This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest games of all time. Two decades ago last week Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. While the Zelda franchise has always been a successful one for Nintendo, Ocarina of Time was something special, even at the time, and it would go down as not only one of the best games of the series, but one of the most popular video games ever made.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was an important game in the history of Nintendo and Zelda if for no other reason than the technical aspect that it was the first three-dimensional game in the series. The power of the Nintendo 64 was on full display and while nearly every game in the series is technically an "open world" game, we'd never seen the world of Hyrule quite like this. Hyrule field alone, the vast, open expanse that acted as the center of the map, was unlike anything most people had ever experienced before.
The new perspective meant entirely new types of puzzles and dungeons that included concepts that the previous games just couldn't have done. Boss battles felt more visceral and defeating them became more satisfying thanks to a new camera angle that brought you closer to the action than ever before. I loved targeting an enemy, blocking an incoming blow with my shield, then following up with a sword strike of my own. It felt like real tactical sword fighting like the series had never had before.
I am absolutely one of those people that consider The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time one of the greatest games ever made, but for me, the reasons go far beyond the game itself.
I grew up as the oldest of three brothers in a house where we all played video games. We also, for the most part, all liked the same kind of games, and The Legend of Zelda titles were certainly among them. If you grew up in a house full of gamers, then you probably have had a similar experience to my own. The console belonged to whoever got to it first and while we were always good about taking turns, I spent as much time or more watching one of my brothers play any given game than I did playing myself.
The result of this was that playing games like Zelda became somewhat communal activities. Whoever was the first to get to a particular part of the game would have the peanut gallery talking through potential solutions to a puzzle or a strategy for defeating a boss. It was fun, but at the same time, it took something out of the experience for me later.
If I had already seen my brother complete a puzzle then I already knew how to do it when I got there. If I was the first to get to a puzzle, I wasn't able to work out the solution on my own, as my brothers were always more than willing to "help" me.
But with Ocarina of Time things were different. I got it for Christmas 20 years ago. I was a college student with a part-time job and lived with roommates. A couple of days after Christmas I went back to my apartment with my new game. Most of my roommates were spending the entire winter break at home but I had a part-time job to attend to. This meant that when I wasn't working I was home all alone with nothing really to do but play my new game.
I spent most of the next two weeks eating pizza (the part-time job was at a pizza parlor) under a blanket (because heat is expensive and I was a college student) and playing Zelda. I got absorbed in the game like never before. It was entirely up to me to solve the puzzles and beat the bosses. I can ever remember getting stuck in a couple of places but I almost enjoyed the frustration as I tried to figure things out, because it was an entirely new experience. I had never felt such a sense of achievement as I did with each successive victory. I explored every corner of Hyrule on the back of Epona. I fought sword duels with Stalfos and Ganondorf.
My first experience playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still one of the most important gaming experiences of my life. I can't think of another time that I became so absorbed in a single game.
The game itself was, of course, fantastic, but it was the circumstances under which I played the game that made this game so special. It's not a situation everybody is going to find themselves in with this particular game, though I'd wager it's one that many gamers have had with some game at some point.
Ocarina of Time was very much a product of its time. While I played through it more than once, I never had that experience again, and I haven't touched the game in years, even though I still own the same copy and have a Nintendo 64 wired up if I ever get the urge to play it.
While I've played every Zelda game since under similar circumstances, it's never been the same. I like Majora's Mask probably more than most, but it's not the same kind of game. I beat Twilight Princess and Wind Waker once and never returned. I've still never beaten Skyward Sword. I love Breath of the Wild, but that one is so big I just don't feel like it lends itself to that sort of focused playing.
While the Zelda series is often criticized for being somewhat formulaic, I'd argue that Ocarina of Time is really the last Zelda game that really used that traditional formula of "explore the dungeon, find the item, use the item to beat the boss, repeat." Every game since has tried to put a unique spin on the concept. Maybe that's because, after Ocarina, there just wasn't a way to improve on it.
There will never be another The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years. Mostly because it reminds me how old I am. Still, it's important to recognize greatness when it comes along and Ocarina of Time is certainly that. The game has seen remasters on the 3DS as well as later Nintendo consoles so if you somehow have never played this piece of gaming history, maybe take the Christmas break, get some pizza, and a blanket, and give it a try.