The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has turned 25 today. The legendary game made it’s debut in Japan on 21st November, 1998. The North American and Europe launches arrived shortly after, bringing one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time to Nintendo 64 players around the world. To this day, there are many who insist that it remains the best game ever made. But the road to release wasn’t paved with gold.
The Legend of the 64DD
The then-unnamed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was first revealed as part of a technical demonstration at Nintendo’s Shoshinkai trade show, aka SpaceWorld, in December, 1995. At the time, Nintendo was planning to release Super Mario 64 as a launch game for the Nintendo 64 and later release Ocarina of Time for the 64DD, a disk drive peripheral for the system, in 1997. However, issues in development of this add-on led to development being moved to the base Nintendo 64. The game was then known as Zelda 64, and missed its scheduled 1997 holiday season release. It was officially was delayed into 1998.
Nintendo then planned to follow its release with a 64DD expansion disk. However, this also never happened in the west, as the 64DD never made it out of Japan. The long planned add-on sank without a trace, being released in only limited numbers in Japan. Instead, we got a direct sequel in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. But that’s a story for another time.
Launching Ocarina of Time
With Nintendo having already delayed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time multiple times culminating in over a year with no sign of the game – a practice that was far less common in 1997 than it is today – many were unsure the game would meet it’s intended holiday 1998 date. At E3 1998, then Nintendo Chairman Howard Lincoln insisted that the game ship on time. Moreover, that it would become Nintendo’s reinvigorating blockbuster akin to a ‘hit Hollywood movie’.
Lincoln wasn’t wrong. Nintendo’s position at the top of the console crown was faltering at this point. Despite having the most powerful console on the market by a wide margin, the Nintendo 64 was facing dwindling third-party support in the face of the PlayStation. Sony’s debut console had built a strong install base launching two years prior to the Nintendo 64. It brought fresh, powerful teen branding. The Nintendo 64 was seen often as a console for younger gamers in comparison. And manufacturing of cartridges was expensive in comparison to the PlayStation’s CDs. Furthermore, Nintendo itself had reduced its output significantly. The time required to create 3D content was a significantly greater investment than that of the 2D era which had come before.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would be the game to turn around the console’s fortunes. At least, that was the hope. However, while incredibly successful in it’s own right – the game became the highest selling release of 1998 in the US, with 2.5 million copies sold despite only releasing 39 days before the end of the year – the Nintendo 64’s fate was already sealed at this point.
Best Game of All Time?
As stated above, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered by many to be one of the best games ever made. Indeed, subsequent releases have greatly improved upon many aspects of the game. However, to this day there are numerous elements of 3D gaming that originated in Ocarina of Time and remain staples of modern gaming.
The most infamous is the Z-targeting system. This allows the player to focus on enemies or objects while moving. When used, the camera follows the target and the player-character, Link, constantly faces it. Projectile attacks are automatically directed at the target and do not require manual aiming. These days, the mechanic remains a predominant input technique in third-person games. Titles such as Gears of War, Demon’s Souls and Kingdom Hearts still use the system, though often for different and expressive purposes.
Other techniques made famous by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time include context sensitive inputs, and context sensitive animations (i.e. jumping). You may not herald The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as much as some of your friends, but it’s undeniably how much the game has influenced the medium in the decades since its release.
The Future of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
In the 25 years since the debut of Ocarina of Time, the game has seen a number of ports. GameCube players could receive the game – and an updated, harder version known as Master Quest – as a pre-order incentive for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Gamers in China gamers could purchase the title on the region-locked iQue Player. Wii, Wii U and Switch all received digital-only releases, emulating the Nintendo 64 original.
The outlier is the Nintendo 3DS. In June 2011, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. This is an ‘enhanced port’ featuring improved graphics and numerous bug fixes. The game also includes the aforementioned Master Quest, adds touchscreen and gyroscope controls, a “Boss Challenge” mode, and a modified version of the infamous Water Temple with reduced difficulty. It is the closest Ocarina of Time has come to a remake.
And so, quarter of a century after release, Ocarina of Time remains one gaming’s landmark titles. It has proven equally innovative and enduring. While some aspects of the game have aged poorly, by-and-large it can rightfully be considered one of the best games ever made. And with that reputation in mind, many consider the lack of a remake to be leaving money on the table. But then Nintendo in 1998 plays a similar game as Nintendo in 2023. Nobody knows how the company reaches its decisions, but you’d be a fool to bet against them.