It seems like everyone has these moments; A moment where something happens that you don’t think will be very important, but ends up being monumental. One of those moments in my life, was the first time I laid eyes on the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “uh ok, it’s a game? How can a game affect you that much, let a lone one released in 1998?”. Well, for a kid from rural Pennsylvania, with far too big of an imagination, it not only defined my interest in gaming, but also gave me the passion to create and imagine through media (like this post right here).
But how do I begin to explain the importance and impact that Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma’s epic tale of fantasy had on my development? Well, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning.
I’ve touched on this story before, in a previous article I wrote in which I opened up on my personal struggles with OCD and Anxiety, but for those of you who are new to the site, I’ll gladly run through it again.
Let’s set the scene: A young Travis, at the ripe age of 5 on Christmas morning 1998, sitting anxiously waiting to see if I had indeed made the “nice list” (if we’re all being honest with each other, I think that year was a toss up. I liked to talk a lot in kindergarten). As I waited through the presents that most young children don’t want to see in the box at the time (i.e. socks, underwear, clothes, etc), my ears perked up when my dad said “wait, what’s that? I think I see one more present back there? Maybe? I don’t know, go check it out.” As if it was a scene out of the beloved tale of Christmas youth “A Christmas Story”, I timidly tip toes over behind the tree, to see one big box with my name on it. As my dad helped move the colossal package (at the age of 5 that bad boy was huge), my heart started to race and so did my mind. “Did Santa really see my letter? Did he bare witness to my reformation over the months lead up to this fateful date? (okay, my vocabulary wasn’t that diverse)”, I began to think. As I quickly tore the packaging off, my eyes began to widen. It happened. I got the one thing I had asked for all year. In a pile of holiday themed wrapping, there it lied: the Nintendo 64. All I had heard for months were my friends in school talking about the system, playing Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, and I so desperately wanted to join the conversation; and now finally, it was my turn. The picture that is posted below is one of my favorite pictures in my life. Whenever I get down on life, when my job stresses me out too much, when the cards aren’t in my favor, I pull this picture out. Not only does it remind me of how grateful I am to have had two amazing parents to give me such an awesome childhood, but it reminds me of how important gaming has been to my life.
So, let’s fast forward a few months. Since Christmas, I had been lucky enough to get a few games including Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, and Banjo-Kazooie, and my love for video games had sky rocketed. Around the earlier part of 1999, I remember we were going to visit my aunt, uncle and two cousins on the other side of Pittsburgh for a family event. I was really excited this time to go because I knew my cousin also had the popular 64-bit system as well, so I brought my Atomic Purple controller with me so we could play some Mario Kart or what not. Now, my cousin was always lucky enough to get a lot of the newer games when they came out comparative to myself, so I knew I could scope out what would be the best ones to ask for on my birthday, Christmas, etc. We arrive, and my cousin and I head up to his room to start playing. As he starts to pull out his games and hook the controllers up, a faint flickering catches my eye. Very nonchalantly, I start to wonder over to his pile of games and flip through the cartridges one by one. As I near the end, I see a cartridge painted with a shimmering gold finish. Knowing that is what caught my eye, I pick it up and look at the label. “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” it read. I had never seen anything like it before; the shimmering textured plastic, the ominous shield and sword incorporated into the font of the title. Before I had even tried the game, I knew I was holding something special. My cousin then notices my curiosity behind the game and asks if I have played it yet. Vaguely hearing about the franchise before, I shake my heard no (remember, I’m only six at the time so my world is minuscule). When asked if I want to try it out, I shrug my shoulders and agreed.
Like I said before, we have these moments in life that we don’t expect to be anything special or life altering, but somehow they end up becoming ingrained in your memory due to their importance. From the moment my cousin put that cartridge into the system and shifted the power switch to on, I was completely spellbound. I can remember it clear as day: seeing the polygonal Nintendo 64 wording appearing in a deep blue on the screen, hearing the faint pattering of a horses hooves in the distance, to then hearing a trance-like piano melody take over the screen, as the title screen began. My world and view on gaming was changing so drastically in that moment, and I didn’t even know it. Luckily, my cousin wasn’t that far into the game, as he was still playing as child Link, so he let me just run around Hyrule Field for awhile. My mind was completely blown; the immensity of the “open world”, the way the environment changed around you, such as the day and night cycle, the way that various landmarks loomed in the distance. Everything about this game completely fascinated me (and still does). In my six year old mind, I knew the difference between want and need pretty well already, but to me, this wasn’t a want; this was plain and simple a need.
Now, like most kids at six, I knew I had to put in the time and effort early on if I truly wanted to make sure I got the one thing I truly wanted as a gift; but I’m playing this game that I was completely spell-bounded over in the first few months of the year. As a six year old kid, the time between February/March and Christmas is an eternity. I just couldn’t accept that time frame. I needed to do whatever it took to get that game, and I knew the one person who I needed to go to for that: my dad. Need help cutting and moving wood for the wood burner? Done. Need help cleaning out the garage? Done. Anything I could think of to pitch in around the house and get the brownie points chalked up, I was down to do it. After a few weeks of pitching in with help around the house (well, as much of “pitching in” a six year old could do), I knew the iron was hot enough to strike. My dad was cutting grass and like usual, I jumped on the mower with him to “help” him with it. Perfect one on one time. So after a few laps around the yard, I started to unravel the spool of my love for this game. I explained the plot, the depth of detail, everything I could think of that I knew about the game. In natural dad fashion, he hit me with the “well, make sure you’re good this year and maybe Santa will give you it for Christmas”. I’ll be honest, hearing those words, it stung. I knew I could hold up my part of that bargain, but that wait…unbearable to think about. Luckily, my dad thinks he’s clever and likes to pull fast ones on me every now and then. Believe it or not, I ended up not having to wait until Christmas to pick it up, with my dad surprising me with the game a few weeks later for finishing up the school year with good grades.
It’s crazy something that minuscule can have such a lasting effect on your life. As I get older, I begin to forget more and more of the small aspects of my childhood, but the time taht revolved around getting this game has always remained at the ready in my memories. I think the thing that still impresses me so much about Ocarina of Time to this day is its ability to tell a narrative and have the player feel this sense of liveliness in this world within its own limitations. As a kid, you don’t understand these things; rendering distances, MIDI music, the choice to not use FMV cinematics while all major competitors were doing so. None of that mattered though because Miyamoto and Aonuma knew how to get the most out of the hardware they were using. While it seems archaic at this point comparative to most modern day projects, there were no true cutscenes in the game. All of the cinematic moments in the game are using in-game assets rendered as they would while playing. While it didn’t give players the ability to have greater detail in cinematics, using the in-game assets for footage provided players with quicker load times and no loading screens, keeping them immersed in the experience.
Ocarina of Time is so profoundly beautiful and revolutionary for its time, that even to this day, players can still see effects within modern games. Lock-on/focus targeting, which is standard for almost every action/adventure game, wouldn’t be popularized as much so if it wasn’t for Nintendo’s 1998 masterpiece. Developing for a game focused around free moving polygonal objects is hard enough now, let a lone in 1998, so in typical Nintendo fashion, they set out to becoming the flag bearer for the mechanic. The targeting mechanic they developed, known as the Z-Targeting system, used the Z button located on the back of the Nintendo 64 controller to lock onto targets when in close proximity to your character. With this, instead of moving in a free roaming motion, the player focus on the target while circling said target, giving the player to always see what they are aiming at while still providing movement. Since its release, the mechanic has been found in a multitude of games, both internally with Nintendo and outside of the company, including series such as Metroid Prime, Kingdom Hearts, Devil May Cry, and Assassin’s Creed.
In 1998, games were truly starting to tip their toe in the water for exploring narrative depth through the medium. Games like Valve’s Half-Life and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid we’re beginning to open not only gamer’s eyes, but those who weren’t as connected with the medium as well, providing people with these moments normally only found in film and television. While Ocarina of Time didn’t have the deepest narrative in terms of modern storytelling, Nintendo was able to craft storytelling through interactions with the world. You step out of Kokiri Forest for the first time, and you’re presented with this vast field, with rolling hills resembling the flow of tide in an open sea. You see an ominous mountain with a ring of grey smoke orbiting its peak, and while you can’t reach it just yet, you can sense the importance it will have on your adventure. At the same time, I think the actual storytelling through cutscenes and cinematics is beautiful as well. Coming off two series entries that provided the user with more of a straight forward “save the princess” story-arc in the original 1986 the Legend of Zelda, and its direct follow up A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time changed up the formula enough to make it unique to its predecessors. Zelda was given more depth as a character in OOT’s ~30 hour adventure, giving her the ability to connect with the player through the heartbreak of seeing her father be manipulated through the evil Gerudo tyrant, Ganondorf. You get a deeper look at Ganondorf (before becoming Ganon), where you see his twisted plan to steal the Triforce and rule with an iron fist through Hyrule, instead of just being a pig-beast that is large and mad. The game gives the player the opportunity to see development and progression of not only the campaign but the characters in it for the first time on a Nintendo system.
One of the biggest criticisms of the first entry to hit the 64-bit system is that fans feel it is just a retread of its most recent predecessor, A Link to the Past. Similar dungeon formula: three smaller dungeons that then open up to a multitude of more dungeons to start a new story arc; and to be honest, I can see where fans find that a possible issue, especially with how highly regarded the ALTTP is in the Zelda community; and while I didn’t ALTTP until I was a bit older, I felt that while the formula has similarities, the composure of the the titles are drastically different. Imagine looking a two different human, starting at the skeleton. Both are, for the most part, identical in their compositions of skeletons, but as you begin to build out, their differences become quite different and unique. ALTTP approaches the world and story as more of a caricature, with the cartoonish characters and storytelling, which is done in a such a unique and beautiful way, while Ocarina of Time focuses on a more grounded and realistic approach to storytelling and its environments, characters, etc. (as much as it can for being an action/adventure game in the fantasy genre). They may share the same blood, but approach their narrative two very unique ways.
It’s experiences from media like this that has inspired me to express myself creatively, through writing, video content, streaming, and entertainment in general. The narrative was somewhat straightforward in comparison to many modern games today, but to a six year old kid in 1999, it was captivating. It still is. This game sinlge handled laid the foundation for my love of not only video games, but creatively expressing myself. Without a doubt, if I had not experienced this game, I wouldn’t have the motivation or initiative to start this site. Without it, I don’t think its a stretch to say I would be a different person in aspects comparative to who I am with it.
So cheers, Ocarina of Time, to 20 beautiful years of captivating imaginations all around the world. Thank you for inspiring a six year old child to never give up on creativity and to continue to love what you’re passionate about. The gaming world salutes you.
For more coverage on the Legend of Zelda, along with celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ocarina of Time, be sure to follow us on Twitter at @BonusAccessory, and keep it locked in on Bonus Accessory.