Bottling Magic

The Ocarina of Time at 20

I threw the power switch and the game started up. Quickly, my five-year-old fell under the spell of the start screen, an ambience arising from its moody lighting, gentle camera work, and gorgeous music. It spoke to him, inviting him to take another step toward it. Asking him to embark on an adventure. First he just wanted to turn it on, but it wasn’t long before he asked if we could play it.

I hadn’t played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in some 15 years, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of its release. My son was seeing it for the first time because I had recently regained ownership of my original N64 and games. This copy was new to me though, as my original game pak was stolen. I had also lost my copy of the GameCube rerelease of this game, which is an odd coincidence, because I have always guarded my games jealously.

My son is great with a controller, but I knew he wouldn’t get very far on his own, especially not without being able to read, so I told him we would play it together. I’d do the controller, and he’d watch and give me ideas. I decided to name our character with a portmanteau of our names, to symbolize that we were doing it together. And so the hero LUCK began his adventure in the fantasy land of Hyrule.

The game started, as ever, in a forest village, and I recalled what it was like being there for the first time, the wrapping paper from Christmas morning still strewn across the floor. I remember the game being so expansive that I didn’t know where the edges were — I don’t just mean the edges of the map — I mean the edges of possibility. Anything seemed possible; everything seemed possible. This had been my first 3D game, and I had no clue about the extent of its capabilities.

With my son watching I proceeded to pick that first section of the game like a lock. All of its secrets were now known to me, so I wasn’t motivated to just play around and explore, as I had in my youth. I guess you can’t really go back. You can reassume your position in space, but not in time. And that makes that space, or that game, feel different. I tried to follow where my son's curiosity led, but I also knew there was much more for him to see, so I made short work of Kokiri Forest.

It wasn’t long before we beat the first dungeon, and the next, and the next. Having a mental model of what the game was capable of—of it’s systems and mechanics—allows you to quickly solve all of its puzzles and slay all of its monsters. You know what’s not possible, so you look for solutions within a certain scope, and unsurprised, you find them there. I could feel all the edges around this game. Even the dreaded Water Temple was easily unknotted, although that inclined floor leading to the boss’ room vexed me to the point of looking it up. You have to stay totally straight as you walk up it. Not sure how they expected us deduce that.

A game like this, predicated on discovering secrets, loses something once you’ve grasped all its internal mechanisms. But the moments you experience, having toppled such challenges, remain inspiring — moments when you enter new areas, see new wonders, hear new music, discover new magical items, and meet new friends and adversaries.

Meeting Zelda, in particular, is unforgettable. For starters, sneaking past the castle guards, through the lush garden, and into the royal courtyard is a change of tone. Romantic in the platonic sense of the word. But then you meet the character herself. She's a kid like you, but an extraordinary one. Pure, wise, generous, and beautiful. She’s everything you imagine a princess could be. Her tender, yearning theme plays, and you wonder, how did I swashbuckle my way into meeting this singular figure, the eponymous Princess Zelda?

Equally marvelous is the ending, when Link and Zelda, who with much effort, over great distances of time and space, complete the plan they hatched as children in that courtyard garden, to save the world. It’s left an indelible mark on me.

Time and space...

There are sections of the game, where your adult character travels back in time, retaining everything he knows, but inhabiting the body of his childhood. Do you ever wish for that? But what is it we wish to relive, if not our sense of wonder and discovery, which our adult knowledge make impossible. And though I recalled some of the past while replaying Ocarina of Time, it was different. I wondered what mark it had left on my son.

While we watched the ending sequences, he noticed that I was sad. I was tearing up, to be honest, and he asked why. “Because it's over,” I said. He reminded me that there are more adventures out there.

He gets it.

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