This comes as a surprise to a lot of people who know me, but I’ve never actually played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time before. As I previously mentioned in my piece about playing Super Mario 64 for my first time, I didn’t get the opportunity to play a lot of single player games growing up. My parents only purchased games with a multiplayer component because they wanted my siblings and I to play games together instead of apart. While this approach undoubtedly prepared me for the future of relentless online multiplayer gameplay, it did cause me to miss out on some of the N64’s most iconic and groundbreaking titles.
One of the most legendary experiences I missed out on in its heyday is Ocarina of Time—a game many consider to be the greatest of all time. I had played tiny bite-sized pieces of it as a kid at my friend’s house, but I had never fully delved into the complete experience. Because of this, I never had a particular fondness for the Zelda franchise, and it wasn’t until Breath of the Wild that I would become a true fan of the series. Even though I bought the 3DS remaster in 2011, I couldn’t get the game to click for myself. Even on the New 3DS XL I couldn’t help but feel some of the game’s power was being diminished by the screen size. It looked amazing and handled wonderfully—but still I only made it just beyond Kokiri Forest before I stopped playing the game for good. This wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy the game—I just felt I wasn’t experiencing it in the optimal way.
And so I found myself waiting for some sort of 3D Zelda collection, or for some chance to play the game on a proper television. My chance finally arrived very recently after Nintendo announced Ocarina of Time as one of the included N64 games in the new Switch Online expansion. I knew this was my chance to dive in, and play the game on a big screen, in its original visual style and format. Miraculously enough, I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers over the past couple of decades. Granted I’ve been exposed to plenty of the game’s imagery and music through various other sources, but I’ve gone into playing Ocarina with more or less no clue what to expect. While writing a traditional review of the original game feels bit pointless at this stage, I figured it could be fun to capture some of the thoughts and revelations I’ve had on my journey.
What first struck me about the game was its impressive visuals. Even though the N64 receives a lot of criticism for its crude, polygonal graphics, I find that Ocarina manages to do a lot with the limitations of the console’s technology. It was important to me that experience the game without all of its fancy remaster upgrades, as I wanted a more pure and organic experience. From the moment I first stepped into the Kokiri Forest I was hypnotized by the world of the game. Ocarina of Time was burdened with the difficult task of translating the world of Zelda into shiny new 3D environments, and the developers succeeded wonderfully. Link’s forest village home is brimming with life and full of colorful characters. This beginning oozes the sort of classic fantasy origin story we’ve all come to love—simple forest-dwelling farmer-type youth sets off on an epic adventure to fight a Dark Lord and save the realm from total destruction. As I progressed through the game I came to realize just how much Ocarina had set a monumental precedent for not only all future 3D Zelda games, but for all future 3D fantasy games period.
After exploring the dungeon of the Great Deku Tree, I found myself entering the enchanting Hyrule Field. Upon exploring the field I felt such a sense of unbridled freedom. This felt like a lite version of the modern open world fantasy game—an early precursor to the vast expansiveness of franchises like The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher. In this space you are free to come and go as you choose, and which direction you’ll take is (nearly) entirely up to you. One can’t deny how far ahead of its time this section feels, and it was in this moment that I believe Ocarina of Time finally “clicked” with me. From this moment on I felt completely immersed in the game. The simplicity of the 90s graphics quickly melted away, and only a sense of magic and wonder remained. As I explored each new environment, my understanding of why people love this game so much grew stronger.
Not only does the game do a brilliant job of making the world of Hyrule feel truly larger-than-life, but the story itself remains one of the best in the Zelda canon. On surface level the story is a pretty basic tale of Link adventuring through Hyrule and time itself in order to save Princess Zelda and stop the evil Ganondorf from assuming power over the land—however, there are far deeper implications to be found within this story and its accompanying gameplay. Time is a tried and true theme in many Zelda legends—the power of it, and the effects of its passing are no stranger to the stories told in this franchise. Playing Ocarina as an adult has been especially poignant, due to the fact that the adventure mirrors our own reality of growing up into adulthood, and all of the sobering changes that come with that process. Young Link’s world is one of vibrant color and whimsy. This early stage of the game captures the innocence and tranquility of youth. As a child, one feels carefree and eager to explore the mysterious world before them—but once you leap forward in time, the world around you drastically changes. In Link’s future, Ganon has assumed control over Hyrule, and a cloudy darkness spreads throughout the realm. The once jovial Hyrule Castle marketplace is now infested with the ReDead—zombie-like abominations which attack if approached. The surrounding landscapes are now dreary and even more treacherous than before, and it almost feels like an entirely different game experience.
I’m currently 29, and quickly pushing 30, which is maybe why this bit has struck some nerve deep inside me. I’ve been coming to terms with change more and more lately, and accepting the fact that my adult life is significantly different from my childhood. Without meaning to sound too depressing, life just isn’t as fun anymore as it was when I was a kid. My friends all have busy work schedules, and it’s hard to find the time to bond over fun games and activities like we used to. We still make time for these things, but as life becomes more challenging it feels like we take a step further away from the magic of our upbringing. The world feels colder to me now, and somehow desaturated—as if the pressures of adulthood have sapped some wonder from the experience of living. I find myself longing more and more each day for the simplicity of bygone times. This experience is something that Ocarina of Time understands on a profound level, and in turn makes it one of the greatest video games of all time. In my darkest, most tragic reflections I then remind myself that magic can still be found in our adult lives as long as we know where to look for it. The experience I’ve had playing this game was magic, and it reconnected me to a feeling I had not felt in a long time. That is the power of art, and I’m forever grateful for being reminded of that. For these reasons and more, Ocarina of Time has entered my life at precisely the right moment—23 years after its release, but when I needed it most.