Shigeru Miyamoto once said that ‘a delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever’. If that saying were ever to be collected, it should be illustrated with a picture of Ocarina Of Time, the game that didn’t make the Nintendo 64 launch date by over two years.
If gaming ever had a Citizen Kane moment, this is it. A fully 3D world to explore, combined with an inspired directorial flair, featuring some of the greatest dungeons, characters and gadgets of any adventure. The game begins in Kokiri Village, a training level that is also a masterstroke of simplicity. Rather than a list of instructions and commands, or (even worse) dropping you in at the deep end, Ocarina begins in an eminently explorable and safe village, and tells you to explore it. There are chests to find, people to talk to, grass to run through, a training dungeon – and it’s several hours before you even feel the need to look farther. When you do, and the world opens its horizons, it is one of the great moments. Zelda games were always epic, but it was with Ocarina that they finally achieved Homeric scale: the central field section seems to reach over leagues, opening on to a sea, a castle, a fortress, mountains, woods and even a ranch. The first time you run across, the world gradually begins changing from bright day to sunset red. Games, even the best games, hadn’t presented an adventure like this before.
The difficulty with adventure, of course, is that it necessitates adversity. And in the world of Ocarina, the real enemies are not the skeletons, wolves, ghosts and octoroks that attack Link, but the Rubik’s Cube of the dungeons. The interlocking rooms, switches, moveable blocks, hidden items, crystals, manholes, torches, targets, spikes, statues and locked doors are the building blocks for puzzles with solutions so elegantly simple they take the most grizzled gamer by surprise, allowing you to make it through one door at a time, get that little bit closer to the boss, and then get stumped all over again. Few entire games can compete with the single moment in each Ocarina dungeon when finding a new item suddenly opens up new areas, and previously insurmountable challenges are suddenly all too possible. The Water Temple still arguably stands as the greatest challenge of spatial awareness in a 3D adventure game, leaving few gamers with their sanity intact, and even when the challenges have been met, all the switches pressed and all the keys collected, there is always one final challenge: and it’s usually huge, with teeth. The bosses are screen-filling behemoths that can toss Link around like a ragdoll, manipulate reality to their will or even mimic his form and moves – how can you defeat yourself?
Amid these new challenges, however, the real trump card within Ocarina Of Time is filched from its older brother. The light and dark worlds of A Link To The Past had made the dual-world mechanic a central part of Zelda’s mythos: if you don’t do this, then this will happen. Ocarina upped the ante by making the division between the two worlds nothing more complex than an act of chronology: there were no portals, or what-might-bes. Just a gap of seven years. You were either young Link, struggling against the brawny adult figure of Ganondorf – or you were adult Link, in the adult world Ganondorf ruled. The brilliance of this touch, quite apart from the change in focus it allows the later challenges, is in giving an inevitability to Ganondorf’s victory, creating a fear that spurs the player ever onwards. Is there any other game set in a world that you’ve already failed to save?
The darkness of the adult time is not merely applied to the struggle with Ganondorf, but infuses the whole world. One of the first things you do as an adult is enter a ghost shop, and the reaction of the shopkeeper makes the change in Link painfully clear: “You are a handsome man. If I looked as good as you, I could run a different kind of business… heh heh heh!” Nintendo being Nintendo, the gorier sides of growing up are hidden beneath a covering of wit and sly obscurity, but they’re there all the same. The world resonates against its earlier self, and unless you had been paying attention to Link as a child, you might not understand why he stares blankly at a tree stump in the sacred meadow as an adult. It’s one of the many riddles that exist in every corner of the game, and from visiting the ghosts of people you knew as a child, to selling masks to spread a little happiness, the dungeons and both worlds of Ocarina are crammed with possibilities.
Ocarina is also a model of how to design for a machine, rather than on it. The cartridge format allowed no loading screens, accompanied by an exceptional use of the N64 controller – the C-buttons allowing wide access to your inventory and the titular ocarina, while Z-targeting allowed an easy switch between movement and combat that has become an industry standard. Automatic jumps removed the distraction of lining up movement: Link jumped when he reached an edge because… well, he would, wouldn’t he? Along with this unity of input and action, the player’s relationship to Link is treated with touches of arch humour: after a detailed explanation of the mythology behind Hyrule, the camera moves from a firstperson view of the Deku Tree (the speaker) to a thirdperson view of Link, and just like the player he’s sitting down and looking very slightly bored with all the exposition. You can almost imagine him impatiently jabbing the buttons on his controller.
Ocarina Of Time had the effect of instantly rewriting Zelda history such that its predecessors, barring perhaps the exceptional A Link To The Past, seemed mere blueprints: it was an astonishing achievement in 1998 and it still serves as the landmark for its successors and 3D adventure games in general, with Zelda, Ganon and Link the trio around which the most powerful and enduring of games and game mythologies are woven. In a series composed of awfully big adventures, Ocarina may no longer be the prettiest, or even the biggest, but it’s still the best of them all.