Promotional artwork from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, which Nintendo will release for 3DS on Sunday.
Image courtesy Nintendo
With a stellar soundtrack, thoughtful level design and a deceptively massive feel, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time proved to be the picture of polygonal perfection when Nintendo released it in 1998.
One of Nintendo’s first 3-D adventure games, it’s considered by some to be the best-rated videogame ever.
A gorgeously remastered version of Ocarina of Time hits Nintendo 3DS this Sunday. All the exploration, dungeons, puzzle-solving and story sequences remain identical to the 1998 game, but the graphics have received a colossal overhaul. Whether you’ve played Ocarina before or somehow missed out the first time, if you have a 3DS, you already know you should buy this.
Playing the 3DS version triggered a nostalgia trip for me and for Wired.com writer John Mix Meyer. I was 18 when The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time appeared on the Nintendo 64; Meyer was 6. Despite our age difference, we were both addicted to Ocarina, and to this day rank the game among our all-time favorites.
Like college buddies reminiscing about old flames, Mix and I wrote back and forth to each other, sharing our decade-old memories of Ocarina and discussing our thoughts as we’ve been playing the 3DS remake.
As we await Sunday’s release of Ocarina of Time for 3DS, join us on this trip down memory lane. We invite you to share your own recollections in the comments below about one of the greatest videogames of all time.
I was your age when Ocarina of Time came out, two months into my freshman year of college. For many gamers like me, Ocarina was pretty much the second 3-D action adventure they’d ever played, the first having been Super Mario 64. (We had to wait a long time between Nintendo games back in those days.)
Since it was still one of the earliest open-ended polygonal games, I didn’t have the perspective to describe why Ocarina was so well-designed. All I knew at the time was that it was great; retaining the intricate, vast gameplay of previous Zelda games but doing it all with the new quantum-leap technology of 3-D. I rarely if ever replay lengthy single-player games, so I never touched it again in the ensuing 12 years.
Playing Ocarina on the 3DS has given me a new appreciation for the game’s design. This is remembered as one of the best games of that early era, and the 3DS version makes clear why that is more than just nostalgia talking. It’s been pointed out in the past that because designers of early 8-bit games had so few pixels to work with, they had to wring as much meaning as they could out of each one, which is why those games could feel so well-designed compared to the more bloated, showy games that would come later.
The same held true for early polygonal games like Ocarina: The reset button had been pushed, and suddenly designers were shackled by a new set of restraints, triangles instead of pixels.
Image courtesy Nintendo
The best game designers of the moment — and I think it would be difficult to argue that director Shigeru Miyamoto and his crew were not, in 1998, the world’s best videogame design team — clearly thought long and hard how they could use the paucity of triangles that they could render with the Nintendo 64 to create a vivid, lifelike world.
On 3DS, Ocarina has received a thorough graphical overhaul, but the design of the world remains untouched. This contrast emphasizes the specific design choices that make Ocarina feel so much bigger than it is — it looks like it should be a modern game, so you can see when it’s not designed like one.
Everyone always talks about how “big” the central Hyrule Field is. Hyrule Field is a tiny little piece of game geography, relatively speaking, trivial to create in a rudimentary 3-D system like Nintendo 64’s. But it feels huge when you traverse it, because it tricks you. The way the hills roll up and down constantly creates situations where you’re staring at a horizon, masking the actual size of the “room” that you’re in. It’s just big enough that traveling somewhere feels like a journey but actually doesn’t take that long.
Miyamoto and crew didn’t have enough polygons or draw distance to have enemies roam the land, so they had skeletons crawl up from underground at night. These weren’t things one really noticed in 1998, lost in thrall to this game.
What was your experience like as a kid? –Chris
I was 6 years old when Ocarina of Time hit store shelves. It was my first Zelda game and, like you, my second 3-D action title after Mario 64. Its vast, vibrant world and colorful cast of characters captivated me at a young age. Here was a game far beyond even the greatness of Mario.
Ocarina of Time established many mechanics that we see in modern 3-D action games. In 1998, camera controls weren’t as refined as today. So Miyamoto and the gang designed a superb lock-on system that would keep you focused on enemies and other things as you moved about. This has since influenced pretty much every 3-D game ever made.
But, as you point out, it’s the limited resources Miyamoto’s team had that pushed them to make Ocarina of Time as timeless as it is.
Atmosphere was hard to pull off back then. If you wanted the player to feel scared, you weren’t able to add a thick layer of fog and put in a few flickering lights. A lot of effort was put into making the different areas feel as real as possible, even with the limited processing power. One of the game’s final dungeons, the Shadow Temple, is a foreboding place with haunting music and rooms filled with macabre torture devices. This dungeon scared me so much as a kid that I had to have my older brother play through it for me.
Ocarina of Time was a game of heroes and adventure and it came at the exact time I needed those two things most. I was born with severe pulmonary hypertension, so I was in and out of hospitals a lot as a kid. And when my increasing medical complications became too much to cope with, it wasn’t a dark corner that I fled to but rather the wide and fantastical world of Hyrule.
It’s only 12 years (and about as many playthroughs) later that I can articulate these feelings. That’s mostly thanks to the 3DS remake. It’s an incredibly thorough overhaul — Nintendo left no stone unturned when improving the game’s visuals. But for me, the best part is how they touched everything up just enough that all the rooms are recognizable and none of the classic atmosphere is sacrificed.
In doing this, Ocarina of Time 3D made me think more about my childhood than I have in years. –Mix
You briefly mentioned the music, which is something I wanted to touch on. Especially after playing this remake, I would defy anyone to tell me that Ocarina of Time doesn’t have the best integration of music ever seen in an adventure game.
You’re constantly using your ocarina throughout the game, playing little musical phrases on it to make things happen — turn night into day, open up secret passages, etc. What’s so brilliant is that composer Koji Kondo built the game’s big, faux-orchestral soundtrack out of these six-note snippets of sound, integrating these little bits of gameplay into grander pieces of music. The soundtrack isn’t just the backdrop for Ocarina’s action, it’s the very pulse, the lifeblood of the world. It’s the pinnacle of action-game soundtracks.
The greatest joy of going through this remake after all this time has been listening to those old tracks in their proper context again — the up-tempo castanets and flamenco guitar in the Gerudo Valley gypsy camp, the reverent basso profondo in the Temple of Time. It’s superlative stuff, and it’s kind of a disappointment that even the Zelda team never did anything nearly as thoroughly integrated in its later games.
Ocarina of Time is the music. Looking at the graphics in 3-D is actually quite nice, but the music is the thing that really pops. –Chris
You’re exactly right; no other game uses music like Ocarina does. When you think of an area in the game, the music for that area always pops into your head. It’s the music that propels the game from memorable to unforgettable.
Image courtesy Nintendo
My older sister and I would ride Link’s horse Epona into Gerudo Valley just to listen to the music together. Sometimes we would manipulate their movements to make them look like they were dancing. That’s a memory I never want to forget, especially now that my sister has graduated from college and we don’t see each other every day anymore. That’s why I was thrilled to discover that the 3DS remake didn’t tweak the music except for a beautiful orchestral piece during the credits.
I think the greatest thing about Ocarina of Time 3D is this sense of restraint. Even with the 3DS version’s substantial upgrade, I feel like the developers had a keen sense of what made the original game special. They didn’t paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — they just filled in some of the cracks. –Mix
WIRED One of the best games ever, remastered; looks fantastic in 3D; improved controls.
TIRED It’s the same game you played 12 years ago and remember exactly how to beat.
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