Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series continues today with a look at The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which may (or may not) be the greatest game of all time.
“The flow of time is always cruel,” Link learns early in Ocarina of Time. The hero of the Legend of Zelda franchise encounters a mysterious warrior named Sheik in the realm of forest children, where he grew up. Link has just awoken from a seven-year power nap so that he can take on the ever-nefarious Ganondorf, but he’s still adjusting to life as an adult. Sheik, waxing philosophical about our inevitable natural decay, isn’t helping matters. “[Time’s] speed seems different for each person,” Sheik says, “but no one can change it.”
But there’s deception at play here. Sheik is actually Zelda, the titular damsel in distress, in disguise. Link’s core ability in the game is to alter timelines, traveling between his childhood and adulthood to chart a future in which Ganondorf is vanquished. And Ocarina of Time, despite being a muddy polygonal soup by 2018 standards, despite birthing sequels direct and indirect that better it by every technical measure, despite that dumb goddamn owl, is still the best game ever.
This is an opinion, but it has taken on the weight of gospel as the years have gone by. Ocarina has topped at least 20 best-games-ever rankings, and any list that doesn’t at least have the game in the top 10 is immediately suspect. Everything from Grand Theft Auto to God of War can be evaluated on a yardstick that measures it against Nintendo’s first 3D Zelda. When The Ringer debated the best modern game last year, Ocarina of Time was the natural demarcation point. It’s the Jaws or The Chronic or The Sopranos of the medium. Everything older feels of a different era; everything newer feels somehow indebted to it.
But Ocarina has something that Jaws and the others don’t—a formula that declares it, with some degree of agreed-upon objectivity, the GOAT. With a score of 99, Ocarina of Time sits atop the rankings of the review aggregation portal Metacritic. While the game’s technical influence on gaming has become so diffuse that it’s hardly remarked upon today, the numbers on the board can’t be ignored. Ocarina is the best because it has such a high score, and Ocarina has such a high score because it is the best. It’s a perfect tautology. The game’s legacy is defined not only by the developers who made it but also by the reviewers who declared it a masterpiece, and the website that turned those individual opinions into something that ultimately resembled fact.
By November 1998, Peer Schneider had been waiting more than three years to play the game long known only as Zelda 64. The fifth installment in the Zelda franchise was first shown off as a tech demo for the Nintendo 64 in 1995, with a brown-haired Link fighting a Darknut knight in a black void. By 1996, Link was running around actual environments, and in 1997 a demo of the game wowed players at Nintendo’s now-defunct Space World convention. In the fall of ’98, Schneider finally got his hands on the complete version of Ocarina of Time, when it arrived at IGN’s headquarters in San Francisco.
“We were huddled around a big-screen TV, handing off playing. When we first got the game, we played 17 hours straight,” says Schneider, who headed up IGN’s N64 vertical at the time and is now the company’s chief content officer. “It basically became a race to get the review up, for better or for worse.”
Though he blasted through the game in order to meet a deadline, Schneider’s marathon session was also a testament to Ocarina of Time’s exquisite pacing. The game is set up as a three-part epic—Link learns the ropes of navigating prosperous Hyrule in 3D as a young boy, returns to his homeland after a seven-year sleep to find it a postapocalyptic wasteland, and eventually battles Ganondorf and his bestial form Ganon in one of the most famous final boss battles ever. Throughout, Link traverses nearly a dozen dungeons that manage to be formidable but not frustrating challenges. What Ocarina nails is making puzzle-solving and adventuring one and the same—think about leaping from the highest perch in the Great Deku Tree to smash through the seemingly impenetrable cobwebs on the first floor, or flipping the spooky Forest Temple mansion on its side to explore new areas. The game thrives on a feedback loop in which curiosity about the world around you constantly reveals new secrets.
At IGN at the time, games were scored across a number of technical categories, such as graphics, sound, and gameplay. With Zelda, the consensus was immediate. “We started to fill in the numbers and they all came in really high,” Schneider says. Ocarina became the first game that IGN scored a perfect 10.0 on its scale. “We just got to this point where we said this is a true milestone. This game isn’t just … our favorite game right now in the N64. This will be a milestone for years to come.”
GameSpot, another fast-growing gaming website of the era, also issued a 10 to Ocarina. Jeff Gerstmann, the site’s young reviews editor, was impressed by how the game managed to effectively translate so many elements of its 2D predecessors into a 3D world. Ocarina’s quest structure and twin-worlds mechanic are borrowed from the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past. But the fighting system was actually modeled on the NES’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which shifted from the original Zelda’s free-for-all combat to a more focused one-on-one battle system.
GameSpot had never given a perfect score. Gerstmann had to argue for the 10 to the site’s editorial director, almost as if he were defending a thesis. “He just sat there and tried to poke holes in the review or poke holes in the game for over an hour. Like, ‘Oh wouldn’t this game sound better if it had full voice?’” recalls Gerstmann, who’s now the editor-in-chief of Giant Bomb. “We went back and forth on it for a long time, but I held firm, and the 10 went through.”
At Electronic Gaming Monthly, the preeminent print gaming magazine of the period, games were reviewed by a panel of four staffers, who each played the game independently and didn’t share their scores with each other before publication. Zelda nabbed four 10s (Metal Gear Solid also ran the table that year). “It did so much that was new and innovative,” says John Davison, the editor of EGM at the time. “Some of the things that were starting to emerge in these early 3D games, the vocabulary to discuss them didn’t even exist yet.”
“Z-targeting” was a prime example. Nintendo had already created the blueprint for 3D adventuring with Super Mario 64, which pioneered features such as analog control and a free-moving camera. But combat in that game was rare because attacking in a 3D environment was so finicky. Nintendo wanted the first three-dimensional Zelda to feel like chanbara, Japanese samurai sword fighting films. Combat had to be airtight.
The development team visited Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a sprawling movie set that doubled as a theme park celebrating Japan’s film history. Toru Osawa and Yoshiaki Koizumi, two of the Ocarina of Time’s directors, took in one of the live ninja performances regularly staged at the park. When the hero samurai in the play was swarmed by enemies, the foes would attack one-by-one so he stood a chance of defeating them. And if an enemy attacked with a sickle-and-chain, the weapon would wrap around the hero’s arm and the two would be tethered together in a coordinated fight that doubled as a dance. In these highly scripted battles, Osawa and Koizumi saw the framework for how to bring Zelda’s swordplay into 3D.
Nintendo’s lock-on combat is now standard in third-person games, but the Ocarina reviews spend entire paragraphs explaining the then-foreign concept to readers. “That really introduced a very different type of swordplay. You were able to do backflips and sidesteps and never lose sight of your enemy,” Schneider says. “They really pioneered an impressive system that I think other developers probably would have taken a few years to figure out.”
Ocarina had other features that were revelatory to reviewers and gamers alike. The day-night cycle created a dynamic setting that felt more realistic than past Zeldas. The time-travel conceit helped flesh out the thin characters by giving them narrative arcs. And the impressive real-time graphics lent the game a level of interactivity absent from cinematic PlayStation games like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil, which relied heavily on CG cutscenes and pre-rendered backgrounds. “It was a game that felt like everything in it mattered at a time [when] 3D games were filled with a lot of things that felt like props,” Davison says.
Ocarina’s greatest feat was combining these elements to create a world that inspired wonder. The rumor mill in 1998 was strong, back before a quick Google search could debunk any questionable piece of gaming lore, and Ocarina’s mysteries were legion. The Triforce was hidden in a secret dungeon called the Temple of Light. You could actually beat the Running Man in the race across Hyrule Field. If you didn’t escape Zora’s Domain after rescuing Princess Ruto in less than a minute, King Zora would wipe your save as punishment for flirting with his daughter (the last one might have just been gossip on my playground, but I believed it). In a time before open-world games, Ocarina already conjured a sense of grandeur in players’ minds that titles like Skyrim and The Witcher pursue more literally—it felt like anything could be around the next corner, over the next hill, or inside the next treasure chest.
“What modern open worlds now do with open geometry and with a truly open playing field and AI that reacts to you in that world, they faked it,” Schneider says. “And they faked it so well that they basically created this playbook for how games should play in the future.”
On Friday, Rockstar Games will release its highly anticipated gunslinger Red Dead Redemption 2. The game boasts a dynamic weather system, 200 types of animals, and a 2,000-page script for the main story line alone. It will probably become the new standard-bearer for open-world game design. And it will still exist in Ocarina’s shadow. “There’s gonna be shit in Red Dead Redemption 2 that you can draw back to Ocarina of Time,” Davison says. (Rockstar would not disagree with this assessment. “Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying,” Rockstar cofounder Dan Houser said in 2012.)
Red Dead Redemption 2 will become the latest in a long line of games that attempt to unseat Ocarina as the consensus best game ever. Other challengers to the crown have included Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Autos III, IV, and V; Resident Evil 4; BioShock; Half-Life 2; Uncharted 2; Super Mario Galaxy; and, uh, multiple Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. But no other title has ever earned a 99 aggregate score on Metacritic.
There are some technical reasons for Zelda’s longevity. Ocarina has only 22 reviews, while a modern multiplatform juggernaut like Red Dead will be reviewed more than a hundred times, increasing the chances of a low-score outlier or two. Metacritic didn’t actually launch until 2001, three years after Ocarina debuted, so it’s possible there were some contemporary dissenting opinions that the site failed to archive. The site also ignores the 20 years of gaming before the PlayStation and N64 debuted, so common GOAT contenders like Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Metroid, and the original version of Tetris are not included on the site.
Still, a certain set of video game fans will be watching with rapt attention to see how close Red Dead gets to achieving the mythic best-game-ever status. When the latest Zelda game, Nintendo Switch’s Breath of the Wild, gained nearly universal acclaim, it briefly achieved a 98 score on Metacritic and had the potential to join Ocarina in the 99 club. But then YouTube vlogger Jim Sterling gave the game a 7 out of 10, sending the game tumbling to a 97 aggregate score. Sterling received death threats and DDoS attacks against his website from enraged Zelda fans. Less-than-stellar reviews at other sites for recent games like PlayStation 4’s Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last Guardian have also been met with over-the-top vitriol from some corners of the internet.
Poisonous gaming fans are nothing new. “I got death threats in the late ’90s over Dreamcast reviews,” Gerstmann says. But the reach of this type of behavior has been magnified thanks to social media, and it has infected other types of entertainment as the internet has broadly mutated into an endless message-board flame war. The first negative review of Black Panther generated a raft of Twitter outrage from fans in February. But the nearly universal praise for the movie also prompted trolls to try to sabotage the film’s user score on Rotten Tomatoes, a tactic employed earlier against Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Ghostbusters reboot. The only reason such shenanigans are even worth the effort is because fans and news websites alike confer value on the numbers these aggregators spit out. In some cases, creators do as well—Metacritic scores have been tied to some game developers’ bonus pay.
“That older purpose of reviews still exists, but I think today certainly with aggregate sites, reviews are becoming tools to defend things that we love and tools to denigrate things we don’t like,” says Paul Booth, a communications professor at DePaul University who studies fan behavior.
Ocarina was an outlier when it earned such gushing approval in 1998. But fan bases increasingly demand that their entertainment choices be validated through perfect scores and lavish praise. “There’s an expectation with games that have a lot of love in the community that everyone should agree this is awesome, and how dare you have a dissenting opinion,” says Davison, who oversaw Metacritic from 2010 to 2012. “It really comes down to that validation of taste as opposed to informing taste.”
Reviewers largely seem happy to oblige this desire—IGN has given 15 games perfect scores this decade, compared to just two in the previous one. Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the 100 best movies, which dates back to 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, features 34 movies from the 2010s. Either we’re living during the creative zenith of modern human history, or the standards by which we judge art have changed. “People are becoming much more polarized and passionate about their feelings about a text,” Booth says. “It’s not just I liked or didn’t like The Last Jedi or I liked or didn’t like Ocarina of Time. It’s almost like it’s a personal affront if someone else doesn’t like it.”
There’s a desire for every major entertainment product to be an Ocarina-level event. The games that earn the most praise and attention are the AAA blockbusters clearly built in the game’s cinematic vein. Ocarina’s version of greatness not only influenced game designers, but also fans’ and critics’ perceptions of what makes a game great. “The fallout from Zelda was definitely, ‘What will the next virtually flawless game be?’” Schneider says.
It took years for games to live up to the scope of Zelda’s technical achievement. The 2008 IGN review for Grand Theft Auto IV, then a landmark open-world game, hails it as “the best game since Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” But framing gaming quality strictly on Zelda’s terms also limits the possibilities of the medium. Among Metacritic’s top 100 reviewed games, you’ll find plenty of action-adventures and RPGs that are influenced by Zelda, but no traditional puzzle games, simulators, or free-form sandboxes like Minecraft, which are often played by millions more people.
“Right now the industry caters to very specific kinds of games and is courting very specific kinds of gamers,” says Shira Chess, a media studies professor at the University of Georgia who studies how games are designed and marketed toward women. “It would be like the film industry putting [all its resources] into action movies and saying that’s the one kind of thing, and then reviewers only reviewing action movies or primarily reviewing action movies as better than other things.”
Ocarina was less a product of its time than a product that defined its times—the fact that today’s highest-rated games are bigger, badder versions of it says a lot about the industry’s narrow evolution over the last two decades. But there’s little chance any future game working in the Ocarina framework will ever be as beloved. It emerged at a time when the notion of what video games could accomplish, both technically and thematically, wasn’t fully formed. It wasn’t just Nintendo that made Ocarina the “best game ever”—it was us, the gamers, who lost ourselves in Link’s world and imagined the possibilities out on the horizon of Hyrule Field or in the depths of Dodongo’s Cavern.
“That kind of era is never going to happen again,” says John Ricciardi, who was the reviews editor for EGM in 1998. “That game had such a big impact at the time because it was such a big step forward. But the further along you get in time with games, the smaller the steps get.”
Though he gave Ocarina a perfect score, Gerstmann has never returned to the game since reviewing it. “On some level I never wanted to go back and change that experience,” he says. “I wonder now if I went back, if I would think significantly less of it in the wake of everything that’s happened since in games.”
There’s no doubt the seams in the game are more apparent today than they were 20 years ago. Hyrule Field is a barren green grass texture with few enemies or landmarks. The sidequests are thin, especially compared to its mind-bending sequel Majora’s Mask. The lack of a fully controllable camera can make the game feel claustrophobic rather than grand at times.
But Ocarina will continue to be revered because the elements the game got right—fluid combat, expertly crafted dungeons, a propulsive story line that truly places the world in peril—made Hyrule feel like a place worth saving for a generation of young heroes. For Cody Davies, webmaster of the Zelda fansite Zelda Universe, Ocarina of Time was his first exposure to the series. He compares playing the game as an 8-year-old to visiting Disneyland as a kid. Aging has changed both experiences. “[Disneyland] seemed so huge and incredible. Like, Wow, you could live here,” he says. “I went back last year and I appreciated it on a technical level: These are good animatronics; this is good atmosphere. But I didn’t have the same feeling of being immersed in it. If I could forget Ocarina of Time so that I could play it again, I’d love that. I still remember it strongly, but it always is hard to recapture the feeling of being a child and entering a big world for the first time.”
The flow of time hasn’t been cruel to Ocarina—Link can hopscotch between childhood whimsy and adult burdens at will. But for players, time really does flow in only one direction. Keeping the game on a pedestal helps to numb the pain of treasured moments fading into memory. Sometimes, memory resonates more deeply than the moment itself.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was the fourth installment in the Zelda series; it is the fifth.