I first played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when I was 12 years old–still very much a child. It was the first Zelda game I went through on my own, which was a very different kind of experience than trying and failing to penetrate the 8-bit dungeons of the series’ debut one week at a cousin’s cottage. Ocarina of Time, its colourful world rendered in (what was then) astoundingly full three-dimensions, was a more inviting kind of adventure. Its version of Nintendo’s grand monomyth dropped the player in a land where strange fantasy creatures and secret temples hid beneath placid lakes, behind cracked stone walls, and on plateaus that hung just out of reach overhead. Exploring and uncovering this world was the draw back in 1998.
Now, returning to it almost 20 years later, Ocarina of Time feels like a different game, appealing for very different reasons. After brushing away the cobwebs of nostalgia that covered the first few hours, Link’s journey to save Hyrule (yet again) from the evil Ganon+ is filled with less of a sense of environmental mystery–it’s tough to see beyond the mechanical framework of the world design as a grown-up–than a bit of commentary on the process of growing up.
The “time” part of Ocarina of Time didn’t make much of an impression on a younger version of myself. Turning into “adult” Link partway through the game was a neat gimmick, interesting in the same way that getting a horse to ride around the world was interesting. These time travel elements take on a new level of significance now, though, especially as someone in his late-20s revisiting an experience last played as a kid. Instead of a clunky Nintendo 64 controller and blocky CRT television, I played on a slick little handheld with 3D screen and always-on wireless internet access. Instead of guiding Link around during spare hours after school in my parent’s basement, I worked through the game before going to sleep in an apartment rented in a big city where none of my family lives.
Aside from the inherent weirdness of replaying a game your childhood self cherished and your present self is only coming back to out of idle curiosity, Ocarina of Time‘s narrative actively encourages nostalgic reminiscence. The first part of the game casts the player as a young version of Link, the elfish character all knobby-kneed and squeaking heroically in combat. After a plot turn that sees him falling into fantasy-style hibernation for seven years, he is recast as a young adult. This tall, lower-pitched Link emerges into a world that is physically the same as the one he left as a child, but is otherwise completely changed. While he was sleeping, the villainous Ganon has taken over as King and put the cutesy rock-people, anthropomorphic fish, and forest fairies of Hyrule under his thumb. The idyllic royal town is a smouldering wreck filled with zombie-things; the nearby mountain range is now topped off with a rumbling volcano.
Whereas the young Link set out on a fairly low-stakes adventure–collect some gems for a talking tree–the adult version of the character finds himself tasked with overthrowing Ganon, a power-mad dictator, and fighting for the lives of his imprisoned friends. The lighthearted tone that characterizes Ocarina of Time‘s opening act gives way to something darker here. No longer is Link playing at hero by hitting enemies with slingshots and sneaking into royal palaces. Instead, he’s vanquishing ancient evil, freeing captured pals from prison cells, and gathering the mystical underground militia he needs in order to take down a despot. Life and death are on the line as an adult whereas they weren’t during childhood. The gravity of Link’s responsibilities as a grown up are a lot more complicated than they were as a kid. It all works quite a lot like a parable for getting older–for losing innocence and learning how to (at least try to) overcome the assorted trials of adult life.
While the plot explicitly illustrates these themes, the game’s environmental design furthers them. On a surface, gameplay level, the adult Link can access places that his younger self could not, usually thanks to being stronger, bigger, or able to reach items that he couldn’t before. What’s more interesting, though, is how Ocarina of Time forces the player to revisit old locations that look strangely small as an older, larger character. Towns that seemed enormous and sprawling as a child feel tiny as an adult. Most striking is Link’s hometown, a little village nestled in the forest, that serves as the game’s introductory area. Beginning the game, the player has the sense that the ponds, tree-trunk walkways, and houses that fill the area contain all types of secrets. Ocarina of Time‘s first hour is defined by getting to know the village’s nooks and crannies–learning how to bypass the bully that gets in Link’s way as he tries to start his adventure. Upon returning to it as an adult, the mystery and large scale of the area vanishes. It’s tiny; toy-like. Here, the game evokes the nostalgia of going back to the parks and jungle gyms you played in as a child, only to find them miniscule. The places that captured our imagination as kids can turn out insignificant if we return to them.
There isn’t a lot of substance to Ocarina of Time‘s written plot, but it’s a game rich in abstract storytelling. I felt like I’d outgrown it as I entered my teens, finding myself drawn more to well-defined characters than archetypes and deliberate writing rather than atmospheric narrative. That’s likely why I assumed Ocarina of Time would still be little more than a fascinating relic of late ’90s game design. I thought that, like Zelda games at their best, it would only inspire the childlike sense of wonder that playing make-believe in a friend’s backyard can–anemic creeks becoming white water rapids and wooden swords turning to fearsome weapons. Instead, the game feels like a meditation on what had already, by the Nintendo 64 era, become a classic in digital fairy tales. Rather than content itself with a recreation of the same children’s adventure that defines Nintendo’s series, Ocarina of Time weaves the process of growing out of those stories into itself.
+ The mainstay antagonist’s desert-dwelling background and outsized villainy sure does come across a bit differently to an adult in 2015 than it did to a kid in 1998.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, and The Escapist. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.