The Non-Linearity and Open World of Ocarina of Time

    The classic is more open than you might have previously thought.

    There’s a myth that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a fully linear, ‘closed world’ game. In this article, I lay out some of the histories of the open world concept, and argue that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is less linear than people think. *Beware of spoilers*.

    Structure in Zelda Games

    In terms of mainline Zelda game releases, since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, up until The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in 2011, 3D Zelda games generally followed a structure. This structure consists of, completing the first three dungeons, getting the master sword, then a larger overworld, or sometimes a parallel world, opens up to the player. This can also be seen in the 2D The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past which was released on SNES in 1991. Some games slightly deviate from this pattern, like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening but they still have a system of exploration where you have to find and conquer large dungeons to progress the story.

    This all changed with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As I’m sure you know, Breath of the Wild uses shrines spread out throughout a fully ‘open air’ overworld. These function similarly to the larger dungeons found in other Zelda games. However, in terms of progression, they are more akin to stars in Super Mario Galaxy, or Super Mario 64. It was a change that really worked and made for a more accessible, fun, and deep Zelda experience. The long dungeons in older Zelda games could tend to overstay their welcome (the Water Temple in both Ocarina and Twilight Princess are notorious examples). The fully open-world, action RPG approach to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was also a departure from previous titles, but the attempt at an open world definitely isn’t new.

    Zelda 64 Official Art

    Ocarina of Time and Modular Open Worlds

    Back in the mid-’90s when developers were just starting to get to grips with movement in 3D environments, most games used camera angles and patterns of character movement that weren’t fully taking advantage of the potential of the new perspective of 3D gaming. This changed with Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the former of which refined 3D movement and camera control, while the latter introduced a standard setting targeting system and created one of the first cinematic videogame experiences (alongside Final Fantasy VII). 

    However, at this time, console power was still relatively weak, so consoles like the Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, and PS1 didn’t have the power to create seamless open worlds (for the most part). Instead, they had to use tricks, and develop connected, but separate areas of games to create the illusion of a fully open world. Open worlds were around in the 2D era, games like Chrono Trigger and the original NES Legend of Zelda are testament to this. Ocarina of Time used the modular approach.

    In terms of non-linearity, which is often associated with open-world games, there were partially (and fully) non-linear games throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had some non-linear elements (and the original Legend of Zelda was even more non-linear). Ocarina of Time at the time of release could definitely be described as an open world. Maybe it being non-linear is more difficult to argue for, but there are a few different orders in which you can tackle the adult dungeons, as well as (of course) side quests that you can do almost at any level of progress through the game.

    Zelda Artwork

    Exploration as Child Link

    If you were a kid who played through Ocarina of Time in the late ’90s, then there’s a good chance one of your favorite gaming moments was that time when you walked out of Kokiri Forest into Hyrule Field as child Link for the first time. The graphics were amazing for the time, and you knew the adventure had just started. This feeling of exploration is reflected in the gameplay design and the fact that you can collect various upgrades and heart pieces, in any order, during the child portion of Ocarina of Time. The Deku Seeds upgrades can be picked up in any order, and both are accessible early in the game. It’s the same with the Bomb upgrades, which along with the Deku Nut upgrades are more obscurely hidden. This freedom gives the game a sense that you are creating a unique experience.

    Ocarina of Time has built such a great speedrunning community because of all the interesting and useful glitches that can be pulled off in the game. I know that the developers didn’t intend this to be part of the gameplay but the fact that they exist opens up the game even more and makes more things possible and makes the game seem less linear. However, something that the developers did intend, is for the adult portion of the game to let the player explore, and forge their own path, more than the child portion of the game.

    Link Master Sword

    Multiple Paths as Adult Link

    Once Link collects the three Spiritual Stones, opens the Door of Time, and transcends seven years, the player can’t return to the past for a while, and has to beat the Forest Temple. Then, the game opens up a bit more, Link can return to the past, beat the Bottom of the Well, beat the Fire Temple, beat the Ice Cavern, and then the Water Temple. Depending on what they’ve done from here, the player can beat the Spirit Temple if they’ve beaten the Water Temple and Bottom of the Well, or have access to the Shadow Temple if they’ve beaten the Fire Temple and Water Temple. Usually, either the Shadow Temple or the Spirit Temple is the last temple of the game (not counting Ganon’s Castle).

    This level of choice and non-linearity is so nice to see in Zelda games from the ’90s. It really lets the player experience the game as they’d like, and does less hand-holding than  The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The Wind Waker, despite its great charm and story, is really linear and doesn’t even give Link the choice of tackling the Earth Temple and Wind Temple in either order. It seems like this would have been an easy decision to have made, as in the story both temples are introduced to Link at virtually the same time.

    Concept Art Hyrule Historia
    Hyrule Historia Ocarina of Time concept artwork.

    Side Quests

    Ocarina of Time has a couple of great side quests, bottle collecting, heart piece collecting, and weapon/tool upgrades. Most of these can be achieved in any order. The mask quest as child Link is really fun and allows the player to get to know some of the game’s quirky and tragic characters (especially so in the case of the Skull Kid).

    As adult Link, there’s the side quest to get the Biggoron Sword. This involves running around the overworld within a time limit, which is more fun than it sounds because of the cool lore that the player learns as they complete it. The sword is powerful and has a greater reach than any of the other weapons in the game (apart from the projectiles obviously). 

    Ocarina of Time Screenshot

    Breath of the Wild and Future Open Worlds

    The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a relatively non-linear experience, with a modular open world. To be honest, I often feel a big fuss is made about truly open worlds. Why are they even valued so much, the real world has rooms, buildings, and halls as well. I don’t always want my games to be vast forests or concrete jungles with nothing to do with them. A bit of variety is good. 

    The adult portion of Ocarina of Time gives the player a choice of temples of tackle, and the choice makes the experience better for it. The speedrunning community has basically broken the game and made it even more non-linear which is great, especially if you like using glitches to your advantage. Whether future Zelda games will bring back the idea of major dungeons, yet still make the game non-linear like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild we still don’t know, but it would be an interesting approach to take. In the meantime, I might just sit back and play Ocarina of Time.

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