When people hear the word “ocarina,” many, including non-gamers, immediately think of The Legend of Zelda, and in particular, Ocarina of Time — and for good reason. Ocarina of Time is widely considered to be among the greatest, if not the greatest video game of all time, and playing a magical ocarina is a primary facet of the gameplay. It was such a popular feature that it led to an increased demand for real-life ocarinas and a concurrent rise in sales. Now, it is easy to search online for your very own Ocarina of Time replica and accompanying songbook.
But have you ever wondered why the game’s designers chose the ocarina? Why wasn’t it the Bagpipes of Time? Or as my fellow columnist asks, the Charango of Time? Or the didgeridoo, erhu, or any other number of instruments? Here’s how the ocarina solidified its place as the most iconic instrument in gaming.
The ocarina is an ancient instrument, dating back about 12,000 years. Different cultures across the globe developed versions of the ocarina separately. One of China’s oldest instruments, the xun, is very similar to an ocarina and was commonly played in palaces for the nobility. Ocarinas were also of particular importance to Central and South American cultures, including Mayan, Aztec, and Incan societies, who often fashioned the instruments after animals and deities for ritual song and dance. Spanish conquistadors, Hernán Cortés among them, introduced the Mesoamerican ocarina to Europeans in the 1500s, where they achieved popularity but were viewed as toys.
In the mid-19th century, Italian brickmaker Giuseppe Donati redesigned the Aztecan ocarina to facilitate an expanded note range. He forged his invention from the fires of his brick oven, giving birth to the modern ocarina. We know the instrument by its Italian (Bolognese dialect) name today, which translates to “little goose” (believed to be so-called due to a resemblance to a goose’s body). While there are different styles of the ocarina, the type portrayed in Zelda games are known as transverse or “sweet potato” ocarinas, the type Donati propagated.
An Aztecan ocarina in the shape of a parrot, circa 1300-1521. Photo via Werner-Forman Archive.
How did the ocarina become the defining instrument of the Nintendo 64 classic? The creators knew they wanted to use music as a means to perform magic, but the ocarina wasn’t the first pick. Originally, Link was going to use a reed pipe made from grass to call his horse, but it was apparently too much trouble for the developers and was dropped. This idea was ultimately implemented in Twilight Princess with the Horse Grass and Hawk Grass items. So, the designers chose the ocarina instead. Shigeru Miyamoto, legendary creator of the Zelda series and other groundbreaking Nintendo games, explained in an interview: “I like international music such as Inca or Latin. I really wanted to put in an ocarina, it seemed really Zelda-esque.” Mr. Miyamoto did not elaborate on what he meant by the ocarina being “Zelda-esque,” but we can make some educated guesses.
First, the ocarina is an ancient instrument that served important roles in various culture’s ceremonies, including for royal performances. Such an eminent artifact could easily serve as the Hyrulean Royal Family’s hidden treasure. Second, even though ocarinas were heard in palace halls, they were also a common component of folk music for many living pastoral lifestyles. It would make sense, then, to use an ocarina on a farm or (Lon Lon) ranch. Third, ocarinas are small, do not require special tools to play or maintain, and are easily transported while traveling on long journeys (though this does not seem to be an issue for Link’s other items).
In fact, early hunters often carried ocarinas on their quests for food. Just as we can imagine our ancestors resting under a tree while playing a calming melody, we recall Link pausing to augment the soundtrack of his adventure around Hyrule with his entrusted heirloom.
Finally, traditional ocarinas are made from clay, a natural material. It is essentially playing a piece of the earth, and this instills a deep connection to the land. Because ocarinas were made in this manner in societies across the globe, they have both earthen and worldly qualities. These may be reasons Mr. Miyamoto had in mind for viewing the ocarina as the perfect accompaniment for a perilous adventure.
In addition, the Zelda series already had a history with the ocarina, appearing in previous installments of the Zelda series (in terms of chronological release date, not timeline). Link first acquires the instrument in A Link to the Past, although the English language versions of the game refer to the item as a “Flute.” This was due to a mistranslation from the Japanese word for ocarina, tsuchibue (kanji: 土笛), which translates literally to “earthen flute.” The ocarina appeared again in Link’s Awakening before being prominently featured in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Link obtains an ocarina once again in The Minish Cap. With its previous appearances, it seemed logical to rely once again on the ocarina.
Ocarinas as they appear in various Zelda titles, from left: “Flute” from A Link to the Past, Ocarina from Link’s Awakening, Fairy Ocarina and Ocarina of Time from Ocarina of Time, Ocarina of Time from Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D, and Ocarina of Wind from The Minish Cap.
One final reason the ocarina was chosen was that it could be designed to resemble the Nintendo 64 controller. If you look at the Ocarina of Time and a Nintendo 64 controller side by side, you can see that the four finger holes in the diamond shape on the ocarina correspond to the four C buttons on the controller. Similarly, the three finger holes where the ocarina player would place his/her left hand correspond to the A, B, and Start buttons. Even the Z button on the bottom of the controller mimics a finger hole on the underside of the ocarina. This design gives off the feeling that the player is actually fingering notes on the ocarina: a nice touch that lets us feel like virtuosos, or at least makes it more fun to just goof around on (a goal of the developers).
Ocarina of Time breathed new wind into the ocarina, inspiring generations of new players and revitalizing the ocarina crafting business. The ancient instrument found its way anew into common parlance as a result of the game and the designers’ decision to feature it prominently. Thanks to Ocarina of Time, the ocarina will hold a special place in gaming history and gamers’ hearts forever.