The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time turns 20 years old today. It’s older than this site, in fact, it’s older than most gaming sites. Despite its age, Ocarina’s influence can be found in games big and small to this day. It’s also still the highest rated game of all time according to Metacritic. It’s still an incredible game by 2018’s exacting standards of quality and presentation, but in 1998, it was legendary. To truly understand its cultural impact, you had to be there. I was, and I want to tell you all about it.
The story of Ocarina of Time begins years before its release, in late 1995. That year, Nintendo held what was then an annual event all their own, known as Shoshinkai, or Spaceworld. The 1995 show served as the Nintendo 64’s coming out party: Nintendo showed off the hardware and over a dozen games, but for me, there was only one thing shown that mattered: the Zelda 64 tech demo. It was a scant 10-second video, but it was all my 13-year-old-self cared for. I decided at that moment that I had to have a Nintendo 64 and that I had to have it on day one, as I was convinced that surely Zelda would release alongside the ground-breaking console.
Oh, how I was wrong. The following June the Nintendo 64 released in Japan. I gathered up my year’s savings from doing whatever odd jobs I could and ordered one as soon as possible. When I received it, there was, of course, no new Zelda for me to play, but there was something nearly as good in Super Mario 64. It defined my love of the series, though even as I played my way through Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom adventure, I continued to dream of taking up my sword and saving Hyrule from the clutches of Ganon. Super Mario 64 had changed how I looked at Mario titles, but Ocarina of Time would eventually change how I thought about games as a whole.
In late 1996, after I’d finished Super Mario 64, I was back to waiting impatiently for Zelda. The internet was still in its infancy, and I’d spend every moment I could on it hunting for new information about the game that would become Ocarina of Time. Nintendo would release screenshots in a seemingly scattershot fashion, meaning I was glued to the sites and message boards of the day to check in. I watched Link evolve from the brown-haired, beady-eyed guy shown in that original tech demo, to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hero of Time we’ve all come to know and love. New pieces of Zelda information came in all manner of medium and I was keen to devour it whether it was in a magazine, in short, grainy video clips online or delivered on VHS tapes, I would watch them over and over, obsessively, much to my parents’ dismay.
By 1998, the Zelda hype machine was in full effect. Nintendo had released a new trailer for the game which was running in movie theatres. When I found this out, I hopped on my bike and made a trip to the theatre and bought a ticket. I watched the trailer which ended with the date: 23rd November 1998. Finally, I knew when I would get my hands on the game. After nearly three years of waiting, the end was in sight.
After years of waiting, the fated day had arrived. I woke up, got ready and headed off to school. As my professor droned on about whatever I was supposed to be learning that day. After my first class of the day, I escaped my collegiate life to find my brother waiting outside. I hopped in his car and we were on our way. In a matter of moments I’d have the gold cart I felt I’d been waiting an eternity for, or so I thought. When I arrived at the mall, I walked as fast I could without actually running to Software Etc, my community’s de facto game store of choice. When I arrived I excitedly placed my pre-paid receipt on the counter and asked for my copy of Zelda.
“We don’t have it,” the cashier replied, clearly expressing the kind of exhaustion I wouldn’t come to understand until I worked on his side of the counter, years later. He told us to come back in 20 minutes, so we did. On our third return, the cashier had had enough. “We’ll have it out when we have it,” he said this time, dropping any former pretense of cordiality in the process. Offended by the cashier’s inability to deal with an over-excited teenager, I did what any over-excited teenager would do: I sat on the floor and proclaimed the line started behind me. My brother sat with me in an act of solidarity. Little did we know that we had started something. Before long another anxious purchaser arrived asking about their copy and sat behind me in line. One after another, gamers slowly trickled into the store to take their place in line; it was the first time in my life I’d seen so many people gather for, well, anything. The line stretched out the door and to the mall’s exit. Local news showed up to ask us what so many people were waiting for. Fellow classmates from the now-destroyed town I lived in at the time were all congregated in this one shop impatiently waiting for our golden cartridges.
After a few hours, a visibly relieved manager appeared to inform us they had personally driven to the UPS centre in town and procured our games. One by one we cashed out and hurried to our homes to discover if the years-long wait for Link’s latest adventure would be worth it. For the first time in my life, I had skipped on reading detailed previews and completely skipped any reviews of the game. I didn’t want even the most minute details of Ocarina’s story spoiled for me. I checked the review scores handed down at various outlets, which further fueled my excitement, but when I turned the game on for the first time, I didn’t know what I was in for.
Much like Mario 64 did for me two years prior, my first few minutes in Ocarina of Time took my breath away. Kokiri Forest was the perfect starting area. My first time seeing Link realised in 3D was incredible. I collected the Kokiri Sword, bought the shield and made my way to the Deku tree. It was an amazing experience, but what really blew me away was seeing Hyrule Field for the first time. It was incredible. Hyrule Castle seemed impossibly far off in the distance, Death Mountain and its ring-shaped cloud loomed in the distance.
For the next several days I played as much as possible. I ran across the map to Castle Town and talked to Princess Zelda. I saved Ruto from Jabu Jabu. I saved the Gorons from Volvagia. I traveled through time and awakened the sages. I stormed Hyrule Castle, found Ganon and rescued Zelda, but all of that was just the beginning. Once the credits rolled it was time to discover what else Hyrule had in store for me. I was obsessed with finding every secret the game had to offer.
I spent months on message boards debating whether the Triforce could be found in the game. I scoured every inch of Hyrule looking for anything I missed while playing through the story: I hunted down all every Big Poe, found every heart piece, killed all 100 Golden Skulltulas and even achieved a perfect score on the Gerudo horseback archery minigame. After a few months, I was confident I’d found all there was to find in the game. My adventure with Link was at an end.
Even two decades later, I still vividly remember the first time I saw that gold cart. And I can see its influences in so many games I play today. Last year’s Breath of the Wild bears Ocarina’s imprint, from simple things like the game’s modern take on Z-targeting, to the evolution of Link’s design, which still resembles how he was re-envisioned for his first 64-bit outing. If you’ve played a modern 3D action game, odds are there’s at least one thing in it that can be traced back to the N64’s magnum opus.
Every few years I feel the need to revisit Ocarina, to further appreciate its masterful pacing, artful storytelling and wondrous sense of adventure. Many games have improved on Ocarina or Time in nearly every way, but it’s impossible to overstate its importance as a piece of gaming history. In another two decades, I’m sure my appreciation for this game will have only grown stronger.