Late to the Party: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

December 15, 2010
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As a games studies scholar, I risk my gamer credibility to admit that I have never played a single Zelda title. Until I acquired a Wii, my Nintendo consoles were dedicated Mario and Metroid machines. This wouldn’t be a significant gap in my gaming resume if The Legend of Zelda series, particularly Ocarina of Time, was not universally heralded as the best game ever.

I am frequently reminded of the canonical status of the Zelda franchise whenever another “best videogames of all time” list is published, which coincidentally happened last week as I was playing through Ocarina. The local weekly paper, The Boston Phoenix, created a top-50 list on which Ocarina was #11 and A Link to the Past was #3 (Half-Life 2 was the #1 game of all time).

Of all the Zelda titles, I chose to play Ocarina for this Late to the Party post because last March when the Penny Arcade Expo came to Boston for the first time, I was reminded once again of the gaping hole in my personal gaming history. I attended a very entertaining PAX East panel lead by videogame critic N’Gai Croal and Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo. As described by the panelists, Croal and Totilo created a game out of ranking the ten best videogames of all time. They started with the aggregate review scores from, on which Ocarina is listed #1. Prior to the convention, they presented this starter list to thirteen videogame developers, and offered two moves: swap the position of two games on the list, or replace a game on the list with one not represented, adding it to the vacated spot. As Croal and Totilo reported the process to PAX East attendees, the audience cheered or booed each move. While the final list is unsurprising and reflects a certain videogame purist perspective – the extremely popular Madden and Pokemon games are not represented – I couldn’t help but notice the only title I had not played was a Zelda game.

Ocarina, the fifth title in the Zelda series, was released in November 1998 for the Nintendo 64, seven years after A Link to the Past. Nintendo fans were anxious to play a new console Zelda game, especially after witnessing the three-dimensional transformation of Mario in Super Mario 64. Ocarina is a canonical videogame, in part, because of its innovative game mechanics. The game was the first to use a target lock attack system and to incorporate context-sensitive actions, both of which are now staples of game play. The introduction of context-sensitive actions increased how the 10-button Nintendo 64 controller could be mapped, and thus how Link, the beloved protagonist of Zelda, could interact in the 3D world of Hyrule. While not the first example of a videogame using diegetic music to solve puzzles and unlock levels, Ocarina was novel for its integration of music into a classic role-playing, dungeon exploration experience. Throughout the game players collect songs that must be performed correctly on the ocarina in order to summon friends and open time portals (see Zach Whalen’s treatment of in-game music, which includes an analysis of Ocarina).

Playing a free-roaming 3D game from 1998 was a bit frustrating. After spending hours in open-world environments like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, I wanted Link to move faster, and I kept misusing the right analog stick on the Wii Classic Controller in a futile attempt to rotate the camera (I’ve been playing a lot of Call of Duty on my PS3 lately). Usually after switching platforms or game genres I need just a few minutes to adjust to the controls. I think I struggled more with Ocarina because the 3D environment was so familiar, even though the game is twelve years old.

My first several minutes with Zelda’s 64-bit music and graphics evoked memories of favorite childhood videogames, particularly the hours I spent with my siblings playing through King’s Quest and Wizardry games. Despite this nostalgia however, my late to the Zelda party experiment hasn’t inspired me to play other past titles in the series, and I probably won’t finish Ocarina. Unlike arcade-style games that I play again and again – Yar’s Revenge on my Atari 2600 and classic Donkey Kong and Mario games on the Wii Vritual Console – I think the Hyrule zeitgeist has passed by me.

Dear defenders of the videogame canon, please don’t eviscerate me for my lack of Link love. I genuinely appreciate Ocarina for the innovations it brought to gaming, and I bow to creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s influence on my favorite third-person perspective games, like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil, and American McGee’s Alice. Unfortunately, the dungeon exploration, item hunts and quests feel slow and tired because a dozen years of game development has passed since Link imprisoned Ganondorf.

The next game in the Zelda series, Skyward Sword, is due in 2011. Sword fighting is a central component of game play, featuring the Wii Remote and Wii MotionPlus controller. I will watch (and likely play) Skyward Sword with interest, particularly for how creatively the game exploits motion-sensing technology. After a buggy demo at the E3 2010 Nintendo press conference, there is concern that MotionPlus technology isn’t ready for the action-heavy game play promised in Skyward Sword. Despite these early rumors, Miyamoto has high-hopes that the first Wii native Zelda title of a quarter-century old franchise will attract a new generation of players, and once again innovate game play mechanics.


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4 Responses to “ Late to the Party: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) ”

  1. Jason Mittell on December 15, 2010 at 2:29 PM


    Your post raises a huge question for considering games as a cultural phenomenon: how much is a game’s value, importance & pleasure rooted in its initial context? It seems that you could only appreciate rather than truly enjoy Ocarina’s innovations (and I’ll admit I’ve not played it either, as my Nintendo experience skipped the N64/GameCube eras), and the gameplay that once felt exciting didn’t age well. While this may be similar to other media, as innovative silent or even sound films might be hard to appreciate today, a good story is still a good story. But gameplay seems so much about offering new possibilities of experience – when those “new” experiences are commonplace, can the innovators still be fun? Are people who still love Ocarina today seeing it through the lens of nostalgia or are they seeing something that you missed?

    • Nina Huntemann on December 15, 2010 at 3:22 PM

      Thanks for the comment Jason. I am hopping that Zelda players will chime in to answer exactly the question you pose about nostalgia and context. In preparation for playing Ocarina and writing this post, I read comments from plenty of gamers (designer and players) who claim the game “still holds up” though I didn’t get a sense of what that meant for most.

      I had a similar experience when I tried to replay the King’s Quest games. For me the series’ pleasure is rooted in its initial context of play and so I get very little pleasure in replay. But its value and importance to the development of the medium persists; it is an historical artifact of gaming in its time.

      As you said, a good story is still a good story, and Zelda has a good story and great characters. But I would absolutely describe my experience as one of appreciation vs. enjoyment. I wanted to enjoy Ocarina. I did not want to discover that my gaming pleasure is tied to contemporary forms, which is why I mention arcade-style games. What is it about those games that do “hold up” after nearly three decades? In terms of game play mechanics, arcade games are very rudimentary. Is it because they DON’T have much of a story?

      • Amber Watts on December 15, 2010 at 3:46 PM

        This is so interesting–OoT is, hands down, my favorite game of all time, but my own love of Ocarina really is largely rooted in the experience of playing it for the first time. I’d skipped the 16-bit era, this was the first game I’d even looked at in a decade, and the first play was, as ridiculous as it sounds, magical. We literally spent the first hour just looking around and the next few months beating (and re-beating) the game. I’ve replayed it since, and, for me, it “holds up,” but I really do wonder now how much of that is rooted in how much I loved it the first time around?

        • Myles McNutt on December 16, 2010 at 12:47 AM

          Related to this, it is largely expected that Nintendo’s 3D remake of the game will be a launch title for the 3DS this Spring, so we’ll see if a new generation responds to the title in an “exciting” new context.