A Link to the Past

A Link to the Past

 A thing that does not change with time is a memory of younger days

I’ve been playing video games for most of my life, and though my descent into digital timewastery undoubtedly began with Mario, it was The Legend of Zelda series that ultimately sealed the deal. Being the eldest of three and sporting parents whose primary interests were Coronation Street, football, and being very inconsistent with affection, my interests were largely self-discovered. That being said, I don’t recall the exact circumstances in which I came to own a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, only that it was second hand and came with a copy of Super Mario All-Stars + World. That’s five whole Mario games! And I played the heck out of them! Poorly!

But they were just another fun thing to do. Another toy to play with. Not to belittle those five titles, of course, but at that age I did not possess the facilities to fully appreciate them the way my game-addled grown up brain does. The thing is, I was a reader. As much as we couldn’t really afford them, and as much as my parents didn’t see the value in them beyond prescribed schoolwork, I liked stories. While mainline Mario games are invariably perfectly polished showcases of flawless game design, the aim is not to weave an enthralling narrative. I enjoyed them for what I could get out of them at the time, and as much as those games mean to me now, they were not the catalyst for video games ultimately ruining my life and transforming me into whatever the heck I am now.

For an indeterminate amount of time, that single cartridge WAS video games to me. I didn’t have older siblings to tell me otherwise, and the playground was no help either; video games weren’t yet as ubiquitous with that age group as they would very shortly become. My perception of the medium would remain incredibly small—until it was blown wide open thanks to an uncle I barely knew. Truth be told, I had no idea who this guy was. He’d lived abroad for much of my life at that point, and I probably couldn’t have picked him out in a line up. But someone did pick him out of a line up, and he was imprisoned for a non-violent crime not interesting enough to recall the details of. Detained for quite a while, his sizeable collection of Super Nintendo games found themselves in the hands of a 6-year-old boy who was about to have his world rocked permanently.

This treasure trove of SNES cartridges was the stuff dreams are made of, with many of the most iconic titles present and correct. Some of them I wouldn’t come to play and fully appreciate until a few years later (the summer of ’99 was ALL about Super Metroid), but one title really stuck out. In another reality, where the likes of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger released in the UK alongside the rest of the world, it probably would’ve been them. They were exactly what I was looking for, without even knowing it. Alas, JRPGs with their reams of text, sprawling plots, and ensemble casts were a rare thing in the UK, and disappointing sales of the games that made it stateside meant we wouldn’t see these titles released legitimately until years later. No, the cartridge that caught my eye and sealed my fate was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991, Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

I don’t know why. I wasn’t particularly interested in swords or fantasy. My first foray into Middle Earth was still a year or two away. Maybe it’s because Z is the coolest letter after X, and I took what I could get. Or maybe it wasn’t the cartridge at all. Maybe it didn’t start to work its magic on me until I’d booted it up and witnessed those three golden triangles spinning in all their pseudo-3D glory before that bombastic fanfare kicked in. Or, most likely, it was the way that leaving the game on its start screen for a moment or two led to an introductory sequence detailing the world of Hyrule, its conflicts, and its lore:

“Long ago, in the beautiful kingdom of Hyrule surrounded by mountains and forests…”

It went on, providing me with history and backstory for this world I was about to step foot in for the first time. The irony, of course, is that Zelda games are not known for their deep and intricate storytelling. The story of your typical Zelda game is told in pleasingly broad strokes. But I wasn’t to know. That was a story, right there! It was more than Mario had ever given me, and I am certain I can credit it with buoying my interest in making Matilda-like trips to the local library—before they replaced the bulk of the children’s section with a pool table, anyway.

I pressed the start button, entered my name, and began.

There was no timer in the corner. No “levels,” as such. This was a real place that I could explore at my leisure, its clean and cartoonish pixel art friendly and inviting. Real people lived in this world, and I could talk to them. They called me by my name because that’s what I’d entered. I was the little hero in the green cap. I didn’t know who “Link” was, only that this was my adventure. These days, much fuss is made about “immersion” and the design choices that break it, but very few modern game worlds, in all their expansive, ray-traced glory, have totally enveloped me the way A Link to the Past’s Hyrule did. 

I didn’t finish it, of course. Not then. I don’t think I made much progress at all, and it’s unlikely I even grasped the concept. This was just an alternate world that I explored when I went on the Nintendo. Despite my mushy, undercooked child brain, I was now a proto-game-liker, and before long I spotted magazines pertaining to my newfound interest. In doing so, I caught my first glimpse of the future.

Nintendo Magazine System – Issue 47 (August, 1996)

The Nintendo 64. “The Fastest, Most Powerful Games Console On Earth,” as its marketing would later boast. Suddenly, my friends at school were talking about video games, and very quickly they became all I talked about too. As unlikely as it seemed given its £250 price tag, I found myself opening one on Christmas Day 1997. My old pal Mario was there to greet me, now all angular and three dimensional. I’d never seen anything like it. The few screenshots I’d seen in the magazines I’d flicked through while my grandma bought Walnut Whips and cigarettes were one thing, but seeing it in motion was something else entirely. The closest modern equivalence may be the first time you experience true, high-end VR—it was that miraculous. The portly plumber, once again, seduced me for a time. But once more, I yearned for that yarn. Then, just after that magical Christmas, I saw it:

Nintendo Magazine – Issue 64 (January 1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, then known simply as Zelda 64.

The next installment in an esteemed series, sure. But Zelda 64 was more than an upcoming sequel, it was a promise. The promise of a fully-realised, open 3D world the likes of which the world had never seen. “Open world” wasn’t really a thing back then, and while Ocarina of Time doesn’t much resemble open world games as we now understand the term post-Grand Theft Auto III, at the time it seemed positively vast.

For me, few things in video games have carried the magic and mystery of those early screenshots, such as they were. These blurry photographs of early builds running on CRT monitors at press events held a mystique that is impossible to recapture today. In a way, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Zelda 64 are two distinct things—the game that was, and the game that might have been.

That isn’t to say Ocarina was a disappointment. To the contrary, by any metric it was a huge success. It sold extraordinarily well, both in Japan and abroad, and was very quickly hailed by many as the greatest video game ever made. In fact, it still sits atop Metacritic’s Best Video Games of All Time List at time of writing, over two decades on, if you put stock in such things. Which you shouldn’t. 

But those screenshots! I must have pored over them for weeks, if not months! I must have re-read every feature and preview I had access to a dozen times each. This was my first hype train, and boy howdy did it deliver when it finally pulled into the station. Sales figures and Metacritic ratings are all well and good, but nowhere was Ocarina of Time worshipped more than in a tiny bedroom on a council estate in the North West of England. It was everything A Link to the Past had been and more. In fact, if we’re talking fundamentals, that’s exactly what Ocarina of Time is—A Link to the Past, but more, that “more” mostly being every benefit brought to the table by the third dimension. 

While the graphics themselves were an enormous advancement, the new frontier of working in a 3D space allowed for in-engine cutscenes with a cinematic flair hitherto unseen in gaming.

Speaking to late CEO Satoru Iwata as part of his Iwata Asks series of interviews, Miyamoto recalls that Ocarina of Time was the game where they “first saw clearly that we could use cinematic camera work as a production technique.” At the time, working with 3D graphics in 3D spaces was still very much in its infancy, and in-game “camerawork” was largely unheard of. However, Miyamoto felt that they should be using Ocarina of Time’s development to learn “how to use camera techniques to explain situations.”

The game wastes no time in presenting the player with this new-fangled camerawork, quickly following its opening text narration with a cutscene. It’s a prophetic dream in which a young girl flees the castle on horseback, and Link is confronted by her mysterious, menacing pursuer. Each quick cut is punctuated with the sound of thunder, from the close ups of the drawbridge chains as it lowers ominously, to the escaping princess, to the already diminutive figure of Link who appears to shrink even further as the man who literally could not look more evil if he tried looms over him. Finally, there’s an ever-so-dramatic zoom into Link’s terrified polygonal face as the villain prepares to strike. It’s all basic stuff, for sure. This ‘ain’t Deakins, but again, I’d never seen anything like it.

There’s no way I was cognizant of cinematography at this point, but it engaged me in a way video games never had before. Does Ocarina of Time share some of the responsibility for my One True Love of cinema with Mary Poppins and Basil the Great Mouse Detective? It’s certainly possible.

Stepping out onto Hyrule Field for the first time, once again, showcases this new “cinematic” approach. The camera sweeps over the vast green fields and we glimpse the castle (our destination) and Death Mountain looming in the distance as the camera travels to our location, simultaneously delivering the grandeur and spectacle such a moment deserves while also showing us where we’re going and how we’re getting there.

To younger readers than myself, Hyrule Field—everything about Ocarina, in fact—probably seems very quaint. In the age of Ubisoft churning out an entire ancient civilization every six weeks, or Nintendo themselves finally one upping themselves with the extraordinary The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I suppose it is. But finally leaving the confines of the forest and stepping out into this big, wide world felt monumental—the promise made by those early screenshots fulfilled.

Some of this is childish naivety, of course. As an adult, I can see the clear boundaries, the obvious limitations, as I’m sure a gaming-savvy adult of the time could have. But at 7 years old, with only a handful of games behind me and even fewer in 3D, the possibilities were endless.

I could do ANYTHING. I could go ANYWHERE. 

In reality, I could go to around six places, a number of which were gated behind story progression, and all of which lie behind transitions. There’s no seamless open world here. But these are all observations made in hindsight and, to me, then, the world of Hyrule was limitless. It lived and breathed, even moreso than its predecessor. In open areas, time passed. Day gave way to night, and areas that were safe to traverse during the day were replete with monsters. NPCs who populate the game’s towns by day can be found at home (or elsewhere) at night. Just like real life!

In a way, the day/night cycle is the central conceit of Ocarina in a microcosm. Nowadays, Zelda games presenting the player with two overlapping yet different worlds is a well-worn series staple. Presumably taking its queues from A Link to the Past’s Light and Dark worlds, Ocarina of Time sees the player travelling between two time periods. Hyrule is explored both as a young boy and a grown man, with the ability to travel back and forth. Just as Hyrule by day is different to Hyrule by night, the Hyrule of seven years in the future is a drastically different place. The game’s vastness reached across both space and time.

There’s a Brexit Joke in here somewhere but I’m too depressed to put in the legwork.

Day and night, future and past. Ten unique, labyrinthine dungeons dotted around the world. Ten monstrous tools of Ganon’s evil to vanquish. A riveting fantasy story the likes of which I’d never seen. It took me around a year to reach the end, and by then there was not an inch of that game that I had not seen. And yet, in the years following its release, the mysteries of Ocarina of Time deepened, if only for a little while. Buoyed by the rise of the internet and more accessible tools for manipulation images, playground rumours became solid “fact” as evidence of further secrets emerged. Secret dungeons and, perhaps most tantalising of all, the ability to obtain the Triforce—the oft-discussed yet never physically seen sacred artifact that blesses Link, Zelda, and Ganon with their, uh, Triangle Powers. Second only to Pokemon’s legendary “Mew Under The Truck” myth from around the same time, the idea that there were as yet hidden depths to this already colossal adventure kept me and my dumb child brain with limited critical thinking skills hooked well into the life of its immediate sequel, Majora’s Mask.

You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?

Now, of course, every layer of mystery has been stripped away. Ocarina of Time’s deeper mysteries were simply the product of pranksters, Photoshop, and assets belonging to content that was simply cut for time. The games files have long since been thoroughly plundered and laid bare, revealing that no such hidden content exists. Boo! Hiss!

Even now, the admittedly fascinating demystification of Ocarina of Time continues. Following the infamous “Nintendo Gigaleak” of 2020, assets from builds of the game resembling the screenshots I had once been so captivated by were released online and subsequently reassembled by fans. While it is interesting to see more of “Zelda 64,” now that I understand the largely iterative nature of game development as a 30 year old man who should have better things to do, there is a certain sadness to it all. 

Ultimately, Ocarina of Time is a story about a child becoming an adult—a fitting game to have carried with me all these years. Maybe it’s time to grow up.

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