I was ten years old back in 1998, and Nintendo released the Game Boy Color. There was already so much love for the Game Boy back in those days, but the Game Boy could only take the imagination so far. Limited to just four colors in varying shades of olive and black, games were still playable, but they had no real sense of visuals. When compared to games on the SNES, the games had to stand out on gameplay or else face the possibility of extinction. (Which I suppose was a good thing in many ways, but nevertheless). But the Game Boy Color was a ten year old’s dream. Now you could play in color… in the palm of your hand! Never mind that the Sega Game Gear had already done this seven years earlier. (Besides, it didn’t have any good games for it except Sonic. And the battery life sucked; seriously, only three hours of play using six batteries!? Ridiculous! But I digress). Finally we could play our portable Nintendo games in portable color. (You could have already played them in color if you owned the Super Game Boy adapter for the SNES, but you couldn’t take them with you on the go!)
The first Zelda remake
To boost popularity and sales of the Game Boy Color — not that they ended up needing help though — Nintendo remade a version of Link’s Awakening for the GBC at the end of the year. Called Link’s Awakening DX, with DX short for deluxe, it was essentially the same game as the 1993 version… but it featured a few minor changes. Oh, and don’t forget extra content, even an extra dungeon. But that the game was in color was in and of itself a big deal at the time. It’s hard to imagine nowadays when the few non-colored games you can find are artistic indie games like Limbo, but I remember thinking a Game Boy in color was the most awesome thing ever.
Until I played… that game. But one thing at a time.
Link’s Awakening DX was the first Zelda game to be remade in the United States and Europe with only the re-release of The Legend of Zelda in cartridge format for the Famicom to beat it in Japan. Taking after Super Mario All-Stars, a re-release of the first three Super Mario games, Link’s Awakening DX went above and beyond the call of duty to lure gamers who already owned the original title to buy it. Namely that was the secret Color Dungeon, a dungeon that you could only play using a Game Boy Color. Yes, you could actually play Link’s Awakening DX on an original Game Boy thanks to its dual-mode graphics, but the game could detect if you were playing in black and white thanks to a hardware switch and it wouldn’t let you into the new dungeon. The same sort of thing would be done later in the Oracle games by granting special features to those playing on the Game Boy Advance as well. The reward for beating the dungeon was pretty significant as well: a new suit of armor, coating Link in red or blue based upon your choice, which gave the player a permanent offense or defense upgrade much like the Piece of Power or the Guardian Acorn.
The only other major difference between the two versions was something that would become a Zelda trademark as well: the camera. It functioned differently from the Pictoboxes in both Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker since the game wasn’t in 3D, but it was a small little thing that, during certain key moments of the game, one of the characters would take your camera from you to snap a photograph of either a silly or sentimental scene… like Marin falling on top of Link after they jump down the Mabe Village well together. But otherwise, outside of the color, it was essentially the same game. No real differences in gameplay outside of the new items in the new dungeon; just straight up Link’s Awakening. But let’s face it; it’s one of the best portable Zeldas out there, so we didn’t mind.
Okay, so it’s time. That game. You all know exactly what I’m referring to.
Perhaps the most well-loved Zelda game of all
The behemoth of Zelda games, oftentimes hailed as the best game of all time. Just take a second to think about that. According to WikiAnswers, there are five million games in the world. Five million games, and this is the one that so many times takes the number one spot in polls and editorials across the globe; it even won an official Guinness World Record in 2008 for the highest rated game of all time. Not only that, but this title set a new standard for video games on so many levels. To realize the amount of fame this game has, I haven’t even mentioned the title or any of its features but you all know what game I’m talking about.
Taking the world by storm, Ocarina of Time released in November (or December if you lived in Europe like me or Australia) of 1998. Ocarina of Time was the first 3D Zelda game, so needless to say it would set several standards for the series. And after a five-year wait between Zelda games Ocarina of Time was the first experience with the Legend of Zelda series for many gamers, spawning a whole new generation of fans. In fact, back in ’98 and in the years soon thereafter, many people on Zelda forums would accidentally claim, “Why of course I’ve played the first Zelda game; Ocarina of Time is one of my favorites!” To this day all future Zelda games — games like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and yes even Skyward Sword — are compared against Ocarina of Time, perhaps fairly or unfairly so. However, what earlier games like The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past had not yet already done for Zelda, Ocarina of Time would cement the remainder of the “modern Zelda” characteristics into place.
One big standard the game set was the use of Z-targeting, a mode that would lock Link (and the camera) in the direction of his target. This feature was developed in part due to criticism in Super Mario 64 where navigating a 3D environment with only cursory depth perception into the screen was somewhat difficult. In addition, this solved the problem of having to perform camera manipulation in real-time while within melee range of enemies and even bosses. In addition to simplifying the camera controls, Z-targeting also altered Link’s movement, giving him special moves exclusive to the mode, such as the backflip and the jump strike, both of which greatly improved combat, making it more dynamic. This mechanic became so crucial to the series that many other games, and not just Zelda games, emulate it.
With respect to story, Ocarina of Time set a lot of trends in motion as well. It was Ocarina of Time that really introduced the sheer variety of friendly races that you see in modern Zelda games as, before this, the only non-human friendly races were limited to fairies, the animals of Link’s Awakening’s Animal Village and The Legend of Zelda’s single friendly Moblin. And the races of Ocarina of Time were incredibly diverse as well; they weren’t just elves, dwarves, hobbits and other classical fantasy races. Instead, Nintendo forged its own path. We were introduced to the Gorons, rock-men that are now iconic to the Zelda franchise. The mystical Sheikah were also introduced in Ocarina of Time and have intrigued fans ever since, not to mention giving us the Gerudo, finally revealing to us the origin of Zelda’s main villain Ganon as the Gerudo king of thieves Ganondorf Dragmire. Ocarina of Time would also include the fish-people Zora, also a permanent and popular mainstay of the series, as well as the forest-children Kokiri, who, much to people’s chagrin, have yet to make a reappearance in any Zelda game since (unless you count Wind Waker’s Koroks or brief appearance of Fado, the deceased Sage of Wind).
Ocarina of Time was also the first Zelda game to really give players a vast array of memorable characters. While there were a few notable characters in each of the games prior, Ocarina of Time really shined the spotlight onto the new races by singling out one individual from each of the game’s six primary races, those that would eventually become the first six Sages. And though Link’s Awakening had already begun to do this, it was from Ocarina of Time’s focus on characterization that allowed Hyrule’s story to be told much more strongly through actual narrative instead of simply gameplay. While Link’s Awakening still had its share of narrative surrounding the mythos of the Wind Fish, Ocarina of Time plunged deeply into the backstory of the entire world of Hyrule, giving us an origin story about the three goddesses Din, Nayru, and Farore as well as revealing small doses of Ganondorf’s own past, eventually reaching its peak when Link is forced to fight Ganondorf’s twin surrogate mothers Koume and Kotake.
It was Ocarina of Time’s focus on characterization that allowed Hyrule’s story to be told through actual narrative instead of gameplay.
Also, Ocarina of Time would become the first game that would give Princess Zelda herself a much more significant presence in the game. Though Ocarina of Time was not the first game to initially imbue one of the Triforce pieces to the princess, it would be the first game where she didn’t simply appear as the damsel in distress. Even at the young age of 10, she had seen through Ganondorf’s transparent attempts to seduce the king into trusting him, raising the alarm to her Sheikah nurse Impa. Zelda even evades capture for seven long years by waiting for Link’s fated return in the form of Sheik, a Sheikah youth that eventually guides Link along the stages of his quest to slay Ganon. Sheik eventually plays a very interesting role in the fan community because debates still rage to this day whether or not Sheik was physically male or female despite Nintendo’s insistence that Sheik is female, and this becomes a big deal in both artwork and fanfiction.
Regardless, Ocarina of Time laid the groundwork for many Zelda games to come, including The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword. After all, it’s the only game in the franchise to have three distinct sequels (even if one of them came out earlier).
But the impact of Ocarina of Time didn’t just end there. One of the most significant, shocking, and unique things that it introduced was the concept of the split-timeline ending. Time travel had been in fiction, movies, and even videogames prior to this point, but Ocarina of Time is perhaps the first and only game to ever fracture its entire franchise of games into two separate and distinct timelines. Of course, this actually was not fully understood or even revealed until many years later, not even being clearly discussed until even after Wind Waker’s reveal due to Nintendo’s long-held secrecy on the Zelda timeline. However, Zelda is perhaps the only game to take a vague ending and treat it as not one, not two, but three separate endings in one, with one set of games exploring the consequences of one decision, one set of games following the opposite decision, and one set shunted into a hypothetical what-if where the hero was killed in the line of duty.
Of course, back in 1998 (and even for several years still), gamers would be arguing not over a Single versus Multiple Timeline Theory but… a Single versus Multiple Link Theory; whether or not the five Zelda games up until that point were performed by the same Hero of Time. Yes, even though the whole multiple timeline hubbub had yet to start, Ocarina of Time — or perhaps really the introduction of the Internet to the fan community — began to bring up the issue of the Zelda timeline as a subject of fierce debate. And even to this day, despite Nintendo having finally revealed its take on the overall history of Hyrule, fans will constantly argue over that interpretation and create their own rendition of events.
The other popular forum debate from that time was all about love. It was Ocarina of Time that, much like Final Fantasy VII, brought shipping debates to the Zelda franchise. With so many available women to choose from in the game, many forum-goers were quick to choose their favorite female lead and automatically pair Link with her… and then defend their arbitrary decision tooth and nail to anyone who disagreed. Part of this actually stems from the fact that, outside of Skyward Sword (and even then they remained rather tongue-in-cheek about it), Nintendo has yet to really be completely serious about romance and relationships with Link in the Zelda series so far. However many an artwork has been drawn and fanfiction penned as if to write treatises and proofs of concept as to why Link should belong with Malon over Zelda, Saria over Nabooru, and why Link should never marry Ruto.
Ocarina of Time would prove to be so popular that Nintendo had official mangas of the game created. Though Zelda comics had been released by Valiant from 1990 to 1993, it was Ocarina of Time that really created what most people think of when they hear about Zelda in comic book form. In Japan, the Ocarina of Time manga was released by Akira Himekawa who later made more Zelda mangas such as Majora’s Mask, A Link to the Past, and The Minish Cap. Sadly, English audiences had to wait a whole decade for any sort of translation. Regardless, fans were really happy about it and it only further motivated Zelda fans to make their own Zelda fiction and art.
As much of a success as Ocarina of Time was, it also came with a curse. The Japanese developers constantly fell back on Ocarina of Time when making a new Zelda game, not wanting to let go of the things that made the best game of all time. For example, in both The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, you need to gather three artifacts in a forest, fire, and water dungeon in order to get the Master Sword and finally defeat Ganondorf. In a 2009 interview, Eiji Aonuma said he felt like he had been remaking Ocarina of Time for years, and that a more fundamental change was needed. That change has come slowly as games in the franchise have continued to experiment by doing something different, but it’s quite possible that, later this year, Zelda Wii U will defy the Zelda Formula and reinvent the game that Ocarina of Time caused us to be so impassioned for.
The developers constantly fell back on Ocarina of Time when making new zelda games. Eiji Aonuma felt like he had been remaking it for years.