It is a well–documented fact that Ocarina of Time started with a design centered on Ganon’s castle as a Mario 64-style hub world akin to Peach’s castle. As development wore on, that changed and Link’s first foray into 3D was taking shape as something even more groundbreaking than Mario’s. Of all the brilliant innovations Ocarina of Time bestowed upon gaming as a whole, few are as important to the Zelda series itself than its depiction of Hyrule Field. What makes the first iteration of Hyrule Field so special is the combination of its design function, the suggestion of more than meets the eye, and the pleasure had at simply being in the field itself.
Exploration by design
The more Ocarina of Time becomes part of gaming history, the more necessary it is to impart a sense of context for some of its design choices. While we’re spoiled with enormous, sprawling worlds in modern games, in 1998, the concept of free-form exploration was still fresh. Plenty of games had large hub worlds before Ocarina of Time. Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Spyro spring to mind. What set Ocarina of Time apart was the sheer scope and size of Hyrule Field.
First, from a functional design perspective, Hyrule Field plays a fairly simple role. It is the “hub” of the game. Most all of the quests and dungeons occur in places that stem from its central location, but the field itself is relatively calm and free of danger. There is little to do in Hyrule Field other than move around and occasionally swing your sword. The field gives the player room to try new moves, experiment with the (still relatively new) 3D topography, and hunt for secrets. In this regard, it is not too different from Peach’s castle or the serpentine overworld of Banjo-Kazooie. However, Hyrule Field is teeming with life brimming just below its surface (sometimes literally).
Ocarina of Time’s day and night cycle goes a long way toward making the world of Hyrule feel lived-in and natural. And for those who are out exploring Hyrule Field by moonlight, a sudden noise precedes the startling appearance of a Stalchild. The first time this happens, it is shocking and surprising. These enemies aren’t very strong, and they aren’t very smart, but they effectively convey the sense that anything could happen while adventuring in Hyrule and danger lies just around each corner.
“the mere suggestion of something just over the horizon, just under the surface, just beyond that ridge, is gripping.”
As the game progresses, Hyrule Field becomes home to a variety of NPCs and enemies like the running man, ghostly Poes, and the odd Peahat or two. Even though there isn’t much to do or see in Hyrule Field, the mere suggestion of something just over the horizon, just under the surface, just beyond that ridge, is gripping. The density of enemies, NPCs, and even trees and other structures in Hyrule Field is what sets it apart from lesser open hub zones in early 3D games. Throwing enemies at Link haphazardly wouldn’t let the player relax and simply exist in this world. The secrets dotted around the space of the field are just tantalizing enough that they fueled rumor mills for years. The design of the space itself encourages exploration and nudges players along to see what is out there due to the differences in its physical appearance, enemy density, and NPC encounters that occur throughout each day’s cycle.
Epona shows the way
By modern standards, Hyrule Field may seem barren, but for gamers in 1998—experiencing this space for the first time—it was positively vibrant. In an “Iwata Asks” from the development of Ocarina of Time’s 3DS remake, this exchange between Eiji Aonuma and designer Makoto Miyanaga (who designed this first iteration of Hyrule Field) is telling:
Aonuma: “We went around the field looking for places where there wasn’t anything and put something at each one.”
Miyanaga: “We’d be like, ‘This area’s a bit empty, so I’ll make a hole and put something in it.’ (laughs)”
Iwata: “In other words, you made Hyrule Field as a basis for everyone to build their ideas upon, and that’s how it turned out to be that kind of space.”
Hyrule Field may function for players as a hub space, but for the designers, it became a testing ground—somewhere ideas could take off and possibly take root as series mainstays.
The most important idea that took root in this phase of development had four hooves and a saddle. In fact, Epona came first. In the course of development, still in its castle-as-hub phase, Director Yoshioka Koizumi added a horse. Writing for Kotaku, Mark Serrels notes that Koizumi-san spearheaded inclusion of Epona. It was a revelatory moment for the design team. Riding a horse in 3D space was glorious, and Hyrule Field was “built in [Epona’s] wake.” The grand field that was the centerpiece of Hyrule came together at first as a means to experience the joy of riding Epona.
Exploring is part of Zelda’s DNA, and having Epona “is a way to inspire players to go places just because it is cool to do so.” Ocarina of Time also uses game design to make sure players appreciate just how cool riding Epona is. When you first encounter Epona, Link is still a child and Epona just a foal. You can’t ride her, and though the game hints strongly enough that you will at some point, it has to wait for the time being. Thus young Link is forced to traverse the expanse of Hyrule Field on foot. Thankfully, the first dungeons are clumped together such that players aren’t explicitly forced to travel the entire breadth of Hyrule Field on foot. If, like me, you tried to walk the perimeter of Hyrule Field as young Link searching for secrets, you can appreciate how large it really is.
Once Link is an adult, he can take charge of Epona, freeing her from the confines of Lon Lon Ranch and freeing himself to roam with more speed and style than before. Future iterations of Hyrule Field would add new mechanics, new design tweaks, and new landscapes, but none have captured the essence of freedom and possibility quite like Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time.
Far afield from Hyrule Field
The Wind Waker famously flooded the world, and while sailing in the King of Red Lions is an absolute blast, traveling the overworld doesn’t share that same spark of mystery found in Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field. Finding an island is exciting, but even that becomes rote by the end of the game. The much-maligned late-game quest that sends Link island hopping around the overworld in search of Triforce shards is indicative of the main problem of this iteration of Hyrule Field: It feels utterly, depressingly necessary in a way that stanches the flames of exploration and adventure.
Twilight Princess wisely returns the series to familiar ground, but the growth of Hyrule Field in this game makes traversing it more irritating than exciting. While riding Epona feels blazing fast in this game, one can’t help but think the developers were making up in speed what they had lost in functional design. Little about Twilight Princess’ Hyrule Field conveys the joy of being able to simply ride through this landscape. Granted, that may be in part to the game’s overall darker tone, but other areas are pleasurable to simply be in. Ocarina of Time took a mostly empty Hyrule Field and made it fun, and Twilight Princess inverts that equation: It litters Hyrule Field with enemies to fight, things to discover, and a glut of inconsequential secrets to discover as Wolf Link such that the overabundance of things to do fails to differentiate it from other areas of the game. Simply put–it is no respite for the weary adventurer.
Skyward Sword has some of the most ingenious dungeons of all the console Zelda titles, but the iteration of Hyrule Field it offers is among the worst offenders in terms of capturing the essence of the field as established in Ocarina of Time. The sky is almost entirely empty outside of a few points of interest. Thanks in part to motion controls, flying your loftwing is imprecise and taxing. What could have been a superb take on riding Epona through the open fields instead turns into a test of patience. Here, the design of Skyloft’s cloudy expanse makes explicit the connections between the hub world and the other areas in a way that calls attention to the fragmented nature of the game’s areas. Though “connected” by the sky, the areas in Skyward Sword feel entirely segregated from one another due to the design of its central hub space. Instead of offering players a coherent world, the open portals to the surface areas stymie exploration and instead encourage players to speed for their destination instead of basking in the journey.
“the space itself encourages the player to see what is out there.”
Breath of the Wild seems to adhere closest to the design ethos that gave us the original Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. But rather than have a central hub that branches into other areas for Link to explore, the entire map is informed by what makes Ocarina’s Hyrule Field so special. It is not densely populated with NPCs, enemies, and secrets, but those that appear do so with enough frequency and purpose that they are a reason to go exploring in and of themselves. The topographical design of the space itself encourages the player to see what is out there. The world itself is rife with small details that simply being there is a pleasure without any objective necessarily in place.
The use of Hyrule Field and functionally similar places in both Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker serve to obscure areas of the map and make exploration a necessity for progress. This mandatory exploration is antithetical to the spirit of the original Hyrule Field, though. In Twilight Princess, the field serves as a central zone, but the other areas are tangentially connected to it. The appearance of shortcuts through the overworld–something present but not explicitly necessary in Ocarina of Time–allow the player to skip around the edges of the map, avoiding traveling through the heart of Hyrule Field. The functionality of Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess is closer to that of Ocarina of Time, but it feels like an obligatory part of the map that isn’t special in its own right. Breath of the Wild serves up an entire map of spaces that are functionally similar to the heart of the original iteration of Hyrule Field.
Hyrule Field will always be a special place, and while each iteration offers unique attributes that add to the mythos of the series and give players something new to experience, the first iteration of Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time stands as the most important and influential on the series as it moved into 3D. By giving players a space to simply roam freely, it became an iconic part of Zelda games because it represents so well what has always been special about Zelda games: The sense that there is always something just over the horizon.