The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time turns 25 today. You’re in good company if that makes you feel old. I posted my review of Nintendo’s first 3D Zelda action-adventure here on IGN on November 25, 1998, just two days after it hit stores in the US. We had received a special delivery with a boxed, final copy containing a shiny, golden cartridge just a few days prior – and I vaguely remembered spending a few delirious nights playing the game for review in our offices at Imagine Media (our former parent company – and the original “I” in “IGN”), then located south of San Francisco in Brisbane, California.
Prior to playing Ocarina of Time, my favorite game of all time was A Link to the Past – so to say that I was looking forward to playing and reviewing it would’ve been the understatement of the decade. I don’t remember if there was much discussion in the office as to who would review it, either – I doubt it – but any attempted claim would’ve been futile. I’d never wanted to play a game as much as Ocarina of Time and I would’ve spat rocks at anyone trying to challenge me to my nerd right.
That much, I remember. But 25 years is a long time, so I needed a little help to try to piece together the memories of what it was like to play this much-revered gaming history icon before anyone else. I needed to call in more old people. I needed to reassemble IGN64.
Peer Schneider: Hey guys, our features editor asked me to write a piece about Ocarina of Time turning 25. But… that’s pretty long ago. Can you fill in some gaps?
Craig Harris: A long freakin’ time ago. But I do have somewhat wavy memories that we were looking at the review code on the gold cart in the first Brisbane offices…we were finally released out of our cramped media cave into the wide-open, much to the detriment of our magazine neighbors. I’m pretty sure we were checking it early simply because we stole it from Next Generation.
Peer: Oh, I remember the actual review process. We played like 17 hours straight, because unlike the magazines, we didn’t get weeks of heads-up time. Next Generation [IGN’s sister publication in the late ‘90s, run out of the same building] was stingy with their copy – but we did manage to sneak a peek at least. Whenever Nintendo shared a playable game early, it came with “strings attached”. Back then, Nintendo used to send a chaperone along with their unreleased games – a person with a locked suitcase carrying a “Lockbox N64”. Basically, the cartridge was literally shackled to the console and couldn’t be removed – and the NOA visitor was usually only in town for two days.
I remember many a poor Nintendo representative crashing on the couch in our demo room while we were playing a game late into the night. With Ocarina of Time, we were intent on snagging an import copy to start playing early since it came out on November 21, two days before the North American launch. But then Nintendo surprised us by having the final US retail version ready right before launch. But it wasn’t our first time playing. We actually played a preview build at an event in Seattle called the Zelda Summit and also in San Francisco. I’m sure Matt will remember Mr. Waffles, the Magician.
Craig: I hadn’t quite leapt into the Nintendo coverage at IGN by Ocarina of Time’s release — I was still knocking around with SEGA Saturn and whatever hand-me-down scraps that were given to the Ultra Game Player Online site. You and Matt were the ones doing the early preview shenanigans. Well, mostly you I’m sure, Peer.
Matt Casamassina: How dare you. Also, who could forget Mr. Waffles? If memory serves, I was about 100 pounds heavier with a very unnatural bleached blonde look, and there are pics to prove it. Please don’t post those.
Peer: This one?
Matt: Hate you. At any rate, what strikes me most about that review is that it was such an event and that we were all riding this hype wave for months. Keep in mind, the console wars were in full swing during a time when people actually cared about console wars. If that’s still a thing, I guess I’ve aged out of it. But N64 was a system whose release schedule was objectively lighter than PlayStation, and therefore Nintendo fans got behind the big titles with a level of enthusiasm and devotion that I’ve seldom seen since. Zelda, too, represented an offering that could be described as a little darker, grittier, whatever, against so many of Nintendo’s rainbow-colored, happiness-drowned games. Don’t get me wrong, either, because of course I loved Mario 64 as much as anybody, but it was nevertheless exciting to see Nintendo bringing something quite different like Zelda to market.
Peer: It’s definitely a different time now – Tears of the Kingdom and Bayonetta 3 are quite dark compared to Nintendo’s ‘90s games. Do you guys remember that the version of Ocarina of Time we played had blood in it? When you hit Ganon in the last battle, he barfs up red blood. We all looked at each other in surprise… But, of course, it was unceremoniously replaced with green “sweat” with later versions of the game. Maybe Nintendo was worried about losing its T rating.
Craig: I don’t remember freaking out about the red blood, but I do remember reacting like “Uhhh…that must’ve slipped past Nintendo. Whoopsie.” If it went out in retail, it’s not like they could easily push out a patch in those days to cover their tracks. Never even considered that it’d be later edited to be green.
Matt: The other thing that maybe the young whippersnapper game journalists of today probably can’t relate to as much was that we walked to work up hill in the snow both ways – JK, that we were racing to finish Zelda so that we could get out a review in time for it to be meaningful and impactful to readers. So yes, as you noted, these crazy 17-hour sessions surrounded in hair-pulling frustration and near-exhaustion every time we took a huge L from a boss. Thankfully we could switch off, and that is another thing I will always remember so fondly about this time. We worked as a team as we played through the game for reviews. I did the same thing for Metroid Prime 3 with then-editor Mark Bozon and it was super awesome. Way less cool was the time I had one night to beat Resident Evil 4 and I was home alone trying to convince anybody to come over so that I didn’t have to tackle it by my lonesome.
Peer: Look, you’re not going to get sympathy from the “whippersnappers” if you’re complaining about the hardship of – checks notes – playing games for a living. Yes, we were tired. But we were playing one of the biggest game releases in the history of video games before everyone else. Just a few years prior, my connection to games media was basically reading EGM and Famitsu and running my own Nintendo fansite. It was an adjustment – and ultimate wish fulfillment – to go from dreaming of playing what magazine editors already had access to. to actually getting to play games early.
I remember that while we took turns playing since we only had one copy and limited time, we split up the writing duties. Since we were playing before the game came out and had only one copy, there were definitely a few areas where we got stumped and slowed down. There’s that part where Malon only shows up at a certain time near the vines to the castle – and time doesn’t pass while you’re in that area. We had completed that part at a preview event and when playing for review we were waiting in that spot going “why is she not showing up!” During those times, it was super helpful for me to be able to work on the review on my fridge-sized laptop while you were trying to explore the overworld for secrets or trying to figure out an obtuse puzzle like that. Ironically, that particular issue was fixed for the 3DS release.
But that process worked really well for us. We did the same thing for Jet Force Gemini. While I was chasing down those infamous Tribals so we could progress, you were pretty much raging about their very existence instead of writing the review. I remember that since we got playable code for Ocarina of Time so late, you in turn worked on hands-on previews and other Zelda stories whenever I was playing.
I found your original previews from when we had the final code in the office. There was a first hands-on piece based on our playtime at the prior events and the second one a day later based on the final version. What strikes me is that you called out two things that are pretty commonplace in games now: being able to lock on to an enemy and how Nintendo used 3D space for puzzles in the Forest Temple. The other thing you mentioned isn’t very common and was probably more the result of Nintendo running out of buttons, in that there was no jump button in Ocarina of Time.
Matt: Yeah, obviously lock-on was a big deal at the time but so was the lack of a jump button, or as it were, auto-jumping. I’m still surprised today when I play a third-person action-adventure game with heavy battle mechanics and it doesn’t have some sort of lock-on function for strafing and dodging. You find yourself struggling to get your character in the right position for melees. It’s standard fare now but that design choice and implementation was transformative for the time. I think in many ways the omission of manual jumps was frankly pretty ballsy, too. You had this expectation, especially coming after games like Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64, that precision jumping was just a fundamental given for 3D games and Nintendo basically said nope and took that out of your hands. I can distinctly remember the opening scenes and being shocked when Link auto jumped over some flower petals in the water. Seems so trivial in hindsight but it was anything but at the time.
Craig: My experience with the game had to be “as a fan” and not “as a critic” since you guys were hogging the review copy. I had to go down into storage and check my own copy of the game, and boring gray cartridge copy confirmed…so I clearly didn’t get in on the initial launch round for that gold cart. Probably because IGN was paying peanuts at the time and I couldn’t just drop 70 bucks. Bay Area resident’s gotta eat.
I’m not shy in saying this: I’ve never, ever completed the N64 game.
Craig: That’s not to say I didn’t love it, I did. But I was definitely more a fan of the 2D design – Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, Four Swords – than the 3D renditions… and that carried through on Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword. I didn’t actually fall in love with 3D Zelda until Breath of the Wild… and Tears of the Kingdom is currently my choice for “Greatest Video Game of All Time.”
But back to Ocarina of Time: there was something about the game that made it difficult for me to go back after getting lost, distracted, and needing to take a break. Strategy guides weren’t as prevalent as they are now, but you guys definitely tried filling that void.
Now, even though I never beat the N64 version… I have completed the game. On 3DS. With stereoscopic 3D turned on, baby.
Peer: It’s a bummer that the updated 3D version has been locked to the Nintendo 3DS hardware since 2011. While the two N64 3DS updates aren’t better in every way – Majora’s Mask 3D has some issues – they do fix a few issues. One big one: framerate.
Matt: Whewww baby did we turn a blind eye to bad framerates. Maybe we were blind? I go back and look at the N64 lineup and I’m astounded at the slideshow fluidity of some of my favorite games. GoldenEye. Some of the Turok games. Ocarina of Time. Sub-30 frames per second on a good day. Sub-20 frames per second on the regular. And we were all just sort of okay with it because frankly we didn’t know much better. As someone who now always chooses performance modes over more detail, those were some rough days, peeps. The games are still great. The design is still outstanding. Mechanics in many ways pioneering. Tons of innovation across the board. But wowwweee my eyes would be bleeding if I were subjected to those kinds of framerates today. I think the industry at large agrees. Look at all the crap Bethesda got when Starfield shipped for Xbox locked at 30 frames with no option for a 60 frames performance mode.
Yes, I just spent a whole paragraph whining about framerates and if you’ve read any of my stuff over the years you’ll understand this is like an identity authenticator for me. But I’d be remiss if I quickly didn’t touch on the era of Switch Zelda games – namely Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. I mean, those framerates still aren’t amazing, but these might be my only games with a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card because they’re doing so freakin’ much on hardware that by even the most gracious and generous standards is showing its age.
Craig: Framerates back then were, you got what you got. You know it was rough squeezing high FPSs on game hardware if even Nintendo was OK with what they managed to get with Ocarina of Time. They certainly cheated in places too, doing the Resident Evil/FF7 “rendered backgrounds” with 3D character on top thing. Still worked, though. Tough to get away with that compromise these days.
I was cool with the auto-jumping. It’s not like the top-down Zelda’s had a whole lot of platforming that needed its own button, either.
Peer: True, although Zelda 2 explored the adventures of a more jumpy Link. And, obviously, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom celebrate verticality in all sorts of new ways… But precision platforming wasn’t what Ocarina of Time was about anyway. And I agree, the auto-jumping worked most of the time. Going back today, there are obviously quite a few areas in Ocarina of Time that stick out as being… a product of their time, let’s say. The overworld is pretty empty, overall, and Nintendo had to resort to quite some clever trickery to create the illusion of an expansive world.
It’s blurry as hell, but I always thought the rotating townsquare was a pretty neat cinematic trick, as were the sprite-based backdrops that simulated explorable environments off in the distance. One thing that isn’t easily reproduced today is that the visuals were designed for CRTs – when it’s running on a modern TV, especially when upscaled to higher resolutions the brain is no longer filling in the parts you can’t see and the seams are showing.
But I still remember the first time playing it and stepping into a new environment, like the inside of the Deku Tree or the Forest Temple or the Bottom of the Well. Ocarina of Time was downright eerie. The understated, creepy music, the overall “cave” soundscape, combined with the flickering torches and promise of things lurking in the dark. There was nothing else quite like it. Even going back today, you can appreciate the many things Ocarina of Time got right – really for the first time. The lock-on combat and the 3D puzzles feel way too sophisticated for 1998. Most third-person games still struggled to keep the camera focused on the action when Ocarina of Time served up an explorable overworld with horseback riding and sword and projectile combat. It felt like, for the first time, a Nintendo game had grown up with us. It’s not just the more creepy vibe and presentation, but the game just demanded more of its players – including how to properly hold Nintendo’s infamous trident controller.
Craig: Do you ever go back to the game in the revisits, Peer? I’ve played at least a few hours of every version, from the GameCube two-pack disk that came with Wind Waker pre-orders, to the Wii Virtual Console. But I always just got distracted and failed to complete the game. The 3DS version was significant enough for me to finish the job, although it took me at least two attempts… I lost my physical Ocarina of Time 3D cart when my 3DS was stolen out of my car during the holidays. But by then all the Nintendo games were digital downloads, so I rebought it digitally and gave it a full replay. Haven’t gone back though… even now that it’s on the Nintendo Switch Online subscription thing.
Peer: Yes, I’ve completed it a few times after it first came out. Outside the 3D update, I played the GameCube Preorder disc version all the way through because it was the first time the Ura Zelda/Master Quest edition was released to the public. I wanted to see all the differences, so I played through both campaigns back-to-back. That was just four years after the N64 version came out. Then I played it again in 2011 for the 3D version. My daughter had just turned 10, so it was also the first time I was able to introduce her to my favorite Zelda game at the time.
I bought it again on Virtual Console for Wii… and I started a playthrough on Switch in 2021, but got really annoyed at the emulation issues. I briefly jumped back in when Nintendo patched the Switch version, but then got sidetracked with everything else in my backlog. Thanks for the reminder, though. Now that you reminded me that we used to switch off playing, maybe I can get one of my kids to tag-team through the game with me and have to deal with my incessant narration, pointing out how Nintendo revolutionized open-world gaming and invented control schemes for decades to come.
Craig: I find it less crazy that it’s been 25 years since the original Ocarina of Time, and MORE crazy that’s it’s been nearly a decade and a half since the release of Ocarina of Time 3D. 2011. Sheesh. Thanks for the reminder, Peer.
Matt Casamassina is the former editor-in-chief of IGNcube and editor of N64.com/IGN64. Craig Harris is the former editor-in-chief of IGNpocket as well as as editor of Ultra Game Players Online, SaturnWorld, and IGNPSX, among others. Matt and Craig are making games over at Rogue. Peer Schneider is still at IGN, working on some cool stuff.