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.

  • tbschen

    Cool story, bro.
    Honest and logical.
    I believe it is mostly the "first time into the Zelda-universe"-thing (differentiating 2D and 3D Zelda games here), you knew nothing about it before, yet you remember so much after it, that anything that didn't happen in the "original" seems built-up.
    I see this happening with other series too, it's just the firstling. Needless to say that it did so many things right.

    • Giovanni

      Do not look for over-analytical reasons as to why OOT is the most memorable Zelda experience thus far. The answer is simple:

      No other LOZ game has been able to match the nearness to perfection in regards to story telling, intrigue, characterization, the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the plot, the sense of awe and wonder it incites, the musical score, and visual presentation that OOT achieved.

      In one word, the ATMOSPHERE of the game is what makes it so memorable.

      This is nothing else than the orchestration of the game as a whole; the synthesis of all the elements that I mentioned above.

      No doubt OOT is a work of art, and it is my opinion that no other LOZ game has matched its same level of perfection in regards to the game's atmosphere. I would say that WW came the closest (very very very close) to OOT in terms of creating a beautifully orchestrated atmosphere of the game.

      So, if I had to contest between these two I'ld say that OOT is still more memorable than WW because of the STYLE OF ATMOSPHERE that OOT presents.

      • i STILL think Twilight princess managed to surpass OOT in a lot of ways. Nostalgia tends to blind us when we look at games like OOT or MM or even LTTP (though that game was damn perfect)

        Twilight princess had a world that really felt alive and inhabited, and that the people you met outside of the main characters actually meant something to the story. Which, speaking of, was also amazing. The story actually had a plot other than defeat ganon save the world. Hell, the story even had plot twists!!

        The dungeons were extremely varied from a temple in the sky to a frozen mansion to the twilight realm. And once you gain full control of your wolf form (essentially like unlocking the temple of time to hop between adult and young link) the whole world is open for you to explore. Mini-games, events, secrets to unlock, the usualy heart pieces, trading chains, golden bugs to collect, etc etc etc.

        Finally, the last encounter of the game with ganon/ganondorf incarnated was FAR more epic and satisfying than the OOT encounter. It was a man on man, 1 on 1 fight to the death between 2 destined enemies. Sword to sword.

        Lastly… "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."

        Which rule is broken in twilight princess? Working alone the plotline of ganondorf being imprisoned the story it's flawless.

        • Banooru

          Even though I played MM as child, I actually hated it. I was agitated and slightly afraid and it didn't really give me a good feeling.

          I didn't really play Zelda all that much until TP.

          I LOVED TP when I played it, and it got me back into Zelda. After I beat that I didn't know what to do, so I went to MM on the N64. When I replayed it as an adult, the game that agitated me as a child became my favorite. Not only that, but I helped my little brother to appreciate it as a child (kind of acting like a second Happy Mask Salesman "Believe in your strengths", "For someone like you it should by no means be a difficult task."

          I would say I truly appreciate MM and think it is a work of art that can't be replicated (I guess I don't think any Zelda game can be replicated, which is why they are all so unique). I don't think I am blinded by nostalgia when I say that I like MM more than TP, and TP better than OoT (OoT was my very first Zelda game).

      • Larwaa

        "No other LOZ game has been able to match the nearness to perfection in regards to story telling, intrigue, characterization, the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the plot, the sense of awe and wonder it incites, the musical score, and visual presentation that OOT achieved."
        Dude, did you even play Majora's Mask?

      • stratisfire

        don't rage on me because i do love ocarina of time very dearly, but the more i think about it the less story the game really had. i mean it did have a story that was interesting but it wasnt as engaging or memorable as most people make it out to be. and again i can't stress enough how much i love ocarina of time, it's just i never really saw the story as a big wow factor. now skyward sword on the other hand, that had a pretty good story.

  • Sebastian

    cool storry.. btw I'm Gonna bye OoT in this summer!!! because that's my favorite game EVER!!!

  • Hodhav

    Nice writing, though I’m not totally convinced about its validity. I, for example, have started with OoT and loved it (and still love it, also in its 3d edition) like hell. But then MM and later on WW were released and I adored them just as much. Until today, it’s impossible for me to decide which game in the franchise is actually my favorite.

  • Sanity's_Theif

    Interesting, I only know 1 person who played both Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time and still prefers OOT, my cousin, other than that everyone else I know likes TP more, I know I do, though only by a bit seeing as I've beaten it 5 times and I've only beaten OOT once

    • DJO

      Add another person to that list, then: I can't stand Twilight Princess. It's my least favourite Zelda game, though I keep trying to find ways to love it because disliking a Zelda title just seems wrong for me. It tries so hard to be Ocarina of Time, but for me it's missing nearly all of the humour and magic and vibrancy of other Zelda titles. The DS titles and Skyward Sword were a welcome breath of fresh air for me after constantly feeling like Twilight Princess needed to be in therapy for its depression and self-esteem issues.

      And to the writer of the original entry–I'm also an exception to your favourite Zelda game being your first played, as are most of my friends. Not that this invalidates the entire post or anything, just pointing out some differences. 🙂

  • CMike

    So Ocarina of Time is the best because it's the most generic?

    • Chika

      Yes. It's the easiest to like, it has the least to dislike, however you want to phrase it. It's simple.

      • Eliza

        I have to disagree. It's not generic, nor easy: it's flawless. I don't think people's personal taste on whatever they think more "alternative" or "outrageous" could blind them. Let's be objective: the story of the main character (the few background they give you about his isolation and oddity immediately bounds you to him), his home, left without guidance, subtle suggestions of love interests, a whole reign to explore and save, friends to fight for, time travel, a villain to take down with true right… it's an amazing story! Not too twisted, but well raised. It has the elements of a great tale, nay, a legend.
        WW had a nice story built, too, but, as it was said before, it's nothing but the scheme of the prodigy, replicated.
        And of course: Ocarina was my first and only, my one and most. No shame on it.

  • Witchking

    I know this may be a bias on my part, but Ocarina of Time will always remain as my favorite game. It was the first vdeo game I ever played, I was one of the first 6,000 people in the US to buy a copy, despite the fact that I was only seven at the time. I still remember the first time I slipped the cartridge into the 64. That game is EPIC, and will remain so for many people, of that I am certain. When 'Super Mario Galaxy' was released, and people began claiming that 'Super Mario Galaxy has dethroned Ocarina of Time as the greatest game of all time', I was truly and genuinely angry. It's almost a form of blasphemy for anyone in the gaming world to say that any of the zelda games are not great. (EXCEPT for the CD-i mishaps.)

  • TheMaverickk

    The reason why Ocarina of Time was the "defining" Zelda for most gamers this generation is because for many it was the first Zelda game they ever played.

    Although Link to the Past had it's golden era of fame and respect, the truth is that it reigned high during a time when the amount of people out there who were dedicated gamers were fairly low (when compared to the turn of the century, where video games became a bigger industry then people ever thought possible).

    Not to mention that 7 years passed between the release of Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. That's enough time that those who played Link to the Past as kids, were now almost adults. Some may have moved on from gaming completely.

    Ocarina of Time was a new Zelda for a new generation. For many it would be the first Zelda they ever played. The first time a player discovers a new game series, that entry will always be a memorable one.

    Of course it doesn't hurt that the game was also Zelda being converted into a fully realized three dimensional world. Nintendo also implemented a control scheme that became envied by many other developers as well.

  • fourswordslink

    Oot had a good storyline and my favorite final boss battle in the whole series, but a lot of things were missing from it that say… gave you emotion. I mean it was amazing for an n64 to render that much data back then and it was a big hit, but I just felt wind waker touched me more. It actually did take a lot from Oot and even ALttP but perfected it with new graphics and characters with interesting personalities and emotion. I just felt that all of the characters in that game felt so real; even Link had a lot of emotion especially shown when leaving his island to the Forsaken Fortress and when the King of Red Lions drowned to give Link and Tetra a future. I felt much more sad when he left than when navi left( mostly because she was annoying as hell) but I still got a little choked up when she left. I'm not saying lack of a lot feeling and emotion was bad, it was just greatly perfected in Wind Wsker( in my opinion of course).

  • Pielord12

    OOT is without a doubt a great great game, however I actually think that it is the WORST 3d Zelda title. This in no way means that I think that OOT is a bad game, because it's not. I just feel like every 3d Zelda game since then has actually improved on it in many ways, with MM giving us a darker and more emotional story, WW giving us an artistically beautiful game with a charming story, TP (which I like least, compared to the others) giving us another more dark and intriguing story, and finally SS giving us everything we loved about all the other Zelda games in one.

    I think that the reason that people regard OOT the best is, for the most part, nostalgia. I too love getting nostalgic about games but I also feel that just because something came first that doesn't discredit what comes after it. To me, OOT in comparison to the other games just feels bland.

    Oh well, that's just my two cents, I'm not trollin' or anything I truly don't think OOT is the best Zelda title but you guys are entitled to your opinion so it's completely fair enough.

  • Kane987245

    This article hit the nail on the head of why OOT is such a great game and why people love it to this day. Great post! =]

  • K2L

    I want the franchise to die already. Seeing how MM, TWW and TP failed to surpass OOT in popularity and sales, I waswondering why they’re still bothering to make any more games. Even SS, which tried to combine aspects from all previous games (even visually, by combining cel-shading and realism), backfired big time. Save yourselves time and money, Nintendo, and just kill the franchise.

    • Angel

      If you're saying that, you're no true Zelda fan. If you're only a fan of OoT, you never grasped the true feel of Legend of Zelda. Although the story is magnificent, and because our era was OoT, doesn't mean we should ruin it for future generations. They need to be aware that there is one game out there with a fabulous story line, which does get better with each game, and our fairy boy remains the same, even if his personality changes slightly. He's still eager to save the Princess in whatever way she's messed up the kingdom, the characters are the same. I personally love the Gorons, seeing the castle town people act as if nothing as happened to them, and, of course, Ganondorf. Who really hasn't changed, honestly. He's still after that damn triforce, he's STILL trying to take over Hyrule, and he's still a Gerudo thief determined to bring the peace and serenity that the Goddess's worked hard to keep, to an end. I think nothing negative about LoZ (although i'm not too fond of the cartoony aspect in WW and PH), because i love the story and i just love the whole aspect of the game. I've played every game, even if i haven't beat a good chunk of them, and ask Nintendo to stop making these games… It's disturbing. I would cry if Nintendo stopped producing these games, because they are just so fantastic and i do love them dearly.

    • Nafi

      Why are you even on this site then?

  • K2L

    I want the franchise to die already. Seeing how MM, TWW and TP failed to surpass OOT in popularity and sales, I waswondering why they're still bothering to make any more games. Even SS, which tried to combine aspects from all previous games (even visually, by combining cel-shading and realism), backfired big time. Save yourselves time and money, Nintendo, and just kill the franchise.

  • Thomas G.

    The industry is obsessed with technology, 3D, frame rates and motion control. Nearly everyone I know 90% of the time spent playing games is from the SNES/Genesis era. Using emulation or more times than not an actual console. These game are cheaper to buy, less of a learning curve to play and just more fun.

  • rebelsblade

    i never finished oot because of shadow temple. never entered it because i hate floor masters

  • ganon2

    too bad its awsome after that