link's first 3D adventure that draws heat.

A King Dodongo's breath ain't got nothing on an internet flame war.

Some complaints about Ocarina of Time aren't without merit. It's impossible to deny Ocarina of Time's overworld is noticeably sparse and lacks meaningful enemy counters. Even 2000's direct follow-up, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, has a much busier overworld swarming with enemies thanks to the N64's RAM expansion pack.

No game is above feedback, it's true, and even Ocarina of Time's been surpassed in some ways by modern Zelda titles. But before we sailed across The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and before we galloped through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we ran across a low-poly but fully immersive rendition of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's not always a beautiful journey, but like the best stories about heroes and monsters, it ripples through our souls.

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