Four years ago I happened to be walking down an evening bazaar in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through an endless stream of stalls lined with cool trinkets and knock-off DVDs.
Window shopping done, I was just about to head back to my hostel - but then I heard it. Those notes. That song. C-right, A, C-down, C-right, A, C-down.
It was The Song Of Time from Ocarina Of Time. Played on an actual ocarina mind, not on an N64 controller. The stall owner was playing one Zelda song after another – the 750 Baht couldn’t leave my hand fast enough in exchange for my own ocarina.
I’ve probably only played it twice since then. Turns out it’s actually much harder playing ‘Epona’s Song’ on a real instrument than on the N64. But no other game would have made me act the way I did. Not even GoldenEye 007 (having said that, purchasing a replica PP7 wouldn’t be a wise idea). That’s because Ocarina Of Time was a life changing experience for me.
I first entered the world of Hyrule as a nine-year-old, probably the prime age for a video game to leave the impact that it did – a Megaton Hammer-like blow. Everything about it was awe inspiring – the sound of horse gallops on the title screen, the motes of dust that floated around Kokiri Forest, Koji Kondo’s score. And that was just the opening five minutes.
So many moments from the game are linked to my childhood. Anything can trigger the synapses and I’m back, roaming around Hyrule Field, pulling out the Master Sword, getting stuck in the Water Temple. It brings back memories of my own experience playing the game too – flicking through walkthroughs, phoning the Nintendo hotline for help, spending an extended summer holiday finally beating the game before I began Year Five.
If you have a passing knowledge of the Zelda games, you’ll know that it largely revolves around a boy called Link saving Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf – and the world along the way too. But here, Nintendo were master storytellers. Ocarina spans across seven years, from childhood to adulthood, across deserts and forests, hidden holes and sacred realms – it’s a true epic. A melancholic streak runs through the storyline, with time and loss its recurring themes. Like when you return to Link’s home as an adult, seven years on, his friends don’t even recognise him. Playing as a kid, that kind of stuff really resonates with you.
It’s also dotted with memorable characters, some of whom have a line of dialogue at most. Like the guy in the Kakariko windmill who plays that weird music all day long. Or the skinhead who gave you the blue Cucco in the Lost Woods. Or the Poe that guides you through the Haunted Wasteland. If you’ve played the game, you’ll hopefully know what I’m rambling on about. Ocarina rewards curiosity and exploration, it thrives off the spirit of adventure and it's steeped in hidden depths. Sure, a nine-year-old being able to finish a game doesn’t sound like it’s much of a challenge. But more than 15 years on, I still haven’t completed it. Not 100 per cent.
I still often return to Ocarina. At uni, I began the three-heart challenge on the GameCube remake, completing the game with the same amount of health as you start out with. Upgrading Link as you go may be cool and all (by the end he’s like the ultimate ninja assassin), but it makes the game very easy. So doing that was a playthrough on hard mode – one hit and you’re dead. Oh yeah, I did it without a shield too – relying on acrobat-like agility and fencing-style counterattacks to defeat enemies. I remember spending the first few hours of my 21st birthday completing the Shadow Temple in front of my housemates, unleashing hell on dungeon boss Bongo Bongo. Much more fun than nursing a lukewarm pint down at the SU. I have no regrets.
Super Mario 64 may have been Nintendo’s first 3D game, but Ocarina truly set the benchmark. In fact, it set such a high benchmark that Nintendo has never really been able to quite match it since. Not even on The Wind Waker on the GameCube, nor Twilight Princess on the Wii. Nor on any other game since 1998 – Zelda or otherwise. Nintendo may know it too themselves. Look at the 3DS best-selling list – the 2011 Ocarina Of Time remake is still near the summit.
Even now, the original N64 game pushes the medium to its very limits. Literally. It’s staggering what Nintendo achieved with just a 32MB cartridge – legacy and all.
(Images: Games Press and YouTube)