By Geoffrey Bunting
Despite being of an age to have owned a NES or SNES – and I did spend much of my childhood playing on these systems – the first console I ever owned was the N64. Looking back now, it seems like a fragile piece of equipment, with a flat, bulky appearance and cartridges sticking out of the top. I can understand why so many arguments arose over whether this or the Playstation was the best console of the generation. I can also understand why so many people vouched for the Sony Playstation – they were wrong, of course, but I can understand it.
Not only was the N64 the first console I owned, but the first game I owned was the first Zelda game I ever played: Ocarina of Time. Since then, through a number of platforms (the original N64 version, the re-release with Wind Waker, and the 3DS re-master) I have completed it more times than I can count. Why? Well, it saved me. It pulled my out of a difficult childhood and provided me a subject to write on at a time when I was beginning to think writing might be my passion.
Having never played any of the early Zelda games – our house was very much in for short platformers, for some reason – I cannot recall what drew me to Ocarina of Time. I do remember the tortured period I endured waiting to get my hands on it, though. It was released in Europe on December 11th 1998, however I had to wait until March the next year – my eighth birthday – before I could own it. It feels like aeons ago, now, looking back. It’s weird to think that Ocarina of Time is almost a twenty year-old.
Part of weekend homework at my middle school was writing a weekend diary. So every weekend we would have to sit down and write about our boring weekends – I ate sausages, I played football – and then we would read it out loud to our respective classes on Monday morning. I didn’t want to do this. Instead, I used my weekend diary to write stories; stories with me in the middle. In those early entries, most of my stories revolved around my experiences with Ocarina of Time, specifically the characters of Link and Saria, and my living inside my imagination of fantasy lands and being a hero. It caused the school and my parents a lot of concern that I was seemingly writing about delusions inspired by a video game, but I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, these were good stories. It wasn’t my fault adults didn’t get it.
I was probably writing stories, or at least making them up, before that. But those diaries are my first memory of really writing. I don’t often acknowledge the role of games in my development. It’s easy as a writer to see the influence of other writers, or written mediums like film and music, but games don’t tend to figure. Perhaps this is down to the fact that, growing up, we didn’t have the blockbuster games we do now. Those games didn’t have teams of writers trying to write a story to build a game on, rather, it was the other way round. The gameplay came first, and then a story was layered over. But apart from reading, video games were probably my principal pastime as a child. I remember getting up early in the morning to play before school and sitting around for hours with the Game Boy in the evenings. In what was a frustratingly sheltered life, video games became my escape.
And as time went on, I needed that escape more and more.
I grew up in an okay family. My brother, however, was five years ahead of me. By the time I was holding my brand new N64, he was growing into a teenager. As a result, I grew up in a house of arguments. Amid these fights between my brother and parents, I was somewhat forgotten; keeping my head down in the corner. A naturally quiet and introspective child, this didn’t really bother me, I much preferred books to actual people anyway.
For myself, I was not allowed to go out and play with the other kids when they came calling. Rather, I had to spend time with the children my parents wanted me to – all of whom I couldn’t stand. Hanging out with the others wouldn’t have been much better but it would have provided variance and an opportunity to explore outside. Instead, I was locked inside – stuck with my warring family and with only a few avenues of escape.
I can still remember hugging the N64 box all the way home in the car; sitting in the backseat with my arms wrapped around it in case anything happened to it.
Though just a game, Ocarina of Time provided me a vital escape from my fractured family and unhappy days at school with its bullies and menial learning. To have my N64 to come home to gave me a sense of excitement I might not have otherwise felt; made a childhood that could easily have been horrible into something full of imagination and escapism.
Why is this? How could one game have such an effect on such pivotal years? It’s because in Ocarina of Time, you mattered; you were the only one that could save Hyrule. In a modern world where the individual matters less and less, and at a time when I was beginning to realise it, something that could breed the feeling of importance can become so influential.
At the time there was nothing like Ocarina of Time. For someone like me, who had never played early Zelda games, to experience something like Ocarina of Time started a love affair with the series that continues until today.
The thing about Zelda games is that, regardless of who you are or where you come from, what you do or how you live, you are the hero. By simply allowing us to choose the character name, Nintendo gave us ownership over him, let you become him. Now it was your responsibility to save Hyrule, your adventure, it let you in when maybe nothing else did.
Sure, nowadays, we have games to the rafters that let you type your name in the character screen. But back then these games weren’t so prevalent and modern games feel a little cold in comparison to the feelings Ocarina of Time evoked. We take it for granted, but back then, having your name come up in conversation with other characters was a big thing.
But it was more than that. It wasn’t just that it made me feel important when maybe I didn’t elsewhere, it reflected who I was as well; probably how all children feel. Growing up with the Kokiri, Link is the odd one out, an outsider that doesn’t even have a fairy. Though ostensibly accepted by his peers, Link will never really be one of them. He is among children, yes, a sure sense of comfort as he starts his journey, but in time he will grow older and be sundered from this pseudo-family. This is a fact that always hovers over him – never more so than in his interactions with early rival Mido. Mido makes clear that he will never accept Link as a true Kokiri, verging on bullying him at times with his denials of Link’s place in his own home. Then, once he actually leaves the forest he is constantly patronised and given no credence, called things like “little fella” and “Mr. Hero”, constantly having to earn the respect of those people he’s trying to save, and having to work so much harder than if he was an adult. If it weren’t for what he did for these people, they wouldn’t even take notice of him. And what pre-teen hasn’t felt like that?
Maybe even worse he’s forced to then grow up long before his time. Being by myself, fighting off school bullies and my family, I felt much the same. Given no credence or consideration because I was a child and because I was fat (and I mean FAT), I had to learn to deal with these things as best I could, and in doing so had to become self-reliant much earlier than I should. No, I didn’t have any great adventure, but in a way those bullies were my Ganondorf, my family my Kokiri.
And, unlike other games, it stayed with me. I didn’t just cast Ocarina of Time aside as I grew up. Even though there were new Zelda games, I just didn’t connect with them the same way. Growing up, past playground beatings and name calling, I fell into a different yet eerily similar cycle – I helped people. But I didn’t just help, I cared: I listened, dropped everything to help others, and said yes more than was healthy. When no one else would try, I would. When no one else would do it, I would.
You can include Majora’s Mask in this idea too, in both these games, most of the time, Link’s the only person that really cares, the only one willing to do something. In Majora’s Mask, Link traverses a world populated by characters in intense denial of the impending cataclysm, and fixes all their problems – eventually saving the world. But it’s also true in Ocarina of Time: characters are far more interested in their own problems than the bigger picture that Link is selling to them. Yet, instead of any other route, he chooses to help everyone he can, from the profound tasks that lead him to the sacred stones as a child to just finding all of Anju’s cuccos. As a hero, he can’t ignore a task, not unless you do too. And I couldn’t, it just wasn’t in my nature.
Your reward, though it may not seem like it, is to finally be given recognition by those who wrote you off. And with this knowledge, when you finally become adult Link people come to realise that you really are the Hero of Time, you don’t have to infer that you matter, they tell you that you matter. Even if it’s just Mido realising that you’re important to Saria and letting you enter the Forest Temple. It doesn’t feel like a reaction to just being an adult, but rather a summation of all the work you’ve done previously, even though there’s much more to come.
But one moment will always stand out in that regard, and it’s early in the game (as, I suppose, most of my relation to the game has been). As you leave Kokiri Forest you’re stopped by Saria, who pointedly tells you that you’re meant for greater things and that’s why you have to leave. Though many others suggest this at some point, Saria, your best friend, lets you know that she’s aware of just how important you are and she’s known all along. And that’s not directed at Link, he knows what he has to do, it’s directed at you. As part of the bargain you struck up with Nintendo to own the character, they’re reminding you that, no matter how small you feel, you’re going to be something someday, and in playing the game, you’re already on your way. And if nothing else, you are important to them.
There has recently developed a kind of counter-culture towards Ocarina of Time. It is regarded as one of the best games ever and gamers have started looking at this opinion with some scorn. Whether this has grown out of the general counter-culture movement, is just modern gamers not seeing the virtues of the game due to a lack of context, or a reflection of Nintendo’s relative decline among some of its more ardent fans (even I have missed a couple of Nintendo’s generations), I don’t know. But among modern games you’re not going to find something as lovingly crafted as Ocarina of Time, with its unique landscapes and dungeons and its varied cast of characters, nor a game so directed at making you feel important.
No one thing is going to cater to all tastes, and Ocarina of Time is no different. But if you do not like it, you cannot say that it was not influential in the industry. Just think of all the games that have used Zelda, and in particular Ocarina of Time, as a starting point. But however you feel about it, I know this game will always have a huge part in my life. It allowed me to escape from a difficult childhood and gave me something to relate to and believe in, when little else could achieve that.
It gave me vision and inspired my imagination, and showed me the power of storytelling. But it also gave me years of simple fun and joy, hours of discussion and debate, and helped me develop relationships. It’s a game all about growing up and every child’s fight to be noticed in a world of adults. Yes, it’s just a game, and yes it’s heavy-handed its allegory, but it’s all about what you take out of it, and I took a sense of understanding. It grew up with me, and in doing so it showed me how to grow up and prepared me for the challenges that came with it. Looking at my work now I can’t see much in the way of its influence, but looking at my life I realise that Ocarina of Time has been with me since 1998 and will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.