Iam only too aware that by publicly declaring The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time To be my favorite video game, I also introduce myself as a basic bitch.
You’d be hard-pressed to think of a much more obvious choice of favorite game, but don’t mind.
The Zelda The series’ first foray into the third dimension was a landmark game when it launched on the N64 in 1998, and with Super Mario 64 and it golden 007 remains emblematic of Nintendo’s first revolutionary successes with the biggest technological leap ever made in the field of gaming.
Iconic (or at least infamous, in the case of the Water Temple) dungeon designs, clever controls, and intricate puzzle-solving Ocarina a rapid success with critics (it remains the most popular all-time game on Metacritic, with 99/100) and a longtime fan favorite.
The game was such a success that its influence weighed heavily on the franchise for nearly two decades, with four 3D Zelda following titles – of Majora’s Mask to the recently remastered Skyward sword – who have borrowed basic systems, characters and game mechanics roughly from Ocarina.
It took until 2017 Breath of the wild for Nintendo to finally break free and try something new, resulting in a game that feels poised to enjoy the same extended influence – although it could still learn a thing or two from Ocarina labyrinthine levels.
I could go on about Ocarina influence – how his locking system shaped hand-to-hand combat, the more subtle impacts of his contextual controls, even the arguably less positive role he played in driving open world games to be bigger, more grandiose and ever larger.
But I never fell in love with Ocarina because he was influential. My eight-year-old self didn’t know – and wouldn’t have cared. I fell in love with Ocarina because it was like the first game that opened up a sprawling world filled with life, charm, humor and, yes, with more than a little tragedy to go through it all.
He’s there from the start of the game, the camera pans across the expanse of Hyrule Fields in the game’s dreamlike title sequence – though you’ll have to play for an hour or two to get out of the idyllic confines of Kokiri Forest and go- there yourself.
As striking as this sight is, she pales in comparison to the characters calling her home. SNES A link to the past featured only one small village (two, if you count its otherworldly counterpart), but Ocarina packs in abundance. Goron City Percussion Caverns; the serene pools of Zora’s estate; the subtly spooky Kakariko village, in which many of the game’s darkest corners lurk.
None impressed as much in 1998 as Hyrule Castle Town, a surprisingly small settlement that masks its size with a few disorienting shifts in perspective that always leave the feeling that there is more to the city, just outside of the screen.
Ocarina direct suite Majora’s Mask would continue to refine what the old game had started, moving its communities to the center of the game rather than its peripheries, and building complex, intertwined, and interpersonal narratives that crisscross the structure of the time loop.
But while both games derive their emotional adhesion from the impending destinies of their cities, it is only in Ocarina do you have to bear the brunt of its after-effects.
Like so much Zelda games, it explores two worlds – in this case two timelines, seven years apart, before and after the cataclysmic takeover by the big bad Ganondorf.
Towards the halfway point of the game, when Link is first frozen in the Temple of Time and emerges from it, now a teenager, I remember being struck for the first time by the ravaged world: the darkened sky, the buildings. in ruins of the city, the hordes of ReDead zombies crawling around its ruins.
But as I settled into this new Hyrule, it was the people there who started to sit with me the heaviest. It’s no mistake that most of the game’s key cities are empty in a darker timeline, with their populations enslaved, killed, or forced to flee. This Hyrule is rendered lifeless by removing most of the characters that brought it to life fairly directly.
Those that remain are seldom unchanged. Take Malon, the carefree young farmer who teaches Link to play Epona’s song as a child. Years later, however, she is imprisoned on her own ranch by a despotic uncle who is at least abusive of the horses on the ranch, if not more.
Of course, since this is a Zelda game, such crises are easy to resolve – in which case winning a few horse races is enough to make things right and restore some normalcy to the world. Link catches an adorable horse as well, but it seems almost as important that at least one life in Hyrule be put back on track.
For all the thrills of righting the wrongs in the darkest variant of Hyrule, I have to admit that when I think back to Ocarina now, a few decades and a few playthroughs later, it’s usually the first half of the game that makes me nostalgic – the happy few hours walking around a world teeming with life, playing like a boy getting to know it along with the player.
One of the few Zelda titles to firmly establish Link as a child – the two timelines have separated sequels, some opting for innocence and others for adolescence – there is a particular playfulness to the early stages of Ocarina.
Much like the supporting characters define the world of Hyrule, it’s smart touches in Link’s character that go a long way to set the tone. There’s the fact that your primary ranged weapon is a slingshot, a toy-like alternative to the bow that you’ll adopt later. There are Link’s growls and shrill screams as he navigates a world that is half too big for him. Most endearing of all, the fact that the iconic Hylian Shield from the series here is way too big for a young Link, crushing his back and forcing him to crouch like a turtle in order to even use it.
There is no doubt that you are playing like a child. Maybe it hits me harder because I was a kid when I first played, but even in my 30s, I see the same charm and playfulness in it that I find in Majora’s Mask, Wind waker, and a lot of 2D Zelda titles, an endearing mark of counter-current heroism that is worlds (or timelines) apart from the gruff sword-clenching that dominates the old Link’s time onscreen.
Seeing Hyrule through the eyes of a child, above all, instills a desire to explore that takes you through fields and dungeons, to dig into every nook and cranny of this vibrant world.
And then, after letting you fall in love, the game snatches that Hyrule off with one hand, while also giving you the power to save it with the other.
Countless games ask us to save the world, but too few give us a reason. Ocarina lets you love his world – from fairies and fishmen to ghosts and gravediggers – so he never needs to ask you to save the world.
You already know you need it.
Dominic Preston is associate editor of the tech site Tech Advisor and occasional contributor to NME. You can read the rest of the Remastered column here