In the AAA games industry, the general rule of thumb is that the games that have the best graphics, the best gameplay, the best story, the best characters, the best environments, the best personality, and the best this, that, and the other things are the ultimate winners and will become the stuff of legends that we will all remember years later when looking back upon our gaming history. As a result, most companies treat video game development as something of a nuclear arms race, where one has to constantly be striving for bigger, better, more fantastic, more amazing, more “epic” games than anyone has ever done in the past in an effort to outdo their competition and stand tall upon the hill so that other developers will look up at them with green jealousy.
But oddly enough, deep in the back of our minds, we all know that this is a misconception. Practically every game designer, developer, or fan who played games back in the ‘90s shares the belief that the Super Nintendo was the “Golden Era of Video Games.” Even in our own fandom, Ocarina of Time is all but universally held up as the epitome of Zelda at its finest, even despite Twilight Princess being effectively an attempt to overthrow it by being a better OoT. It’s got enough similarities to the original to shake a stick at… and technologically it’s a superior title in terms of graphics, more realistic characters, and the rest of the bells and whistles associated with it.
So why is Ocarina of Time still more loved? Why is it that, sometimes, the less technologically impressive games overshadow modern efforts to displace them?
I’ve often said that the answer was plain and simple: nostalgia. However, I have come to the belief that to say that the answer is simply nostalgia seems the cheap way out in many respects. In fact, I don’t even think nostalgia is necessarily even the starting point of any legitimate explanation either. Instead, I think it’s a combination of many other things entirely.
I do believe however, that something quite similar to nostalgia is a component of our emotional attachment to Zelda, and that has to do with the fact that Ocarina of Time for many was a defining experience for what Zelda was. I’ve often had the generalized belief (and only rarely have I seen exceptions to the rule) where people’s first foray into the Zelda universe ended up being their favorite rendition of the series. Whether it be the original LoZ, LttP (as it was for me), OoT, or even WW, that experience generally defined what Zelda was to each person, and every successive iteration has had to compete with the rules, laws, personalities, and ideas that we ourselves implicitly added upon the world of Hyrule. Every time a Zelda game after the fact violates one of the rules within our own head-canon, we immediately and subconsciously down-vote it in our heads.
Even for those old-schoolers who played Zelda games before OoT, OoT really defined and ingrained into us what a 3D Zelda title was meant to look like. Outside of the transformation into three dimensions, OoT actually has a lot of its roots planted firmly in A Link to the Past and even Link’s Awakening: The child and adult worlds are akin to the Light and Dark Worlds; the dungeoneering follows familiar tropes from earlier games; even many of the items found within the games (the bow, the sword, the hookshot, even the Lens of Truth) are identical or functionally similar to items from earlier games.
But the controller style was new (even if it was somewhat based upon Super Mario 64). The implementation of certain mechanics was new. The visualization was entirely new. Even today, most Zelda fans make a firm distinction between 2D and 3D Zelda games, almost as if they aren’t the same animal. Every 3D Zelda game since has had to compare (and contrast) itself against OoT. Majora’s Mask differed by the strict three-day countdown clock, and Wind Waker completely changed the graphics style of the world; while neither were bad games by any means, I remember how gamers were so incredibly leery of both games because it wasn’t a mirror copy of what OoT was.
This then is built upon a series of highly memorable scenes and characters that players have identified with. I first joined a Zelda Forum back in December 2000, which was right after this little game called Majora’s Mask was released in the US. However, in those days, most of our conversation dwelled upon all of the memories of OoT and how awesome that universe was. My forum friends and I all identified either with specific characters or races in the game. People pretended to be Kokiri and Hylian, Ruto and Goron, Sheikah and Gerudo. Debates raged on whether or not “sageshipping” (ZeLink) or “ranchshipping” (MaLink) was more proper. (I don’t think there’s ever been as fierce or as passionate a shipper debate as that one in our community since!)
And since then, so many have mourned the loss of things left behind from OoT. Still to this day we have no explanation for the peculiarities of the Gerudo male/female ratio. Lovers of Kokiri are desperate for them to return in full splendor (and no, Koroks do not count, if you ask them).
What made the seven Sages so memorable was that they represented such a wide berth of personalities so that everyone could at least identify themselves with one. Saria was the best friend always there for you, Darunia was the gruff guy but under the hood had a heart of gold, Ruto was the snobbish brat initially but remained faithful to you (even if Link didn’t realize it at first), Impa was the mysterious woman who always was more than she seemed, Nabooru was the flirtatious gal that guys secretly wanted, and Zelda… she was the survivor who dared to stand up for those she hadn’t even met. And who could forget Malon, the tomboy whose heart for others was bigger than her care for herself.
And our character Link, the one we’re supposed to be “linked” with, had memorable encounters with each of these. Each of the characters gave up something for Link; each of them wished for his (our?) best. And in so doing, it was hard not to wish for their best in return. Ocarina of Time caused us to invest our hearts into the polygon characters on the screen, and so it’s impossible for us to not want to return there in our hearts.
And these relational investments are made more real by the time traveling nature of the game, meaning that these become experiences and relationships that we grow into. In the case of each of the seven Sages and Malon, we meet each and every one of them first as child Link instead of adult Link. We get to see what their lives look like before Ganondorf throws down any solid punches against Hyrule. And then… the event happens; Ganondorf seizes the Triforce of Power and ruins all of Hyrule. Link comes back as an adult and sees just how each of his friends’ lives has changed, but Link isn’t about to leave it there. No, instead we go in and fix up each of their circumstances to the best of Link’s ability. (Okay, so the Zoras didn’t get unfrozen, so Ruto still gets a little screwed over. Que sera, sera.)
That aspect of going into the future and relating to those Link knew in the past is by no means irrelevant either. This is actually a key part of what makes the storyline of Ocarina of Time so memorable. Had all of these events just taken place in one continuous time stream, the friendships and relationships Link made would be no more than a few weeks old, and in real life this is rarely enough to truly know and count on someone. A best friend is not made in a single week. Yet despite Link’s long absence from the world, those whom Link knew when he was 10 remembered him at 17. Suddenly, though the sum total of Link’s encounters with the NPCs are one and the same, the friendships are now suddenly years old. Friendship that spans years is infinitely more worthwhile than friendships that only span a matter of weeks or, worse, days.
Ocarina of Time by now definitely shows a bit of its age. It’s easy to see many of the differences between the original release and the 3DS upgrade of it that brings it, at least to some degree, up to snuff with games of the current era. Yet despite its age and its older roots, there really is something special hidden deep within the polygons and bits that make up the game’s engine that has made it last the testament of time that not all of its successors have managed to achieve. I honestly think that there’s a reason that Miyamoto and Aonuma, for so long, have been searching to replicate that Ocarina of Time experience yet ultimately end up unable to satisfy or placate the ardent fans of it.
In many ways, it is all but unsurpassable. It’s a benchmark game released at a time when benchmarks didn’t exist. And it will be very curious indeed to find out whether or not another game will be revolutionary or impactful enough to take away Ocarina’s position in the future.