Ocarina of Time has only gotten better with age
There are seldom few things in life that actually feel sancrosanct.
Your childhood home, the first falling snow of the season, the sound of the ocean at night–these experiences all share a deep, spiritual resonance. Art can evoke those same feelings, making you feel weightless, like gliding over hallowed ground. And while video games are just now starting to explore the depths of their potential as an artistic medium, 1998's The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time somehow transcended that threshold when it came out 20 years ago today.
Released on the now-primitive Nintendo 64, the game feels just as mysterious, tormented, joyous, and spirited as it did when it first debuted. While modern consoles can compute at hundreds of times the speed and complexity of what that chunky cartridge system could muster, in the two decades that have passed since Ocarina, very few titles have come close to the masterfully-woven craftsmanship, storytelling, and gameplay of what is perhaps gaming’s greatest work of art.
Ever since the Boy Without A Fairy first set foot in the gaping mouth of the Great Deku Tree, players have been enraptured by this adventure, a lyrical piece of soul-searching that somehow feels equal parts Walt Whitman and Labyrinth.
But what is it about Ocarina that still intoxicates players after all these years? Is it the gameplay, with its then-groundbreaking Z-targeting system, honing players into vicious, focused battles in an open world that feels as expansive as it is detailed? Or perhaps the unforgettable Koji Kondo score, an uplifting, and, at times, impossibly sombre, soundtrack that still stands to this day as a benchmark for gaming music?
Many folks would point to the design breakthroughs made in Ocarina, one of the first titles to push the console to its graphical limits, realizing the full potential of what could be created on that 64-bit canvas. The writing, too, brought video games into the modern day, with a cast of idiosyncratic townspeople and central characters who felt, perhaps for the first time in the history of the medium, like living, breathing, sentient creatures with feelings and thoughts and plans all their own.
To me, the secret to Ocarina’s magic is time itself. The reason it has persisted throughout the decades played and replayed again and again, is because it singularly captures the inevitability of time. The time-travel mechanic in Ocarina, though informed by titles of Zelda past, was the defining moment for the N64 game, adding a layer of perspective to the experience that electrifies the imagination and gives voice to the unspeakable cruelty–and beauty–of nature’s always-ticking clock.
Fans of the game will remember their first experience removing the Master Sword from its consecrated altar, and travelling through time into early adulthood. For many of us, the game felt very relatable from the onset, because we first played it as kids, like the young Link of the game’s first act–an adolescent with big hopes, dreams, and questions about what lie ahead. And if you were raised in the 90s, and became an adult in the 2010s, you may connect deeply with the adult Link of the game’s later sequences, since the world of his adulthood is far weirder and more broken than what we ever expected.
In Ocarina, Link is sealed away in a sort of hibernation for seven years by a group of Sages who hope that when he awakens, he can wield the mighty Master Sword and strike down the dark lord Ganondorf, who has taken over Hyrule in his lust for the all-powerful Triforce. The experience of waking up seven years later, all of a sudden transitioning from a little boy to a young man in the blink of an eye–it feels all too familiar.
When Link ventures out into the adult world for the first time, the beauty of his youth is replaced by a harrowing expanse of loss and ruin. The plants have grown rampant, the skies have grown dark, and the Castle Town’s once-bustling Market is replaced by a screeching, desolate sprawl of monsters known as ReDeads, which likely inspired nightmares for years to come. Link soon finds that the reality of adulthood is an ugly one, and while many of the natural wonders of his world, like the ebullient waters of Lake Hylia, or the exhilarating cliffs of the Gerudo Desert, are still intact, many of his former compatriots have become corrupted, restless, or lost entirely.
It’s in this way that Ocarina of Time transfixes players, exploiting the tragically-slighted hopes of our youth, and the devastating isolation of our newfound adulthood responsibilities, to make for an experience that beautifully bridges the gap between both the young and old forms of our ever-growing selves. For those of us, and I’m sure there are many, that sometimes feel like adulthood is like waking up in the middle of a very long sleep from deep in our childhood, there is simply no game that touches our hearts quite like Ocarina.
And just as there is only one Hero of Time–though the same story can be told and retold for generations to come–there will only ever be one Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.