Friday, November 21, 2008

Ocarina of Time's 10th Anniversary

10 years ago, on November 11th 1998, simply one of the best games of all times was released in Japan, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Congratulations!

Still today Ocarina of Time is considered to be the best Zelda game, even the best video game of all times. A lot of childhood memories go along with a game that fascinated and moved us. With 7.6 million copies sold worldwide it's the best selling Zelda game so far, that got even re-released three times, two times one the Nintendo GameCube and once for the Virtual Console.

Ocarina of Time was the fifth game in the Zelda series, not counting the BS-X spin offs, LCD games, or inofficial games like the CD-i ones. But no one calls Ocarina of Time "Zelda V" – we basically stopped counting after Zelda II, because of the planned Zelda III for the SNES, which was cancelled and resulted in both A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening. Next to the original Zelda game and A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time is probably the game, which characterized the Zelda series the most. First let's take a look how the Zelda series was like before Ocarina of Time hit the shelves (main titles are bold and I ignored the LCD games):

The frequency confined itself to one release per year at the maximum. If you ignore the BS-X spin offs, there even occured pauses of four or five years in development and waiting time. Of course we didn't have any re-releases like today, except on the BS-X system, where the first BS Zelda was a 16-bit remake of the original The Legend of Zelda and there was even a downloadable version of "Triforce of the Gods" (A Link to the Past), but I don't know the exact date for that (and with "exact date" I mean the year). But more importantly, the big Zelda boom came with Ocarina of Time, as we will see later on. But what is it, which made this game so popular? Why is it that this games constantly hits top 3 places in "best gamer ever" votes? Why is this game a legend, while others are not?

Ocarina of Time was not only the first 3D Zelda, it was a revolutionary milestone in the history of video games. Even though it was based on Super Mario 64's 3D engine, it was not Miyamoto's goal just to create Super Mario 64 with a sword, like the original The Legend of Zelda game was not just Super Mario Bros. with a sword. Eiji Aonuma stated that the original goal was to create a 3D version of A Link to the Past and you can't deny the similarities between those games.

One important step for the conversion of Zelda into 3D was the so called Z-Targeting (or "L-Targeting" on the GameCube). With Z-Targeting it was possible to target an object, don't loose sight of it and strafe around it. All your attacks will automatically go into the direction of the targeted object, which was especially nice for distance attacks such like arrows. Also, the Z-Targeting was an easy way to adjust the camera right behind you, in case there weren't any targetable objects around. This technique of controls was innovative for its time and made navigating and operating in 3D environments much easier. It quickly became a standard in the industry and was even used in first person shooters, such like Metroid Prime.

The story was about showing the beginnings of Link, Zelda, Ganondorf, and even the Triforce itself. In its time Zelda fans weren't aware that there are different generations of Links and Zeldas, though A Link to the Past already introduced a different generation, so the story of Ocarina of Time was confusing at first and more looked like a reboot than anything else. The story starts with Link as kid, who was living among the tribe of Kokiri under the protecting aura of the giant Deku Tree, in the middle of the Lost Woods. But Link was different from the other Kokiri, because he didn't have a fairy. But on the day, where he finally was blessed with one, the Deku Tree send him on a mission to find princess Zelda and to fulfill his destiny...

For the role of the antagonist Nintendo chose to give Ganon a human form, Ganondorf Dragmire, the king of the Gerudo thieves. Rampaging the lands of Hyrule he was looking for the Triforce, a sacred relict created by the three goddesses – Din, Nayru and Farore – after creating the world, hidden inside the Sacred Realm. But Link and Zelda's attempt of stopping Ganondorf ended in a dreadful future, where Hyrule is suffering under the Ganondorf's tyranny. Link now has to travel through the times in order to stop Ganondorf and of course save princess Zelda.

Oh, well... I got carried away. Quite a story, but we all know that the story in Zelda never really was what mattered. Everything in Zelda is built around specific main gameplay ideas, even the story. For example, they invented the idea of the fairy, because they wanted to have an interactive pointer for the Z-Targeting. The time traveling was part of the game, because they wanted to show us Link in different ages. Originally, there were even plans to have him as an old man, who got strong powers and could lift rocks with his bare hands. But the most important aspect was creating the first 3D Zelda game. This influenced a lot of things. For example, they made Ganondorf not because it would be a cool story to have a human Ganon, they created him because a huge pig monster in 3D all the time would look ridiculous and not like a serious enemy.

What I liked especially was the vast feeling of freedom in this game. The first time when you leave the forests and enter Hyrule Field just feels so amazing, because unlike in Twilight Princess you don't have two rock walls on each side guiding your path to Hyrule Castle Town. No, you can go visit the farm, Kakariko, the Gerudo Valley, and Lake Hylia, where you already could get some heart pieces or other secrets. Non-linearity was still king here and in the second half of the game you could alter the order of the dungeons to your liking. Ignore the Forest Temple and play the Ice Cavern first? No problem, feel free to do so. (That way you could even enter the well inside the Forest Temple without releasing the water first.) Switch Fire and Forest Temple? No problem. Switch Fire and Water Temple? No problem. Switch Shadow and Spirit Temple? No problem. And the dungeons themselves could be solved in a very non-linear fashion, for example the "fan favorite" Water Temple.

Some of the items had to change, so they could work in the third dimension. For example the Magic Rods became now Magic Arrows and some items never made the jump into the third dimension, like the Cane of Somaria or the Magic Powder. But the new perspective made some entire new items possible like the Iron Boots, the Zora Armor, or two-handed swords. One special item was the Ocarina of Time, in the end the game was even named after it.

All the previous installments in the Zelda series featured a musical instrument, a simple flute or an ocarina. In The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past it was used for teleportation, in Zelda II to open certain paths, and in Link's Awakening to do all of these things and even solve special puzzles. Link's Awakening was the first game where you could play different songs on your flute, three altogether. In Ocarina of Time this was now stepped up with 13 different songs, all of them causing different magical effects. But you could also play freely on your ocarina, with Z, R and the analog stick you were able alter the tones and come up with your own songs. However, with the Ocarina of Time you could alter the time, summon rain, teleport, or call your horse. Some of these songs like "Saria's Song" became instant classics and still remain in our ears today.

Calling your horse is a good point: one of the most spectacular innovations in Ocarina of Time was Link's horse, Epona. With her you could quickly cross the vast fields of Hyrule and she became so popular, she starred in six later Zelda games (though you could only ride on her in three of them) and became an important part of the series.

Also, the high number of collectable items was very nice as well. Next to the for its time already high number of 36 Pieces of Heart, you could find up to 100 golden spiders, the so called "Gold Skulltulas". Hunting those was fun and I still remember the amazing ambience: Kakariko at night, the wind mill rattled and the cursed spiders rustled. It was awesome. Generally, the atmosphere in Ocarina of Time was great thanks to the use of atmospheric ambient sounds and the epic soundtrack of Koji Kondo, who managed to create the perfect score for every environment. Music, that people still love and enjoy today. It's timeless. And in my humble opinion only Majora's Mask with its intense and depressing ambience managed to outmatch the atmosphere of Ocarina of Time.

Ocarina of Time is THE must-have title of the entire Zelda series. It was groundbreaking in controls, presentation and world design for 3D games, and still represents the pinnacle of the Zelda series for a lot of Zelda fans. If you haven't played it until today, then get a copy NOW.

10 years are gone since the release of Ocarina of Time and a lot happened for the Zelda series. The Zelda series already is three times as big, not counting any spin offs or re-releases. Let's take a look how the series looked like after Ocarina of Time hit the shelves (European release dates):

The difference is remarkable. The high number of releases was enabled, because there was more than one development team working on Zelda simultaneously. Capcom's studio "Flagship" developed both Oracle games, Four Swords and The Minish Cap and therefore all new handheld Zelda games for six years. Nintendo EAD3 split into two teams, the big one, which worked on big 3D titles like The Wind Waker or Twilight Princess, and a smaller one. This smaller team then created both Four Swords Adventures and Phantom Hourglass and now probably is working on another Nintendo DS Zelda title.

Also, Nintendo assigned Vanpool to develop a Zelda spin-off, Freshly Picked: Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland. So, we had four different teams working on Zelda in the last ten years, making the large number of different releases possible. And of course the Zelda series recorded a variety of re-releases via bonus discs, the NES Classics series and the Virtual Console. The only empty years on this list are 2002 and 2008, but it was not empty in 2002 for Japan and the USA, where The Wind Waker and Four Swords were released before Europe.

This year probably is the first time since the mid 90's where Zelda fans don't know where they are going. The last time was before Ocarina of Time, so let's hope this is a good sign and Nintendo is working on something special for the Zelda series right now. Something that can achieve the same impact as Ocarina of Time had ten years ago.

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