That’s the word that comes to my mind most often when I think about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It effortlessly transcends the years that have passed since it launched on Nintendo 64 back in 1998, feeling as fresh and fun today as it was back then. I was 12-years-old when I played Ocarina of Time. I’d waited months to experience it, greedily soaking up every screenshot and tidbit about the game that I could get my hands on in Nintendo Power. When it finally released, it blew my mind. No hyperbole, no exaggeration, Ocarina of Time wasn’t just a watershed moment for the video game industry, it was a turning point for me as a person. I had played my share of classics up to that point, but to say that Ocarina of Time was unlike anything else is almost an understatement. Stepping onto Hyrule field watching the sun travel over the landscape and eventually setting against a vivid pink sky was like staring out of the windows of my grandma’s house. The game felt like it was living and breathing alongside me, and though I’ve played plenty of titles since that have astounded me, nothing had quite left the same impact as Ocarina of Time.
Seeing that Nintendo finally brought the game to Wii U’s Virtual Console last week was a real treat. While I enjoyed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, there are things about the original version that remain superior. Getting this chance to go back and replay the title as it was (well, close to as it was) on Nintendo 64 is invaluable. One of my biggest gripes with Ocarina 3D was the fact that it was on a handheld and not a home console. Ocarina of Time is as much about spectacle as it is deep gameplay and engrossing narrative. This is the sort of game that needs to fill your field of vision and be shown off. Even with diminished graphics, seeing Link and the various dungeons and environments on a television screen is better than the diminutive top screen of a 3DS any day. There’s also a quality to the visuals of the N64 Ocarina of Time that Ocarina 3D failed to replicate. Ocarina of Time strove for realism. Go back to any interview with Shigeru Miyamoto at the time of the game’s release and the talk was constantly about how realistic Ocarina of Time was trying to look. There’s no denying that the original is blurry and blocky in some ways by today’s standards, but the lighting, textures, and environment design remain a compelling approximation of the real world. Nintendo can claim now that Ocarina 3D is what the developers wanted the first game to look like, but the original tells a very different story with its graphics.
Admittedly, today’s HD screens aren’t the best fit for N64-era titles. It’s not to say Ocarina of Time or Mario 64 don’t look good on a flat screen, but the visuals simply aren’t optimized for today’s higher quality technology; these games were made to be played on a tube TV. Though the resolution is bumped up, something is lost in the translation that I can’t put my finger on. Regardless, I’ll be fair and say it’s a difference that few will probably notice. This is especially true when playing the game off-screen on the GamePad, with the non-HD device proving a more natural fit for the old school graphics. I know I just got through praising having Ocarina of Time on a larger screen, but the GamePad screen remains larger than anything in Nintendo’s handheld line, and the convenience of this particular Wii U feature is undeniable. Someone wants to watch John Wick but you’re in the middle of the Water Temple? Presto! GamePad. I’m still of the opinion that Nintendo doesn’t compensate enough for the sensitivity of today’s analog sticks, however, as at times I found aiming in first-person could be finicky compared to a Nintendo 64 controller. I’ve learned to adjust to this ever since the days of Wii’s Virtual Console, but I’d hoped the improvement on Wii U would have been better.
That all might sound whiny, but the small details can make all the difference to playability. Thankfully, despite these slight challenges, Ocarina of Time is still very playable, as well as enjoyable. Like Hyrule itself, Ocarina of Time seems to exist in a world apart from our own, locked in a pocket of time that age has no sway over. From the controls to the story, the game swept me right back in as easily as it did the first time I booted it up. One common gripe about Zelda games for years now has been the lack of voice acting, but as cinematic as Ocarina of Time is, there’s an elegance to this game’s text-only presentation of its narrative that I’ve always appreciated. Between the hints of character voices conveyed through laughs and yells, to the sophisticated serif font that scrolls across every text box, Ocarina of Time is like the ultimate synthesis of movie and novel. Also, I don’t think I’m grasping at straws when I say that there are so many layers to pluck through and things to take away from the game’s story. Themes of loss, friendship, love, duty, corruption, and more pervade the entire game. Watching Link literally grow into his role as Hyrule’s protector is still one of gaming’s ultimate experiences. There’s a personal investment that’s fostered by saving so many different people, sometimes repeatedly, and the actual time spent restoring each temple. By the time I get to Ganon at the end, the fight is always personal.
Graphics snob or not, Ocarina of Time as it was released 17 years ago is very much worth a play for the first, second, or even hundredth time. Ocarina 3D is a wonderful remastering, but this original version has a magic all its own. Though many Zelda titles have come out since Ocarina of Time, some of which arguably even matching it in terms of quality, at the moment of its creation it represented the culmination of Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for the series. The blood and sweat that went into making this game are present at every turn, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that anyone who has yet to play Ocarina of Time go and give it a download from the eShop. I’m actually shocked Nintendo condescended to putting up the N64 version of this game for sale again, as the norm of late from the company has been to only acknowledge the 3DS remake. This is unequivocally a genuine piece of video game history. No one should call themselves a serious gamer if Ocarina of Time isn’t in their collection.