The Great Zelda Playthrough Part 5: Ocarina of Time

To say that Ocarina of Time’s reputation precedes it would be an understatement. When people think of The Legend of Zelda, they probably think of Ocarina of Time. It was the game that really gave the series its reputation and made it a household name. It has near-universal praise and even now, 23 years later, it’s still regarded as one of, if not the best video game of all time. Despite being the 5th game in the series, it became the center of the Zelda timeline, with every game placed relative to it more than any other game. Ocarina of Time was the point at which the Zelda franchise became too big to fail.

So naturally, obnoxious contrarian that I am, when I first played it I thought the game was overrated and far from the best in the series.

I came into this replay with a bias, dead set on tearing down Ocarina of Time and proving that it’s really not near as good as everyone says, though I also entered excited to see it through the eyes of someone who had never played a 3D Zelda game before.

So did Ocarina of Time win me over? Or was I justified in my criticisms? Has it stood the test of time, or has it aged poorly? Let’s smash that polygon ceiling and find out!

The Story: A Tragedy of Errors

The story of Ocarina of Time is very similar to that of A Link to the Past, to the point of being a common point of criticism. In fact, it’s similar enough that I’ve decided that, rather than Ocarina of Time being a prequel to A Link to the Past, they’re actually the same events being recounted by two different storytellers, and nobody can tell me that that’s wrong because Nintendo has officially stated that the timeline is flexible and that players’ interpretations are valid so I think that’s canon and no one is allowed dissuade me. That said, Ocarina of Time expands and fleshes out the story far more, and by almost any measure it’s the superior tale.

Zelda games have always had coming-of-age stories. After the original game saw Link save the princess and Hyrule, The Adventure of Link saw the same Link turn sixteen, defeat his shadow, obtain the Triforce of Power, and receive a kiss from that game’s Princess Zelda. After A Link to the Past saw a different Link save the princess and Hyrule, Link’s Awakening saw that same Link caught in a dream, forced to choose between living an idyllic life there or resuming his duty and, in the process, erasing that dream. But no game before or since has tackled the coming-of-age story as directly as Ocarina of Time, where Link has the childhood years he deserves unceremoniously and quite literally taken from him.

The game begins in Kokiri Forest, where Link is a boy of around 9 or 10 years old, living among the Kokiri, green-clad children who never age and all have fairy companions (have you noticed how much inspiration the Zelda series has taken from Peter Pan?). Link, however, has no fairy until the forest’s guardian, the Great Deku Tree, sends Navi to him. While this should result in Link finally fitting in with all the other Kokiri, the Great Deku Tree tells him he must leave Kokiri forest, as the dark wizard Ganondorf has his evil machinations set on obtaining the sacred Triforce, left behind by Hyrule’s three goddesses, and that Link must inform the royal family.

Link leaves the forest for the first time in his life to meet Princess Zelda, who has been having prophetic visions of both Link and Ganondorf. She sends Link to gather the spiritual stones to open the Temple of Time, where the Master Sword and Triforce await. Unfortunately, there were two things he and Zelda did not anticipate: first, that the Master Sword would accept Link as its master, but determined that he was not old enough to wield it, locking him in stasis in the Sacred Realm for seven years until he was ready. Second, this would allow Ganondorf to enter the Temple of Time and seize the Triforce uncontested, using those seven years to lay absolute waste to Hyrule.

Link awakens seven years later in a ruined Hyrule and sets out to find the seven sages, those with the power to seal Ganondorf away. In addition to Rauru, the Sage of Light who kept watch over him during those seven years, he finds that the sages consist mostly of people he met as a child. Also aiding him is Sheik, a young Sheikah ninja who shows up to offer Link advice and teach him songs, but who never lets him get close whenever Link tries. Sheik, it turns out, has been Princess Zelda in disguise. After revealing this, she is kidnapped by Ganondorf, with Link facing him and his beast form Ganon. After the battle, Zelda uses the Ocarina of Time to send Link back to the past so he’s able to live out the childhood he was deprived from. However, once he arrives, Navi immediately leaves him. When one considers the Peter Pan allusions with the Kokiri, I think the metaphor becomes clear: Link has already left Neverland. He has already grown up, seen and done too much, and can never truly reclaim the childhood he lost.

And, while I try not to look at future games when evaluating these, it has to be brought up that this game has not one but two sequels. I’ll get into Majora’s Mask and how Ocarina of Time affected Link in my next post, but The Wind Waker focuses on the timeline the adult Zelda remained in, explaining that when she sent Link back in time, it removed the hero from the timeline so when Ganondorf returned, the Goddesses had no choice but to flood Hyrule. Oops.

Ultimately, the story of Ocarina of Time is a tragedy of errors, the story of two kids who got in way over their heads and made terrible decisions with the best of intentions. While it may have taken the basic framework of A Link to the Past, it built on it, adding a layer of complexity. In retrospect, it’s really not a surprise why this game was so well-regarded at the time, and remains so to this day.

The Legacy

If A Link to the Past built the house that is The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time is what furnished it. It took the framework that A Link to the Past provided and added new lore and worldbuilding. This is the game that introduced Din, Nayru, and Farore as the three golden goddesses, giving the world and the Triforce a creation myth. The Gorons and Zoras are now staples of the series, and while the Zoras technically originated in the very first game as enemies, Ocarina of Time redefined them. While the Kokiri and Gerudo don’t see as much use, their presence is still felt in the form of the Koroks and Minish for the Kokiri and Ganondorf for the Gerudo. And of course, Epona, one of the most beloved horses in gaming, first makes her appearance in Ocarina of Time.

One of the most underlooked elements that Ocarina of Time added to Zelda canon is the use of song-based magic. Every game so far had included a flute-like item (probably a nod to Peter Pan’s and the pan pipes that are his partial namesake) with some mystical ability. Link’s Awakening delved into it far more heavily, with the Ocarina able to play three different songs. However, it was in Ocarina of Time that players themselves were first asked to play the tunes on an instrument in-game. This was important enough that the game took its title from the Instrument, despite it not actually being as vital to the story or themes as some other elements in the game.

And, of course, we can’t ignore that this was the first Zelda game rendered in three-dimensional space. While it translated some of the 2D staples of the franchise to 3D, it also had to make a lot of changes to mechanics that other Zelda games would later use. The most notable of these was Z-targeting, which locks the camera and player character’s movement to a certain enemy or point. This mechanic was so well received that it was utilized by plenty of games outside the Zelda series and remains an industry standard to this day. And Ocarina of Time even provided a narrative reason, with Navi being the one doing the targeting!

My Playthrough

I first played Ocarina of Time on an N64 emulator in about 2009. I didn’t own a console so it was only the second of the 3D games I had played, after Majora’s Mask. However, going right from Majora’s Mask to Ocarina of Time felt like a step down. Years later, I played through the majority of the 3DS remake, which is generally considered to be a fantastic remake that updates the graphics and makes some quality of life tweaks but keeps the gameplay nearly identical.

Around the time I started, Nintendo announced they’d be bringing N64 games, Ocarina of Time included, to Switch Online. I was very tempted to use that for my playthrough, using the N64 controller for the most authentic experience. However, I ultimately decided to go with the 3DS for what I thought would make for the best experience. The N64 controller would get its day in the sun. Next time, baby. Next time.

Partway through, I decided I’d go for 100% completion. Then, after doing some collecting, I decided that I was absolutely not going to go for 100% under any circumstance, for reasons I will go into. Still, I tried for a somewhat expanded experience with some time for exploring, and I’m ultimately glad I did.

While I bailed on 100% completion, I did want to at least take the time afterwards to look into some of the dialogue hidden behind the different masks, since they contain little bits of lore, like Zelda being a tomboy or the implication that the implication that Malon’s mother is a Gerudo.

Highlights and Lowlights

These games have become expansive enough that what would normally be under “my playthrough” or “the verdict” is going to spin off into its own segments. So let me talk about the best and the worst of Ocarina of Time as I experienced it.

The thing that stood out to me from the very start was how cinematic the game was, with a point-of-view scene of Navi flying through Kokiri Forest to wake Link up. Nintendo took full advantage of the leap to 3D, making sure that every cutscene felt special. There are a lot of mini-cutscenes that people complain about taking too long in future games. They’ll ask questions like “Why can’t I skip the animation for opening a chest?” But playing through the games in order, putting myself in the mindset of when the game was made, I wanted to watch the animation each time. Opening a chest and receiving an important item feels like an event.

Ocarina of Time is a somewhat sparse and empty game. Yes, it was 3D, but the 64-bit era still ran up against issues of game space. Cartridges could only store a maximum of 64 megabytes, only about a tenth of what a CD could hold. Ocarina of Time itself was only about 26 MB. I could see the seams where the game pushes up against its limitations, but it works within them phenomenally. For example, the Temple of Time is a large, empty, cavernous cathedral with few features in it. While the location’s design may be simple, the scale, along with the accompanying music inspired by Gregorian chants, gives the Temple a sense of gravitas. The cutscenes don’t have a lot of background detail, which is why they use clever framing instead (framing that is actually slightly tweaked and improved in the 3DS remake) and appropriate music to fit the mood.

Despite limited backgrounds and facial expressions, the framing provides some nice shots, with the music (or lack thereof) giving the scenes additional weight.

Speaking of, the music is also phenomenal. There are some returning tunes like Kakariko Village, but there are a lot of new original songs. The really impressive thing is that many of the songs, since they’re supposed to be played on the Ocarina, are built around the same five notes.

The biggest highlight for me was the section from the Bottom of the Well through the Shadow Temple. These parts are considered the creepiest and most unnerving parts of the game, and for good reason. However, this playthrough was the one where I realized there was more going on in the background than I’d noticed before.

The Bottom of the Well is the first time the game requires you to go back to playing as Young Link. After three dungeons of getting accustomed to Link’s older appearance and new arsenal, the game reminds you that Link is only an adult in physical appearance. In reality, he’s still just a helpless kid who’s been asked to deal with far more than he should have to. The enemies in the Bottom of the Well emphasize this, with Redeads, Gibdos, and the Dead Hand all able to freeze Link in place while they slowly advance. They’re enemies that take control out of the hands of the player and create a feeling of helplessness, driving home how small and ultimately helpless Link is.

The Shadow Temple is itself creepy, and while it’s probably the weakest dungeon in the game from a puzzle standpoint, its traps and lack of shortcuts make it a step up in difficulty, the aesthetic design is fantastic, and it hints at a greater story. Many of the traps and mechanisms in the Shadow Temple are manmade, hinting that the undead creatures that haunt the Temple aren’t the only monsters that inhabit it. It gives the sense that Kakariko, idyllic as it is, is built on a foundation of blood and bone, and that the Sheikah have a darker history than is first apparent.

And now for the lowlights.

Ocarina of Time is a game that, even on the more polished 3DS remake, has clearly visible seams. While I can appreciate how well it worked within its technical limitations, there were parts where it fell through. 

I think the biggest example for me was at the first act twist. After collecting all three spiritual stones, Link returns to Castle Town and the player is treated to the iconic scene of Zelda and Impa fleeing, pursued by Ganondorf. I arrived at Castle Town during the day, so it suddenly turned into a stormy night for the cutscene. Then, after that, it immediately brightened up. I entered Castle Town, where everyone was frolicking about to the jaunty daytime background music, as if no one had noticed when the princess and her attendant passed by pursued by an evil man on a giant black horse only moments before. I went to a back alley to get a famous missable interaction where Link speaks with a soldier wounded in the escape, who then dies. This was, again, during daylight hours while the Castle Town theme continued to play.

I then entered the Temple of Time and pulled the Master Sword from its pedestal. Again, there were some fantastic cutscenes and story moments. I walked back outside to see a ruined, desolate Castle Town. The skies were dark and red, buildings were ruined, the square was populated by Redeads, and the formerly pristine Hyrule Castle and the gardens surrounding it were replaced by a jagged metal castle hovering over a pit of lava. Even the drawbridge leading out of Castle Town was destroyed, with the gatehouse instead housing a seedy merchant. It’s an impactful moment that really drives home how devastated Hyrule has become in the seven years Link was suspended in time.

And then you step a few feet outside of the gates of Castle Town, and the sky immediately brightens up. All the gloom and ruin you just saw is localized entirely over Castle Town. Oops.

These sound like nitpicks, but they very much do ruin the sense of immersion in the world of Hyrule. Little details like this add up. I get that there was only so much they were able to do at the time, but how much do you forgive a game when its limitations are on display?

I think the bigger issue, however, is the travel. Epona and the ocarina warp songs are definitely helpful, but it’s still a chore to get from one place to another. The Biggoron Sword quest actually gives a good idea of how long travel time is. It takes about three minutes to go from the Lost Woods to Kakariko Village. To get from Zora’s Domain to Lake Hylia on the other end of the map takes three minutes. And if you want to go from Lake Hylia back to the Death Mountain crater, it’ll take you four minutes.

This on its own isn’t terrible, but while traveling, there’s…not a lot to do. Hyrule Field is vast, but also barren. Going from one place to another is tedious and obnoxious. It made me immediately bail on 100% completion after initially wanting to try it. 100 gold skultullas? Completely unmarked on the map, only coming out at night, hidden in trees or out-of-the-way holes in the ground you have to open with bombs or playing the Song of Storms? And my reward is…infinite money? In a game where, by that point, money has become completely useless? Yeah, uh, no thank you. I only got the 50 necessary for the biggest wallet (which I didn’t go too out of my way for), which at that point still felt redundant and unnecessary.

I’m sure this was great for kids whose parents bought them one game and it would have to last them for years. But for me, it was a dark stain on an otherwise really solid experience.

The Verdict

Okay. Now comes the hard part. Evaluating the critically acclaimed Ocarina of Time, considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest video games of all time.

I think that Ocarina of Time is the best Zelda game that has aged the least gracefully.

Ocarina of Time is inarguably one of the best Zelda games out there by many definitions of the word. When it is good, it’s phenomenal. While the polygonal models obviously look a little rough compared to today’s standards, it’s more than made up for in the presentation. The music is always on point, the framing is striking, the locations are cleverly set up to either feel more populated than they actually are or to use that emptiness to provide a sense of scale and gravitas.

What’s more, the story is a lot better than I remembered. I’d written it off as a retread of A Link to the Past, but it’s able to have a lot more nuance. Link’s Awakening had its characters react and respond to events in the game as it unfolded, and Ocarina of Time seems to have taken its lessons from that. You feel how Ganondorf’s evil has affected the world, on both a large and small scale. From that perspective, Ocarina of Time has held up really well, and stands well above its predecessors. It can very easily be considered among the best Zelda games.

But now it’s time to talk about the other side of that coin: that it has aged least gracefully.

Ocarina of Time was a very ambitious game that successfully realized a lot of its ambition. But it was also a trailblazer, limited to an extent by its hardware and much more by its development team’s experience, and it’s pretty clear that it was the first 3D Zelda.

I want to be evaluating these games as if I’m playing them as they come out, but that’s just not the reality. Ocarina of Time came out in 1998. Ocarina of Time 3D came out in 2011. It is, as of this writing, 2022. This is a game that’s almost 25 years old with a remake that came out over a decade ago. There have been 14 other main series Zelda games since its release, not to mention the countless games the series has inspired or that have inspired it. Having seen 25 years worth of what’s followed, Ocarina of Time kind of feels like the 3D equivalent of, say, the first Metroid game. It’s a good game, sure. Arguably even a great one. But it wasn’t all fleshed out yet mechanically, and it can be frustrating to play as a result.

Ocarina of Time is brought down for me by a thousand little cuts from things that just didn’t quite work. Rolling across Hyrule Field (going “Hyuh! Hyuh! Hyuh!” the whole time) hoping desperately to make it before nightfall so you don’t have to wait around fighting Stalchildren until it opens again. Clunky camera controls. Unintuitive puzzles. My inability to get the damn Scarecrow Song to work. Little immersion-breaking things like the cutscene incongruity I mentioned earlier.

Even some of the stuff that works doesn’t fully work. Z-targeting is a phenomenal combat mechanic. It’s great for fighting more powerful enemies and focusing on points of interest. It also makes for much slower-paced combat that’s more obnoxious than anything when facing weak enemies. The Shadow Temple was my favorite of the temples, but it also caused me far more frustration than the rest of them. And while the Zelda/Sheik storyline is mostly fantastic, having Zelda get kidnapped by Ganondorf immediately after revealing her identity because Link apparently needs a damsel to save, well, that’s just a heinously bad decision.

Overall, while Ocarina of Time is able to reach some amazing new heights, it doesn’t feel timeless in the way the previous games do, where gameplay flowed seamlessly and it felt like there was something to do on every screen. In fact, while I’d definitely say Zelda II’s gameplay is difficult and unforgiving to the point of making the game worse, it’s still aged better than Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of Time was always a joy to experience, but not always a joy to play. I can see myself going back and revisiting the Ocarina of Time cutscenes and story, but if I were to choose which Zelda game I most want to play again? Ocarina of Time isn’t as high on the list.

That means it’s time to rank it. For me, Link’s Awakening is exactly what I’m looking for from a Zelda game. I can only see one or two games potentially beating it out for my top spot, and Ocarina of Time is not one of them. So it’s not first. And while I’ll defend The Adventure of Link, the game at the bottom of my list, to an extent, I mean…come on. There is exactly one place where The Adventure of Link can claim to outclass Ocarina of Time, and that’s in the beautiful 8-bit pixel art, which, y’know, doesn’t apply to Ocarina of Time. So it’s not last.

Does it beat out my 2nd place game, The Legend of Zelda (NES)? Well, to me, replaying the first Zelda game is like reconnecting with an old friend. It’s familiar. Nostalgic. Always a pleasure. Replaying Ocarina of Time was more like attending a family reunion. It’s a pleasant experience (at least it usually is for me), a great meal, good discussions, but every now and then you have to deal with long introductions and life updates from people you barely know or some relative making an uncomfortable political comment that everyone else politely tries to ignore because why start a fight and tear the family apart over someone you’ll only see once every other year? So I’m going to put it below the original Legend of Zelda as well.

So it comes down to A Link to the Past vs. Ocarina of Time. And this is where it gets really tough, because they’re really similar games, and I have a lot of praise and criticism to give both. Both were highly influential on the direction the series would take moving forward. A Link to the Past took the original game’s gameplay and polished it into a new story, while Ocarina of Time took A Link to the Past’s story, polished it, and put it into a new type of gameplay. 

This was a very close call, but ultimately (including switching my answer from my initial writeup), I’m going with Ocarina of Time over A Link to the Past. While A Link to the Past may be more polished, Ocarina of Time has an ambition not just in the gameplay, but in the story as well. And I am always willing to rank something that’s a bit rough around the edges if it has enough heart.

While they’re leaning towards the bottom at the moment (and will likely be pushed even further down once I play Majora’s Mask) I ultimately think that Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past will stay fairly close to the middle, functioning as the rulers by which I rate every other Zelda game. So for now, putting Ocarina right in the middle feels right.

So that puts my rankings at

  1. Link’s Awakening
  2. The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  3. Ocarina of Time
  4. A Link to the Past
  5. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Next up is a game I’m extremely excited for, as it holds a very special place in my heart. Next time, I’m diving into the weird world of Termina as I play through Majora’s Mask!

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