It was 1998, and I had just turned 11 years old.
Sidenote: I had to do the math a couple of times on that — the memories made it seem like I was much younger when I first played Ocarina of Time.
My neighbor had gotten a Nintendo 64 for Christmas and with it, one of the most popular games of all time. This was an interesting time, because I still had a novice approach when it came to games. The “idea” of beating a game was still kind of new to me. As a younger kid, we played video games on our NES or GameBoy and just played for fun, without much intent to finish the games or win the levels. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing Mario Kart 64 on multiplayer just to build rudimentary strongholds out of fake item pickups and banana peel chains.
But OOT was a little different. There was a sense of identifying with child Link, and a desire to see where this story took him. There were fleeting moments of crushing on Saria, and hoping the two would end up together in some way. And then big ideas like saving Zelda and ridding the world of evil. All of that crystallized in a very core memory kind of way. Walking into the Deku Tree for the first time and having that feeling of awe, and excitement was absolutely incredible. We were “big” enough to have our own adventures now. A coming of age moment in this virtual world, and in mine.
One bit of context: my childhood was wonderful. Very few responsibilities, a knack for getting through school easily enough, some wonderful friends and plenty of freedom to explore my passions and the real world around me. We spent many warm days outside building forts in the woods and exploring the countryside around us. I was a kid that got to be a kid for a long time. Maybe a bit too long… but that’s another story.
OOT absorbed every moment of my life. It was winter time, so we spent countless hours inside playing it at my friend’s house. We dined on movie theater butter popcorn and Dr. Thunder. When we got stuck, we played outside and relived the adventures we had on the screen. One time we poured tall glasses of Lon Lon Milk and I pretended to sell them outside to my friends like a shopkeeper. I scoured my mom’s catering supplies looking for glass bottles we could use that resembled the bottles in the game. I don’t remember finding any.
Chilly January days instantly take me back to those memories. Something about a new year feels brighter outside (compared to the dark days of winter in November and December), and playing outside in the fields and woods just felt so safe and joyful.
What stands out to me is how long OOT felt. We didn’t have the mental model yet to understand how games worked, we just played them for fun. So when we finally collected all the Spiritual Stones and made our way to the Temple of Time, we assumed the game was done. After what felt like months (probably just a couple weeks in reality), we were shocked to find out we had only completed, what, the first quarter of the game? Now we’re an adult? And there’s temples? And sages? WHAT?!
From the fuzzy bits of memories I have left, I feel like we completed the game in the summer of that year. Our ability to traverse these virtual 3D worlds was clumsy at best, but we were determined. We also didn’t have access to any guidebooks or internet walkthroughs at the time, so when we got stuck in a puzzle (*cough* WATER TEMPLE *cough*) we had to set it aside and walk away. Or play other games. Or we went back outside to recreate our virtual adventures again and again.
By the time we finished the game, the “idea” of video games became clearer. The understanding of accomplishing tasks to complete objectives made sense (although I wasn’t too stuck on doing that all the time). It also opened up the world of games to me: I wanted to explore more kinds of games. A few years later, Warcraft III would come out and further solidify my passion for fantasy worlds and great stories. In the mean time, games like Super Mario 64 would hone my hand-eye coordination, and Bomberman 64 would instill my passion for exploring every nook and cranny of a game to find every single secret. And games like Turok will terrify me and make my parents all too aware of the ESRB rating system and following it verbatim.
Ocarina of Time defined a moment in childhood for me and many others. A time when I was old enough, but not too old. A sweet spot of nostalgia and coming of age. And a huge inspiration to the games I’m building today.