The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo – N64)
Spoiler Level: Medium
The Great Fucking Moment:
Routinely trotted out as the best game ever made, Ocarina‘s presence on this list will shock precisely nobody. It’s full of incredible design, memorable moments, and important firsts.
But for my two rupees, one experience stands above the rest. Let’s take the Temple of Time back to when I was but wee Kid Nate.
By this point I was already in love with Zelda 64. I had already explored quite a bit of Hyrule as Young Link. I already knew this was an amazing game. But I also knew from my hefty stack of EGM and Gamepro that you spent a good portion of the game as Adult Link and when you’re eleven, there is literally no cooler idea than being a sword guy who’s like seventeen and so is basically a total grownup.
My head full of visions of swording octoroks and shooting light arrows at ghosts, I mounted my trusty steed and headed into the great wild beyond of Hyrule Field.
And my breath caught.
The sun was rising over the mountains. There was no music, only the sound of clattering hooves and jingling armor. I found that I didn’t want to go to my next objective. I didn’t want to do anything. Riding Epona through the vast openness was so ludicrously liberating.
I rode until the sun rose, nowhere in particular. The whistling opening notes of the Hyrule Field theme chimed in, and a smile broke across my face.
Rolling green hills, flowing rivers, crystal clear lakes — it was an ideal world, and now I, chubby suburban kid who had spent a total of one hour near horses in my entire life, could explore it. And not only that, but I could do so with a friend, which Epona had come to be.
Honestly, I have only ever finished Ocarina of Time once, and I hardly remember many of the temples or puzzles or bosses. But I do remember, and I will never forget, the incredible freedom and wonder I felt galloping across Hyrule Field, watching the sun rise and set, listening to bugs and birds and the flowing of rivers.
Why It’s So Fucking Great:
It was the moment I realized games could be more than just cool, they could also be beautiful. This is a deeply personal entry for me because it marks the moment games became something more than a fun hobby, that they could evoke something more profound than just frustration and fiero. Shigeru Miyamoto famously bases his game ideas off of other hobbies or memories from his life – The Legend of Zelda being inspired by his love of exploring the wilderness near his childhood home. I think it would do him proud to know that this revelation of mine occurred because of precisely the same kind of experience. My family often went camping in my childhood, and I loved just wandering off into the woods and seeing what I could find (or what poison ivy I could accidentally stumble into). Racing around Hyrule Field evoked that very same sense of mystery and discovery.
Sure, there had been games with open worlds to explore before. We were two games deep into the Elder Scrolls at this point, after all. But what those games had in scope they lacked in intimacy. Mario 64 gave us open areas but they were rather simple and felt like playgrounds rather than living environments. Ocarina eschews that kind of plastic surreality for a relatively more realistic feel. Despite it’s fantasy trappings, Hyrule has few features that seem unbelievable. The goal is immersion as much as it is crafting a fun hub area. Hence the night/day cycle, the way the music trails off at night leaving you with only the sounds of nature, the nearly seamless way it connects with the various regions of the game (no jumping through paintings, you’re gonna have to hoof it). Zelda games are nothing if not dense, and yet Hyrule Field has plenty of wide open spaces bereft of anything but scenery–no secret bomb walls to destroy or pieces of heart to dig up. It was, as far as I can remember, the first time a game had included an area that felt as much like a real place as it did a “level.” Compare it even to the 2D Zelda worlds, which are grids in which each screen seems artificially packed with game content. Those games are brilliant as well, but it was Ocarina that truly felt like a world, and it all comes down to the organic, immersive hub world that ties it all together.
The funny part is that Hyrule Field was actually really small. Seriously, just look:
That’s it. Lon Lon Ranch is like the size of the entire Castle and Village.
But to eleven year-old me, it felt infinite. And that was fucking great.