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.
Photo Credit: Nintendo