If you wanted to look at it on a pure “difficulty” sense, Ocarina of Time doesn’t always get the curvature right. It always feels, on repeated play, that such locales like the Shadow Temple tend to prioritize tone and theme at the cost of challenge and even structural design for that matter. What’s more the Water Temple (memes aside) deviates considerably in its focus on more restrictive environments — mistaking cumbersome item-swapping for genuine challenge. You can’t deny that Ocarina of Time used the advances in technology to great effect, giving each and everyone of these settings a unique place in the world, and in the context of its narrative, reinforcing the notion of seemingly holy and sanctuaried places now infested with evil. Past Zelda entrants may have relied on the increasingly-complex structure of their multi-floor layouts and to this day it’s still intriguing to reflect on a game like A Link to the Past‘s gradual incline that was admittedly sprinkled with novel takes on how a player can (and must) prove themselves worthy.
Particularly, for example, with how acquiring the big/boss key didn’t immediately equate to the inevitable boss fight thereafter — the first door you encountered requiring said item, less a climax and more a barrier with which separated you from the “real” dungeon to be conquered. A Link to the Past’s Turtle Rock particularly does this brilliantly — locking around two-thirds of the total dungeon behind the first major door. Even so, what these games lacked in immersive atmospheres, the game’s dungeons in Ocarina of Time undoubtedly gave one of the series’ staples an added level of attraction. Heck, as dismissive one might be about the earlier dungeons, the omnipresent drones and dark-ambient shudders of both The Deku Tree or Dodongo’s Cavern alike incur a lot more sonic color to add to their new-found artistic variety. Long before Hyrule goes to a hell in a hand-basket, Ocarina of Time is already painting these environments as both engrossing and dangerous alike, whilst at the same time offering a sneak peek as to Ocarina of Time’s variety in puzzle-solving. All the while not going over-board on the premise of malevolent forces emerging to reclaim the land from its once benevolent peace.
Even in the game’s latter half, as Adult Link, Hyrule doesn’t see as radical a visual shift as A Link to the Past or even a tonal shift that Majora’s Mask final day, heck final six hours for that matter, inject. There are of course both benefits and drawbacks to this somewhat middle-ground approach: in the case of A Link to The Past’s Dark World, the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time is still a place of redeemable quality — not entirely lost to evil even if said evil is pretty much sat aloft reigning down in the places where it matters. But in the case of Majora’s Mask and Termina’s looming apocalypse and gradually-desperate circumstances, the slightly lax delivery and remnant tranquility of its locales doesn’t entirely convince its players this is a land under the boot of tyranny. Of course it lets you settle in more comfortably into the notion of spending a solid hour trying to catch the biggest fish at the nearby fishing hole or getting every last one of those heart pieces and this continuing counter-responsive look on the game’s delivery is, again, one of the great strengths of a series like Zelda and why Ocarina of Time — at the very least — leaves many to debate not only its original merits, but its lasting legacy. How, more importantly, it was able to push the series on its own unique ways.
No longer was it about just pushing blocks and standing on switches (though there were of course an abundance of these atypically Zelda tropes present and accounted for), but it expanded into breaking through webbing from off a high-enough platform or detonating bombs at the right moment. Figuring out the correct mix of timing, placement and of course items to be used, in order to proceed. Physics even found their way into things, even if the concept still relied on pushing blocks to their desired destination. The fact that it took another twenty-or-so years for Nintendo to innovate on this formula in Breath of the Wild, namely the way [additional] physics and trial-and-error experimentation plays a crucial role in puzzle-solving and exploration alike, does seem like an overdue assessment and one the series might have benefited from at an earlier time. But it takes little away from how crucial Ocarina of Time’s own evolution sought to reinforce the idea that beating a dungeon in any Zelda game was no longer about simply finding keys and/or proceeding through one locked door after another, filling the map with recently-entered square after recently-entered square.
It was about learning the structure and mechanics of the surroundings in question; deducing how everything flowed and worked in tandem with one another. One’s reward sometimes proving as beneficial as a newly-accessed shortcut or as fleeting as a small chest containing twenty-or-so rupees you more than likely had little use for. But when all was said and done, mastering where and when, for example, to raise/lower water levels in the Water Temple or getting the angle of projection right to bounce light off your Mirror Shield in the Spirit Temple, it always felt far more satisfactory than another press of a floor switch. It’s the kind of resonant satisfaction only the likes of Breath of the Wild have managed to rekindle, even if the tools at one’s disposal do advocate more for experimentation rather than narrow deduction of an otherwise singular solitary solution.
There are so many great moments in Ocarina of Time both in and out the framework of its gameplay that it would be fruitless to cover them so extensively in a single written piece. To list but a few of its many highlights, narrative or otherwise: Adult Link’s immediate first steps into the now-changed Hyrule — complete with howling wind, darkened skies and a ruined, decrepit town market, the same town market bustling with life not a minute ago; the comically self-initiated meta-game in getting young Link to Hyrule Castle’s gate before the sun sets for the first time; the chirpy and optimistic little jingle that plays when the sun subsequently rises the next day and fades to allow the theme of Hyrule Field to play once more; the plethora of mini-games that, again, emphasized proving one’s self in a multitude of skills. Characters, items, music, locales…it’s a game of many a quality.
Latter entries would of course experiment and deviate in many of these departments, for better or worse, and the argument can be made for the series’ improving on the N64 debut’s efforts thereafter. Wherever your allegiances lie, however you propose the making of “the best” Zelda outing, few will deny that Ocarina of Time’s reinvention of such things like puzzle-solving and the very dungeons that housed them — on top of its use of atmosphere, tone and narrative — were unlike anything the series had put out.
Two decades on, returning to this entry for the umpteenth time in all its polygonal, aliased, sub-30 FPS “glory” (if you can call it that, rose-tinted glasses or otherwise), its ranking may well be debated until the end of time and its graphics aren’t the prettiest sight to behold, but its ambition, engagement and longing for grander heights in gameplay and presentation alike, cannot be understated. Its multitude of ideas old and new alike, wherever you stand, make it a unique affair to discuss even now after twenty years. That, at least, grants Ocarina of Time’s status as among the best the series has given us.