Video Games

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Greatest Video Game Ever, Turns 20

OoT is a game about growing up-a useful metaphor for its foundational position in the history of adult video gaming.

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Screenshot via Nintendo

On this day in 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (OoT) first hit shelves in Europe. Since its release on the Nintendo 64 system two decades ago, OoT has earned wide recognition as one of the best video games of all time, if not the best.

OoT is remembered for its rich open world, advanced graphics, accessible combat system, and replayability—all of which were revolutionary for the time. It's the true OG; all subsequent great games (including Zelda's own descendants, like last year's Breath of the Wild) must acknowledge it as inspiration.

In fact, OoT should be viewed as a kind of doorway that leads from the simple room of video games past (think Donkey Kong) to the vast palace of sophisticated, immersive experiences gamers expect today (think Red Dead Redemption 2). OoT is the point where video games finally started to grow up.

This metaphor is especially compelling, because the theme of OoT itself is becoming an adult. Protagonist Link begins the game as a kid who lives in a village in the forest with a group of elf-like children who never age. They're scared of darker woods that surround their home, where those who become lost turn into monsters. In the early game, Link faces obstacles that befit a child's imagination: clearing out the cobwebs inside a talking tree, sneaking past castle guards in hopes of spying on the princess, letting a giant fish eat him. These situations call for mere toy-like weapons: Kid Link is armed with a slingshot, a tiny wooden shield, and a sword that looks like a toothpick.

It's not just Link's gear that's infantilizing—other characters constantly remind him that he's a stupid little kid. Certain shopkeepers don't want to do business with him, and soldiers think his quest is a joke. "A kid like you has no business there," a guard tells Link if he attempts to enter the fortress of the Gerudo, a group of all-female ninjas. Later, one of those ninjas says something to the effect of, if only you were a few years older, thus the origin of this recurring joke.

Midway through the game, everything changes. Link steps through the Door of Time and goes to sleep for seven years. When he wakes up, he's an adult, and the idyllic world of his childhood is gone. (The game won't even let Link use his slingshot anymore, even though it's still sitting right there in his inventory.) The marketplace that surrounds the castle is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the first living creature Link encounters tries to paralyze him, climb atop him, and drain his life force (a maneuver that looks a lot like sexual assault, in hindsight). Back at home in the forest, none of Link's friends recognize him, and his next destination, the Forest Temple, is the stuff of nightmares.

This is followed by the Fire Temple, and then the Water Temple, a dungeon so difficult that Nintendo actually toned it down when the game was re-released years later. By the time Link reaches the Shadow Temple, it's clear he's in a horror story, not a fairy tale. Working in the game's favor here are the creepy graphics, which were advanced enough to look somewhat real, but not real enough—inadvertently positioning most of the game's bad guys somewhere in the uncanny valley.

Eventually, Link dispatches his adversary, Ganon, and rescues Princess Zelda. But then, something strange happens. Zelda is remorseful that Link was forced to grow up so quickly, and sends him back in time to enjoy his youth. This causes a split in the Zelda canon, with some games taking place subsequent to Link's victory in the adult timeline, and others following his adventures in the child timeline. But you can't un-grow up, and OoT's direct sequel, Majora's Mask, which again features kid Link, sets out to prove this explicitly: Young Link immediately stumbles into a parallel world even more terrifyingly adult than the one from his previous adventure. (The theme of Majora's Mask is "coping with loss"; Link's new quest involves attempting to save people from the end of the world, often by helping them come to terms with their impending deaths.)

This being the 20th anniversary of OoT means that I must have been 10 years old when I unwrapped the game on Christmas morning in 1998. In the years before that Christmas, I read the Wizard of Oz and Narnia books; in the years immediately after, I would read The Lord of the Rings and Dune. I can't help but suppose that Link's journey through the Door of Time took place near the end of my own childhood, forever raising my expectations for what narrative fantasy could deliver, regardless of the medium. OoT did the same for the broader world of video gaming. You're all grown up now.

NEXT: Tech World Turned Upside Down Down Under

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  1. “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”

    Sounds made up.

    1. I bet that lion and witch didn’t even own a wardrobe.

  2. Link steps through the Door of Time and goes to sleep for seven years.

    Ugh. Who has that kind of time for a video game.

  3. This is a pretty significant oversimplification of video game history. There were already dozens of deep role-playing games out by this point (Baldur’s Gate, one of the true classics of the genre, came out the same year), not to mention grand strategy like the Civilization series, simulations like SimCity, and complex real-time strategy like Command & Conquer and WarCraft

    1. Destroyed my own post, which concluded: video games were already plenty grown up by the late 90s.

      1. It’s like how Nintendo invented FPS with Goldeneye, bro.

      2. Yeah, I had to close my eyes and massage my temples when I read that any game for the N64 was a sign of video games growing up.

    2. True, but none of those are platformers. Robby is a console babby. It’s probably one of the reasons he likes the Bethesda Fallout titles so much (I wonder if he has ever played the original Interplay/Black Isle titles).

      It was certainly revolutionary at the time, and remains perfectly playable, but I was never REALLY enamored with it. I spent many tens of hours more with SimCity than I did OoT. And to call it “greatest video game ever” is a real stretch.

      1. I actually don’t know if Robby is a fan of Bethesda FO. I know Suderman is.

        Suderman and Robby, both plebs.

      2. I would argue that it wasn’t even revolutionary at the time. It was a logical evolution and polishing of things that were already happening. 3D games had existed, even adventure one’s like Tomb Raider. This was a logical continuation of what was happening in that space and what would have continued happening if OoT had not come out.

        This is not to insult the game, it’s a fine game. (Not the best Zelda on the system though) Just a statement. People tend to overstate the revolutionary nature of things, because most people play like 3 games in their lives and have no particular sense of history or games overall.

        1. Indeed, Majora’s Mask took to things to the next level.

      3. Robby is a console babby.

        Even then, to call OoT the first ‘grown up’ video game is dumb. There were plenty of more and better selling ‘adult themed’ titles, by pretty much any metric by the late 90s. Keep in mind, the original Resident Evil title was released 2 yrs. before OoT. Not that FPS, zombies, etc. are exactly required for ‘grown up’ video games, but there were plenty of games more real, more intellectual, more emotionally involved than OoT on both PC’s and consoles in ’98. OoT’s not bad but I’m fairly certain Robby’s confusing his growing up with Link’s.

          1. I don’t get emotionally involved below 16 bits.

          2. Now this is one of the best games ever.

      4. Interplay FO was ahead of it’s time. Interplay execs actually wanted to kill it because it was not D&D and to the pointy heads in charge it was impossible to be an RPG without a TSR license and D&D stamped on its cover. So the game was created on the sly as a skunkworks project. It was only when the game was a mild success that a mostly different team hastily rushed out the sequel before the execs got wise to it.

        And then Interplay sat on the franchise for a full decade, farming it out to minor contractors to produce crappy combat game spinoffs. By the time they searched their portfolio for an IP to save them from bankruptcy (the gaming world having moved away from the D&D craze) it was too late.

        Bethesda saved the franchise from literal oblivion by buying it when no one else wanted it. And that’s why Bethesda is hated today.

      5. It can only really compete for ‘game of the year’, or ‘best *console* etc’; OoT had the dizzying misfortune of coming out the year after Riven and the year before Homeworld, two titles which each genuinely deserve a place in anyone’s ‘top five games of all time’ list.

        For me, personally, Homeworld is #1. Then World of Warcraft (classic, not the retail dumpster fire), Riven, the Battlestar Galactica board game+first two expansions, and Portal 2. Honorable mention for Halo; Combat Evolved, which falls just shy only because the competition is outrageously exceptional.

        OoT is a fart in a stiff breeze compared to any of those masterworks.

        1. Ah, he did specify ‘video game’, so swap out BSG, bump Portal 2 up a notch, and tack Halo; CE on the end. All is right with the universe.

        2. “Riven”
          Ah, I see you are a man of culture as well.

  4. …the first living creature Link encounters tries to paralyze him, climb atop him, and drain his life force (a maneuver that looks a lot like sexual assault, in hindsight).

    13-year-old boys needed to learn what a woman will do to you.

  5. You’re a fucking Pleb, Robby.

    1. I’m still open to be your Nemesis btw. I don’t know if you ever found one Robby.

  6. I so desperately want to be a shitheel here. Even moreso than I usually am.

    1. It’s spelled Shith’eel, and you don’t have even remotely enough Mana to power that kind of shape-shifting spell yet.

  7. prefer Donkey Kong.

  8. FFS, Robby. Look at your piss-poor 10 year old self dinking around with Zelda on an N64 when real gamers were building their own rigs and playing grown up games like the only-awesome-in-hindsight Baldur’s Gate series! Real grown ups played shitty isometric games and only slightly less poorly designed world management games. Punks like you make me want to puke.

    1. I played the two Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games. They were fine, but not great.

      1. Oh see, that’s where you messed up. The PC Baldur’s Gate games are much better.

        1. No, they really weren’t. They were mediocre at best with shitty PC AI scripts.

    2. Baldur’s Gate was just a choose-your-own-adventure with some graphics thrown on top. Most of the whole Interplay portfolio was just cheap choose-your-own-adventure decision tree games. Exceptions of course, but the only think that differentiated most Interplay games from Choose Your Own Adventure books were that you didn’t need to actually turn to page 54 to continue reading the story in the branch you took. That’s what these games were, branching games. Decision trees.

      To be fair, that’s all the technology that was available at the time for narrativist RPGs. It was the best the industry could do to simulate player choice but still manage to fit the software onto a set of 3.5″ floppies. But way too many nostalgic fans continue to insist they were the epitome of roleplaying.

  9. Eventually, Link dispatches his adversary, Ganon, and rescues Princess Zelda.

    Rescuing princesses is problematic because it’s an example of the “damsel in distress” and “women as reward” tropes. Surely the title of “greatest video game of all time” should go to something more forward-thinking in its gender politics. I don’t think Feminist Frequency would agree with this choice.

    #LibertarianFeminism

    1. Is this true if the player/character is gay? We’re talking about Robby here, rescuing princesses represents the first step in his journey to adulthood. Don’t feminists want him fantasizing about executing his social obligation to serve and protect women with no expectation of romantic interlude?

    2. Lara Croft on line 3 … asked about OBL merch

    3. For the 90s, OoT was actually pretty good on this. When you first meet Zelda she’s orchestrating a plan to save her kingdom from Gannondorf. While she does end up being kidnapped eventually, it’s only after she’s spent most of the game helping and guiding Link (as herself when a kid, disguised as Sheik as an adult). Compared to the games before and some of the games after (*cough* Twilight Princess *cough*) she’s actually a much more active agent and instrumental in her own “saving”.

      I mean, she’s no Wind Waker Zelda, but she’s not a damsel waiting around to be saved.

      1. Ditto. Zelda is NOT one of my favorite series. I find most jRPGs to be dreadful. But the series was aptly named “Zelda”. She was no wilting flower in need of rescue and romance. She was one of the first strong female roles in gaming. And unlike Lara she didn’t need big tits to be strong.

  10. Alright, this article is great. First, for a shoutout to OoT, but also because you mentioned Dune which immediately makes me happy.

  11. I was driving my then 13yo cousin back home from school last year, along with a few of his friends. Somehow an “ancient” game came up, so I asked them what would be an example of an ancient video game.

    “Uhhh…. something like Halo 1”

    God Dammit.

    Also, Ocarina of Time is not the greatest game of all time, it’s not even the best Zelda. That would be Link to the Past

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOC3vixnj_0

    1. Fat, I mean, “Robust,” Fairy ftw!

    2. Heh.

      A few weeks back I was moving, and this time me and the hubby decided that instead of renting a U-Haul and doing it all ourselves, we would throw money at the problem and pay someone else to do it.

      The guys were all young guys, and at one point they were talking and one was bragging about being a lifelong gamer, including stuff on some “old consoles”, like the X-Box. At this point I spoke up, saying that one of the boxes they’d packed had an original Nintendo in it. He responded “Nintendo 64? That is old!” And I was like “oh sweetie, no. N.E.S. Nintendo Entertainment System. The one before the Super NES which was before the Nintendo 64. But yeah, Nintendo 64 is also in the truck.”

      Kids these days really know how to twist the knife on making you feel old.

  12. Nice homage; OoT is probably the best video game ever, which cast a bit of a shadow over Mario 64 which was groundbreaking in its own right. Of course, Goldeneye remains the best multiplayer console game ever, Super Smash Bros. be damned. I wish I had more time to play.

    /nostalgia

    1. WCW/nWo Revenge was the best mulitplayer console game ever. Get it right.

  13. Sorry Robby, but this is a game that defines the jRPG genre. And no jRPG game is a good game. That’s just how it is.

    1. Ocarina of Time (and Zelda games in general) are Action Action, not jRPGs. A jRPG is more like something from the Dragon Quest, Breath of Fire, or Final Fantasy series.

      1. Grr, arg.

        Should have read “are Action RPGs, not jRPGs”.

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