One of the most memorable moments from Ocarina of Time is busting out of Lon Lon Ranch on the back of your newly tamed steed, Epona, to venture on horseback across the vast Hyrule Field. Link rides Epona to freedom after the ornery ranch hand, Ingo, locks the ranch gate to prevent Link’s escape even though our hero fairly wins Epona in a race. As it turns out, Ingo is not the only character from whom Link has taken Epona. In fact, Epona was originally going to belong to none other than Nintendo’s poster plumber, Mario.
Epona, or a horse like her, was supposed to be a part of the critically acclaimed Nintendo 64 launch title, Super Mario 64. The development team had planned to include a horse in the game, driven by Zelda and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s love for Western films and memories of using aluminum cups to make galloping sound effects as children. The team was unable to work out the kinks before release, even with a delayed launch date.
The idea was set aside until master developer Yoshiaki Koizumi switched from his work on Super Mario 64 to Ocarina of Time. Koizumi explained that he was certain they would use a horse in Ocarina of Time, so he transferred his previous work to the new project. Eiji Aonuma, current producer of the Zelda series, remembered originally referring to the horse as “Ao,” something the rest of the development team doesn’t seem to remember. (I’m not sure how Ao translates in this instance. It could possibly refer to a “bluish-green color” or perhaps “hollyhock,” a type of flowering plant with importance in Japanese culture.) It was Koizumi, however, who dubbed the horse Epona, after the Celtic mythological goddess of horses and fertility.
If a horse had been featured in Super Mario 64, it is possible that Ocarina of Time would have been made without Epona, as Nintendo prides itself on not being too repetitive. It is hard to understate the difference this would have made. No escape from Lon Lon Ranch. No spending all your rupees on insufferable mini-games like the Horseback Archery Range. Traversing Hyrule Field solely on foot would be arduous and tedious. The iconic title screen featuring Link and Epona galloping through the night never would have been. Perhaps not appearing in Ocarina of Time would have meant no roles for Epona in subsequent Zelda titles.
Even if a horse had been featured in both games, having one in Super Mario 64 would have stolen Epona’s thunder in Ocarina of Time. Making the majestic leap over Lon Lon Ranch’s fence may not have etched the special memories it did for many of us if Mario had already done something similar.
In the end, Epona’s home ended up being in Hyrule. I think many of us feel that this turned out for the best. Plus, Epona and Yoshi both in the Mushroom Kingdom? Come on Mario, that’s just selfish.