And, well, I guess I should say something … but it’s honestly kind of bizarre trying to write about why Ocarina of Time is good. I mean … it’s Ocarina of Time! It took the Zelda formula established in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening and perfectly transitioned it into a 3D world.
I love Super Mario 64. It’s one of my favorite games of all time. But when you compare it to Super Mario World, it’s a pretty different kind of game. The 2D Mario games are about running to the right and collecting power-ups to help keep you alive. Super Mario 64 is about exploring and using a wide arsenal of acrobatic moves like jumping off of walls.
Ocarina of Time, meanwhile, is pretty much a 3D version of A Link to the Past. You travel around a large hub world to discover dungeons, wherein you will have to fight monsters and solve puzzles. And each dungeon will give you a new item that will aid you on your quest (specifically by helping you solve puzzles and kill the boss in that same dungeon).
But Ocarina of Time is much more than a technological leap for the Zelda franchise. Nintendo infused more story into the game, making Ocarina of Time feel like a true epic. Anyone who played the game will have a hard time forgetting characters like Ganondorf, the Great Deku Tree, and Saria. And the game’s world is huge, especially for 1998 standards. You can spend hours just riding on your horse and looking for hidden items.
Back in time
Even with the improved visuals and story going for it, Ocarina of Time still got creative. After beating the first three dungeons, you gain the ability to travel to the future. Not only do you turn into an older version of Link, but the world itself is different.
Sure, this is similar to what A Link to the Past did with its Light and Dark Worlds. But travelling back and forth between the two eras of Hyrule is still awesome. Characters you met as a kid get older, areas that were inaccessible become available, and you get to see what happens if Gandondorf succeeds in taking over the kingdom.
Play me a song
And then you have the Ocarina itself, which turns the Nintendo 64 controller into a musical instrument. This is the coolest thing Ocarina of Time does. You have a magical item that can do crazy things like summon a storm, turn night into day, or teleport you. But you don’t just select a spell from a menu. You have to play a song on your Ocarina to trigger the desired the effect.
Each tune is relatively simple. They’re also catchy (you’re probably humming Saria’s Song right now). Pushing those C buttons to play a song remains one of the most satisfying experiences in any video game.
The Ocarina’s shadow
Ocarina of Time was such a success that it established a formula that the series followed for almost two decades. Subsequent games — including Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword — are essentially Ocarina of Time successors.
It wasn’t until last year’s Breath of the Wild that Nintendo finally shook the Zelda formula up again. And it was time. Part of the problem with Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword (which I still think are great games) is that they have to live up to one of the greatest of all time. Ocarina of Time did such a good job that it didn’t leave much room for improvement. That’s why Wind Waker is the most memorable of the followups, as its unique art style and focus on sailing help differentiate it.
Basically, you can’t out-Ocarina-of-Time Ocarina of Time. Even 20 years later, it remains a clever, fun, and epic adventure. I mean, come on. It’s Ocarina of Time.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.