Twenty years ago, on November 21st, 1998, the much anticipated fourth game in The Legend of Zelda series finally came out: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Look, I could sit here and tell you about how great and meaningful Ocarina of Time is, but it would be superfluous to repeat the last twenty years of well deserved high praise. I’m not going to tell you anything new about how great it is because you and I both know. We know that it’s a stone-cold classic, that the gameplay and presentation set standards we still use today, that the story is immersive and heartwrenching, we get it, Clare, seeing Ganondorf turn into Ganon warped your tiny little brain in the nineties and that’s why you cried at the Detective Pikachu trailer, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But what if it had been different?
It can be easy to forget that the jump from 2D to 3D was a seismic shift for everyone in gaming, from developers trying to figure out how to adapt successful 2D game formulas to 3D and gamers trying to figure out how to play with these new-fangled controllers in these new-fangled environments. While Nintendo didn’t make the first 3D platformer, there’s no overstating how influential Nintendo’s early titles for the Nintendo 64 became for both the company and the industry.
So, to celebrate the twentieth birthday of one of the all-time greats, I thought I'd take a cue from the mechanic at the core of the game. Let’s go back in time and imagine what could have been if one of the greatest games of all time had gone just a little differently…
It could have been a 3D remake of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link.
From a certain point of view, Ocarina of Time started life as a 2.5D remake of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link.
For the young among us, Zelda II is the redheaded stepchild of the series (while the Philips CD-i games are the basement goblins whose names we fear to speak). It’s such a marked departure from the original The Legend of Zelda that it’s not even a legend. Instead of an open-world adventure game that rewards exploration, The Adventures of Link is much more combat-focused and utilizes elements we don’t usually associate with the series, like side-scrolling and an experience point system that levels Link up. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely different.
During the dying days of the SNES, Zelda creator Shigero Miyamoto and designer Yoshiaki Koizumi started experimenting with a remake of Zelda II that would focus on swordfighting, featuring “…a thin, polygon Link seen from the side and fighting with his sword.” The remake fizzled out, likely due to the big shiny new console right around the corner, but some elements from The Adventures of Link survive in Ocarina of Time, from the chanbara-inspired sword fighting to character names to Dark Link.
But what if the remake hadn’t fizzled out? I doubt Miyamoto and company would have been satisfied with just Donkey Kong Country-fying the game, so I don’t think we would have just gotten Zelda II: The One with All the Polygons. But I could easily see the more traditional roleplaying game elements, like the experience point system, being more fleshed out and becoming a staple of the series. If this remake had survived, we could be looking at the Zelda series more aggressively bridging the gap between action-adventure and RPG.
It could have had a hub world.
Ocarina of Time was originally built on the Super Mario 64 engine, and a lot of the game's development team had also worked on that title. Ideas that couldn’t fit into Super Mario 64, like horseback riding (I am 100% serious), were adapted for Ocarina of Time. (Mario and Zelda games often go through development cycles together like this, trading off ideas, which I honestly find adorable.)
But there’s one Super Mario 64 element that almost took: a hub world where levels would be accessed via paintings. Cautious of the limitations of the Nintendo 64 cartridge, Miyamoto originally thought of using Ganon’s Castle just like Super Mario 64 used Princess Peach’s Castle. In an Iwata Asks interview promoting The Ocarina of Time 3D, Miyamoto shared that he didn’t mind the lack of the open world so long as “[he] got to make Link in 3D.” After all, if it worked for Super Mario 64…
Luckily, the development team was able to solve the logistical issues, and the overworld was restored. The Forest Temple boss battle with Phantom Ganon, who rides in and out of paintings, is the only remnant of the concept in the game.
Imagining a Zelda title without an overworld is practically unfathomable, as in, literally, my brain doesn’t want to do it. (Even Zelda II had an overworld!) Open world exploration and Zelda go hand in hand; it’s the reason why so many people are enchanted with Breath of the Wild. But if the software limitations hadn’t been solved or if the team had decided to focus on more dungeons, the Zelda title that set the standard for the series could have, instead, been the one to kill it off.
It could have been in first person.
In the same Iwata Asks interview where Koizumi talks about the Zelda II remake, he shares his experience getting started with the development for Ocarina of Time. When he went to touch base with Miyamoto, Miyamoto just looked at him and asked if they could have Link just never show up in the game except for when it’s absolutely necessary, more like a first-person shooter.
Given that Koizumi designed Link’s character model for the game, he was the worst person to ask, “hey, what if we barely saw this character model you’ve been working really hard on?” Naturally, Koizumi rejected the idea, but the team did dutifully give it go. It proved visually unappealing. Once Young Link entered the picture, the idea was scrapped so the differences between Young Link and Adult Link could be emphasized.
Of the changes considered and/or implemented to move the series into 3D, this would have been the most devastating. Had this idea survived through development, I don’t think it would have been used long in the franchise, but it might have significantly damaged the immersion of the game. Sounds counterintuitive, I know, and maybe I’m biased as a blonde left-handed weirdo myself, but being able to relate to Link as a character unto himself is a big part of Zelda, and a first-person perspective might have abstracted him too far.
Young Link could have never existed.
Speaking of Young Link… when Ocarina of Time originally began development, there was no Young Link to be found, just regular ol’ Link, as lovingly rendered by Koizumi. But during the second year of development, Miyamoto and other members of the team decided that there should also be a child version of Link.
Accommodating Young Link required a script overhaul and modeling and animating an entirely new character. Luckily, Koizumi realized that he could scale down the existing animations for Adult Link, preventing him from having to animate the new model from scratch, and they were able to implement Young Link into the game.
A world without Young Link would, of course, irrevocably change Majora’s Mask, future Super Smash Bros. line-ups, and probably delay the series’ fascination with a Link who transforms between two states—elf, wolf, even tinier elf. However, this untaken road would have had more immediate ramifications for the game itself. According to script director Toru Osawa in that same round-table interview, it was the introduction of Young Link that led to the game’s signature time travel mechanic. If players had access to both Young and Adult Link, then surely time travel must be involved, right?
If Young Link had never come up as an idea or had proved too difficult to implement, Ocarina of Time might not have been about the passage of time and how it affects us. Or had any of those great quest lines where you have to set yourself up for success.
It could have saved the Nintendo 64DD.
That mysterious port on the bottom of your Nintendo 64 is actually meant to be used with a now-obscure Nintendo 64 peripheral—the Nintendo 64DD. To bridge the gap between CDs (which everybody was using) and cartridges (which Nintendo insisted on for copyright protection and quick load times), Nintendo wanted to create a supplemental disk drive that provided more computing power, more storage, and the ability to write and write on proprietary disks.
While Super Mario 64 was expressly designed as the game for the Nintendo 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was originally developed to be the game for the Nintendo 64DD. But the Nintendo 64 was delayed, from the summer of 1995 to the summer of 1996, which, in turn, delayed the 64DD, which finally debuted in 1999. These delays and some software issues led Nintendo to decide to release Ocarina of Time on a standard Nintendo 64 cartridge, asking the developers to pare down the game to fit onto the cartridge. This ended up being a genius move: the Nintendo 64DD sold so poorly at home in Japan that Nintendo decided to cut its losses and never release it internationally.
But Miyamoto never gave up the idea of a 64DD Zelda expansion that could include everything they had to cut or couldn't implement for a cartridge. (In fact, the released version of Ocarina of Time has data in its code meant to indicate that you’re playing the Disk version of the game, which… doesn’t exist.) This expansion would include, among other things, redesigned dungeons...
...which the development team was less than enthusiastic about. As Eiji Aonuma recounts in an Iwata Asks interview about Majora’s Mask 3D, he felt that the team had done incredible work on the dungeons; why mess with greatness? So he ended up asking Miyamoto if they could just make a different game instead. Miyamoto agreed—as long as the team could make it in one year.
If you’ve ever wondered why Majora’s Mask feels like a compact fever dream (this is an immense compliment), that's why. The Nintendo 64DD expansion eventually became Master Quest, a slight remix of Ocarina of Time that was released on a promotional disc for the GameCube and is included in Ocarina of Time 3D, and the idea of a Zelda 64DD expansion died alongside the 64DD itself.
But what if the Nintendo 64 and the Nintendo 64DD had never experienced such huge delays? Could Ocarina of Time have been what made the Nintendo 64DD a hit? Perhaps even to the degree that the 64DD could have been viable in the United States?
The idea of getting access to Miyamoto's most pipe dreamiest dreams for Ocarina of Time delights me, but I also love the idea of a world where a North American Nintendo 64DD would be common and maybe even frustrating for collectors (“yeah, it’s great, but it doesn’t work without the Control Deck!”).
Ocarina of Time worked a lot of magic in its time, and it still enchants today, no matter what platform you play it on. Knowing more about the twists and turns it took to get to us just makes me appreciate it all the more.