‘Ocarina of Time’s Inescapable Influence on Modern Gaming

Jeremy Ray

The greatest game ever made. In such a subjective medium, it seems impossible this title could be so resoundingly awarded to one game. But when players, designers, and critics herald The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the best ever, it’s not just about the artistic achievement, but its impact on games to come.

As we ride our horses through the day/night cycle of Red Dead Redemption 2, or rely on one button to navigate us through parkour in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or lock and strafe around hollows in Dark Souls 3, we can draw a straight line to Ocarina of Time as a pioneer.

In the same way that many fantasy elements can be traced back to the genre-defining works of Tolkien, many modern mechanics and puzzle tropes can be traced back to this seminal work, which somehow simultaneously filled the role of “experiment” and “fully realised idea.”

Imagine a world in which game developers fumbled their way through the move from 2D to 3D with as many missteps as innovations. Such a progression would be normal. Expected. Instead, we had a plumber and an elf that got almost everything right on the first try.

And it really was the first try. According to Eiji Aonuma, a producer designing the dungeons in Ocarina of Time, it was one of Nintendo’s “first 3D tryouts.” “Every single aspect of the game was a new experiment to us,” Aonuma-san once told The Telegraph. “Each and every day we focused on creating something new.”

There was no manual, no accepted wisdom, no other works to provide inspiration. Where other games stand on the shoulders of giants, Ocarina of Time became the giant.

Target and Strafe

One of the most universally recognised gifts from Ocarina of Time to the world of gaming was its Z-Targetting innovation. Pressing the Z trigger would lock onto an enemy or NPC. Side movement transformed into strafing around the focus point, and jumps became evasive sidesteps and backflips.

Pressing Z with no target would anchor the camera behind Link and lock him into facing in that direction. This went a long way towards providing reliable control over the camera in 3D space, solving the foibles experienced by Super Mario 64 players. A nice, theme-appropriate touch for Ocarina was making Navi fly to the object you’re targetting.

It’s been used in just about every 3D combat game since, and we could spend pages listing the games like For Honor, Dark Souls, or The Witcher 3 that are wholly dependent on it.

But the genius behind Z-targetting goes beyond just the mechanic — it informs the game design around it. Ocarina will use your combat focus to script the fight, like a kung fu movie where enemies jump in at just the right times.

Designer Yoshiaki Koizumi has often told the story of being inspired watching a theatrical swordfight at Toei Kyoto Studio Park.

“I thought there must be some kind of trick, so I watched very closely, and it was simple,” he said. “It’s a sword battle, so there’s a script and a certain setup. The enemies don’t all attack at once. First, one attacks while the others wait. When the first guy goes down, the next one steps in, and so on.”

Enemies to the sides won’t completely disappear in Ocarina, but they’re told to act passively. Ideally, they’d be just present enough for the player to feel the tension of being flanked without the unfairness of repeatedly getting hit in the back.

Z-targetting has become a staple of modern 3D combat movement, an invention so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine a world without lock & strafe. But the connected AI has also carried over into every modern game in which scores of thugs surround the hero.

These days, clever interface upgrades have allowed us to react to off-screen threats. This is relied on heavily by the recent God of War, with its permanent Kratos close-up. But Ocarina’s unfair fight philosophy was the foundation of the school of “choreography combat,” expertly employed by franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Arkham, and Middle Earth.

These examples would further innovate by locking the player and opponent into a synchronised attack/defend animation. But the fundamental idea is the same: a style of combat in which the enemy’s decisions and movements are influenced by player intent.

Context-Sensitive Inputs

When you need more buttons than you currently have, the typical solution is to have a “function” key. While that’s been done in games, Ocarina had a more elegant solution — a button that changed its function according to your surroundings.

The A button, or “action” button, was a one-stop shop for in-game commands. It was an “everything” button. It would climb Epona if she were near, it would throw a bomb if you carried one, and it would rip up grass to find the rupees inside (because that’s how grass works). The context-sensitive commands even extended to actions that required no buttons at all.

Whereas most games without a jump button are ridiculed for the hero not being able to vault a knee-high fence, Ocarina made it work by understanding player intent. In fact, the game originally had a jump button — legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto removed it to make Ocarina less of an “action” game and keep the focus on puzzles.

It was a simple solution — running off a ledge would automatically jump. But it also solved the age-old problem of players mistiming jumps. Whether 2D or 3D, most platform games offer a handful of “grace” pixels for players who jump off a platform just a few frames too late. Falling off a platform the very pixel you walk off seems unforgiving and unfair, especially if the running animation makes it seem like you had one more step — but in Ocarina, that ledge run would always be interpreted as a pixel-perfect leap.

The ways in which context-sensitive controls have reverberated throughout modern gaming are, as with Z-Targetting, too numerous to count. The entire parkour system of Assassin’s Creed for example – a major pillar of the franchise – depends on interpreting player intent as you approach an obstacle. Scampering though sections of cover in Gears of War, flipping a switch in Dark Souls, or using the jump button twice to vault over that ledge in Battlefield V… Heck, it’s a full half of the controls in Divekick.

It’s there while finding a slope to initiate your slide attack in Monster Hunter World. It’s in the combat systems of God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man, found in their stances, distance management, precise timings, and variable enemy states. And it’s omnipresent in the interactions of Red Dead Redemption 2. For those keeping score, those are all the major Game of the Year contenders for 2018. A little bit here, a little bit there, it’s easy to see how modern game design borrows little pieces of Ocarina magic.

Opening Up Our Game Worlds

From the early game, you can see the peak of Death Mountain in the distance. After leaving Kokiri Forest, it’s possible to run across Hyrule Field, into the realm of the Gorons, all the way to that very volcanic peak.

Such a feat wasn’t possible before Ocarina of Time, but it’s become a staple of open world games since. While Death Mountain wasn’t your final objective, the “tower in the distance” is a now-conventional way to convey a player’s goal used in everything from Journey (the shining mountain peak), to Half-Life (City 17’s Citadel), and many more. An otherwise empty horizon with a tall point of interest lets the player know where to go, and Death Mountain was the next stop for Link.

In this new world of 3D gaming, players weren’t used to horizons. It would have been “good enough” to simply fill the horizon with visual fluff. But never one to be satisfied with incremental improvements, Ocarina of Time went a step further and filled it with possibilities. More than a skybox, more than window dressing, it was a mountain you could actually climb. A castle you could actually conquer. It was as if Ocarina of Time had made two innovative leaps at once.

The feeling of emerging into Hyrule Field for the first time was something gamers hadn’t experienced before. It was technically a hub, but felt like what we’d come to call an open world. With a five-minute run across Hyrule Field, it was small by today’s standards, but shockingly spacious for someone stepping out of the tall trees of Kokiri Forest and into a new era of gaming.

It also had a day/night cycle that affected world events, as well as the ability to control the sun and weather through song. Friends and enemies would move, sleep, or even perish according to the time of day. Riding across this space on horseback and engaging in mounted battles was another novelty. The “carrot” system of accelerating your horse is still used in the recent cavalry combat games such as Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2.

Seven Years Without a Hero

The idea of two parallel worlds wasn’t entirely new — A Link to the Past had its Dark World, and made clever use of shifting between the two to find otherwise blocked off temple entrances. Historical manipulation existed too, as seen in the story-focused time travel of Chrono Trigger.

Ocarina, once again, took everything one quantum leap further.

Not only was this a more fleshed out version of the idea, with every NPC and location having gone through seven years of trauma under Ganondorf’s rule, but your actions as Child Link would reverberate into the world of Adult Link. Time travel wasn’t just a story tool anymore. It was gameplay.

Take the Spirit Temple, which required you to come back as Child Link to trigger events and gain the equipment to enter the temple as Adult Link. It was a temple in two halves, with seven years between them. Other examples in the wider world incorporated time travel directly in individual puzzles. Don’t you just love it when you pop a puzzle item into place, and it hasn’t moved seven years later? Some Hyrulians need a maid.

From a technical standpoint, combining the day/night cycle with time travel meant this was not just one open world, but many. Whether outside or inside, each area has four different versions to accommodate both Child and Adult Link, at either day or night. But from the player’s perspective, this made genius use of a single playspace in which puzzle solutions stretched across the chasm between spacetimes.

While it’s less common to see this copied in the triple-A space, many games have explored multiple worlds that affect each other, usually with their own unique take. From The Nether‘s effect on movement in Minecraft, to the dimension-defying brain ticklers like Fez, Crush, or Super Paper Mario, to bridging the virtual and physical worlds with games like Dystopia, and countless other indie games.

A New Dimension for Puzzle Design

While Ocarina was a pioneer in the fourth dimension, it was even moreso in the third — and the benefit of being first and being right in 3D puzzle creation is that so many afterwards will be seen to be copying you.

The classic reflection puzzles of the Spirit Temple saw you using the Mirror Shield to grace sun symbols with light, as well as pushing statues around to reflect beams onto the right surface. Every time we reflect light or push statues around for a similar puzzle – from the simplistic statue puzzles of God of War to the reflecting laser mazes of Portal 2 and The Talos Principle – we borrow from Ocarina.

Countless games since have copied the idea of the Lens of Truth, which reveals hidden objects and illusions when the player remembers to activate it in the right areas. Though before the 3D era, the idea of such an item or spell extends back before pen & paper RPGs and into mythological storytelling. Often used in a puzzle or looting capacity these days – such as God of War 3‘s Head of Helios – this idea also sees lots of use in horror games — usually in items with finite power that reveal the supernatural or cast light on the shadows.

The move to 3D brought verticality, Ocarina understood the gravity of it. Smashing through the Deku Tree‘s cobwebs with nothing but your downward momentum (and later fire) was one of many moments in which we all had to rewire our brains for this new age of puzzles. Later on, players would learn the reverse of this — the old Ocarina adage, “when you’re stuck, look up.”

Looking “up” took on an entirely new meaning in the Forest Temple though, as twisted corridors could be manipulated to turn the temple on its side — a level-bending idea copied by puzzle games as well as action games like Nioh. But Nintendo itself is the biggest copycat of this idea, with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and various Mario games incorporating world-flipping in their puzzles.

Symbology and Song

Although Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t invested in the storytelling aspect of the game, those under him believed The Legend of Zelda should have more of a legend.

The creation story featuring three goddesses was conceived, races were fleshed out, and characters were given backstories and motivations. Setting out, we were told more than just how dangerous it is to go alone.

Ocarina also advanced the series’ love affair with symbology, which in turn has furthered an industry-wide “language of gaming.”

The Zelda franchise is far from the sole innovator here — we’ve been building a colour-coded, symbol-based language of gaming since the earliest days of ASCII dungeons and red keys required for red doors. But Zelda games have contributed much here, and Ocarina was the biggest leap forward in the franchise.

It doesn’t matter what language you speak, you can still understand that the red fire arrow will melt the blue ice, the pieces of heart will build your health, and items with the Triforce symbol are likely connected to the royal family. You know that gossip stones and the Lens of Truth are somehow connected via the symbol of the Sheikah. You know the colour green corresponds with Courage, the Kokiri, the forest, and your earliest friend Saria. All of this informs your exploration of the world, your understanding of the lore, and how you solve puzzles.

The lesson was well learned by other companies. Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan, gearing up to release Overwatch, once told us “A little bit of lore goes a long way.” It offers superfans an avenue to become even more invested in a franchise, even it it’s an action or PvP game that might seem unrelated to story. For League of Legends, this low-effort, high-reward philosophy perfectly complimented its massive roster of PvP champions.

This “little bit of lore” went a long way towards representation in games, too. While Princess Peach was still very much in distress, Ocarina was one of the first games to flip the damsel trope by transforming Zelda into the ultra-capable Sheik. It can even be competently argued that Sheik was the real catalyst of change in Ocarina of Time.

Ocarina‘s themes were as much about the sounds as the sights. It was already common for movies and games to assign a musical theme to a character or area. But none committed to using music to connect world elements like Ocarina, or made the player an active participant in these memorable identifiers. It may seem kafkaesque to glorify Ocarina for using musical themes, but its execution was original. In a way, we all remember Zelda’s Lullaby because we had to. It was part of the game.

Perhaps the most iconic and memorable tune, Saria’s Song, instantly brings back misty-eyed memories for any Zelda fan. It conjures thoughts of Saria and the forest, but it also had a purpose — playing the song on your fully functional ocarina opened a channel to your childhood friend for advice.

The music was technically innovative as well. With the bleeps and bloops of 8bit consoles now a distant memory, composer Koji Kondo pushed the new hardware to its limits. He gave each area its own sonic identity, from the Gregorian chants of the Temple of Time to the delicately plucked harp strings of the Great Fairy Fountains.

Whether warping to temples, changing the weather, or unlocking the royal family’s secrets, players quickly realised this so-called “background music” wasn’t limited to the background at all. It was an active part of the gameplay, and became highly memorable and nostalgic as a result.

Using background music in this way can be wonderfully subtle, fostering the “Aha!” moments that puzzle games seek to create. If you’re looking for a modern fix in the same vein, most recently The Witness played with these aural ideas as one of its many sub-themes in its puzzle design.

Remember Where it Came From

In the great foundation that makes up modern game design, a striking number of bricks wear the symbol of the Triforce. Much is made of its untouchable 99 rating on Metacritic, but more than its quality, it’s Ocarina‘s influence on so many subsequent games and designers that makes it the greatest game ever made.

As we celebrate the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, as phenomenal as it is, you can draw a straight line from so many of its achievements to Ocarina. Take the word of Dan Houser, founder of Rockstar, who said “Anyone who makes 3D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying — from the games on Nintendo 64, not necessarily the ones from today.”

It’ll be hard for any game to have the same kind of impact without being paired with a massive technological breakthrough. Even then, it usually takes years for games to figure out how to best take advantage of a platform. Such a challenger would have to get just about everything right on the first attempt. It’s hard to see a serious contender on the horizon when Ocarina gave us that horizon.

Perhaps the first killer app for VR/AR has the potential. But until someone combines an achievement of engineering and design, adding a new dimension to play, Ocarina – fittingly – splits our timeline into two sections. Everything before it seems like antiquity, and everything after it is indebted.

Jeremy Ray
Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.