History of Zelda: Part 05 – Ocarina of Time

The History of Zelda – Part 5

The Legend of Zelda. Indeed, this name is as recognisable in Video Game fame as Mario, and even Final Fantasy. Close to thirty years ago, Nintendo hired a man who would, of all things, design concepts for toys. Little did anybody know that this man would write history, influence hundreds of games, oversee the development of even more and define an entirely new genre. Shigeru Miyamoto devised the first iteration of The Legend of Zelda in the mid 1980s, and since then, The Legend of Zelda has become one of Nintendo’s very best properties.

This series of articles will look at each Zelda title in chronological order of release, describe the groundbreaking achievements and show the essence of the Action Adventure RPG.

Chapter V – Ocarina of Time (N64)

What do you get when you put 200 developers, programmers, designers, engineers, musicians, directors and producers together and give them 4 to 6 years of development time? Add to this one revolutionary piece of 64-bit technology, a reputation as the leaders in innovation and the fact that these people were a part of Entertainment, Analysis and Development (EAD). The end result is the most anticipated game of the 1990s, the 1999 game of the year, the highest selling game of 1999 and a gem that enjoyed sales in excess of 7 million units. There is only one title for such a project, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo’s answer to a call from gamers to step up the innovation with the way people played games. As ‘Project Reality’ neared completion, it could be seen by industry heavyweights that Nintendo had re-invented the way games would be played. The controller on its own was unique, employing ten digital buttons, an eight way directional (D) pad and, for the first time in video game history, an analogue joystick. This controller was also vastly different in design to anything seen before, with a three ‘prong’ type layout, providing three different ways to hold the controller. The mechanics of Super Mario 64 demonstrated how natural this controller was, and the level of accuracy it possessed. But gamers were clamouring for something fresh, something new, a whole new adventure. Something… Medieval.

Like previous adventures, Link awakens in a bed, to the tune of a newly assigned fairy. His home is in Kokiri Forest, inhabited by children who each possess a fairy of their own, protected by a guardian tree, the Deku Tree. A fairy, Navi, partnered with Link for his adventure ahead, of which was most certainly consumed with beasts, new items, dungeons and bosses to boot. A rich world of environments, filled with rivers, lakes, forests, deserts, fields and grottos. But the magic doesn’t stop there, with fantastic visuals, lighting and sound effects. However, the most amazing feat by Nintendo was the absolute perfect conversion from 2D to 3D.

Titles in The Legend of Zelda series have, since their inception, been positioned in the RPG column. But they are not RPG’s. They don’t even employ an experience based system for levelling up bar The Adventure of Link. This series has defined its own genre, the action/adventure game. Each title does posses RPG elements, with classic 2D games the most, using various puzzles and side quests, especially the Game Boy titles. Nonetheless, Ocarina of Time reinforces the genre its predecessors fashioned. There is never a moment of boredom to be had in this adventure. You could be slaying beasts, solving side quests and mini games, trading objects with the villagers, figuring out how to upgrade your weapon or traversing the wide open world on your trustee steed. Both action and adventure lay around each and every corner, and, in the end, curiosity clasps you and before you knew it, you had been everywhere and completed the game.

This is where Ocarina of Time truly shines. With the wide open world that Nintendo had created, it appeared as though there was no place that you couldn’t go. This sense of freedom creates the impression that you were the one in control. If you wanted to do something, you could go and do it. If you could see something out of reach, the chances were you would soon be able to visit that place. It was this ‘do what you want’ factor that Miyamoto wanted to create with this series and can be traced right back to The Legend of Zelda. As stated in Part I, ‘One of the most encouraging aspects of Zelda is its freedom and ability to fight, or not, depending on your mood. Advancing on in the game doesn’t require unnecessary battles, but they are valuable, especially for that desperately needed heart or rupees.’ That hadn’t changed the slightest, with landscapes and features built up to allow you to get to platforms, areas and tunnels you can see, sooner or later in the game.

The commendable contribution that this title presented to the series was the conversion from 2D to 3D. The new world of Hyrule was filled with hills, cliffs, rivers, lakes, towns and forests. Further more, Ocarina of Time manages these panoramic landscapes and scenes with seemingly tireless effort. Enemies will appear in vast numbers, time progresses from night to day, people continue about with their work in the market and village. The kingdom is literally alive with activity. All the while, animation remains smooth and constant with fluid movement. And to go with it all, a 3D glorified hero, Link. However, not just one version, but two! Thanks to another excellent addition, time travel.

The time travel system in Ocarina of Time provided a new depth of game play, perhaps expanding on the Light/Dark world of A Link to the Past, of which it was not unlike. A seven year difference in time allowed gamers to play as Link in two very different stages of his life, his youth, around his pre-teens, and as an adult, 17 or 18. This kind of contrast opened new paths, set new challenges and even altered the usable weapons of Link’s with his age. The item that harnessed these powers of time travel was the Ocarina of Time; a very important instrument, first making an appearance in A Link to the Past as the flute, which allowed travel to certain locations. Then again in Link’s Awakening as the renamed Ocarina, also allowing transport to a particular well, and two other songs for certain events. Ocarina of Time greatly expanded the features of the Ocarina, with teleportation songs, key songs to trigger events, as well as the ability to change night to day and vice-versa, even to travel the passage of time! A certain scarecrow would even allow you to orchestrate your own tune, which proved highly useful later on in the game.

To compliment the main feature of this title were all the standard elements of game play as well as a few new ones too. Link now had three ways to move; backwards and forwards, side to side and up and down. To cope with what might have been an arduous experience when encountering a plethora of enemies, Nintendo incorporated the unique Z-targeting system. You could push and hold the Z button to lock onto your enemies, which made it easier for you to direct your attacks. This reduced the confusion when making strikes and finishing off your enemies. Very useful, and fits the Zelda series very well. Other alterations included an assigned button to shield, the R button, much like Link’s Awakening; you couldn’t just stand there and take the attack like before. Another of the many improvements that Ocarina of Time seemed to make with exceptional results is the controller configuration. Each of the lower three C buttons were assigned a weapon or item, while the top enabled a first person view, or advice from your trustee fairy. The A button was the action button, for opening doors and examining items while the B button was your main attack button, controlling any of the swords that were equipped. Finally, the Control Stick was, of course, for controlling Link, with analogue precision. This set up is only an evolution of previous set ups, but continues to work well for the series, with this configuration perfect for the Nintendo 64 controller design.

On to the game play. Ocarina of Time provided a very special and unique Zelda experience unlike any other before. Link’s movements were filled with animation. When swinging your sword, there wasn’t just the standard slash. There were many different ways, dependable on the position of the Control Stick. When you engaged in a battle, it felt natural, as if it was second nature. Attacks flowed freely and accurately. C button items had such precision. All actions and weapons locked into place to provide a complete and well combined balance. But there is more to it than just the fighting. To aid in battle were the items and weapons at your disposal. Traditional weapons seeing returns were the bow and arrows, bombs, boomerang, hookshot, swords and shields as well as an overhauled magic system. Items anew included the Megaton Hammer, Lens of Truth, Bombchus and sling shot. These items and weapons were divided into their usability. Some were child centric, some only usable by a skilled adult. To provide variety, some such as the bombs and Lens of Truth were able to be used by both forms. Items had played an important part in every Zelda title, and this game was no different. All of these items were once again harnessed by the use of the Quest Status Screen.

To compliment these essential elements are the side quests and past times. Not quite feeling up to the quest today? Go horseback trail riding, followed by a spot of fishing. Horse riding was an addition to the series that enable fast transport to places that weren’t covered by teleportation, as well as an exhilarating feeling, combined with the ability of horseback archery. There were also the many in-game mini games. Fishing is one of them, providing a means to upgrade some items as well as provide an escape to ‘get away from it all’. All through Ocarina of Time the gamer would find themselves trading items, fulfilling tasks and racing against the clock. A nail biting experience that reaped rewards such as the Zora Tunic or Biggoron’s Sword when executed flawlessly, along the way featuring some of the most bazaar and strange items and people. Including a prescription, messages in bottles, masks, chickens, scientists crazed for the rare delicacy of Eye Ball frogs and three minute expiration dates due to the lack of preservatives. Not heard of in any other game, displaying the unique and different path endeavoured by a Zelda title, filled with a moody and enthralling adventure. However, to build and maintain a mood, you need more than just pure game play.

Lighting effects and background sound play an invaluable role in video games. Games in the series had made use of sound in previous adventures. A bright and optimistic tune set the scene in the overworld, although lacking the famous Zelda theme in this title, suited the heroic adventure. The village of Kakariko, a lazy and sleepy town at the foothills of Death Mountain, was shrouded in a tired and laid back theme. A contrast to the bright and busy, buzzing Town Market, or the bubbly, spirit filled tunes of The Lost Woods. Each dungeon was its own environment, too. Eerie tunes of damp, dank places deep inside temples, at the bottom of wells and under lakes set a spooky and unnerving atmosphere. To propel the player into a virtual world were the sound effects to go with the themes. Water falls were alive with the crashing of water on rock, rivers trickled, birds sang, people chattered, lava boiled and fires crackled. This world brought to life with sound effects filled the player with admiration. Lighting, however, made an exceptional impression with the introduction of 3D games. It had been used before, with darkened rooms brought to light by way of lighting candles, but Ocarina of Time presented shadows, torches, crackling, night/day and light reflection. Light had never been used as extensively. Shadows of signs were so detailed that, if a section were cut off, so too was the shadow of that section. As bombs exploded by walls, glowing light from the heat of the explosion cast itself upon those walls. As Navi flew around your head, your own shadow, as basic as it was, cast itself on the ground at opposing angles. This attention to detail made the world that much more realistic, so much in fact it was as if you were transporting yourself to a far away place, where you became the hero.

But what would a Zelda adventure be without enemies? Ocarina of Time presented well known enemies and creatures of past in full 3D models and detailed textures. Making the transition were Tektites, Like-Likes, Keese, Re-Deads, Dodongos, Gibdos, Pea-Hats, Leevers and Poes. More difficult and intelligent creatures included Stalfos, Lizalfos and Dark Link. But there are also a taste of new enemies and bosses to provide a refreshingly new fighting experience. There were now special weaknesses and just because a foe touched you, didn’t mean you got hurt, it had to actually attack you. This is the type of progression that sees a much more realistic and life-like adventure. It’s as if it were real life. With these enemies now in highly textured, detailed glory, each one was a display of the significance each was to the world as their species, regardless of their potency. No longer were they pixelated, computer generated target practice units, but rather intellectual, living beings, some capable of defending, others dodging and some even water striding. Because of this detail and intelligence, a battle was a delight, and sometimes proved to be quite challenging.

To tie it all together in a neat little package was the story line. Not always the strongest element of a Zelda experience, but a very solid improvement over predecessors. With the incorporation of the Ocarina, our beautiful princess, a quest for three Spiritual Stones, keys to the Door of Time and the dark side in pursuit of them; an evil King, a sole Gerudo male, of which are born every one hundred years, his twisted mothers, witches confined within the Goddess of the Desert and the divided Triforce. Then there were the peace keepers, guardians of the Sacred Realm, the six sages, the enchanting melodies played by the Ocarina, Hyrulean lore, and the countless people spread across the land not knowledgeable of the fate that lies ahead of them if it were not for our hero, the Legendary Link.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was not just an evolution, but a revolution for the series. It provided a new way to play through a title within the series. The title received critical acclaim and exceptional accolades. But credit given is credit due. A title that made such an impact on the industry deserves such a reputation. This game was the game that all developers could learn from and be influenced by. It was nothing short of spectacular and isn’t just a defining point in the History of Zelda, but a refining point. A 3D masterpiece that has aged so very well that, even today, will give the best of games a run for their money. That in itself is a tremendous fate achieved. An achievement that makes Ocarina of Time truly a Legend.