A word of warning: this piece starts off on a heck of a tangent getting into my personal history with the game, as I don't think it's possible to talk about how I feel about it without that context. This isn't a review so much as an essay, and it's as far from impartial as one can get. I don't think I would be very good at writing an impartial review if I tried. So I didn't try.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the first video games I recall finishing on my own as a child. I grew up with two older siblings and would often play multiplayer games with them, or start (and not actually finish) other single-player games; generally if anyone actually BEAT a game it was one of the older siblings, and I would be either spectator or 2nd player. Which I thoroughly enjoyed, but taking the agency of gaming into my own hands was an experience of its own, and for that reason Ocarina of Time was very special to me.
As a child with undiagnosed ADHD I relied on familiarity for comfort. I only played this game in the first place because I'd seen my sibling do it first, and after I did beat it once, I kept coming back to it because I recognized it. I played it over, and over, and over. I talked to the same NPC's each time until I had most of their dialogue memorized. I put off the same dungeons I didn't like by doing the same sidequests. I jumped off random cliffs and tried to get the camera to look through walls when I got bored of the game, because it was familiar and I liked it, but I was tired of playing it properly. My brain became its own personalized wiki around the pieces of this game I knew... not that "game wikis" existed at the time.
Playing it in this particular way, I had a very specific opinion of it.
It was my first Zelda, so to me, it defined what "Zelda" was. Zelda was a set of goalposts provided that I was free to follow or ignore as I saw fit. Zelda was being Blank Slate McProtag with a grand, magical destiny to claim, not a grounded character with a personal story to tell. Zelda was using the power of music and a Big F*cking Sword to smite evil and save the world. Zelda was growing from fairy boy to Hero of Time and riding around a big field on a horse. Zelda had a lot of NPC's telling me what to do, and Zelda let me just completely ignore all of them until I felt like following directions.
And I spent a lot of my time completely ignoring directions. I didn't actually like any of the dungeons. I just hated some more than others. I hated the water temple because it was confusing to me and it was very punishing if you make a misstep (whoops, shouldn't have raised the water level? time to re-change it 2 more times to fix that). I hated the shadow temple because it was scary (DISEMBODIED HANDS FALLING FROM THE CEILING THIS IS THE MOST TERRIFYING THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN THE HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMES). I could easily list dozens of things that I hated about every dungeon. So I never went straight to them when I was supposed to.
Dungeons--you know, the bulk of the gameplay in an action-adventure game--were these annoying things I had to trudge through to play the game, and it was the game that I liked. Which sounds counter-intuitive as an adult, but it was absolutely how I felt as a child.
But, begrudgingly, I did them anyway... sooner or later. I did the water temple because I felt sad for the Zoras frozen in ice and wanted to save them. I did the fire temple because I felt sad for the imprisoned Gorons and wanted to save them. I did the shadow temple because I missed the music in Kakariko Village and the rain felt depressing. The game told me what was wrong, and what I had to do to fix it, so I eventually did the dungeons I hated because there were fictional people counting on me.
(I also did a lot of NOT fixing things, and instead picking up random rocks on the overworld looking for grottos, and throwing bombs at random walls, and harassing cuccos from my invincible horse. Don't get me wrong, the people could wait, it's not like the game punishes you for taking your sweet time. But... well, at some point I would get bored of my procrastination, and do what I had to do to save the world or whatever.)
It's entirely possible that this game was my Favorite Zelda for a very long time simply because it was the first one I played. My inclination toward the familiar was an ENORMOUS bias in its favor, so other Zeldas that were different in... virtually any respect, were obviously worse and un-Zelda-like.
But there were definitely things I loved about it, things that made it my favorite, other than its familiarity. Maybe this game shaped my tastes to suit it; maybe I was drawn to it because of these preferences. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. Whatever the case, I played the game repeatedly for years despite hating its dungeons because there was so much else about it I was wholly obsessed with.
I loved the way it brought attention to its music. I was already taking music lessons from a young age so I was developing an ear for it, and being able to hear the link (lololol) between "Saria's Song" and the background music you hear in the Lost Woods... it gave that music a very special identity, a context and meaning. These melodies were simple for my young ear to reproduce on cello or piano if I wanted to, and I could even play them in the game on its own digital instrument. (Don't tell my cello teacher this, but I probably spent significantly longer learning how to tilt the control stick to play songs on the virtual ocarina than I spent practicing cello scales.)
A decade or so later, I gained the vocabulary to describe what I loved so much about the music in Ocarina of Time. The term is "diegetic music," music that is audible and perceivable as music within the context of a work. This game gave me a magical musical instrument and let me use the power of music to do magical things. I was a magical musician in this game! AND I had a sword!!! Literally the perfect video game.
It was more than just the music, of course. I loved the visuals as well. I would sit in the middle of Lon Lon Ranch in first-person view staring at Malon for hours so I could draw her and her stupid hairline on binder paper leftover from school. (I would sing along to her awful voice, too, but only when no one was around to overhear.) I liked the interesting patterns at the hem of her dress, the design on the panel hanging from her belt as an adult. After obtaining a spiritual stone or a temple medallion I would leave it on screen, with Link standing there holding it up long enough for his arms to get quite tired, so I could trace down its design. I took personal offense when people drew the Kokiri Emerald backwards. I felt like a genius when I realized the pattern on the back of the Deku Shield matched the golden part of the emerald. The game had an entire language of images that I was completely enamored with, and it was all so bright and colorful.
I guess I liked the story, too? It's hard to say definitively because I don't have any specific memories about that. I definitely enjoyed the writing, though. I liked the unique dialogue telling me about the relationship between the bald guy, the carpenter, the potion grandma, and the cucco lady ("her name is NOT Anju, she's DIFFERENT from the character in Majora's Mask, YOU WOULDN'T CALL MALON "CREMIA" - me). I liked talking to people and learning about the world. It gave me the chance to feel like I was really experiencing a whole, more fantastic world than the real one, where magic is real and a horse teleports to you if you play a song on your magic wind instrument. Among other things.
I was engaging with this game more as a multimedia artwork than as a game, but I was having a very good time, so what does it matter if maybe that wasn't supposed to be the point? I loved the music and the visuals and the worldbuilding, and I learned how to play it so I could experience these. That is what I meant, as a kid, when I would say that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was my favorite Zelda game. I didn't give too much of a hoot about Ganondorf's characterization or the temple design of the Bottom of the Well, I just thought Hyrule seemed pretty dang neat and I wanted to live in it for a while.
Unfortunately, at some point or another, I started to do this very hard thing called Growing Up. I resisted this thing for as long as I could, and to an extent I am still resisting it, but over time it did start winning the battle. As it did so, my perspective on gaming and other media began to evolve.
I won't do a disservice to my younger self by pretending to remember all of my different opinions and the various justifications for them over the course of my life so far. Ocarina of Time fluctuated between my favorite, to my second-favorite just under Majora's Mask, to my favorite, to "I love it but it's not the best", to favorite again, etc. I think it spent most of its time just under Majora's Mask, because there reached a point where I'd played Ocarina of Time so much that no amount of love for its visuals and sound and world could make up for the fact that it was getting stale. Majora's Mask felt much more rewarding for me when I would replay it over and over again and people moved and said different things and time really passed. I wanted a world that felt alive, and there was no question to me that Majora's Mask felt more alive.
So I gradually fell away from Ocarina of Time. I had it basically memorized anyway, and the NPC's never moved like they do in Majora's Mask, so what was the point? When Ocarina of Time 3D came out I was briefly very excited for it, but I wanted it to feel new again so I did a 3-hearts no-lens-of-truth "challenge run" off and on over the course of a few years, and that was as much as I played it again for a long time. Sure, the visuals were nice by comparison, but I still knew the game by heart.
That was in 2015. The next time I picked up Ocarina of Time 3D was last year, in 2020, over 5 years later, and probably double that many since the last time I'd played it all the way through in one go. So at age 27, I played a video game that had been everything to me as a kid, a game that I once knew better than the back of my hand, but now with only a vague recollection of its contents and an entirely different perspective.
It was the freshest eyes I've had on it since the first time I ever played it. It is probably the freshest eyes I'll ever have on it again.
Currently, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (3D) is without a doubt my favorite Legend of Zelda game, and one of my favorite video games I've ever played. This playthrough convinced me. I know that opinion may fluctuate again in the future, but that matters a lot less to me than expressing how much I love it right now, in this moment.
A side-effect of my Growing Up is that I don't get immersed in video game worlds like I used to. I'm unable to pass hours at a time just walking around a fictional town and pretending I live there. I place a lot more weight on gameplay, because if a game isn't fun, I am not going to spend much time playing it. I'm not scared of polygonal hands falling from the ceiling, especially given that they're extremely easy to dodge and easier to kill. Lastly, I've developed a habit of over-analyzing media in a way that prooobably hinges on "total bullsh*t" to others, but is significant to me.
So I was playing Ocarina of Time decidedly differently. I was actually following the directions given to me in the game, taking note of dungeon design elements that impressed or interested me, and deriving my own interpretation of the narrative as conveyed by story, gameplay, music, and visuals. One could probably say I was playing it "as intended" for the first time, but honestly, who even cares about intention.
I found myself really invested in the story. I like how there is a narrative implied for Link, not necessarily through the game telling me about his backstory with X and Y characters (the game tries that with Saria, but it falls a bit flat), but through his growth in terms of capability over the course of the game. Starting out as a kid who can only roll, getting a dinky sword and a shield that burns away, turning into an adult and using a bow with better control than the slingshot, etc until you are obtaining gauntlets that let you suplex massive boulders 20 times your size. I felt like I, as the player, experienced the transition from "I'm playing Adult Link the same as Young Link but taller," to "my moveset is completely different and I'm basically a god now," and it gave me a different kind of immersion from what I experienced when I was a kid. I was immersed in Link's growth because I felt like I transformed from being a kid to a total f*cking badass by the end of the game. I was projecting my own thoughts of whether he is a "child" or "adult" based on my own experiences and thoughts while playing.
And that narrative, that commentary on what it means to be a "child" and grow into an "adult", hits entirely differently when playing a game that I saw one way as a kid and now see another way as an adult. The game was commenting on how different the world looks to a child versus to an adult, and at the same time I'm noticing how different the game itself looks to me now, as an adult, versus when I was a child.
I currently interpret it as one of the most well-told coming of age stories I've ever experienced.
I also have a newfound appreciation for Ocarina of Time's iteration of Zelda, the character. When I was a kid, even though I knew Zelda and Sheik were the same person (sorry for spoilers but it's true), I still didn't really perceive them that way. I didn't even really perceive the adult and young versions of characters as the same person, because they look different and act different. I was a kid, I didn't have life experience and context to think of them in those terms yet.
I do now, and I'd like to go on the record stating Ocarina of Time Zelda is cool as f*ck. She spends 7 years in hiding undergoing secret ninja training, can somehow make an entire orchestra accompany her when she plays harp, has extremely dramatic entrances and exits for literally no reason except for the production of it... by the time the Nocturne of Shadow cutscene comes along there's an interesting and compelling camaraderie between Link and Sheik-Zelda, even though they've only had like 5 cutscenes together where all Sheik does is recite heavily pointed poetry. When Zelda reveals her identity at the end, it's a really powerful moment that sells the same "fate brought us together" feeling you get from the very first meeting with her in the courtyard, and again at the final reunion at the very end.
I'm repeating myself here, but I really have to emphasize: this game is most successful in what it conveys narratively without saying it. Sure, it tries to explain to me that Link is Saria's long time BFF or whatever, but that's mostly offscreen, and when you have Sheik show up and teach you magical songs at key plot beats and then reveal herself to be the princess who has dictated your journey from the start, that relationship starts coming off as a lot more meaningful. No offense Saria. Sorry about your ocarina.
This narrative-via-gameplay that I am probably heavily exaggerating from the text wouldn't be very successful if the gameplay weren't good. Fortunately, I'm quite pleased to announce that the dungeon design in Ocarina of Time (3D) is largely really solid. The Shadow Temple and Ice Cavern are the only real drags, the former because Bottom of the Well already did what it tries to do but better, and the latter because it's just boring bottle management when blue fire could have been so much cooler. Other than that? I had a BLAST. Puzzles are fun and interesting, enemies are diverse to suit their environments, I was totally RPing as mr. hero guy going on an adventure and exploring interesting places with distinct designs and great vibes. Turns out I actually love the water temple! Who knew? (Color-coded doors signaling water level changes helped a LOT.) And collecting magical artifacts along the way was just... fun. No better word for it. The game is fun!
There are, however, two things I completely agree with my younger self on.
The visuals and music in this game. Are awesome.
Ocarina of Time 3D looks, visually, the way I always wanted Ocarina of Time to look on the Nintendo 64. It's the same but more vibrant, rounded, colorful, detailed; but, the same. It's just brought to life. Even as a kid playing the 64 version with nothing to compare it to I wished the models were less pointy and ugly, and now I have a version where it looks the way I always dreamed it could, and I'm never going back. I have visual nitpicks with the 3DS version I can count on one hand and a mountain of things I love about it. The trade-off is nowhere near equal.
As for music? I stand firmly with child-me. Wielding a magic ocarina that you can play whatever you want on is unmatched, and weaving melodies for gameplay purposes that also match iconic BGM pieces is brilliant. I don't spend hours on end playing Rick Astley on it anymore (...but maybe I did spend fifteen minutes or so, for old times' sake), but I am ever a sucker for media in which music is a vessel for magic, especially when I'm allowed to play that music myself.
Everything I now love about this game, all of my take-aways from it, are perfectly encapsulated by the last scene as an adult, after defeating Ganon, when Link and Zelda have a conversation floating in the sky because Magic. (I don't need an explanation for why they're in the sky, they're in the sky because Magic, and because it's a gorgeous setting that fits the mood.) And after an entire game in which the Song of Time is emphasized as an important piece associated with traveling 7 years through time from the Temple of Time, Zelda tells you that she is going to send you back, and brings the ocarina to her lips. Zelda, who taught you the Song of Time in the first place.
And she plays Zelda's Lullaby.
Her performance hesitates, just slightly, before the last couple notes, and she opens her eyes to see you disappear, never to meet again in this future, but perhaps to meet again in another one.
It's absolutely perfect. That musical decision is one I never even noticed as a kid, but it is absolutely everything to me now. I don't necessarily know that I have the words to explain what about it is so perfect to me, other than "literally everything." Ocarina of Time's dynamic between Link and Zelda is simply poetic. It's a dynamic that is less about them feeling like real people and more about this sense that they are part of a greater destiny, two of the most important figures in the universe, souls whose combined story transcends time.
Maybe those kinds of stories aren't as impactful to some. But to me, there is nothing more deserving of a title like "The Legend of Zelda" than a game where, at the end of it, I truly feel as though I've been a part of something legendary.