On November 21st, 1998, The Legend of Zelda went into the world of 3D gaming, and it could be said the series never looked back. After that game, Ocarina of Time hit shelves; the franchise would stay in the 3D space, with each title following becoming denser and larger than the ones before it. Except no one forgets Ocarina of Time. All over the internet this week, OOT has seen an outpouring of love from fans. Naturally, that subsequently brings a backlash: why, exactly, is this particular Zelda so beloved?
I hear that sentiment quite a bit, especially from my own spouse – who prefers A Link to the Past herself (and which also celebrates an anniversary today.) To a certain degree, I understand that sentiment, especially for longevity’s sake in the 16-bit game’s legacy. Saying Ocarina of Time is your favorite Zelda game, much less one of your favorite games altogether is a lot like saying Mickey Mouse is your favorite cartoon character. It’s likely true, but it doesn’t really give off a sense of “taste.” It doesn’t help either that the longer the series goes on, the louder the question gets. For many, deciding how they like a Zelda game doesn’t have as much to do with the individual game as much as how much that game stacks against the others.
We’ve done that here on the site ourselves, using an internal survey to rank the Zelda franchise, and sure enough, it’s Ocarina of Time that topped the list. As a result, I’ve touched a little bit about why this one game always manages to stand out in a gang of stand outs, and I stand by it: Ocarina of Time has the most relevant theme of the franchise to what its players experience.
From a structural perspective, Ocarina of Time is incredibly familiar, like the rest of the series: Elf boy, princess, magic sword, angry pig demon but sometimes he is a man, rinse and repeat after 100 years. When it comes to a Zelda game, you have to look at the themes surrounding the obvious pieces. For Ocarina, that takes the form of a coming-of-age story in the most literal sense. Where most Zelda games take place over a relatively small time frame, Ocarina of Time covers seven in-game years of time and then crafts a world that feels lush and memorable so players can see the drastic difference seven years of catastrophe can make. Link visually changes when time itself changes as well, going from a wide-eyed and excitable boy to a steel-faced hardened young man in the span of a cutscene. Notably, Link does not change at the same time as the world around him, so when players follow him out of the Temple of Time the first time and return to town it feels like visiting a haunted house. At least, it did at first.
Now, the feeling I get after Link time travels is far less unrecognizable. It’s the feeling I get when I drive down the main roads of my childhood neighborhood, where multiple new storefronts are now built where there once were fields that my friends and I used to light fireworks in. The clouds of darkness in the overworld match the sense of exhaustion looking at Twitter every morning before you’ve fully woken, even when avoiding the political tweets. Showing up to Death Mountain to find an eruption is less scary than doing my taxes every year. Ocarina of Time is, ultimately, about growing up and how scary that can be. Ganondorf himself isn’t as unsettling as the very passage of time itself, so the game chooses to sideline him in favor of letting the environment tell the story of that passing time. Epona is captured, and placed in a stable owned by a jerk. Nabooru is held prisoner in a suit of armor she can’t escape. Link’s home, Kokiri Forest is nearly abandoned, and whatever kids are left stay safely indoors because so much danger lurks outside their door. Walgreens took the place of that time you almost blew off your fingers.
While we’re not so lucky as to have real-time travel, Ocarina of Time does not settle on the negatives of growing up but instead gives hope in the form of the past. Multiple times, the actions Link takes in the past directly solve puzzles, and the problems of strangers, in the future, to the point where an entire dungeon solution requires multiple trips back and forth. We too, are able to look back to find solutions to our troubles and barring that, reprieve. That might even be why so many are choosing this simple, rounded number anniversary to look back at this game in the first place. In a world where we see an outside world that continues to get closer to resembling a dilapidated Hyrule, why wouldn’t we look back fondly to a time where that fear was only the concern of a game? Why not think back to one’s childhood, where the promise of adulthood still sounded like a good idea? The whimsy of discovering the features of Hyrule’s landscape and people and Koji Kondo’s prolific music; it’s a palpable nostalgia so many of us can’t get enough of reflecting on.
At the end of the adventure, Link saves the day not only by defeating Ganon, but specifically by going back and using what he learned to advert such tragedy in the first place. For Link himself, he regains the childhood stolen from him – a bag of worms deserving of an editorial in itself – but the lesson is supposed to be different for us. The lesson is supposed to be that growing up is not a waste of time. We gain wisdom, courage, and even power as we age. The world is scary and broken, but it was that way long before Navi entered Link’s window, and it was before we noticed, too. Just as Link had to grow into someone who could take on those troubles in the before he could properly do something about it, so did we.
This week, look back to Ocarina of Time not just for cozy comfort in the past, but a motivation to stand for a better future.
Link did that, and we can too.