Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 33, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Zelda game that changed everything still holds up today, even if it's been surpassed multiple times within the genre it help spawn.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The true testament to the excellence of the Nintendo 64’s Ocarina of Time is that, 23 years later, it can still be sitting here, ranked this highly, on a list of Nintendo’s greatest achievements. These rankings, I hope notably, are divorced from nostalgia and the importance of a game, to instead focus on what works about a game, in the here and now, and why it should still be enjoyed. And yet, without the benefit of the considerable nostalgia attached to it, without giving credit for how immense its influence is and was, Ocarina of Time still manages to make it to number 33 on this top 101.

That’s saying something, even if your immediate reaction to its placement might signal otherwise. Consider that the original Super Mario Bros. didn’t even make the list: if you weighed importance and nostalgia for these rankings, you could construct an argument for it being number one overall, but no one needs to read another ranking designed like that, so you won’t do so my by hand. Super Mario 64 was written about here months and months ago, despite its own importance to the history of video games. Ocarina of Time, though, remains just outside the top 25 or so things Nintendo has ever put their name on. It’s still a wonderful experience to this day, on its own merits, with age barely slowing it down. The only thing that’s really impacted my view of Ocarina of Time is that Nintendo kept making video games in the decades since its arrival, and some of them are better. A few of those games are other Zelda titles, which “hurt” Ocarina’s placement more than anything else.

Ocarina of Time is relatively simplistic in its design and goals compared to those 3D Zelda games that followed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Simpler can be a positive, he says, while making a face about Skyward Sword’s needless complexity. Of course parts of it are simple, in a relative sense: the game was translating the 2D Zelda experience into 3D, and operated under the assumption that you had never played anything quite like this before. Because you had not! No one had! The first three dungeons can feel a little hand-holdy at times, but even today, it doesn’t feel like a condescension. It feels like the kind of design Nintendo has excelled at for decades, where they use the beginning of a game as an extended tutorial that doubles as enjoyable gameplay: it’s providing you the tools to succeed later on, when the developers send you out into the world on your own, and you feel not only like you can handle going it alone because of the initial gameplay, but you want to, because it managed to suck you in.

They still use this kind of gameplay-as-tutorial device in Zelda today, as they did with the initial plateau in Breath of the Wild, and it’s a holdover from the system introduced in the 2D Link to the Past. It’s a real if it ain’t broke thing they got going there.

What little was broken in 1998’s Ocarina of Time was fixed when it received a 3DS remaster in 2011. The graphical overhaul is the most apparent — Ocarina of Time was never an ugly game, as its style lent itself extremely well to the N64’s capabilities and more than made up for whatever issues the polygon limitations of the day presented. However, as one of the titles released in the first two years of the system, as one of the games that didn’t see any improvement from the memory Expansion Pak, it has aged worse, visually, than many of the games that released on the 64 at a later date, including the other Zelda title that required the Expansion Pak to work.

The 3DS edition kept the art style of the original N64 release, but utilized the considerable horsepower of the handheld to create what is still, 10 years later, beautiful. Especially with the 3D slider set to high: the 3DS only had so many games where 3D was a necessity for gameplay or the game was built around that trick of the eye, but one thing the option did have going for it was creating situations where the 3D effects allowed what was on the screen to really pop, giving it a level of depth and charm and beauty that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Ocarina of Time 3D isn’t necessarily “flat” with the 3D slider turned down, but it definitely loses something special. It’s stunning with it on, and not in a “for a handheld” sense. Games were capable of beauty before high definition, and even the non-HD ones in the HD era were capable of it, too. This series of N64 remasters that the 3DS had all qualify.

It also took advantage of other 3DS tools, like allowing you to aim the bow or hookshot by moving your system, rather than the N64’s single analog stick. You can still use analog controls if you prefer, but at this point, the gyroscopic bow is my favorite kind in Zelda’s long history, especially since the 3DS version has a very easy centering reset: just one press of a button and you’re centered once more.

Maybe most significant, though, is how your inventory was overhauled. The 3DS has more buttons than the N64, and it has a touch screen. Swapping your inventory out is as easy as tapping the touch screen a couple of times, but you also have touch screen-specific inventory slots that allow you to hold onto more tools at a time than you could on the N64. This might sound like a little thing, but consider how often you have to swap items and tools out in Zelda games. You do that considerably less often, and it frees you up to spend more time playing instead of managing. Improved pacing is almost always a plus, especially when it doesn’t involve fundamentally changing some beloved aspect of a game.

I say “maybe” most significant, because everyone hates the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time, and the 3DS version revamped it. The temple is not different, so don’t worry about that if you’re concerned about preserving what is: it’s just that the 3DS version decided to clearly label some doors and paths to make it easier for you to distinguish between them, and better understand the flow of the place. It’s still the goddamn Water Temple, of course, but now, at least, you can better figure out why it is you screwed up or got turned around.

Like with Kirby Super Star and its Ultra component, Ocarina of Time was making this list regardless of whether it ever got a remaster. The 3DS iteration certainly helped do away with most of the age-related issues that could have been lobbed at Ocarina, though, and proved, maybe more convincingly than any of us could have with words, just how strong the foundations of this landmark title remained all that time later.

The dungeons remain excellent, notwithstanding the Water Temple: the first few are simple, straightforward affairs, as previously mentioned, but that was by design. And the reason you’re able to puzzle your way through the dungeons of the future Link is hoping to avoid coming to pass is because of the education the early ones gave you on how the world works. The story was strong enough to launch the entire idea of a Legend of Zelda timeline that needed parsing to understand just what corner of the universe subsequent (and past) releases were taking place in.

It was also sensible and logical enough that it allowed for a direct sequel, Twilight Princess, featuring an entirely different Link: something Nintendo has not done with any of their other Zelda games. Usually, direct sequels involve the Link who defeated Ganon in a certain age moving on to non-Ganon-related adventures, like OoT’s link heading to Clock Town in Majora’s Mask, or Link to the Pasts’ titular hero setting sail in Link’s Awakening. Nintendo did something different for Twilight Princess, though, more directly tying the reemergence of Ganon in Hyrule to the events of Ocarina and its divergences of time, allowing for a sequel that took place in a completely different age with a different Link. The existence of Twilight Princess and its story are buoyed by the existence and story of Ocarina of Time, and vice versa. It is, to me, like Return of the Jedi being a more enjoyable movie because Revenge of the Sith exists: they’re enjoyable on their own, but the narrative ties that bind them also improve them, even if one came out and existed as is before the other was ever conceived.

Ocarina of Time is not without its faults, but they’re the kind you bring up only in comparison to other Zelda games. It’s not quite as open as it purported to be or felt in 1998: it’s actually a very linear experience with a veneer of open-world play attached. Sure, you can ride Epona around all day and night if you want, heading wherever you want, but there isn’t necessarily anything you can do with that freedom besides exist. Later 3D Zeldas did a much better job of either convincing you the experience was truly open, whether be it in the choices you could make in how and where to spend your time, or the things you could find yourself doing thanks to your curiosity. Well, later 3D Zelda games that weren’t Skyward Sword, which has this same problem, only to the point that it’s not brought up just in relation to other Zelda games.

Ocarina of Time didn’t and doesn’t need to be “truly” open to remain great, to still be highly enjoyable all this time later. It mastered what it set out to be: a linear experience with an engaging story, world, and some open-world aesthetics to make it all feel bigger than it truly was. It’s nearly as enjoyable now in 2021 as it was in 1998, and it’s a pretty short list of things that you can say that about, and I don’t just mean in games.

It’s relatively easy to find yourself a copy of Ocarina of Time these days. The N64 version isn’t exactly cheap, whether you’re talking about an actual N64 cartridge or the not-for-resale-but-sold-anyway promotional disc Nintendo gave away to Wind Waker pre-order customers that included Ocarina of Time as well as a Master Quest edition of the game. However, you can get a digital copy of it for $10 on the Wii U, or you can buy the 3DS remaster for about half the price you might find the N64 cartridge on sale for. You might want to hurry on that last bit, though, since the 3DS is no longer being supported, and it’s only a matter of time before that version of the game is harder to come by, too. It’s absolutely worth diving into in that format if you have a 3DS and somehow didn’t play this remaster yet: it’s the definitive version of a classic, especially if you crank up that 3D slider.

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