For all the praise The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time receives, its dual-timeline structure is often treated as little more than an analogue to Link to the Past’s light and dark worlds. That’s selling it short, though. While switching between young and adult versions of Link does allow for a greater variety of skills and challenges, it’s the transformation Hyrule undergoes that truly realises the power of time.
Hyrule is a pretty happy place when you first venture through it as young Link. The discrete areas are bustling with life, smiles and songs abound, and the problems that crop up are relatively minor. All that changes when you take up the Master Sword and travel seven years into the future. Hyrule is in ruins, its people scattered in fear of Ganondorf and the destruction he has wrought. Shattered beams and crumbled walls are all that remain of Hyrule Castle Town’s once-thriving courtyard.
Where is the bark of the dog being chased around by the little girl? Where is the lapping water spilling out of the fountain? Where is the invisible Cucco cock-a-doodling out at the sun?
The miserable state of Hyrule hits so hard because you’ve personally seen what it once was. The ghosts of its former glory flicker before your eyes, more haunting than any of the monsters now roaming the abandoned streets. Where many modern games simply tell you how much better things used to be and expect wrack and ruin alone to suffice, Ocarina of Time shows you first-hand the impact of Ganondorf’s reign.
This personal perspective proves even more potent once you start undoing Ganondorf’s handiwork. You save the Gorons from being lunch for a dragon, and their empty city is once more filled with the rumble of rocky mirth. You unfreeze the Zoras’ domain and free them to swim again. You banish Phantom Ganon from the Forest Temple and grant the Kokiri courage to emerge from hiding.
The hope you restore to Hyrule is empowering not just because of the evil you vanquish, but because of the distance travelled to do so. From peace to oppression and back again, you feel as invested in Hyrule’s fate as its many residents. As Link grows stronger and wiser, so do you.
Precious few games use time travel as more than just narrative spice. Even fewer use it to reflect upon entropy and the apocryphal boiling-frog idiom. Outside of a handful of exceptions like Chrono Trigger and Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time is still a chronological anomaly nearly 20 years later. We have Mario clones, we have Metroid clones, we even have clones of the dungeon-focused Zeldas. But time itself has remained stagnant. Like Ganon, video games are sealed in a timeless void, their worlds untouched by the passage of years.
It’s time we shattered the seal.
Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles over at Unwinnable as well as right here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar