The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is widely considered not just one of the greatest games in the Zelda series, but one of the best games of all time. The 1998 Nintendo 64 game felt vast. It’s story was epic. It made controlling a character in 3D space feel intuitive. It was Zelda in a way no one had experienced before in its 2D predecessors. As I recently replayed its 2011 remake on the 3DS, my appreciation for it grew, a master-class of game design that was even better the second time through.
Diving back into Ocarina on the 3DS, I was afraid of being disappointed. It’s been almost 20 years since I first played Ocarina on the N64, and I’ve done a lot of Zelda-ing since then. Ocarina established a template, a philosophy even, that most of the 3D Zelda games followed, some to their linear detriment. (As much as I liked Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they covered all-too familiar ground.) Some of my favorite games in the series are the ones that have strayed from that formula. See Majora’s Mask.
I was pleasantly surprised that Ocarina not only lived up to its reputation, but surpassed my memory of it. A good chunk of that could be attributed to the updated graphics on the 3DS version, which are crisp and make the areas feel alive in a way smudgy N64 textures could not. Additionally, the interface updates—like making the iron boots a quickly swappable item rather than gear accessible only by pausing the game—make navigating dungeons such as the Water Temple far less frustrating. The camera and controls were as smooth as I remembered, holding up better than those of some of the early 3D N64 and PS1 games.
Ocarina of Time, as you might have heard, is an adventure in which players control a hero named Link in his quest through the land of Hyrule, trying to save Princess Zelda from a cruel usurper named Ganondorf. The game’s first few hours feature Link as a boy, then a seven-year time jump sees players controlling a teenage Link, exploring a changed world. However, by playing a magical song on the titular Ocarina of Time, Link can travel back and forth from the Hyrule of his youth to that of his teenage years.
Ocarina’s designers made creative use of polygonal environments, something they demonstrated in the game’s first dungeon, the Great Deku Tree. It takes place inside a massive, well, tree, initially inviting players to climb interior pathways to reach corridors presumably spread through its branches. There was a moment in the central trunk when I’d cleared everything, and the only way forward was a hole in the base of the trunk, covered with a web. I walked over it, but slashing it with my sword did nothing. How was I going to cut it apart? I climbed the interior wall of the tree, looked around, and couldn’t figure it out. Then a question came to me: was it possible to jump from one of the upper planks down to the web-covered hole and let the weight of my body break through? It worked! When I first discovered this two decades back, I was hooked. When I experienced it again on 3DS, I loved how intuitive and clever it still felt.
The dungeons explored during Link’s childhood are the simplest in the game. They’re designed to feel organic, less a combination of random puzzle rooms and more like deliberate, realistic spaces. They reminded me of places I’d discover as a kid: an abandoned house surrounded by trees, filled with all sorts of old trinkets, or a canal a group of us would explore and make up stories about as we walked along.
The second childhood dungeon of Ocarina, Dodongo’s Cavern, is a huge, volcanic mine, where Gorons go to feast on rocks. A massive dead fossil of a dinosaur-like Dodongo towers over Link as he enters. Again, Ocarina’s designers gently teach the player by presenting clues in the environment. The mine is filled with flowers made of bombs, and the occasional volcanic burst wreaks havoc on the cave. These elements coax the player to pluck some bomb flowers, toss them to see what happens. It felt natural to use explosives to clear the way. I bombed all the cracked walls, forcing my way through the mines.
The path to the end of this dungeon was another conundrum that originally stumped me. I presumed the big Dodongo remains were just part of the background, but as I was crossing over one of the bridges on the upper tier of the main cavern, I noticed there were openings right above the cavities of the skull’s eye sockets. Were they just pits I had to jump over? Their placement cried for experimentation, so I dropped bombs into the eye-holes. They glowed red and forced the Dodongo’s mouth ajar, opening a path for Link to proceed forward. I can’t think of many other games of that era that married the environment and game mechanics so creatively.
Nintendo wanted combat to be an important part of Ocarina of Time’s gameplay, and a big part of the game’s allure was seeing familiar enemies from the earlier 2D Zeldas in 3D form. The Dodongo boss battle was a lot of fun and gave me flashbacks to dropping bombs in the path of 8-bit sprite Dodongos in the original The Legend of Zelda. I felt nostalgic when I first saw the spider-like Tektites in Death Mountain and the giant Peahats on Hyrule Field.
Magical music replaces the magic spells of older Zeldas, a game design choice made by designer Shigeru Miyamoto from the start of development, according to The Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia. But music isn’t just for moving through the timeline or changing the in-game weather. Much of the game revolves around the power of the Ocarina and the way it can create bonds. Link and Skull Kid—a sort of lost boy—form a friendship over their shared enthusiasm for music. Link summons his horse Epona with Epona’s Song, which Link learns from the farmgirl Malon. That melody also helps cows stuck within deep caverns—they remember their past on their pasture, which causes them to produce milk, that Link can use to restore his health. Darunia’s depression and foul mood is cured when Link plays a catchy tune that cheers the Goron patriarch up. Saria’s tune lets Link stay connected with his childhood friend, like Hyrule’s version of a smartphone.
Ocarina of Time’s childhood sequences give Link a chance to interact and meet with the various sages who, in a retro nod, are named after the villages in Zelda II. The wistful parting with Saria after you leave the Deku Tree moved me with the way it portended childhood’s end. Meeting Princess Zelda for the first time in Hyrule Castle was sweet, making her exodus all the more bitter. After Link gathers the three spiritual stones, he finds the Master Sword in the Temple of Time, which propels him seven years into the future.
Ganondorf uses the opportunity created by Link to enter the Sacred Realm and steal the Triforce, the series’ powerful trio of golden triangles. That bit bugged me when I first played the game and did so again when I played the 3DS version. If Link hadn’t entered the Temple of Time in the first place, would they have all been better off? Shouldn’t the fact that Link can freely travel back in time also mean he should be able to adjust time and stop Ganondorf, or at the least warn everyone of what’s impending? Time paradoxes abound, if you believe in the linear flow of chronology. There’s the windmill guy who teaches teenage Link the Song of Storms, which he learned from a younger Link. That shouldn’t be possible, as Link hasn’t learned it yet. I can forgive the contradictions, though. This older Link isn’t just a story transition, but a gameplay one as Link acquires a new suite of equipment and abilities.
As much as I enjoyed the childhood dungeons, the adult ones took puzzling to a different level. The Forest Temple is a haunting, hallowed ground, hidden within the Sacred Forest Meadows. Even getting there is a confusing and arduous task. The serpentine Lost Woods are hard to pass through, and patrolling Moblin enemies are ready to tackle Link. The grandeur of the temple made me wonder about its past. What happened to its clergy? By the time Link visits, the temple is overrun with monsters and ghosts. The ancient trees around it convey a sense of solemnity, while its interior designer seems to have taken their cues from the surrounding woods. Its hallways are dark and enigmatic. The goal of the dungeon is to hunt down the four Poe sisters, ghosts who will light torches that open up an elevator, and take Link to the heart of the temple. The player untwists hallways and searches for ghosts in paintings. If a level could be poetry, this is it. It’s one of my favorite dungeons in Ocarina, punctuated by a fight against a Phantom Ganon who hides within paintings, and attacks Link across a gallery of scenic art.
For many players, the Water Temple was the bane of their journey through Ocarina of Time. But my biggest obstacle was the Fire Temple, which is set in Death Mountain. I dreaded revisiting it on the 3DS. The Fire Temple is long and tortuous and made my palms sweaty with its fiery conundrums. The temple revolves around rescuing captured Gorons, getting the keys to prison cells, and traversing rooms full of lava and fire traps. Hitting switch crystals can unlock doors, but they often have a timer. Bombs, which explode after a delay, can offset the trigger, allowing access and quick jaunts through temporarily-disabled walls of fire. The only boss I ever struggled with in Ocarina of Time was the Fire Temple’s dragon Volvagia. Volvagia moves like an aerial worm, flying from pit to pit. I did have more heart containers when I fought it on my 3DS, which made the battle much more manageable. He’s still a hard boss though—I died the first time I fought him in the remake. The second time, I was more careful and had an easier time with the battle as I realized the combination of the megaton hammer and sword could make dragonmeat out of him.
I didn’t find the Water Temple troubling when I played it on the N64. In my second foray, I felt the same. To me this was a clever dungeon, built around the idea of raising or lowering the volume of water to three specific levels. It requires strategic planning and rewarded players who carefully thought about their steps. As I mentioned earlier, the 3DS makes the Water Temple more tolerable for everyone, by allowing quicker access to toggle Link’s iron boots on or off. Link needs the boots on when he wants to sink to the temple’s floor, and off again when he wants to swim. To solve the dungeon, Link has to switch the boots a lot. Much of the temple revolves around the idea of raising or lowering the water level to get to the appropriate spot in the central column. Unfortunately, you can only set the water level at specific points, which meant that, if you miss a key, you might have to backtrack a whole lot. Gaining the game’s pseudo grappling hook, the long shot, expedites matters.
My favorite part of Ocarina of Time happens in the Water Temple. For the mini-boss fight, Link enters the Room of Illusion and comes across a shallow lake. It almost feels like he’s been warped to another dimension. He runs all the way across, sees a tree, then reaches the gate at the opposite end. It’s locked. Link turns around and sees a figure lying by the tree. In another nod to Zelda II, a fight versus Dark Link (aka Shadow Link) commences. Dark Link mirrors Link’s moves, his abilities, and even the number of heart containers he has. I had flashbacks to the final fight in Zelda II as our swords clashed. Even the parry and striking sounds reminded me of the original fight. The mini-boss battle theme is one of my favorite tracks in the game, better even than the boss track, making it the perfect complement for this struggle. Just recalling the battle makes me hum that track fondly.
There’s been so much criticism leveled against the Water Temple, I feel its better qualities have been obscured. It’s a smartly designed dungeon that a few tweaks have made even better. I would go so far as to say it was one of the most memorable sections in Ocarina of Time.
Zelda games aren’t just about saving Hyrule and Princess Zelda. I was happy to rediscover that Ocarina of Time was weirder than I remembered. I mean that in the best way possible as it added a sense of texture and richness to a world that wasn’t just populated by generic characters. Hyrule, with its quirky citizens, has its own varied ecosystem that makes the world feel authentic and one that you want to rescue.
One of the strangest characters is Dampé who, during the childhood portions of the game, skulks around in Kakariko Grave and gives spectral tours. Seven years later, he’s died, but his ghost races against Link for a special prize. The whole concept of racing a dead guy is creepy in itself, but fascinating, too, since the dead in Hyrule need to amuse themselves.
Even more freakish are the spidery gold Skulltulas, and their family’s curse brought on by their greed. What in the world did they do to get themselves turned into these arachnids? The fact that Link never questions it, but instead opts to eradicate an entire branch of spiders at their request (most of which don’t bother you) was troubling, even though your acts ultimately cure the family.
The Happy Mask Salesman, who plays a more prominent role in Majora’s Mask, is introduced in Ocarina and is bizarrely frenetic, his animation staccato through frames. Putting aside the question of why he’s so dreadfully cheerful, the mask exchange sidequest exposes Link to some of the odd denizens of Hyrule and their personal angsts.
As a boy, Link meets a couple who dance through Hyrule Square, day and night, indifferent to the great evil threatening them. Seven years later, having survived Ganondorf’s apocalypse, they’re still dancing behind the mill in Kakariko Village, irritated if Link tries to talk with them. Some people don’t mind watching the world burn as long they can ignore it.
One of the game’s more light-hearted side quests involves the rancher Ingo (aka Luigi) complaining about Marlon (aka Mario), and believing he should be in charge. It’s a twisted form of Mario envy.
This weirdness spreads to the childhood dungeon set in Jabu-Jabu’s belly. The big fish deity is ill and needs Link to investigate his insides. It’s visually disturbing in there, what with the sphincters for doors and live tissue surrounding Link. The improved textures in the 3DS version made it even more revolting. If you’ve ever wondered how Jonah would have felt, you get first-hand experience inside these disgusting innards.
And then there’s the Shadow Temple. It isn’t just strange. It’s the one part of Ocarina of Time that really challenges the game’s moral simplicity. For the most part, the morality of Link’s mission is never put into question. Ganondorf is evil. Link must stop him. That changes with the Shadow Temple. Hidden beyond the Kakariko Grave where the Shadow Temple starts, an inscription informs Link, “Here is gathered Hyrule’s bloody history of greed and hatred.” The temple is designed as a place where the Sheikah tortured enemies of Hyrule, and is a bleak worship hall commemorating cruelty and punishment. The mood is oppressive, with torture equipment and guillotine blades ready to slice Link up at every turn. There are spiked blocks that drop on Link, and a room with spiked walls that nearly crush him. Gibdos and the ReDead monsters haunt its halls, and I couldn’t help wonder if they were the remains of those imprisoned within. What evils had they perpetrated to deserve this fate? While it’s the most linear dungeon in the game, the Shadow Temple is also the most ambiguous in terms of its moral theme. There’s even a symbolic journey down a Stygian-like river on a boat that is propelled by Zelda’s lullaby. Link is confronting Hyrule’s tragic legacy which takes him into an ethical gray space that none of the Zelda games had before (aside from perhaps Link’s Awakening and his ultimate goal to wake the Wind Fish). Whereas in the Water Temple Link had to face himself, in the Shadow Temple he has to confront the sins that have marred the country.
I’ve always hated Wallmasters, which are sets of detached hands that hound Link throughout the Shadow Temple. But this section made me think of them in a different light. Were they the spirits of people who had their hands cut off, just trying to help lost wanderers get out?
The boss of the temple, Bongo Bongo, is physically one of the strangest enemies in the game. With a crimson eyeball sticking out where its neck should be, and arms with hands sundered off, there’s a lot of speculation as to its origins. Link can’t even see the boss without equipping the Lens of Truth first, symbolizing how much of that truth has been hidden. (I went down a rabbithole of game theories related to the Bongo Bongo and Sheikah, all of which are fascinating.) When I overcame the gruesome giant, I had more questions than answers. Unfortunately, the sage of the temple, Impa, wasn’t forthcoming with any revelations. Bongo Bongo’s unspoken truths were crushed by my master sword, lost permanently to time.
I’ve focused primarily on what I loved about Ocarina. But there were some problems exposed by my return to the game on the 3DS. The biggest is that the central terrain of the game, Hyrule Field, feels empty. This is most stark in the opening acts where Link must cross it multiple times on foot. I wish there was more to do and discover, rather than it existing principally as a massive hub that connects different regions. When Link gains Epona, it feels great to gallop across the field. But as Link learns songs on his ocarina to warp him everywhere, there’s no reason to go back, aside from finding a few heart container pieces and gold skulltulas.
I was also disappointed that, unlike the map of the earlier dual-timeline Zelda game, A Link to the Past, the field is mostly unchanged in the future after Ganon takes over. When Link emerges from the Temple of Time in Ganondorf’s apocalypse, the skies are grim and it’s overcast, Hyrule city is a mess, but the field appears much the same. I would have loved some alternate music to distinguish the later Hyrule Field. There’s also an awkward visual transition when Link initially emerges from Hyrule castle where the sky is polluted and gloomy, then abruptly becomes azure. Apparently, Ganon’s evil atmosphere has limited range.
Thankfully, other parts of Hyrule have a more obvious transformation. Zora’s Domain is frozen over. The Goron City is abandoned. Lake Hylia is heavily dried up. Link slowly undoes the evil wrought by Ganondorf and even visits his enemy’s birthplace, Gerudo Valley. A harsh desert that is unforgiving to the unprepared, it partially explains why Ganondorf is as ruthless and tough as he is.
Ocarina of Time in many ways symbolizes the journey from childhood to becoming a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, a bildungsroman with time travel to speed things along. In the first temple, Link goes back to his hometown and makes discoveries about the Kokiri Forest and where he grew up, learning that he’s actually a Hylian. He is next tested by fire, ascending high up into Death Mountain and confronting his mortality in the Fire Temple. In the Water Temple, he descends into the aquatic depths of Lake Hylia and has to confront himself. At the Shadow Temple, Link deals with his country’s sins and its bloody legacy. Late in the game, in the time-jumping Spirit Temple played as both child and teenage Link, it gets him to ponder on his own spirit and how he’s changed in a short period of time. As a teenager, he doesn’t quite fit in, having skipped much of his childhood and the battles that have ravaged Hyrule. He’s a stranger in his own home, with his fellow Kokiri Tribespeople unable to recognize him. But by far the most alienating aspect of his growth is that the burden of the entire country rests on his shoulders when just a short time before that, he was a careless kid in his village.
The first time I played Ocarina of Time I had just begun working at LucasArts. I was nineteen, and, due to financial and personal reasons, was forced to leave Berkeley where I was attending school. It was a bitter time for me that I still have a hard time recollecting. But I was fortunate to turn that situation into an opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams, which was to work in the game industry. I’d worked part-time at a bookstore, tutored kids, written stuff for a tabletop RPG, but I hadn’t yet had a full-time job. So I honestly had no idea about corporate life. I knew I wanted to test games, earn some money, and hopefully go back to school in a year. I still remember the first game I tested was a Star Wars RTS game called Force Commander. I learned quickly that there was a lot more to the job than just playing games; it involved a lot of problem analysis, identification and prioritization of bugs, then repeating the process for developers so they could figure out what was wrong. Because the QA department tested ports of all games, they had most consoles available. It’s how I first got to play Ocarina of Time, since I didn’t have my own N64.
I was absolutely blown away by it. I related to Link’s quest in so many ways. Like Link, I felt I had to learn really quickly what it meant to be an adult. I didn’t have any family to depend on, so whatever money I made was what I had to survive on.
When my year in QA was up, I seriously contemplated going back to Berkeley and finishing my time there. But then an incredible opportunity in the art department became available. With the support of many of my colleagues, I transitioned into game development, working on games like Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, and Gladius. I also got to write a few manuals like the special edition for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and a strategic game called Wrath Unleashed. I worked a lot of hours and loved every one of them. I undertook multiple projects with friends, got to visit Skywalker Ranch a few times, and helped make games I’m very proud of.
While there was no Ganondorf to fight against, it was always in the back of my mind that I had to work to survive. I was grateful that I had found a way to make a living by doing things I loved. But it was also a harrowing set of circumstances that had created this situation. In that sense, I empathized with Link’s abrupt transition from childhood to adulthood. He might have been having the time of his life adventuring through Hyrule, but he’d lost his childhood and innocence along the way. As Sheik points out, “The flow of time is always cruel… Its speed seems different for each person, but no one can change it.”
Revisiting The Ocarina of Time reminded me of the brilliance of its design, the intricate motivations behind its inhabitants, and the ways the designers pushed polygonal gaming into something akin to an orchestral performance, with rhythms and melodies blending seamlessly into each other. The game’s timelessness evoked personal memories that made me feel like I was going back in time to visit an old friend. The 3DS was my ocarina, and it played a melody that, fortunately, keeps getting better with time.